Another damned, thick, square book, eh, Mr. Gilbert?

Gibbonian in scale, the latest volume of Martin Gilbert’s Churchill has all the great virtues, idiosyncracies, and short-comings of its predecessors. This is not merely, as the cliché has it, a monument of historical scholarship—always a doubtful compliment, since monuments are generally viewed from the outside. This is a museum of historical scholarship, a vast, neoclassical museum in which the informed visitor can walk for days with profit and delight, though the casual visitor may soon be lost.

Gilbert’s long reconstruction of Churchill’s wartime life in extraordinary chronological detail, day by day, often hour by hour, leaves the reader, as the original left his associates, both exhilarated and exhausted. Perhaps only this method can bring home to us the full, awful burden of wartime leadership, and the gargantuan energy, spirit, wit, and gallantry with which Churchill carried this burden: an overweight man in his late sixties, having already suffered one minor heart attack, perpetually smoking, drinking, eating, and talking to excess; forever leaping in or out of trains and airplanes (between September 1939 and November 1943 he traveled 110,000 miles, spending 792 hours at sea and 335 hours in the air); now dashing off to meet Roosevelt in Washington, now to woo “the bear” in Moscow, to rally the troops in North Africa, to negotiate with the Turkish president (“The Turkish President kissed me” he told his daughter Sarah on retiring to bed. “The truth is I’m irresistible. But don’t tell Anthony [Eden], he’s jealous”); informing, inspiring, cajoling, bullying generals, allies, parliamentarians, Empire and Commonwealth leaders, family and friends; shooting off memoranda, many brilliant, some barmy, on every subject under the sun (the importance of well-chosen code names for operations, beer rations for the troops in Italy); dictating from his bed or his bath (between which two receptacles he spent much of his working day), reminiscing about his cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman until one in the morning, devouring official papers from his dispatch boxes until three, and still barking at his exhausted secretaries: “Gimme more!”

Gilbert’s method has the further virtue of often allowing us to see events as they occurred to Churchill, huggermugger, helter-skelter, without benefit of hind-sight. His exhaustive search for testimony from, it seems, everybody who came into contact with Churchill in these years has produced some choice nuggets. One example must stand for many. Just a few weeks before D-day Churchill is walking down to the House of Commons with John J. McCloy, then Roosevelt’s assistant secretary for war: “Suddenly,” McCloy later recalled, “he referred to the number of his early contemporaries who had been killed during what he called the hecatombs of World War I.” Churchill then described himself “as a sort of ‘sport’ in nature’s sense as he said most of his generation lay dead at Passchendaele and the Somme. An entire British generation of potential leaders had been cut off and Britain could not afford the loss of another generation.” As a general motive the fear of the cross-Channel second front becoming a second Passchendaele is well known, but here is a particularly vivid illustration of it.

We owe this illustration, and many like it, to Gilbert’s method: the entire passage is based on McCloy’s recollections given in a 1982 letter to the biographer, and presumably elicited by the biographer. This we find in Gilbert and nowhere else. Also peculiar to Gilbert are frequent extracts from the diaries and letters of Churchill’s typists, and testimony from others in relatively humble relation to the great man, although the historical significance of such evidence is less obvious—unless it be to prove that this man was a hero to his valet.

The author’s precision in detail is over-whelming, on small matters as much as great. Churchill quotes “Mrs. Glasse’s Cookery Book recipe for jugged hare—’First catch your hare.”‘ In a footnote, Gilbert tells us who Mrs. Glasse was, and corrects the quotation. Churchill writes to his wife that Anthony Eden has “a variety of streptos and staphylos” in his throat. In a footnote, Gilbert quotes a 1985 letter from a doctor who characterizes the offending bacteria, and explains how they would have been treated in 1944. No Boswell could be more assiduous. The forty-two-page index, compiled by the author, is itself a small masterpiece.

Finally, there is great virtue in the biographer’s own spare, restrained, work-manlike prose, relying for all its effects on a continuous barrage of direct quotation. (Characteristically, even the chapter headings are often quotations.) The great temptation for any Churchill biographer must be to write in sub-Churchillian periods. Gilbert has resisted the temptation. His own prose is a clear window onto Churchill’s.

Yet if these virtues of Gilbert’s work are more apparent than ever in his latest volume, so are the shortcomings which are often the reverse side of those virtues: les défauts de ses qualités. For a start, there are almost no curator’s signposts in this museum. The author rarely steps forward to tell us where we have got to, or where we are going. Any reader without a rather strong grasp of the strategic outlines of the war is likely to go astray. The range of his sources is enormous, yet the selection of sources is also radically partial. As indicated above, Gilbert makes exhaustive use of the Churchill papers (many of which figure in other scholars’ works as part of the PREM papers from the Public Record Office), some other British official papers (notably, in this volume, those of the Chiefs of Staff), and the private diaries, letters, and subsequent recollections of people who worked with him. However, he makes virtually no use of any foreign records (for example, to give the American side of the major Anglo-American strategic disputes), and, in what appears to be a sweeping self-denying ordinance, he almost entirely ignores the whole vast secondary literature on Churchill and the conduct of the war.


This kind of radical partiality may be defensible on practical grounds; perhaps essential if the whole enterprise is not to stretch out until doomsday. But there is another, more serious sense in which Gilbert’s work is often partial. It is not merely that he presents us with events only as they occurred to Churchill, or as Churchill shaped them. It is not just that he gives us those events through Churchill’s eyes, in Churchill’s words. It is that his overall version of these events (conveyed not by explicit analysis but by selection and quotation) is often essentially the version that Churchill himself subsequently gave to the world—with an utterly deliberate, supremely self-conscious, and magnificently persuasive partiality of his own.

“Footnotes to Churchill’s war memoirs” is how one historian of my acquaintance privately characterizes Gilbert’s whole vast opus. Some footnotes! Yet there is a grain of truth in this comradely verdict. “History will bear me out, particularly as I shall write that history myself,” Churchill famously remarked. He did, and it nearly has. We all live in the shadow of those memoirs: of the museum Churchill built. His picture of the war, presented with unique authority, is so powerful, so skillfully shaped, so satisfying as drama, that almost every Englishman for the last thirty years, and not only Englishmen, have essentially made that picture their own. For us, that was the war. “Anybody can make history,” said Oscar Wilde. “Only a great man can write it.” Churchill was writing history even as he made it; then he wrote it over again.

Nor did Churchill write the history of the war simply to establish his own, or Britain’s, or the Empire’s, place in that history. As he worked on the six volumes of The Second World War through the crescendo of the Cold War he also had a larger and more immediate political purpose. This purpose was to confirm and strengthen a “special relationship” between the United States of America and the British Commonwealth and Empire: a “special relationship” which he had come to regard as the best guarantee of the ancient liberties of the English-speaking peoples (and the newly restored liberties of West Europeans) against the threat of Stalin’s Russia, but also, and not incidentally, as the best guarantee of Britain’s continued presence at the top table of great powers in the postwar world.

In one sense, therefore, Churchill’s Second World War is a history of the Second World War. But in another sense it is a political speech—in a direct line from his 1943 address at Harvard and his more famous 1946 speech at Fulton, Missouri. Perhaps it is the greatest speech he ever made. Forty years later an Englishman may wonder if the path that Churchill chose for us to tread was the best one for the long-term interest of Britain. But it was of those interests that he always thought, and there is greatness even in his patriotic resolve to rewrite world history to serve his country.

In writing The Second World War Churchill therefore consistently played down Anglo-American wartime controversies and played up the special relationship symbolized by his friendship (or should it be “friendship”?) with Roosevelt. He did this quite consciously. “I am most anxious,” he wrote to President Eisenhower in 1953,

that nothing should be published which might seem to others to threaten our current relations in our public duties or impair the sympathy and understanding which exists between our two countries. I have therefore gone over the book [the last volume, Triumph and Tragedy] again in the last few months and have taken great pains to ensure that it contains nothing which might imply that there was in those days any controversy or lack of confidence between us.1

Yet of course there was, and Churchill knew there was. Today we have a formidable collection of primary and secondary sources (most recently, David Eisenhower’s Eisenhower: At War) which demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt the extent of Anglo-American disagreements over the conduct of the war, the way in which these arguments were from the outset shaped by differing national and imperial interests, and the fact that civil and military leaders on both sides of the Atlantic were ever conscious of these political considerations, even when they couched the argument in purely military terms.2 While debating “how best to win the war” they were also debating how best to win the peace; and who would win it. No doubt some historians, fired with the intoxicating spirit of revisionism, have erred as far to starboard as Churchill deliberately erred to port. But the mass of evidence they present can hardly be ignored. It must therefore be the business of the Churchill biographer, even if he does not aspire to be a critical biographer, to draw on this evidence to compensate for the grand, deliberate partiality of Churchill’s own account, and, so far as possible, to get at the whole truth.3


Take, for example, the central question of Churchill’s attitude to the cross-Channel second front. Arguments about this question already fill libraries.4 What does Gilbert add to our understanding of it? Alas, very little. He gives us much chronological detail and direct quotation, but as the quotations pile up the picture becomes more and more confused. In April 1942 Hopkins and Marshall personally bring Churchill the American master plan, giving top priority to the cross-Channel second front as the principal operation of the war. Gilbert quotes Churchill’s first response to what he called, with characteristic euphuism, Roosevelt’s “masterly document”: “I am in entire agreement in principle with all you propose, and so are the Chiefs of Staff.” The words “in principle” should be a red warning light, for in Whitehall and Westminster “yes in principle” is often a synonym for “no.” Gilbert does not gloss this (although he does show us the British Chiefs of Staff already insisting that cross-Channel landings in 1942 would be impossible). Yet if we turn to the American sources we find that his American interlocutors were perfectly alert to the ambiguity of that agreement “in principle.” In response to Hopkins’s and Marshall’s reports from London, Roosevelt telegraphed (to Hopkins), “I agree that mere acquiescence on the part of our friends is not sufficient”5 (my italics). Three months later Churchill is urging on Roosevelt the virtues of landing first in French North Africa (operation “Gymnast”): “Here is the true Second Front of 1942.” After some hard discussion that diversion was agreed to (with “Gymnast” expanded and renamed “Torch”) as the only feasible operation to give some semblance of relief to the Russians in 1942. However, the head of the British Joint Staff Mission in Washington, Field Marshal Dill, warned Churchill in a long telegram:

Marshall believes that your first love is “Gymnast,” just as his is “Bolero” [the buildup for cross-Channel invasion], and that with the smallest provocation you always revert to your old love. Unless you can convince him of your unswerving devotion to “Bolero” everything points to a complete reversal of our present agreed strategy and the withdrawal of America to a war of her own in the Pacific, leaving us with limited American assistance to make out as best we can against Germany.

Churchill now had the unenviable task of telling Stalin that there would be no second front in Europe in 1942. As he awaited his plane to Moscow (via Cairo) at Lyneham airport a message came through from Dill “stating that in ‘the American mind,’ an offensive in Europe in 1943 was ‘excluded’ by the acceptance of a North Africa landing in 1942. ‘Torch’ in 1942 would make the cross-Channel ‘Round-Up’ impossible in 1943” (Gilbert’s words, my italics).

Now this is a really vital point. But Gilbert does not pause to tell us, here or subsequently, how Churchill himself responded to this American insight, as relayed by Dill, an insight fundamental to the whole future conduct of the war. Did he disagree? Did he agree, but refuse to admit it publicly? Did he simply not take it in? The biographer’s only passing comment, a rather cryptic one in the circumstances, is that “this American support enabled Churchill to approach Stalin with greater confidence.” In Moscow, Churchill told Stalin that “the British and American governments were preparing for a very great operation in 1943,” but noted the possibility that in 1943 “the Germans would have a stronger army in the West than they now had”—at which point, as the British minutes noted, “Stalin’s face crumpled up into a frown.” He then partly succeeded in selling the North African landings to Stalin with the aid of the famous (and misleading) metaphor of the soft underbelly of the crocodile, thus hinting also at the possibility of a follow-up into Italy.

Gilbert is nonetheless at pains to show how in the autumn of 1942 Churchill was still earnestly pressing for the cross-Channel invasion in 1943 (and blaming the Americans for an inadequate build-up of forces in the UK). He quotes, for example, a November 18 minute to the British Chiefs of Staff: “My own position is that I am still aiming at a ‘Round-up’ retarded till August. I cannot give this up without a massive presentation of facts and figures which prove physical impossibility.” Only in April 1943 was it formally agreed at a Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting that (save in the event of an unexpected German collapse) the Channel would not be crossed in 1943.

Churchill, in Gilbert’s account (supported as always by direct quotation), was nonetheless rooting for it still. Three months later, however, he is urging the Chiefs of Staff to consider landings in northern Norway (with icebergs used as floating air bases) as an alternative to landing in France in spring 1944, with the cross-Channel plan (renamed “Overlord”) now merely serving as a cover. The “right strategy,” he argues, would be to push up from Italy and down from Norway, pinning the Germans in between.

Yet a month later, in his presentation to the Americans at the Quebec Conference, all his emphasis is once again on the priority for “Overlord”: limitations in Italy might have to be accepted “in order that the integrity of Operation ‘Overlord’ should not be marred.” By the autumn, however, he is once again blowing full steam for Italy, looking to the possibility of a lunge into the Balkans, fuming at the very limitations that he accepted (“in principle,” so to speak) at Quebec, and warning Eden (“for your internal consumption”) of “the dangers of our being committed to a lawyer’s bargain for ‘Overlord’ in May for the sake of which we may have to ruin the Italian and Balkan possibilities.”

By this time the reader may well be asking himself the question that Stalin asked Churchill at Tehran: whether “the Prime Minister and the British Staffs really believe in ‘Overlord.”‘ Gilbert, however, insists, in a rare authorial judgment, that “in spite of his grave doubts, Churchill’s work for ‘Overlord’ was continuous and wholehearted.” Yet at a meeting with Dominion prime ministers in May 1944, only a month before the Normandy landings, Churchill himself declared that his own inclination “would have been in favour of rolling up Europe from the South-East, and joining hands with the Russians. However, it had proved impossible to persuade the United States to this view.”

The general reader who looks to Gilbert’s biography for an explanation of Churchill’s attitude to the cross-Channel second front must by now be thoroughly confused: more confused, I think, than the intrinsic confusion of the events themselves would warrant. Understanding beings with recognition of the simple fact that Churchill, like most human beings in general, and politicians in particular, said different things to different people at different times, and quite often did not say precisely what he meant or mean exactly what he said. This lack of perfect consistency was reinforced by at least two contrasting aspects of his immensely complex personality.

On the one hand, there was the mercurial, volatile, ceaselessly fertile enthusiast of war, at best producing fresh, bold, and original responses to each new military opportunity as it arose; at worst, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity in the elaboration of quite harebrained schemes. On the other hand, there was the past master of politics, skillfully trimming his language to suit and woo each separate interlocutor. The first Churchill is most visible in his minutes to the Chiefs of Staff, and the testy diaries of General Brooke; the second, in the record of his dealings with Stalin, Roosevelt, and their senior associates, notably Marshall and Eisenhower.

So vast is the forest of Churchill’s recorded words that out of its wood you can easily carve a dozen quite different life-size Churchills. If you choose to isolate the latter aspect, you can depict him as paying hypocritical lip service to the cross-Channel second front, while in fact assiduously pursuing the peripheral, and specifically the Mediterranean, strategy which he felt to be in the best interests of the British Empire: Churchill as imperial Machiavelli. If you single out the former, then you can portray him as a gung-ho amateur enthusiast, blind to the hard quantitative realities of modern warfare, wanting everything at once—landings in Italy and Norway and France and the Balkans—less Machiavelli than Evelyn Waugh’s Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, raring to go “biffing” the enemy wherever the enemy might be biffed.

The truth, of course, is much more complicated than either of these caricatures, although it contains elements of both. Churchill was part Machiavelli and part Ritchie-Hook; but there were many other parts as well. Any convincing interpretation of Churchill’s attitude to the second front—or any other great issue—must attempt to take account of all the parts; to weigh the elements of opportunism against the constant concerns; to collate all Churchill’s statements with a precise appreciation of the moment and the audience and the purpose for which each was crafted or tossed off by the master draughtsman. It is a formidable task, but not an impossible one.

Gilbert is uniquely placed to perform it, but alas, he does not: at least, not in this volume. The opportunity to clarify the great Anglo-American strategic dispute—and with it one of the largest “ifs” in recent history—has here been missed. There is a curious blandness, almost a seeming naiveté, about his presentation of Churchill’s statements, without clear indication of a context that often (though not always!) makes underlying consistency out of apparent inconsistency. It is almost as if he expects us always simply to take the great man at his word. It is not—let us be clear—that he ignores the contradictory evidence: there is much of that here. But the evidence is presented without the commentary, analysis, or interpretation that would really make sense of it. In the absence of a real biographical interpretation, the general reader will fall back either into confusion, or, more probably, into the vivid, compelling, but artistically simplified interpretation which Churchill himself gave in the memoirs—especially since Gilbert himself cleaves to that interpretation at crucial points.

The specialist scholar, meanwhile, will be left with an almost unbearable itch to get hold of all the documents. Gilbert’s posture is that of a chronicler who will “let the facts speak for themselves”: it would be nearer the truth to say that he lets the facts speak for Churchill—and for Churchill’s interpretation of Churchill. Curiously enough, the effect is not to augment the stature of the hero but if anything slightly to diminish it. The simplified Churchill of the memoirs is obviously a great man. But the real, enormously complex Churchill, deploying all that fantastic verbal armory to sustain—at times, almost to substitute for—imperial Britain’s waning power: surely the real man is greater still.

This problem of, so to speak, the missing dimension, is felt most acutely in Gilbert’s presentation of the personal relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt, which Churchill of course made the symbolic centerpiece of the “special relationship,” and which has been the model for British prime ministers, Conservative or Labour, in their relations with American presidents ever since.6 Obviously the truth was far more complicated than Churchill’s mythopoeic account. There was never perfect confidence, and much underlying suspicion, especially in the White House and particularly on the distaff side. A reading of Warren F. Kimball’s edition of the Churchill–Roosevelt correspondence clearly shows how the relationship actually deteriorated from a high point of harmony and cordiality in 1943, under the multiple strains of the “eternal triangle” with Stalin, the growing preponderance of American over British power, the increasing immediacy of postwar issues on which interests diverged, and, not least, sickness and exhaustion on both sides.

Once again, Gilbert is too scrupulous and exhaustive a chronicler not to give us some of that evidence of less than perfect harmony which Churchill deliberately forgot. He shows us, for example, a dinner at the White House on Christmas Eve 1941 when Roosevelt delighted in “needling Churchill for having been on the wrong side in the Boer War.” He gives a glimpse of Roosevelt in April 1944 instructing his staff neither to acknowledge nor to reply to one of Churchill’s cables. And he shows us Churchill in March 1945 making an almost desperate attempt to reestablish personal contact with the dying Roosevelt, whose personal telegrams were, Churchill felt, now being written almost entirely by his staff.

He does not, however, quote Churchill’s most bitter outbursts. For instance, his description of the September 1944 Quebec Conference begins and ends with Churchill’s characterization of it as “a blaze of friendship.” Yet according to one witness Churchill was at one point during that conference reduced to asking the President, “What do you want me to do—stand up and beg like Fala?” (Fala being the President’s dog).7 He gives an extremely detailed blow-by-blow account of the very sharp Anglo-American controversy in June 1944 about the wisdom of diverting troops from Italy to invade southern France (“Anvil,” later “Dragoon”), emphasizing (as throughout this volume) the significance of British intelligence decrypts of German military communications which Churchill could not mention in his memoirs. Now a glance at Kimball’s edition shows that at the height of this controversy Churchill drafted an extremely angry and bitter telegram to the President, including an extraordinary threat of resignation:

The whole campaign in Italy is being ruined…. If my departure from the scene would ease matters, by tendering my resignation to The King, I would gladly make this contribution….

…no one ever contemplated that everything that was hopeful in the Mediterranean should be flung on one side, like the rind of an orange, in order that some minor benefice might come to help the theatre of your command…. There is nothing I will not do to end this dead-lock except become responsible for an absolutely perverse strategy. If you wish, I will come at once across the ocean to Bermuda, or Quebec or, if you like, Washington. The very first weather that can be found, and the very swiftest aeroplane that can be got shall be my chariot.

This brimstone draft concluded: “Therefore I think I have a right to some consideration from you, my friend, at a time when our joint ventures have dazzled the world with success.”8

The next day, after discussions with the Chiefs of Staff, this was simmered down to a much milder, more measured and suppliant text, concluding in sorrow, not in anger:

It is with the greatest sorrow that I write to you in this sense. But I am sure that if we could have met, as I so frequently proposed, we should have reached a happy agreement. I send you every personal good wish. However we may differ on the conduct of the war, my personal gratitude to you for your kindness to me and for all you have done for the cause of freedom will never be diminished.

In his extremely detailed account, Gilbert reveals that Churchill actually ordered aircraft to stand by for a trip across the Atlantic, and quotes at length from the final version of the telegram, but he neither quotes from, nor explicitly refers to, the first draft.

Now of course the selection of material to quote or not to quote is a matter of fine judgment. Even in 1417 pages the biographer cannot give us everything. Probably he has excellent reasons, unknown to this reviewer, for not referring to what is, on the face of it, an extraordinary document. But one is left with a nagging sense of unease. The point, once again, is that knowledge of the full characteristic Churchillian sequence—explosion of anger, reflection and discussion, eloquent resentment softened into sterling magnanimity—will rather enhance than diminish our respect for Churchill. Only thus can we appreciate the full largeness of the man, subordinating those mere personal emotions, the conditions of friendship for most ordinary human beings, to the Friendship that History required. (“Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world.”) One is also left wondering if future historians may find more material in the private family papers—and particularly in those of Clementine Churchill—to illustrate, as it were in three dimensions rather than two, this very special relationship.

The best starting point for a truly analytical and critical interpretation of Churchill might be the fact that he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953—and deserved it.

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent…

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.

The English language lived in Churchill, and he still lives in it. His mastery of English was of an unusual kind. It was mastery of the dictated word. Virtually everything he wrote was dictated: starting with the essays he dictated to a senior pupil at Harrow in return for help with his Latin translation. His books were dictated. His speeches were dictated. His memorandums were dictated. Most of his letters were dictated. Even his conversation was a kind of dictation. Of him the conventional phrase, “never at a loss for words,” seems to have been literally true.

Witness one funny and revealing moment early in this volume. Churchill is staying at the White House on the Christmas 1941 visit mentioned above. “One morning,” an aide recalls, “the Prime Minister wanted to dictate while he was in his bath—not a minute could be wasted—He kept submerging in the bath and when he ‘surfaced’ he would dictate a few more words or sentences.”9 Emerging from the bath, he went on dictating, pacing up and down his enormous bedroom, wrapped only in a towel. The towel fell to the floor. Still he paced. Still he dictated. Suddenly President Roosevelt entered the room, to find the British prime minister marching up and down stark naked. Churchill said: “You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you….”

Faced with such presence of mind and such command of language in the most intimate and surprising circumstances, let alone in official or public dealings, the biographer or historian can only find it exceptionally difficult to discover the “real,” “true,” private Churchill. We can follow with admiration the virtuosity of the maestro, using his instrument, the English language, not just to inspire millions but also to persuade and cajole allies and opponents, to charm in a small circle, to encourage or to console an individual (which last he found the time to do often, personally and with much sensitivity). At his most pure and inspired, Churchill could place “the best words in the best order,” beautifully. But he was also ever ready with the parliamentary skills of grand imprecision and seduction by metaphor: a master of terminological inexactitude.

When he describes the prospect of a thrust up into Italy from North Africa as striking at the “soft underbelly of the crocodile,” even Stalin is intrigued. Posterity is charmed. The metaphor is irresistible: we can hear him say it (“the shhoft underbelly”) and we at once see the point. How brilliant to strike at the monster’s most vulnerable part, at the soft underbelly! Only a pedant would rather hearken to those carping geographers and military historians who meanly object that few places on the continent of Europe bear less a resemblance to a soft underbelly: that, in fact, an advance up the hard, mountainous spine of Italy was more like crawling up the crocodile’s tail than striking at its belly.

With a clear head, we may resist the charms, but then we desire even more to know what Churchill was really thinking. (How far, for example, was he seduced by his own metaphors?) This it is exceedingly hard to say. Perhaps the “truest” source we have are his private letters to his wife, and the extracts that Gilbert prints from these are the most interesting and moving in the book. (May we hope to have a separate edition of them soon?) There is one leitmotif which, it seems to me, sounds most plangently from these extracts (and other glimpses of the “private” Churchill) and which is not, for obvious reasons, a leitmotif of Churchill’s own memoirs. This is what I might call, at the risk of sounding like a Palm Court compère, the “Imperial Sunset” theme.

Churchill’s whole life was bound up with that of the Empire. They grew old together. When he came to manhood, the imperial sun was at its zenith. The Boer War, in which he fought, was the first clear public signal of decline. When he died, the sun had set. His funeral—this reviewer’s first political memory—was the Empire’s Last Post. He believed in the Empire in a way that was rare already—even anachronistic—by the time of the war; incomprehensible to most foreigners (especially, perhaps, to Americans); and is today almost impossible to re-create emotionally as well as intellectually (to “nachempfinden“).

Two concepts are central: liberty and glory. He truly believed that the Empire meant liberty. Even in his Fulton speech, addressing an audience unlikely to be sympathetic on just this point, what he chose as a contrast with the lost freedoms of Central and Eastern Europeans was “the liberties enjoyed by individual citizens throughout the British Empire.” In his lectures on Churchill’s political philosophy Martin Gilbert convincingly demonstrates that—strange though it may seem, perhaps offensive, even, to some former subjects of that Empire—this was Churchill’s constant and sincere belief.10

Churchill also believed that the Empire was glorious. Its feats of arms would be inscribed on gilded pages; they would echo down to the last syllable of recorded time. Malory and G.A. Henty, C.S. Forester, Walter Scott, and Shakespeare are somehow all rolled up together in this bold, simple, brightly colored vision of chivalry: a vision that, even for some of his contemporaries, teetered on the border line between the sublime and the ridiculous. What he loved about the Italian campaign was that here you had “the Army of the British Empire”—and it was glorious. Yet it was “being pulled to pieces by American strategy,” as he wrote to his wife in August 1944. “The only times I ever quarrel with the Americans,” he wrote to her eight months later, “are when they fail to bring us a fair share of opportunity to win glory.” And he continued: “Undoubtedly I feel much pain when I see our armies so much smaller than theirs. It has always been my wish to keep equal, but how can you do that against so mighty a nation and a population nearly three times our own?”

“I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” he declared in November 1942. Why did he say this? Because that is what he felt that he was being called upon to do—and not just by Roosevelt. As we follow him through 1944 and into 1945 (this “new, disgusting year”) with the proliferation of complex and intractable regional problems, the growing preponderance of the United States and the Soviet Union, and the exhaustion of Britain, we feel in him the growing, gnawing sense that to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire is precisely what History has called upon him—of all people—to do:

Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!

Waiting at Malta, en route to Yalta, in February 1945, he reads Beverly Nichols’s Verdict on India, a book recommended to him by one of his private secretaries, Jock Colville. He writes to Clemmie:

I have had for some time a feeling of despair about the British connection with India, and still more about what will happen if it is suddenly broken. Meanwhile we are holding on to this vast Empire, from which we get nothing, amid the increasing criticism and abuse of the world and our own people…. However out of my shadows has come a renewed resolve to go fighting on as long as possible and to make sure the Flag is not let down while I am at the wheel [my italics].

In these last months his secretaries note that he is often distracted and heavy with cares: in the dispatch boxes, the papers pile up unread. Colville records a dinner at Chequers ten days after the end of the Yalta Conference:

Then we sat in the Great Hall and listened to the Mikado played, much too slowly, on the gramophone. The PM said it brought back “the Victorian era, eighty years which will rank in our island history with the Antonine age.” Now, however, “the shadows of victory” were upon us…. After this war, continued the PM, we should be weak, we should have no money and no strength and we should lie between the two great powers of the USA and the USSR.

Lunching with President Benes and his foreign minister, Jan Masaryk, he told them that “a small lion was walking between a huge Russian bear and a great American elephant.” A small lion! He saw the reality of decline sooner and more clearly than most of his fellow countrymen, because he saw it from the inside and because he cared so passionately about it. Of course he was not led to conclude that this reality should be admitted and accepted. No, it must be denied and fought! The Special Relationship would be his Excalibur.

In the preface to the last volume of his memoirs he wrote, “I have called this Volume Triumph and Tragedy because the overwhelming victory of the Grand Alliance has failed so far to bring general peace to our anxious world.” The word “tragedy” in his title has been especially, and justly, applied to the fate of the hundred million Europeans who exchanged one dictatorship for another. No one would speak more movingly of their plight. But is it altogether absurd to suggest that for Churchill himself, personally, in the inner core of his being, the “tragedy” of his title referred rather—and perhaps only subconsciously—to the plight of Britain?

On V-E Day (with which Martin Gilbert ends this volume) Churchill broadcast to the British people, and to the world, from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. He concluded with the words: “Advance, Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King.” One of his secretaries noted: “The PM’s voice broke as he said ‘Advance, Britannia!”‘ For in sober truth, from that day forward it was: Retreat, Britannia.

I shall discuss Churchill’s attitude to Central and Eastern Europe and his relations with Stalin—both richly documented by Gilbert—in a later review, concentrating on the transition from world war to cold war and on Hugh Thomas’s Armed Truce.

This Issue

May 7, 1987