“No Cutlet Uncooked”: Andrew Roberts’ Superb Churchill Biography

“No Cutlet Uncooked”: Andrew Roberts’ Superb Churchill Biography

Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walk­ing with Des­tiny. New York, Viking, 2018, 1152 pages, $40, Ama­zon $25.47, Kin­dle $17.99. Also pub­lished by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For Hills­dale reviews of Churchill works since 2014, click here. For a list of and notes on books about Churchill from 1905 cur­rent­ly through 1995, vis­it Hillsdale’s anno­tat­ed bibliography.

“No Cutlet Uncooked”

He lies at Bladon in Eng­lish earth, “which in his finest hour he held invi­o­late.” He would enjoy the con­tro­ver­sy he still stirs today, in media he nev­er dreamed of. He would rev­el in the assaults of his detrac­tors, the ripostes of his defend­ers. The vision “of mid­dle-aged gen­tle­men who are my polit­i­cal oppo­nents being in a state of uproar and fury is real­ly quite exhil­a­rat­ing to me,” he said in 1952. (Yes, and the not so mid­dle-aged, too.) Most of all, Win­ston Churchill would love this noble book. It peers into every aspect of a career six decades long, and not, as he once quipped, “entire­ly with­out incident.”

RobertsIn 1960 Gen­er­al Lord Ismay, the devot­ed “Pug,” said an objec­tive biog­ra­phy could not be writ­ten for fifty years. Andrew Roberts weighs in at year fifty-eight. The delay paid off. Roberts was able to access sources only recent­ly avail­able. Not least of these are The Churchill Doc­u­ments—invalu­able papers in print through World War II. Roberts researched the Roy­al Archives at Wind­sor, the pri­vate papers of Churchill’s fam­i­ly. He quotes diarists like Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambas­sador to Britain. With his gift for sep­a­rat­ing wheat from chaff, this accom­plished his­to­ri­an boils the saga down to digestible size.

* * *

Full dis­clo­sure: This writer labored for over a year as one of Roberts’ read­ers, sift­ing every word of his man­u­script. Our emails, as he kind­ly notes, reached four fig­ures. Togeth­er with the tena­cious Paul Courte­nay, we tack­led every ques­tion. We ran down facts and fac­toids, argu­ing out every con­clu­sion. With Hillsdale’s help, we checked unpub­lished parts of Sir Mar­tin Gilbert’s “wodges.”  These are doc­u­ments, clip­pings and let­ters, com­piled by Sir Mar­tin, for almost every day of Churchill’s life.

Mr. Roberts, to quote his sub­ject, “left no cut­let uncooked.” This is the first biog­ra­phy I’ve proofed since Manchester’s The Last Lion, so I am per­haps qual­i­fied to com­pare. No one will ever reach the lyri­cal heights of Hor­atius at the Gate, like Man­ches­ter did. Roberts is far more illu­mi­nat­ing, accu­rate and up to date. Walk­ing with Des­tiny is a masterpiece—the finest sin­gle Churchill vol­ume you can hope to read. To para­phrase Simon Schama on Gilbert’s vol­umes, it is a “Churchilli­ad,” and Andrew Roberts is its Bard.

Seeing the Whole Man

Roberts cap­tures the essence of his sub­ject, begin­ning with courage. How many 40-year-olds, sacked from their job, go off to fight in a world war? “You must not let this fret you in the least,” Churchill non­cha­lant­ly assured his wife. Fret she did: “…you seem to me as far away as the stars, lost among a mil­lion kha­ki fig­ures.” He left the trench­es in 1916, Roberts notes. “He had writ­ten over 100 let­ters to her, which allows us to peer into his psy­chol­o­gy bet­ter than at any oth­er peri­od of his life.”

Clemen­tine Churchill nev­er begrudged his predilec­tions, from bat­tle to pol­i­tics, where some­how he man­aged to remain friends with oppo­nents. He even social­ized with them, in a club he invent­ed for the pur­pose: “With Churchill there was very often a polit­i­cal angle to friend­ship. An extra­or­di­nar­i­ly large con­tin­gent of Oth­er Club mem­bers came togeth­er to help make Churchill prime min­is­ter in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent ways, and then to serve in his wartime Gov­ern­ment…. Churchill had built some­thing that by 1940 was to make a very real contribution…”

The great man’s courage vied with his emo­tion, Roberts writes: “Lady Diana Coop­er left a charm­ing account of [a wartime] week­end at Ditch­ley…. ‘We had two love­ly films after din­ner…. Win­ston man­aged to cry through all of them, includ­ing the com­e­dy.’ She told him that night that the great­est thing he had done was to give the British peo­ple courage. ‘I nev­er gave them courage,’ he replied. ‘I was able to focus theirs.’” Exactly.

Canards fall like matchsticks…

 … as Roberts method­i­cal­ly writes them off. It was not true, as Lord Mount­bat­ten said, that young Win­ston left Cuba in 1895 with a lik­ing for sies­tas and cig­ars. He already smoked cig­ars, did not start his after­noon nap until 1914. Regard­ing his overblown spells of the blues: “Churchill was not a depres­sive at all, let alone a man­ic one.” More like­ly he was a hypochon­dri­ac, “a man who took his own tem­per­a­ture dai­ly and believed he had a sen­si­tive cuti­cle.” His ref­er­ences to his “Black Dog” were part of “the sheer exag­ger­a­tion to which he was prone. (Ama­teur diag­noses of him being bipo­lar can be even more eas­i­ly dismissed.)”

At Omdur­man in 1898, “with­in shot of an advanc­ing army,” Churchill exclaimed, “Where will you beat this!” Such out­bursts gained him “the unde­served rep­u­ta­tion for being a lover of war, even though he was at con­stant pains to point out that the war­fare he was describ­ing was a world away from the indus­tri­al­ized hor­rors of the First World War.” His exu­ber­ance as WW1 began is fre­quent­ly exco­ri­at­ed. “But it was the exu­ber­ance of some­one who had not want­ed the war to break out, had offered Ger­many the most gen­er­ous and com­pre­hen­sive plan to pre­vent it, had nonethe­less planned metic­u­lous­ly what his depart­ment would do if it did, and who com­mand­ed the weapon that he believed could end it.”

* * *

Anoth­er myth is that Churchill always overem­pha­sized the inter­ests of whichev­er depart­ment he head­ed. Yet in the 1920s, as Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer, he opposed deep­er naval cuts than he’d bud­get­ed: “Any oth­er real­is­tic alter­na­tive chancellor—Neville or Austen Cham­ber­lain and cer­tain­ly any Labour or Lib­er­al one—would have been much tougher on the Admiralty…Overall, the naval bud­get increased dur­ing Churchill’s chan­cel­lor­ship.” (Ital­ics mine.)

In World War II, Roberts explodes the myth that Churchill opposed a Sec­ond Front: “The very phrase Sec­ond Front was itself a term of Sovi­et pro­pa­gan­da, because Britain had already been fight­ing Ger­many on at least five fronts before the Sovi­ets were forced by inva­sion to drop their pro-Ger­man neu­tral­i­ty; in North­ern France, the air, the Atlantic, North Africa and the Mediterranean.”

“I want to see a great shining India…”

On India Churchill was part­ly influ­enced by diehards, like Bev­er­ley Nichols, author of Ver­dict on India. “It cer­tain­ly shows the Hin­du in his true char­ac­ter and the sor­ry plight to which we have reduced our­selves by los­ing con­fi­dence in our mis­sion,” Churchill report­ed to Clementine.

But then his pre­science sur­faced: “Read­ing about India has depressed me for I see such ugly storms loom­ing up…. still more about what will hap­pen if [Britain’s con­nec­tion] is sud­den­ly bro­ken. Mean­while we are hold­ing on to this vast Empire, from which we get noth­ing, amid the increas­ing abuse and crit­i­cism of the world, and our own peo­ple, and increas­ing hatred of the Indi­an pop­u­la­tion, who receive con­stant and dead­ly pro­pa­gan­da to which we can make no reply.” (And this long before the Inter­net!) Unique­ly, Churchill saw and pre­dict­ed India’s divi­sion: “…only a Mus­lim-major­i­ty state in the north­ern part of the Indi­an sub-con­ti­nent would pro­tect Mus­lim minor­i­ty rights if and when the British left.”

* * *

He was right about that—and con­sis­tent. In July 1944 he told Sir Arcot Ramasamy Mudaliar, India’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the War Cab­i­net: “It was only thanks to the benef­i­cence and wis­dom of British rule in India, free from any hint of war for a longer peri­od than almost any oth­er coun­try in the world, [that India pro­duced] this vast and improv­i­dent efflo­res­cence of human­i­ty…. Your peo­ple must prac­tise birth con­trol.” Then he added (and we will nev­er see this quot­ed by his Indi­an haters) that the old idea that the Indi­an was in any way infe­ri­or to the white man must go. Specif­i­cal­ly he said: “We must all be pals togeth­er. I want to see a great shin­ing India, of which we can be as proud as we are of a great Cana­da or a great Aus­tralia.” ** There is the true Win­ston Churchill.

** Duff Hart-Davis, ed., King’s Coun­sel­lor: Abdi­ca­tion and War: the Diaries of Sir Alan Las­celles (Lon­don: Wei­den­feld & Nicol­son, 2006), 173.

Roberts Insights

“Bring It On”: Inspect­ing Dover for­ti­fi­ca­tions, 31 July 1940. “I nev­er gave them courage. I was able to focus theirs.”

Churchill famous­ly “rat­ted” on the Con­ser­v­a­tives over Free Trade—but was that his only objec­tion? No, says Roberts: “Years lat­er Churchill admit­ted that such was his reac­tion against the par­ty at the time, over the harsh treat­ment of the defeat­ed Boers, Army reform and the way the 1900 elec­tion vic­to­ry was being exploit­ed, that ‘when the Pro­tec­tion issue was raised I was already dis­posed to view all their actions in the most crit­i­cal light.’ Churchill was spoil­ing for a fight with his own par­ty.” This is fresh, excel­lent analy­sis. I have nev­er heard his change of par­ties so com­pre­hen­sive­ly explained.

Had the 9th Duke of Marl­bor­ough died with­out an heir in 1934, Churchill would have become Duke, los­ing his Com­mons seat and any chance at the pre­mier­ship, Roberts notes wry­ly: “He could sur­vive a school stab­bing, a 30-foot-fall, pneu­mo­nia, [near­ly drown­ing in] a Swiss lake, Cuban bul­lets, Pathan tribes­men, Dervish spears, Boer artillery and sen­tries, tsetse flies, a Bris­tol suf­fragette, plane crash­es, Ger­man high explo­sive shells and snipers, and lat­ter­ly a New York motorist, but such was the British con­sti­tu­tion that he also required the fecun­di­ty of a duke and duchess to allow him to be in the right place to save Britain in 1940.”

* * *

Saved by fecun­di­ty, he went on to warn the coun­try in the 1930s. “It was a fas­ci­nat­ing dichoto­my,” Roberts writes, “that the lead­ing appeasers had not seen action in the Great War…. Ram­say Mac­Don­ald, Stan­ley Bald­win, Neville Cham­ber­lain, John Simon, Samuel Hoare, Kings­ley Wood, Rab But­ler and Lord Hal­i­fax did not serve in the front line or see death up close.” But the anti-appeasers, “Churchill, Antho­ny Eden MC, Harold Macmil­lan MC, Alfred Duff Coop­er DSO, Roger Keyes KCB, DSO, Edward Spears MC and George Lloyd DSO all had.”

Anoth­er deft com­par­i­son: In India and the Sudan, young Win­ston had encoun­tered Islam­ic fun­da­men­tal­ism, “a form of reli­gious fanati­cism that in many key fea­tures was not unlike the Nazism that he was to encounter forty years lat­er. None of the three prime min­is­ters of the 1930s—Ramsay Mac­Don­ald, Stan­ley Bald­win and Neville Chamberlain—had seen true fanati­cism in their per­son­al lives, and they were slow to dis­cern it in Nazi Ger­many. [Churchill] had fought against it in his youth and rec­og­nized its salient fea­tures ear­li­er than any­one else.”

“Never Surrender”

Churchill’s atti­tude towards Rus­sia is often warped by his crit­ics. Roberts sorts it out. “He start­ed with pro­found enmi­ty of the Bol­she­viks, then by the late 1930s advo­cat­ed an alliance with them. Then in 1939-40 he sup­port­ed Fin­land in its war against them, then in 1941 he allied Britain with them overnight. In 1946 he denounced them, only in the 1950s to seek détente with them.” His view of Rus­sia changed five times. “Yet the expla­na­tion was not in any inher­ent lack of con­sis­ten­cy, as is often alleged, but what was in the ‘his­toric life-inter­ests’ of Britain.”

Deft­ly Roberts explains the peace chat­ter of late May 1940. With Britain’s back to the wall, Lord Hal­i­fax clam­ored for an armistice bro­kered by Mus­soli­ni. Hal­i­fax was “the only one who under­stood,” nod­ded French Pre­mier Reynaud’s Anglo­pho­bic aide Lt-Col. Paul de Vil­lelume. Churchill was “pris­on­er of the swash­buck­ling atti­tude he always takes in front of his ministers.”

Hal­i­fax first thought Churchill wel­comed a deal which pre­served Britain’s inde­pen­dence. Then he protest­ed that the PM believed in noth­ing save a fight to the fin­ish. “This was in fact always Churchill’s line,” Roberts explains. It’s quite clear “if all five days’ dis­cus­sions are read in context.”

* * *

Six weeks before D-Day Churchill was cau­tious. “We can now say, not only with hope but with rea­son, that we shall reach the end of our jour­ney in good order. [The] tragedy will not come to pass. When the sig­nal is giv­en, the whole cir­cle of aveng­ing nations will hurl them­selves upon the foe.”

Roberts jux­ta­pos­es two reac­tions. “This was the speech of an old man,” said the King’s pri­vate sec­re­tary. “Some­one who clear­ly did not think so was Anne Frank, the Jew­ish Dutch teenag­er, who wrote in her diary from her secret attic in Ams­ter­dam, ‘A speech by our beloved Win­ston Churchill is quite perfect.’”

Gen­er­al Sir Alan Brooke’s late night fum­ing about Churchill is often held to show the PM’s feet of clay—and Lord knows he had them. But Roberts shows us a dif­fer­ent Brooke. Take when the boss arrives in France after D-Day. “I knew that he longed to get into the most exposed posi­tion pos­si­ble. I hon­est­ly believe that he would real­ly have liked to be killed on the front at this moment of suc­cess. He [had said] the way to die is to pass out fight­ing when your blood is up and you feel noth­ing.” Part of Churchill’s admi­ra­tion for Admi­ral Nel­son, Roberts sug­gests, “was for his glo­ri­ous death at the moment of victory.”

Readers: Buy This Book

Space is run­ning out and I haven’t told you the half of it. There are 78 illus­tra­tions, most of them unique even to jad­ed Churchillians. Roberts did his best to avoid “old chest­nuts.” There are six­teen pages of clear maps. The 1950s Reader’s Union map of Churchill’s wartime jour­neys is worked nice­ly into the end­pa­pers. The book weighs 3 1/2 pounds—don’t drop it on your foot. The page stock is thin, but well cho­sen to min­i­mize bleed-through. The bib­li­og­ra­phy, attest­ing to its thor­ough­ness, runs to 23 pages, the author’s notes to 37, the index to 60. Ama­zon offers an attrac­tive 40% dis­count and a Kin­dle ver­sion. This is lit­tle to pay for the edu­ca­tion you’ll receive.

Andrew Roberts has been book-tour­ing Britain (as he soon will be in North Amer­i­ca). His has encour­ag­ing news for all who “labor in the vine­yard,” as dear Mar­tin Gilbert always described it. “There’s an explo­sion of love of Churchill among ordi­nary peo­ple away from the Lon­don met­ro­pol­i­tan bub­ble,” Roberts writes. “It’s like 1940 in terms of his pop­u­lar­i­ty, when­ev­er you get away from the smug elites. We sell out con­stant­ly. Very heart­en­ing. Some­times one can feel down over the Inter­net attacks and the stat­ue smear­ings. But out in rur­al Eng­land he’s as much loved as ever. Our life’s work has borne fruit.”

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