Saturday, August 23, 2008

Churchill by Roy Jenkins

This is a thousand-page biography of Winston Churchill written by a member of Parliament who knew Churchill late in his career. It was both interesting and tedious. One of those books that I read in between other books a hundred pages or so at a time. The portrait it paints of Churchill is probably the most interesting part—and the amount of governmental detail the most tedious. Let me clip the following extended passage from that portrait:

Churchill in retrospect became uncertain about the role which he himself had played. At the time he was swept along by the drama and the opportunity for conducting a little war of his own. His status was wholly ambiguous, well epitomized by the fact that he moved around Antwerp in a cloak and yachting cap, not only becoming a plenipotentiary for dealing with the Belgian King and the government but also assuming the temporary role of local commander-in-chief. He established his headquarters in the principal hotel, employed Admiral Oliver, the Chief of Naval Intelligence, as his private secretary, lay in bed in the mornings dictating telegrams for the Admiral to dispatch in all directions, and spent the afternoon touring, often under heavy German shellfire, the defensive posts on the outskirts of the city, and the evenings and some part of the nights in conferences. It was a mini-dress rehearsal for the pattern of his life in 1940-1. And it also had some features of the comforts to which he was to cling, in Downing Street, at Chequers or at Ditchley, in those later dark days. “Twenty minutes in a motor car,” he was later to write of a return from a visit to the newly arrived Royal Marines in action around the village of Lierre, “and we were back in the warmth and light of one of the best hotels in Europe, with its perfectly appointed tables and attentive servants all proceeding as usual.” The picture of the indestructible quality of Flemish napery (with food to match) is a vivid and convincing one.

So much was Churchill enjoying himself that, after thirty-six hours, he telegraphed to Asquith suggesting that he be allowed to resign as First Lord and take over, with the necessary military rank, as authorized commander at Antwerp. Kitchener, who saw the telegram on its way through the War Office, annotated it to the effect that he was prepared in these circumstances to make Churchill a lieutenant-general. The civilian members of the Cabinet reacted less favourably. Asquith commented: “W. is an ex-Lieutenant of Hussars, and would if his proposal had been accepted, have been in command of 2 distinguished Major Generals, not to mention Brigadiers, Colonels &c: while the Navy was only contributing its little brigades…I regret to say,” he reported, “that it was received [in the Cabinet] by a Homeric laugh.” But the “regret” was not genuine, for Asquith at this stage certainly did not want to lose Churchill from the Admiralty or the Cabinet, and although he laughed at his impetuosity he also admired qualities which were so different from his own mature phlegmatism. General Rawlinson, a rapidly rising and highly professional soldier, was appointed in Churchill’s stead, and after Rawlinson’s arrival in Antwerp on 7 October Churchill wisely withdrew to London. This was as well, from a domestic in addition to a political point of view, for Clementine gave birth to Sarah on that day.

This occurs during World War I when Churchill is serving in Britain’s cabinet as the First Lord of the Admiralty and is, in my opinion, typical of Churchill’s approach to life, especially in his younger years. He always viewed himself as a great man waiting for great circumstances, and he tried continuously to turn the sometimes ordinary circumstances of his life into something greater on which his reputation could be built.

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