Jonathan deBurca Butler
Early on in his quest to rid Europe of Hitler, Winston Churchill received a letter from his wife. In it she informs him that “one of the men from [his] entourage has been to see [her]” and has told her that his “rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner” was putting him in “danger of being disliked by subordinates”.
“I must confess,” continues Clementine. “I have noticed a deterioration in your manner and you are not so kind as you used to be…you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm…I cannot bear that those who serve the country and yourself should not love you as well admire and respect you.”
Churchill was under enormous pressure. France had just fallen and Britain stood alone against a seemingly unstoppable enemy. On 10th May 1940, the day he became Prime Minister, he could only offer the people of Britain “blood, toil, tears and sweat” and although he later wrote in his memoirs that he went to bed on the night of his appointment with the sense he was “walking with destiny”, it seems pretty clear that in the early months of his tenure, his resolve and self-belief were seriously challenged.
But then there was nothing that Churchill relished more than a challenge. From the very beginning he had faced them.
Born two months premature on 30th November 1874, Churchill’s first battle was for crude survival. His second was with his father, Randolph; an MP, an aristocrat and a hard-nosed disciplinarian who thought his son lazy and somewhat dim-witted. His father’s assertion was not helped by the young Winston’s severe lisp and possible speech impediment which he would spend much of his life working to get rid of.
At the age of two, Churchill’s parents brought him to Dublin. His grandfather had been appointed viceroy and had taken Randolph as his secretary. During his four years in the Empire’s second city, the future war leader was exposed to the many military parades and exercises that passed in front of the family home, the Vice Regal Lodge, today known as Aras an Uachtarain. In Ireland, he also discovered that both his mother and his father were busy people who had little time for him. His nanny, Elizabeth Ann Everest would become the first of two surrogates, the second would be Clementine. “My nurse was my confidante” he would later write. “Mrs. Everest it was who looked after me and tended all my wants. It was to her I poured out all my many troubles.”
Churchill soon returned to England where he attended three different schools with little academic success. Within weeks of enrolling at Harrow he joined the Harrow Rifle Guards. The fascination for all things military, first garnered in Ireland, had stayed with him and it was to that end that he went on to attend Sandhurst. Here he showed his prowess, graduating eighth out of over one hundred cadets in his class.
In his early career, Churchill sought out postings that would get him close to military action. While he was primarily a soldier, he also worked as a war correspondent and he became well-known for his descriptions of battles and sieges in far off exotic lands. In 1895, the Daily Graphic sent him to Cuba to cover the war between Cuban guerrillas and Spain. He celebrated his 21st birthday under fire and soon developed a taste for his later trademark cigars.
His next posting was in India where Pashtun tribes were putting up a ferocious fight against British incursions into their territories. Here he saw a man slashed to death in front of him and many more were killed in a two week siege. He wrote in his diary: “Whether it was worth it, I cannot tell”.
In Sudan, he first encountered Islam, which he believed “paralyzes the social development of those who follow it”. He would return to England in 1899 and officially resign from the army that same year.
After an unsuccessful run in an Oldham by-election, The Morning Post offered him £250 to cover The Boer War in South Africa. While there, he was captured and kept in a prison camp in Pretoria. He managed to escape which, not for the last time, made him something of a hero back home.
On his return to England, he again stood for election in Oldham. This time he won. He was never one to shirk a challenge and knock-backs were rarely indulged. As he once said: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
His political career had started and soon he would also begin a family. The two would often conflict. Churchill first met Clementine Hozier at a ball in1904. Their romance did not start for another four years but when it did it was a whirlwind. Churchill proposed in August of 1908 and the couple were married a month later. Initially, family life centred on a house in Eccelstone Square in Central London which Churchill managed to run on his modest parliamentary salary and his earnings from books and further writing. Life should have been comfortable but Churchill had a penchant for the luxurious and was known to be fond of gambling. Money would be a constant worry for Clementine.
The couple would go on to have five children, all of whom were touched by tragedy to some degree.
Their first, Diana was born in London in 1909. She would go through two marriages and several nervous breakdowns before committing suicide in 1963.
Randolph, who was born just two years after Diana, was known as something of a tearaway. During the Second World War he represented Preston as an MP but was immediately voted out on the war’s end. He stood for election on several occasions thereafter but was defeated each time. He was known to be quick-tempered and fond of strong alcohol and though he did carve out a niche for himself as a gossip columnist and writer, he died before he could profit fully from it. He was just 57.
His younger sister, Diana, was born just four days after the end of the First World War her father had been fighting in. A film actress of some distinction, she also battled with alcohol problems and spent some time in Holloway prison as a result of public drunkenness. She went through several unsuccessful relationships. When she divorced her first husband, Vic Oliver, in 1945, she had a two year affair with the American ambassador to Britain John Winant. The end of their relationship is said to have contributed to the depression that ultimately led to his suicide.
Churchill’s fourth child, Marigold, died tragically from septicaemia just short of her third birthday.
Mary, their fifth, always saw herself as the consolation. But she was a consolation that Churchill doted on and trusted. She was born in 1922, the same year the Churchills moved to Chartwell, a large estate in Kent. Here, the children were looked after by a cousin, Madeleine Whyte who Mary called Nana.
In an interview for The Daily Telegraph first published in 2002, Mary suggested that Nana’s guidance had a strong influence on her future. While the other children, who were much older than Mary, might have been indulged by their French nanny, Mademoiselle Rose, Mary believes Nana’s close attention helped her down a different path.
“She was very upright, very Scottish, very religious,” she recalled. “Nana inspired me, inculcated in me a sense of the discipline…and I’m very grateful to her.”
According to Mary, her mother “lost out because of the intensity of her life with Father. He always came first, second and third.” The relationship between her parents could sometimes be fiery. Though she remembered her mother being “freezing and cutting” at times when she was angry, she also recalled “a person who was really burning with passion” underneath.
“She once threw a dish of spinach at my father,” she recalled in the same interview. “Though she wasn’t a bad-tempered woman and recovered very quickly. Father, on the other hand, was frightfully noisy when he lost his temper.”
“I don’t remember long periods of chill at Chartwell. There were blow-ups and boo-hoo and banging doors and then it was over and they were reconciled.”
Churchill once remarked that his “father taught [him] to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk”. That did not stop him imbibing more than the occasional tipple. Though historians disagree as to the extent of his alcohol dependency, there is little doubt that he enjoyed it. In My Early Life he wrote that he learnt to add small amounts of whiskey to the dirty water in India and South Africa simply to make it potable. This trick later turned into what Mary called a ‘Papa Cocktail’ – a thimble full of Johnnie Walker, filled with water and sipped through the morning.
By the end of World War Two, Churchill was 71. He suffered a small stroke while on holiday in France in 1949 and was again struck down four years later. This time the stroke affected his speech and his ability to walk. By 1955 it became apparent that he was slowing down severely and he stepped down as Prime Minister later that year. Ever the battler, he stood for election in 1959 and though his majority declined he prevailed. He would be a parliamentarian for the best part of the next five years though his capacity to attend was hampered by his use of a wheelchair and a series of recurring illnesses. Eventually he retired at the aged 89. On 15 January 1965, he suffered a severe stroke. Nine days later he died.