Roberts’s Churchill

All my adult life I have had a strong appetite for books about Winston Churchill. It began, I suppose, when I read the first volume of William Manchester’s biography, which was frankly hagiographical but vividly told. I have read much since then, including much work highly critical of the man. I can readily understand people disliking or even hating Churchill; I could never understand someone who doesn’t find him fascinating. So, unsurprisingly, I have very much looked forward to the new biography by Andrew Roberts.

I haven’t finished it yet — so much else to do right now — but I think it’s fair to say that like Manchester’s book it is a very strong narrative, and like Manchester’s, it is largely hagiographical. I have been particularly struck by Roberts’s approach to Churchill’s eventful experience in the Great War: his chief principle seems to be that Churchill’s judgment may be questioned or even condemned, but that his character must be vindicated at all costs. Roberts accepts ungrudgingly Churchill’s many mistakes in advocating for and the overseeing the Gallipoli campaign, but he will not countenance the suggestion that Churchill fell into those mistakes because of his character flaws. Personality flaws, perhaps — impetuousness, for instance — but not flaws of moral character.

Consider this passage:

Lloyd George needed no persuasion to throw over his old friend and ally. The price of the Conservatives joining a national government was that Churchill should be sent to a sinecure post with no executive portfolio attached. ‘It is the Nemesis of the man who has fought for this war for years,’ Lloyd George told Frances Stevenson that day. ‘When the war came he saw in it the chance of glory for himself, and has accordingly entered on a risky campaign without caring a straw for the misery and hardship it would bring to thousands, in the hope that he would be the outstanding man in this war.’ There was bitterness and jealousy in that remark, but little factual accuracy.

But Roberts quotes Churchill on many occasions not only expressing excitement for the war, but demonstrating constant awareness of how his performance in it could pave the way for him to become Prime Minister. He told Violet Asquith at a dinner party in early 1915, “I know a curse should rest on me – because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment – and yet – I can’t help it – I enjoy every second of it.” A man who could not only think this but say it out loud is a man who might legitimately be suspected of pursuing “a risky campaign without caring a straw for the misery and hardship it would bring to thousands.” He said himself that that suffering didn’t disrupt his delight in the war even for a second.

Similarly, Roberts quotes the Prince of Wales — the future King Edward VIII and, after his abdication, Duke of Windsor — saying, “It is a great relief to know that Winston is leaving the Admiralty … one does feel that he launches the country on mad ventures which are fearfully expensive both as regards men and munitions and which don’t attain their object.” To which Roberts comments, “It was for this feckless young man that Churchill would later nearly sacrifice his career.” No doubt the Prince was feckless, and would become still more so, but to describe Gallipoli as a “fearfully expensive” venture “both as regards men and munitions” that did not attain its object is to state the simple, inescapable truth.

One more example of Roberts’s habitual attitude: when the government of the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was on the verge of collapse, and some kind of coalition had to be formed, the other parties to the coalition made it clear that they would not participate unless Churchill were sacked as First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill wrote to Asquith to plead that he be kept on anyway, to which Asquith replied, “You must take it as settled that you are not to remain at the Admiralty … I hope to retain your services as a member of the new Cabinet, being, as I am, sincerely grateful for the splendid work you have done both before and since the war.” Roberts’s comment on that letter: “Asquith could treat Churchill harshly partly because the First Lord had so few supporters.” Treat him harshly? In no circumstances could Asquith have kept Churchill on — that had been made perfectly clear to him — so he is refusing to hold out any false hope, but nevertheless offering to keep Churchill in his Cabinet, which the other members of the coalition did not want. Asquith could do that much for Churchill only by spending some valuable political capital, and it would not have been “harsh” had Asquith banished Churchill from the government altogether.

Churchill’s attitude towards the loss of his position? “My conviction that the greatest of my work is still to be done is strong within me: and I ride reposefully along the gale. The hour of Asquith’s punishment and K[itchener]’s exposure draws nearer. The wretched men have nearly wrecked our chances. It may fall to me to strike the blow. I shall do it without compunction.”

Again, Roberts admits that Churchill makes mistakes; but he prefers to identify those mistakes himself, and when he quotes any criticism of Churchill from contemporaries, he tends to (a) dismiss it and (b) indicate his low opinion of the character of the critic. And in all this he faithfully reflects Churchill’s own interpretation of his role in the Great War.

As for me, I am inclined to agree with the journalist A. G. Gardiner, who wrote that Churchill “is always unconsciously playing a part – an heroic part. And he is himself his most astonished spectator.”