Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Nov 10, 2008 in Carlo D'Este, War College

Warlord – A Life of Winston Churchill at War Debuts

By Carlo D'Este

Churchill was one of the rare leaders of history, men such as Frederick the Great, Oliver Cromwell, and his own famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, who were “born for war,” as Napoleon once described himself. These were war leaders who “instinctively understood it in all of its aspects: strategic, political, diplomatic, moral and psychological.” Moreover, as one of Churchill’s most astute biographers, Sebastian Haffner, has observed: “No one will ever understand the phenomenon that was Churchill by regarding him simply as a politician and statesman who was ultimately destined like Asquith or Lloyd George, Wilson or Roosevelt, to conduct a war; he was a warrior who realized that politics forms a part of the conduct of war.”

Less well known is that Churchill was a military visionary with ideas of astonishing originality. As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, he conceived and approved the design and construction of an enormous Trojan Horse-like armored vehicle that would transport in safety between 80 and 100 troops across no man’s land to enfilade the German trenches; and in 1939, while again First Lord, he conceived “Nellie,” a gargantuan trench-digger that would be utilized to permit the infantry to overwhelm the powerful defenses of the Siegfried Line in safety. Although both projects ultimately failed, they were nevertheless examples of the remarkably innovative ideas that poured forth from Churchill’s fertile mind.


In 1912, well before others could see the warning signs, Churchill foretold of a potential great conflict ahead. In a prophetic letter to his cousin and close friend, Charles “Sunny” Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, he warned of the threat of war emanating from the unstable situation in the Balkans, and noted: “The European situation is far from safe and anything might happen,” Churchill wrote. “It only needs a little ill will or bad faith on the part of a great power to precipitate a far greater conflict.”

Despite having personal experience of war at Omdurman in 1898, and as a participant in the last cavalry charge in the history of the British Army, Churchill nevertheless held a Victorian’s somewhat romanticized view of war, and of Britain’s greatness of empire as the most powerful nation on earth. One astute observer, Cecil H. King, has described Churchill as “a man of the 19th, if not the 18th century; he knows little and cares less for the political currents of the day. To him war is a vast pageant with himself in a scarlet uniform on a white horse, baton in hand, leading the British forces forward through the smoke of battle.”

1895: Churchill in full dress uniform as a subaltern in the 4th Hussars. D'Este's book closely examines how Churchill's quest for military adventure helped shape the man that would lead Great Britain during World War II. National Archives.As a twenty-two-year-old junior officer fresh from Sandhurst, Churchill was torn between his youthful enthusiasm for putting his life on the line and the horror and cruelty of the wars he fought in. His military experience as a soldier exposed him to the grit, blood, and death of war in its cruelest forms. His exploits left Churchill with an abhorrence of war, and during the first three decades of the twentieth century his was a frequent, often strident, but forlorn voice preaching preparedness and other means of avoiding war. However, when war engulfed the world for the second time in twenty-five years, Churchill answered the call. Where others talked of peace with Nazi Germany, Churchill’s was the strongest voice of refusal to let tyranny become the new sovereign of Britain.

Although he became perhaps the most famous politician in British history, Churchill never strayed far from his military roots. While political office and its myriad powers were his ultimate goal, Churchill used soldiering, writing, and his experience as a war correspondent toward that end. Politics may have dominated his life, but it was soldiering that was a passion he never lost amid his political rise. During World War II, Churchill was frequently seen in the uniform of the Royal Air Force or that of an Army colonel. As one writer has noted, “Wellington was a soldier who felt it his duty to be a politician. Churchill was a politician who wanted to be a soldier . . . A nation which since Cromwell has always felt uncomfortable with all but is most eccentric military leaders, was led in its most dangerous battle by a war leader in a zip-suit and carpet slippers.”

[continued on next page]

Pages: 1 2 3 4

1 Comment

  1. ACG selected Carlo D’Este’s outstanding new biography, Warlord,
    as one of our ‘must buy’ books in our Holiday Shopping Guide in
    the upcoming Jan 09 issue of ACG (on sale in mid-November).

    As the former Executive Director of the Winston Churchill
    Memorial and Library at Westminster College in Fulton, MO (site
    of Churchill’s famous 1946 ‘Iron Curtain’ speech), I’ve read my
    share of Churchill biographies. But, I can say without reservation
    that Carlo D’Este’s new Warlord has to rank at the top of the list.
    Warlord’s incredibly well researched examination of Churchill as
    man and soldier forms the basis for truly understanding
    Churchill the world statesman. In my opinion, what Carlo D’Este
    reveals in Warlord is absolutely critical for a true appreciation of
    Churchill’s wartime leadership in World War II.

    Warlord is the Bookshelf subject in our upcoming March 09 issue
    (available in mid-January 09).

    Jerry Morelock
    Editor in Chief, Armchair General Magazine


  1. Santa’s Suggestions for Military History Books and DVDs » Armchair General - [...] Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill, 1874-1945, Carlos d’Este (Harper Collins, 2008). Is there anything more to say about…