Churchill Clairvoyant, 1891: Confidence or Realism?

Churchill Clairvoyant, 1891: Confidence or Realism?

Q: Confidence in 1940

I am a psy­chol­o­gist writ­ing a man­u­script on the bio­log­i­cal basis of self-con­fi­dence. When Churchill became prime min­is­ter, few were as opti­mistic as he that vic­to­ry could be won. I would like to ver­i­fy some­thing he said that illus­trates both his con­fi­dence and clair­voy­ance. He men­tions this in The Gath­er­ing Storm movie, to Ralph Wigram. He tells Wigram of a youth­ful con­ver­sa­tion with a school­mate. One day, he pre­dict­ed, Britain would be in great dan­ger, and it would fall to him to save Lon­don. —B.J.S

A: Public confidence, private doubts

Pri­vate­ly the Churchill of 1940 was not so con­fi­dent as his speech­es pro­claimed. Just after he kissed hands and accept­ed the King’s com­mis­sion, he said to his body­guard, Wal­ter Thomp­son: “I hope I’m not too late.” (He also pur­port­ed­ly said some­thing like that to his cat!) Lat­er he con­fid­ed to Roo­sevelt that the Ger­mans might invade and install a pup­pet gov­ern­ment. He assured FDR that no such gov­ern­ment would be run by him. But he sug­gest­ed they might install the British fas­cist leader Oswald Mosley “or some such person.”

As France was falling in May-June 1940, Churchill adamant­ly opposed an armistice with Ger­many. But Neville Chamberlain’s diary for the end of May records him as say­ing that “if we could get out of this jam by giv­ing  up Mal­ta and Gibral­tar and some African colonies, he would jump at the chance.” His­to­ri­ans have gen­er­al­ly con­clud­ed that he was throw­ing a bone to his for­eign min­is­ter. Lord Hal­i­fax was argu­ing for an approach to Hitler through Mussolini’s “good offices.” (The mind boggles—but the thought was shared by oth­ers beside Hal­i­fax at that grim time.)

To Murland Evans, 1891

Nev­er­the­less, the screen­play in The Gath­er­ing Storm about fore­see­ing the future has its ori­gins in fact. It came at Har­row School when Churchill was 17 years old, as quot­ed in  Sir Mar­tin Gilbert’s In Search of Churchill, page 215. Sir Mar­tin had the sto­ry from Churchill’s Har­row school­mate, Sir Mur­land Evans.  It was 1891, Evans recalled: A summer’s evening “in one of those dread­ful base­ment rooms in the Head Master’s House, a Sun­day, to be exact, after chapel even­song. We frankly dis­cussed our futures. After plac­ing me in the Diplo­mat­ic Service…or alter­na­tive­ly in finance, fol­low­ing my father’s career, we came to his own future. ‘Will you go into the army?’ I asked….

“I don’t know, it is prob­a­ble, but I shall have great adven­tures begin­ning soon after I leave here.”

“Are you going into pol­i­tics? Fol­low­ing your famous father?”

“I don’t know, but it is more than like­ly because, you see, I am not afraid to speak in public.”

“You do not seem at all clear about your inten­tions or desires.”

“That may be, but I have a won­der­ful idea of where I shall be even­tu­al­ly. I have dreams about it.”

“Where is that?” I enquired.

“I see into the future…”

“Well, I can see vast changes com­ing over a now peace­ful world; great upheavals, ter­ri­ble strug­gles; wars such as one can­not imag­ine; and I tell you Lon­don will be in danger—London will be attacked and I shall be very promi­nent in the defence of London.”

“How can you talk like that?” I said. “We are for ever safe from inva­sion, since the days of Napoleon.”

“I see fur­ther ahead than you do. I see into the future. This coun­try will be sub­ject­ed some­how to a tremen­dous inva­sion, by what means I do not know, but [warm­ing up to his sub­ject] I tell you I shall be in com­mand of the defences of Lon­don and I shall save Lon­don and Eng­land from disaster.”

“Will you be a gen­er­al then, in com­mand of the troops?”

“I don’t know; dreams of the future are blurred, but the main objec­tive is clear. I repeat—London will be in dan­ger and in the high posi­tion I shall occu­py, it will fall to me to save the Cap­i­tal and save the Empire.”

Sir Martin Gilbert…

…told me it was one of those expe­ri­ences a his­to­ri­an receives rarely. “It was a stun­ner,” he recalled with feel­ing. An expres­sion of con­fi­dence? Cer­tain­ly. A fluke? Per­haps. It ranks with Sir Win­ston pre­dict­ing he would die on Jan­u­ary 24th—12 years before it hap­pened. He had a way of see­ing ahead. To Mur­land Evans, he saw half a cen­tu­ry ahead.

Further reading

Review of The Gath­er­ing Storm star­ring Albert Finney as WSC.

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