The first weeks of May, 1945, saw the end in Europe of the most brutal and deadly war ever fought. Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender had given the free world, in Winston Churchill's words, "the signal for the greatest outburst of joy in the history of mankind . . . [w]eary and worn, impoverished but undaunted and now triumphant, we had a moment that was sublime."
From the beginning Britain had staked its existence on the outcome of the war, and thus more than any other country had cause to feel "inexpressible relief" at its successful conclusion. Churchill, more than any other man, had led the Allied powers in their mortal fight against Nazism, and thus, more than any other man, deserves credit for the victory.
To the mammoth task of defeating Nazi Germany, Churchill brought to bear many of his special qualities: courage, perseverance, independence, physical and emotional resilience, superb writing and speaking skills, and a keen sense of history. Below we examine each and speculate on their origins and, where possible, on their impact on Churchill's thinking and actions before, during and after the Second World War.
Churchill's life from age 22 to 26 was spent first as a member of the Cavalry and later as an officer in the Infantry. He fought in several wars throughout the period, most notably in India, the Sudan and South Africa, emerging unscathed despite his constant participation in heavy fighting on the front line. After the battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898, he wrote this account to his mother:I was under fire all day and rode through the charge. You know my luck in these things. I was about the only officer whose clothes, saddlery or horse were uninjured. I fired 10 shots with my pistol -- all necessary -- and just got to the end of it as we cleared the crush. I never felt the slightest nervousness and felt as cool as I do now. . . I am sorry to say I shot five men for certain and two doubtful. . . I destroyed those who molested me and so [meted] out without any disturbance of body or mind.
Here Churchill referred to his "luck in these things" to explain his continued survival, but later he came to believe that it was more than just good luck. As a correspondent for the Morning Post, Churchill covered the Boer War in South Africa. In 1899, on his way to the front line in Cape Town, he wrote to his mother: "I shall believe I am to be preserved for future things."
After his capture by and subsequent escape from the Boers, Churchill wrote to his mother and again alluded to a grand plan for himself in the world: "These are anxious days, but when one is quite sure that one is fulfilling one's proper place in the scheme of world affairs, one may await events with entire composure."
On 25 February 1899, Churchill again survived heavy fighting and set forth his thoughts in a letter to his friend Pamela Plowden:I was very nearly killed two hours ago by a shrapnel. But though I was in the full burst of it God preserved me. . . My nerves were never better and I think I care less for bullets every day.
Whether by sheer luck or divine providence, Churchill emerged from many battles unharmed. These experiences gave Churchill a sense of invincibility that emboldened him and gave him great courage in his later years.
The origins of Churchill's characteristic perseverance are difficult to trace. While growing up, Churchill had been admonished almost continually by his parents and teachers for his lack of effort. Throughout his youth, letters from his teachers to his parents reporting on his progress in school were uniform in their condemnation of his "slothfulness."
His father was particularly harsh on him for his "slovenly happy-go-lucky harum scarum [sic] style of work," as this excerpt from an 1893 letter to Winston illustrates:I am certain that if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle useless unprofitable life you have had during your schooldays & later months, you will become a mere social wastrel, one of the hundreds of public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby unhappy & futile existence.
Scarcely one year later, Churchill's father died. This event was a watershed in Churchill's life and marked the beginning of his Herculean efforts in politics, war, oratory and writing. From this sequence of events it can be inferred that his father's death may have spurred Churchill to persevere greatly in all his efforts in order to vindicate himself in this father's eyes. The echo of his dead father's exhortations prodded Churchill throughout his life to prove himself a worthy and deserving son.
Ironically, in 1941 Churchill returned to Harrow, the school that nearly flunked him as a youth, and exhorted the students in a passionate address:Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.
His young audience was no doubt unaware that Churchill's own perseverance was conspicuously lacking when he was their age.
If perseverance is the most difficult of Churchill's traits to explain, then independence is the simplest. Churchill was sent to boarding schools throughout his youth, where he learned to get along without his parents, who rarely visited him. This fact alone is enough to explain his independence.
Churchill's father's behavior in politics also must have influenced him. When Winston was 13 years old, his father resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer after refusing to preside over "fiscal irresponsibility." This unprecedented move effectively ended his father's political career. His father's willingness to commit political suicide rather than compromise his principles must have deeply impressed young Winston.
The most searing event in Churchill's life, his father's death, forced a certain amount of independence on him. At the age of 20, he suddenly became the man of the house. He commented on this in 1898:Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong; and a boy deprived of a father's care often develops, if he escapes the perils of youth, an independence and vigor of thought which may restore in after life the heavy loss of early days.
In his boarding school experiences, his father's bold example, and his father's death can be seen the origins of Churchill's independence. This independence showed itself often in the decade before the war, when Churchill was nearly alone in his constant vocal attacks against Allied disarmament and German rearmament. During the war, it could be seen clearly in his resolve to fight Germany single-handedly, as this passage from his Memoirs of the Second World War shows:Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda.
Physical and Emotional Resilience:
Churchill's physical and emotional resilience were invaluable to him throughout his life, and especially during his conduct of WWII. Churchill commented in his Memoirs that he had the uncanny ability to fall into a deep sleep at a moment's notice. He used this ability throughout the war to rejuvenate himself in the afternoons by taking hour-long naps.
Churchill also used his hobby of painting to relax and reinvigorate himself. He painted outdoor scenes often (although he painted only once during the war, in Marrakech at the start of the North African campaign) to relax and to free his mind from the pressing events of his busy life. This relaxation allowed him to step back from events to consider them in their historical context.
Perhaps more important, Churchill had incredible emotional resilience, which proved useful during the many Allied setbacks encountered during the war. This resilience probably had its origins in Churchill's early political life, where he learned to suffer many defeats without becoming embittered.
Indeed, Churchill came to rely on this resilience just after the war, when his party lost power and he was forced to step down as Prime Minister. Still, he was not bitter, and returned to 10 Downing Street seven years later for another three-year stint as Prime Minister.
Writing and Speaking Skills:
More than any other trait, Churchill's superb writing and speaking skills allowed him to lead Britain and its Commonwealth to victory. Churchill was quite capable of demagoguery, as this oft-quoted passage from his speech on the Dunkirk debacle illustrates:We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Of course, Churchill was capable of more than just bombast. His earnest entreaties inspired millions of Britons to search their souls, to accept their responsibilities, to do their duty in the struggle against tyranny.
In My Early Life, Churchill himself attributes his literary abilities to his poor performance in school, which caused him to have a tutor:As I remained in the lowest form [at Harrow] three times as long as anyone, I had three times as much [tutoring in English]. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the structure of the ordinary British sentence -- which is a noble thing.
No doubt Churchill's early start in politics (he was elected a Member of parliament at 25), and his early start in book writing (by 25 he had already published two best selling novels of his war experiences in the Sudan and India) helped to develop his engaging writing and speaking style. He honed this ability even further later in life, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for his four-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples at the age of 80.
Sense of history:
As his early writings to his mother about "filling one's proper place in the scheme of world affairs" might indicate, Churchill was always acutely aware of the broader historical context of events. He often made conscious use of history, specifically his own experiences in WWI, to analyze and make decisions during WWII, as this passage in his Memoirs indicates:The Battle of Alamein differed for all previous fighting in the Desert. The front was limited, heavily fortified, and held in strength. There was no flank to turn. A breakthrough must be made by whoever was the stronger and wished to take the offensive. In this way we are led back to the battles of the First World War on the Western Front. We see here in Egypt the same kind of trial as was presented at Cambrai at the end of 1917, and in many of the battles of 1918, namely, short and good communications for the assailants, the use of artillery in its heaviest concentration, the "drum fire barrage," and the forward inrush of tanks.
But Churchill used history for more than just tactical analysis. His astute grasp of the broad technological trends of the last 300 years, and of the crucial importance of their applications in warfare, led to his invention of the tank during the First World War.
Above all, Churchill was aware of the sad irony that the vast intellectual and technological progress of the previous 20 generations was being used not to better the human condition by reducing or eliminating the likelihood of war, but rather to make the tools of war ever more efficient in their destruction of human life. He commented on this phenomenon in his 1937 essay "Europe's Peace":How astonishing it is that present day civilization should be exposed to dangers from which it was believed the labors of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had permanently rid the world; and that we, with all our vast delicate scientific structure of economics and finance upon which so many millions get their bread, be exposed to potential strokes far more sudden and immediately decisive than any which could be dealt by the Cimbri and the Teutons, the Parthians, the Visigoths and the Gauls. . . Many communities have been plunged back into a state of insecurity hitherto only associated with barbarism.
Churchill's high intellect and classical education enabled him to position events in the tapestry of time. This ability was a mixed blessing; it allowed him to use history successfully as a guide to his wartime decisions, but it also made him painfully aware of war's colossal waste of mankind's potential.
Taken together, Churchill's traits made him an extraordinarily effective leader of millions of soldiers and civilians. Both looked to him for courage and direction.
While it is easy for us in the calm clarity of retrospection to discern historical influences on Churchill's character and behavior, predicting a person's behavior using present-day knowledge is not so easy, as this anecdote illustrates:
In the summer of 1884, the headmaster of Ascot preparatory school for boys in England commented on the report card of a certain 10-year-old, one Winston Spencer Churchill: "Conduct has been exceedingly bad; he is not to be trusted to do a single thing." In what may be the most egregious misjudgment of character ever made, the headmaster concluded, "[he] has no ambition."