“In Search of Churchill,” by Martin Gilbert: An Appreciation

“In Search of Churchill,” by Martin Gilbert: An Appreciation

Excerpt­ed from “Pure Gold: Mar­tin Gilbert’s In Search of Churchill,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal arti­cle with more images, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is not giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

A Churchillian Classic

Mar­tin Gilbert, In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Jour­neyLon­don: Harper­Collins; New York: Wiley, 1994), new paper­back edi­tion, $19.95, Kin­dle $11.39.

In Search of Churchill is one of Sir Mar­tin Gilbert’s most cap­ti­vat­ing sin­gle volumes—as gen­er­ous and humor­ous as its sub­ject. For the ded­i­cat­ed stu­dent of Churchill, it is a panora­ma of rare expe­ri­ence. It is now avail­able as a paper­back and e-book. No ded­i­cat­ed Churchillian will put it down.

Sir Mar­tin began his jour­ney in 1962 at Stour, East Bergholt, the home of then-offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er Ran­dolph ChurchillLady Diana Coop­er had writ­ten a let­ter of intro­duc­tion: “’Dar­ling Randy, here is Mar­tin Gilbert, an inter­est­ing research­ing his­to­ri­an young man who loves Duff and hates the Coro­ner. He is full of zeal to set his­to­ry right. Do see him.” (“The Coro­ner” was Bren­dan Brack­en‘s nick­name for Neville Cham­ber­lain. Lady Diana was refer­ring to Randolph’s pet vil­lain, but nei­ther Mar­tin nor Churchill hat­ed polit­i­cal opponents.)

Gilbert became one of Randolph’s “Young Gen­tle­men,” help­ing to research and draft the “great work.” When Ran­dolph died in 1968, Mar­tin suc­ceed­ed him. Today, Hills­dale Col­lege proud­ly hous­es the Gilbert Papers: 40 tons of mate­r­i­al on Churchill, 20th Cen­tu­ry and Jew­ish his­to­ry. We lost Mar­tin in 2015, but his work nev­er dies. In 2019 Hills­dale com­plet­ed The Churchill Doc­u­ments from mate­r­i­al he had compiled.

In Search
“Dar­ling Randy, Here is Mar­tin Gilbert…. He is full of zeal to set his­to­ry right. Do see him.” —Lady Diana Coop­er to Ran­dolph Churchill, 1962

Personal testament

More than any of his near­ly nine­ty works, In Search of Churchill is deeply per­son­al. It is Martin’s answer to all those crit­ics over the years (they are, in his polite way, nev­er men­tioned by name) who accused him of being uncrit­i­cal. It is a self-defense man­u­al for friends of Churchill: a smor­gas­bord of his­tor­i­cal karate-chops.

Why was Gilbert so pos­i­tive? Because time and again, In Search  explains, he was pre­pared to find Churchill’s trag­ic flaw. And then he would come away more impressed with his wis­dom, gen­eros­i­ty and human­i­ty. “I might find him adopt­ing views with which I dis­agreed. But there would be noth­ing to cause me to think: ‘How shock­ing, how appalling.’”

“Beast of Bergholt”

Gilbert’s friends warned him he prob­a­bly wouldn’t last long at East Bergholt. But Sir William Deakin, who had worked for Sir Win­ston, urged him to take the job any­way: “Work­ing with Ran­dolph, for how­ev­er short a peri­od, will pro­vide a life­time of anecdotes.”

Mar­tin did sur­vive, and Ran­dolph anec­dotes are served up whole­sale. One glit­ter­ing exam­ple involves the night a Lon­don news­pa­per edi­tor was enter­tained at Stour. Ran­dolph served him a fine repast, hop­ing to get the biog­ra­phy seri­al­ized in his newspaper.

The con­ver­sa­tion turned to the trun­cat­ed 1930s news reports from Berlin on the Nazi mil­i­tary buildup. The poor edi­tor made the mis­take of say­ing he had been respon­si­ble for cut­ting them. Ran­dolph turned from the carv­ing table, knife in hand, declar­ing: “You should have been shot by my father in 1940!” The edi­tor, Mar­tin recalls, left the next morn­ing. (He felt able to spend the night!?)

Yet there are many vignettes attest­ing to Randolph’s kind­li­ness toward his aides, his fas­ci­na­tion with the fruit of their research, which he always referred to as “love­ly grub.”

In search personally

Mar­tin Gilbert found him­self the offi­cial biog­ra­ph­er, start­ing with the third vol­ume. In Search devotes a chap­ter to the Dar­d­anelles, the first great con­tro­ver­sy he faced. Here we see his method of study: pho­to­copy every rel­e­vant doc­u­ment, explore every source. If nec­es­sary, ring every­one named “X” in the Lon­don tele­phone book. Thus, he learned that ini­tial­ly it was Churchill who was wary about the Dar­d­anelles cam­paign. Admi­ral Fish­er, who lat­er rebelled, was its backer. Churchill overex­tend­ed him­self defend­ing an action he could not con­trol. Then Fish­er resigned, and Prime Min­is­ter Asquith formed a coali­tion with the Tories, whose price was Churchill’s departure.

Why did Asquith give in? Mar­tin Gilbert could not com­pre­hend it—until he found Judy Mon­tagu, with whose moth­er, Vene­tia Stan­ley, Asquith was besot­ted at the time. Mon­tagu brought him the price­less let­ters in which Asquith poured out his despon­den­cy after Vene­tia became engaged. Here was the “love­ly grub” which struc­tured Vol­ume III’s account of Churchill’s worst polit­i­cal defeat.

In Search describes Churchill’s fear­less­ness in bat­tle, com­bined with his detes­ta­tion of war. Biog­ra­phers who claim the oppo­site should read this: “Ah, hor­ri­ble war,” says Churchill the war­mon­ger: “If mod­ern men of light and lead­ing saw your face clos­er, sim­ple folk would see it hard­ly ever.” He called the Sec­ond World War unnec­es­sary and avoid­able. He was rarely vin­dic­tive, but he nev­er for­gave the Prime Min­is­ter he held respon­si­ble: “I wish Stan­ley Bald­win no ill, but it would have been much bet­ter if he had nev­er lived.” Sir Mar­tin writes: “In my long search for Churchill, few let­ters have struck a clear­er note than this one.”

In Search“The factory”

In Search intro­duces us to the vast writ­ing fac­to­ry of Chartwell, with glimpses of it in action. Three chap­ters are devot­ed to lit­er­ary assis­tants and sec­re­taries. Some crit­ics dwell on how much of their work Churchill passed off as his own. In fact, he signed off on every word, and his assis­tants loved him for the respect and appre­ci­a­tion he paid them.

Winston’s “sec­re­taries” began with a Har­row school chum, John Mil­banke, who took dic­ta­tion while Churchill bathed. Mil­banke lat­er won the Vic­to­ria Cross, and was killed in action at Gal­lipoli. A suc­ces­sion of young peo­ple fol­lowed, and many told Sir Mar­tin their experiences.

“One lady who worked with Churchill for just under three months in 1931, while he was in the Unit­ed States, did not like him,” notes Mar­tin. “She made her objec­tions plain when, near­ly 60 years lat­er, she was inter­viewed at length by the BBC. It was curi­ous, and for me dis­tress­ing, that the oth­er sec­re­taries, who were with him for so much longer, and saw him at his dai­ly work, were giv­en far less time to say their piece.”

“Sagacious Cat”

A sub­ject of much mod­ern hind­sight is Churchill’s marriage—which one well-pub­li­cized biog­ra­phy called a “love­less farce.” Sir Mar­tin explored every paper, diary and mem­o­ry touch­ing on Churchill’s mar­riage and fam­i­ly: “I became aware of how close he had been to his wife and children—a close­ness shown both by the time spent togeth­er, and inti­mate cor­re­spon­dence; an unin­hib­it­ed and open relationship.”

In Search offers scores of exam­ples of the love Clemen­tine and Win­ston bore each oth­er. One illus­trates what Sir Mar­tin calls “the unend­ing fas­ci­na­tion of the search.” He had writ­ten that Clemen­tine, Winston’s “Saga­cious Cat,” pre­vailed upon him to wear civil­ian dress in Paris to receive the Médaille Mil­i­taire in 1947. Lat­er he learned, through a mutu­al friend of this writer’s, that WSC had for once reject­ed her advice, choos­ing the uni­form of the 4th Queen’s Own Hus­sars. My friend Bill Beatty’s pho­to of the occa­sion appears in the book.

Even as he prof­it­ed from these per­son­al rec­ol­lec­tions, Gilbert admits that he is prob­a­bly deal­ing with just a frac­tion of the record: “How often must Churchill have spo­ken on sim­i­lar occa­sions, with no mechan­i­cal or human Boswell present, only a small group of lis­ten­ers caught up in the force of his con­vic­tions, and real­iz­ing that they had lis­tened to some­thing rare, pro­found and extraordinary.”

“Golden inkwells”

In “Diaries and Diarists,” In Search describes the “gold­en inkwells” that mean so much to a biog­ra­ph­er. Here we chop away at the vines of apoc­ryphal sto­ries chok­ing the true image of Churchill. Gilbert him­self admits falling for some: “I felt ashamed to have been caught telling them, being always so scorn­ful myself of unau­then­ti­cat­ed stories.”

“Dear Mr. Gilbert” is a grand finale chap­ter of spi­ral­ing fire­works and shoot­ing stars. Amidst queries of every kind, Gilbert explodes ridicu­lous myths with which the pub­lic, and cer­tain writ­ers, seem besotted.

How did Churchill get by on so lit­tle sleep? (Actu­al­ly he aver­aged sev­en to eight hours a day.) Did actor Nor­man Shel­ley deliv­er a Churchill speech over the BBC? (Nev­er, though a cig­ar some­times clut­tered WSC’s deliv­ery.) Is this sig­na­ture or that paint­ing a fake? (A sur­pris­ing num­ber are.) Did Churchill have roy­al blood? (unde­ter­mined) or ille­git­i­mate off­spring? (No.) Was he unfaith­ful? (Nev­er.) Did he rant against Jews? (Only Jews work­ing with Lenin.) Did he lose the 1945 elec­tion with his “Gestapo Speech?” (“The Gestapo speech is always quot­ed, the social reform pledge hard­ly ever.”)

Prime Min­is­ter Edward Heath asked: How did Churchill work with his speech­writ­ers? (“He didn’t use them,” said Mar­tin, incur­ring the wrath of Heath’s speech­writer, lat­er Britain’s for­eign sec­re­tary.) Why are the Churchill papers on Dieppe open only to Mar­tin Gilbert? (“This caused me to blow my top in Cana­da dur­ing a speech…. I said they were at the Pub­lic Record Office at Kew…. [The speak­er] went on at a bright puce, and I have felt sor­ry for him ever since.”)

Eternal Chartwell

In Search of Churchill winds up at Chartwell, “where every vista, every arti­fact and every room has a sto­ry behind it.” Mar­tin Gilbert recalls his many vis­its there over the years. Old hands point­ed him both to obscure details and explained the cen­tral role Chartwell played in the saga.

Here, in Gilbert’s dis­crete way, are polite but firm rebut­tals of sil­ly sto­ries spun by less fas­tid­i­ous biog­ra­phers. Churchill’s alleged ego, lack of friends, heavy drink­ing, or his cav­a­lier treat­ment of guests, are method­i­cal­ly debunked. Again, one quote will suf­fice, by Patrick Buchan-Hep­burn, lat­er Lord Hailes:

Win­ston was a metic­u­lous host. He’d watch every­one all the time to see whether they want­ed any­thing [and] was a tremen­dous gent in his own house. He was very quick to see any­thing that might hurt some­one. He got very upset if some­one told a sto­ry that might be embar­rass­ing to some­body else in the room. Win­ston had a del­i­ca­cy about oth­er people’s feel­ings. In his house and to his guests he was the per­fec­tion of thoughtfulness.

More broad­ly, Buchan-Hep­burn dis­missed the vision of Churchill as a man who didn’t relate to ordi­nary peo­ple: “He had no class con­scious­ness at all. He was the fur­thest a per­son could be from a snob. He admired brains and char­ac­ter; most of his friends were peo­ple who had made their own way.”

The real Churchill, the real Gilbert

I am well over my allot­ted space I haven’t told you the half of it. In Search of Churchill is pure gold—a book you sim­ply must have. You may find your­self dog-ear­ing or sticky-not­ing it for ref­er­ence in con­fronta­tions with scoffers. It might well form part of the Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy itself. It is that warm, per­son­al side of Mar­tin Gilbert which he set out not to show in his bio­graph­ic volumes.

Hon­est crit­ics may argue over the mer­its of Martin’s approach, and the con­clu­sions he draws. Mar­tin him­self admit­ted that he had bare­ly scratched the sur­face. But fair-mind­ed read­ers will come away from In Search of Churchill real­iz­ing that Sir Win­ston was lucky to have had such a biog­ra­ph­er. Sir Mar­tin has left a mon­u­ment as sta­ble and last­ing as Chartwell itself.

2 thoughts on ““In Search of Churchill,” by Martin Gilbert: An Appreciation

  1. This just con­firms what I have gath­ered in my read­ings of Mr. Churchill. What a mag­nif­i­cent man to read about and learn from.

  2. Richard, a fine arti­cle about a splen­did book. Mar­tin inscribed my copy, “To Doug—-his favorite-and mine too! with the author’s regards Mar­tin Alas­ka 15th Sep­tem­ber 2000” Your arti­cle has moved the book from the shelves to my stack for reread­ing. Thank you again.

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