Winston Churchill: a modern myth – Part One

Winston Churchill is one of the most famous figures in British history and the official approach is that it would be unpatriotic not to admire him. The purpose of this article is to draw aside the veils of myth and legend which establishment historians and fawning admirers have spun around him and look at the real Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. The facts reveal a different man altogether.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

A man's reputation is like his shadow: it is often much bigger than the man himself. Such is the case with Winston Churchill. In a nationwide British TV poll in 2002 he was voted "The Greatest Briton of all Time", and even forty years after his death not a day passes without some TV or radio programme, some magazine or newspaper, praising his outstanding qualities as a statesman, orator, great military strategist and saviour of his people. He is one of the most famous figures in British history and the official approach is that it would be unpatriotic not to admire him.

The purpose of this article is to draw aside the veils of myth and legend which establishment historians and fawning admirers have spun around him and look at the real Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.

Ambition

"He would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises." (Lloyd George on Churchill)

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and ancestor of Winston, was a man driven by ambition and self interest, but he is arguably one of Britain's best ever generals. In the War of the Spanish Succession he was appointed supreme commander of the British forces and captain-general of the Allied armies. A charismatic figure possessed of great diplomatic skill, he was also a natural born general whose ability was recognized even in his adolescence when he commanded a British regiment which was then in the employ of the French. Later, his aggressive military flair won him victories at Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenaarde and Malplaquet; it also won him a dukedom and the grandiose Blenheim Palace which has remained the home of the Marlborough's ever since. He was a hard act to follow, and when he died in 1722 he cast a long shadow down through the succeeding generations of his long lineage.

But Winston Churchill was not prepared to live under any man's shadow, not even that of his illustrious ancestor whom he admired and desired to emulate. Born at Blenheim Palace in 1874, the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and American heiress Jennie Jerome, Churchill was personal ambition personified; he had a raging, insatiable desire to gain world fame as a journalist, author, politician and, most of all, master of the battlefield. He longed to prove to the world that he too was a great military genius, another Marlborough, but when it came to the art of war the facts reveal that he was no more than an arrogantly overconfident dilettante who did not know his gluteus maximus from his elbow.

There was no evidence of genius, military or otherwise, in his early years. He did poorly at Harrow and only succeeded in gaining entry into Sandhurst at his third attempt, and even then he needed special tuition to help him pass the exam in 1893. After Sandhurst his mother used the help of her many influential friends and lovers to gain him entry into the 4th Hussars, then to wangle him leave to go where he pleased in order to further his ambitions as a writer and journalist. She also got him writing contracts and sometimes acted as his agent. During his four-year stint as a cavalry subaltern he travelled to Cuba, joined the Malakand Field force on India's North-West Frontier, gained attachment to the Army of the Sudan (much to Kitchener's annoyance) and participated in a cavalry charge at Omdurman. He was, during his early military career, more of a poseur than a soldier, doing more writing than fighting.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough
Winston Churchill's ancestor:
John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough

Leaving the army in 1899 he ventured into politics, standing as Tory candidate for Oldham, but failed to get elected. This setback prompted him to try his hand as a war correspondent in South Africa, a move which proved to be a great boost for his career. Accompanied by his personal valet and 70 bottles of vintage wine, he arrived in Cape Town in November only to be captured a month later by the Boers. He soon escaped from the poorly guarded prison camp in Pretoria and arrived in Durham on December 23rd to a hero's welcome. This was at a time when the reputedly "invincible" British forces had suffered several demoralising defeats at the hands of the Boers, so it was a small morale booster for the British. Much was made of his escape by the press: it hit the headlines throughout the English-speaking world. Now at last he had the fame he craved for. Riding on the crest of this wave of publicity he again contested the Oldham seat in 1900. This time, thanks in good measure to his newfound fame, he was successful.

The Boer War exposed the appalling living conditions, widespread poverty and poor health endured by the impoverished working classes from which the government endeavoured to draw army recruits. This was a cause for concern throughout the British establishment, but not because of any philanthropic concern for the welfare of the proletariat. It had dawned on the ruling classes that a man would produce more efficiently in the factory and fight more effectively on the battlefield if he was reasonably well nourished. It was necessary therefore to make concessions to the workers if the great British Empire was to be defended and expanded. Thus it was solely pragmatism, not benevolence, that motivated Churchill's and Lloyd George's support of welfare reforms in the years after the war. Meanwhile, Churchill's first stint with the Tories was short-lived; in 1904 he crossed the house and sat beside the equally ambitious Lloyd George, forming a long lasting but intermittent political partnership with the future Liberal Prime Minister.

After the General Election of 1906 Churchill was rewarded for deserting the Tories with the job of Undersecretary for the Colonies, a relatively junior post but he was on the way up. Lloyd George was appointed President of the Board of Trade. It is indicative of Churchill's political narrow-minded self-interest that in 1908-9 he tried to cut military spending and also opposed Reginald McKenna, First Lord of the Admiralty, who argued the case for a bigger navy. Churchill heaped scorn on the notion that there was a military threat from Germany. But when he himself became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911 he immediately changed his tune; now that the navy was his responsibility he decided it had to be expanded after all. As Lloyd George put it, "As usual he regards the office he presides over for the time being as the pivot upon which the Universe attends."

By 1906 the co-operation between the two most ambitious men in parliament was well established, with Lloyd George always the dominant partner.

Churchill's reputation as a great orator is also exaggerated. He was undeniably a master of the English language and his grandiloquent, melodramatic style of delivery was effective in the House of Commons and well suited to radio. Aneurin Bevan, who was a far superior orator, said of him: "The mediocrity of his thinking is concealed by the majesty of his language." He once tried to emulate Lloyd George by speaking without notes, but dried up and sank to his seat in despair.

Lloyd George, on the other hand, was unmatched as an orator. He memorized his speeches till he knew them off by heart and, with his fiery, passionate style and expert use of body language, was capable of addressing any audience anywhere, capable of stirring its emotions and even moving it to tears.

It was in 1910-11 that Churchill, now Home Secretary, showed his true attitude towards the ordinary working people of Britain. On November 8th he sent troops into the Rhondda Valley, patrolling the streets with fixed bayonets, to subdue a miners' strike. He also had the 18th Hussars on standby at Pontypridd. He planned to throw a military cordon around the Welsh Valleys with the aim of starving the miners into submission. This was hardly the act of a "great statesman"; it highlighted the crude class interests that Churchill stood for and revealed to what extent he would go to put down working class unrest. Again, when Lloyd George talked railway workers out of going on strike he told him "I'm very sorry to hear it, it would have been better to have gone on and given these men a good thrashing." Thus, by his own words and deeds, this great "social reformer" showed what he really thought of the British working class.

"Oh this delicious war!"

"Winston dashed into the (cabinet) room radiant, his face bright... he was really a happy man. I wondered if this was the state of mind to be in at the opening of such a terrible war as this." (Herbert Asquith).

"Oh this delicious war!" joyously exclaimed Winston Churchill, although historians will argue that he was not a war lover. Let them try to explain the following: "Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be made like this?" Thus did the so-called "great man" condemn himself with his own words in a letter to his wife on the approach of the First World War. He was also recorded as saying: "I think 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."

Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill
Winston Churchill's father:
Lord Randolph Henry Spencer Churchill

The best his admirers can come up with when faced with such well documented evidence ‑ and there is a lot more of it ‑ is: "Well, he didn't love war for its own sake." Pathetic, hair-splitting nonsense! Of course he didn't love war for its own sake ‑ he loved it for "his" own sake! For him the way through the blood-soaked, corpse-strewn battlefields of Europe was his path to personal glory, the chance to be another Marlborough and write his name indelibly on the pages of world history. It meant nothing to him that millions would perish on the muddy, bloody fields of battle before they had even passed their teens; it mattered little that all over the continent of Europe the land would be filled with grieving widows, bereaved parents and orphaned children, all of whose hearts would be forever heavy with grief as a consequence of the relentless slaughter that was about to be unleashed. What did all that matter compared to the greater glorification of the name of Winston Churchill?

This was the warped and repulsive thinking of a man who was driven by all-consuming egotism. His egomania derived from the unshakeable belief that he was born superior to all others and had a divine right to lord it over the "riff-raff" who made up most of society. Early in October Prime Minister Herbert Asquith received an astonishing telegram from Churchill offering to resign his position and take command of the army being sent to Belgium's assistance. How big of him ‑ this ex-lieutenant who only managed to qualify for Sandhurst on his third attempt was going to hand out orders to generals, colonels and other officers who had years of experience behind them! Well, at least in those grim times it gave his fellow cabinet ministers something to laugh at.

Churchill's problem was that the correct British naval strategy was obvious but boring: keep the German navy bottled up in its ports, blockading Germany and preventing it from trading abroad. An important task, but hardly one which would win him the fame and acclaim he hungered for. Very well! If he couldn't have an army to play with he would just have to do something spectacular with the navy; he would make his name one way or the other. And so he did, but not quite as he intended.

The Dardanelles

"It is the nemesis of the man who had fought for this war for years. When war came he saw in it the chance of glory for himself, and he 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 prove to be the outstanding man of this war." (Lloyd George).

Frederick the Great once said that if you are obliged to draw the sword in defence of the state you must see that the enemy is struck by both thunder and lightning at the same time. In other words, combined operations are essential to success. Every armchair general that ever pushed a model soldier along a wargaming table was aware of this fundamental truth. But to our self-deluded master of modern warfare the rules of war did not apply; he was too impatient to demonstrate his military and naval genius. He pushed for the Dardanelles campaign, a campaign which was extremely inadvisable in the first place, but one which should have involved both army and navy (the air force was only in its infancy at the time) if it was to be carried out at all. But Churchill wouldn't wait till sufficient troops were available; he gave the go ahead for the disastrous naval attack which took place on March 18th, 1915. As a result three Royal Navy ships were sunk with the loss of 700 lives, and four others were put out of action.

This abortive operation also alerted the Turkish forces to the danger of further attacks, so on April 25th when a second attempt took place, this time involving 400,000 troops, they were ready and waiting. As a result allied losses amounted to 252,000. So the navy took a hammering, all those lives were lost, and troops who would have been better deployed on the Western front were diverted and slaughtered. All because an egomaniac wanted to build himself a reputation as a genius in the art of war.

His apologists will tell you this was not Churchill's fault. So whose fault was it? Who was so determined to carry out this half-baked plan of attack? Who foolishly decided to start the campaign without troops? Who was in overall command? Churchill! But it wasn't his fault? It beggars belief!

David Lloyd George in 1908
David Lloyd George in 1908

At this time the Liberal government decided to form a coalition with the Tories. A combination of this and the Dardanelles fiasco meant that Churchill, who had angered the Tories when he deserted them in 1904, was to be sacked from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was desperate to hold on to his position: he fought, he begged, he pleaded, but in the end he went. He was further humiliated by being given the post of Chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster, a job described by Lloyd George as being reserved for those "...who had just reached the first stages of unmistakeable decrepitude."

To add to his humiliation Asquith excluded him from his newly formed, streamlined War Committee; this was the final insult. He made his resignation speech to the House of Commons on November 15th, 1915 and on the 18th he crossed to France and reported for military duty. Commander of the British Expeditionary Force Sir John French made him the astonishing promise that he would soon be given command of an infantry brigade: so the ex-lieutenant of the 4th Hussars was to become a Brigadier General thanks to the patronage of another ex-cavalry officer. This would probably have been the most rapid promotion in military history since the days when the aristocracy could buy themselves commissions. However, the War Office refused to allow such an idiotic promotion (Churchill actually wanted to be Commander-in-Chief in East Africa). Instead, much to his disgust, he was "only" given command of an infantry battalion which was sent to Belgium on January 16th. It's just as well this battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, saw relatively little action while he was in command as he spent much of his time going back and forth to London and indulging in political intrigue.

Here is what Gordon Corrigan, in his excellent book on the subject, said of Churchill's short spell in the army: "To appoint an inexperienced outsider to command of a battalion, and then to allow him to bring in a chum who was not even an infantryman as his second-in-command, was nothing short of disgraceful. It ... exposed the soldiers to the whims of a military dilettante."

But life in the trenches was somewhat less comfortable than life on the benches. His heroic gesture in volunteering for military service was just for show. He knew that even with his connections he wasn't going to get to be a Field Marshall, so in May, 1916, he was allowed to leave the army provided he promised not to attempt to rejoin again! What a pity the ordinary soldiers couldn't have the same option: if they could have there would be considerably fewer war graves in France and in Flanders' fields.

Back in London and eager to tread the corridors of power again, he intrigued with Lloyd George and others to force Asquith to resign. This was for the "good of the country" of course, not to mention for the good of Churchill himself, for surely once his erstwhile colleague Lloyd George took over as Prime Minister he would be granted high office himself. Not so. When Lloyd George did succeed Asquith as Prime Minister in December he refused to antagonize other members of his coalition government by including Churchill in the cabinet. Despite all his Machiavellian manoeuvres he was left seething with anger and frustration as once more he was given the cold shoulder.

However, Lloyd George did acknowledge that Churchill had been a staunch ally during the earlier years of their on-off political partnership and in July 1917 he felt in a strong enough position to offer him the post of Minister of Munitions. Churchill accepted despite the fact that he was not to be included in the War Cabinet.

The Bolsheviks

"This movement among the Jews is not new. It is part of a world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, envious malevolence, and impossible equality."(Churchill)

The reader could be forgiven for thinking the above quotation was taken from some anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik, demented Hitlerian rant. It is in fact taken from a newspaper article printed in 1920 in which Churchill attacked the "sinister confederacy of international Jewry" and was aimed particularly at Marx, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg.

With the war over and Lloyd George's coalition government re-elected, Churchill was given the post of Secretary of State for War and Air. "What's the point of being Secretary for War if there isn't any war?" he complained to Bonar Law, who replied, "If we thought there was going to be a war you wouldn't have got the job."

The vindictive, draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles were humiliating to Germany, resulting in gross devaluation of its currency, mass unemployment, misery and festering resentment and unrest. It created the conditions for revolution in fact! Had it not been for the treacherous policy of the Social Democratic leaders, the German workers could have taken power. Instead the defeat of the working class and the conditions imposed by Versailles paved the way for the rise of Adolf Hitler and another terrible war. But meanwhile Churchill's attention was focused elsewhere; his warmongering instincts were being fuelled by his implacable hatred of Russia's Bolsheviks.

Young Winston Churchill
Young Winston Churchill as a Subaltern
in the 4th Hussars

There were British troops in Russia before Churchill became Secretary for War. They were there mainly to protect the military supplies sent by Britain to aid Russia in its war against Germany, and they also played an auxiliary role in helping the White Russians. This was because they hoped that the counter-revolutionaries would smash the Russian Revolution, reconstitute the Russian army then resume the war with Germany, thus tying down a lot of Germany's forces on the Eastern front. Considering the fact that the Russian people had already suffered enough, Russia's dead, wounded and maimed exceeding the combined losses of all the Western Allies, it should have been obvious that the Russian masses ere seeking an end to the war with Germany. To expect the Russian workers and peasants to rally round the "White Russians" and submit themselves to the same bloody slaughter they had just experienced under the Tsarist regime was incredibly shortsighted.

When the war ended, the war weary people of Britain were sick and tired of fighting and wanted nothing more than to bring the soldiers home; there was no good reason to keep the interventionist forces in Russia. But Churchill had not lost his enthusiasm for war. He had already attempted, in April 1918, to trick the Bolsheviks into continuing the war with Germany by offering them an agreement that would "safeguard the fruits of the revolution" in exchange for their continued participation. What he wanted was to drown the Russian Revolution in blood, by pushing the Soviet government into renewed warfare with Germany. But Lenin and Trotsky were not so naïve; they had already signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany.

Thereafter he endeavoured with all his manic energy to bring about the destruction of the Bolshevik government. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George to sanction full-scale military operations against the Bolsheviks. Although Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George would also have liked to see the Revolution snuffed out, the most they could offer was an agreement to provide auxiliary help to the Whites, such as supplying arms and military equipment, food, money, and officers and men for training purposes. But Churchill wasn't satisfied; he wanted more. There were already military contingents from many other countries including Italy, Japan, USA and France in Russia trying to bring down Bolshevism. He urged them to mount full-scale military operations alongside the "white" armies to destroy the revolutionaries. Lloyd George said of him: "...a dangerous man who had Bolshevism on the brain. He saw himself riding into Moscow on a white charger in a triumphal procession after the defeat of the Bolsheviks, and being proclaimed as the saviour of Russia."

It is not surprising that most of the British high-ranking officers were against Bolshevism and therefore happy to co-operate with Churchill as he contrived to play a greater part in crushing the Russian Revolution. When he appealed for volunteers to go to Northern Russia to "help in the British army's withdrawal from Archangel" he got some 5,000 volunteers who naively believed they were going there to rescue their countrymen from a desperate situation, only to find that they were there to fight for the White Russians in an undeclared war. He lied constantly to the British public, slandering the Bolsheviks with every possible insult he could think of, while ignoring the rape, plunder, torture and murder of innocent civilians, along with the systematic wholesale slaughter of defenceless Jewish communities carried out continuously by his "heroic" White Russians. Even the most high-ranking British officers became sickened by the Whites, not to speak of the rebellious mood that developed among the rank and file soldiers. There were in fact several mutinous incidents in the ranks of the British forces who no longer wished to participate in this war which they could clearly see as a class war against the toiling masses of Russia.

With the help of British, French and American troops and expert Canadian gunners, with British planes dropping mustard gas on the Red Army while it was being pounded by British warships, the overjoyed Churchill was confident that the offensive by General Yudenitch in October 1919 was going to be a success. When he heard that the White Army was only 25 miles from Petrograd he sent Yudenitch a personal telegram congratulating him and promising the speedy delivery of more military equipment and arms. But there was another man involved in this struggle who was even more driven and determined than Churchill, and just as Churchill was determined that Bolshevism must die, he was determined that it must live. He was Russia's Commissar for Military Affairs, and his name was Leon Trotsky.

The Bolsheviks blew up a railway bridge, bringing to a halt the advance of British tanks with Yudenitch's forces only ten miles from Petrograd when Trotsky arrived and took command, personally leading fleeing soldiers back to the front. Clear and decisive with his orders, restoring discipline and sparing neither himself nor anyone else, he was unwavering in his determination to turn the situation around. And turn it he did ‑ with a vengeance! The Red Army counter-attack drove the Whites back in shambolic retreat through Gatchina, through Gdov, through Yamburg until its battered remnants fled to safety across the Estonian border.

In Trotsky Churchill had found his nemesis: wherever the revolution was most threatened you would find Trotsky. With the Red Army being attacked on many fronts he had to be everywhere, rushing from front to front in his train along with his staff and bodyguard. He would consult with everyone including the ordinary soldiers, factory workers and trade unions, galvanising all who could help and ensuring his soldiers they would get the best supplies, food rations and other support that was available. It is to Trotsky that the credit must go for the Red Army's success in finally defeating the Whites and the armies of intervention, a feat that earned him the life-long hatred of Winston Churchill.

In his rather stupid book Great Contemporaries in 1937 Churchill poured out his puerile invective, throwing every conceivable insult at Trotsky, then concluding with the question "Who was Trotsky? He was a Jew. He was still a Jew, nothing could get over that." In his otherwise excellent book Churchill's Crusade the author Clifford Kinvig states that Churchill was not anti-Semitic. Perhaps he should think again.

General Briggs later assessed the outcome of the intervention as follows: "...our ill-staged interference in the Russian civil war cost us some thousands of British soldiers' lives and £100,000,000 in money, while we earned the bitter enmity of the Russian people for a decade... On the credit side I can think of nothing."

The unknown thousands of Bolshevik and White Army soldiers who died, along with the civilians who were ruthlessly butchered as a result of this vile intervention must also be considered. It was clearly in the interests of British imperialism to crush the Russian Revolution but there was also Churchill's implacable hatred of Bolshevism and his craving to make a name for himself.

In 1922 he lost his seat in Dundee, probably having become unpopular because of his attitude to Russia. Then in 1924, with the Liberal Party sinking, he jumped ship once more and rejoined the Conservatives: self interest and high office always took precedence over political principles. Baldwin made him Chancellor, a position he held until the 1929 General Election.

Not even his admirers claim that he was any good as a chancellor. His long tenure in that position was marked mainly by his energetic battling against the general strike (which his economic policies helped to trigger off) in 1926. When the print workers refused to work he took over the printing presses of the Morning Post, commandeered stocks of paper from The Times and, with the help of naval personnel and students from London University, produced the anti-strike paper the British Gazette. For good measure he brought in the Irish Guards to protect those involved in the Gazette's production. Then, in 1931, his imperialist instincts enraged by widespread support for government policy towards Indian nationalists, he resigned from the shadow cabinet. In the years that followed he spent much of his time writing (when he was not making childish, insulting remarks about Ghandi). He had once tried his hand at fiction, but his first and only attempt at a novel was so bad that even he was embarrassed by it. His historical works tended to find fault with others while obscuring his own mistakes and shortcomings. One notable politician said of The Wilderness Years: "Winston's brilliant autobiography disguised as a history of the universe."

[Read Part Two]