Mule Races and Pillow Fights

Bernard Porter

  • Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War, 1874-1945 by Carlo D’Este
    Allen Lane, 960 pp, £30.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9753 8

Carlo D’Este, a retired US army lieutenant-colonel much admired in military history circles for his books about World War Two, knows a real soldier when he sees one, and on most counts Churchill doesn’t measure up. He was certainly fascinated by soldiering from an early age – it was his toy soldiers, he claimed, that did it – but he seems to have gone to Sandhurst only because his father thought he was too dumb for Oxford, and to have mainly relished the Boy’s Own side of war. Ordinary soldiering in India he found boring, apart from the polo, which he was good at. So he wangled his way instead to Cuba, the Sudan, South Africa and the North-West Frontier for some real action, as a soldier-cum-journalist (a combination of roles that wasn’t greatly approved of, and was later banned). He liked it best when it involved charging around on horses, under fire, especially when others could see him being brave. ‘Given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble,’ D’Este writes. ‘Without the gallery things are different.’ His main concern was to win fame: enough of it to propel him quickly into public life (he was obsessed with his father’s early death). Though he liked soldiering, he said early on, he thought politics were more his ‘métier’.

D’Este writes of his treating ‘war as if it were an activity being conducted solely for his personal advancement’. Sometimes even at the expense of his fellow officers: his famous – and much self-publicised – ‘great escape’ from the Boers in Pretoria in December 1899 left two comrades behind, fuming. He was quite brazen about this, which earned him little love among his fellow soldiers, or among his (very) senior officers, especially when – a stripling in his twenties (he wasn’t always fat) – he took it upon himself to tell them how to do their jobs. But it worked. He got into Parliament, and then (via the first of his two party changes) into the Liberal government of 1906. His last spell of military duty, five months on the Western Front in 1915-16, could also be seen as basically unsoldierly, involving as it did his resignation from the cabinet – surely a dereliction of his real war duty. His excuse was that he wanted some fun.

It was, however, an unusual thing to do. As D’Este points out, ‘politicians who start wars rarely experience the results of their actions.’ D’Este praises him for getting down in the trenches to see what life was like for the ordinary squaddies, and for providing entertainments for them – mule races, pillow fights and a concert. (He also claims Churchill was the first to introduce marching songs: surely not?) On the other hand he didn’t exactly rough it there. Everywhere he went ‘a long bath and a boiler for heating the bath water’ were dragged along after him, presumably by horses which could otherwise have been pulling field-guns. And his fellow officers, instead of pillow fights and singsongs, were treated to oysters and champagne. But that’s the British class system for you.

There is no doubt that Churchill learned a lot from these experiences, though whether they were the best lessons he could have learned must be questionable. One thing they drummed into him was ‘the pity of war’; or rather, of the kind of war he saw on the Western Front: static, attritional, with industrial-scale casualties – not really ‘fun’ at all. It was his desire to break out of this stalemate that lay behind his obsession right through both world wars with finding brilliant diversions, sudden attacks at vulnerable points that would topple the enemy at a stroke. The Dardanelles expedition in 1915 was the most notorious of these. ‘Are there not alternatives,’ he wrote to Asquith, ‘than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?’ This is quoted in Robin Prior’s excellent Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, whose conclusion is that that whole enterprise was hopeless from the start; the ‘myth’ in the subtitle is the common illusion that if things had gone a little differently it might have succeeded, and so shortened the war.[*] No chance. Prior also points out that other high-ups were at least as much to blame for the fiasco as Churchill. Nonetheless, it hung round his neck like an albatross for decades, and may have influenced other of his policies, though not in the same way that trench warfare had. Churchill was the leading figure among those who believed that it had almost worked, and would have done but for poor commanders in the field, cowardly troops and some bad luck. D’Este thinks that several of his later hare-brained strategies were partly designed to exonerate him over this. He could be an obstinate bugger at times.

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[*] Yale, 288 pp., £25, April, 978 0 300 14995 1.

[†] Forgotten Armies was reviewed by Bernard Porter in the LRB of 2 August 2007.