Winston Churchill on War, Part 1: 1900-1932

Winston Churchill on War, Part 1: 1900-1932

What he said about war

When he entered Par­lia­ment, Churchill held expe­ri­ence in war on three con­ti­nents. He spoke author­i­ta­tive­ly of the fright­ful­ness of mod­ern war­fare. He strove, accord­ing to his lights, some­times with ques­tion­able tac­tics, and uncon­ven­tion­al pro­pos­als, to avoid it.

Churchill’s rep­u­ta­tion as a war­rior tends to obscure his efforts for peace. Of peace he some­times despaired, espe­cial­ly toward the end of his life. Here­with some of Churchill’s words on war and peace from Churchill by Him­self. Part 3 will con­sid­er why he regret­ted, in his final years, that peace still did not pre­vail in the world.


Ah, hor­ri­ble war, amaz­ing med­ley of the glo­ri­ous and the squalid, the piti­ful and the sub­lime, if mod­ern men of light and lead­ing saw your face clos­er, sim­ple folk would see it hard­ly ever. —1900, Lon­don to Lady­smith via Pretoria

We must not regard war with a mod­ern Pow­er as a kind of game…. A Euro­pean war can­not be any­thing but a cru­el, heartrend­ing strug­gle [end­ing] in the ruin of the van­quished and the scarce­ly less fatal com­mer­cial dis­lo­ca­tion and exhaus­tion of the con­querors. —1901, 13 May, House of Com­mons (here­inafter “HC”)

War nev­er pays its div­i­dends in cash on the mon­ey it costs. —1901, 17 July, HC

Much as war attracts me & fas­ci­nates my mind with its tremen­dous situations—I feel more deeply every year—& can mea­sure the feel­ing here in the midst of arms—what vile & wicked fol­ly & bar­barism it all is.” —1909, 15 Decem­ber, to his wife, while observ­ing Ger­man army maneuvers

[In 1913] Ger­many will build three cap­i­tal ships, and it will be nec­es­sary for us to build five in con­se­quence. Sup­pos­ing we were both to take a hol­i­day for that year. Sup­pos­ing we both intro­duced a blank page in the book of mis­un­der­stand­ing…. As to the indi­rect results, even from a sin­gle year, they sim­ply can­not be mea­sured.” —1912, 18 March, HC (Ger­many reject­ed his pro­posed “Naval Hol­i­day”)

The Great War, 1914-1918

Every­thing tends towards cat­a­stro­phe and col­lapse. I am inter­est­ed, geared up and hap­py. Is it not hor­ri­ble to be built like that? The prepa­ra­tions have a hideous fas­ci­na­tion for me. I pray to God to for­give me for such fear­ful moods of lev­i­ty. Yet I would do my best for peace, and noth­ing would induce me wrong­ful­ly to strike the blow. —1914, 28 July, to his wife

I won­dered whether those stu­pid Kings and Emper­ors could not assem­ble togeth­er and reviv­i­fy king­ship by sav­ing the nations from hell but we all drift on in a kind of dull catalep­tic trance. —Ibid. (his call for a “King­ly Con­fer­ence” was also rejected)

In the wake of the First World War

Churchill’s bel­li­cose rep­u­ta­tion pur­sued him after the Great War. Here Nazi car­toon­ists por­tray Eden, Mars and WSC after the Munich agree­ment. From “Die Bren­nes­sel” (“The Net­tle”), Berlin, Novem­ber 1938.

[War] is too fool­ish, too fan­tas­tic to be thought of in the 20th century….No one would do such things. Civil­i­sa­tion has climbed above such per­ils. The inter­de­pen­dence of nations in trade and traf­fic, the sense of pub­lic law, the Hague Con­ven­tion, Lib­er­al prin­ci­ples, the Labour Par­ty, high finance, Chris­t­ian char­i­ty, com­mon sense have ren­dered such night­mares impos­si­ble. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mis­take could only be made once – once for all. —1923, on the 1911 Agadir inci­dent, The World Crisis

Mankind has nev­er been in this posi­tion before. With­out hav­ing improved appre­cia­bly in virtue or enjoy­ing wis­er guid­ance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfail­ing­ly accom­plish its own exter­mi­na­tion —1924, Sep­tem­ber, “Shall We All Com­mit Sui­cide?,” Pall Mall

“Unteachable from infancy to tomb…”

Think of all these people—decent, edu­cat­ed, the sto­ry of the past laid out before them—What to avoid—what to do etc.—patriotic, loy­al, clean—trying their utmost—What a ghast­ly mud­dle they made of it! Unteach­able from infan­cy to tomb—There is the first and main char­ac­ter­is­tic of mankind. Yrs ever, W. No more War. —1928, 21 May (to Lord Beaver­brook)

The sto­ry of the human race is War. Except for brief and pre­car­i­ous inter­ludes there has nev­er been peace in the world; and before his­to­ry began mur­der­ous strife was uni­ver­sal and unend­ing. But the mod­ern devel­op­ments sure­ly require severe and active atten­tion. —1929 in The After­math

Nev­er, nev­er, nev­er believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that any­one who embarks on that strange voy­age can mea­sure the tides and hur­ri­canes he will encounter. —1930, My Ear­ly Life 

I have always urged fight­ing wars and oth­er con­tentions with might and main till over­whelm­ing vic­to­ry, and then offer­ing the hand of friend­ship to the van­quished. Thus, I have always been against the Paci­fists dur­ing the quar­rel, and against the Jin­goes at its close… —Ibid.

I would rather see anoth­er ten or twen­ty years of one-sided armed peace than see a war between equal­ly well-matched Pow­ers. —1932, 23 Novem­ber, HC


Part 2: Nuclear Age

Part 3: Rumi­na­tions with Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne

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