A National Treasure: The Winston Churchill Memorial and Library
In April I traveled to Fulton, Missouri to deliver the annual Kemper Lecture at Westminster College, which is the site of Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech. Designated by Congress as a national historic site, the National Churchill Museum has superb exhibits about Churchill’s life and times and is well worth visiting.
The Museum is composed of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, an English Church designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1667, and the undercroft museum with permanent exhibits dedicated to the life and works of Sir Winston Churchill, who made his famous "Iron Curtain" Speech on the Westminster Campus in 1946. The Museum also houses the Clementine Spencer Churchill Reading Room, composed of works centered about the life of Sir Winston Churchill, the Harris Research Library for Microfilm, holding an extensive collection of Microfilm from the British National Archives, many changing exhibits of interest, and a gift shop containing gifts related to Churchill and the Wren Church.
The Crosby Kemper Lectureship was established in 1979 by a grant from the Crosby Kemper Foundation of Kansas City, Missouri. It is intended to provide for lectures by authorities on British History or Sir Winston Churchill at the National Churchill Museum. The established Lectureship is held under the auspices of the British Institute of the United States and the National Churchill Museum.
The Museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Visit their website at churchillmemorial.org.
The 2010 Kemper Lecture – Warlord: Churchill as Military Leader
It is a great honor to be asked to deliver this distinguished lecture at the site of one the seminal moments in the life of Winston Churchill.
Most people think of him as Churchill the politician. Yet, he always saw himself first and foremost as a soldier. He had a lifelong obsession with all things military that not only shaped the man and leader he became, but played a major role in his leadership of Britain during World War II.
As a young man during a period of relative peace, he once said, “If I had two lives I would be a soldier and a politician: but as there will be no war in my time, I shall have to be a politician.”
Perhaps only Churchill could have led such an amazing life that he accomplished both goals.
He has been called the greatest Englishman. Yet, to actually define Churchill is difficult and descriptions of him run the gamut from hagiography to baseless criticism. But here is the best description I’ve read. In 1989, David Nyhan, a columnist for the Boston Globe wrote of him:
“Any weakling can lead when the going is easy. The harder the times the greater the chance for glory. His was the supreme test. He was short, fat, willful, pampered, spoiled, arrogant, class-bound: he reflected some of the weaknesses, some of the strengths of 19th-century Britain. He drank too much, he smoked too much. And he was magnificent. With verve as well as nerve, with chilling determination as well as fearsome weapons of war, with words of resolve that steeled his own people … he held fast. The certitude of his moral compass drew a nation to him. With implacable courage that resides in those who simply admit no other outcome, he seized his countrymen by their lapels. He shook and he bellowed and slapped and roared, and clucked them under the chin when they needed that too. He led. They followed. Case closed.”
Since his death in 1965, Churchill’s attraction to historians and biographers continues unabated, even more so in the wake of 9/11. He has been praised, condemned for a host of sins, real and imagined, and, in recent years, has become the object of a number of revisionist biographies notable mainly for their portrayal of a man with feet of clay.
To enter the playing field of Churchill’s life is a daunting proposition for any writer and one that I undertook with some trepidation. I did so mindful of eminent journalist and historian Rick Atkinson’s observation that: "Storytelling is too important to leave to playwrights and novelists. It is the most ancient art.”
Biographers are really storytellers, and there is no greater challenge than to profile a larger than life figure such as Winston Churchill. As a biographer I live by one golden rule that was wonderfully articulated by Martha Byrd, Gen. Claire Chennault’s biographer:
“To write an individual’s life is a joy, a privilege and a sobering responsibility.”
As I began to research and write his military life, one thing stood out: Winston Churchill was born for war.
One of his most astute biographers was a German exile who became a noted journalist in England named Sebastian Haffner, who has observed that:
“No one will ever understand the phenomenon that was Churchill by regarding him simply as a politician and statesman who was ultimately destined like Asquith or Lloyd George, Wilson or Roosevelt, to conduct a war; he was a warrior who realized that politics forms a part of the conduct of war.”
And, to complete the picture, another writer has pointed out that:
“Wellington was a soldier who felt it his duty to be a politician. Churchill was a politician who wanted to be a soldier … A nation which since Cromwell has always felt uncomfortable with all but its most eccentric military leaders, was led in its most dangerous battle by a war leader in a zip-suit and carpet slippers.”
Perhaps less well known is that Churchill was a military visionary and a risk-taker with ideas of astonishing originality. As First Lord of the Admiralty before World War I he embraced naval aviation and although he is not the father of the tank, he can rightly be regarded as its midwife.
In 1915, he conceived and approved the design and construction of an enormous Trojan Horse-like armored vehicle that would transport in safety between 80 and 100 troops across no man’s land to attack the German trenches; and in 1939, while again First Lord, he conceived “Nellie,” a gargantuan trench-digger that would be utilized to permit the infantry to overwhelm the powerful defenses of the Siegfried Line in safety.
Although both projects were impractical and never came to pass, they were nevertheless examples of the remarkably innovative ideas that poured forth from Churchill’s fertile mind. After the demise of Nellie his only comment was to defiantly declare: “I am responsible but impenitent.”
In 1912, well before others could see the warning signs, Churchill foretold of a potential great conflict ahead. In a prophetic letter to his cousin and close friend, Charles “Sunny” Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, he warned of the threat of war emanating from the unstable situation in the Balkans, and noted:
“The European situation is far from safe and anything might happen. It only needs a little ill will or bad faith on the part of a great power to precipitate a far greater conflict.”
Churchill’s life was astonishing. While he is best known for being Britain’s war leader in her darkest hour, his entire life was filled with amazing exploits. His military life saw him involved in a succession of wars that ranged from shoot-outs in the mountains of what is today the stronghold of Al Qaeda along the Northwest Frontier, to a participant in the last cavalry charge of the British army at Omdurman in 1898. During the Boer War, his heroics in saving an armored train made him a household name at the age of twenty-four.
Churchill’s greatness during World War II can be summed up in the words of Sir Edward Bridges, who noted: “Everything depended on him and him alone. Only he had the power to make the nation believe that it could win.”
Yet his greatness was also marked by enigmatic contradiction. He was a leader who could at once grasp the vital importance of decoding the World War II German radio signals by a cipher machine appropriately called “Enigma” but who did not possess the slightest grasp of logistics or what it took to maintain a modern army in the age of mechanization.
Churchill’s path to a military life was the product of an exceedingly unhappy childhood and an exceptionally difficult relationship with his famous but volatile father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who deemed him unfit to become anything in life except an army officer. Although unnoticed by his parents, he displayed signs that he was unusually bright. He was also completely rebellious against authority, against education, and against anyone who attempted to teach him anything but the subjects he himself deemed appropriate.
During the entrance examination for admission to Harrow he deliberately turned in a blank Latin paper, and years later complained of his dislike of examinations.
“I should have liked to be asked what I knew. They always tried to ask me what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance.”
From the day of his commissioning at Sandhurst in 1895 Churchill was a lightning rod of controversy. As a cavalry lieutenant stationed in colonial India he alone among the officers in his regiment sought combat in the border wars, believing that winning medals was the key to a future career in Parliament.
On numerous occasions during his life he escaped death by a hair’s breath. In 1897 he tasted battle for the first time as a member of the Malakand Field Force on the Northwest Frontier and found it exhilarating – and also deadly. He became a soldier of fortune, seeking out any available war in an effort to enhance his chances of experiencing battle and winning decorations. “I am more ambitious for a reputation for personal courage than anything else in the world,” once confided to his mother.
And while part of him was an adventurer, the other part was a sober realist who understood the awful nature of war.
Yet, his vision that heroism was the key to political success persisted. Churchill’s desire to be noticed and rewarded reached the point of folly when he rather proudly announced to his mother his gratification that “my follies have not been altogether unnoticed … Bullets – to a philosopher my dear Mama – are not worth considering. Besides I am so conceited I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”
The Northwest Frontier merely whetted Churchill’s appetite for adventure. He contrived to get himself assigned to the 21st Lancers and participate in the battle of Omdurman in Sept. 1898 and in so doing challenged the most powerful military figure in the British Army, Gen. Hubert Horatio Kitchener. Churchill’s criticism of Kitchener in his book about Omdurman called The River War shockingly candid – and however foolish it was for a mere junior officer to take on someone of Kitchener’s stature – his criticism was remarkably accurate.
Omdurman was one of many battles that nearly cost Churchill his life. The wanton slaughter by machine guns of hapless tribesmen armed mostly with swords and spears left him with a sense of the great injustice of such wars & led him to write:
“It has been said that the Gods forbade vengeance to mankind because they reserved for themselves so delicious and intoxicating a drink. And it may well be that vengeance is sweet, but one should not drain the cup quite to the bottom. The dregs are sometimes filthy tasting.”
By a strange twist of fate the one-time junior officer and the uncompromising field marshal became allies during World War I in the war against Germany.
It was in South Africa during the Boer War that Churchill learned many of the lessons he would bring to the leadership of Britain in World War II. This was Britain’s Vietnam, with battles against well-trained guerillas that took a bloody and frightening toll on an incompetent Victorian army that was quite capable of slaughtering the hapless tribesman of Omdurman and the Zulus but was completely overmatched against an irregular army of sharp-shooting farmers.
It was also in S. Africa that Churchill displayed such a high degree of courage in saving an ambushed armored train that it might have won him a Victoria Cross had he not been a civilian war correspondent who enraged the military establishment with his blistering public criticism.
Among those lessons learnt was a deep appreciation for the possibilities of unconventional warfare that he filed away until 1940 when he issued a famous directive to his spymasters to “Set Europe Ablaze.”
Yet, during his early years in Parliament it was Churchill who argued against military appropriations for the navy and the army, and it was as First Lord of the Admiralty in the years leading up to World War I that he had to eat his words when he had to fight to increase for the Royal Navy in order to help prepare for the war that came in 1914.
This pattern of contradictory behavior continued during the interwar years when as Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill drastically cut the military budget.
In the years before World War I he became the champion of naval aviation and despite its extreme danger took to the skies to become a pilot and in the process terrified his instructors that he would get himself killed. On numerous occasions, both at war and in the air he became like a cat with nine lives. Whether or not he was being saved for greater things I leave to your discretion.
His actions during the Great War were innovative, highly dramatic – and not without blemish. Some wrongly thought he was a warmonger when in fact he tried his best to prevent the terrible catastrophe that befell the world from 1914 to 1918. He was the first to see the utter futility of trench warfare on the Western Front and sought other means of winning the war. The development of the tank, his trenching device and other innovations – all emanated from an astonishing mind that was forever pouring forth new ideas.
Others, such as his ill-conceived idea of resigning as First Lord of the Admiralty to take command of the hopeless defense of Antwerp in 1914 were deeply flawed and a reflection of his single-minded passion to become an heroic soldier.
One of his ideas led to his downfall. His plan to thrust a fleet of aging ships through the straits of the Dardanelles to capture Constantinople was brilliant in conception but was attempted too late to succeed. The result was failure at both the Dardanelles and at Gallipoli, which is still remembered as the greatest tragedy in British military history.
Churchill paid the price of failure. He lost his job as First Lord, and found himself shunned and suffering from depression. Penance came in the form of service on the Western Front in 1916 in command of a Scottish infantry battalion.
Initially scorned for being both a politician and an interloper, Churchill won over the Scots by a combination of solid leadership and great compassion. One of his first acts was to assemble his officers to whom he said:
“Gentlemen, war is declared.”
Assuming he meant the Germans, they were shocked when he announced that war had been declared “on the lice.”
“With these words,” wrote his adjutant, “did the great scion of the house of Marlborough first address his Scottish Captains with a discourse on Europaeus, its origin, growth, and nature, its habitat and its importance as a factor in wars ancient and modern, that left one agape with wonder at the erudition and force of its author.”
Churchill ended the war as the highly efficient Minister of Munitions, a post in which he used his authority to pursue the development and deployment of the first tanks and argued fruitlessly for other means than slaughter in the trenches to be found to end a devastating war. His ideas were dismissed as “Winston’s Folly.” Among his ideas was one to build and deploy nearly 10,000 tanks in a massive offensive to end the war in 1919.
During the interwar years the man who detested war argued for yet another war – this one against Bolshevism in a Russia torn by revolution. This was followed in the 1930s by warnings against the rise of Fascism in Nazi Germany and in Italy.
Frustrated, out of power, a backbencher who still drew crowds in Parliament whenever he spoke, his voice may have been heard but it was not heeded.
All through these many years from 1895 to 1940 his ties to the military continued, either as a minister, on active service, or as the best informed man in Britain in the 1930s even though he held no political office.
It was a measure of his potential to lead that even those who detested him – and they were many – thought he would one day lead the nation. One of his political enemies, Stanley Baldwin, said, “If there is going to be a war, we must keep him fresh to be our War Prime Minister.”
When he assumed the leadership of Britain in May 1940 the nation teetered on the verge of invasion, occupation and defeat. Only one man stood in the way of Adolf Hitler’s dream of conquest.
Dunkirk may have been a heroic event but the BEF left all of its equipment on the beaches of France. It was a first-class military disaster that stripped the army of its ability to fight.
Because of his military background Churchill correctly decided that he was the best- qualified politician to also be Minister of Defense, the first time in British history a PM had done so.
In this capacity he became Britain’s warlord: a combination of commander-in-chief and secretary of defense. For the remainder of the war he was the supreme war authority. He hired and sometimes fired the generals, admirals and air marshals. The war was literally in his hands.
How bad was it in 1940? Some formations used broomsticks to train. Ancient weapons were stripped from museums. Britain’s defense of her coastline was non-existent and except for a few strong leaders like Montgomery, Brooke, Alexander, what was left of the army was an absolute shambles.
One day in the summer of 1940 when invasion seemed imminent Churchill visited a coastal position along the English Channel. The brigadier in command told Churchill he had only six rounds for his artillery and wondered if he should fire a test round. With a wave of his hand, Churchill told him to save it to kill Germans.
Thanks to Roosevelt and Lend-Lease, America was able to supply enough guns and ammunition to begin the long process of re-armament.
While London and other British cities were being bombed to bits on a daily basis it was Winston Churchill – the bulldog – who symbolized the fight for survival and the gritty resistance of a people that refused to give in to terror.
In her darkest hour – when invasion seemed probable – it was Churchill who instructed his ministers and members of Parliament to buck up, grab a weapon, and fight to the death. “I shall take a rifle and put myself in a pillbox at the bottom of Downing Street and shoot till I’ve no more ammunition, and then they can damned well shoot me,” declared.
For 18-months British strategy (if you could call holding on by your fingernails a “strategy”) – was to somehow hold out until America could be persuaded to enter the war, which it did in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Until America entered the war and became an active participant in November 1942 it was Churchill who articulated the three R’s: RESIST – RE-ARM & RETALIATE.
Throughout those long, very dark days Churchill was the one constant: the glue that held together a fragile nation that constantly bent but never broke. Day after day ideas poured forth from his pen, technical questions posed to his air chief, common sense observations to the Royal Navy and the army, many well ahead of their time.
Here are two examples of his genius: When he first visited Scapa Flow as First Lord in 1939 he was shown dummy ships placed in the anchorage and immediately observed they would never fool an enemy pilot because there were no seagulls hovering around them. “You will always find gulls above a living ship,” he said, and ordered refuse dumped around them. “Feed the gulls and fool the Germans,” he told the astonished admirals.
As the new PM, he made ministers come alone to meetings instead of the traditional way of bringing a horde of aides to answer questions. None ever escaped without a severe grilling, where every imaginable (and some unimaginable) questions would be asked.
One day Churchill was briefed with graphs and charts by the minister of supply on a plan for producing a new tank. The minister thought he was off the hook after an effective presentation until Churchill said: “Why are you going to make 550 obsolete tanks? Why?” No one else had even considered that this was a bad idea.
Other innovations did not go quite so well. There was, for example, the day that Churchill witnessed a rocket demonstration. On this occasion the rocket rose about 100 feet and then suddenly turned 90 degrees and began heading directly for Mr. Churchill who had to run for his life before the missile mercifully passed overhead and buried itself in the ground. “Damn the man,” Churchill growled at his scientific advisor, Lord Cherwell.
Franklin Roosevelt never doubted Churchill’s enormous importance to the war. When the two met at Placentia Bay in August 1941, FDR asked Churchill’s bodyguard “to take care of him. He’s about the greatest man in the world. In fact, he may very likely be the greatest. You have a terrible responsibility in safeguarding him.”
The arguments over Churchill and his performance as Britain’s war leader endure to this day. Some of the criticism leveled against him as a strategist is wholly justified, but for all of his love of adventure, of great risk and even greater reward, of the exhilaration of viewing war at first-hand, Churchill never regarded war as anything but evil.
And, despite his well-known wrangling with his chiefs of staff, it is to his great credit that there was not a single occasion during the war that he ever overruled them when they disapproved of a course of action.
Although Churchill was his own harshest critic, believing that he had failed to meet his own exceptionally high standards for greatness, historians and biographers have come to very different conclusions.
And, while it is true that like all great men he had faults commensurate with his genius, what history can never take away from Winston Churchill was his great leadership of Britain in the darkest hours of her history. He faced – and overcame – perhaps the gravest pressures and challenges ever faced by a head of state.
As PM, Churchill exercised more power than anyone in British history ever has – or probably ever will. As a benevolent warlord, he led and others followed.
He refused to lose and his positive energy and magnetism galvanized his nation. This is what great leaders do – and no one did it better during the course of an astonishing life, a life even more amazing considering Churchill’s advanced age during WW II.
History and hindsight are handmaidens that all too often demand perfection by those who have no grasp or experience of the grave burdens that fell upon Churchill’s shoulders in 1940.
Perhaps we expected too much of him. Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he observed that: “To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Assessments and tributes to Churchill litter the pages of histories and biographies, but fittingly, I would cite Sir Max Hastings’s wonderful tribute to him in his recent book:
“ History must take Churchill as a whole, as his wartime countrymen were obliged to do . . . He was the largest human being ever to occupy his office. If his leadership during the Second World War was imperfect, it is certain that no other British ruler in history has matched his direction of the nation in peril or, please God, is ever likely to find himself in circumstances to surpass it.”
Indeed, we can reflect upon Winston Churchill’s life with both admiration and awe, and conclude that had he failed in 1940, and not held Britain together until the entry of the United States guaranteed that the war would not be lost, the world we live in today would be a very different place.