This article has been written in tandem with another, entitled: ‘History in the Making: How the Past is Made’. Please read that one after you have read this one.
Winston Churchill is often cited as one of the ‘great persons’ of history. In 2002, a BBC poll had him voted the ‘Greatest Briton Ever’. He is remembered colloquially as the man who turned Britain’s darkest hour into its finest; a people’s hero, leading the allied forces to victory with bold and eloquent speeches accompanied by his sharp strategic mind. He is, undoubtedly, placed at the very heart of British patriotism.
But as many have observed, this is a rather maudlin view of the man. In the general populous there is little inclination towards seeking objectivity when looking at this character. Rather unsurprisingly, the real Winston Churchill would prove quite averse to the character solidified into public consciousness. What is being focussed on in this article will be almost exclusively Churchill’s flaws, hopefully in order to produce some balance toward the history of the man.
Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on the 30th of November 1874 in Blenheim palace, Oxfordshire. As you will have already surmised by the nature of his birthplace, Winston was born into a life of excess privilege. This wealth came mostly from the ‘Spencer’ section of Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, the Spencer family being one of Britain’s most affluent families of the time. Even today, though it has fallen in stature somewhat since then, it is still worth around £111 million pounds.
Churchill’s parents; Lady Jeanette Randolph Churchill and Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill were introduced to each other on the Isle of Wight by King Edward the seventh and within three days were engaged to be married. He was a tory politician and the son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and she was an American millionaire.
Now, being wealthy is not an inherently negative trait, however it does tend to result in a world view somewhat distorted by a lack of, shall we say, difficulty. This can be especially true when you are born to wealth. I would not mention this were not clearly apparent that Winston suffered some of these biases, of which traits will be revealed herein.
You might expect, that with so many resources behind him the young Winston would excel in his academic studies. Churchill, however, failed miserably at school. Or rather, schools, as he had to be sent to 3 separate private institutions during his youth: St. Georges Ascot, Stoke Brunswick, and Harrow. He carried a very poor academic record at all of them. When Winston entered Harrow, he was the lowest achieving pupil, in the lowest class, in the entire school. He never even made it into the upper school.
It was a miraculous stroke of luck he even got in at all considering his entrance exam. It is rather long, but here is how he described it:
“I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question ” I.” After much reflection I put a bracket round it thus “(I).” But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle: and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Headmaster’s table. It was from these slender indications of scholarship that Mr. Welldon drew the conclusion that I was worthy to pass into Harrow. It is very much to his credit. It showed that he was a man capable of looking beneath the surface of things.”
I wonder whether Mr. Welldon really was as discerning as Churchill claims him to have been. He seems to me to show a complete lack of discernment; admitting a pupil in on no merit whatsoever. I wonder if “capable of looking beneath the surface of things” is perhaps code for Welldon’s ability to understand that Churchill came from such a very respectable and wealthy family that it simply would not do to have someone of that stature not attend Harrow.
Once into Harrow Winston wasted no time in joining the Harrow rifle corps and, halfway through his studies he left school entirely in 1893 so he could focus on joining the Royal Military College, Sandhurst which he eventually succeeded in after three tries on their entrance exam. He applied to the cavalry rather than the infantry because the required grade was lower and there was no mathematics involved. It is clear to see by this point that Churchill’s interests lay in war, not peace.
He left Sandhurst in 1894 as a cavalry officer with a payroll of, in today’s equivalent terms, around £36,000 pounds’ annual income. However, he insisted that he needed at least an extra £60,000 a year equivalent income if he was to live a lifestyle ‘appropriate to his position’, which, in the end, his mother mostly paid for.
In October 1896 Churchill was transferred to British colonial India. Churchill was a fervent imperialist and never supported any of the freedom movements against the British empire, especially in India. He was quite happy to take part in what he described as: “A lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples” in defence of king and country. In 1937, when the secretary of state for India put to Churchill that Britain: “might have some compunction is she felt she was downing the Arabs year after year when they wanted to remain in their own country” Churchill replied thusly:
“I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done by these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
He described Mahatma Gandhi as “a seditious middle temple lawyer” and “nauseating to see”. Someone who: “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back”.
Clearly, Churchill was racist and took pleasure involving himself with colonial atrocities in India. Afterwards he moved to what today we would call Pakistan and then Sudan, getting in his fair share of the murdering of indigenous peoples along the way. He bragged that he had personally killed three “savages”.
In 1899, he took time off from the army for his first foray into politics with the conservative party, following in his father’s footsteps. He stood twice and lost both of the former conservative seats in Oldham, then deciding to leave politics and heading for South Africa to get involved with the second Boer war. It was of course in south Africa that the British devised the concept of the concentration camp, something more synonymous with Nazi Germany. 32,000 men, women, and children died in these camps and I will let you discover for yourself the horrific conditions within. Needless to say, Churchill described the camps as producing “the minimum of suffering”.
So, after a job well done, Winston retired from active service in 1900 and went back into politics. But he did not temper his outspoken opinions simply because he was going to be doing work which had national security at stake, if anything they became more pronounced. In 1902, he talked of how as “civilised nations become more powerful they will get more ruthless” and that eventually “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph” over the “barbaric nations”. These are deeply unsettling words today, but they bring you closer to understanding how Hitler was able to get as far as he did unchallenged, when other politicians of the time talked in this manner.
Now, you might assume that Winston’s opinions are just indicative of the times, that ‘everybody thought that way back then’. This is unfortunately not true, he was seen at the time as the most brutish of the imperialists and particularly right wing. Stanley Baldwin was warned not to appoint him to the cabinet because of his archaic views. His doctor lamented that “Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin” when speaking of other races.
So, Winston went into the Conservative party in 1900, then decided he preferred the liberal party in 1904. After the liberals came to power in 1905 Churchill was made ‘Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies’. Which effectively meant he was now in charge of those “barbaric peoples” which he displayed such open hate for.
In 1910, now as home secretary, Winston sent armed soldiers to quell a worker’s protest over wages in the Welsh town of TonyPandy. He also became the very first man to instigate police force against the suffragettes, a day which has become known to gender historians as ‘Black Friday’. In 1911, his police killed 2 civilians in Liverpool who were also on worker’s strike. Another highlight was his attempt in 1911 to pass into legislature the sterilisation of people with “illnesses or deficiencies of the mind”, trying to pass into law his ongoing struggle against the “feeble minded and insane”, who he saw as deteriorating the ‘British stock’.
Much controversy has been had over Churchill’s direct involvement with the police, which are supposed to be independent of the Government to avoid corruption. In 1911 Churchill ordered rescue workers to deliberately not douse a building that was ablaze, the three criminals the police were after died inside. Churchill of course took the opportunity to have his photographer take pictures of him in front of the inferno. Lord Robert Cecil summed up the prevailing opinion of the times nicely with this: “I do believe that Winston takes no interest in political affairs unless they involve the chance of bloodshed”.
When the first world war started, Churchill was ‘First Lord of the Admiralty’ and was in command of the infamous seaborne invasion of Gallipoli. You may have heard of this event before as it was one of the most disastrous events of the war for the allies. Over 100,000 volunteers were slaughtered for a pointless cause on the beaches of Gallipoli and it caused a major scandal which eventually forced Churchill to resign and sent him into the political backwaters.
So, Winston went back to the army in 1915 where he did what most rich people in the army did at the time and took up a command job as a Lieutenant Colonel, nicely away from the front line. The first world war is of course, infamous for the terrible leadership that lead to such an excess in loss of life, and brought about the popular expression of ‘lions led by donkeys’. Of course, the claims that he went in to no man’s land 36 times are true, but only in the area of Ploegsteert Wood, which was an area where units would be sent to retrain and recuperate as there was very little fighting that took place there after 1914.
By 1919 Churchill was back in government as secretary of state for war and air when the Irish made their bid for home rule. In response, he deployed the ever-controversial ‘Black and Tans’, known for their use of excessive violence. Despite calls to stand them down Churchill repeatedly refused to do so and even advocated use of the air force to quell the Irish rebellion.
In 1924, he went back to the conservatives as the chancellor of the exchequer and oversaw Britain’s return to the ‘gold standard’. This resulted in deflation, unemployment and led eventually to the general strike of 1926, the only general strike in British history. It was soon repealed.
It is at this point that we get back to India, which we have discussed somewhat already. Churchill was the founder of the ‘India Defence League’ (IDL) and expressed unrivalled hate towards the Indian people and particularly Mahatma Gandhi. He raged that: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” This hatred killed, the Bengal Famine broke out in 1943 and Churchill not only refused to direct food supplies to the region he forced them to continue exporting rice for the war effort. He even had 170,000 tons of spare wheat lying around that he could have used for the purpose. Australian wheat was sent past the shores of India to Europe where it was left in storage for use after the war. Furthermore, Churchill even blamed the locals for the famine, saying the problem was that they “breed like rabbits”. When the secretary of state for India requested food to combat the famine Churchill replied: “if food is scarce, why isn’t Gandhi dead yet?” At least 3 million people died during the Bengal famine.
In Kenya, Churchill approved the clearing out of the ‘blackamoors’, claiming that the land should be only for white people. 150,000 were forced at gunpoint into detention camps where horrific torture took place. Including electrocution, whipping, shooting, burning and mutilation. Those who survived never truly recovered. One of the survivors was Hussein Onyango Obama, whose grandson went on to become the president of the United States of America.
When the second world war began, Winston was appointed the first lord of the admiralty again and set about organizing the Norwegian campaign in which Britain was defeated resoundingly by German forces. A move which, bizarrely, ended up forcing Neville Chamberlain to resign as prime minister despite him not being responsible for the debacle and put Winston into the job of Prime Minister in his place.
So, Churchill became Prime Minister. There is quite a lot of the war that we could go through but in an effort to retain brevity we will cover just some of the noteworthy actions of the war.
Throughout the war, Churchill was constantly aware of maintaining the empire which he held so dearly. It can easily be argued that Churchill was fighting on imperialist grounds rather than for any moral reasoning. He was dogged in his want to hold and control the Empire, especially key areas such as the Suez Canal. This is partly why he constantly pushed for the idea of an invasion into Italy through North Africa, claiming it was the ‘soft underbelly’ of the axis. This was on the face of it a not too terrible idea as it was thought that Hitler would not fight over Italy, but when it became clear that he would, and make the allies pay for every inch of ground gained, the Mediterranean theatre quickly became a grinding bloodbath. The soft underbelly, was, in fact, a ‘tough old gut’. Still though, Churchill obsessed over Italy, even though it was clear that it was not working as intended. And he brought the Americans with him, delaying the D-day landings by as much as 3 years, and thus, extending the war.
He is also held at least partly responsible for the horrific blanket bombing campaigns on German cities, specifically Dresden, these campaigns aimed simply to cripple the people’s morale by destroying and killing as much as possible. There were no targeted strikes and more civilians killed than by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Immediately after the war Churchill instigated a policy to round up thousands of war orphans and children from deprived families and forcibly ship them to Australia, even, in some cases, if they had relatives willing to look after them. He was voted out of power at the first election, having never actually been voted in in the first place.
Author / Publisher: Louis Lorenzo
First Published: 23rd of April 2017
Last Modified: 19th of September 2017 (Grammar Corrections)