Though Churchill entered the Great War readily, if not eagerly, we must remember that he had warned in speech and print that it would be a catastrophe for humanity. He was the only one, apart from that brilliant prophet of the future H. G. Wells, to predict its horrors so clearly. And they proved worse than either supposed. Indeed the first of the two world wars proved the worst disaster in modern history, perhaps in all history, from which most of the subsequent problems of the twentieth century sprang, and many of which continue, fortissimo, into the twenty-first. He saw all these tremendous events from a highly personal viewpoint and portrayed them vividly, seen from close quarters and invested with strong emotion. As with every major event in his life, he told the story as soon as it was over, on an appropriately large scale. A. J. Balfour, who always viewed him with a salty mixture of admiration and vitriol, put it: “Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis.”
Even before the book appeared, he had epitomized its monstrous nature in glowing words on a sheet of War Office paper:
All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them. The mighty educated states involved conceived— not without reason—that their very existence was at stake. Neither peoples nor rulers drew the line at any deed which they thought could help them to win. Germany, having let Hell loose, kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity and international law was repaid by reprisals—often on a greater scale and of longer duration. No truce or parley mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines: the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas, and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission, without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered often slowly in the dark recesses of the sea. The fighting strength of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia or Africa became one vast battlefield on which not only armies but entire nations broke and ran. When all was over, torture and cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilised, scientific Christian states had been able to deny themselves, and they were of doubtful utility.
At the time, Churchill was too busy to reflect on the horrors of war. He was responsible for 1,100 warships, with more joining them every week from the shipyards. But they were vulnerable. Three cruisers were lost to a U-boat on a single day, September 22, 1914. In October the battleship Audacious was sunk and soon after two more cruisers went down in the lost battle of Coronel. Combined loss of life was over four thousand. The failure of the Mediterranean fleet to sink two German warships on their way to Istanbul inspired Turkey to join the war on Germany’s side. On two occasions German warships made hit-and-run attacks on Yorkshire towns. The fact that the navy had enabled the six divisions of Britain’s expeditionary force to be transported without loss of a single man was taken for granted, though it was a notable achievement. Churchill sent fast battle cruisers to the South Atlantic to avenge Coronel, and they did so at the battle of the Falklands, the entire German squadron being sent to the bottom. But that was taken for granted, too. The public demanded to know what the Grand Fleet was doing, and why it had not won an overwhelming victory. Why had there been no Trafalgar? Where was Nelson? The French had saved Paris by their victory at the Marne in early September, but Britain had made no spectacular contribution as yet to victory in the war, which all (except Churchill and Kitchener) believed would be short.
In his frustration, Churchill involved himself in a typical personal adventure. He had already created a naval division for land use and set up a base in Dunkirk, with a naval air squadron, and commandeered Rolls-Royces protected by sheets of steel armor, the earliest version of the tank. When news reached the cabinet that the Belgians were about to surrender Ostend and Antwerp, thus defeating the whole object of Britain’s intervention in the war, it ordered Churchill, a delighted volunteer, to go to Antwerp to take charge. He did so and had a tremendous time, commanding every available man and piece of artillery, improvising, and inventing new weapons. He afterward described it in The World Crisis with rhetorical relish. He set up his HQ in the best hotel, went around in a cloak and a yachting cap, and held the city for a week, during which the three chief French Channel ports, essential links between Britain and the expeditionary force, were made secure. But his proposal that he resign his office and be appointed commander on the spot, though approved by Kitchener, was rejected by the cabinet, and he was ordered home. Antwerp fell, and with it two thousand British troops who were killed or taken prisoner, and Churchill was blamed, particularly by the Tories and senior army generals. Clemmie, who had had a baby (Sarah) while her husband was fighting, was also critical. But the prime minister was warm in praise: “He is so resourceful and undismayed, two of the qualities I like best.”
Churchill later wrote that “the weight of the War” pressed “more heavily” on him in the last months of 1914 than at any other time. As the enormous and constantly expanding armies settled down into static, bloody, and horrible trench warfare in Flanders, Churchill feared his nightmare vision was coming true: the vision of an endless, infinitely costly but indecisive war, in which all would lose, none gain, and the only result would be the ruin of Europe and her empires. The navy had painfully succeeded in bottling up Germany, clearing the seas of her surface ships and maintaining British maritime supremacy on the oceans. Otherwise it was unoccupied and denied the chance to strike a vital blow. Admiral Jellicoe, commanding the Grand Fleet, was rendered cautious, perhaps excessively so, Churchill felt, by his knowledge that though he could not win the war by daring, he could “lose it in an afternoon” by one serious misjudgment. How to restore dynamism to the war? He asked Asquith (December 29, 1914): “Are there not other alternatives than sending out armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders? Furthermore, cannot the power of the Navy be brought more directly to bear upon the enemy? ”
One answer was to make more use of Russia’s almost inexhaustible manpower resources by shipping vast supplies of modern weapons, especially heavy artillery, to her Black Sea ports. But this meant knocking Turkey out of the war, or at any rate clearing the Dardanelles to let the British and French munitions ships through. This is what Churchill suggested in a memo to Asquith at the end of 1914. He also offered an alternative: an invasion of Schleswig-Holstein, which Germany had conquered from Denmark in Bismarck’s day. This, he calculated, would bring Denmark, perhaps all the Scandinavian countries, into the war and also open up communications with Russia. But Churchill preferred an assault on Istanbul, which would be easier, given overwhelming Franco-British superiority in the Mediterranean, and bring the Balkan states of Greece, Rumania, and Bulgaria into the war on the Allied side, probably Italy also.
This view was accepted in principle. But now it became clear, at least in retrospect, that Asquith, as prime minister, did not know how to run a war on such a scale. What British prime minister ever had? Aberdeen had made a gruesome mess of British participation in the Crimean War. Pitt had blundered repeatedly in the Continental War against Revolutionary France and Napoleon. Asquith, over six years, had proved a skillful peacetime leader, steering Britain through several crises by his adroit management of the House of Commons and the cabinet. But he had no conception of the right way to win a world war. He could keep the cabinet together and see that general policy orders were given to the services. But then he sat back and wrote amorous letters to his beloved Venetia Stanley or played bridge endlessly at his house, the Wharf. It is clear now that he should have handed over to a younger and more energetic colleague such as Lloyd George, or formed a war cabinet to conduct the actual operations and the mobilization of the economy. He should also have brought the other parties into the government and so united the nation. But he was not willing to do any of those things.
Hence the attempt to seize the Dardanelles, the narrow strip which was the key to the Sea of Marmara and Istanbul, was a disaster. The year before, Churchill had foolishly brought out of retirement Admiral Sir John Fisher, the dynamic force—he was more than a human being—who had created the original Dreadnought and two more classes of capital ships, to replace Admiral Louis Battenberg, forced out by popular prejudice because he was of German blood, as first sea lord. Fisher was now well into his seventies and increasingly arbitrary and childish (his wild letters often ended “Yours till Hell freezes”). He could not make up his mind about the Dardanelles and in the end opposed it. By this time, January 1915, the Germans and Turks had got wind of the scheme and were preparing to kill it on the beaches. There was a foolish tendency, not shared by Churchill, to underrate the Turks as fighting men. With a large contingent of German officers to advise and train them, the Turkish army was formidable. On January 31, Asquith told Fisher, “I have heard Mr. Winston Churchill and I have heard you and now I am going to give my decision . . . The Dardanelles will go ahead.”
If Asquith had then appointed Churchill supremo of the operation (and told him to replace Fisher), the campaign might still have succeeded. But he did no such thing. He was already thinking of forming a coalition with the Tories and knew they would require Churchill’s departure from the Admiralty as part of the price. There were endless arguments about the nature of the naval force and the relative importance of the army in the attack. The admirals were timid. The land commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton, was charming but lacked resolution. There were leaks from the cabinet, which under Asquith had no sense of the absolute need for security, and by the time the operation began at the end of April 1915, the assaulting troops, mainly Australians and New Zealanders, plus Churchill’s naval division, had not a chance. It was a massacre, and the casualties enormous. The divided command insisted on reinforcing failure, thus breaking the most elementary rule of strategy, and the death toll rose. Fisher noisily resigned, and Asquith formed his coalition, moving Churchill, despite his almost tearful protests, from the Admiralty to the nonjob of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It was the only time in his life that Clemmie Churchill made a dramatic appeal on behalf of her husband. She wrote to Asquith: “Winston may in your eyes, and in those with whom he had to work, have faults, but he had the supreme quality which I venture to say very few of your present or future Cabinet possess—the power, the imagination, the deadliness, to fight Germany.” This was true but unavailing: Asquith was beginning to fight for his own political survival and he saw that the sacrifice of Churchill was essential to it. Besides, his noisy and dominating wife, Margot, whose shouted advice was to get rid of Churchill at any cost, told him: “I have never varied in my opinion of Winston I am glad to say. He is a hound of the lowest sort of political honour, a fool of the lowest judgment, and contemptible. He cured me of oratory in the House, and bored me with oratory in the Home.”
So Churchill was out and had to watch, impotent and silent, while the politicians, admirals, and generals compounded their mistakes and the operation, after a quarter of a million casualties, ended in ignominious evacuation. Though an official inquiry eventually exonerated him, at the time (which is what mattered) he got the blame. As Theodore Roosevelt once remarked of a financial crisis: “When people have lost their money, they strike out unthinkingly, like a wounded snake, at whoever is most prominent in the line of vision.” Here it was not money but lives lost, and there was no doubt who was most prominent. So the Dardanelles disaster became identified with Churchill and the fury this aroused persisted until 1940, and even beyond, especially among the Tories and a huge chunk of the public.
It was the lowest time in Churchill’s life. At this point, Sir William Orpen, Britain’s finest painter, did his portrait. It is the best ever done of Churchill, of the fifty or so that have survived, and one of the best Orpen himself ever produced: dark, somber, troubled, defiant—just—but more despairing. When it was finished, Churchill sighed, “It is not the picture of a man. It is the picture of man’s soul.” Orpen used to speak of “the misery in his face.” He called Churchill “the man of misery.” No one can understand him properly without looking long and earnestly at this great work (now in Dublin). A quarter of a century later, when Churchill was back at the top and able to look at his life more philosophically, he said, “Yes, it’s good. He painted it just after I’d had to withdraw our forces from the Dardanelles, and I’d got turfed out. In fact when he painted it I’d pretty well lost everything.” He brooded in his inactivity, something he had never experienced before. His wife later told Martin Gilbert, his great biographer, “I thought he would die of grief.”
At this moment, providence intervened. By pure chance, his sister-in-law “Goonie” Churchill (Lady Gwendeline Bertie, daughter of the Earl of Abingdon) was painting in watercolor in the garden of Hoe Farm in Surrey, which they had rented jointly. Churchill: “I would like to do that.” She lent him her paints and soon, ambitious as always, he sent for a set of oils and canvases. He loved it. The Scots-Irish master Sir John Lavery, a neighbor, took him in hand, and his dashing wife, Hazel, also a painter, gave him excellent advice. “Don’t hesitate. Dash straight at it. Pile on the paint. Have a go!” He did, with growing relish. He discovered, as other sensible people have done, that painting is not only the best of hobbies but a sure refuge in time of trouble, for while you are painting you can think of nothing else. His first painting, The Garden at Hoe Farm, with Goonie in the foreground, survives. Soon, misery began to retreat. His mind, his self-respect, his confidence were restored. He found he could paint strikingly and loved it; his efforts improved with each canvas. The colors were strong and cheerful. His friends liked them and were delighted to have them. He had discovered a new field to conquer with his audacity. Painting, after politics and the family, became his chief passion, and he painted for the rest of his life, as the perfect relaxation from his tremendous cares. His eventual election as an Honorary Royal Academician Extraordinary in 1948 may have been colored by his wartime eminence. But it is a compelling fact that in 1925 Lord Duveen, the leading art dealer of the century, Kenneth Clark, later director of the National Gallery, and Oswald Birley, one of the top portrait painters, formed a committee to award a prize to works of art submitted anonymously by amateur artists. The three gave it instantly and unanimously to Churchill’s submission, Winter Sunshine, and Duveen found it hard to believe the painter was an amateur.
Enlivened by art, Churchill determined to go back into the fray by fighting in Flanders. He went to the front on November 18, 1915, and was there till May 1916. After much opposition, he was given a battalion to command, the Sixth Royal Scots Fusiliers, and saw action in the trenches. A photograph survives showing him wearing a French infantryman’s helmet, which he preferred to the British tin hat, and dressed in a uniform so badly put on and buckled as to cause heart failure in Sir Douglas Haig, the ultrasmart commander in chief, who as Lloyd George scathingly put it, was “brilliant to the top of his boots.” But he looks happy. The experience restored his faith in himself and winning the war. He later wrote:
As, in the shadows of a November evening, I for the first time led [my men] across the sopping fields which gave access to our trenches, while here and there the bright flashes of the guns or the occasional whistle of a random bullet accompanied our path, the conviction came into my mind with absolute assurance that the simple soldiers, and their regimental officers, armed with their cause, would by their virtues in the end retrieve the mistakes and ignorances of staffs and cabinets, of admirals, generals and politicians—including, no doubt, many of my own. But alas at what a needless cost! To how many slaughters, through what endless months of fortitude and privation, would these men, themselves already the survivors of many a bloody day, be made to plod before victory was won!
Churchill’s service in the trenches served him well in both world wars because it enabled him to understand the views of ordinary soldiers and officers (much better than Sir Douglas Haig, who never went near the trenches if he could help it: he thought his nature too tender and that experiencing horrors would undermine his ability to take hard decisions). He returned to London exhilarated, eager for work—and to earn money to replace his ministerial salary writing articles for the Sunday Pictorial and the Times.
After demeaning attempts to cling on, Asquith was finally ousted in December 1916 and replaced by Lloyd George, who began to do many of the things that should have been automatic from the beginning of the war. He wanted to bring Churchill back, but the Tories in his coalition would not hear of it. After a key meeting with LG behind the Speaker’s Chair in May 1917, Churchill became his unofficial adviser on the war, though holding no office. Thus “master and servant” were reunited and Churchill, chastened by his experiences and aware of the risks the prime minister was taking to talk to him at all, was for a time silent and almost servile. His position, however, was helped by his alliance with a new friend, Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian financier who was rapidly building up one of the most successful newspaper empires in Britain. They became intimate friends and the Beaverbrook press sang his praises. Clemmie disliked him even more than she did F. E. Smith, and thought his advice to her husband always wrong and often inflammatory. In my experience of Beaverbrook I found him shrewd and often wise, honest, reliable, and truthful. But many thought otherwise and agreed with Clemmie. At all events, by July 1917 Lloyd George felt strong enough to bring back Churchill and made him minister of munitions.
This was a brilliant move, and Churchill rapidly made himself one of the most efficient departmental ministers in British history. It was a confused ministry which had grown up haphazardly during the war and was a maze of duplications, contradictions, and bureaucratic gang warfare. In a short time of fanatical hard work Churchill made it simple, logical, and efficient. He forged a close link with the front to ensure the troops got exactly the right weapons and ammunition they wanted, in the right quantities. He visited the front constantly, and Haig was so impressed by the improvement in supplies that he completely reversed his opinion of Churchill and let him use the Château Verchocq near Calais. Within a year, the British army was better supplied with weapons of their choice than either the French or the Germans. The vast quantities of heavy artillery, mobile cannon, and machine guns Churchill sent played a notable part in the slaughter inflicted on the German divisions, which attacked in March 1918, when for the first time in the war the relative casualty rate was decisively reversed. The German army began to bleed to death—the prime cause of their plea for an armistice in November 1918. Churchill was also effective in ensuring that American forces, arriving at the front in growing numbers from late 1917, never went short of munitions. There is a vignette of Churchill, after a day at the front, getting lost in his Rolls-Royce near Verchocq and shouting to his driver, “Well, it’s the most absolutely fucking thing in the whole of my life.” It is worth noting that Churchill, who disliked swearing in others and usually restrained himself, occasionally indulged when things went wrong. His secretary Elizabeth Layton once recorded: “He was in a very bad temper all this week, and every time I went to him he used a new and worse swear word.”
Lloyd George also used Churchill in various key roles in the creation of a unified command with France in 1918. It was at his suggestion that the prime minister brought General Smuts into the war cabinet, in recognition of the enormous efforts the commonwealth had made to help Britain in the war. Soon after the armistice, LG held a general election, which he won with a huge majority for his coalition, Churchill defending Dundee again, as a Liberal (coalition). LG now felt strong enough to make full use of Churchill, bringing him into the cabinet and putting him in charge of both the army and the air force. His first job was to get the soldiers and sailors home as quickly as possible, and this he did with a brilliant scheme, entirely his own, whereby priorities were decided simply by length of service, wounds, and age. As he put it, “I let three out of four go and paid the fourth double to finish the job.” This worked, as did a surprisingly high proportion of his ideas. It would be hard to say whether he produced, in his lifetime, more superb ideas or phrases.
His ideas, when they prospered, sometimes had a huge effect on the future. When they foundered, they left a desolating feeling of what might have been. He regarded Lenin’s Bolshevik coup of November 1917, his subsequent murder of the czar and his family, and the creation of a Communist state as one of the great crimes of history. He was determined to reverse it and sent troops and armies to Russia through Archangel. This intervention had begun before Churchill took over the War Office but he increased its scale and inflated it with his rhetoric, and had he been allowed he would have done more, and for longer. It did not seem to be working, and his colleagues insisted he pull out. Once again, he was “conspicuous,” and got all the blame. In a sense it was another Dardanelles. If it had succeeded, more than 20 million Russian lives would have been saved from starvation, murder, and death in the gulag. It is most unlikely that, with Bolshevism crushed, Mussolini could have come to power in Italy, or still less, Hitler in Germany. Imagine the postwar world without either triumphant Communism or aggressive Fascism!
Churchill was never allowed by his critics to forget his failed attempt to extinguish Communism, but he did not pine himself. He had too much to do, especially in the Arab world, where he was much more successful, and his work had immense consequence, and still does. Throughout the nineteenth century it had usually been British policy to treat Turkey, “the sick man of Europe,” gently and to try to keep its crumbling empire together. All that changed when Turkey joined Germany in 1914. Then it became Anglo-French policy to strip Turkey of its Arab provinces and divide the spoils. By the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 France was to get Syria and the Lebanon as protectorates, and Britain the rest. At Munitions, Churchill became involved by speeding guns to the advancing army of General Allenby (whom he regarded as Britain’s best general) in Palestine, and by providing rifles with which to arm Arab rebels organized by Colonel T. E. Lawrence, the visionary soldier and adventurer who became one of his close friends. The success of Allenby and Lawrence in December 1917 and the subsequent collapse of Turkey made a tabula rasa of the whole vast area which Churchill now began to call the Middle East, on which Britain—and he himself—could paint the future.
He was aware from his Indian service of the variety of Islam and the ferocious force of its fundamentalist elements. He was fond of saying, “The British Empire is the world’s greatest Moslem power,” with 80 million in India, which was then undivided, alone. In his two Indian campaigns, and in the Sudan in 1899, he had been fighting fundamentalists. So, essentially, had been Britain in the Persian Gulf since the early nineteenth century. The strongest fundamentalist force in the Arab world was the Wahhabi sect, a confederation of tribes ruled by the Saud family. Britain built up a series of Gulf peoples—in Muscat and Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain—whose moderate views and trading interests made them natural allies—to pen the Saudis in and prevent their piratical dhows from raiding communications with India. Britain also made friends with the Hashemite family, hereditary sharifs of Mecca by direct descent from the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
When Churchill took over, first as head of the army and air force, and from early 1921 the Colonial Office, the idea was to make the Hashemites the pivot of British policy. This was frustrated by the ferocity of the Saudis who, the moment Turkish power collapsed, overran most of the Arabian peninsula, slaughtering their opponents and setting up a kingdom which included the majority of the Gulf coast, already recognized as the world’s largest oil reserves. Churchill would have liked to reverse this decision, but war-weary Britain had no relish for another campaign in the East, and the lesson of the recent failure to reverse history in Russia was too painful, even for him. What he did was to concoct with General Trenchard, head of the air force—which Churchill formed into a separate body—methods of using bombers to control large areas of sparsely populated territory. Churchill’s backing for the new RAF was enthusiastic and provident, and by the time he moved to the Colonial Office it was easily the largest air force in the world. He also encouraged the expansion of the British air construction industry which, between the wars, was exceptionally fertile and dynamic, and was to save the country, under his leadership, in 1940.
He now remodeled the Colonial Office to found a new and powerful Middle East department, which in the spring of 1921 organized a high-level conference in Cairo to refashion the area in light of the Saudi triumph. This was one of the highlights of Churchill’s career, and it gave him a taste for summit conferences he never lost. It was highly productive. Two new kingdoms were created, Iraq and Transjordan, for the two leading Hashemite princes, Emir Faisal, sharif of Mecca, and Emir Abdullah. The role of the RAF was confirmed and a vast new base in Habbaniya in northern Iraq, still in use by the West, was created. This settlement lasted half a century and would have endured longer but for an unfortunate intervention by the world’s largest oil company, Standard Oil. While Britain was using Anglo-Persian and Anglo-Dutch Shell to develop the fields in Persia, Iraq, Kuwait, and elsewhere in the Gulf, Standard formed an alliance with the Saudis to develop fields on their territory, which proved the richest of all. American policy almost inevitably backed Standard, and so the Saudis. Thus the Wahhabi fundamentalists became a great power in the Middle East, immune from attack because of U.S. support and provided with colossal sums of oil royalties with which to undermine the moderates everywhere and the Hashemites in particular.
Churchill was painfully aware of the shadows this cast over the future, but there was little he could do about it at the time. What he could, and did, do was to ensure the continuation of the Jewish experiment in making a National Home in Palestine. To reinforce worldwide Jewish support for the Allies, Britain had issued in 1917 a promise known as the “Balfour Declaration” (he was foreign secretary at the time), under which the government promised “its best endeavours” to help the Jews found their new home there “without prejudice to the existing inhabitants.” The declaration, of course, did not exactly envisage the creation of Israel, and it was internally a contradiction. But it had the enthusiastic support of Churchill. His time as a Manchester MP had put him in close touch with a thriving Jewish community. He was always pro-Jewish and became (and remained) pro-Zionist as soon as it became a practical scheme. At Cairo and later he was able to defeat attempts to renege on the declaration and wind up the Jewish National Home in response to Arab pressure. On the contrary, he gave it every support in his power, and when in 1922 the House of Commons showed signs of turning against the whole idea, he made one of his greatest speeches, which swung MPs round into giving the Jews their chance. Without Churchill it is very likely Israel would never have come into existence. It is not given to many men to found, or help preserve, one new state: his score was three.
Churchill was meanwhile playing a key role in the latest phase of the Irish problem. He had been at the front, happily, when the Easter Rebellion broke out in Dublin in 1916 and was not involved in the subsequent hangings. By the end of the war, the Irish Republican Army, under the leadership of Michael Collins, the handsome killer-charmer known as “the Big Fellah,” had reduced much of Ireland to anarchy. Lloyd George’s first instinct was to pacify it by force, bringing in a special army of ex-soldiers whose uniforms made them known as the Black and Tans, and whose tendency to match the atrocities perpetrated by the rebels with similar reprisals made them hated. The net result was that there was no longer any possibility of coercing Ulster into accepting Home Rule, i.e., inclusion in a Dublin Parliament. The problem was: could the rest of Ireland be persuaded to accept a settlement which left the six counties (of Ulster) under British rule? By 1921 Lloyd George was determined to negotiate a settlement along these lines, and he called in to help him Churchill and his lord chancellor, Birkenhead (as F. E. Smith had become). These three men, plus Collins, eventually reached one. Churchill again proved himself, in negotiation, a moderate by nature, infinitely fertile in imaginative compromises, much helped by Birkenhead’s legal genius, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty must be counted another of his positive achievements, albeit shared with the other three in the quadrumvirate. This treaty led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, under which southern Ireland had the right to govern itself but retained allegiance to the Crown and remained part of the empire, Ulster could opt out, and British forces committed to leaving southern Ireland. It did not prevent a brief and bloody civil war in the south, when Eamon De Valera led the extreme nationalists, and Collins (who had told Churchill, “We would never have done anything without you”) was murdered. But the treaty did include a provision, on which Churchill insisted, to allow the British navy to maintain antisubmarine bases on the west coast (“the Treaty ports”), and it lasted, in most respects, for half a century, until the next Irish explosion came.
Meanwhile Lloyd George, who had enjoyed heady personal power for over three years, engaged in his own Churchill-type adventure on the Turkish coast, where he tried to come to the rescue of Greek communities against the newly invigorated Turkish state under Kemal Atatürk. LG loved small, fierce nations, among whom he numbered Greece, and he wanted to commit British forces to preserve these Greek pockets. Churchill, for once, was in favor of withdrawal from what he saw was an untenable position. LG broke with him over this issue—their relations had already been strained by the Irish crisis and the Honours scandal, for which LG was responsible and when Churchill gave him no sympathy. In what became known as the Chanak crisis, LG was forced to back down, and that effectively ended his coalition government. The Tories had long been restive under a regime in which they provided most of the votes in Parliament and Lloyd George and his cronies had most of the jobs. On October 19, 1922, at a meeting of the Carlton Club, Stanley Baldwin, a newcomer to high politics, made a persuasive speech in which he accused LG of splitting the Liberal Party and threatening to split the Tories, too. The Tories voted to withdraw from the coalition, LG resigned, Bonar Law formed a Tory government, and a general election followed in November. During the campaign Churchill was in great pain (the photos show it) and was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation: “In the twinkling of an eye, I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix.”
Thus, seven years after the Dardanelles disaster, Churchill was again sent to the bottom. Or rather, it was like a game of snakes and ladders, and he had now gone right down a snake and had to face the task of wearily climbing the ladder again, for the third time in his life. It was not so easy now he was nearing fifty. For one reason or another the orthodox Liberals, under the battered but revengeful Asquithians, the Lloyd George Liberals, Labourites, and the Tories all hated and distrusted him. He now had a long record. Seen in retrospect, in the twenty-first century, it seems a record of astonishing variety, most of it admirable. Seen in 1922, it appeared alarming. Nothing daunted Churchill, determined to get back into the Commons. Without that, nothing was possible. With it, and his astonishing powers of persuasion and sheer oratory, everything was possible. Dundee was hopeless: he had come in fourth in 1922. So in December 1923 he stood for Leicester West, as a Liberal free trader, but was well beaten by Labour. He stood again in March 1924, in Westminster (Abbey) at a by-election. This was the famous independent-minded seat where in the late eighteenth century Charles James Fox had triumphed against all the might of the Crown, with the help of the kisses of Whig duchesses. Churchill had no duchesses, for Consuelo, the rich American lady who had married his cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough and who was fond of “Cousin Winston,” had been cast off and had married a Frenchman. But he had a new admirer: Brendan Bracken, a mysterious Canadian, who had come from nowhere (many thought, quite wrongly, that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son) and was busy becoming a millionaire and a power in city journalism, eventually owning the Financial Times. He became Churchill’s closest and most faithful aide, and thanks to his efforts the seat was nearly won. But a Tory got in by forty-three votes, and all was to do again.
But one of Churchill’s strengths, both as a man and a statesman, was that politics never occupied his whole attention and energies. He had an astonishing range of activities to provide him with relief, exercise, thrills, fun, and, not least, money. By the end of October 1923, he had embarked on his enormous record of the First World War, The World Crisis, which appeared in multiple volumes between 1923 and 1927. The serialization had begun in the Times in February. Together with its Aftermath (1929), it is his best large-scale book, much of it written with a kind of incandescent excitement, verging at times on poetry, rage, and even genius. It vindicated his wartime career, so far as possible, and provided a brilliantly lit guide through the dark and horrific war. It made a great deal of money over the years and more than three quarters of a century later is still in print, and read. Its success opened before Churchill an endless vista of publishers’ contracts all over the earth, for anything he cared to produce.
It also justified a new venture: a country house. Hitherto he had borrowed and let several. But he wanted one he could fashion as his own. In 1922 an inheritance of a small estate from an old dowager duchess of Marlborough gave him a chance. He sold the estate and invested the proceeds in buying Chartwell, a house of Elizabethan origin, plus three hundred acres, at Westerham in Kent. It was only twenty-five miles from Parliament and had a magnificent view. He called in Philip Tilden, the fashionable art deco-style architect (the mode of the twenties), who had worked for his friend Philip Sas soon and redone Lloyd George’s country house at Churt, to modernize it. But much of the planning and design was Churchill’s own work. It had never been a beautiful house, and is not one now (apart from the view). But it is distinctive, personal, and fascinating, an extension of the man himself in brick and mortar, beams and decorations. It has big windows, which Churchill liked: “Light is life,” he said. It is equipped for a writer and revolves round the library and study. But it also has an art deco dining room, which saw countless bottles of champagne uncorked, and a dazzling succession of lunches and dinners, conjuring up the age of Lady Colefax and Emerald Cunard, the great hostesses. The real personality of Chartwell, however, lies in the surrounding grounds and buildings, which were entirely of his design and often literally of his creation. As the plaque there states, he built most of the cottage and a large proportion of the kitchen garden wall, having learned to lay bricks in a rough-and-ready manner. He applied for membership in the brick-layers’ trade union but was eventually turned down, after much argument—trade union prejudice and Tonypandy playing a part. He excavated mountains of earth in order to create three connected lakes. He had a mechanical digger for this task, of which he became very fond. He treated it like his own prehistoric monster and referred to it as “he.” He also laid down railway tracks to speed the operations, first eighteen inches wide, later twenty inches—three in all—and used various devices to insulate the lake bottoms and keep the water in. His youngest child, Mary Soames, later recalled, “My childhood was beset by leaking lakes.” He populated the lakes with black swans which sang to one another (unlike the silent white swans), danced minuets, and performed other tricks. There were also cows, pigs, and fowl, sheep and goats, budgerigars and a parrot. He took particular trouble stocking the ponds with freshwater fish, goldfish and exotics, and his greatest pleasure was to feed them and encourage guests to do so. As in India, he collected live butterflies and had a specially designed hut to house them. The little estate thus became a wonderland of creatures and activities, the delight of countless guests, and the source of provender at Hyde Park Gate, a place of constant entertainment. Every Monday, a carful of flowers left Chartwell for the London drawing room, and on Thursday there was another carful of fruit and vegetables for the kitchen.
The Churchill family always lived well. There was a succession of first-class cooks. The cellars were ample. He nearly always drank champagne at mealtimes (as was normal among the richer politicians of his generation). His favorite was Pol Roger. Toward the end of his life he said the 1928 vintage, of which he bought a great quantity, was the best ever bottled. Madame Roger became a friend of his and named a special cru after him. In turn, when he formed a racehorse stable, he named a horse after the brand. He had a special room for his cigars, of which the Romeo y Julieta was his chosen Havana. But it is important to realize that, though he was almost invariably seen and photographed with a cigar in his hand, his consumption was not large—never more than twelve a day. He did not inhale. His cigars were constantly going out and being relit rather than smoked. He never used a lighter, always very large, specially made matches, of which he once gave me a specimen. He loved the procedure of cigar smoking more than the smoking itself—one reason he never had any smoke-produced trouble with his lungs. As Beaverbrook said, “He smoked matches and ate cigars.” As for his consumption of hard liquor, he never gulped but sipped, slowly and at long intervals. Once aboard the yacht of Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping millionaire, he was sitting in the main saloon with his host and Professor Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), his personal science adviser, when he suddenly said, “If all the whisky and brandy I have drunk in my life was added up, it would fill this state-room to overflowing.” Lindemann: “I don’t think so.” Onassis: “Let us measure the dimensions of this room and see.” Churchill told the professor to get out his slide rule and gave him details of his daily intake of spirits over his lifetime. Lindemann got to work and came up with the answer: the saloon would be filled up to the height of five inches. Churchill was plainly very disappointed.
However, if Churchill lived well, he never had much cash in hand or saw his investments rise to a point when he could feel secure for life, or even for the next year. Chartwell cost £5,000 but he had spent £20,000 on it by the end of the 1920s. His finances roller-skated, and on three occasions he feared he would have to sell the house. Eventually, after the Second World War, the Daily Telegraph proprietor bought it and endowed it for the National Trust, to be kept in perpetuity as a memorial to Churchill and his day. It was agreed he could live there for the rest of his life at a nominal rent of £300 a year. It was, and is, handsomely kept up and has become one of the choicest attractions for visitors to Britain from all over the world.
All this was in the future. At the time, Chartwell and all it offered in terms of work and enjoyment blunted the sense of loss his exclusion from high politics inflicted, until the wheel of fortune should turn again. And turn it did! It became clear that his only political future was with the Tories. But how to get back among them? So long as Bonar Law lived, there was no chance. He hated Churchill because of Ulster, distrusted him because of the Dardanelles, and found him an infuriating cabinet colleague. Churchill had a pernicious habit, which did him infinite harm, of overrunning the boundaries between the various government departments and speaking in cabinet—without being invited by the prime minister—on issues which were not his direct concern. Nothing makes a cabinet minister more unpopular, and his interventions were controversial and lengthy. He reduced Curzon to rage and even tears, and caused Bonar Law to lose his temper in cabinet, the only time he did so. He recognized Churchill’s abilities but said, “I would rather see them displayed as my opponent than as my colleague.” However, in 1923 Bonar Law became mortally ill and resigned, saying he was too sick to advise George V about a successor. The job of adviser went to Balfour. He rejected the favored candidate, Curzon, who would certainly never have offered a top job to Churchill, in favor of Stanley Baldwin. In the meantime, Churchill had been worming his way back into Conservatism. He was helped by Birkenhead and by his father’s old friend in Liverpool, Alderman Salvidge. They arranged for Churchill to make a big speech in that city in May 1924. In those days, Churchill often took several whiffs of pure oxygen to “lift” him before a bout of oratory, and he traveled up with two canisters. The speech was a tremendous public success and in it he withdrew his old opposition to duties and in effect dropped his free trade views. This public recantation was humbling to make but it achieved its purpose. In September he was adopted as a “Constitutionalist” candidate in the Epping division of Essex, and at the general election in October he was returned with a massive majority of 9,763. It was now the easiest of moves to ask for the Conservative whip and get it, thus making himself eligible for office. It opened up a new era in his life. For the rest of it, he was now seen as a Tory on the great chessboard of Westminster, and had the ideal seat to keep him there.
Baldwin, who had briefly served as prime minister before a Labour interlude under Ramsay MacDonald, was returned with a handsome majority at the election and was in a generous mood. His most important Tory colleague was Neville Chamberlain, whom he originally intended to make chancellor of the exchequer. But Chamberlain wished to be a reforming minister of health. Baldwin, a fellow Old Harrovian, took the opposite view of Churchill to Bonar Law’s: “I would rather have him making private trouble in the Cabinet than public trouble outside it.” He said, half joking, “I wish to make a Cabinet of which Harrow can be proud,” and had Churchill into Number Ten. Churchill was expecting little, and when Baldwin said, “I want you to be Chancellor,” he thought it meant of the Duchy of Lancaster, the nonjob he had held in the dark days of 1915. He was tempted to refuse, when Baldwin added, “Chancellor of the Exchequer, of course.” Churchill was transformed. He “lit up like a gigantic light-bulb.” In a split second he was transformed into a radiant, joyful prince of politics again, a man at the top of fortune’s wheel. He said: “This fulfills my ambition. I still have my father’s robes as Chancellor. I shall be proud to serve you in this splendid office.”