Winston Spenser Churchill, The Irrepressible

Though Now In Eclipse, This Fearless And Tireless Fighting Man May Return
To English Politics With A New-Sharpened Sword

[Munsey's Magazine, March 1916]

There is just one well-known animal in the kingdom of flesh that never does anything wrong. It is the oyster. He maintains a high reputation for rectitude by remaining firmly in one place from early infancy to the end of his tranquil life. If he stirred around he would get into trouble after the fashion of other animals.

It is hardly fair to say that Winston Spencer Churchill was a man in a government of oysters. His colleagues moved at times, but it was too frequently in the restrained, sidewise manner of the crab; while Churchill was dashing about, doing things, or trying to do them, day and night. Consequently he made some mistakes.

More, he shouldered full responsibility for mistakes that were not altogether his. But, leaving that aside, he went ahead and tried to do things, regardless of possible error. His idea of conducting the war was summed up in the philosophy that in military affairs there is no crime worse than inaction. The net result, in the eyes of the British public and Parliament, was the pair of misadventures at Antwerp and at the Dardanelles.

Furthermore, Churchill went out of his way to issue predictions—a notoriously risky proceeding. He told the English people that raiding Zeppelins would be surrounded by "swarms of hornets;" and the hornets did not materialize. He said that the navy "would dig the Germans out like rats;" which manifestly cannot be done. And the English accepted all of this at its face value, instead of treating it as the talk of a powerful, brave, and energetic young man who was straining at the coils of inaction that bound him in.

He was dubbed "Duke of Antwerp and Gallipoli," and liberally abused throughout the kingdom. A part of the British press set out to crucify him, especially after Lord Fisher had resigned as first sea lord. A number of American correspondents joined in the hue and cry, and the young head of the Admiralty—he was only thirty-nine when the war began—was held up as an erratic, albeit forceful boy, who was running amuck through the delicately woven plans of mature experts.

There was consequently but little surprise when the organization of the Coalition cabinet found Churchill transferred from the Admiralty to a sinecure portfolio. There is a story that he was persuaded to accept a post of "well-paid inaction," as he himself termed it, on the understanding that he would be one of the council of five to control the empire's plans for the prosecution of the war.

Whether this is true is not now material. But when the quinquevirate was made up, Churchill was not of the number, and his resignation followed. And the forces that had assailed him breathed a fervent "Good riddance!"

This was very fine until Mr. Churchill, no longer a minister, rose from a seat just behind the ministerial benches and made his speech of vindication—an oratorical effort that will be long remembered in the British Parliament.

He faced a critical audience, but before a quarter of his sixty-five-minute address was finished the house was with him. Those who had lambasted him for the Antwerp adventure sat up when he announced that the project of sending a relieving force had originated with Lord Kitchener and the French general staff; that it was vital that Antwerp should hold out until the Allies could organize for battles on the Yser line; that he had volunteered to go and do what he could; and that Kitchener had decided that despite the pressing importance of prolonging the resistance of the Belgian stronghold, he could not spare any military forces for the expedition. Hence, the ill-fated landing of the marines. This was the history of a "boyish adventure," carried out "by a pushful amateur against the advice of all expert opinion."

He then took up the Dardanelles and explained that the French and British governments, practically to the last man, were in favor of it. It was generally admitted that a naval attack in connection with military operations would be better; but again no men could be spared. The two governments therefore decided that the naval attempt was worth while. Naval experts agreed that the straits could not be rushed, but were of the opinion that they could be reduced by bombardment; and "Lord Fisher, who was present at the council, did not object."

With his faculty for saying what he thinks and making unnecessary enemies, Churchill suggested that if Lord Fisher disapproved the attack on the Dardanelles, the time for him to resign was before and not after it had failed. And then in the next breath he praised the veteran sea lord in almost extravagant periods for his marvelous contributions to the efficiency of the navy.

With these few remarks Mr. Churchill took his departure; but before he left he was enthusiastically cheered and heard the British premier say:

"In situations varied and of extreme delicacy I have always found him a wise counselor, a brilliant colleague, and a faithful friend."

But no one urged him to stay and accept another post in the government.

At this point, however, the writers who had lampooned him seem to have changed their minds. Having criticised the government for failing to restrain his impetuosity, they now attacked it for allowing him to go to the front. They suddenly discovered that he was practically indispensable to the proper conduct of the great struggle. What would happen to the empire with a war council which they described as being made up of three lawyers, a retired merchant, and a philosopher?

But Churchill, meantime, had donned the uniform of a major and hurried to join his regiment; while the British press is still complaining bitterly that he has been buried. It points to the parallel of Churchill's celebrated father, who died politically and physically a short time after his equally sudden and dramatic resignation from office.

But here the journalistic Jeremiahs undoubtedly take too gloomy a view of the matter. Winston Spencer Churchill is younger than his father was, and is made of stronger material. There is only one way to bury him; and that is under several feet of earth behind the trenches, "somewhere in northern France." If he lives, he will be heard of in politics again.

Churchill is built that way. He was born with a lust for trouble and conflict, and he will follow his star for decades, unless a German bullet cuts him down. From boyhood he has shown a happy aptitude for getting mixed up in turbulence and thriving on the diet. He left Sandhurst to go to Cuba during the last revolution there, and attracted attention as a war correspondent. Then he served as a soldier in the Tirah and Malakand campaigns, and went with Kitchener up the Nile, where he behaved like a man at Omdurman. Also he wrote a book, "The River War," in which he told the British public what he thought of Kitchener, and why he thought it.

This feud with "great K" did not prevent his going to South Africa, where he was captured by the Boers and achieved a spectacular escape. Later, his political enemies at home accused him of breaking his parole, but after he had sued a few of them for libel, and obtained public apologies, the game lost its zest.

Then he went into politics in the same headlong fashion. As a duke's grandson, a scion of the great house of Marlborough, it was natural that he should set out as a Tory, but a few years later he went over to the Liberal party, and with characteristic courage and self-confidence attacked a Conservative stronghold and captured it for his seat in Parliament.

His career since then has been as tempestuous as heart could wish. He was called "the Blenheim pup" when, as under-secretary in the Colonial Office, he spoke for his chief in the House of Commons. Then he became Home Secretary, and was lampooned about the "battle of Stepney," where the troops were called out to capture two anarchists. But he rose to the headship of the navy, and was a marked man even in a party that had produced so remarkable a genius as David Lloyd-George.

In his campaigning there was never a dull moment. The suffragists waylaid him and beat him up. A Unionist member threw a book at him in the House of Commons. Five thousand troops had to turn out to protect him when he insisted on making a Home Rule speech in Belfast. And so it has gone.

No, they needn't worry about Churchill. Unless the Germans get him, he will come back to English politics, a new "Thunderbolt from the North." He will come back with his old courage, with new dynamic ideas—and the rancor of his wrongs like a sharpened sword.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury