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BRIEF history of Winston Churchill #1

The Young Thruster

At last someone has written a "brief" history of the life
of Winston Churchill, instead of those HUGE thick books -
Keith Hunt


by Paul Johnson

     Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both
good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to
humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his
life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially
for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly
on all opportunities, physical, moral, and intellectual. How to
dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable
failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition
with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity,
compassion, and decency.
     No man did more to preserve freedom and democracy and the
values we hold dear in the West. None provided more public
entertainment with his dramatic ups and downs, his noble oratory,
his powerful writings and sayings, his flashes of rage, and his
sunbeams of wit. He took a prominent place on the public stage of
his country and the world for over sixty years, and it seemed
empty with his departure. Nor has anyone since combined so
felicitously such a powerful variety of roles. How did one man do
so much, for so long, and so effectively? As a young politician,
he found himself sitting at dinner next to Violet Asquith,
daughter of the then chancellor of the exchequer. Responding to
her question, he announced: "We are all worms. But I really think
I am a glow worm." Why did he glow so ardently? Let us inquire.


     Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on November 30,
1874. His parents were Lord Randolph Churchill, younger son of
the 7th Duke of Marlborough, and Jennie, second of the four
daughters of Leonard Jerome, financier, of Chicago and New York.
The birth was due to take place in London, in a Mayfair mansion
the young couple had taken, where all was prepared. But during a
visit to Blenheim Palace, Lord Randolph's home, Jennie had a
fall, and her child was born two months prematurely in a
ground-floor bedroom at the palace, hastily got ready. Thus the
characteristic note was struck: the unexpected, haste, risk,
danger, and drama. The birth pangs were eight hours long and
exhausting, but the child was "very healthy," also "wonderfully
pretty." He had red hair, described as "the colour of a bronze
putter," fair, pink skin, and strong lungs. He later boasted that
his skin was exceptionally delicate and forced him always to wear
silk next to it. He claimed he had never owned or worn a pair of
pajamas in his life. Like his mother, he was active and impulsive
and so accident prone, but of organic disease he was little
troubled for most of a long life. Though he suffered from
deafness in old age, he had no disabilities other than a slight
lisp (almost undetectable on recordings). For this reason he took
great care of his teeth. He went to the best dentist of his time,
Sir Wilfred Fish, who designed his dentures, which were made by
the outstanding technician Derek Cudlipp. (They are preserved in
London's Royal College of Surgeons Museum.) He also took care of
his health, appointing, as soon as he was able, a personal
physician, Charles McMoran Wilson, whom he made Lord Moran (Fish
was rewarded with a knighthood). Churchill also ate heartily,
especially steak, sole, and oysters. He daily sipped large
quantities of whiskey or brandy, heavily diluted with water or
soda. Despite this, his liver, inspected after his death, was
found to be as perfect as a young child's. Churchill was capable
of tremendous physical and intellectual efforts, of high
intensity over long periods, often with little sleep. But he had
corresponding powers of relaxation, filled with a variety of
pleasurable occupations, and he also had the gift of taking short
naps when time permitted. Again, when possible, he spent his
mornings in bed, telephoning, dictating, and receiving visitors.
     In 1946, when I was seventeen, I had the good fortune to ask
him a question: "Mr. Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute
your success in life?" Without pause or hesitation, he replied:
"Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down,
and never sit down when you can lie down." He then got into his

     This vivacious and healthy child was the elder of two sons
born to remarkable parents. The father, Lord Randolph Churchill
(1849-95), was educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford. He
was MP for the family borough of Woodstock. just outside Blenheim
Palace, for the decade 1874-85, and then for South Paddington in
London until his death. His political life was meteoric,
turbulent, and punctuated by spectacular rows. With a few
discontented colleagues, he founded a pressure group advocating
more vigorous opposition to the Liberal majority (1880-84) and
espousing what he called "Tory Democracy." But, asked what it
stood for, he privately replied: "Oh, opportunism, mostly." He
also opposed Gladstone's Irish Home Rule policy, which would have
made Protestant Ulster submit to an all-Ireland Catholic
majority, with the inflammatory slogan "Ulster will fight-and
Ulster will be right."

     He was an impressive speaker, and by the mid-1880s he was
one of only four politicians whose speeches the Central News
Agency correspondents had orders to repeat in full, the other
three being Gladstone himself, Lord Salisbury, the Tory leader,
and the dynamic radical-imperialist Joseph Chamberlain. The years
1885-86 marked the apex of Lord Randolph's career. He was first
secretary of state for India, and then for six months chancellor
of the exchequer. But while preparing his first budget he had a
deadly row over spending with the Prime Minister. Salisbury was
supported by the rest of the cabinet, and Lord Randolph resigned,
discovering in the process that he had grotesquely overplayed his
hand. It was a case of the dog barking but the caravan moving on.
He never recovered from this mistake. At the same time, a
mysterious and progressive illness began to affect him. Some
believed it was syphilis, others a form of mental corrosion
inherited from his mother's branch of the family, the
Londonderrys. Gradually his speeches became confused and halting
and painful to listen to, until death in 1895 drew a merciful
curtain over his shattered career. Winston was only twenty when
his father died, and was haunted by this tragic final phase until
he exorcised the ghost by writing a magnificent two-volume
biography, transforming his father into one of the great tragic
figures of English political history. It was a further source of
unhappiness for Winston that he had seen so little of his father,
first so busy, then so stricken. He remembered every word of the
few personal conversations he had had with him.
     How much Winston inherited from his father, good or bad, is
a matter of opinion. Mine is: not much. Indeed there was little
of the Churchills in him. They were, on the whole, an
unremarkable lot. Even the founder, John, 1st Duke of
Marlborough, might, in the view of King Charles 11, a shrewd
judge of men, have remained a quiet country gentleman had he not
been stirred into activity by his astounding and ambitious wife,
Sarah Jennings. Of his successors, none achieved distinction.
     Five of the first seven dukes were victims of pathological
depression. Winston, it is true, complained of periodic dark
moods, which he called "the Black Dog." But these were occasioned
by actual reverses, and were soon dispersed by vigorous activity.
His father's extremism and his judgments were often quoted
against him during his own career, and there were a few occasions
when he went too far and was severely punished for it. But in
general, he learned from Lord Randolph's mistakes and pulled back
from the brink. Nor was there ever any sign of the mental
breakdown which slowly took possession of his father. Until his
late eighties, Winston remained in full possession of his
faculties despite a general physical decline.
     It was, rather, from his mother that Winston derived his
salient characteristics: energy, a love of adventure, ambition, a
sinuous intellect, warm feelings, courage and resilience, and a
huge passion for life in all its aspects. His aim to be the most
important politician in Westminster was a male projection of her
intense desire to be the desirable lady in Mayfair. She kept and
held this title for a decade or more, not just because of the
sheer physical allure of face and figure but because she looked,
moved, talked, laughed, and danced with almost diabolical magic.
She said later: "I shall never get used to not being the most
beautiful woman in the room." It was an intoxication to sweep in
and know every man had turned his head. She was also very much an
American. She believed the sky was the limit, that everything was
possible, that tradition, precedents, the "right" way of doing
things could always be ignored when ambition demanded. She loved
high risks and did not weep - for long, anyway - if they did not
come off. All this she transmitted to her firstborn son
(Winston's younger brother, Jack, brought up from infancy playing
second fiddle, was much more of a routine Churchill). She also
accustomed him to be the center of conversation. In the mid-1870s
the Churchills went into exile in Dublin after Lord Randolph,
characteristically, took violent sides with his elder brother
over a woman and antagonized the Prince of Wales. The Duke of
Marlborough had hastily to be appointed viceroy of Ireland, and
thither the Churchills went, to electrify Dublin Castle, until
the storm blew over. Winston's earliest memory was of his
grandfather, then viceroy, haranguing the elite in the courtyard
of their castle. The subject: war. Winston saw little of his
parents, then and later. The principal figure of his childhood
was Mrs. Elizabeth Anne Everest (1833-95), his nurse, a Kentish
woman of humble background who loved him passionately and whom he
knew as "Woomany" or "Woom." Her letters to him are touching
period pieces. He returned her affection and memorialized her in
his novel, "Savrola," which contains a powerful passage praising
the virtues and loyalty of family servants. Her existence and
love ensured that Winston's childhood, which might have been
disastrous and destructive of him, was reasonably happy.
     The Everest-Winston relationship was one of the best
episodes in Churchill's entire life. She encouraged and comforted
him throughout his school days in ways his mother could not or
would not, detecting in him both his genius and his loving
nature. He responded by cherishing her as his closest confidante
in all his anxieties. He believed his parents treated her meanly,
dismissing her after her services were no longer needed and
leaving her to a life of poverty. Though still a schoolboy, he
did his best to alleviate her privations, and later he sent her
money when he could afford it. He attended her deathbed, and took
Jack with him to the funeral. He had inscribed and set up her
headstone and paid a local florist annually to ensure that her
grave was kept up.


     Winston loved both his parents with the limitless,
irrational love of a passionate child and adolescent. But they
continually disappointed him, by absence, indifference, and
reproaches. He was not a boy who did naturally well at school and
his reports were mediocre. His father soon wrote him off as an
academic failure. After his poor performance at private school
Lord Randolph decided not to send him to Eton: not clever enough.
Instead he was put down for Harrow. One day he visited Winston's
playroom, where the boy's collection of lead soldiers was set
out. There were over a thousand of them, organized as an infantry
division with a cavalry brigade. (Jack had an "enemy" army, but
its soldiers were all black men, and it was not permitted to
possess artillery.) Lord Randolph inspected Winston's troops and
asked if he would like an army career, thinking "that is all he
is fit for." Winston, believing his father's question meant he
foresaw for his son a life of glory and victory in the
Marlborough tradition, answered enthusiastically, "Yes." So it
was settled.
     Winston's performance at Harrow confirmed his father's
belief he would come to no good. He never got out of the bottom
form, spending three years there, until he was transferred to the
Army Class, to prepare him for the Cadet School at Sandhurst.
Some of Lord Randolph's letters to him are crushing, indeed
brutal. His mother's are more loving but they too often reflect
his father's discontent. Few schoolboys can ever have received
such discouraging letters from their parents. His father, too,
was determined Winston should go into the infantry, while Winston
preferred the cavalry. The infantry required higher marks but it
was cheaper. His parents, especially Lord Randolph, were worried
about money. He had an income from the Blenheim estates, and his
wife brought with her another from her father. But together they
scarcely covered the expenses of a fashionable couple in high
society; they had no savings and debts accumulated. Winston
contrived, just, to get into Sandhurst on his third attempt, and
he did reasonably well, true. But he went into the cavalry - the
Fourth Hussars - to his father's fury. But by this time Lord
Randolph was nearing the end. He went to South Africa in an
attempt to make a fortune for his family in the gold and diamond
fields. In fact he was guided into shrewd investments, which
would eventually have proved very valuable. But when he died in
1895, all had to be sold to pay his debts. It was clear by then
that Winston would have to earn his own living.


     As it happened, Harrow proved invaluable in enabling him to
do so. He did not acquire fluency in the Latin and Greek it
provided so plentifully. He learned a few trusty Latin quotations
and skill at putting them to use. But he noticed that his
headmaster, the Reverend J. E. C. Welldon (later his friend as
bishop of Calcutta), winced as he pronounced them, and he
perceived, later, the same expression cross the face of Prime
Minister Asquith, a noted classical scholar, when he pronounced a
Latin quote in cabinet. But if he never became a classicist, he
achieved something much more worthwhile and valuable: fluency in
the English language, written and spoken. Three years in the
bottom form, under the eager tuition of the English master,
Robert Somervell, made this possible. Winston became not merely
adept but masterly in his use of words. And he loved them. They
became the verbal current coursing through his veins as he shaped
his political manhood. No English statesman has ever loved them
more or made more persistent use of them to forward his career
and redeem it in time of trouble. Words were also his main source
of income throughout his life, from the age of twenty-one. Almost
from the start he was unusually well paid, and his books
eventually made prodigious sums for himself and his descendants.

Keith Hunt)

     He wrote thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines
and over forty books. Some were very long. His account of the
Second World War is over 2,050,000 words. Gibbon's "Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire" by comparison is 1,100,000 words. I
calculate his total of words in print, including published
speeches, to be between 8 to 10 million. There can have been few
boys who made such profitable use of something learned at school.
In that sense, Winston's education, contrary to the traditional
view, was a notable success.


     In the process of turning words into cash, Lady Randolph
played a key part, particularly in getting her son commissions.
She had done all she could to alleviate Lord Randolph's suffering
in his slow and dreadful decline. But after his death in 1895,
she was free to devote herself to furthering her elder son's
career, and this became the object of all her exertions. In
begging for help for Winston she was fearless, shameless,
persistent, and almost always successful. Her position in London
society, her beauty and charm, and her cunning enabled her to
worm her way into the good books of newspaper proprietors and
editors, publishers and politicians - anyone in a position to
help. "This is a pushing age," Winston wrote to her, "and we must
push with the best." They became the pushiest couple in London,
indeed in the empire, which then spread over nearly a quarter of
the earth's surface.

     No sooner commissioned into the army, Churchill (as we may
now call him) began his plan of campaign to make himself famous,
or at least conspicuous. A soldier needs war, and Churchill
needed it more than most, for he could turn war into words, and
so into cash. But if you sat still, expecting wars to come to
you, you might be starved of action. You had to go to the wars.
That became Churchill's policy. The Fourth Hussars, under Colonel
Brabazon, a family friend, was ordered to India. But there was a
handsome war going on in Cuba, where America had sympathy for the
insurgents. Brabazon's agreement was reluctantly secured, and
Churchill and his mother pulled strings to get him to the front
and arranged a contract with the Daily Graphic to publish his
dispatches. By November 1895 he was already under fire as well as
braving outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox. "For the first
time," he wrote, "I heard shots fired in anger and heard bullets
strike flesh or whistle through the air." This recalls the famous
description by George Washington of first hearing bullets whistle
in 1757. But unlike Washington, Churchill did not find "something
pleasant in the sound." On the contrary, he learned to take
cover. He was under fire, I calculate, about fifty times in the
course of his life, and never once hit by a bullet. He was not
the only outsider who came to Cuba for experience. Theodore
Roosevelt, his older contemporary, led a force of freebooters
there. The two men had a great deal in common but did not get on.
Roosevelt said: "That young man Churchill is not a gentleman. He
does not rise to his feet when a lady enters the room." That may
be true. Once Churchill was comfortably ensconced in a chair, he
was reluctant to rise, part of his conservation-of-energy
principle. The Spaniards awarded Churchill their standard medal
for officers, the Red Cross, which he gratefully received - his
first medal - along with twenty-five guineas paid by the Graphic
for five articles. Thus the pattern of his life for the next five
years was set. Finding wars. Getting special permission to visit
or participate in them. Reporting them for newspapers and in book
form. And collecting medals. Once in India, he looked about him
for action. But he was not idle while waiting for opportunities.
He was conscious of his ignorance and begged his mother to send
him big, important books. She did. The Indian army day began
early but there was a big gap in the middle when the sun was
hottest. Most spent it in siesta. Churchill read. He thus
devoured Macaulay's "History of England" and Gibbon. He also read
Winwood Reade's atheistic tract, "The Martyrdom of Man," which
turned him into a lifelong freethinker and a critic of organized
religion (though he always conformed outwardly enough to avoid
the label "atheist," which might have been politically damaging).
He read everything of value he could get his hands on, and forgot
nothing he read. But there were always gaps, he felt, in his
knowledge, which he eagerly filled when vital books were
recommended to him.

BREATHING - Keith Hunt)

     In August 1897 he took part in his first British campaign,
as a member of the Malakand Field Force raised by Sir Bindon
Blood to punish the Pathans for incursion. Blood was a glamorous
figure, a descendant of the Colonel Blood who tried to steal the
Crown Jewels under Charles II. The expedition was a notable
success, and Churchill saw action, was under fire, and learned a
good deal about punitive expeditions and guerrilla warfare. His
mother arranged for him to write for the Daily Telegraph a series
of "letters." He was annoyed with her for not first stipulating
they be signed - for he was hot on the scent of fame - and he
demanded 100 pounds for the series. He also wrote for the Indian
paper The Allahabad Pioneer and eventually a book, "The Story of
the Malakand Field Force." This was his first book, and he sent a
copy to the Prince of Wales, who wrote him a delightful letter of
thanks, praised it to the skies, and recommended it to all his
friends. Blood was also pleased with him and reported favorably
to his superiors. He lived to a great age, dying in 1940, two
days after he received the glorious news that his former
subaltern had become prime minister. Churchill followed up this
success with attachment to the Tirah Expeditionary Force: more
experience, another medal.

     Churchill was already looking to Africa, which in 1897 was
alive with wars, actual and threatened. He wrote to his mother,
which tersely and crudely exposed his aim to use fame in war to
get himself into Parliament: "A few months in South Africa would
earn me the SA medal and in all probability the Company's Star.
Thence hot-foot to Egypt - to return with two more decorations in
a year or two-and beat my sword into an iron dispatch box."
     Actually, it was Egypt which came first. With tremendous
efforts, Lady Randolph got him attached to a cavalry regiment
taking part in the expedition to avenge Gordon's murder at
Khartoum. This involved an appeal to the prime minister, over the
head of the local commander in chief, Lord Kitchener, who had
already heard of Churchill's growing reputation as a pushy medal
chaser and did not want him. Nevertheless the young man arrived
in time to take part in one of the last cavalry charges in the
history of the British army, during the famous battle of Omdurman
(1899), which destroyed the Dervish army. Churchill reported this
campaign, too, for the London press, for handsome payment, and
also produced one of his best books, "The River War," in two
volumes, a magnificent account of the splendors and horrors of
imperialism at its zenith.

     Next came South Africa, where he reported the Boer War for
the Morning Post. Strictly speaking he was a noncombatant, but
during a Boer ambush of an armored train, he took an active part,
characteristically directing operations to free the engine. He
was captured, made a prisoner of war, escaped, had a hazardous
journey through the Boer lines, with posters advertising a large
reward for his recapture, and had a rapturous welcome in Durban,
where he found himself a hero. He then went back to the war in
earnest, showing an extraordinary amount of physical energy.
Before the Boers surrendered Johannesburg, Churchill contrived to
tour the city on bicycle, speeding up when he saw armed parties
of the enemy. We tend to epitomize Churchill by his later
sedentary existence. In youth he was hyperactive. He was the
Harrow and Public Schools Fencing Champion - and fencing is one
of the most energetic of sports. In India he played polo
enthusiastically, being part of his regimental team, which won
the All-India Calcutta Cup, the supreme prize in those days. Much
of his time in South Africa was spent on his tramping feet,
wearing out a pair of boots in the process. He was among thirty
thousand men who marched in triumph to Pretoria, the Boer
capital, led by a war balloon which he compared in his Morning
Post report to "the pillar of cloud which led the hosts of
     All his exploits figured largely in his newspaper articles.
But by 1900 he felt he had exhausted the opportunities of South
Africa, where the war had settled into an exacting but dull
guerrilla campaign. He hurried home. He had achieved the fame he
sought, made himself conspicuous (his photograph appeared over a
hundred times in newspapers in the year 1900), and returned to
London a hero. He quickly published two books, "London to
Ladysmith via Pretoria" and "Ian Hamilton's March." Cashing in
further on his fame, he gave a series of public lectures in
Britain, Canada, and the United States. These efforts left him
with a capital of 10,000,pounds which was invested for him by his
father's financial adviser, Sir Ernest Cassel. In addition, he
had a row of medals: the Spanish Cross of the Order of Military
Merit, First Class; the India Medal 1895, with clasp; the Queen's
Sudan Medal 1896-98, no clasp; the Khedive's Sudan Medal, with
clasp; and the Queen's South Africa Medal, with six clasps. He
also earned the Cuban Campaign Medal 1895-98 from Spain. 
     He had meanwhile taken his first steps in politics. He
contested Oldham for the Tories in 1899, and won it in the "khaki
election" the following year. In all these rapid developments, he
had accumulated a number of critics and even enemies, and a
reputation for being brash, arrogant, presumptuous, disobedient,
boastful, and a bounder. He was accused of abusing his position
as a British officer and his civilian status as a journalist, and
of breaking his word of honor as a war prisoner. Among the
orthodox and "right thinking," the mention of his name raised
hackles. On the other hand he was the best-known young man of his
generation. When he took the corner seat above the gangway in the
House of Commons to make his maiden speech in February 1901--it
was the seat occupied by his father for his resignation speech in
1886 - he was barely twenty-six. It was not bad going.

To be continued with "Liberal Statesman"

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