Sir Winston Churchill was one of Britain’s greatest icons and is recognised worldwide as one of the greatest Leader and Politician of the 20th Century. I thought it would be interesting to write the story of this famous icon from his birth on November 30th 1874 at Blenheim Palace, a home given by Queen Anne to Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. He is best known for his determination yet courageous leadership as Prime Minister for Great Britain when he led the British people from the brink of defeat during World War II.
He was the eldest son of Lord Randolph Churchill, a Tory Democrat (a British political party) who achieved early success as a rebel in his party. Later, after Randolph Churchill failed, he was cruelly described as “a man with a brilliant future behind him.” His mother was Jenny Jerome, the beautiful and talented daughter of Leonard Jerome, a New York businessman. Winston idolized his mother, but his relations with his father, who died in 1895, were cold and distant. It is generally agreed that as a child Winston was not shown warmth and affection by his family.
As a child Churchill was sensitive and suffered from a minor speech impediment. He was educated following the norms of his class. He first went to preparatory school, then to Harrow in 1888 when he was twelve years old. Winston was not especially interested in studying Latin or mathematics and spent much time studying in the lowest level courses until he passed the tests and was able to advance. He received a good education in English, however, and won a prize for reading aloud a portion of Thomas Macaulay’s (1800–1859) Lays of Ancient Rome (1842). After finishing at Harrow, Winston failed the entrance test for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst three times before finally passing and being allowed to attend the school. His academic record improved a great deal once he began at the college. When he graduated in 1894 he was eighth in his class.
Very early on Churchill demonstrated the physical courage and love of adventure and action that he kept throughout his political career. His first role was that of a soldier-journalist.
In 1895 he went to Cuba to write about the Spanish army for the Daily Graphic. In 1896 he was in India, and while on the North-West Frontier with the Malakand Field Force he began work on a novel, Savrola: A Tale of the Revolution in Laurania. The book was published in 1900.
More important, however, were Churchill’s accounts of the military campaigns in which he participated. Savrola was followed by a book about the reconquest of the Sudan (1899), in which he had also taken part. As a journalist for the Morning Post, he went to Africa during the Boer War (1899–1902), where British forces fought against Dutch forces in South Africa. The most romantic of his adventures as a youth was his escape from a South African prison during this conflict and the “Wanted Dead Or Alive Poster” put up all over South Africa.
In 1899 Churchill lost in his first attempt at election to the House of Commons, one of two bodies controlling Parliament in England. This was to be the first of many defeats in elections, as Churchill lost more elections than any other political figure in recent British history. But in 1900 he entered the House of Commons, in which he served off and on until 1964. Churchill’s early years in politics were characterized by an interest in the radical reform (improvement) of social problems. The major intellectual achievement of this period of Churchill’s life was his Liberalism and the Social Problem (1909). In this work he stated his belief in liberalism, or political views that stress civil rights and the use of government to promote social progress. Churchill was very active in the great reforming government of Lord Asquith between 1908 and 1912, and his work fighting unemployment was especially significant.
In 1912 Churchill became first lord of the Admiralty, the department of British government that controls the naval fleet. He switched his enthusiasm away from social reform to prepare Britain’s fleet for a war that threatened Europe. While at the Admiralty Churchill suffered a major setback. He became committed to the view that the navy could best make an impact on the war in Europe (1914–18) by way of a swift strike through the Dardanelles, a key waterway in central Europe. This strategy proved unsuccessful, however, and Churchill lost his Admiralty post. In 1916 he was back in the army, serving for a time on the front lines in France.
Churchill soon re-entered political life. He was kept out of the Lloyd George War Cabinet by conservative hostility toward his style and philosophy. But by 1921 Churchill held a post as a colonial secretary. A clash with Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, however, did not help his reputation, and in 1922 he lost his seat in the House of Commons. The Conservative Party gained power for the first time since 1905, and Churchill began a long-term isolation, with few political allies.
In 1924 Churchill severed his ties with liberalism and became chancellor of the Exchequer (British treasury) in Stanley Baldwin’s (1867–1947) government. Churchill raised controversy when he decided to put Britain back on the gold standard, a system where currency equals the value of a specified amount of gold. Although he held office under Baldwin, Churchill did not agree with his position either on defence or on imperialism, Britain’s policy of ruling over its colonies. In 1931 he resigned from the conservative “shadow cabinet” in protest against its Indian policy.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, on 3 September 1939 the day Britain declared war on Germany, Churchill was appointed First Lord of The Admiralty and a member of the War Cabinet, just as he had been during the first part of the First World War. When they were informed, the Board of the Admiralty sent a signal to the Fleet: “Winston is back”. In this job, he proved to be one of the highest-profile ministers during the so-called “Phoney War”, when the only noticeable action was at sea. Churchill advocated the pre-emptive occupation of the neutral Norwegian iron-ore port of Narvik and the iron mines in Kiruna, Sweden, early in the war. However, Chamberlain and the rest of the War Cabinet disagreed, and the operation was delayed until the successful German Invasion of Norway.
On 10 May 1940, hours before the German invasion of France by a lightning advance through the Low Countries, it became clear that, following failure in Norway, the country had no confidence in Chamberlain’s prosecution of the war and so Chamberlain resigned. The commonly accepted version of events states that Lord Halifax turned down the post of prime minister because he believed he could not govern effectively as a member of the House of Lords instead of the House of Commons. Although the prime minister does not traditionally advise the King on the formers successor, Chamberlain wanted someone who would command the support of all three major parties in the House of Commons.
A meeting between Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill and David Margesson, the government Chief Whip, led to the recommendation of Churchill, and, as we are a constitutional monarch, King George VI asked Churchill to be prime minister and to form an all-party government. Churchill’s first act was to write to Chamberlain to thank him for his support.
Churchill had been among the first to recognise the growing threat of Hitler long before the outset of the Second World War, and his warnings had gone largely unheeded. Although there was an element of British public and political sentiment favouring negotiated peace with a clearly ascendant Germany, among them the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax.
Churchill nonetheless refused to consider an armistice with Hitler’s Germany. His use of rhetoric hardened public opinion against a peaceful resolution and prepared the British for a long war. Coining the general term for the upcoming battle, Churchill stated in his “Finest Hour” speech to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940, “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” By refusing an armistice with Germany, Churchill kept resistance alive in the British Empire and created the basis for the later Allied Counter-attacks of 1942–45, with Britain serving as a platform for the supply of Soviet union and the liberation of Western Europe.
In response to previous criticisms that there had been no clear single minister in charge of the prosecution of the war, Churchill created and took the additional position of Minister of Defence. He immediately put his friend and confidant, the industrialist and newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook, in charge of aircraft production. It was Beaverbrook’s business acumen that allowed Britain to quickly gear up aircraft production and engineering that eventually made the difference in the war.
Churchill’s speeches were a great inspiration to the embattled British. His first speech as prime minister was the famous “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”.
He followed that closely with two other equally famous ones, given just before the Battle of Britain. One included the words:
… 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.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour”.
At the height of the Battle of Britain, his bracing survey of the situation included the memorable line “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” which engendered the enduring nickname “The Few” for the RAF fighter pilots who won it.
One of his most memorable war speeches came on 10 November 1942 at the Lord Mayor’s Luncheon at Mansion House in London, in response to the Allied victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein. Churchill stated:
“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.
Without having much in the way of sustenance or good news to offer the British people, he took a risk in deliberately choosing to emphasise the dangers instead.
“Rhetorical power“, wrote Churchill, “is neither wholly bestowed, nor wholly acquired, but cultivated.“
As an Englishman I am proud we were able to stand alone from 1939 to the beginning of 1942 against Hitler, Stalin and the various Nazi quisling governments from continental Europe.
The final period of Churchill’s career began with the British people rejecting him in the general election of 1945. In that election 393 Labour candidates were elected members of Parliament against 213 Conservatives and their allies. It was one of the most striking reversals of fortune in democratic history. It may perhaps be explained by the British voters’ desire for social reform.
In 1951, the voters returned Churchill as prime minister. This was a belated thank you from the voters.
He resigned in April 1955 due to his age and health problems during his term in office. For many of the later years of his life, even his personal strength was not enough to resist the persistent cerebral arteriosclerosis, a brain disorder, from which he suffered. He died on January 24, 1965, and was given a state funeral.
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The Chinese call Britain ‘The Island of Hero’s’ which I think sums up what we British are all about. We British are inquisitive and competitive and are always looking over the horizon to the next adventure and discovery.
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