By Keith Hickey
Churchill, born on November 30, 1874, was the eldest son of Lord Randolph Churchill and the American heiress Jennie Jerome. He was educated at Harrow school and then became a cadet at the Royal Military Collage, Sandhurst, passing out in February 1895 as a second lieutenant in the Forth Queen’s Owns Hussars. He served as a cavalry officer in India and the Sudan (where he rode in the cavalry charge at Omdurman in 1898 under the command of Horatio Herbert Kitchner), but resigned his commission in 1899 to become a newspaper correspondent in the South African Wars (Boer Wars). A daring escape from prison after he had been captured by the Boers made him a national hero and in 1900, he was elected to parliament as conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Oldham.
In 1904, he went over to the liberal party, having broken with the conservatives on the issue of free trade, angering his constituents. Having found a new Manchester seat to contest, he was swept back into parliament in the Liberal “landslide” of 1906. In 1908, he became president of the Board of trade in the Liberal Cabinet of Herbert Henry Asquith, where he worked closely with the radical Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, in promoting social reform. After a brief period as home secretary (1910-1911), during which he pursued the same policies, he became First Lord of the Admiralty, (1911-1915). Before World War 1 he had insisted on maintaining the British Navy’s superiority over that of its nearest rival, the German Navy, against the pressure of Cabinet economizers like Lloyd George for reductions in the naval estimates.
Churchill’s role in World War 1 was controversial and almost destroyed his career. He was an energetic First Lord, but his sponsorship of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent failure of the Anglo-French fleets to force the Dardanelles Strait led Asquith to demote him to the powerless office of the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in may 1915. Deprived of any influence on the war, he resigned from his post in disgust in November. Following service as a battalion commander on the Western front, he was brought back to political life in 1917 by the new Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who appointed him Minister of Munitions. After the war, he served in Lloyd George’s coalition Cabinet from 1919 to 1922, as secretary for war and air and as colonial secretary. The collapse of Lloyd George’s government in September 1922, after a war scare over Turkey in which Churchill played a typically bellicose role, left him out of office and out of Parliament –he lost his seat at the subsequent General election and was not returned to parliament until October 1924, as “Constitutionalist” (conservative) MP for Epping. Much to his surprise the conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, offered him the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he demonstrated his new conservative credentials by returning Britain to the gold standard and vigorously condemning the trade unions during the 1926 general Strike.
Churchill was undoubtedly an inspirational wartime leader. His pugnacity and rousing speeches rallied the nation to continue the fight after the fall of France and the Evacuation of Dunkirk. During the dark days of 1940, through the battle of Britain and the blitz when Britain stood alone against the Axis Powers, he urged his compatriots to conduct themselves so that, “if the British Empire and its commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say: `this was their finest hour`.”On June 18 1940 he said,”We do not yet know what will happen in France or whether the French resistance will be prolonged, both in France and the French Empire overseas. The French government will be throwing away great opportunities and casting adrift their futures if they do not continue the war in accordance with their treaty obligations, from which we have not felt able to release them. He successfully resisted pressure from inside the war cabinet for a compromise peace with Germany in may 1940 and placed his hopes for eventual victory on the intervention of the United States in the war on Britain’s side. There was little sign of this during the summer of 1940, but with the successful outcome of the battle of Britain, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to support Britain, not by any direct American intervention but with Naval assistance and military lend-lease aid.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill welcomed this new adherent to the allied cause, this despite his implacable hostility towards the soviet regime in the 1920s. He was overjoyed when the United States entered the war in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on pearl harbor. Churchill established close ties with Roosevelt and the soviet leader Joseph Stalin, forming a triumvirate at the head of what he termed “Grand Alliance”. Travelling ceaselessly, he labored to coordinate military strategy against Adolf Hitler and the axis. For a time Roosevelt generally adopted Churchill’s strategic ideas, Such as the Prime Minister’s insistence on the invasion of North Africa in 1942 instead of a cross channel assault, which the American army chiefs wanted. However after 1943, as the United States had become immeasurably more powerful, Churchill was forced increasingly to accept American-imposed war plans, despite his vigorous courting of Roosevelt by means of frequent face to face meetings in the United States, Canada, North Africa. Churchill’s warnings after the Yalta Conference in early 1945 about Stalin’s European ambitions were ignored- Roosevelt wanted to work with Stalin for a peaceful post war order. British general elections were held during the Potsdam Conference, the last great “Big Three” conference in the summer of 1945, with Churchill present for part of the time. Given his popularity as wartime leader, he was not expected to be defeated at the election. However, the Labor Party won by a landslide. British public opinion was alienated by Churchill’s repugnance for social and economic reform (he had taken very little interest in domestic pollicies during the war), nor did it wish to return to the slump and unemployment of the 1930’s with which the conservatives were now identified.
Inevitably, Churchill was critical of the “welfare state” reforms of his successor, Clement Attlee. He voiced his suspicions of the soviet danger in his famous iron curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. He became Prime Minister again from 1951 – to 1955, but apart from occasional prophetic warnings about the danger of nuclear devastation, he was handicapped by age and poor health from accomplishing much, and it was not an auspicious end to his long political career. After his resignation in 1955, he devoted his last years to painting and writing. He died on January 24, 1965, at the age of 90. Following a state funeral, he was buried at Baldon, near Blenheim Palace, the one time home of his ancestor John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.
Churchill was a prolific historical writer, although much of his work was dedicated to justifying his past actions and his place in history. His most famous works are The world crises (4 vols. 1923-1929), My early life (1930), Marlborough (4 vols. 1933-1938), The second world war (6 vols. 1948-1953), and A history of the English-speaking peoples (4 vols. 1956-1958) He received the Nobel prize for literature and a knighthood (he refused a dukedom) in 1953.
Churchill’s death in 1965 marked the end of an era in British history. Born into an aristocratic family, he participated in Britain’s transformation from British Empire to Welfare State and its decline as world power, developments, which he bitterly regretted. He is particularly remembered for his courageous stand as Prime Minister 1940 and 1941, when Britain stood alone against perhaps the most dangerous adversary it had faced in its long history.