Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical, moral, and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion, and decency.
No man did more to preserve freedom and democracy and the values we hold dear in the West. None provided more public entertainment with his dramatic ups and downs, his noble oratory, his powerful writings and sayings, his flashes of rage, and his sunbeams of wit. He took a prominent place on the public stage of his country and the world for over sixty years, and it seemed empty with his departure. Nor has anyone since combined so felicitously such a powerful variety of roles. How did one man do so much, for so long, and so effectively? As a young politician, he found himself sitting at dinner next to Violet Asquith, daughter of the then chancellor of the exchequer. Responding to her question, he announced: “We are all worms. But I really think I am a glow worm.” Why did he glow so ardently? Let us inquire.
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on November 30, 1874. His parents were Lord Randolph Churchill, younger son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, and Jennie, second of the four daughters of Leonard Jerome, financier, of Chicago and New York. The birth was due to take place in London, in a Mayfair mansion the young couple had taken, where all was prepared. But during a visit to Blenheim Palace, Lord Randolph’s home, Jennie had a fall, and her child was born two months prematurely in a ground-floor bedroom at the palace, hastily got ready. Thus the characteristic note was struck: the unexpected, haste, risk, danger, and drama. The birth pangs were eight hours long and exhausting, but the child was “very healthy,” also “wonderfully pretty.” He had red hair, described as “the colour of a bronze putter,” fair, pink skin, and strong lungs. He later boasted that his skin was exceptionally delicate and forced him always to wear silk next to it. He claimed he had never owned or worn a pair of pajamas in his life. Like his mother, he was active and impulsive and so accident prone, but of organic disease he was little troubled for most of a long life. Though he suffered from deafness in old age, he had no disabilities other than a slight lisp (almost undetectable on recordings). For this reason he took great care of his teeth. He went to the best dentist of his time, Sir Wilfred Fish, who designed his dentures, which were made by the outstanding technician Derek Cudlipp. (They are preserved in London’s Royal College of Surgeons Museum.) He also took care of his health, appointing, as soon as he was able, a personal physician, Charles McMoran Wilson, whom he made Lord Moran (Fish was rewarded with a knighthood). Churchill also ate heartily, especially steak, sole, and oysters. He daily sipped large quantities of whiskey or brandy, heavily diluted with water or soda. Despite this, his liver, inspected after his death, was found to be as perfect as a young child’s. Churchill was capable of tremendous physical and intellectual efforts, of high intensity over long periods, often with little sleep. But he had corresponding powers of relaxation, filled with a variety of pleasurable occupations, and he also had the gift of taking short naps when time permitted. Again, when possible, he spent his mornings in bed, telephoning, dictating, and receiving visitors. In 1946, when I was seventeen, I had the good fortune to ask him a question: “Mr. Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?” Without pause or hesitation, he replied: “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” He then got into his limo.
This vivacious and healthy child was the elder of two sons born to remarkable parents. The father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-95), was educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford. He was MP for the family borough of Woodstock, just outside Blenheim Palace, for the decade 1874-85, and then for South Padding-ton in London until his death. His political life was meteoric, turbulent, and punctuated by spectacular rows. With a few discontented colleagues, he founded a pressure group advocating more vigorous opposition to the Liberal majority (1880-84) and espousing what he called “Tory Democracy.” But, asked what it stood for, he privately replied: “Oh, opportunism, mostly.” He also opposed Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule policy, which would have made Protestant Ulster submit to an all-Ireland Catholic majority, with the inflammatory slogan “Ulster will fight—and Ulster will be right.” He was an impressive speaker, and by the mid-1880s he was one of only four politicians whose speeches the Central News Agency correspondents had orders to repeat in full, the other three being Glad-stone himself, Lord Salisbury, the Tory leader, and the dynamic radical-imperialist Joseph Chamberlain. The years 1885-86 marked the apex of Lord Randolph’s career. He was first secretary of state for India, and then for six months chancellor of the exchequer. But while preparing his first budget he had a deadly row over spending with the prime minister. Salisbury was supported by the rest of the cabinet, and Lord Randolph resigned, discovering in the process that he had grotesquely overplayed his hand. It was a case of the dog barking but the caravan moving on. He never recovered from this mistake. At the same time, a mysterious and progressive illness began to affect him. Some believed it was syphilis, others a form of mental corrosion inherited from his mother’s branch of the family, the Londonderrys. Gradually his speeches became confused and halting and painful to listen to, until death in 1895 drew a merciful curtain over his shattered career. Winston was only twenty when his father died, and was haunted by this tragic final phase until he exorcised the ghost by writing a magnificent two-volume biography, transforming his father into one of the great tragic figures of English political history. It was a further source of unhappiness for Winston that he had seen so little of his father, first so busy, then so stricken. He remembered every word of the few personal conversations he had had with him.
How much Winston inherited from his father, good or bad, is a matter of opinion. Mine is: not much. Indeed there was little of the Churchills in him. They were, on the whole, an unremarkable lot. Even the founder, John, 1st Duke of Marlborough, might, in the view of King Charles II, a shrewd judge of men, have remained a quiet country gentleman had he not been stirred into activity by his astounding and ambitious wife, Sarah Jennings. Of his successors, none achieved distinction. Five of the first seven dukes were victims of pathological depression. Winston, it is true, complained of periodic dark moods, which he called “the Black Dog.” But these were occasioned by actual reverses, and were soon dispersed by vigorous activity. His father’s extremism and his judgments were often quoted against him during his own career, and there were a few occasions when he went too far and was severely punished for it. But in general, he learned from Lord Randolph’s mistakes and pulled back from the brink. Nor was there ever any sign of the mental breakdown which slowly took possession of his father. Until his late eighties, Winston remained in full possession of his faculties despite a general physical decline.
It was, rather, from his mother that Winston derived his salient characteristics: energy, a love of adventure, ambition, a sinuous intellect, warm feelings, courage and resilience, and a huge passion for life in all its aspects. His aim to be the most important politician in Westminster was a male projection of her intense desire to be the desirable lady in Mayfair. She kept and held this title for a decade or more, not just because of the sheer physical allure of face and figure but because she looked, moved, talked, laughed, and danced with almost diabolical magic. She said later: “I shall never get used to not being the most beautiful woman in the room.” It was an intoxication to sweep in and know every man had turned his head. She was also very much an American. She believed the sky was the limit, that everything was possible, that tradition, precedents, the “right” way of doing things could always be ignored when ambition demanded. She loved high risks and did not weep—for long, anyway—if they did not come off. All this she transmitted to her firstborn son (Winston’s younger brother, Jack, brought up from infancy playing second fiddle, was much more of a routine Churchill). She also accustomed him to be the center of conversation. In the mid-1870s the Churchills went into exile in Dublin after Lord Randolph, characteristically, took violent sides with his elder brother over a woman and antagonized the Prince of Wales. The Duke of Marlborough had hastily to be appointed viceroy of Ireland, and thither the Churchills went, to electrify Dublin Castle, until the storm blew over. Winston’s earliest memory was of his grandfather, then viceroy, haranguing the elite in the courtyard of their castle. The subject: war. Winston saw little of his parents, then and later. The principal figure of his childhood was Mrs. Elizabeth Anne Everest (1833-95), his nurse, a Kentish woman of humble background who loved him passionately and whom he knew as “Woomany” or “Woom.” Her letters to him are touching period pieces. He returned her affection and memorialized her in his novel, Savrola, which contains a powerful passage praising the virtues and loyalty of family servants. Her existence and love ensured that Winston’s childhood, which might have been disastrous and destructive of him, was reasonably happy.
The Everest-Winston relationship was one of the best episodes in Churchill’s entire life. She encouraged and comforted him throughout his school days in ways his mother could not or would not, detecting in him both his genius and his loving nature. He responded by cherishing her as his closest confidante in all his anxieties. He believed his parents treated her meanly, dismissing her after her services were no longer needed and leaving her to a life of poverty. Though still a schoolboy, he did his best to alleviate her privations, and later he sent her money when he could afford it. He attended her deathbed, and took Jack with him to the funeral. He had inscribed and set up her headstone and paid a local florist annually to ensure that her grave was kept up.
Winston loved both his parents with the limitless, irrational love of a passionate child and adolescent. But they continually disappointed him, by absence, indifference, and reproaches. He was not a boy who did naturally well at school and his reports were mediocre. His father soon wrote him off as an academic failure. After his poor performance at private school Lord Randolph decided not to send him to Eton: not clever enough. Instead he was put down for Harrow. One day he visited Winston’s playroom, where the boy’s collection of lead soldiers was set out. There were over a thousand of them, organized as an infantry division with a cavalry brigade. (Jack had an “enemy” army, but its soldiers were all black men, and it was not permitted to possess artillery.) Lord Randolph inspected Winston’s troops and asked if he would like an army career, thinking “that is all he is fit for.” Winston, believing his father’s question meant he foresaw for his son a life of glory and victory in the Marlborough tradition, answered enthusiastically, “Yes.” So it was settled.
Winston’s performance at Harrow confirmed his father’s belief he would come to no good. He never got out of the bottom form, spending three years there, until he was transferred to the Army Class, to prepare him for the Cadet School at Sandhurst. Some of Lord Randolph’s letters to him are crushing, indeed brutal. His mother’s are more loving but they too often reflect his father’s discontent. Few schoolboys can ever have received such discouraging letters from their parents. His father, too, was determined Winston should go into the infantry, while Winston preferred the cavalry. The infantry required higher marks but it was cheaper. His parents, especially Lord Randolph, were worried about money. He had an income from the Blenheim estates, and his wife brought with her another from her father. But together they scarcely covered the expenses of a fashionable couple in high society; they had no savings and debts accumulated. Winston contrived, just, to get into Sandhurst on his third attempt, and he did reasonably well, true. But he went into the cavalry—the Fourth Hussars—to his father’s fury. But by this time Lord Randolph was nearing the end. He went to South Africa in an attempt to make a fortune for his family in the gold and diamond fields. In fact he was guided into shrewd investments, which would eventually have proved very valuable. But when he died in 1895, all had to be sold to pay his debts. It was clear by then that Winston would have to earn his own living.
As it happened, Harrow proved invaluable in enabling him to do so. He did not acquire fluency in the Latin and Greek it provided so plentifully. He learned a few trusty Latin quotations and skill at putting them to use. But he noticed that his headmaster, the Reverend J. E. C. Welldon (later his friend as bishop of Calcutta), winced as he pronounced them, and he perceived, later, the same expression cross the face of Prime Minister Asquith, a noted classical scholar, when he pronounced a Latin quote in cabinet. But if he never became a classicist, he achieved something much more worthwhile and valuable: fluency in the English language, written and spoken. Three years in the bottom form, under the eager tuition of the English master, Robert Somervell, made this possible. Winston became not merely adept but masterly in his use of words. And he loved them. They became the verbal current coursing through his veins as he shaped his political manhood. No English statesman has ever loved them more or made more persistent use of them to forward his career and redeem it in time of trouble. Words were also his main source of income throughout his life, from the age of twenty-one. Almost from the start he was unusually well paid, and his books eventually made prodigious sums for himself and his descendants. He wrote thousands of articles for newspapers and magazines and over forty books. Some were very long. His account of the Second World War is over 2,050,000 words. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by comparison is 1,100,000 words. I calculate his total of words in print, including published speeches, to be between 8 and 10 million. There can have been few boys who made such profitable use of something learned at school. In that sense, Winston’s education, contrary to the traditional view, was a notable success.
In the process of turning words into cash, Lady Randolph played a key part, particularly in getting her son commissions. She had done all she could to alleviate Lord Randolph’s suffering in his slow and dreadful decline. But after his death in 1895, she was free to devote herself to furthering her elder son’s career, and this became the object of all her exertions. In begging for help for Winston she was fearless, shameless, persistent, and almost always successful. Her position in London society, her beauty and charm, and her cunning enabled her to worm her way into the good books of newspaper proprietors and editors, publishers and politicians—anyone in a position to help. “This is a pushing age,” Winston wrote to her, “and we must push with the best.” They became the pushiest couple in London, indeed in the empire, which then spread over nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface.
No sooner commissioned into the army, Churchill (as we may now call him) began his plan of campaign to make himself famous, or at least conspicuous. A soldier needs war, and Churchill needed it more than most, for he could turn war into words, and so into cash. But if you sat still, expecting wars to come to you, you might be starved of action. You had to go to the wars. That became Churchill’s policy. The Fourth Hussars, under Colonel Brabazon, a family friend, was ordered to India. But there was a handsome war going on in Cuba, where America had sympathy for the insurgents. Brabazon’s agreement was reluctantly secured, and Churchill and his mother pulled strings to get him to the front and arranged a contract with the Daily Graphic to publish his dispatches. By November 1895 he was already under fire as well as braving outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox. “For the first time,” he wrote, “I heard shots fired in anger and heard bullets strike flesh or whistle through the air.” This recalls the famous description by George Washington of first hearing bullets whistle in 1757. But unlike Washington, Churchill did not find “something pleasant in the sound.” On the contrary, he learned to take cover. He was under fire, I calculate, about fifty times in the course of his life, and never once hit by a bullet. He was not the only outsider who came to Cuba for experience. Theodore Roosevelt, his older contemporary, led a force of freeboo ters there. The two men had a great deal in common but did not get on. Roosevelt said: “That young man Churchill is not a gentleman. He does not rise to his feet when a lady enters the room.” That may be true. Once Churchill was comfortably ensconced in a chair, he was reluctant to rise, part of his conservation-of-energy principle.
The Spaniards awarded Churchill their standard medal for officers, the Red Cross, which he gratefully received—his first medal—along with twenty-five guineas paid by the Graphic for five articles. Thus the pattern of his life for the next five years was set. Finding wars. Getting special permission to visit or participate in them. Reporting them for newspapers and in book form. And collecting medals. Once in India, he looked about him for action. But he was not idle while waiting for opportunities. He was conscious of his ignorance and begged his mother to send him big, important books. She did. The Indian army day began early but there was a big gap in the middle when the sun was hottest. Most spent it in siesta. Churchill read. He thus devoured Macaulay’s History of England and Gibbon. He also read Winwood Reade’s atheistic tract, The Martyrdom of Man, which turned him into a lifelong freethinker and a critic of organized religion (though he always conformed outwardly enough to avoid the label “atheist,” which might have been politically damaging). He read everything of value he could get his hands on, and forgot nothing he read. But there were always gaps, he felt, in his knowledge, which he eagerly filled when vital books were recommended to him.
In August 1897 he took part in his first British campaign, as a member of the Malakand Field Force raised by Sir Bindon Blood to punish the Pathans for incursion. Blood was a glamorous figure, a descendant of the Colonel Blood who tried to steal the Crown Jewels under Charles II. The expedition was a notable success, and Churchill saw action, was under fire, and learned a good deal about punitive expeditions and guerrilla warfare. His mother arranged for him to write for the Daily Telegraph a series of “letters.” He was annoyed with her for not first stipulating they be signed—for he was hot on the scent of fame—and he demanded £100 for the series. He also wrote for the Indian paper The Allahabad Pioneer and eventually a book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. This was his first book, and he sent a copy to the Prince of Wales, who wrote him a delightful letter of thanks, praised it to the skies, and recommended it to all his friends. Blood was also pleased with him and reported favorably to his superiors. He lived to a great age, dying in 1940, two days after he received the glorious news that his former subaltern had become prime minister. Churchill followed up this success with attachment to the Tirah Expeditionary Force: more experience, another medal.
Churchill was already looking to Africa, which in 1897 was alive with wars, actual and threatened. He wrote to his mother, which tersely and crudely exposed his aim to use fame in war to get himself into Parliament: “A few months in South Africa would earn me the SA medal and in all probability the Company’s Star. Thence hot-foot to Egypt—to return with two more decorations in a year or two—and beat my sword into an iron dispatch box.” Actually, it was Egypt which came first. With tremendous efforts, Lady Randolph got him attached to a cavalry regiment taking part in the expedition to avenge Gordon’s murder at Khartoum. This involved an appeal to the prime minister, over the head of the local commander in chief, Lord Kitchener, who had already heard of Churchill’s growing reputation as a pushy medal chaser and did not want him. Nevertheless the young man arrived in time to take part in one of the last cavalry charges in the history of the British army, during the famous battle of Omdurman (1899), which destroyed the Dervish army. Churchill reported this campaign, too, for the London press, for handsome payment, and also produced one of his best books, The River War, in two volumes, a magnificent account of the splendors and horrors of imperialism at its zenith.
Next came South Africa, where he reported the Boer War for the Morning Post. Strictly speaking he was a noncombatant, but during a Boer ambush of an armored train, he took an active part, characteristically directing operations to free the engine. He was captured, made a prisoner of war, escaped, had a hazardous journey through the Boer lines, with posters advertising a large reward for his recapture, and had a rapturous welcome in Durban, where he found himself a hero. He then went back to the war in earnest, showing an extraordinary amount of physical energy. Before the Boers surrendered Johannesburg, Churchill contrived to tour the city on bicycle, speeding up when he saw armed parties of the enemy. We tend to epitomize Churchill by his later sedentary existence. In youth he was hyperactive. He was the Harrow and Public Schools Fencing Champion—and fencing is one of the most energetic of sports. In India he played polo enthusiastically, being part of his regimental team, which won the All-India Calcutta Cup, the supreme prize in those days. Much of his time in South Africa was spent on his tramping feet, wearing out a pair of boots in the process. He was among thirty thousand men who marched in triumph to Pretoria, the Boer capital, led by a war balloon which he compared in his Morning Post report to “the pillar of cloud which led the hosts of Israel.”
All his exploits figured largely in his newspaper articles. But by 1900 he felt he had exhausted the opportunities of South Africa, where the war had settled into an exacting but dull guerrilla campaign. He hurried home. He had achieved the fame he sought, made himself conspicuous (his photograph appeared over a hundred times in newspapers in the year 1900), and returned to London a hero. He quickly published two books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton’s March. Cashing in further on his fame, he gave a series of public lectures in Britain, Canada, and the United States. These efforts left him with a capital of £10,000, which was invested for him by his father’s financial adviser, Sir Ernest Cassel. In addition, he had a row of medals: the Spanish Cross of the Order of Military Merit, First Class; the India Medal 1895, with clasp; the Queen’s Sudan Medal 1896-98, no clasp; the Khedive’s Sudan Medal, with clasp; and the Queen’s South Africa Medal, with six clasps. He also earned the Cuban Campaign Medal 1895-98 from Spain. He had meanwhile taken his first steps in politics. He contested Oldham for the Tories in 1899, and won it in the “khaki election” the following year. In all these rapid developments, he had accumulated a number of critics and even enemies, and a reputation for being brash, arrogant, presumptuous, disobedient, boastful, and a bounder. He was accused of abusing his position as a British officer and his civilian status as a journalist, and of breaking his word of honor as a war prisoner. Among the orthodox and “right thinking,” the mention of his name raised hackles. On the other hand he was the best-known young man of his generation. When he took the corner seat above the gangway in the House of Commons to make his maiden speech in February 1901—it was the seat occupied by his father for his resignation speech in 1886—he was barely twenty-six. It was not bad going.