Warrior Winny: Churchill as young soldier

Posted by T on September 17, 2007

During Churchill’s brief tenure as a junior officer stationed in India, he occupied his time in four main activities. (1) playing as much polo as possible; (2) taking long vacations – far more than were normally permitted to a young officer in India; (3) systematically reading through classics, to attempt to remedy his deficient formal education. The reading program was in service to ambition, not knowledge for its own sake. Macaulay, Gibbon, Plato and others, he wrote to his mother, “must train the muscles to wield the sword to the greatest effect” (Gilbert 70). The fourth activity may have required the least amount of actual time, but was probably the most important for understanding his future course: namely, there was scarcely an armed conflict anywhere in the world which he failed to inveigle himself to the front lines of. These battles were:

1. The Spanish suppression of the rebellion in Cuba, autumn 1895.

2. The battle over Crete between Greek and Turkey, Feb 97.

3. A suppression of a rebellion in the NW wilderness of India, Sept 1897.

4. The vengeance on Sudan, Sept 1898.

5. The Boer War in South Africa, Nov 1899.

Churchill from the standpoint of middle age gives the conscious motive for this battle-eagerness:

In the closing decade of the Victorian era the Empire had enjoyed so long a spell of almost unbroken peace, that medals and all they represented in experience and adventure were becoming extremely scarce in the British Army. … There has never been a time when war service was held in so much esteem by the military authorities or more ardently sought by officers of every rank. It was the swift road to promotion and advancement in every arm. It was the glittering gateway to distinction. It cast a glamour upon the fortunate possessor alike in the eyes of elderly gentlemen and young ladies. (Roving Commission 74.)

This statement, emphasizing self-promotion and vain-glory, is undoubtedly true enough, but it is not the whole story. Churchill downplays seeking money for “front line” articles not to mention the continual investment in “I was there” credibility for future books.

Let’s flesh out the first four military engagements a bit. Since the fifth occurred after he had resigned his commission, and also because both the personal and historical importance thereof calls for more extended treatment, I will defer discussion of that to a future post.

1. Cuba

With a comrade, he got permission to go to Cuba as a British observer with the Spanish force. The purpose of his trip fulfilled his taste for adventure, but withal served his eye on future prospects. Making contact with the Director of Military Intelligence, he was asked to collect information and statistics on various points, a request, he wrote to his mother, “which invests our mission with an almost official character and cannot fail to help one in the future.” In addition, he arranged to write posts “from the front” for the Daily Graphic. In the event, he did actually experience some “mild fire” but remained unscathed.

Of as much long-term interest as the conflict itself was Churchill’s stopover in New York, where he was wined and dined by (according to Jenkins) a “successful admirer” of his mother, Bourke Cockran. (Given Cockran’s New York residence, his solicitous hospitality lavished upon Winny on this trip [why?], as well as certain typical personality traits in common such as party-hopping opportunism [Cockran ran against Democrat Cleveland in the 1892 primary, but later came over to Republican McKinnley’s team], and love of adventure and the high-life leads me to toss Cockran’s name in the hat as the actual biological father of Winny. If my surmise is correct, then Winston was actually descended from Americans on both the mother’s and father’s side. We need the DNA to be tested.)

2. Crete

This battle was over before Winston could actually get there, but there are two aspects worth commenting on, both for the geo-political significance, and for an insight into Winston’s character.

England sided with Turkey against the Greek insurgents, motivated by a realpolitik view toward Russia. The fear was that with Turkey weakened, Russia would make a move on Constantinople. In this sense, the stance was similar to that of the Crimean War a half-century earlier, which, as far as I can tell, was the first time that one part of Christendom (England and France) allied with Turkey against another part of Christendom, Russia. That war, too, will be worthy of a discussion or two in the future. Within the arc of European history and the role played so often by the Turk, that development is disturbing and perhaps portentous toward events that followed. Here, I give credit to Churchill for reasoning his way to side with the Greeks against his own government’s position. He also figured that Russia’s desire for a warm-water port was entirely reasonable for a nation of such size and importance.

However, his presence at the scene was to be as a newspaper correspondent, and he was evidently free to choose to accompany either side. The ever-present Rothschild connection was tapped to make the necessary connection, and Winston’s reasoning as to which side to join became entirely opportunistic. He wrote to his co-scheming mother, “of course my sympathies are entirely with the Greeks, but on the other hand the Turks are bound to win – are in enormous strength and will be on the offensive the whole time. If I go on this side it will be less glorious but much more safe and as I have no wish to be involved in the confusion of a defeated army my idea is that they would be more suitable. You must decide. If you can get me good letters to the Turks – to the Turks I will go. If to the Greeks – to the Greeks.” (Gilbert 71).

Thus, the poles of his decision were between glory and safety, and the comme ci comme ça between the poles was hardly one of principle. The last two sentences of that excerpt could be taken as an epigram on Churchill’s character, from his own mouth.

3. Pakistan

It required a great deal of manipulation to get permission to join this campaign, and astonishing distances of travel at Churchill’s own expense; even then, permission was granted only as a correspondent. This tour lasted six weeks, Sep and Oct 97. Churchill again emerged unscathed. Unfortunately for him, the payout for his “from the front” articles fell short of expectation. But it provided the necessary experience for his first book, The Malakin Expedition, which was successful and netted him around (1990 equivalent) $75,000. And he was able to parlay the experience into lucrative writing assignments in his future campaigns.

4. Sudan

This assignment was fiercely resisted by the commanding general, Kitchener. The probably reason for resistance to Churchill’s assignment was described later by Churchill himself, but with an ironic tone that downplays its status as true insight:

The expression ‘Medal-hunter’ and ‘Self-advertiser’ were used from time to time in some high and some low military circles in a manner which would, I am sure, surprise and pain the readers of these notes. It is melancholy to be forced to record these less amiable aspects of human nature, which by a most curious and indeed unaccountable coincidence have always seemed to present themselves in the wake of my innocent footsteps, and even sometimes across the path on which I wished to proceed. (Roving Commission 162.)

Winston and his mother pulled out all the stops in lobbying, and spared no expense. One prominent friend that was pressed into service telegrammed Kitchener, “Guarantee he won’t write,” which tells the whole story in four words. In parallel, however, Winny was in fact finessing a deal with the Morning Post for ₤15 per article (about $2,000 each in today’s currency). So much for the “guarantee” that he would not write. The scene is reminiscent of young Vito Corleone’s discussion with Signor Roberto in Godfather 2, about Signora Columbo’s dog.

Warrior Winny finally got permission to ride with one of the cavalry battalions and saw action in a major cavalry charge. Winston claimed to have killed 3-6 of the enemy (“three for certain”) but given there were only 23 casualties total on the enemy side, Jenkins is inclined to discount this. In any case, WC emerged unscathed again. He parlayed his presence into his second war book, the two-volume work, River War.

In his book, Churchill laid into Kitchener mercilessly, accusing him, in so many words, of war crimes. In view of his later complicity in the savage destruction of Germany, it might be instructive to quote his words as a young man of twenty-five: “to destroy what was sacred and holy to them was a wicked act, of which the true Christian, no less than the philosopher must express his abhorrence” (Gilbert 100). (Churchill himself was neither a Christian nor a philosopher.)


Churchill’s presence at the front line of all these battles was an unprecedented and astonishing feat. And all this by the age of 25! There was never a war that did not make Winny’s eyes gleam and whip him into concentrated action.

Was the dominant motive money or glory? Martin Gilbert and Churchill himself seem to put the desire for glory as the prominent one, while Ray Jenkins focuses on the monetary angle. In any case, Churchill, having early on adopted the philosophy, “expenditures should be determined by needs (generously interpreted) rather than by resources,” [Jenkins 28], the two possible motives cannot be strictly separated; the one fed the other nicely. The desire for fame can be parlayed into books and speaking engagements; thus, while one is living, one lives well.

Undoubtedly, there was personal bravery involved here; but equally clearly, it is not altruistic bravery. There is a man who would rather be dead than not important and powerful in the eyes of others.

And congruent with both loves, there was also always an eye on a post-military-service political career, the entry into which will be the subject of another post.

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3 Comments to Warrior Winny: Churchill as young soldier

  • I’ve been pondering Churchill’s statement, “to destroy what was sacred and holy to them was a wicked act, of which the true Christian, no less than the philosopher must express his abhorrence.” Especially the phrase, “no less than.” What could that possibly mean? If it means anything, it seems to me it is saying that the philosopher would certainly have scruples, and the Christian ordinarily might not; but in this case, the Christian also should, no less than the philosopher. So, Christianity is a subset of ethics broadly and universally conceived. The stronger ethical appeal would be to the system of the “philosophers.”

    It’s interesting how the smallest phrase can betray a man’s true feelings or beliefs. But sonorous words rattle by like so many empty box cars, so a man does not even hear himself speak.

  • Though my colleague has not yet written about Churchill the generalissimo, here is something that will whet reader’s appetite. This German propaganda cartoon illustrates how much of a fraud Churchill was.

    In the cartoon, Churchill tries to assure Britain that her recent alliance with the Soviets should not give rise to fear. The caption reads: “You have to trust him, Britannia. He only wants to protect you!”

    Less than one year after the war was over, Churchill spoke about an “Iron Curtain” descending across Europe. The fraud, thus, was made obvious, but the irony is often missed. Winny cribbed this line from Nazi Propaganda Minister, Goebbels. Goebbels published an article in February, 1945 that warned of what would happen if Germany lost the war.

    Goebbels was right about the Bolsheviks when being right actually mattered. Churchill was right when it was too late. (Of course, for Churchill this was well before 1946, but I will wait for my colleague tell that story.)

  • The link in comment #2 keeps getting killed. If interested, it can be viewed at:

    http://www.bytwerk. com/gpa/images/lb/lb42-18.jpg (Copy this into your location bar and remove the space between the “bytwerk.” and “com”.)

    Calvin College has a very extensive online exhibition of Nazi propaganda: posters, postcards, color photos, articles from German boy’s, girl’s and women’s magazines, cartons, articles and speeches. The purpose, I suppose, is to expose the evils of the Nazis. And while there is some evil there — the most egregious being their attempt to remove Christianity from the religious holidays — there is also much that is valuable for understanding the German perspective. Bookmark the Calvin site and come back to it when you have a good hour or so to browse around.

    I found the articles on America particularly interesting. Much of the comments and criticisms are insightful, but are written in a cartoonish manner. I guess I should not have expected more, seeing that it was meant for mass consumption.

    The collection contains the Goebbels article I mentioned above. It is a fascinating read at many levels.

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