27 November 2015

Winston Churchill Reporting by Simon Read: a study in courage


Winston Churchill Reporting. Simon Read, Da Capo Press, RPR £17.99

‘You could not stand for five minutes under a shed with that man while it rained but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever seen.’ That was Johnson on Burke; it also applies to Churchill. Anyone with a smidgeon of historical curiosity must wish to read everything possible about that world-historical figure and his extraordinary life. Although this latest book adds little that is new, it is a cracking narrative and this reviewer enjoyed every page.

The title, ‘Winston Churchill Reporting’, commits a fault rare among book publishers. It understates the content. This is not just a gripping account of the adventures of a young soldier who could never decide whether he was an army officer or a war correspondent (nor could higher authority). It brings into focus some of the themes which were to dominate Churchill’s career. Above all, it is a study in courage.

There is a myth, promoted by Churchill himself, that he was an idle, discontented and recalcitrant schoolboy. It is clear from Mr Read’s account that this is a travesty. The young Churchill did not take to Greek, Latin or mathematics: then the core curriculum at Harrow. That said, he must have absorbed a lot more Latin than he admitted to, for his early books display strong Ciceronian influences, which he had not yet assimilated into an English prose style. But whenever he had a chance to display his literary and historical prowess, he excelled. In a first-class school today, even a reluctant young Churchill would have been driven through his ‘O’ levels in maths and Latin, while heading the top set in English and history. ‘A’ levels: those two plus either French or history of art, with grades that would have swept him into Oxbridge. Apropos French, it would have been a loss if he had been caught young and forced to discard the diction of Stratford atte Bowe for something intelligible in Paris. We would have been deprived of – to de Gaulle at a heated moment – ‘Si vous moi obstructerez, je vous obliterai.’ There was also the time when he arrived in France wearing the uniform of an Elder Brother of Trinity House (he loved uniforms). Asked what it signified, he replied; ‘Je suis le frere aine de la Trinite.’

Anyway, his father despaired of his educational attributes. Lord Randolph had intended to steer his son to the law. Instead, he was condemned to the army class at Harrow, with the imputation that he was a duffer. This was a most fortunate outcome. Although Churchill’s genius could have survived an encounter with the law, the army provided him with the right grounding: the raw material which he later refined into the gold of statesmanship.

Once he was commissioned, young Winston revelled in polo, a form of exercise which – especially if the players are fit and foolhardy young men – requires skill and nerve. Otherwise, Churchill found army life boring, and impoverishing. It cost money to be a cavalry officer, and although Churchill had an allowance of £500 a year from his mother, she was as extravagant as he was. He rapidly found a solution to both tedium and straitened means. He used contacts, persistence and chutzpah to be seconded to theatres of service where he could both see action and make money from journalism.

In some quarters, this bred resentment. But that surely reflects badly on the resenters. At every stage in his brief military career, Churchill was determined to march towards the sound of gunfire. He also revelled in shot and shell.

Modern young officers are under constant scrutiny. They are expected to demonstrate leadership at all times, and courage should they be fortunate enough to have a chance to do so. If they are to rise towards serious command, they must also show that they can think; that they are fighting strategists. In today’s army, no subaltern would be allowed to pursue a Churchillian trajectory. That may be unfortunate. By the time he was 25, Churchill had acquired a formidable military training. He had led and fought and thought. Suppose he had stayed in  the army rather than moving into politics? Could he not have rocketed through the ranks and re-written British military doctrine in time for 1914? Alas, the answer is no.

The British army of 1900 was a rank-bound and hide-bound bureaucracy. Churchill’s qualities were applauded by some generals, notably Ian Hamilton and the splendidly-named and mustachioed Sir Bindon Blood. But Kitchener and Roberts were both suspicious of him. Ian Hamilton recommended him for a VC. To judge by our author’s account, this was fully justified. But it was blocked. A number of those in higher authority decided that Churchill was a medal-hunter. They were right, but a young officer who is prepared to display reckless gallantry which is also tactically justified has earned his reward.

As these pages prove, Churchill’s courage was awesome. Some soldiers are endowed with a nervous system which insulates them from fear. It is hard to believe that this was true of Churchill; he had too much imagination. But he placed himself repeatedly in the eye of the storm of battle, with a serene disregard for his own safety. That recurred during his later career. In 1919, as Minister for War, he was in charge of the nascent Air Ministry. He decided that he must learn to fly. Only after two crash-landings in a month did he allow himself to be dissuaded.

During the Second World War, his great private secretary Jock Colville, became seriously uneasy. He was in his mid-twenties. He was convinced that there was only one place for a man of his age: in uniform. He felt increasingly uncomfortable in a suit and pressed his boss to release him. Initially, Churchill refused. He told Colville that he sympathised. As a youngster, he too would have wanted to rush to the colours and have fun. But the private secretary could not be spared. Churchill was finally prevailed upon. But his reluctance to free Colville indicates the extent to which he took bravery for granted: his casual assumption that any decent youngster would want to fight.

This does not mean that Churchill was callous. He enjoyed the glory; he also regretted the bloodshed. There was plenty of that in the wars and conflicts in which he fought, about which he wrote. This was especially true of Omdurman. After the victory was won, that battlefield was a ghastly spectacle. Churchill heard the cries and groans of the  enemy injured, before they expired from wounds and hunger. He witnessed the horror of rapid decomposition, only mitigated by the vultures.

Thereafter, although he never forgot that a battle always meant a butcher’s bill, Churchill was always attracted to stratagems which might reduce it. That may explain his post-war friendship with Montgomery, an impossible human being, but a Commander who did his best to minimise casualties..

This book will lead those who open it to think about Churchill. It will also refresh their reverence. A rollicking read, it is an ideal Christmas present for anyone interested in war, history, Britain and greatness.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.