Enjoying every moment

David Reynolds

  • Churchill by John Keegan
    Weidenfeld, 181 pp, £14.99, November 2002, ISBN 0 297 60776 6
  • Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend since 1945 by John Ramsden
    HarperCollins, 652 pp, £9.99, September 2003, ISBN 0 00 653099 0
  • Clementine Churchill: The Revised and Updated Biography by Mary Soames
    Doubleday, 621 pp, £25.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 385 60446 7
  • Churchill at War 1940-45 by Lord Moran
    Constable, 383 pp, £9.99, October 2002, ISBN 1 84119 608 8
  • Churchill’s Cold War: The Politics of Personal Diplomacy by Klaus Larres
    Yale, 583 pp, £25.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 300 09438 8

In August 1940, Winston Churchill likened the relationship between Britain and America to the Mississippi: ‘It just keeps rolling along,’ he told the Commons, ‘full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant.’ In the car afterwards he sang ‘Ole Man River’ (out of tune) on the way back to Number Ten.

Sixty years later, one might say the same about Ole Man Churchill, whose reputation just keeps rolling along. The tide of books is unceasing – I could have added several more to those discussed here – as are the movies and documentaries, with Albert Finney following Richard Burton and Robert Hardy as a screen Churchill. As for approval ratings, in an admittedly contrived phone-poll BBC2 viewers last November voted him the greatest Briton of all time.

Most Churchill biographies have been massive: Roy Jenkins’s weighed in at 1.5 kilos and a thousand pages. A great virtue of John Keegan’s is its brevity. Here is the saga in miniature. Keegan’s Churchill is pre-eminently a man of war and a man of words. The Army made him physically, intellectually and morally – Sandhurst and the years in India and Africa ‘must be counted among the most significant of his life’. The long afternoons spent in Bangalore immersed in Gibbon and Macaulay formed his mind and shaped his style; the self-promoting war journalism made his name, boosted his bank balance and launched him into Parliament.

Rather surprisingly for a leading military historian, Keegan does not really develop the martial theme he sets out so vividly early on. Yet it mattered enormously in 1940 that Britain’s Prime Minister was a man who knew, and even relished war. The same could not be said of the two alternatives for the Premiership, Neville Chamberlain and Edward Halifax. ‘I was never meant to be a War Minister,’ Chamberlain told his sisters in October 1939, whereas Winston was ‘enjoying every moment of the war’. As for Lord Halifax, no shrinking violet in political argument, the thought of being a war leader made him feel sick. Equally important, however, were the limits of Churchill’s military experience. He had charged with the cavalry at Omdurman and led hazardous patrols on the Western Front, but he never commanded any unit larger than a battalion, did not attend staff college and learn to plan operations, and showed little interest in logistics. Many of the battles he fought with his own commanders during World War Two revolved around these gaps in his military experience: at root he remained a subaltern, lecturing generals. Subaltern studies have their place, however, and Churchill was often right that more audacity and less analysis was the key to victory.

Churchill the orator, however, is a theme that informs the whole book. In an autobiographical opening, Keegan evokes a bolshie young student killing time in a loaned Manhattan apartment, who found among the stock of records there The War Speeches of Winston Churchill. ‘The effect was electrifying.’ As he listened to the orations of 1940, with their artful changes of tempo and their portentous yet simple themes, he was ‘suffused with an unaccustomed sense of pride in country’. In the rest of his biography, following what Isaiah Berlin wrote back in 1949, Keegan treats those war speeches as the fruits of a lifelong immersion in the ‘heroicised history of his own nation’. Churchill had developed these themes in the 1930s, in his four-volume biography of his ancestor Marlborough and his unpublished but largely complete History of the English-Speaking Peoples. In 1940 he imposed that heroic image of the national past onto the present. ‘Through his extraordinary oratory’, Keegan writes, Churchill ‘determined the victorious outcome of the greatest threat his country had ever faced’.

By contrast with Keegan, John Ramsden shifts our attention firmly to the postwar decades. Like Robert Rhodes James thirty years ago, he argues that if Churchill had died in 1939, his life would probably have been construed as a spectacular failure – more promise than performance. Gallipoli, 1915, was still held against him; since 1929 he had been railing in the wilderness – sometimes presciently, as on Germany, sometimes ludicrously, as in support of the King over abdication – without getting back into office. From young man in a hurry to old codger going nowhere: his hour on the stage of history seemed to be over.

If anything, Ramsden goes further than Rhodes James. In itself 1940 was not a lasting turning-point for Churchill. His first months as leader coincided with a supreme moment of national drama. But after the epic came the soap opera. Any prime minister who accedes to power on a surge of national relief and enthusiasm – think of Thatcher or Blair – discovers that such a mood cannot last. As his henchman Brendan Bracken observed in April 1941, ‘the honeymoon is over. The grim realities of marriage must now be faced.’ In 1942, there was much talk in Westminster about divorce – Winston has done his bit, time for new and younger men – but no one could agree on who should take his place. Although Churchill surged again in the latter part of the war, this could not discount what Ramsden calls ‘the real evidence that his special status was inevitably temporary and largely conditioned by the transience of the war crisis itself’. On VE-Day, Churchill stood with the King and Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, acknowledging the cheering crowds. But so had Chamberlain after Munich. Less than three months later, Churchill was evicted from Number Ten by the electorate. In public he put the best face he could on his humiliation; in private he never forgot or forgave. His defeat was a sobering reminder that his place in history could not be taken for granted.

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