Starting on the night of November 29, 1874 and into the following day, a young woman gave birth to a boy at Blenheim Castle in Oxfordshire, England.
Winston Spencer Churchill is the genius of politics as Leonardo da Vinci is that of the arts. Both began innumerable works, and the very few which were fully realized have sufficed for their glory.
Like the Athenian Pericles (fifth century BC), Churchill guided his people in a merciless war.
A talented and spiritual journalist, he also wrote a lot. With the help of zealous archivists, he documented the Second World War . . . as Thucydides did the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. In 1953, the twelve volumes of his Memoirs earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature.
His long career testifies to his talents as well as his absolute respect for democratic principles . . . and very British sense of humor.
Winston Churchill’s happy mother, Jennie Jerome, was went into labor during a party. She had just enough time to reach the ladies' changing rooms to give birth, six weeks before term. The child was declared to the civil registrar under the name Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.
Daughter of a wealthy American adventurer and great-granddaughter of an American Indian, she got married for love . . . six months earlier, to a talented and unstable politician, Randolph Churchill. The latter descended from a famous man of war, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (the 'Malbrough' who went off to war in the French folk song), who defeated Louis XIV’s armies at Blenheim (Hoechstaedt) in Bavaria.
Great aristocrats, the spouses lead a worldly and libertine existence without paying much attention to their two boys.
From his youth, Winston suffered from a weak constitution. He was also haunted by the certainty of dying as young like his father, who would die of syphilis at age 45, and most of his family. . . .
This would not stop him from reaching his nineties.
At Harrow College, he was an undisciplined student, although still top of his class in history, geography, English, poetry, mathematics, Latin . . . He learned very quickly how to use his exceptional gifts: a prodigious memory which would be very useful in the political sphere; an exuberant imagination; a gift of writing that earned him, at the end of his life, the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature; a sense of resilience that ranks him among the great English humorists; and an energy which would put Olympic champions to shame.
He was also a rebel who, from a very young age, could not bear to have his conduct dictated. The only person who found favor in his eyes is his nurse, Mrs. Everest, who would remain with him from 1875 to 1893 and gave him confidence in his abilities.
Finally, last but not least, Winston manifested a physical courage that bordered on pure madness. Over his lifetime, he brushed with death one hundred times, escaping with supernatural luck as if Destiny were protecting him for a role to come.
In addition to all this, there were some insignificant weaknesses, impulses which led him to failure in the Dardanelles in 1915 and in Narvik in 1940, which also led him to bomb Dresden unnecessarily in 1945.
Heir of a glorious lineage, Churchill rode the gravy train (he took the metro only once in his life . . . and got lost in the corridors). He had an immoderate appreciation for liquor, without which he would sink into depression ('my black dogs' – as he himself called these painful moments of weakness).
Passionate about history, he found time to dictate reports on Great Britain’s more illustrious moments.
During World War I, already in his fifties and chased from the government, he began painting at a friend's invitation. His many canvases, sold under a pseudonym, are a testament to what seems to be real talent, and sell at very high prices.
Later, during another period 'in the wilderness' spent at his residence at Chartwell, he also took a passion for masonry, to the point that he joined the union of the corporation.
Little inclined towards gallantry, Winston found happiness with his wife, Clementine Hozier. The two youths were casually introduced to each other in 1904. Only four years later, in Blenheim, Cupid would bring them closer together. They married on September 12, 1908. Clementine would always (or almost always) support Winston and bring him the comfort and heed he needed. However, she would not succeed in diverting him from a few errors, such as his support of Edward VIII or the formation of a final government in 1953.
The couple would have five children, including four daughters and one son, Randolph, who would inherit the defects of his father without showing any of his better qualities. Alcoholic, unstable . . .
Churchill was published by Herodote.net (September 2015, PDF, 81 pages, plus many illustrations) . . .
Tintin in Duke's Clothing
After a turbulent childhood and erratic studies at the public school Harrow (where a teacher complained that he ‘had the impudence to tell him how to do his job’), Churchill entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and came out, for want of a better alternative, as a cavalryman, one of the least-valued weapons. He also happened to be an excellent rider and soon grew tired of the garrison life and traversed the globe in search of opportunities to show his courage.
Over the course of half a dozen years, he would manage to distinguish himself in five military expeditions: once in Cuba, twice in India, then in Sudan, and finally in South Africa.
Like Tintin – but more warlike –, the young cavalry officer would divide himself between fighting and reporting. Each adventure gave rise to articles and books that brought him money and fame.
It began in 1895 with the Spanish government's war against the Cuban rebels. The young Winston participated in the Battle of La Reforma.
In October 1897, at the age of 23, a lieutenant leading lancers in Punjab on the borders of the Indian Empire, he discovered the horror of colonial wars and indignantly reported on the killing of wounded prisoners in the Daily Telegraph. He also did not hesitate to criticize his superiors’ strategy.
The following year, thanks to his mother's relations and despite his bad reputation (already), he was assigned to the 21st Lancers who were fighting in Sudan under the irascible Kitchener.
On September 2, 1898, he risked his life in the Battle of Omdurman. but drew on this experience to write his successful book, The River War.
Winston 'Tintin' continued his quest for adventure by heroically participating in the Second Boer War in South Africa as a correspondent for the Morning Post.
When Boers attacked his train, he got the locomotive back on the tracks under enemy fire. He was later taken prisoner but found a way to escape after traveling a thousand miles in enemy territory.
More than ever critical of his superiors, particularly General Buller, who commanded the troops of South Africa, he nevertheless escaped all sanctions because of his gift for combat, his surname, and also the people skills of his mother, whose lovers included the Prince of Wales and perhaps also the Minister of War (note)!
His exploits, which he skilfully brought into public eye, got him elected as a Tory deputy in the House of Commons.
Churchill was elected to Parliament on October 1, 1900, with sixteen votes in the popular Oldham constituency.
On May 15, 1903, in Birmingham, Conservative leader Joseph Chamberlain proposed to end free trade and give preference to the Empire in trade. Churchill disapproved of this position.
As a proponent of free-trade, which kept prices low, he decided to join the ranks of the Liberal Party. On May 31, 1904, he ‘crossed the floor,’ to use the time-honored expression which refers to the floor that separates the two parties’ MPs in the Commons.
This act generally means eternal reprobation for the perpetrator. Churchill was one of the few politicians who escaped this fate. His gesture was largely motivated by ambition, despite what he would say about it later: 'Some men change their party for the sake of their principles; others their principles for the sake of their party.'
It was because he could no longer stand the old Conservative Party, which left him languishing on the bench as a deputy (*).
The renegade was promptly rewarded. He became Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in December 1905, under Lord Elgin, and then Minister of Trade and Industry three years later.
To general surprise, Churchill, a gentleman both authoritarian and chaste, grew closer to the great popular tribune of the left wing of the Liberal party, David Lloyd George. He drew up social legislation (the creation of an employment agency, regulation of wages and working conditions, and insurance against unemployment) which would lay the foundations of the welfare state after the Second World War.
A handyman, Winston acceded to the Home Office in February, 1910. He tried to do away with imprisonment for debt and released a twelve-year-old boy sentenced to seven years of prison for stealing a cod!
He also rejected a bill intended to sterilize the mentally ill in order to 'improve the race' (Swedish Social Democrats would not show the same wisdom in 1922).
The image of the minister was nevertheless permanently damaged by the massacre at Tonypandy (a Welsh miner was killed by the police in November 1910). Public opinion made Churchill out to be a killer while he tried everything to appease the social conflict.
The minister also took imprudent risks by involving himself with with the police at the siege of a madman on Sidney Street in December 1910.
Mere trifles . . . Serious things start with military affairs.
Appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1911, Winston acknowledged the threat of a war with Germany in a prophetic memorandum.
He encouraged the rearmament and strengthening of the Royal Navy, following the advice of a seventy-year-old admiral, Jacky Fisher.
Thus he converted coal-fired ships to oil-fired ships, increasing their speed and autonomy, and enabled the Royal Navy to strengthen its advance on its rivals, notably Germany’s Kaiserliche Marine.
At the same time, he advocated for a British settlement in the Persian Gulf in order to guarantee their oil supply! Oil, hitherto confined to subordinate uses, became a vital strategic element for all world powers, and continues to be today.
Never short of imagination and combativeness, Churchill also created the Royal Flying Corps in 1912.
A Boundless Imagination
Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the beginning of the First World War. Of all the ministers he had the most knowledge of arms and the greatest appetite for war. On the night of Saturday, August 1 to Sunday, August 2, he put the Royal Navy in a state of general mobilization. The fleet was ready for battle when the ultimatum which London gave Germany, urging them to respect Belgian neutrality, expired at 11pm on August 11.
In 1915, while the fighting was mired down in the trenches, a debate was opened in the War Council on what strategy to adopt around Prime Minister Lord Asquith.
The 'Easterners' Churchill and Lloyd George pleaded for a bypass of the enemy by Eastern Europe. On January 13, 1915, they won their case, and the Council accepted the principle of a landing on the peninsula of Gallipoli, at the entrance of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus, with the aim of conquering Constantinople!
The operation foreseen by Churchill was not inappropriate: it was a question of opening a third front against the Central Powers and getting supplies to Russia by way of the Black Sea.
A Franco-English squadron of ten battleships launched the attack on March 18. A minefield got the better of four ships right from the first day! Bad start.
The Allied General Staff repeatedly postponed the expeditionary corps’s landing. When the first troops, an army of 12,000 men (including the Senegalese), finally tried to land on April 25, they were met with fierce resistance from the Turks, who were commanded by Mustafa Kemal and advised by their German allies.
The expeditionary force had to be reinforced from week to week. Without success. They disembarked on December 8 after 250,000 of their men died, were injured, or disappeared!
The only political victim of this failure, Churchill had to resign in May 1915. This was the express condition of his Conservative former friends when they entered a coalition government. Never mind. After a long depression during which he began painting, the outcast asked for and obtained a command in the trenches of the Somme, with the rank of colonel as commander of the sixth battalion of the Royal Scot Fusiliers. For all that, he continued criticizing the government’s pusillanimous policy.
In December 1915, equipped with unimpaired imagination and energy, he sent the government a secret memorandum in which he pleaded for the creation of "landships" (which would come to be called tanks in the future). He saw this as the only way to break through the enemy's trenches.
Lloyd George, now Prime Minister, called upon his friend Churchill to return to the government in July 1917 as Minister of Munitions. Churchill escalated military productions and, on August 8, 1918 in Flanders, he witnessed the first breakthroughs of these armored vehicles on caterpillar tracks, these tanks, which were his idea.
After World War I, as Minister of War, he called for a reconciliation with Germany – in contrast to Lloyd George and Clemenceau – and denounced the Bolshevism (or Communism) dominant in Russia.
In vain, he warned: 'Of all the tyrannies in history, the Bolshevist tyranny is the worst, the most devastating, and the most degrading' (speech at the Aldwych Club on April 11, 1919). He understood before almost everyone else that communism infringed on the foundations of civilization by advocating the dictatorship of a minority instead of seeking a compromise respectful of all opinions.
Now Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston created the protectorates of Iraq and Transjordan on the ruins of the Turkish Empire following a conference in Cairo on March 12, 1921, where the famous Colonel T. E. Lawrence, who vied with him for the favors of the public, was also in attendance.
He was once again rightfully at odds with Lloyd George and Clemenceau, who supported Greece’s claims to Western Anatolia. His point of view would win out and lead to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne . . . but without him, because he was meanwhile driven from the government.
After Lloyd George’s and Churchill’s departures in 1922 and the failure of the national unity government inherited from the war, the Conservative Bonar Law became prime minister for a few months. He was replaced by Stanley Baldwin, who was himself overthrown by Ramsay MacDonald's Labor supporters following dissent among the Conservatives.
For Churchill, this umpteenth period 'in the wilderness' ended with a second crossing of the 'floor'; abandoning the Liberals (Whigs), he reconnected with the Conservatives of his youth (Tories): 'Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.' Shortly afterwards, he entered into the government of Stanley Baldwin as Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is to say, Minister of Finance, a position which was not really in his nature. The clever Prime Minister wanted to neutralize the troublemaker.
On April 28, 1925, Churchill announced the pound sterling's return to the gold standard (suspended in 1919). The British currency suddenly found itself overvalued in order to meet the demands of bankers concerned about capital outflow.
This overvaluation of the currency resulted in an economic crisis. At every opportunity, capital took refuge in the United States, on Wall Street, where it would feed speculation and contribute to the October 1929 krach.
In England itself, its measure provoked an unprecedented general strike. Churchill repressed it with all his know-how, but would recognize after the war that his decision in 1925 was 'the greatest blunder of my life.'
In June 1929, the Baldwin government withdrew and Churchill lost his economy portfolio, probably without too much regret: 'Everybody said that I was the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer that ever was. And now I'm inclined to agree with them.'
Labor's Ramsay MacDonald returned to power. He presented an audacious project of autonomy for the British Indian colony. Thus, on October 31, 1929, the viceroy of India, Edward Wood, future Lord Halifax, promised the colony dominion status, which is to say, complete autonomy, like that already enjoyed by Canada and Australia!
Winston Churchill, nostalgic for the Victorian Empire, loudly opposed this, contrary to his much more understanding party leader, Stanley Baldwin. This divergence of views with the dominant fraction of Conservatives was to remove him from the corridors of power for a long time.
The 'Devil's Decade'
At the age of 55, while retaining his mandate as deputy, Winston Churchill, already burdened with a tumultuous past, began a decade-long period 'in the wilderness': the 'devil's decade'!
Incapable of remaining inactive, he took up masonry and went to paint in Cannes, on the Côte d'Azur.
He also completed the voluminous biography of his prestigious ancestor, Marlborough: His Life and Times, and went to the United States in 1931 to promote it.
He was welcomed enthusiastically but returned in a wheelchair, having been hit by a car in New York. He came away from this experience with a lesson: with age, we recover less easily from fatal accidents!
He was scorned by his adversaries as well as by the Conservative deputies, whom he had too often betrayed. His loved ones themselves doubted his political future. His dear Clementine, likely tired of his grumbling, treated herself to a cruise in Southeast Asia, during which she had a brief romance with a young intellectual seven years her junior.
Winston Churchill also travelled. He made public his admiration for Mussolini, whom he met in 1927, and even attempted to interview Hitler. But the Führer refused to meet him when he learned that Churchill wanted to question him about the Jews.
When the German troops reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, he approved of the French government’s inaction. The same year, when the Spanish army rose up against the Spanish Republican government, he took General Franco’s side.
Finally, even as his prophetic diatribes against Hitler began to resonate in the House of Commons, the heir of the Marlboroughs made the mistake of defending his friend King Edward VIII, torn between his royal duties and his love for Mrs. Wallis Simpson.
The King was obliged to abdicate on December 10, 1936 in favor of his brother, the future George VI, to the relief of the Democrats who were worried about Edward VIII’s Germanic and pro-Nazi inclinations. Churchill, discredited and discouraged, retreated to his Chartwell mansion.
Nevertheless, when war became imminent, it was towards him that public opinion turned, his 'wilderness' period having preserved his image as a man of action and obscured his past blunders.
On September 3, 1939, two days after the declaration of war, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain could not do less than integrate into his government the only English politician who was familiar with war and had accurately evaluated the Hitlerian threat. Churchill returned to the position of First Lord of the Admiralty. For him, the best was yet to come! . . .