Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill is best remembered as Britain’s prime minister during World War II. He was also one of the century’s outstanding historians, and received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In several multivolume works, including monumental histories of the two world wars, he revealed his vast knowledge of British history and intimate understanding of European political and military affairs.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Born into Privilege Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire—the home of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough—on November 30, 1874. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a prominent parliamentarian, while his mother, born Jennie Jerome, was the daughter of an American millionaire.

Soldier and War Correspondent As a boy, Churchill was an undistinguished student with a speech impediment. Lord Randolph decided his son was destined for a military career. On his third attempt, Churchill passed the admission exam and entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he graduated with honors in 1894. He was then appointed to the Fourth (Queen’s Own) Hussars as a sub-lieutenant.

Assigned to observe Spanish forces trying to contain a revolt in Cuba in 1895, he supplemented his military income by writing dispatches from the battle. Cuba was then a Spanish territory but had been fighting for independence for several decades. Cubans also resented the harsh policies Spain had put in place. The ongoing hostilities eventually resulted in the Spanish-American War of 1898, which won Cuba its freedom from Spain.

Churchill then participated in, and reported on, military campaigns in India and the Sudan. In India, then still a colony of Great Britain, Churchill was part of Sir Bindon Blood’s punitive expedition to deal with the siege of a British garrison in the Malakand region by the local Pash-tun tribal army. The Pashtun were upset by the division of their lands. In the Sudan, Churchill took part in the Sudan campaign of 1898, which saw numerous British, Egyptian, and Sudanese forces march together into the Sudan to again occupy and control the country for strategic purposes. His first two books—The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898) and The River War (1899)—consist of revised reports from these expeditions.

Captivity Results in Popular Book and Political Career In a similar capacity, Churchill went to South Africa after the outbreak of the Boer War. The war was a conflict between the British Empire and the independent Boer countries of the Orange Free State and the South Africa Republic in which the British won control of the Boer territories. He was captured during the conflict in

November 1899. His dramatic escape from a Pretoria prison gained him a great deal of attention in England, as did his account of the event in his book London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900). His fame helped him secure election to Parliament in 1900, as a member of the Conservative Party. Since members of Parliament were not paid, Churchill’s writing income facilitated his entrance into politics, beginning a career in public service that would last more than six decades.

His first major literary undertaking began in 1902, when the family trustees gave him his father’s papers. The result was a two-volume biography, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906). An act of homage to a somewhat estranged parent, the biography is also a penetrating political study. Lord Randolph had tried, and failed, to move the Tories (Conservatives) toward social reform. Churchill decided to adopt his father’s principles and in 1904 defected to the Liberal Party.

Successful Politician to Failed Military Leader From 1905 to 1915, Churchill held government positions, rising from undersecretary for the colonies to president of the board of trade, a cabinet office, then to home secretary. In the reform government of Lord Asquith between 1908 and 1912, Churchill sponsored progressive legislation such as old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and national health insurance. His book Liberalism and the Social Problem (1909) provides the intellectual foundation for these domestic policies.

Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, and brilliantly retooled the British armed forces for the looming war. However, his career suffered a blow once World War I broke out after the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914. Because of entangling alliances, nearly the whole of Europe became involved in the conflict, which saw massive devastation and heavy causalities where the war was fought. During the war, Churchill advocated for Britain and its allies to attack Turkey through the Dardanelles strait in an attempt to gain control of the strait and western Turkey. This strategy failed and produced many casualties in the battle, which took place at Gallipoli. As a result, Churchill was demoted and lost favor with his party. Resigning from the government in 1916, he spent several months commanding troops in the trenches of the Western Front in France. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, soon recalled him to become minister of munitions.

Churchill in The World Crisis After the war, Churchill returned to high office as secretary of state for war and secretary of state for air. He lost his seat in the House of Commons in 1922, but in 1924, he rejoined the Conservatives and was immediately named chancellor of the exchequer. Meanwhile, he had begun work on his first large-scale historical study, The World Crisis: 1911–1918, which examined World War I in six volumes (1923– 1931). In the books, Churchill analyzes bloody battles in the military sphere and tense struggles in the political, writing in the vivid, if somewhat overblown, style of a master storyteller. As in his subsequent works, he is an active participant in the events he records, lending an element of personal narrative to his sweeping world history. Through his writing, he attempted to vindicate himself for his disgrace over the Dardanelles campaign.

From the Wilderness to the Summit The Conservative government went down to defeat in 1929. Churchill again became estranged from his party, and in the 1930s his political career reached a low point that he later called his ‘‘wilderness years.’’ Out of office, he concentrated on writing, devoting five years of study to Marlborough (1933–1938), a four-volume biography of his distinguished forebear, an eighteenth-century military commander. He also drafted A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956–1958), for which he had received a large advance but which would not see publication until years later. Its four volumes chronicle the rise of the British Empire and the English-speaking world from the time of Julius Caesar to the First World War.

In The Gathering Storm, the first of his six volumes on the Second World War, Churchill describes himself as something of a lone voice calling for Britain to counter the growing threat of Nazi Germany. (After World War I, Germany had suffered an economic and identity crisis caused in part by the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In the early 1930s, Adolf Hitler gained power in part because he promoted the idea of a new, stronger Germany that sought to control much of Europe.) The truth is more ambiguous—Churchill praised some of Nazi leader Hitler’s qualities in print and in the House of Commons—but then his predictions were vindicated. When war broke out in September 1939 after Germany invaded Poland and Great Britain and other countries declared war on Germany, Churchill returned to the war cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. The following May, Neville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister, and King George VI asked Churchill to lead a new administration.

In the early 1940s, it became clear that Churchill was the right leader for this dark moment in his nation’s history as Nazi Germany gained control over more of Europe and began pounding Great Britain with bombs by air with the intent of taking it over as well. With steely resolve, while the nation was under attack, he declared that Britain’s only objective was complete victory. His speeches in Parliament and on the radio offered the inspiration the country needed in the anxious months of the Blitz. He secured the aid—first economic, then military—of the United States and embraced the Soviet Union as a powerful European ally.

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