Ruthless Young Man

Michael Brock

A review of this book has to start with its tragic and complex history. The official Life of Churchill was originally to be in five volumes. Randolph Churchill died in 1968 when only the first two of these had been published. The Trustees of the Chartwell Papers then invited Martin Gilbert to complete this multi-volume work, and the second Earl of Birkenhead to complement it with a one-volume Life. While Martin Gilbert and his team were at work Lord Birkenhead was to be the only other person given access to the Chartwell Papers: his book was not to be published until the last of Gilbert’s volumes had appeared.

Biographical work projected on such a scale is unlikely to be completed quite as planned. Randolph’s scheme had been to publish a volume each year. His successor increased the main volumes to eight; and publication of these has been spread over 21 years. The companion volumes of documents multiplied; the seven which had appeared by the end of 1973 brought events only to December 1916. Frederick Birkenhead had not gone far before he became mortally ill. He died in June 1975 having taken the narrative to the 1922 Election, and written most of a chapter on Churchill’s life at Chartwell during the Twenties and Thirties. His son, the third Earl, who took over the work, died tragically young in 1985. Robin Birkenhead’s draft extended to the end of 1940. It had been shown to Sir John Colville, who was asked to finish the story. He declined, but wrote an epilogue giving his own view of the Churchill he had known. He died suddenly in October 1987, having just completed the Foreword to the book now published. Robin Birkenhead had never enjoyed his father’s advantages, in that he had not known Churchill. Moreover, except for his completion of the Chartwell chapter, his work was no more than a draft. It was therefore decided that, while Frederick Birkenhead’s work should be published, his son’s would be issued privately. What now appears was thus all completed, editorial corrections apart, by 1975, except for the Foreword and the jointly written Chartwell chapter.

In retrospect, Frederick Birkenhead’s enterprise seems brave but ill-judged. John Morley said he had been daunted almost to despair only twice in his life. The first occasion came when he entered Dublin Castle on becoming Chief Secretary for Ireland, the second when he was shown the Gladstone Papers. The Churchill archive is of Gladstonian proportions. Frederick Birkenhead was committing himself to working through this vast mass before the papers had been arranged and published. If he completed only half of his superhuman task he would have no advantage over other biographers, since anyone bent on describing Churchill’s earlier career had only to wait until Gilbert’s companion volumes reached the required date. All the documents, not merely from the Chartwell papers but from the other relevant collections, would then be available beautifully edited, and the task of delineating Churchill to the mid-career point would become manageable. The studies of Churchill by William Manchester and Ted Morgan, published in 1983, were produced in this way, the first extending to 1932 and the second to 1915. Both authors were careful to acknowledge their debt to the official volumes. Neither seems to have suffered under copyright constraints.

Moreover Birkenhead’s advantage as Churchill’s godson would be of very limited use until the mid-point had been passed. He was a schoolboy approaching his 15th birthday at the point where this narrative ends with the 1922 Election. His volume lacks the firsthand authenticity of Violet Bonham Carter’s Winston Churchill as I knew him, and the vividness of Clementine Churchill by Mary Soames. It is an agreeable record by an experienced biographer. ‘The ambitious, selfish, and often ruthless young man’, in Sir John Colville’s phrase, is said to be delineated more clearly here than in earlier accounts. The claim may be conceded: but not all veils are drawn aside.

In 1896 Churchill was ‘an intolerable nuisance’, according to Birkenhead, in his fruitless efforts to avoid the ‘tedious land of India’ and to scramble into a scene of military action and glory. We are not told, however, why all Lady Randolph’s efforts to use her influence failed, though a letter published in one of the 1967 companion volumes gives the clue to this. With other junior officers of the Fourth Hussars Winston had been involved in an effort to prevent a newly posted Second Lieutenant from joining the regiment. The pages of Truth were full of the affair. ‘I am not quite sure,’ Lord Lansdowne told Lady Randolph, ‘that in view of the enquiry which has been promised ... it would be wise on Winston’s part to leave England at this moment ... An attempt might be made to misrepresent his action.’ Lansdowne’s warning was justified. In the enquiry report published soon afterwards the conduct of Winston and his brother officers was stigmatised as ‘reprehensible’.

Not surprisingly, Birkenhead’s later pages show signs of haste and fatigue. Sadly, no attempt seems to have been made to remove these. The production of the book is unworthy of subject and author. Its editor had died before it could be produced. The attention needed when putting such a work through the press has not been given. Slips, misprints and repetitions abound. For instance, Akers-Douglas was not Conservative chief whip in 1910: he had not held that post since 1895. The bibliography, the index and the footnote references are utterly inadequate. Thus two of the three index entries under Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry, refer not to her, but to Frances Anne, while Walter Long appears as Robert. The Chartwell Papers are continually cited for quotations which appear in full in the Randolph Churchill/Martin Gilbert companion volumes, or even in the main volumes themselves. This unhelpful practice has been made positively misleading, since, for a small proportion of the cases concerned, the citation is to the published version. The statement in the publicity material that the author, who was born in 1907, saw ‘a great deal of Churchill from the middle of the First Boer War onwards’ adds a comic touch.

Even more than Lloyd George, Churchill baffles the biographer. This is partly a matter of fatigue. The huge scale of his achievement and of the records about it are enough to wear out all but the most robust and indefatigable: but keeping right on to the end of the road is not the only problem. Time and again the road is swept away in flood or avalanche. What forces impelled Churchill, at the crucial points, towards his enormous achievements and his extraordinary blunders? Is it possible to see him clearly each time he was at the ‘hinge of fate’? There is a need for a short analytic account of his career comparable to Martin Pugh’s illuminating study of Lloyd George.[*]

Lord Birkenhead deals well with the first ‘hinge’ – Churchill’s decision to cross the floor of the House to the Liberals in May 1904. Like Peel, in Rosebery’s phrase, Winston had been ‘sworn to toryism too young to know the meaning of the oath’. Lord Randolph’s son was not predisposed to respect Salisbury and Balfour, nor to forget that his father had been excluded from Birmingham by Joe Chamberlain. The latter had no sooner run up the tariff reform flag than Winston was writing to Hugh Cecil: ‘I am an English Liberal. I hate the tory party.’ Insensitive, as always, to other people’s reactions, Churchill had little idea of the bitterness his conversion would engender. What seemed to him a perilous upholding of free trade principles looked to others like a jump onto the likely winner’s bandwagon.

The next ‘hinge’ presents far more difficulty. Birkenhead quotes the letter in which Churchill explained to Morley in December 1909 why he hoped for the Admiralty. It was in order to enforce economy. ‘A resolute effort must be made,’ Winston wrote, ‘to curb naval expenditure.’ In October 1911 he accepted the Admiralty with delight for exactly the opposite purpose – namely, to maintain Britain’s naval lead over Germany whatever increases in the Naval Estimates that might mean. Birkenhead explains the change partly by the fact that Winston’s appointment as Home Secretary in February 1910 had made him a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and partly in terms of the Agadir crisis: this, he writes, ‘finally caused Churchill to abandon any thought of an isolationist attitude’.

Important though these events must have been, they hardly account for so dramatic a change of attitude. However startling the Agadir crisis was for the public, it was not the first warning which the Cabinet had received of the danger of German aggression. As early as November 1908, during the Bosnian crisis, the Prime Minister had told Balfour: ‘Incredible as it might seem, the Government could form no theory of the German policy which fitted all the known facts except that they wanted war ... The internal conditions of Germany were so unsatisfactory that they might be driven to the wildest adventures in order to divert national sentiment into a new channel.’

Churchill’s inability during this phase of his career to provide the slightest concealment of his ambition inclined his contemporaries to ascribe his changes to political calculation. This was a gross distortion rather than a complete error. No politician who aspired to lead the Liberal Party could have failed to notice how the two 1910 elections had decimated its ‘pacifist’ wing. The League of Liberals Against Aggression and Militarism (‘the Lambs’) had taken a bad knock. In 1909 about 130 Liberal MPs had belonged to the wing which opposed high defence spending and Continental commitments. By 1911, the number had shrunk to something like forty. The Reduction of Armaments Committee was not formally re-established after the first 1910 election. In March 1911 only 56 members voted to reduce British armaments. These signs were not lost on Churchill. They gave him an incentive to look anew at defence problems; and, in this case as in so many others, once his mind had been engaged on a problem he became totally absorbed by it.

The Dardanelles failure was devastating and continued to dog Churchill for twenty years. Here again contemporary opinion repays study. Birkenhead quotes the key passage from the defence which Churchill made when leaving for the front in November 1915: ‘The attack ... was a naval plan, made by naval authorities on the spot, approved by naval experts in the Admiralty, assented to by the First Sea Lord ... not ... a civilian plan, foisted by a political amateur upon reluctant officers and experts.’

Churchill would never recognise, and Birkenhead did not discern, that the central issue was not whether the Admiralty’s professionals had approved of the attack, but whether a plan concocted wholly in the Admiralty had given good prospects of success. The only sound plan would have been one for a combined naval and military attack, where the Army was being called on, not merely to exploit and consolidate a naval success, but as an essential component of the assault itself. In Hankey’s belief, Churchill insisted on complete naval dominance in the Dardanelles planning from a desire to recoup the prestige which he had lost at Antwerp. It is a measure of the distrust which Churchill’s unbridled, and apparently selfish, ambition had engendered that this appears in the diary of a man as fair-minded as Hankey.

Winston’s determination not to share control of the expedition with Kitchener, though natural enough, was a fatal error. The only possible justification for this feature of his planning would have been that the utmost speed was essential to relieve the Russian Army in the Caucasus. That it could not be justified in this way became apparent before the attack had even been approved by the War Council, since news of the Russian victory at Sary-kamysh reached London on 5 January. It was clear early in February that enough troops could be collected to give the Army a major part in an assault on the Dardanelles: the abandonment of the plan for a land attack on Zeebrugge and the Turkish failure on the Suez Canal had already made some available. Kitchener’s refusal at a critical point in the campaign to release the 29th Division for the Dardanelles was deplorable: but Churchill’s plans had invited just such a setback. Kitchener was not the only one with whom Winston declined to share control. It was not merely that the Admiralty was to have its own way: he meant to have his own way inside the Admiralty. In May 1915, when the smash had come, he explained to Violet Asquith why he had brought back Fisher as First Sea Lord the previous October: ‘I took him because I knew he was old and weak, and that I should be able to keep things in my own hands.’ A more perceptive statesman would have recognised that the old are apt to become not merely weak but wild. ‘It is a pity,’ Asquith told Venetia Stanley in March 1915, ‘that Winston hasn’t a better sense of proportion and also a larger endowment of the instinct of loyalty ... He will never get to the top in English politics, with all his wonderful gifts; to speak with the tongues of men and angels, and to spend laborious days and nights in administration, is no good, if a man does not inspire trust.’ Those remarks explain why the hinge worked so badly for Churchill in 1915. By 1922 this Titan had only just begun to live down his reputation and amend his faults. It is sad that Birkenhead did not survive to tell the part of the story which he knew best, and so to describe how Asquith’s prophecy came to be disproved and his country saved.

[*] Martin Pugh, Lloyd George (Longman, £12.50 and £5.95).