Talking All the Way

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine

Of the four leaders who dominated international politics during the Second World War, Winston Churchill had the greatest amount of military experience. Adolf Hitler was a common soldier and an intrepid dispatch carrier during the First World War. Franklin Roosevelt served briefly as assistant secretary of the Navy after the same conflict. Joseph Stalin lacked even this minimal acquaintance with modern war, and unlike Hitler had no natural tactical or strategical gifts, as he was to show in June 1941.

Winston Churchill, however, was fascinated from early childhood with soldiers and the military life. After graduating from Sandhurst, he received a commission in the 4th Hussars and, before taking up his duties, experienced his baptism of fire in Cuba, in a bitter conflict between Spain and a hard-fighting guerrilla force. Posted then to India, he took leave to join the Malakand Field Force, which was engaged on the Northwest Frontier in a nasty little war which Churchill described in his first and highly successful book in 1898. From then on his military and literary careers proceeded apace. In 1898 he managed to wangle a commission in the 21st Lancers in Egypt, where Sir Herbert Kitchener was seeking to repel the incursion of a strong Sudanese army commanded by the holy man called the Khalifa Addalla, and participated in the battle at Omdurman which broke the back of the Sudanese force.

His lust for battle still unsatisfied, he then gave up his commission and went to South Africa, where the Boers were challenging British sovereignty, to cover the fighting as correspondent for the Morning Post. This might have been a prosaic assignment had he not been captured during the siege of Ladysmith and subsequently effected a dramatic escape from imprisonment that made him famous throughout the empire. He could have parlayed this into a lucrative journalistic career but, when offered a commission by Sir Redvers Buller, who badly needed good officers, he accepted and was subsequently engaged at Spion Kopp, the relief of Ladysmith, and Dewetsdorp, repeatedly demonstrating his courage and charmed life under fire.

In his spirited account of these engagements, the distinguished historian John Keegan has written that Churchill’s military years “must be counted among the most significant of his life.” He never had reason thereafter to doubt his physical courage and while continuing to be attracted to war, he took a realistic view of the sacrifices it demanded. In particular, he was repelled by the costly trench warfare that characterized the war of 1914–1918, and sought to find a substitute for it. Thus in 1915, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, he was the architect of the Dardanelles campaign, which was designed to expel Turkey from the war and to expose the southwest flank of the Central Powers to an oblique attack. However brilliant in conception, the plan failed miserably in execution. The British fleet was repelled by…

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