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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 possessed an unfulfilled, lifelong ambition to become a warrior-hero in the Napoleonic mold, which even service in the squalor of the front lines as a lieutenant colonel commanding a rifle battalion in France in 1916 ought to have, but failed, to cure. Later in his life Churchill called war “the greatest of all stimulants.” As early as 1911, one of his critics noted with insightful accuracy, “He is always unconsciously playing a part – an heroic part. And he is himself his most astonished spectator. He sees himself moving through the smoke of battle – triumphant, terrible, his brow clothed with thunder, his legions looking to him for victory, and not looking in vain. He thinks of Napoleon; he thinks of his great ancestor [the Duke of Marlborough] . . . [in his] fervid and picturesque imagination there are always great deeds afoot, with himself cast by destiny in the Agamemnon role.”


Warts and all, Winston Churchill nevertheless represented the indomitable spirit and symbol of a defiant nation under siege. His oratory was stirring, and like FDR’s, Churchill’s words galvanized an entire nation. His predecessor as prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, regarded Hitler as “the commonest little dog,” but was duped and coerced by the German dictator’s signature on the meaningless Munich Agreement in September 1938, a vaguely worded covenant that “lacked even the ringing affirmation of nonaggression treaties.” Chamberlain’s well-intentioned declaration of “peace in our time” was actually a death warrant for France and a guarantee that Britain was destined for another war with Germany. When he learned of Munich, Churchill remarked: “This is only the first step, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor we arise again and take our stand for freedom . . .” When the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, suggested Britain make peace with Hitler, Churchill not only declined but instead vowed to rescue “mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened the stained pages of history.”

World War II was the greatest test of all and much of the credit for Britain’s survival belongs to Churchill, who simply refused to lose. His defiance of “Corporal Hitler” as he scornfully referred to the Nazi leader, was on full display throughout the war: from his “fight ‘em on the beaches” to his “we shall fight on for ever and ever and ever.”

In no particular order, Churchill was: brilliant, pampered, petulant, romantic, pragmatic, courageous, egotistical, eccentric, possessed of enormous perseverance, opinionated beyond measure, impossibly demanding, drank too much, suffered from depression (his “black dog”), “waddled rather than walked,” and by any criterion ought to have been too old to carry the enormous burden of a prolonged war that threatened Britain’s very existence. As a young man, he once said, “If I had two lives I would be a soldier and a politician: but as there will be no war in my time, I shall have to be a politician.” Winston Churchill did both.

* * *

Churchill confers with Allied Leaders in North Africa. (Left to right around the table) Anthony Eden, Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder,  Adm. Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, Gen. Sir Harold R.L.G. Alexander, Gen. George C. Marshal, and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Standing at extreme right is Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery. National Archives.Although Churchill has been the subject of hundreds of biographies, very little has been written about the military Churchill. More than forty years since his death in 1965 Winston Churchill’s attraction to historians and biographers continues unabated, even more so in the wake of September 11, 2001. He has been praised, condemned for a host of sins, real and imagined, and, in recent years, has become the object of a number of revisionist biographies notable mainly for their portrayal of a man with feet of clay. Despite the plethora of books about Churchill the politician and political leader, there has yet to be an objective, total examination of his crucial role as military leader.

It is as a soldier of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that this biography will, in contrast to others, appraise Churchill’s extraordinary life.

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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


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