by Kung Fu Zu 6/3/15
By Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert • Some weeks back, I received an e-mail from Hillsdale College announcing the re-publication, by the Hillsdale Press, of the official eight-volume Churchill biography. I was given the opportunity to download the complete set onto my Kindle reader for free, which I immediately did.
I am now 2/3rds through volume three and believe I have read enough to make an informed opinion on the overall project.
I have read both volumes of Manchester’s Churchill biography, “The Last Lion”, and was sorely disappointed that Manchester was not able to complete his series. Yet, from what I have read so far, the official biography is a superior and more important piece of scholarship. It is true the Manchester work gives a good feel for Churchill the man, particularly the romantic streak which was so much a part of his makeup. But for a serious student of history, it does not come close to what I am now reading.
In his introduction, Randolph Churchill makes clear that he wishes to “let his father be his own biographer.” He does this by using letters, diaries, reports, memoranda and personal recollections of Churchill and those who were around him. In the first volume, which covers the years 1874 to 1900, one first hears the voices of young Winston, those of his parents, close relatives, school friends and teachers. Once Churchill leaves Harrow, one hears the voices of his military comrades, commanders and of those who see Churchill from the outside such as reporters and politicians.
This “biography by documents” is carried forward into volume 2, which was the last one Churchill’s son completed before his death. The years 1901-1914 are covered in this book. By this time, Winston has already gained fame through his own actions. He resigns his commission in the army and is determined to make his way in politics. There is no doubt that his father’s example has had a profound effect on him, and he means to vindicate his father’s memory.
Not one to be circumspect, Churchill jumps into politics with both feet. The young boy who showed a lack of drive has become a man obsessed. He is blessed with tremendous energy and a facile pen. Enormously ambitious, he is a perpetual motion machine churning out words, both written and spoken, at a rapid pace. He starts out a Tory like his father, but changes parties to become a Liberal, he claims, for reasons of political differences. But one cannot help believing that he is also motivated by a tremendous grudge he holds against the Tories for his father’s fall from grace within the party.
Churchill takes on the Liberal mantel with the zealousness of a convert. He uses every opportunity to castigate and belittle the Tories in print, parliament and at public events. For this, his hard work and intelligence, he is rewarded with ever increasing power and responsibility in the Liberal party and then government. He is so successful, that he attains the position of First Lord of the Admiralty in his late thirties. This is one of the most powerful positions in the cabinet. In this office, he performs very well and is able to reorganize the Royal Navy and bring it into readiness for WWI.
After completing the second volume, Randolph Churchill died. The project was then taken over by Sir Martin Gilbert who had worked with Randolph as a researcher on the first two volumes. Sadly, Sir Martin died in February this year.
Volume 3 covers the years 1914-1916. Although he was originally friendly to German interests, Churchill becomes convinced Germany’s long term intents are at odds with those of the British Empire, as well as being a potential danger to Europe. He pushes through expanded naval budgets, which were poison to many of his fellow Liberals. Once the war breaks out, Churchill, who is by far the youngest and most energetic cabinet minister, becomes a major force in the execution of the war. A workhorse, he not only has responsibility for the Admiralty, he also takes it upon himself to stick his fingers into many other areas which were not in his bailiwick. His brashness and interference did not endear him to many of his colleagues.
An example of this is well known. Although First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill was instrumental in development of the tank. This was a project outside his purview, and thought by many in the army and War Office to be a waste of time and money. The Allies can be thankful for his interference. For trivia lovers, just a note on how the term “tank” came into being. The “tank” was originally developed as a vehicle which could cut through barbed wire and cross trenches. To keep the project under wraps, Churchill and his assistants came up with the story that this vehicle was a water carrier. This was shortened to W.C. Seeing this, one officer suggested this be shortened to “tank”. Such is the development of language.
Volume 3 goes into great detail regarding the infamous Dardanelles campaign, which turned out to be so costly in troops and materiel. I will only say that Churchill was unfairly blamed for the failure of that venture and, indirectly, this eventually led to his resignation from the cabinet.
For those of us who mistakenly believe things are different today, volume 3 shows that human nature is constant. One sees the Tory opposition doing its best to undermine the Liberal war cabinet, taking special relish in attacking the turncoat Churchill. Within the Liberal cabinet, backbiting, petty differences, lethargy and incompetence reign. For at least the first two years of the war, it would appear Prime Minister Asquith and others were dilettantish in running the show. This could not be said about Churchill.
Randolph Churchill, particularly, has done a wonderful job of getting out of the way and letting his father and his father’s contemporaries speak for themselves. Once or twice, I was tempted to skip over some of these person notes, but decided to stick with it and read them all. I was rewarded by doing so. Clearly, the biographer carefully chose each document to illustrate the steady growth and development of his subject.
This is, not only, one of the most interesting and important biographies I have ever read, it is also one of the best historical studies I have come across. What I found particularly informative was the extensive use of personal information from the main characters. As a student of history, I have always maintained that much of history turns on the intimate, private characters of and relations between people. The broad narrative approach to history does not tell us everything.
If you are interested in either Churchill or British history from the late Victorian age until the end of WWII, I recommend you read this masterful work. I plan to finish all eight volumes. • (5448 views)