Hillsdale Dialogues Explore Churchill’s “The World Crisis”

Hillsdale Dialogues Explore Churchill’s “The World Crisis”

Excerpt­ed from The World Cri­sis: Churchill’s Mas­ter­work (1),” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with more links and images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address always remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

The World Crisis Hillsdale Dialogues

The Hills­dale Dia­logues are week­ly broad­casts of dis­cus­sions between Hills­dale Col­lege Pres­i­dent Lar­ry P. Arnn and radio host Hugh Hewitt. They cur­rent­ly offer an extend­ed dis­cus­sion of Churchill’s The World Cri­sis: his out­stand­ing mem­oir of the First World War.

Upon pub­li­ca­tion in 1923, the first two vol­umes drew close atten­tion. Churchill’s col­league Arthur Bal­four (who quite admired it) referred to “Winston’s mag­nif­i­cent auto­bi­og­ra­phy, dis­guised as a his­to­ry of the uni­verse.” A cen­tu­ry lat­er, Dr. Arnn con­sid­ers it one of Churchill’s best works. It ranks with Marl­bor­ough and The Sec­ond World War for its lyri­cal style and pow­er­ful mes­sage. Chanc­ing across Vol­ume 1, 1911-1914, he mar­veled at the beau­ty of the writ­ing and the somber warn­ing Churchill conveyed.

Mr. Hewitt, for his part, con­sid­ers The World Cri­sis a bale­ful por­tent of a world not unfa­mil­iar now. He asks, does read­ing this great work make you pes­simistic today? “No,” replies Dr. Arnn. “It’s a glo­ri­ous sto­ry. Churchill is good proof against trou­ble. He always expect­ed war to be hell. And he always expect­ed to pre­vail. One must rea­son about that, of course—but one must cul­ti­vate the attitude.”

What fol­lows is a mod­est accom­pa­ni­ment to these impor­tant Dia­logues, which are worth one’s time. Dis­cus­sions of the ear­ly chap­ters pro­ceed at this writ­ing. The links appear here as the ses­sions continue.


Many con­nois­seurs of Churchill and the Churchill style, who found him through The Sec­ond World War or A His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples, soon learned of his ear­li­er, mul­ti-vol­ume mem­oir of the First World War. Pub­lished 1923-31 by Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, Scrib­n­ers and Macmil­lan of Toron­to, it was an imme­di­ate best-seller.

Abridg­ments began as ear­ly as 1931, but for many years a com­plete set was obtain­able only in the ear­ly edi­tions. (The 1963-64 Scrib­n­ers illus­trat­ed edi­tion had a small press run and was hard­er to find than the orig­i­nals.) In 1991, I per­suad­ed the Eas­t­on Press to issue a com­plete edi­tion with the post­war Scrib­n­ers illus­tra­tions. Lat­er, book­sellers offered an inex­pen­sive com­plete text by com­bin­ing the unabridged 1939 Odhams two-vol­ume edi­tion (cov­er­ing 1911-18) with two vol­umes Odhams did not pub­lish: The After­math and The East­ern Front (from theCol­lect­ed Works)

Today, avail­abil­i­ty is much bet­ter, and prices con­sid­er­ably low­er. Blooms­bury pub­lish­es the six books as paper­backs, while Roset­ta offers e-books. See Amazon.com. For ear­li­er edi­tions, search Book­find­er.

The volumes

Though com­mon­ly described as a six-vol­ume work, The World Cri­sis is actu­al­ly five vol­umes in six books. The mid­dle two vol­umes, sub­ti­tled 1916-1918, sold as a pair, slip­cased togeth­er in the USA and Cana­da. The fas­tid­i­ous refer to them as “Vol­umes 3a and 3b.” Thus the last two vol­umes, The After­math and The East­ern Front, are cor­rect­ly Vol­umes 4 and 5 respec­tive­ly. Book­sellers describe the full set as “5-in-6.”

Vol­ume 1, 1911-1914, begins with the great pow­er rival­ries that led to the war, and the open­ing cam­paigns. Vol­ume 2, 1915, is the most per­son­al, large­ly devot­ed to Churchill’s failed efforts to break the dead­lock in Europe by forc­ing the Dar­d­anelles, knock­ing Turkey out of the war and suc­cor­ing the Rus­sians. The third vol­ume, 1916-1918 (two parts) cov­ers the car­nage on the West­ern Front, the Ger­man vic­to­ry over Rus­sia, Germany’s near-vic­to­ry over the Allies in 1918, and the final, exhaust­ed end of the war. Vol­ume IV, The After­math, chron­i­cles events involv­ing Churchill dur­ing the ten years after vic­to­ry, includ­ing the Irish Treaty. The final Vol­ume V, The East­ern Front, recounts the titan­ic bat­tles between Rus­sia and the Ger­man-Aus­tri­an armies.

It is impor­tant to note two major addi­tions not in the orig­i­nal text. In 1931 for a one-vol­ume abridg­ment, Churchill added exten­sive com­men­tary on the Bat­tle of the Marne (1914) and Lord Fisher’s res­ig­na­tion (1915). Be sure to read these in the 1931 abridged one-vol­ume edi­tion or the unabridged 1939 Odhams two-vol­ume edi­tion (both cov­er­ing 1911-18 only), or mod­ern edi­tions (such as the Kin­dle e-book) which incor­po­rate these vital additions.

The World Crisis: An Appreciation

Asked to rec­om­mend a “big work” by Churchill, I always sug­gest The World Cri­sis. Like all of his war books where he was involved, it a per­son­al tes­ti­mo­ny, tend­ing to defend his role in affairs. But one of his wor­thy char­ac­ter­is­tics was his unabashed hon­esty: he learned from his mis­takes and was forth­right in admit­ting them. He stout­ly defend­ed the per­son­al approach. He declared it was “not his­to­ry, but a con­tri­bu­tion to his­to­ry.” Lat­er, of The Sec­ond World War, he would say sim­i­lar­ly, “This is not his­to­ry; this is my case.”

It is hard to think of anoth­er 20th Cen­tu­ry states­man who not only spent most of the two World Wars in high office and was able to write about them in beau­ti­ful prose. Even those who do not usu­al­ly read war books admire Churchill’s account of the awful, unfold­ing scene. The “war to end wars” is described as if the read­er were a col­league, observ­ing the march of events over Churchill’s burly shoulder.

The virtues Churchill hon­ors are, awful­ly, those of the peo­ples smashed in the gen­er­al wreck­age. It is above all to demon­strate how the chron­ic infir­mi­ty of polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary com­mand made them suf­fer as they did that Churchill writes this history.

“Are you quite sure?”

Among the grand pas­sages of Vol­ume 1 was a favorite of the late Gen­er­al Col­in Pow­ell, who asked for its attri­bu­tion (pages 48-49 of the first edi­tion). Churchill is describ­ing the Agadir Cri­sis when, amid calm, diplo­mat­ic mes­sages, Ger­many and France almost went to war in 1911. Agadir was a stark warn­ing not lost on Britain, and pro­pelled Churchill to the Admi­ral­ty. It sum­ma­rizes Gen­er­al Powell’s pru­dence about resort to arms, some­thing he shared with Churchill:

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…. It is too fool­ish, too fan­tas­tic to be thought of in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Or is it fire and mur­der leap­ing out of the dark­ness at our throats, tor­pe­does rip­ping the bel­lies of half-awak­ened ships, a sun­rise on a van­ished naval suprema­cy, and an island well-guard­ed hith­er­to, at last defence­less? No, it is noth­ing. 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 Vials of Wrath”

World CrisisIn the first Hills­dale dia­logue on The World Cri­sis Dr. Arnn exam­ines Churchill’s arrest­ing first chap­ter, “The Vials of Wrath.” Here, he real­ized on his first encounter, was some­thing out of the ordi­nary. A great writer was set­ting a dra­mat­ic stage. This quo­ta­tion is the best pos­si­ble argu­ment for read­ing The World Cri­sis:

It was the cus­tom in the palmy days of Queen Vic­to­ria for states­men to expa­ti­ate upon the glo­ries of the British Empire, and to rejoice in that pro­tect­ing Prov­i­dence which had pre­served us through so many dan­gers and brought us at length into a secure and pros­per­ous age. Lit­tle did they know that the worst per­ils had still to be encoun­tered and that the great­est tri­umphs were yet to be won….

It seemed incon­ceiv­able that the same series of tremen­dous events through which since the days of Queen Eliz­a­beth we had three times made our way suc­cess­ful­ly, should be repeat­ed a fourth time and on an immea­sur­ably larg­er scale. Yet that is what has hap­pened, and what we have lived to see.

“Fearful agencies of destruction”

The Great War through which we have passed dif­fered from all ancient wars in the immense pow­er of the com­bat­ants and their fear­ful agen­cies of destruc­tion, and from all mod­ern wars in the utter ruth­less­ness with which it was fought….

Every out­rage against human­i­ty or inter­na­tion­al law was repaid by reprisals often on a greater scale and of longer dura­tion. No truce or par­ley mit­i­gat­ed the strife of the armies. The wound­ed died between the lines: the dead moul­dered into the soil. Mer­chant ships and neu­tral ships and hos­pi­tal ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into sub­mis­sion with­out regard to age or sex. Cities and mon­u­ments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indis­crim­i­nate­ly. Poi­son gas in many forms sti­fled or seared the sol­diers. Liq­uid fire was pro­ject­ed upon their bod­ies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smoth­ered, often slow­ly, in the dark recess­es of the sea. The fight­ing strength of armies was lim­it­ed only by the man­hood of their countries….

When all was over, Tor­ture and Can­ni­bal­ism were the only two expe­di­ents that the civ­i­lized, sci­en­tif­ic, Chris­t­ian States had been able to deny them­selves: and these were of doubt­ful utility.

Further reading

Wikipedia: Churchill’s War Accounts: His­to­ry or Mem­oirs?” (2022)

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