Martin on Churchill: No One Left Without Feeling a Braver Man

Martin on Churchill: No One Left Without Feeling a Braver Man

Q: On William Pitt and Winston Churchill

I’m search­ing for  a quote about William Pitt the Elder, used also about Churchill in 1940. It goes some­thing like, “No one left his pres­ence who did not feel braver.” But it’s more elo­quent. —M.M., Indiana

A: Bruce: “Continuance is unnecessary.” Churchill: “Rot.”

Indeed so. The quote is from the 30 May 1940 diary of John Mar­tin, one of Churchill’s pri­vate sec­re­taries, first pub­lished in Mar­tin Gilbert’s Offi­cial Biog­ra­phy, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. VI, Finest Hour 1939-1941 (Hills­dale, Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2013), 435-36:

Dur­ing May 30 [1940] Desmond Mor­ton sent Churchill a sev­en page note by the Aus­tralian High Com­mis­sion­er in Lon­don, Stan­ley Bruce, argu­ing, in one of its para­graphs, in favour of an inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence “to for­mu­late a peace set­tle­ment.” Churchill struck out this para­graph, and wrote in the mar­gin: “No.” Cross­ing out Bruce’s final point, that “the fur­ther shed­ding of blood and the con­tin­u­ance of hideous suf­fer­ing is unnec­es­sary” and that the bel­liger­ents should “cease the strug­gle,” Churchill wrote: “Rot,” and went on to note, for Mor­ton: “The end is rot­ten.” That night one of Churchill’s pri­vate sec­re­taries, John Mar­tin, wrote home: “The PM’s con­fi­dence and ener­gy are amaz­ing. ‘Nobody left his pres­ence with­out feel­ing a braver man’ was said of Pitt; but it is no less true of him.”

Sir John Martin  KCMG CB CVO

Sir John Mar­tin, 1904-1991. (Nation­al Por­trait Gallery, pub­lic domain)

Born in Edin­burgh, John Mar­tin entered the Civ­il Ser­vice in 1927, join­ing the Colo­nial and Domin­ion Offices. His final post­ing was British High Com­mis­sion­er for Mal­ta in 1965 before retire­ment in 1967. Along with Sir John Colville, he was an obser­vant recorder of life with Churchill as a Prin­ci­pal Pri­vate Sec­re­tary dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. His diaries are pub­lished in Michael Jack­son, A Scot­tish Life: Sir John Mar­tin, Churchill and Empire (1999).

Mar­tin cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fied the orig­i­nal quote, said of William Pitt the Elder, by Colonel Isaac Bar­ré, Trea­sur­er of the Roy­al Navy. He did not quote it exact­ly, how­ev­er. Accord­ing to Macaulay’s Essays on William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (1898) Bar­ré said: “No one ever entered his clos­et who did not come out of it a braver man.

“If this long island story of ours is to end…”

The date of John Martin’s com­ment is sig­nif­i­cant. Two days ear­li­er, on May 28th, Churchill had pre­vailed in the debate over whether to seek an armistice with Hitler. This was pro­posed by Lord Hal­i­fax, with Mus­soli­ni as the inter­me­di­ary. After a long harangue with Hal­i­fax, Churchill addressed his non-Cab­i­net min­is­ters (Gilbert, 420):

I have thought care­ful­ly in these last days whether it was part of my duty to con­sid­er enter­ing into nego­ti­a­tions with That Man [Hitler]…. The Ger­mans would demand our fleet—that would be called “disarmament”—our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state…. And I am con­vinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to con­tem­plate par­ley or sur­ren­der. If this long island sto­ry of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies chok­ing in his own blood upon the ground.

“A white glow, overpowering, sublime…”

In his war mem­oirs, Churchill recalled the reaction:

There occurred a demon­stra­tion which con­sid­er­ing the char­ac­ter of the gathering—25 expe­ri­enced politi­cians and Par­lia­ment men, who rep­re­sent­ed all the dif­fer­ent points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war—surprised me. Quite a num­ber seemed to jump up from the table and come run­ning to my chair, shout­ing and pat­ting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this junc­ture fal­tered at all in the lead­ing of the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Min­is­ter was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his fam­i­ly and pos­ses­sions destroyed rather than give in. In this they rep­re­sent­ed the House of Com­mons and almost all the people.

It fell to me in these com­ing days and months to express their sen­ti­ments on suit­able occa­sions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow over-pow­er­ing, sub­lime, which ran through our Island from end to end. (Their Finest Hour, 1949, 48.)

Churchill’s reply to the critics

Before and since we’ve heard the refrain. Churchill destroyed the British Empire and laid the way for Rus­so-Amer­i­can hege­mo­ny. He reject­ed Realpoli­tik and refused to deal with “That Man.” It is not wide­ly known that Churchill him­self had an answer to this. It came short­ly after his retire­ment in 1955. His pri­vate sec­re­tary. Sir Antho­ny Mon­tague Browne, decid­ed to play devil’s advo­cate. Why not seek an armistice? He records Churchill’s answer in Long Sun­set (1995), 200:

You’re only say­ing that to be provoca­tive. You know very well we couldn’t have made peace on the heels of a ter­ri­ble defeat. The coun­try wouldn’t have stood for it. And what makes you think that we could have trust­ed Hitler’s word—particularly as he could soon have had Russ­ian resources behind him? At best we would have been a Ger­man client state, and there’s not much in that.

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