Mule Races and Pillow Fights
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 31 No. 17 · 10 September 2009
Bernard Porter did his best to remind us that it wasn’t Carlo D’Este, the author of Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War, 1874-1945, but Churchill himself, who wrote: ‘Given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble. Without the gallery things are different.’ It was our mistake, and our mistake, too, that it went uncorrected (LRB, 27 August).
In Walter Benn Michaels’s piece in the same issue, the sentence ‘White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those are in the bottom quintile’ should have read: ‘White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those in the bottom quintile.’ Editorial gremlins, we’d like to think.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 31 No. 18 · 24 September 2009
Bernard Porter is surely right to doubt Carlo D’Este’s assertion that Churchill (or any other individual, come to that) ‘was the first to introduce marching songs’ (LRB, 27 August). Marching songs must have been around for as long as troops have been required to march in step. William III’s troops marched in 1688 to ‘Lillibulero’, and it is likely that the New Model Army did so before them: the tune, of uncertain origin, had been widely popular, with an anti-papist lyric, since 1641. In America, the Union armies marched to ‘John Brown’s Body’, and both sides marched to their own versions of George Root’s ‘The Battle-Cry of Freedom’. The Confederate troops’ adoption of the traditional song ‘Green Grows the Laurel’ as a marching song is probably the origin of the Mexican sobriquet ‘gringo’.
As to the First World War, in which Churchill served from 1915 to 1916, Eric Partridge’s anthology The Long Trail starts with a section of 33 songs ‘predominantly sung on the march’, followed by another 17 ‘sung on the march, but more often in billets and estaminets’. None can conceivably have been the work of an officer. Not one of them is aggressive or triumphalist or even hortatory. Most were sung to hymn tunes or were parodies of popular songs. They range from the blank resignation of ‘We’re here because we’re here’ (to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’), through ‘We are Fred Karno’s army’ (to the tune of ‘The Church’s One Foundation’), to the bitter tabulation of privilege and rank in ‘The Old Barbed Wire’. The latter (‘If you want to find the quarter-bloke, I know where he is – miles and miles behind the line … If you want to find the CO I know where he is – down in the deep dugouts … If you want the old battalion, I know where they are – hanging on the old barbed wire’) is the story of Churchill’s war, with his private bath and boiler being towed around behind him.
Anyone who remembers Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War will remember ‘When this lousy war is over’, sung to the tune of ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’. Partridge’s version, which he lists as a marching song, starts ‘When this blasted war is over’. But in 1966 I recorded the song from a Kentish traveller, Joe Cooper, who had fought in the trenches, had survived two gas attacks (‘it rolled towards you like the early mist in the hopfields’), had found himself homeless and jobless on demobilisation, and had married a Romany woman and gone on the road. The version Joe remembered began ‘When this wicked war is over’.
Bernard Porter refers to Carlo D’Este’s account of Churchill’s ‘much self-publicised “great escape” from the Boers in Pretoria’. Since Churchill himself gave at least three different versions of this story, it has long been time for the truth to be revealed. My grandfather was a fellow POW and my father passed his version on to me in a letter many years ago. My grandfather and others had ‘made a plan to escape, and dug a tunnel under the wire. Churchill, regarded as utterly unreliable, was rigidly excluded from the plan, but managed to discover the escape was planned for a certain night. The night before, he managed to get through the tunnel and escape, destroying all chance of escape for the 20 to 30 men who had dug the tunnel, as Churchill’s absence was immediately noted at roll-call in the morning.’ It appears that two others, Haldane and Brockie, claimed that they had been going to go with him but were left in the lurch. ‘It did not enter my head that he would play the low-down game of going without us,’ Haldane said.
Bernard Porter wonders whether Britain in 1940 could have found a leader with ‘a better grasp of military strategy’ who might have done the job more quickly and more efficiently than Churchill. But it was Churchill with his singular command of strategy who saw the immediate need, once Pétain had done the deal with Germany, to destroy the French fleet at Oran before it was used by the Germans as the determining factor in an invasion force. Again only Churchill, as a former First Lord of the Admiralty, had the authority to overcome the strong opposition within the Admiralty itself. But with this decision, he showed the world, and America in particular, that Britain, when necessary, could act as ruthlessly as Germany.
Vol. 31 No. 20 · 22 October 2009
Bernard Porter, in his appraisal of Churchill’s views on warfare, observes that ‘he notoriously supported the saturation bombing of German cities (though he later had qualms), and the use, in theory, of poison gas’ (LRB, 27 August). But Churchill had even fewer moral reservations about weapons of mass destruction in colonial wars, notably in Mesopotamia, which Porter doesn’t mention. When tribes in southern Iraq rose in revolt against British occupation in 1920, Churchill, then secretary of state for war, presided over the bombing of whole villages, and very nearly ordered the use of mustard gas to subdue the insurgents. In his words, ‘I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.’
South American pedants’ corner: Stephen Sedley is surely wrong to attribute ‘the Mexican sobriquet “gringo”’ to the Confederate marching song ‘Green Grows the Laurel’ (Letters, 24 September). The term, used to describe any foreigner, was current in the River Plate much earlier than the US Civil War, and was also used in Spain. Some authorities consider it a corruption of griego, ‘greek’. One also wonders how many Confederates ever went marching in Mexico.
Vol. 31 No. 22 · 19 November 2009
I am Mexican, and lived in Mexico for 29 years, but I never heard anyone use the term ‘gringo’ to refer to anyone other than US citizens. In the third volume of Historia, tradiciones y leyendas de calles de México (1999) Artemio de Valle-Arizpe writes that the word ‘gringo’ first appeared in Mexico after the incursion of General Winfield Scott in September 1847. De Valle-Arizpe describes an ‘unhappy’ and ‘abominable’ song that Scott’s troops sang incessantly, and which began with the words ‘Green Grow’. The Mexican historian tells how the locals, not knowing English, interpreted the song’s first words as ‘gringo’. I grew up seeing graffiti that read ‘Green Go Home’ next to a cartoon of Uncle Sam.
The ‘authorities’ Malcolm Deas alludes to (Letters, 22 October) may be Barbara and David Mikkelson, who themselves refer to Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations (1994), where Rawson cites the Diccionario Castellano de Málaga (1877), which defines ‘gringo’ as ‘any foreigner who speaks a language other than Spanish’. The Mikkelsons then make a giant leap of logic and assume that the term has to come from griego because in Spain they allegedly say está en griego (‘it’s in Greek’) when they don’t understand something. This idiom is completely unknown in Mexico – we say ‘it’s in Chinese.’
University College London
Vol. 31 No. 23 · 3 December 2009
I am still far from being convinced about those singing soldiers in Mexico, though the ones put forward by Ernesto Priego are at least not Confederates (Letters, 19 November). Priego cites Artemio de Valle-Arzipe, Historia, tradiciones y leyendas de calles de México, Volume III, but does not give the author’s authorities; perhaps Volume III is the one concerned with legends. The song ‘Green grows the laurel’ is usually given as traditional Scottish, which then becomes traditional Irish on the vague supposition that there were more Irish in the US ranks in the Mexican war, and one should flatter the larger contingent.
The Diccionario Castellano con las voces de ciencias y artes (1786-93) defines gringo as a word used for foreigners who have difficulty speaking Spanish. If Priego had been born in Argentina in the century before last, he would have heard the word used for ‘Foreigner, especially Italian. By extension, bad horseman’ – my translation from the glossary of Jorge Luis Borges and Bioy Casares’s Poesía Gauchesca. The use of the term in the River Plate certainly antedates the US-Mexican War of 1846. It has been used throughout Latin America with varied nuances and degrees of hostility, and for a wide range of foreigners or even physical types. It is rarely entirely polite. Of course, in Mexico it is used for people from the United States, but to insist on deriving its origins from a ballad sung by North American invaders is I suspect more an aesthetic preference than a scholarly one. It also sounds a little note of secondary chauvinism: Mexican etymologies are to prevail over others – and the more so because they are historically anti-American? There may well be more than one origin of this word – the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española still says the origin is disputed – but the Spanish one looks the best so far.
Vol. 32 No. 1 · 7 January 2010
As Ernesto Priego insists, in Mexico no one would use the word ‘gringo’ to mean anyone other than a US citizen, and a white US citizen at that (Letters, 19 November 2009). This is true for most of the rest of the region, but there are some exceptions. Brazil, Peru and Chile are the ones I know personally, but I’ve heard tell that Honduras (interestingly, given the scabrous history of US activity there) is another. In Chile, where I’ve lived for 25 years, any white, non-Latin foreigner is a gringo. I’m a white Brit, so certainly am, but so would I be if I were Canadian, German, Swedish, Australian, Polish or white South African. French, Italians, Greeks and – obviously – Spaniards aren’t, however. Usage of the term is similarly broad in Brazil and Peru; in Argentina, however, just over the mountains from here, the US-only rule holds.
The usual origin story in Chile is the ‘Green Go’ variant, derived from the crossing lights of the British-built railways in the north of the country. But this is no more reliable than the many other stories in the region and in Spain.
This gringo correspondence has gone on long enough! The term derives, I believe, from the song ‘Green Grow the Rushes O’, as sung by the men of the 71st Regiment of Foot (MacLeod’s Highlanders), under Brigadier General William Beresford, landed by Rear-Admiral Sir Home Popham – apparently on his own initiative – to occupy Buenos Aires in June 1806:
I’ll sing you one, O
Green grow the rushes, O
What is your one, O?
One is one and all alone
And evermore shall be so.
Having captured or sunk the better part of the Spanish Navy at Trafalgar the year before, the British were in a triumphant mood and looking to grow their empire at the expense of Napoleon’s allies. Popham had successfully invaded the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope with the 71st Foot only a few months earlier.
At Buenos Aires, Beresford’s ‘Green-grows’ were taken prisoner by the Porteños, however, and their regimental colours remain in Argentine possession to this day. Popham was recalled and censured by court martial. Nevertheless, the City of London presented him with a jewelled sword of honour for his endeavours to ‘open new markets’. An early attempt at globalisation, obviously.