Winston Churchill Biography

Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England.

From an early age, young Churchill displayed the traits of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a British statesman from an established English family, and his mother, Jeanette "Jennie" Jerome, an independent-minded New York socialite.

Churchill grew up in Dublin, Ireland, where his father was employed by his grandfather, the 7th Duke of Marlborough, John Spencer-Churchill.

Churchill proved to be an independent and rebellious student; after performing poorly at his first two schools, Churchill in April 1888 began attending Harrow School, a boarding school near London. Within weeks of his enrollment, he joined the Harrow Rifle Corps, putting him on a path to a military career.

At first, it didn't seem the military was a good choice for Churchill; it took him three tries to pass the exam for the British Royal Military College. However, once there, he fared well and graduated 20th in his class of 130. 

Up to this time, his relationship with both his mother and father was distant, though he adored them both. While at school, Churchill wrote emotional letters to his mother, begging her to come see him, but she seldom came. 

His father died when he was 21, and it was said that Churchill knew him more by reputation than by any close relationship they shared.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill as a child

Photo: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The best books on Winston Churchill - Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East by Warren Dockter

The best books on Winston Churchill - In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War by David Reynolds

  • Start your child on a tailored learning programme
  • Get weekly English & maths resources sent direct to your inbox
  • Keep your child’s learning on track

Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace by chance because his parents happened to be staying there! He was born two months early. However, Blenheim Palace actually belonged to one of Churchill’s ancestors – John Churchill – who was the first Duke of Marlborough and a very well known solider.

He spent a great deal of his childhood being looked after by a nanny because his parents were away from home a lot. Churchill did not have a close relationship with either of his parents and once said he and his father barely spoke. But his nanny, Elizabeth Anne Everest, was very important to him.

Churchill was sent away to boarding school when he was only 7 years old, which he apparently hated. He was badly treated and often went hungry.

It seems he wasn’t the best of pupils! Churchill was obviously clever and loved reading and history but he wasn’t good at writing, often lost his books and was late for class!

In 1888, Churchill went to Harrow School, which is still a very famous public school. He apparently entered the school with the lowest grades and remained in that position! Churchill hated Harrow. His mother rarely visited and he wrote many letters pleading with her to come to the school or to allow him to come home.

Churchill was a keen stamp collector as a boy – he collected stamps from all over the world.

During World War II, Churchill often wore a “siren suit”, a sort of onesie which was designed to be put on quickly (even over pyjamas!) if an air raid siren sounded during the night. One of his siren suits was made of red velvet!

Churchill wrote “. the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril” (the German submarines).

Churchill was the first person to be made an Honorary Citizen of the United States, which means he was an American citizen as well as a British citizen.

Ap Eu Brexit I File Gbr

Is “Churchill: Walking With Destiny” by Andrew Roberts the best Churchill biography of them all?

Who in their right mind would presume to say, short of Winston Churchill himself, who maintained, “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”?

All Churchill biographies stand in the shadow of their subject and on the shoulders of Churchill’s official biographer, the late Sir Martin Gilbert, whose primary research constitutes the bulk of what we truly know.

In this sense, Roberts’ new biography (Viking, 982 pp., ★★★★ out of four) stands tall, re-illuminating the well-etched contours of Churchill’s monumental life with scrupulous scholarship and a flair for unearthing the telling detail; looking twice where most biographers have been content to glance once.

Here are five time-honored Churchillian bio-tropes, reframed and refreshed by Roberts’ keen attention to historical context.

1. The purported poor judgment of Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Churchill was scapegoated by his own government for the 1915 disaster at Gallipoli during World War I. Roberts re-examines this episode, as all Churchill biographers have, and largely exculpates him. Along the way, though, he shares an obscure, arm-wrestling exchange of letters between Churchill and King George V over the naming of new Royal Navy ships, begun in Churchill’s second month as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, that inexorably reveals just how full of himself the 30-something Churchill could be.

Churchill keeps pushing names that his King shoots down. “Instead of… letting the matter drop,” Roberts writes, “Churchill dug in his heels. So did the King… There was something almost comic about the obstinacy. Churchill would in all likelihood have continued the unequal struggle indefinitely,” Roberts concludes, had one high naval subordinate whom he “admired and trusted” not finally persuaded him to just drop it.

"Churchill: Walking With Destiny" by Andrew Roberts.

"Churchill: Walking With Destiny" by Andrew Roberts. (Photo: Viking)

2. His time in the trenches led to Churchill’s stand against Hitler.

Though painted as a war monger by the Hitler-appeasing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Churchill and a small cohort of anti-appeasers in Parliament insisted that only by standing up to Adolf Hitler could England hope to avoid another world war. Roberts detects “a fascinating dichotomy” in this confrontation.

“Although the appeasement movement was intended to prevent another war,” he notes, “most of its leaders had not seen action in the Great War, whereas most of the anti-appeasers had.” They were led by Churchill, who, after resigning as First Lord because of Gallipoli, actually had gone and fought in the trenches.

3. Goebbels’ propaganda campaign against Churchill.

In May 1940, with the Nazi invasion of France, Churchill was named prime minister because, as Churchill himself said, “no one else wanted the job.” The British people, however, took to their new PM immediately. A July 1940 Gallup poll, according to Roberts, gave Churchill an 88 percent approval rating.

Yet, at this very moment, Roberts points out, Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, was proclaiming “that Churchill was being bribed by the Jews to continue the war but that a fifth column would soon remove him from power. He encouraged Britons to write chain letters for peace, to hiss and boo Churchill’s appearance on the cinema newsreels and to horsewhip him whenever he appeared in public.”

They did not, of course. Still, one cannot help but ponder what Goebbels might have wrought with his fake news had there been an internet at his disposal and social media at his fingertips.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives a "Victory Salute" on Aug. 27, 1941.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives a "Victory Salute" on Aug. 27, 1941. (Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

4. The irony of the famed “Finest Hour” speech.

Confronting the impending “Battle of Britain,” Churchill, on June 18, 1940, delivered in Parliament what Roberts rightly calls a “peroration (that) will be remembered as long as the English language is spoken.” “If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years,” Churchill famously closed, “men will still say: ‘This was their finest hour.’ ”

Yet, remarks Roberts, “the British Empire was not long to outlast Hitler’s Nazi one”; ultimately, “less than a decade more.”

5. A telling moment after the war ended.

Churchill, at war’s end, pivoted almost immediately to a position of forgiveness toward Germany and antagonism toward Stalin and Russia. Roberts captures this with an after-hours encounter in the House of Commons Smoking Room between Churchill and an old wartime Labour Party nemesis, now advocating amity with Germany.

“Of course I’ve forgiven you,” Churchill assures the man, when asked. “Indeed, I agree with very much that you are saying about the Germans… Such hatred that I have left in me – and it isn’t much – I would rather reserve for the future than the past.” Churchill then moved on alone, murmuring, almost to himself: “Hmm. A judicious and thrifty disposal of bile.”

World War II

The major period of Churchill's political career began when he became prime minister and head of the Ministry of Defense early in World War II, when British and American Allies fought against the Axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

"I felt as if I was walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour," Churchill wrote in the first volume of his account of the war. (This account was later published in six volumes from 1948 to 1953.) His finest hour and that of the British people came at the same time. His leadership, which was expressed in noble speeches and constant personal activity, stated precisely what Britain needed to survive through the years before the United States entered the war.

The evacuation of Dunkirk and the air defense of the Battle of Britain became legend, but there were and are controversies over Churchill's policies. It has been argued that Churchill was too sensitive to the Mediterranean as a theater of war, which led to mistakes in Crete and North Africa. The value of his resistance to the idea of a second front as the Germans advanced into Russia has also been questioned. And there has been considerable debate over the courses he pursued at international conferences, such as those at Yalta in February 1945.

Many believed some of Churchill's policies were responsible for the "cold war" of the 1950s and 1960s, where relations between Eastern Communist powers and Western powers came to a standstill over, among other things, nuclear arms. Although criticisms may be made of Churchill's policies, his importance as a symbol of resistance and as an inspiration to victory cannot be challenged.

Community Reviews

"WHEN does one first begin to remember? When do the waving lights and shadows of dawning consciousness cast their print upon the mind of a child?"

one of my favorite passages from the book.

When the last sound of my mother's departing wheels had
died away, the Headmaster invited me to hand over any
money I had in my possession. I produced my three half-
crowns which were duly entered in a book, and I was told
that from time to time there would be a 'shop' at the school
with all sor “WHEN does one first begin to remember? When do the waving lights and shadows of dawning consciousness cast their print upon the mind of a child?”

one of my favorite passages from the book.

When the last sound of my mother’s departing wheels had
died away, the Headmaster invited me to hand over any
money I had in my possession. I produced my three half-
crowns which were duly entered in a book, and I was told
that from time to time there would be a ‘shop’ at the school
with all sorts of things which one would like to have, and
that I could choose what I liked up to the limit of the seven
and sixpence.

Then we quitted the Headmaster’s parlour
and the comfortable private side of the house, and entered
the more bleak apartments reserved for the instruction and
accommodation of the pupils. I was taken into a Form Room
and told to sit at a desk. All the other boys were out of doors,
and I was alone with the Form Master. He produced a thin
greeny-brown-covered book filled with words in different
types of print.

‘You have never done any Latin before, have you?’ he
said.

‘This is a Latin grammar.’ He opened it at a well-thumbed
page. ‘You must learn this,’ he said, pointing to a number of
words in a frame of lines. ‘I will come back in half an hour
and see what you know.’

Behold me then on a gloomy evening, with an aching
heart, seated in front of the First Declension.

to or for a table

by, with or from a table

What on earth did it mean? Where was the sense of it?
It seemed absolute rigmarole to me. However, there was one
thing I could always do: I could learn by heart. And I there
upon proceeded, as far as my private sorrows would allow,
to memorise the acrostic-looking task which had been set me

In due course the Master returned.

‘Have you learnt it?’ he asked.

‘I think I can say it, sir,’ I replied; and I gabbled it off.

He seemed so satisfied with this that I was emboldened
to ask a question.

‘What does it mean, sir?’

‘It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun
of the First Declension. There are five declensions. You have
learnt the singular of the First Declension.’

‘But,’ I repeated, ‘what does it mean?’

‘Mensa means a table,’ he answered.

‘Then why does mensa also mean O table,’ I enquired,
‘and what does O table mean?’

‘Mensa, O table, is the vocative case,’ he replied.

‘But why O table?’ I persisted in genuine curiosity.

‘O table, you would use that in addressing a table, in
invoking a table.’ And then seeing he was not carrying me
with him, ‘You would use it in speaking to a table.’

‘But I never do,’ I blurted out in honest amazement.

‘If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and pun
ished, let me tell you, very severely,’ was his conclusive
rejoinder.

Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.

The greatest pleasure I had in those days was reading. When I was nine and a half my father gave me Treasure Island, and I remember the delight with which I devoured it. My teachers saw me at once backward and precocious, reading books beyond my years and yet at the bottom of the Form. They were offended. They had large resources of compulsion at their disposal, but I was stubborn.

Where my my reason, imagination, or interest were not engaged, I would not, or could not learn.

He was able to transfer to another school where he could learn French, History, and lots of Poetry and enjoy horseback riding and swimming. At age twelve, however, he took the entrance exams at Harrow after which he was promptly consigned to the lowest form. Though a bit humiliating, Churchill soon discovered a wonderful advantage in this.

However, by being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own…. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

It was thought incongruous that while I apparently stagnated in the lowest form, I should gain a prize open to the whole school for reciting to the Headmaster twelve hundred lines of Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ without making a single mistake. I also succeeded in passing the preliminary examination for the Army while still almost at the bottom of the school. Many boys far above me in the school failed in it.

Having studied Latin and Greek, I found this interesting.

I will here make some general observations about Latin which probably have their application to Greek as well. In a sensible language like English important words are connected and related to one another by other little words. The Romans in that stern antiquity considered such a method weak and unworthy. Nothing would satisfy them but that the structure of every word should be reacted on by its neighbours in accordance with elaborate rules to meet the different conditions in which it might be used. There is no doubt that this method both sounds and looks more impressive than our own. The sentence fits together like a piece of polished machinery. Every phrase can be tensely charged with meaning. It must have been very laborious, even if you were brought up to it; but no doubt it gave the Romans, and the Greeks too, a fine and easy way of establishing their posthumous fame.

They were the first comers in the fields of thought and literature. When they arrived at fairly obvious reflections upon life and love, upon war, fate or manners, they coined them into the slogans or epigrams for which their language was so well adapted, and thus preserved the patent rights for all time. Hence their reputation.

Later, when Churchill got accepted to Sandhurst (the British West Point) and opted for a certain direction in the service that his father disagreed he got this response.

“He was extremely dissatisfied and in due course I received from him a long and very severe letter expressing the bleakest view of my educational career, showing a marked lack of appreciation at my success in the examination, which he suggested I had only scraped through, and warning me of the danger in which I plainly lay of becoming a ‘social wastrel!’ I was pained and startled by this communication.”

He reflects the horrid grind of school days that I can totally relate to.

The intermediate period in my life before Sandhurst brought to a close nearly 12 years of school. Thirty-six terms each of many weeks (interspersed with all-too-short holidays) during the whole of which I had enjoyed few gleams of success, in which I had hardly ever been asked to learn anything which seemed of the slightest use or interest, or allowed to play any game which was amusing. In retrospect these years form not only the least agreeable, but the only barren and unhappy period of my life….This interlude of school makes a sombre grey patch upon the chart of my journey. It was an unending spell of worries that did not then seem petty, and of toil uncheered by fruition; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony.

I was on the whole considerably discouraged by my school days….I had been surprised on taking leave of Dr. Welldon to hear him predict, with a confidence for which I could see no foundation, that I should be able to make my way all right. I have always been very grateful to him for this.

I am all for the Public Schools, but I do not want to go there again.

More background on the book.

FULL text of the book.

Churchill wrote this memoir in 1930, when he was 56. It seems to me a reasonable time of life for someone to tell their story (assuming of course, they have something interesting to say). As we all know, in 1930 Churchill had no idea that his greatest trials and triumphs still lay before him.

The book begins with a canter through Churchill’s schooldays. There is no detailed discussion of his relationship with his parents, which I have elsewhere heard was quite difficult. The core of the book rela Churchill wrote this memoir in 1930, when he was 56. It seems to me a reasonable time of life for someone to tell their story (assuming of course, they have something interesting to say). As we all know, in 1930 Churchill had no idea that his greatest trials and triumphs still lay before him.

The book begins with a canter through Churchill’s schooldays. There is no detailed discussion of his relationship with his parents, which I have elsewhere heard was quite difficult. The core of the book relates to his period as a cavalry officer/war correspondent (he frequently blended the two roles), from about 1895 to about 1900.

When Churchill was commissioned, Britain had not fought a war against a European power since the Crimea over 40 years previously, and had not faced an existential threat since the time of Napoleon. In Churchill’s account, this long period of relative peace had led many of his contemporaries to conclude wars between “polite nations” had come to an end. The situation he describes is similar to that which has prevailed in Western Europe since 1945, one that has led many (myself included) to take a similar outlook. These references in Churchill’s memoir are a quiet reminder that we shouldn’t take peace and stability for granted.

His time in the army was characterised by a determination to place himself wherever the action was. He pulled every string and used every tactic to ensure that happened, to the extent many viewed him as a glory hunter who neglected the routine duties of an army officer. It makes for a lively memoir though. Churchill first wangled himself an appointment as an observer with the Spanish Army in Cuba, then got a transfer to the North-West Frontier province of India (as was), where one of the periodic outbreaks of fighting with the local tribes was underway. After that he was in the Sudan campaign of 1898, where he participated in the charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman. Lastly came his experiences in the Boer War, his capture by the Boers and his daring escape from a POW camp, which made him a household name in Britain. The narrative ends with Churchill beginning his time in the House of Commons as a Conservative MP, although in most respects his views were more aligned with those of the Liberals. The book ends with a conversation with Joseph Chamberlain and the latter’s advocacy of tariff protection for the Empire. Students of British history will know of this as a significant event for both Churchill and the country.

Churchill was of course famous for his oratory, and his skill with language shines through in this entertaining memoir. Throughout the text he makes extensive use of irony, something that was a lot safer 90 years ago. Whenever I see anyone use irony in an internet article today, they are immediately assailed by scores if not hundreds of people who have taken the wording literally. I can imagine that in the future irony could die out altogether in written English. Churchill lived in a more discerning era!

There are a few outdated attitudes, almost inevitable in a work of this vintage, and it must be admitted there is a fair bit of the “Huzzah!” and “Tally-ho!” approach to life. Still an excellent read.

My first encounter with this book was when I was in fourth grade.Somebody had thought it fit that this die hard colonialist should be introduced to school children in Pakistan as early as possible.

That chapter was titled,First Year at Harrow.He revealed that the only subject he was any good at,was English.And that he struggled with Latin and Greek.

Thank goodness,in their eagerness to follow the British school system,Pakistani schools at least,were not teaching Latin and Greek.

Much later,I came a My first encounter with this book was when I was in fourth grade.Somebody had thought it fit that this die hard colonialist should be introduced to school children in Pakistan as early as possible.

That chapter was titled,First Year at Harrow.He revealed that the only subject he was any good at,was English.And that he struggled with Latin and Greek.

Thank goodness,in their eagerness to follow the British school system,Pakistani schools at least,were not teaching Latin and Greek.

Much later,I came across a torn copy of this book in a used bookstore.Half the pages were missing.What was left,was rather interesting.

After his education,he joined the army and came to India.But that account was not as disparaging and offensive as his later book,The Story of the Malakand Field Force.(I have reviewed that one as well).

Now I have found the whole book,and intend to read what else he has to say.Despite my distaste for his racism and colonialism,I find him rather interesting.

To be continued . more

"When does one first remember? When do the waving lights and shadows of dawning consciousness cast their print upon the mind of a child?"

What a delight. Published in 1930, it covers the first 30 years of Churchill's life (1874-1904), and packs in more adventure than most of us could ever expect in many times those years. Churchill tells war stories in which he was a participant . in Egypt, in South Africa. Apparently he barely survived many times, before rushing off to India to play in an army “When does one first remember? When do the waving lights and shadows of dawning consciousness cast their print upon the mind of a child?”

What a delight. Published in 1930, it covers the first 30 years of Churchill’s life (1874-1904), and packs in more adventure than most of us could ever expect in many times those years. Churchill tells war stories in which he was a participant . in Egypt, in South Africa. Apparently he barely survived many times, before rushing off to India to play in an army polo tournament, where he scored the winning goal, despite an incapacitated shoulder. His imprisonment after surrender, and subsequent 300 mile escape from a Boer prison, climbing out of windows, walking alone through the night with Boer troops looking for him, hiding between bales of hay on a train passing over the border. It goes on and on.

Churchill is a hopeless egotist, as what politician isn’t, but he is also to be commended for including in his book the rather intense criticism his exploits gained in British papers: he wasn’t really in the army . why was he there? . he was risking our cause.

Is it all true? Who knows, but it’s great reading. And it was surely a superb preparation for the time, 35 years later, when Churchill led Great Britain through the war against Hitler.

Churchill is an engaging writer, both insightful and entertaining. Written in 1930, Churchill covers his life from childhood until the beginning of his political career, with a significant portion of the book devoted to his military time in India and South Africa. There are many interesting tidbits, such as Churchill's meeting with Mark Twain during Churchill's tour of America (Twain gives Churchill a hard time about the Boer Wars) and Churchill's fear of extemporaneous speaking, which led him t Churchill is an engaging writer, both insightful and entertaining. Written in 1930, Churchill covers his life from childhood until the beginning of his political career, with a significant portion of the book devoted to his military time in India and South Africa. There are many interesting tidbits, such as Churchill’s meeting with Mark Twain during Churchill’s tour of America (Twain gives Churchill a hard time about the Boer Wars) and Churchill’s fear of extemporaneous speaking, which led him to write his speeches beforehand and commit them to memory. Another interesting point is the near-total absence of women in Churchill’s portrayal of his childhood and young adult life, with the exception of his nanny and his mother.

It’s interesting to see how Churchill wants to portray himself in this autobiography. He emphasizes that he was ambitious and got ahead through force of will (though Churchill does mention the numerous connections obtained through mom and dad along the way). And Churchill takes pains to emphasize the difference between him and the Oxbridge crowd (Churchill having gone to Sandhurst).

The dominant theme of this book is the break that Churchill sees between the waning Victorian age and a 20th century of technology and greater democratization. Churchill sets up contrasts between
– the honorable warfare of the 19th century managed by elites vs. the machine-driven slaughter of WWI driven by the masses
-an English ruling class of the 19th century composed of a civilized coterie whose members were often connected through various marriages vs. a more democratic, unruly ensemble

But I wondered whether Churchill’s idealization of the Victorian age led him to exaggerate the gap between Churchill’s 19th-century values created 20th-century horrors. Churchill’s descriptions of the glories of the Boer Wars, of which he had many fond memories, seem callous to the bloodshed of warfare
(though Churchill briefly condemns the English concentration camps). As he writes, “How easy to kill a man!” Really? And Churchill’s descriptions of English retaliation against Indians who defied the colonial power (e.g., English burning of farms and villages) seems a cold-hearted effort to move, as Churchill writes, “forward on the path of empire.”

Although much of this book held my interest, my attention flagged during Churchill’s lengthy descriptions of the military maneuvers during the Boer Wars.

On the whole, worth a read. . more

In 1930 Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, then age 56 and destined to live another 34 years, looked back on his first 30 years. One would think this hubris, for what can be achieved in one’s first 30 years? But in fact, unlike some modern politicians who write their autobiography at a young age before any achievements, Churchill had a lot to report.

The result is “My Early Years: 1874-1904,” perhaps one of history’s most entertaining autobiographies. Churchill documents his childhood as the ne In 1930 Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, then age 56 and destined to live another 34 years, looked back on his first 30 years. One would think this hubris, for what can be achieved in one’s first 30 years? But in fact, unlike some modern politicians who write their autobiography at a young age before any achievements, Churchill had a lot to report.

The result is “My Early Years: 1874-1904,” perhaps one of history’s most entertaining autobiographies. Churchill documents his childhood as the neglected son of the American Jenny Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill—both of them monumentally self-centered and unnurturing: she was focused on society and on her numerous affairs with highly ranked men; he on a career in politics (as a Tory he was an MP and, briefly, Chancellor of the Exchequer) which he trashed by refusing to follow his Tory party’s line (once, when Winston was reported to have been badly hurt playing Follow the Leader, a Lord remarked “That will never be his father’s fate”).

Churchill was an abysmal student, and his years before the Mast of Education are reported with a remarkably pungent wit. Apparently he had a testing problem—tests never asked the questions he could answer. His deficiencies were most pronounced in Mathematics. He reported his great admiration for mathematicians who, like chess players who could play 16 simultaneous games, are destined to die young with epilepsy, “And serve them right.”

Churchill’s abysmal academic performance—-clearly the result of his view that things in which he was not interested were not worth learning—-combined with his interest in military matters (he had over 1,000 toy soldiers that he would parade and put into battle formations), led him to eschew the university (or it to eschew him). He went to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst where, after three attempts at admission and 1½ years as a cadet, he emerged as a cavalry officer. This was in the days when the military was the trashcan of the scions of British aristocracy, and the cavalry was the trashcan of the military.

This remarkably weak foundation never deterred Churchill from his belief that he was a great military strategist, a belief he maintained even in the face of his many poor strategic decisions in WWI (as First Lord of the Admiralty) and in WWII (as Prime Minister). During WWII, when he was driving his Generals mad with wild schemes, it was remarked—outside of Churchill’s hearing—that there are only two professions where amateurs think themselves to be professionals—military strategy and prostitution.

Churchill reports without shame, and with great humor, his enlistment of his mother in obtaining military postings to which he was neither invited nor welcomed. She drew on her vast connections (many of whom had been lovers) and had frequent dinner parties to cudgel well-placed military and political leaders; he reports that she fought “down to the last cutlet.” As a result he was posted to India and fought in the 1897 Siege of Malakand in northwest India, where a large body of locals had surrounded the British garrison; “The Malakand Field Force” (1898) soon rolled from Churchill’s pen.

He was later posted to Lord Kitchener’s African army over Kitchener’s voluble objections. There he fought in Britain’s last cavalry charge at the 1898 Battle of Omdurman near Khartoum in the Sudan: 20,000 Commonwealth soldiers and cavalry decimated a force of 60,000 “Dervishes.” His “The River War” (1899, 2 vols) soon followed “The Malakand Field Force” on British bookshelves.

On demobilizing and returning to England, Churchill, having gained a literary following, turned to speechifying and politics, suffering a disastrous early bid for M. P. of working class Oldham. During this time he wrote “Savrola,” his first and only novel (1900). In 1899 went to South Africa as a war correspondent to report on the Boer War. He was captured, escaped, and—yes—he wrote another book, actually two, in 1900: “London to Ladysmith via Praetoria,” and “Ian Hamilton’s March.” By his 26th birthday he had become a national hero—a prolific author, brave in combat, and resistant to incarceration.

Churchill spent his life adoring the father he never knew—the brief sections about the distant father who died young are heartbreaking, and Churchill’s desire to be worthy in his father’s eyes impelled him to achievements unmatched in his centuries. Churchill was impulsive, exhibited the best and worst of judgment, was the epitome of the British bulldog, was alcoholic, rude, demanding–and very funny; and he was the right man at the right time when Hitler came along. His father would have approved, perhaps placing his hand on his son’s head and quietly remarking, “Good job.” That’s what young Winston wanted most. As did, perhaps, old Winston.

Churchill’s prose is the prose of 19th century Victorians—florid and grammatically correct; one imagines him diagramming his sentences. I found it refreshingly archaic, a welcome revisitation to the English classes of my youth. Younger readers might find it plodding and navigationally-challenged. But, of course, Churchill was a Victorian and a modern voice would simply not serve: one can imagine how jarring it would be to have a humorous sentence followed by “LOL.” The problem is not that Churchill’s era was one of formal and correct English, it is that ours is an era of bad English.

If you want to read the history of a self-educated young man who turned childhood neglect and early personal failure into victory, who became arguably the 20th century’s greatest statesmen (and wordsmith), and who experienced monumental revolutions in society, warfare, technology and economic institutions and expectations, this is for you. And it is a hoot to boot!
. more

Leave a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest