THE WIT OF SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL #5
Compiled by Dominique Enright
FRIENDS LIKE THESE....
'I hate nobody except Hitler - and that is professional.' If one
were to judge by the following, however, one would suppose
Churchill, his fellow politicians and the military leaders were
the bitterest of enemies. Some, it is true, he liked, and they
liked him, whatever their politics. Others - such as the Welsh
Labour MP, Aneurin Bevan - he did not like. Whether or not they
liked one another, however, was no obstacle to the insults they
threw at each other.
Military leaders could find their Prime Minister and his
interference in their conduct of the war exasperating to say the
least, as two Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff were to
record. According to Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, referring to
Churchill at the time of the Great War, 'His judgement is always
at fault, and he is hopeless when in power.'
Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke (General Sir Alan Brooke), CIGS
during much of the Second World War, was of much the same
opinion: 'He [WSC] knows no details, has only got half the
picture in his mind, talks absurdities and makes my blood boil to
listen to his nonsense ... And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of
the population of the world imagine Winston Churchill is one of
the great Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the
other 1/4 have no conception of what a public menace he is.' (He
also said, on other occasions, 'Winston is a marvel. I can't
imagine how he sticks it, He is quite the most wonderful man I
have ever met, and is a source of never-ending interest to me',
and 'He is the most difficult man I have ever served, but thank
god for having given me the opportunity.'
And Churchill on Alanbrooke: 'When I thump the table and push my
face towards him, what does he do? Thumps the table harder and
glares back at me.'
Evelyn Waugh is said to have described Churchill as 'simply a
radio personality who outlived his prime'.
Lady Lugard, the knowledgeable and distinguished wife of the
Governor of Hong Kong, was of the opinion that Churchill was 'an
ignorant boy, so obviously ignorant in regard to colonial affairs
and at the same time so full of personal activity that the damage
he may do appears to be colossal.' WSC was at the time
Under-Secretary for the Colonies.
The great advocate and wit Lord Birkenhead (F.E.Smith), was known
to have been a good friend of Churchill's, but that did not
prevent him from exercising his sharp tongue just a little at his
friend's expense: 'Mr Churchill,' he once remarked, 'is easily
satisfied with the best.' He also said: 'When Winston is right he
is unique. When he is wrong - Oh my God!' And on another
occasion: 'Winston has devoted the best years of his life to
preparing his impromptu speeches.'
Margot Asquith, Herbert Asquith's second wife, found his vanity a
bit much at times, and is said on one occasion to have exclaimed:
'He would kill his own mother just so that he could use her skin
to make a drum to beat his own praises.'
And in a strongly worded letter to Balfour in 1916 - at a time
when tempers were running high following a dramatic and
ill-considered speech by Churchill in which he systematically
demolished the Admiralty he had recently had to leave - she
called him 'a hound of the lowest sense of political honour, a
fool of the lowest judgement and contemptible. He cured me of
oratory in the House and bored me with oratory in the Home!' She
never did get on with Churchill.
WSC on the Duke of Windsor
Although Churchill allowed his sentimental side to take sway and
supported Edward VIII in his desire to marry Mrs Simpson, on
another occasion he described him as 'A little man dressed up to
the nines'. In fact, Churchill was more than usually inconsistent
in his view of the crisis occasioned by the King's love for an
American divorcee. On one occasion he remarked to Colville that
he thought the love affair was merely one of Edward VIII's
temporary infatuations, and on another described it as 'one of
the great love stories in history'.
WSC on Lord Macaulay
'It is beyond our hopes to overtake Lord Macaulay ... We can only
hope that Truth will follow swiftly enough to fasten the label
"Liar" to his genteel coattails.' Churchill as a historian
himself ensured that his subjects were thoroughly researched and
did not allow flights of the imagination. In his biography of his
forebear, Marlborough, he sought to defend the Duke of
Marlborough against Macaulay's claims.
WSC on Joseph Chamberlain (a Liberal, later Conservative,
statesman, father of Austen and Neville)
'Mr Chamberlain loves the working man; he loves to see him work.'
'The country thought Mr Chamberlain ... was a prophet with a
message. They found him a politician groping for a platform.'
WSC on Austen Chamberlain (like his father and half-brother, a
statesman; he was twice Chancellor of the Exchequer and, in 1921,
leader of the Conservative party)
'He always played the game and he always lost it.'
WSC on Arthur Balfour (Conservative politician, and Prime
'If you wanted nothing done, Arthur Balfour was the best man for
the task. There was no equal to him.'
'He would very soon have put Socrates in his place, if that old
fellow had played any of his dialectical tricks on him. When I go
to Heaven, I shall try to arrange a chat between these two on
some topic not too recondite for me to follow'
'The dignity of a prime minister, like a lady's virtue, is not
susceptible of partial diminution.'
WSC was commenting on Prime Minister Balfour's efforts to
disassociate himself from the contending factions within his
And Balfour, in 1899, on WSC
'I thought he was a young man of promise; but it appears he is a
young man of promises.'
WSC on Stanley Baldwin
'The Government cannot make up their minds, or they cannot get
the Prime Minister to make up his mind,' Churchill wrote of
Stanley Baldwin's government in 1936. 'So they go on, in strange
paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute,
adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be
Asked to send an eightieth birthday letter to Baldwin, Churchill
declined: 'I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been
much better if he had never lived.' He had perhaps forgotten that
it was Baldwin who had given him the post of Chancellor of the
Exchequer in 1924, an appointment which had delighted him and
filled him with great excitement.
'In those days Mr Baldwin was wiser than he is now; he used
frequently to take my advice.' 'Those days' were presumably the
latter years of the 1920s, after Baldwin had appointed Churchill
Chancellor of the Exchequer - now, in 1935 and in the wilderness,
Churchill's obsessive concern was Britain's lack of preparedness
for war and the government's lack of preparedness to listen to
'He has his ear so close to the ground that he has locusts in
'It is a fine thing to be honest, but it is also very important
to be right.' Clearly, Churchill felt that Baldwin's adherence to
honesty did not necessarily help him to perceive the broader
And, distinguishing truth from honesty, Churchill also said of
him: 'He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked
himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.'
Interestingly, Baldwin said that Churchill 'cannot really tell
lies. That is what makes him so bad a conspirator.'
'One never hears of Baldwin nowadays - he might as well be dead,'
someone remarked. 'No,' answered Churchill, 'not dead. But the
candle in that great turnip has gone out.' This exchange was
recorded in Harold Nicolson's diary for August 1950. Baldwin died
WSC on Ramsay MacDonald (Britain's first Labour Prime Minister)
'I remember, when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated
Barnum's Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and
monstrosities, but the exhibition on the programme which I most
desired to see was one described as the "Boneless Wonder".
My parents judged that spectacle would be too revolting and
demoralizing for my young eyes, and I have waited fifty years to
see the "Boneless Wonder" on the Treasury Bench.' (These words,
in a speech of January 1931, referred to MacDonald's
indecisiveness on trade union reform.)
'The greatest living master of falling without hurting himself.'
(The government has just been defeated by 30 votes, in January
1931, and the PM, Ramsay MacDonald, rises 'utterly unabashed ...
and airily assures us that nothing has happened').
'We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of
compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount
WSC on Lord Esher (Reginald Baliol Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher,
government official, courtier and diarist, and Liberal MP)
'We must conclude that an uncontrollable fondness for fiction
forbade him to forsake it for fact. Such constancy is a defect in
an historian.' (On Lord Esher's description of Churchill's part
in the Antwerp operation in September 1914.) Churchill had taken
it upon himself to organize the defence of the Belgian port, a
vain effort in the event, and one that cost the Royal Naval
Division dear. Although elsewhere Churchill implied that he
didn't mind criticism, he also admitted to being an egoist - and
don't most egoists mind being criticized, when, that is, they
notice that they are being criticized?
WSC on Neville Chamberlain (son of Joseph Chamberlain, and
Conservative Prime Minister, 1937-40; Churchill was very critical
of his policy of appeasement)
'An old town clerk looking at European affairs through the wrong
end of a municipal drainpipe.' Chamberlain had once been Mayor of
'He has a lust for peace.'
'You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose
dishonour and you will have war.' These words, bitter and true,
were spoken just after the Munich settlement of 29 September
'In the depths of that dusty soul there is nothing but abject
A few months after Chamberlain's return from Munich, waving his
famous piece of paper, in 1938, during a debate on Palestine,
Malcolm MacDonald, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had
reached the end of a difficult speech and was discoursing
lyrically about the land itself: 'Bethlehem, where the Prince of
Peace was born . . .' he intoned, to be interrupted by
Churchill's voice: '"Bethlehem"? I thought Neville was born in
When someone remarked that Chamberlain, in his effort to make
Attlee (leader of the Labour Party; Prime Minister, 1945-51)
accept the Munich appeasement, resembled a snake dominating a
rabbit, Churchill countered, 'It's more like a rabbit dominating
Early in 1939 the Duchess of Buccleuch had Churchill over one
weekend. As he was leaving she asked him if he could advise her:
Neville Chamberlain was coming the next weekend to address the
local Conservatives. Where should she set up the podium? 'It
doezhn't matter where you put it, as long as he hazh the shun in
hizh eyes and the wind in hizh teeth.'
(Chamberlain died in 1940, not long after resigning, having
fought a hard and uncomplaining battle against cancer. Churchill,
now Prime Minister, was profoundly moved and spoke generously of
his predecessor in the Commons: 'The only guide to a man is his
conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and
sincerity of his actions.'
WSC on Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery (1st Viscount
Montgomery of Alamein, one of Britain's most successful military
'In defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable.' (A variation of
this is sometimes attributed to Churchill, again as a description
of Montgomery: 'Indomitable in retreat, invincible in advance,
insufferable in victory'.) Churchill was fond of Montgomery,
though, and Monty remained a faithful friend to the end, visiting
him at Chartwell - not necessarily by invitation - where the two
old men sat together and exchanged reminiscences over tea and
In 1960, not long after the attempt to overthrow the Panama
government, in which Margot Fonteyn's husband, Tito Arias, had
taken part and for which he had been jailed, they visited the
Churchills at Chartwell. WSC asked Arias what he was going to do,
and Arias told him, 'We shall go back to Panama.'
'Don't use Montgomery in any of your revolutions,' Churchill
advised him. 'He will bankrupt you before you start. He will need
thirteen divisions before he'll ever make a move!'
During the North Africa campaign, the Eighth Army captured the
Field Commander of the Afrika Korps, General Wilhelm von Thoma,
and General Montgomery, commanding the Eighth Army, invited his
captive to dine in his GHQ trailer.
This horrified many at home in Britain, but the Prime Minister's
reaction was rather more measured. 'I sympathize with General von
Thoma,' he remarked. 'Defeated, humiliated, in captivity, and ...
[long pause for dramatic effect] ... dinner with Montgomery.'
WSC on R.A.(Rab) Butler (Conservative politician, who held
important government positions, including that of Chancellor)
'I am amused by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is always
patting himself on the back, a kind of exercise that contributes
to his excellent physical condition.' (And this was the man who
put up with Churchill's budgerigar sitting on his head.)
WSC on Charles de Gaulle (French general, leader of the Free
French, elected Prime Minister, then President of France,
'He looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in her
bath.' (Lord Moran - Sir Charles Wilson, Churchill's doctor -
also saw something of the ruminant in the Free French leader,
later to be President of France, describing him as 'an improbable
creature, like a human giraffe, sniffing down his nostrils at
mortals beneath his gaze.')
WSC on Field Marshal Lord Kitchener (military leader and
statesman; Secretary of State for War, 1914 to his death in 1916)
'He may be a general but never a gentleman.' (Poor 'K' - whose
recruiting campaign in 1914 did so much to prepare the British
Army for the long agony of the Great War - inspired little
liking. The ever sharp-tongued Margot Asquith remarked of him:
'If Kitchener was not a great man, he was, at least, a great
WSC on Aneurin (Nye) Bevan
'He will be as great a curse to this country in peace as he was a
squalid nuisance in time of war.'
'I can think of no better step to signal the inauguration of the
National Health Service than that a person who so obviously needs
psychiatric attention should be among the first of its patients.'
'A merchant of discourtesy.'
'If you recognize anyone, it does not mean that you like him. We
all, for instance, recognize the honourable Member for Ebbw
Vale.' These words, in a speech of July 1952, were in reference
to British recognition of communist China. The Member in question
was Nye Bevan.
Nye Bevan on WSC
'He is a man suffering from petrified adolescence.'
'I welcome this opportunity of pricking the bloated bladder of
lies with the poniard of truth.'
'He never spares himself in conversation. He gives himself so
generously that hardly anybody else is permitted to give anything
in his presence.'
WSC on Clement Attlee
'A sheep in sheep's clothing.'
'If any grub is fed on Royal Jelly it turns into a Queen Bee.'
'He is a modest man who has a good deal to be modest about.'
'An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door
was opened Attlee got out.' (This wisecrack, doing the rounds of
Westminster shortly after the war, was ascribed to Churchill.
When, however, his friend and Private Secretary Jock Colville
repeated it and its attribution to him, Churchill's face
stiffened and 'after an awful pause', he said: 'Mr Attlee is an
honourable and gallant gentleman, and a faithful colleague who
served his country well at the time of her greatest need. I
should be obliged if you would make it clear whenever an occasion
arises that I would never make such a remark about him, and that
I strongly disapprove of anybody who does.' The vehemence and
pomposity of this denial suggest that perhaps Churchill was
responsible for the jest, but, whether as a matter of conscience
or for some other personal reason, was immediately anxious to
disown it. Attlee had been Leader of the House of Commons in
Churchill's coalition government, and indeed Churchill had
deputed day-to-day business to him. He seems to have been anxious
not to hurt Attlee unnecessarily - although it's unclear whether
this is because he liked him, or because Attlee was particularly
easy to hurt, or for some other reason. When he left office in
1945, giving up his post to Attlee, he took leave of his Private
Secretary Paul Beards, with the assurance: 'Mr Attlee is a very
Attlee on WSC
'Fifty per cent of Winston is genius, fifty per cent bloody fool.
He will behave like a child.'
WSC on Lloyd George (Liberal statesman, PM 1916-22, and friend of
'The Happy Warrior of Squandermania.'
WSC on Herbert Morrison (Labour statesman, and deputy PM in
Attlee's administration, 1945-51)
'A curious mixture of geniality and venom.'
WSC on his friend Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken, a Canadian Scot
who became a Conservative MP; and later a newspaper mogul)
'He is a foul-weather friend.'
Beaverbrook on WSC
'Churchill has the habit of breaking the rungs of any ladder he
puts his foot on.'
WSC on US President Woodrow Wilson
'The spacious philanthropy which he exhaled upon Europe stopped
quite sharply on the coasts of his own country.' Woodrow Wilson
tried to maintain the neutrality of the United States following
the outbreak of the First World War, and succeeded uncomfortably
until 1917. After the war he fought hard to set up the League of
Nations, the ineffectual forebear of the United Nations,
concentrating on it to the extent that he took his eye off his
political affairs in the United States, where Republican
opposition to his peacekeeping plans for Europe was building up.
WSC on Hitler
'If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable
reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.' (This was in
fact an allusion to Hitler having invaded Russia. Churchill,
having often spoken vociferously against the Soviet regime over
the years, was now prepared to helping Russia. On the subjects of
hell and Russia, Churchill once remarked to Leo Amery that God
must exist because of 'the existence of Lenin and Trotsky for
whom a hell is needed'.
WSC on the Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich
'I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented
the modern concept of a robot.'
WSC on T.E.Lawrence
'He was not in complete harmony with the normal.'
'He has a way of backing into the limelight' - this is usually
attributed to Lord Berners ('He's always backing into the
limelight'), from whom Churchill may well have borrowed the neat
turn of phrase.
WSC on Stafford Cripps (Labour statesman, Chancellor of the
It was probably not so much Stafford Cripps's politics (after
all, he had been expelled from the Labour Party for opposing
appeasement, which must have earned WSC's approval) that got up
Churchill's nose as his almost inhuman austerity. Deeply
religious, severely honest and sincere, and, naturally, a
teetotaller, he was an uncomfortable figure to have around for
someone like Churchill, who was shameless in his indulgence in
luxury and drink; indeed, as Jock Colville put it, Cripps 'was
also suspected of believing that the hair shirts which he chose
for his own wardrobe should be manufactured and distributed to
the whole community'. Apparently, however, he allowed himself one
luxury - smoking cigars - until he forswore that, too, announcing
the move as an example of the kind of wartime sacrifice expected
of the nation.
On hearing this, Churchill mumbled to a colleague, 'Too bad -
that was his last contact with humanity.'
'He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I
Seated opposite this paragon of righteousness at dinner,
Churchill suddenly remarked: 'I am glad I am not a herbivore. I
eat what I like, I drink what I like, I do what I like ... and
he's the one to have a red nose.'
'There but for the grace of God goes God.'
'His chest is a cage in which two squirrels are at war - his
conscience and his career.'
'He delivers his speech with an expression of injured guilt.'
In December 1940 Cripps was British Ambassador to the Soviet
Union, in Churchill's words, 'a lunatic in a country of
WSC on US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles
'He is the only bull I know who carries his own china closet with
'Dull, Duller, Dulles.'
US President Roosevelt on WSC
Roosevelt is reported to have said 'Churchill has a hundred ideas
a day, of which four are good ideas.'
WSC on George Bernard Shaw
'Few people practise what they preach and none less so than
George Bernard Shaw ... Saint, sage and clown; venerable,
profound and irresistible.'
'He was one of my earliest antipathies,' Churchill wrote in Great
Contemporaries. 'This bright, nimble, fierce, and comprehending
being - Jack Frost dancing bespangled in the sunshine.'
An exchange of telegrams
GBS: 'Two tickets reserved for you, first night Pygmalion. Bring
a friend. If you have one.'
WSC: 'Cannot make first night. Will come to second. If you have
It is obvious the Winston Churchill had a way about him that many
could dislike, and as we have seen, many did dislike him. Despite
his brashness, ego, "stick it in your face" and "put the cards on
the table" attitude, the fact remains he was correct about Hitler
for a number of years before Hitler brought the world to war. He
was shunned by the politicians of Britain, he was working in his
garden when the King called him back to London to lead the
British in war against Hitler.
It is said that Churchill wanted to go to the front battles lines
to lead the British troops. It was the late Queen Mother who
said, "Winston, no, no, you must not do that, you are needed here
to lead and inspire our troops against Hitler."
Churchill's bull-dog fighting spirit and mannerisms, would have
taken him to the front lines if the Queen Mother had not
persuaded him to stay on British soil.
To be continued