Winston S. Churchill’s Three Best War Books (Excerpt)

Winston S. Churchill’s Three Best War Books (Excerpt)

“Three Out­stand­ing War Books” is Excerpt­ed from an essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. Why set­tle for the excerpt when you can read the whole thing full-strength? Click here.

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The Question

“What do you think are Churchill’s best books on war? Though he was a great peace­mak­er, his work there is eclipsed by the cli­mac­ter­ics of war. What are his best?” 

The River War

In 1885 the Sudan had been over­run by Dervish tribesman under their reli­gious leader, the Mah­di (Muham­mad Ahmad). Four­teen years lat­er, Lon­don sent Lord Kitch­en­er and an Anglo-Egypt­ian force (includ­ing Churchill) to reestab­lish sov­er­eign­ty. Notwith­stand­ing the supe­ri­or­i­ty of British weapons and tac­tics, the obsta­cles pre­sent­ed by the Nile, the desert, the cli­mate, cholera and a brave, fanat­i­cal Dervish army were formidable.

War Books
No machine guns, for­tu­nate­ly. Omdur­man by Edward Matthew Hale, 1852-1924. (Raoulduke47, Ger­man Wiki­me­dia, Cre­ative Commons)

Churchill excit­ing­ly describes the British vic­to­ry, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Bat­tle of Omdur­man in 1898. Yet he doesn’t hes­i­tate to crit­i­cize the actions of his own side. He is par­tic­u­lar­ly crit­i­cal of Kitch­en­er, whose treat­ment of the dead Mah­di was shame­ful, even bar­bar­ic. Far from accept­ing uncrit­i­cal­ly the supe­ri­or­i­ty of British civ­i­liza­tion, Churchill appre­ci­ates the long­ing for lib­er­ty among the indige­nous Sudanese. But he finds their native regime defec­tive in its dis­dain for the human rights of its inhabitants.


In 1902 for an abridged edi­tion, Churchill excised one-fourth of the nar­ra­tive, includ­ing his crit­i­cisms of Kitch­en­er. By then he had entered Par­lia­ment, and was wary of burn­ing bridges. He also added some mate­r­i­al, so there are two texts: 1899 and 1902. A new and com­plete edi­tion, pre­pared by Pro­fes­sor James Muller, con­tain­ing both the orig­i­nal and 1902 texts has long been devel­op­ing. It will be linked here when avail­able. (For Dr. Muller’s video pre­sen­ta­tion at Hills­dale Col­lege, “Lessons from The Riv­er War, “ click here.)

Uncom­mon­ly for a Vic­to­ri­an, Churchill had words of praise for the Mus­lim war­riors, while deplor­ing their sav­agery toward oth­er Mus­lims. There are in The Riv­er War many exam­ples of Churchill prais­ing Mus­lims. He con­sid­ered his Dervish ene­mies “as brave men as ever walked the earth.” Years lat­er he wrote with deep feel­ing of Mus­lim and Hin­du sol­diers of the Indi­an Army in the Sec­ond World War. Con­text matters.

For fur­ther reflec­tions see Dr. Paul Rahe’s essay, “The Time­less Val­ue of Win­ston Churchill’s The Riv­er War.

The World Crisis

In 1905 Churchill hired a poly­math who was to remain his lit­er­ary assis­tant for thir­ty years. Edward Marsh was a clas­si­cal schol­ar, a civ­il ser­vant and a bril­liant lit­ter­a­teur. From that time, Churchill stopped writ­ing his books in long­hand and began dic­tat­ing to teams of sec­re­taries. Marsh vet­ted the drafts for Churchill’s final approval. They made a mar­velous team.

Marsh appears fre­quent­ly in Churchill’s life. When he died in 1953 Churchill, who seemed to out­live every­body, waxed elo­quent: “He was a mas­ter of lit­er­a­ture and schol­ar­ship and a deeply instruct­ed cham­pi­on of the arts. All his long life was serene, and he left this world, I trust, with­out a pang, and I am sure with­out a fear.”

Marsh helped Churchill write The World Cri­sis, his mem­oir of World War I. Here Churchill began as First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, fell dis­as­trous­ly from pow­er and vol­un­teered for the front. Then he returned to office as Min­is­ter of Muni­tions. He became Sec­re­tary of State for War iron­i­cal­ly, just as the war end­ed. Per­haps not iron­i­cal­ly, for the appoint­ment was made by Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd George, who nursed a wry sense of humor.

“All about himself”

When­ev­er I’m asked to rec­om­mend a big book by Churchill, I always name The World Cri­sis. Like all of his war books it is high­ly per­son­al. One of his friends called it, “Winston’s bril­liant auto­bi­og­ra­phy, dis­guised as a his­to­ry of the Uni­verse.” One of his ene­mies said, “Win­ston has writ­ten an enor­mous book all about him­self and calls it The World Cri­sis.”

A thought­ful crit­ic, Sir Robert Rhodes James, regard­ed The World Cri­sis as Churchill’s mas­ter­piece. But he cor­rect­ly not­ed that “one can nev­er quite sep­a­rate Churchill the ora­tor from Churchill the writer.”

Even if you do not read war books you will be entranced by Churchill’s account of the awful, unfold­ing scene of the First World War. Read­ers learn of the great pow­er rival­ries that caused the war. We observe Churchill’s failed effort to break the dead­lock on the West­ern Front by forc­ing the Dar­d­anelles, knock­ing Turkey out of the war. We revis­it the car­nage of the Somme and Pass­chen­daele. Final­ly we see Ger­many almost win and then lost the war in 1918. A fifth and final vol­ume, The East­ern Front, relates the less­er-known hor­rors of the war in Rus­sia and Aus­tria-Hun­gary. In his fourth vol­ume, The After­math, Churchill cov­ers the decade after victory.

“Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong”

Two brief excerpts from The World Cri­sis. The first is a favorite of Col­in Pow­ell, who asked me to look it up when he was chair­man of the Joint Chiefs. It tells us a lot about Pow­ell, said to be the voice of cau­tion before the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq.

In 1911, the Ger­mans sent a gun­boat to Agadir, Moroc­co, and almost went to war with France over it. Churchill here describes the exchange of diplo­mat­ic telegrams between Berlin, Paris and Lon­don as the Agadir Cri­sis deepened.

They sound so very cau­tious and cor­rect, these dead­ly words. Soft, qui­et voic­es purring, cour­te­ous, grave, exact­ly mea­sured phras­es in large peace­ful rooms. But with less warn­ing can­nons had opened fire and nations had been struck down by this same Ger­many. So now the Admi­ral­ty wire­less whis­pers through the ether to the tall masts of ships, and cap­tains pace their decks absorbed in thought. It is nothing…less than noth­ing. It is too fool­ish, too fan­tas­tic to be thought of in the twen­ti­eth century….

No one would do such things. Civ­i­liza­tion 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.

“The King’s ships were at sea…”

When Bri­tan­nia ruled the waves: The Roy­al Naval Review, July 1914. (From a con­tem­po­rary post­card. Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Of course, the mis­takes were made, and the world plunged into war, with Churchill run­ning the Roy­al Navy. In 1914 he did a pre­scient thing. In July Britain’s Grand Fleet had assem­bled for a Naval Review. On his own author­i­ty, Churchill ordered the Fleet not to dis­perse. Instead, it sailed in dark­ness through the Eng­lish Chan­nel to its war sta­tion at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. Here is Churchill’s descrip­tion of the pas­sage of the armada:

We may now pic­ture this great Fleet, with its flotil­las and cruis­ers, steam­ing slow­ly out of Port­land Har­bour, squadron by squadron, scores of gigan­tic cas­tles of steel wend­ing their way across the misty, shin­ing sea, like giants bowed in anx­ious thought. We may pic­ture them again as dark­ness fell, eigh­teen miles of war­ships run­ning at high speed and in absolute black­ness through the nar­row Straits, bear­ing with them into the broad waters of the North the safe­guard of con­sid­er­able affairs….

If war should come no one would know where to look for the British Fleet. Some­where in that enor­mous waste of waters to the north of our islands, cruis­ing now this way, now that, shroud­ed in storms and mists, dwelt this mighty orga­ni­za­tion. Yet from the Admi­ral­ty build­ing we could speak to them at any moment if need arose. The King’s ships were at sea.

One has to look far and wide for writ­ing like that. When he wrote it, our author was 49. 

 The Second World War

The first book New York May­or Giu­liani read after 9/11 was Churchill’s The Sec­ond World War. Any­one who won­ders whether Win­ston Churchill remains rel­e­vant today need only con­sid­er it.

War Books
The Houghton Mif­flin Chartwell Edi­tion. (Pho­to cour­tesy Mark Kuritz, Churchill Book Collector)

Con­sid­er the major crit­i­cisms of Churchill’s most famous work: It is not his­to­ry. It is filled with grandiose prose, inflict­ed on an apa­thet­ic post­war pub­lic who only want­ed peace and a qui­et life. It is high­ly biased—the author nev­er puts a foot wrong. He pub­lish­es hun­dreds of his own mem­o­ran­da and direc­tives, but few replies to them. It mor­al­izes inces­sant­ly about dic­ta­tors and their empires, but not the British Empire. It is vague on the impact of the war on Britain, or the details of Cab­i­net meet­ings. Churchill alone seems to con­front the French, Hitler, the Sovi­ets, the Americans.

In the words of Arthur Bal­four, these com­plaints con­tain much that is trite and much that is true. But what’s true is trite, and what’s not trite is not true.

Per­haps one of the best descrip­tions is by Pro­fes­sor Man­fred Wei­d­horn: “a record of his­to­ry made rather than written….No oth­er wartime leader in his­to­ry has giv­en us a work of two mil­lion words writ­ten only a few years after the events and filled with mes­sages among world poten­tates which had so recent­ly been heat­ed and secret.”

Humor: his secret of survival

The Sec­ond World War  is con­duct­ed like a sym­pho­ny, Wei­d­horn continues—or a first class novel:

Such is the eerie sense of déjà vu and ubi sunt upon his return in 1939, as First Lord [of the Admi­ral­ty], to Scapa Flow, exact­ly a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry after hav­ing, at the start of the oth­er world war, paid the same vis­it dur­ing the same sea­son in the same capac­i­ty…. The col­lapse of the ven­er­a­ble and once mighty France and Churchill’s agony are beau­ti­ful­ly ren­dered by the sen­su­ous detail of the old gen­tle­men indus­tri­ous­ly car­ry­ing French archives on wheel­bar­rows to bonfires.

The end finds our hero in Berlin amid its “chaos of ruins.” Churchill walks Hitler’s shat­tered chan­cellery for “quite a long time.” The great duel is over; the vic­tor stands where so much evil orig­i­nat­ed. “We were giv­en the best first-hand accounts avail­able at that time of what had hap­pened in these final scenes.”

“Amid the pathos, humour bub­bles,” writes Robert Pilpel. It is “as if Puck had escaped from A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream and infil­trat­ed Par­adise Lost.” There is Churchill’s desert con­fer­ence with his Gen­er­als, “in a tent full of flies and impor­tant per­son­ages.” There is lunch with King Saud, whose reli­gion for­bids tobac­co and alcohol—which Churchill says are man­dat­ed by his reli­gion. In 1941 he sends a court­ly let­ter to the Japan­ese Ambas­sador, signed “Your Obe­di­ent Ser­vant.” He announces “with high con­sid­er­a­tion” that a state of war exists between their coun­tries. (“When you have to kill a man, it costs noth­ing to be polite.”)

Prudence in statesmanship

What was it, I’ve won­dered, that May­or Giu­liani paused over? I’m told he read Vol­ume 2, Their Finest Hour, about Britain in the Blitz. I can only wish today’s lead­ers, who squab­ble over incon­se­quen­tia as dan­ger mounts, read from Vol­ume 1, The Gath­er­ing Storm:

When the sit­u­a­tion was man­age­able it was neglect­ed, and now that it is thor­ough­ly out of hand we apply too late the reme­dies which might have effect­ed a cure. There is noth­ing new in the sto­ry…. It falls into that long, dis­mal cat­a­logue of the fruit­less­ness of expe­ri­ence and the con­firmed unteach­a­bil­i­ty of mankind. Want of fore­sight, unwill­ing­ness to act when action would be sim­ple and effec­tive, lack of clear think­ing, con­fu­sion of coun­sel until the emer­gency comes, until self-preser­va­tion strikes its jar­ring gong. These are the fea­tures which con­sti­tute the end­less rep­e­ti­tion of history.

How often must we slide slow­ly down from invin­ci­bil­i­ty, only to be remind­ed by sud­den calami­ty that we have neglect­ed the pri­ma­ry mis­sion of the state: to pro­vide for the com­mon defense? Churchill won­dered. In an unpub­lished pas­sage for The Gath­er­ing Storm he wrote:

Some his­to­ri­ans will urge that admi­ra­tion should be giv­en to a Gov­ern­ment of hon­ourable high mind­ed men who bore provo­ca­tion with exem­plary for­bear­ance…. I hope it will also be writ­ten how hard all this was upon the ordi­nary com­mon folk who fill the casu­al­ty lists. Under-rep­re­sent­ed in Gov­ern­ment and Par­lia­men­tary insti­tu­tions, they con­fide their safe­ty to the Min­is­ters of the day.

The Sec­ond World War, a prose epic like The Riv­er War and The World Cri­sis, is in the first rank of Churchill’s books. Flaws and all, it is indis­pens­able read­ing for any­one who seeks a true understanding.

Last thoughts

In the last few years of his life Churchill gave in to the pes­simism he had always dodged before. In the late Fifties he told his pri­vate sec­re­tary, Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne: “Yes, I have worked very hard and accom­plished a great many things—only to accom­plish noth­ing in the end.”

I ven­tured that Churchill was think­ing of the “spe­cial rela­tion­ship” with Amer­i­ca, which nev­er reached the close­ness he sought. Then too, there was his fail­ure to reach a “set­tle­ment” with Rus­sia, although in 1949 he pre­dict­ed com­mu­nism would expire. “Yes,” said Sir Antho­ny, “It was very sad.”

Here any­way are three Churchill books that are must read­ing: The Riv­er War, The World Cri­sis and The Sec­ond World War. They rep­re­sent an under­stand­ing of states­man­ship in times of duress. And also, Man­fred Wei­d­horn wrote, “fas­ci­nat­ing prod­ucts of the human spirit.”

They are “epic tales of the deprav­i­ties, mis­eries, and glo­ries of man.”

One thought on “Winston S. Churchill’s Three Best War Books (Excerpt)

  1. Could one make the argu­ment that Marl­bor­ough: His Life and Times is a war book? Cer­tain­ly it cen­tral­ly presents mil­i­tary his­to­ry in doc­u­ment­ing Marlborough’s con­sid­er­able achieve­ments. And it does so impec­ca­bly well. Writ­ing it also helped to forge the war leader Churchill was to become. To para­phrase from you and oth­ers, to under­stand the charis­mat­ic, com­mand­ing, defi­ant, inspir­ing and tac­ti­cal­ly bold Churchill of the Sec­ond World War, one MUST read Marl­bor­ough. David Starkey’s excel­lent doc­u­men­tary fur­ther argues that it was writ­ing Marl­bor­ough that rein­forced in Churchill the sense of Britain’s—and his own—destiny, sharp­ened his rhetoric and afford­ed him the tools with which to over­come the most for­mi­da­ble of foes, Adolf Hitler. So I would sug­gest that this book, spun round an epic 18th cen­tu­ry con­flict, qual­i­fies as a war book and, in so doing, takes the gold medal! The World Cri­sis and The Riv­er War take sil­ver and bronze respectively.

    You are absolute­ly right that Marl­bor­ough is in part a war book, and a great one, prob­a­bly Churchill’s sin­gle best title. But it is also much more than that, as the schol­ar Leo Strauss often told his stu­dents: “The great­est his­tor­i­cal work writ­ten in our cen­tu­ry, an inex­haustible mine of polit­i­cal wis­dom and under­stand­ing, which should be required read­ing for every stu­dent of polit­i­cal sci­ence.” To con­sid­er it strict­ly a war book is what Hen­ry Steele Com­mager did in 1968, when he con­tro­ver­sial­ly abridged the work for Scrib­n­ers, leav­ing in most of the sol­dier­ing while trim­ming much of the pol­i­tics. You are right too that only in Marl­boroough can we find the root of the speech­es that inspired Britain to stand when she had lit­tle else to stand with. It stands, in effect, on a high­er rung than his mem­oirs of the three wars. It is in a class by itself. RML

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