Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Churchill, at 140

Today is the 140th anniversary of the birth of Winston Churchill.  I don’t remember when my particular interest in him began.  No doubt I was aware early on, through all those WWII movies and books I voraciously consumed.  But there was certainly much more to his life than his war days, and over time that came into focus for me.  I now own over 40 books by or about the man, and I have read most of them.  My first perhaps was the one-volume biography by Martin Gilbert, a condensation of his much longer treatment.  My favorite is the two-volume The Last Lion by William Manchester, and for an emphasis on his personal life and habits I like The Private Lives of Winston Churchill by John Pearson.  Of Churchill’s own work I have especially enjoyed My Early Life, The River War, and The History of the English Speaking Peoples.  There was much to find and much to learn in studying the life of this most remarkable of men.

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, into a life of privilege and wealth.  He was the grandson of a duke and the son a rich American heiress.  He was born premature, so it was said, in the coat room of his grandfather the Duke of Marlborough’s majestic Blenheim Palace.  He had a very confident, perhaps overconfident, independent nature; and surprisingly, for a great speaker, he also had a lisp, which he worked hard all his life to mask and overcome.  After a much neglected childhood, with indifferent and self-absorbed parents, he attended Sandhurst, the British military academy analogous to the American West Point, from which he graduated a cavalry officer.  His mother, quite the socialite, often pulled strings with her many friends and lovers to secure advantages for her son. 

As a young man he had a remarkable career as an army officer, war correspondent, and writer, often all simultaneously.  He sought out military action wherever then it was, and often at the same wrote dispatches to newspapers back home for pay.  Then shortly thereafter he would write a book about it all.  He always had a lifestyle that required plenty of cash, more than he was earning as an officer even when supplemented by an allowance from his mother.  So he wrote, and wrote well.

He was an observer and correspondent during the Cuban revolution of 1895 while on a leave from the army.  He was posted to India, where he was a skilled polo player.  While there in 1897 he joined a unit in northwest India fighting a local tribe and served with distinction, and also was well paid for his reporting from the front.  The following year, through his mother’s influence he secured a choice position in Kitchener’s punitive expedition up the Nile to confront an army of frenzied Islamic militants.  The march to the Sudan was in part to avenge the murder there of the popular British official Charles "Chinese" Gordon, of whom Churchill wrote "a man careless alike of the frown of men or the smiles of women, of life or comfort, wealth or fame."  In that campaign at the Battle of Omdurman he was part of the last cavalry charge of the British Army. 

In 1899 Churchill left the Army, lost an election for Parliament, and headed off to South Africa to cover the Boer War as a newspaper correspondent.  While an observer on a British scouting mission in an armored train car, he bravely, though illegally, took charge while under fire at a critical moment during a Boer attack and saved many, though he was captured.  He famously escaped from a prison camp in Pretoria and found his way to safety in British territory, where he was hailed as a hero.  Though he continued as a war correspondent, he then rejoined the Army for its ultimately victorious campaign.  He eventually returned to Britain, left the Army once again, and won the first of many elections to Parliament. 

Churchill was an influential political leader right from the start, joining a group of young reform-minded Conservatives. In 1904, he left the party in a fight over free trade, which he supported, and joined the Liberals.  With them he held many important leadership positions, culminating in being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the head of the British navy, a post he held for over three years extending into the start of WWI.  While there he upgraded, modernized, and developed new technologies (such as the tank, despite his being in charge of the navy, not the army).  After the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign which he had helped formulate, he took much of the blame, unfairly in my opinion, and resigned.  He then reactivated in the Army and served as a front line senior officer on the brutal Western Front.  

His reputation quickly recovered and he returned to a series of government leadership positions.  He led the British support for military action in the Russian Civil War and the Irish War of Independence.  Then in 1924 he left the Liberals and rejoined the Conservative Party, saying at the time that "anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat."  He became Chancellor of the Exchequer (akin to Treasury Secretary in the US) and led the country’s return to the gold standard, which turned out to be an economic disaster.

The Conservative government was defeated in the 1929 general election.  Churchill remained a Member of Parliament, but fought with others in his party over free trade, which he still supported, and home rule for India, which he did not.  With no leadership position and his party out of office, Churchill became a backbencher in Parliament in what he described as his “wilderness years.”  He spent that time writing books and articles, painting, traveling on speaking tours (including a long one through the United States), enjoying his country estate Chartwell, and, most importantly, increasingly warning the near-heedless free world of the growing danger of Nazi Germany. 

Melding wisdom with wit, Churchill is said to be the third most quoted source in the English language, after the Bible and Shakespeare.  Once when asked about a fancy London dinner he had just attended, he said "it would have been splendid, if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the Duchess."  He was a truly prodigious drinker all of his adult life, yet he lived past 90, explaining that “I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.”  He described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  Although an excellent writer, Churchill once remarked that the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is "the sort of English up with which I will not put."  He described the socialist Labour politician Clement Attlee as "a modest man with much to be modest about."  He said that "the vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings, whereas the virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of misery."  He averred that "communism was a religion – Jesuits without Jesus."  Finally, in a story perhaps apocryphal, Churchill's perennial political sparring partner Lady Astor once said to him that if he were her husband she would poison his coffee, to which he replied that if she were his wife he would drink it.   
When war broke out again in 1939, at two months shy of his 65th birthday Churchill was returned to power and the rest, as they say, is better known history of this most remarkable man.

In the last volume of the Pax Britannica trilogy, his near-poetic, masterly, pointillist history of the events and ethos of the British Empire, James Morris wrote of Churchill at the time of his death on January 24, 1965:
He had become the living exemplar of British glory.... and the most universally honoured man on earth.... [N]ot only his own nation, but half the world paused wondering and reverent to mourn him.  It was like that moment of antiquity when, the wild god Pan having died, strange music sounded and spirits moved from one end to the other of the classical world.  Churchill had gone, and a sigh, part regret, part wry, part sentimental, went round the nations.
R Balsamo

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