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.

Whatever the truth of it, the list of Churchill’s other failures of military judgment, according to D’Este, is a long one. They include Antwerp (1914), Archangel (1917), Norway (1940), Dunkirk (1940, though that had its positive side), Greece and Crete (1941), Singapore (1942), Tobruk (1942), Dieppe (1942), Rhodes (1943), Anzio (1944; that, D’Este claims, might have worked better if the Americans been left to do it alone) and Arnhem (1944); and that is without counting several foolish schemes he was mercifully restrained from. He opposed the US plan for the invasion of France for months in 1944, and so cannot be credited with the success of that. Generally, he was ‘never quite the expert authority he thought himself’ on military matters. He was hopeless with logistics; a bad picker of generals (he hit on Monty only ‘by chance’); apt to be seduced by his own ‘glittering phrases’; too interfering in details that should have been left to his commanders; ready to blame others; ‘prone to jump to conclusions’; liable to ‘hubris’; obsessive; and foolhardy. He clearly found personal relationships difficult – always had, in fact. (‘Must everyone hate my Winston?’ his mother once exclaimed.) In the later stages of the Second World War he continually crossed the Americans, who were invariably (D’Este claims) proved right in the end. Reading this book – whose military verdicts I’m not qualified to assess – makes it difficult at times to see how Britain managed to win the war at all: or rather, to keep it going until the Americans came in to win it for her. One reason may be that Hitler made even more strategic mistakes than Churchill. But strategy isn’t everything. It’s the conventional view nowadays that Churchill’s crucial contribution to Britain’s war effort lay elsewhere. D’Este goes along with this.

Two qualities in particular are supposed to mark him out. One is his far-sightedness. That of course is mainly based on his perception of the Nazi menace before most people took it seriously (and when some in his own party didn’t find it a menace at all). But there are other instances. This, for example, from a speech he gave in 1901, seems to me enormously prescient of the European war that was to come, which could not, he predicted, be anything but

a cruel, heart-rending struggle, which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentration to one end of every vital energy in the community … a European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.

Many others feared war before 1914 (the idea of the Edwardian era as an era of blissful innocence is a myth), but few understood what it would be like as clearly as Churchill did. In 1925, he was warning of mankind’s potential for self-destruction, with all the new weaponry available to it; this was twenty years before the atom bomb. When that arrived, therefore, he was unusually well placed to alert the world to the dangers of a nuclear stand-off with the USSR. (It is extraordinary that D’Este doesn’t cover this. Stopping his account of Churchill as ‘warlord’ in 1945 makes no sense. Quite apart from the Cold War, he presided over a number of quite hot colonial conflicts during his last spell as prime minister, in 1951-55.) Rightest of all was Churchill’s prediction that the course of war was usually unpredictable: ‘Never, never, never believe that any war will be smooth or easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.’ That sounds like Donald Rumsfeld’s rather pithier ‘stuff happens,’ though in Rumsfeld’s case the realisation came too late. Churchill was good at the longue durée. Sometimes.

That was his problem. He made a whole lot of predictions, but more of them were wrong than right. He was wrong about India; unbalanced, I would say – D’Este might not – about Soviet Russia; slanderous over the dangers of a Labour government in 1945 (that ‘Gestapo’ gibe); and very wrong indeed about the long-term prospects for the Empire, which he thought would always remain bound to Britain by love. Despite the vision of the European war of the future he had in 1901, he was still in 1912 reassuring audiences that it probably wouldn’t happen: indeed, that war itself might have ‘passed from the world’. That was because it would obviously be so dreadful. In this he trailed behind many of his contemporaries, who were far less sanguine. Around the same time he seems to have believed – D’Este gives no clear reference for this – that no civilised nation would indulge in submarine warfare because it was so underhand. He was against rearmament – the ‘dreadnought’ programme, for example – until very late in the Edwardian day; and was a disarmer as chancellor of the exchequer in the later 1920s (though that may have been sensible then). Early in the Second World War he grossly underestimated the U-Boat threat. He was right about Hitler, but he wasn’t quite alone in this (D’Este doesn’t give the British left the credit it deserves in this area, or indeed in any area); and it is possible that he happened to be right here for the wrong reasons – his belief in Germany’s ingrained ‘Prussianism’, for example.

He may not have seen as far as he thought he did, or as his sonorous phrases implied. ‘He deceives himself into the belief that he takes broad views,’ Lord Esher wrote, ‘when his mind is fixed upon one comparatively small aspect of the question.’ Those who worked with him in the war remarked on this again and again. A common observation was that he brimmed with ideas, some of which were good (estimates varied from one brigadier’s highly charitable six in ten, to Roosevelt’s four in a hundred), but the others rubbish. Often they were contradictory. The trick was to spot the winners – tanks and Mulberry artificial harbours were two of the good ones – and squash the rest. This became a vital necessity, and often quite a struggle, when he was in power. Before then it was too much of a bother. To have one’s foresight and wisdom recognised, it helps to be foresighted and wise most of the time. Churchill wasn’t.

But he made up for all this by his impact on British morale. That is what everyone says. He inspired the British people generally to persevere, against what seemed to be all the odds, by stirring speeches, promising only blood and tears but in the noblest of causes, good against evil, no less; and by his image: the posters, the ‘V for Victory’ sign, even the cigars and the slurred ‘s’s, and his old baby face miraculously metamorphosed into the ‘British bulldog’s’. People loved him, and had faith in him. He often worried about this – ‘poor people, poor people. They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time’ – but managed to keep up a front all the same. One of the reasons for his success here, apart from his oratorical genius, was a certain softness in his character, which came through to the public: his evident empathy, for example, when he met victims of the Blitz. He cried frequently – I counted a dozen instances in D’Este’s book. ‘Brave as a lion, tender as a woman, simple as a child,’ was Lord Ismay’s summing-up.

Was he a ‘warmonger’? D’Este spends some time debating this, before answering in the negative. If a warmonger is one who deliberately sets out to foment conflict, he wasn’t one. (His intervention in the Russian Civil War is the only episode that one might pause over.) But there are problems here: frequent references in his writings – even his later ones – to war as a ‘splendid game’, with ‘death’ merely a ‘sporting element’ in it. He almost certainly had in mind a different kind of war from the sort he described in that 1901 prediction. ‘War, which used to be cruel and magnificent,’ he wrote in 1930, ‘has now become cruel and squalid.’ (Note that he didn’t seem to object to the ‘cruelty’.) But that didn’t stop him feeling a (guilty) thrill when even a squalid war loomed. ‘I am interested, geared up & happy,’ he wrote to his wife at the start of the First World War. ‘Is it not horrible to be built like that?’ And a little later: ‘I think a curse should rest on me – because I love this war. I know it’s smashing & shattering the lives of thousands every moment – & yet – I can’t help it – I enjoy every second of it.’ The awareness of how awful this sounded may be his saving grace. There are plenty of other expressions in his writings of a loathing for the more terrible effects of war. Kitchener’s massacre of brave ‘Sudanese dervishes’ at Omdurman in 1898 sickened him. ‘War, disguise it as you may, is but a dirty, shoddy business, which only a fool would play at,’ he commented then. On the other hand he notoriously supported the saturation bombing of German cities, (though he later had qualms), and the use, in theory, of poison gas. His rationale for this is well known: ‘I do not see why we should always have all the disadvantages of being the gentlemen while they have all the advantages of being the cad.’ But he also genuinely agonised over the poor British boys he sent to their possible deaths. This may – as D’Este holds – mark the crucial difference between him and Hitler, for whom ‘such losses were almost abstract and carried no burden of conscience.’ Otherwise their ‘leadership’ profiles might seem uncomfortably close: both flawed as strategists, both great inspirers. But Churchill’s humanity, in most circumstances, was a difference: morally, at least.

Whether his inspirational qualities were as crucial as D’Este believes they were in stiffening Britain’s resolve in the war years is at least debatable. Though we might differ over other aspects of Churchill’s career, he writes, ‘one conclusion is beyond dispute’ (my emphasis): Churchill was ‘the only man in Britain’ who could have saved her. That was how it looked at the time: this was one of the most personalised wars in history. Apart from the much lesser Falklands conflict of 1982, where Thatcher self-consciously modelled herself on Churchill, and Eden’s disastrous Suez invasion of 1956, no modern British war has ever been so closely identified with a single ‘leader’ as the Second World War. Churchill was dominant in the propaganda of the time, his great speeches heard by everyone, his presence seen and felt everywhere. He kept close control over every aspect of decision making. He saw history in terms of the deeds of ‘heroes’, the pantheon of whom he always believed he was destined to join. Though not religious, he sometimes spoke as though he thought he was being divinely protected for this. When the war came to its end, nearly all of his contemporaries credited him with the winning of it.

Historians and biographers have mostly set their seal on that. ‘The saviour of his country’, was A.J.P. Taylor’s uncharacteristically uncritical verdict on him, in a famous footnote to his Oxford English History 1914-45 in 1965. After the war Churchill liked to downplay this: it was ‘the nation’ that ‘had the lion’s heart’, he once said, ‘I had the luck to … give the roar.’ But this may have been false modesty, and he must have been chuffed when, on VE Day, the great crowd that gathered to celebrate in Whitehall replied to his, ‘This is your victory’ with a shout of: ‘No – it is yours!’ But surely not even Churchill would have gone so far as to say that he was the ‘only’ man who could have done it. That is to pivot an awful lot of history on the head of one person, and on the mere chance that he happened to be around at the time.

This kind of analysis probably goes with the genre. D’Este’s is very top-down history, as one might expect from one lieutenant-colonel writing about another. There’s an awful lot in the book about ‘leadership’, which appears to be the key to everything military, and from which all else – victory in battle, political success, civilian morale – is assumed to follow. Churchill had this in spades, as others around him didn’t, so this had to be the crucial factor in Britain’s holding out in 1940-41. (At one point D’Este hints that Churchill’s American side – his mother – might have had something to do with this. He was what George Patton described as a ‘son of a bitch’; D’Este finds that quite ‘un-English’.) Behind this lies the clear assumption that the Brits needed this kind of leadership to keep them on course, to prevent their sliding back into appeasement-type defeatism when the going got rough. Several times D’Este mentions their ‘demoralisation’, or the danger of it, which only Churchill managed to gee them out of. He doesn’t furnish any evidence for this or, it has to be said, for a host of other assumptions outside his main, military field.

D’Este’s is a sorry picture of just about every Briton apart from his hero, including – to give just one example – his deputy Clement Attlee, who is repeatedly diminished, partly, no doubt, because his ‘leadership’ qualities were of a quieter kind than Churchill’s, though no less effective in other circumstances, as was to be seen later; and partly because he didn’t boast so much about his own military career, though it was in some ways equally impressive. (He ended up a rank behind Churchill, but only because he had worked his way up from private, and saw out the whole of the First World War – without the comfort of a perambulating bathtub – in France, Mesopotamia and – yes – Gallipoli.) This is of course a danger implicit in biography: focusing too much on its human subject at the expense of his or her context. Most biographers are careful to avoid this. For D’Este it may have been more difficult, because of his assumption that history – at least in this instance – is mainly determined from above.

Wherever a broader context than the merely military is required D’Este falls short. In my own special field, the British Empire, which was also the theatre of Churchill’s earliest military adventures, his political judgments are superficial, mainly consisting of the customary prejudices of most modern Americans. His section on the lead-up to the Boer War is poor. Elsewhere the colonies are notable for their invisibility, despite the wars that were continually going on there while Churchill was at the Colonial Office (1905-8, 1921-22), as well as during his peacetime premiership; and the struggles of Britain’s ‘forgotten armies’ in Burma and further down the South-East Asian peninsula before, during and after World War Two (now no longer forgotten, thanks to the publication in 2004 of Christopher Bayly’s and Tim Harper’s Forgotten Armies, which D’Este seems not to have read).[†]

Appeasement is another area of rank ignorance, on which D’Este simply swallows Churchill’s line. As for British domestic society and politics: well, the less said about D’Este’s understanding of these the better. He seems to have the idea that the king’s say-so was important, for a start. If he really thinks that ‘to the present day the Dardanelles and Gallipoli remain raw wounds in the British psyche’ he can’t have talked to many present-day Brits. And to read this account you would scarcely know that political parties, social classes and ideologies existed. It’s this in particular that enables him to generalise so crudely about ‘the British people’. From this book they appear – whether it was his intention or not – as one, undifferentiated, sheep-like mass.

One wouldn’t go to a book like this to learn about domestic British history, but it must bear on the central question, for D’Este, of Churchill’s role in ‘leading’ the domestic masses in wartime, and whether they required to be led by him. They may not have done. Anti-Fascism was a powerful force in politics long before Churchill came to power. The battlers of Cable Street in 1936, and the volunteers for the International Brigade in Spain, didn’t need him to egg them on. These were minorities; but as for the rest, there is simply no way of telling what they might have achieved off their own bats, if he hadn’t been there to provide the ‘roar’. If they needed a leader, another might well have been found; but with Churchill around there was no need for one, which is why we cannot spot him or her in his great shadow. And it is worth at least considering this possibility: that a leader without quite Churchill’s charisma, but with a better grasp of military strategy than this book shows him to have had, might have done the job better and quicker than he did. Just a thought. And a reason for not relying too much on the accounts of ex-soldiers in this field. Yes, they should have their say – this book furnishes perspectives on Churchill that are bound to escape us civilians – but not the last word. (D’Este I’m sure would agree.) Even history may be too important for that.

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

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