Winston Churchill

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Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) had a full life of which little detail can be given here. See the ODNB for more, or a full biography, such as Gilbert. Born at Blenheim Palace, son of Lord Randolph Churchill, a prominent politician, and his American wife Lady Randolph, he was well-connected. (It was often said that his brash and 'pushy' manner owed much to the American strand of his descent. It is also clear that he and Franklin D. Roosevelt felt close, for the same reason.) Through his career, he made many enemies, and there are alternative ways of looking at many of the events noted here. Those who grew up during the war say "He gave us courage" and "It was Churchill that convinced us to go on fighting". ODNB records that he enjoyed "a phenomenally high level of support ... throughout the war" (In July 1940, he had 88 per cent public approval). (For a note on his forename, see Winston.)


He began his career in the army, his father thinking him not clever enough for university (Harrow School, where he learned English and History well, and hated Latin, would have agreed). After Sandhurst (1893-1895), he was commissioned in the Queen's Own Hussars. He fought on the North-West Frontier (of India) in 1897, simultaneously reporting on the campaign for the Daily Telegraph; and in the Sudan in 1898, taking part in the cavalry charge at Omdurman (and reporting for the Morning Post). He resigned his commission in 1899, but went to South African War as war correspondent of the Morning Post. Captured by the Boers, he escaped and travelled 300 miles through hostile territory, becoming a sensation. He was commissioned in the South African Light Horse, serving in the relief of Ladysmith and that of Pretoria. Churchill exploited this fame in books; lecture tours which earned £10,000; and election as a Conservative MP for Oldham (where he had lost once before) in 1900. He had no hope of office under Balfour, and disagreeing with his party over Free Trade, crossed the floor and joined the Liberals in 1904. He was first appointed to office in 1905, as under-secretary at the Colonial Office. Some subsequent posts were:

  • President of the Board of Trade (1908), the youngest cabinet minister since 1866 (sitting as Liberal member for Dundee). He caused controversy by the tenacity with which he fought the Lords in helping to pass 'the People's Budget'.
  • Home Secretary (1910). Controversy came when he was held responsible for the Black Friday violent suppression of a suffragette rally (1910); the Tonypandy (or Rhondda) Riots of 1910-11 (a series of strikes in Wales suppressed by London police and troops) in which two rioters were shot dead; and the Sidney Street Siege, in which a gunfight took place between police and anarchists, with at least six deaths.
  • First Lord of the Admiralty (civilian head of the Royal Navy), 1911. Many admirals opposed his reforming instincts, and he alienated some Liberals by his expansionist policies. (During this period, he took an active part in trying to solve the problem of Ulster, in discussion of Irish Home Rule.)
    • When war broke out in 1914, his personal involvement in defending Antwerp from the German advance attracted criticism, though it may have saved other ports by holding up the German advance; as did far more strongly his involvement in the disaster of the Gallipoli landings in the Dardanelles campaign of 1915-6. As a result of the failure of this strategy (the Dardanelles Commission absolved him of responsibility in 1917), Churchill resigned his office in 1915 and took command of a battalion on the Western front, where he was frequently under fire. He returned to Westminster when his battalion was amalgamated with another.
  • Minister for Munitions (1917). Conservatives protested against this appointment, and kept him out of the War Cabinet. (While at the Admiralty, he had driven 'Landship development', or the building of the first tanks.)
  • Secretary for War and Air (1918) in Lloyd George's Coalition Government. He supported the White Russians (czarists) in the Civil War in Russia, having a strong feeling against the Bolsheviks. He approved the use of poison gas in Iraq in 1919, though it is not clear whether it was ever used.
  • Colonial Secretary. He had authorized the raising of the loathed 'Black and Tans' as Secretary for War; now he further alienated many Irish in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, although Michael Collins (1890-1922), chairman of the provisional government of the Irish Free State, said "Tell Winston that we could never have done anything without him." He was instrumental in the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan, which confined the promised Jewish National Home to Palestine west of the River Jordan.
    • In the 1922 General Election, he lost his seat, not being re-elected until 1924, as a 'constitutionalist' candidate supported by the Conservative party . During this hiatus, he began his account of the Great War, The World Crisis (both vols 1 and 2 in 1923; 4 more by 1931).
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer, under Baldwin as Prime Minister (1924), and having "re-ratted" (= changed sides again; "Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat"), he was formally Conservative once more. He returned Britain to the Gold Standard, which was popular at the time, although it put British trade at a disadvantage (Churchill himself came to see it as an error, as Keynes had already labelled it). It was one of the causes of the General Strike of 1926, in which Churchill was active against the strikers.
  • In 1929, the Conservatives lost the General Election. Churchill resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in 1931 in disagreement over the future independence of India and the release of Gandhi from prison. The decade that followed were his "wilderness years", when he occupied his time in writing, both polemically and in various historical volumes, notably his four-volume biography of his great ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. He also began work in 1938 on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, of which some 530,000 words were in proof by September 1939. From 1936, he also increasingly disagreed with his party about defence, the re-armament of Germany under the Nazis and the abdication of Edward VIII. He was a fierce critic of the Munich Agreement, saying to Chamberlain "You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war."
  • In September 1939, on the outbreak of war, Churchill was re-appointed as First Lord of the Admiralty. It is said that the Admiralty signalled all ships "Winston is back", which is interpreted as a sign of his popularity with the Navy.
  • On 10th May 1940 Churchill became Prime Minister, and led a coalition government for the duration of the war. He was approved of by most of the British people, and inspired the stoicism and determination of the forces and civilian population which resulted in victory (in Europe, 8th May 1945; in the Far East, 15th August, 1945). Thus it was a surprise when his Conservative party lost power in the post-war election to the Labour party led by Attlee. (It might be said that Britain's greatest twentieth-century war leader was followed by Britain's greatest twentieth-century peacetime government.) In 1951, he won an election, and served as Prime Minister again until he resigned, following several strokes, in 1955. He died in 1965

Churchill was a respected orator, whose rich voice, with its slight impediment, is familiar to most Britons even half a century after he last spoke. It has been much imitated, or parodied: politicians aspire to be churchillian in their speeches - or commentators claim that they do. His famous speeches include his first speech as Prime Minister, with the sentence "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" (13 May 1940) [[1]]; his response to the surrender of France, "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" (4 June 1940)

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'" (18 June) 1940

on the Battle of Britain "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" (20 August 1940)

"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent" ('Iron curtain' had previously been applied by others to the Soviet Union or her sphere of influence, e.g. Ethel Snowden Through Bolshevik Russia (1920), Dr Goebbels Das Reich (25 February 1945), and by Churchill himself in a cable to President Truman (4 June 1945))


In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature 'for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values'. The writings for which he is remembered are part history and part autobiography, in that he writes best of those events in which he has a personal interest.

  • He published one novel, Savrola (1900)
  • My Early Life: A Roving Commission (1930), incorporating London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian Hamilton's March (1900).
  • Lord Randolph Churchill (two volumes, 1906): the Life of his father, issued within 10 years of the latter's death, during four of which he was on active service, as well as winning an election.
  • The World Crisis (six volumes, 1923-31), a history of the First World War. (Balfour described it as "Winston's brilliant autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe.")
  • Marlborough: his life and times (1935-8)
  • The Second World War (six volumes, 1948-53)
  • A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (four volumes, 1956-58).