Winston Churchill, as England’s Prime Minister, helped save the free world from the onslaught of the Nazis. Andrew Roberts, in his bestselling new biography Churchill: Walking with Destiny, explains how the man’s unique character gave rise to his successes, his failures, and his determination.
Octavian Report: How do you explain the meteoric rise of Winston Churchill, and why does he make such a terrible error at Gallipoli?
Andrew Roberts: I think his early meteoric rise was partly just down to nepotism and the fact that he had a very famous name. It helped enormously that he was a Churchill, that his father, Lord Randolph, was one of the most famous politicians of the Victorian Era. It's impossible to present him as somebody who rose from nothing. He was the grandson of a duke and he was born in the grandest palace in England, a palace so grand that the royals actually envy it.
Very swiftly after his entry into politics, however, he was judged according to his merits. And all of that went very, very well until his massive fall from grace when he got the Dardanelles operation so badly wrong. It was a catastrophe that led to 160,000 Allied killed and wounded.
The idea itself was a concept of genius: to get the Royal Navy through the Dardanelles Strait and moored off Constantinople and thereby take the Ottoman Empire out of the First World War by forcing them to leave the Central Powers, essentially. It was a completely brilliant concept.
However, on the 18th of March 1915, he lost six ships. On the 25th of April 1915, he forced an attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula against the better judgment of many people in the Admiralty. That was the kernel for this appalling bloodletting.
He not only fell from grace in that he was sacked from the great position that he loved so much — First Lord of the Admiralty — but also he was given a sinecure job, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. This meant that he had no real control over anything in the First World War. He resigned that November and went to fight in the trenches. He was 40 at the time.
OR: How did he manage to psychologically and professionally rehabilitate himself?
Roberts: The key moment really comes in July of 1917 when he was back out of the trenches, where he had done extremely well and commanded the Sixth Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He had been brave and had gone into no-man's land some 30 times, sometimes so close to enemy lines that he could actually hear the Germans speaking German in their trenches. He was then made Minister of Munitions by David Lloyd George. At that point Churchill was in charge of 2.5 million people in the munitions factories, and he churned out munitions at a far greater and more successful rate than hitherto.
Another key part of his rehabilitation was that he was Minister of War in 1919 and demobilized the army. And he'd gotten some things absolutely brilliantly right in the First World War, like getting the Royal Navy ready at the beginning and developing the tank.
So there were good points and bad points. But he still had people shouting, "What about the Dardanelles?" at him, even during the 1930’s.
OR: He followed this up, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, with the decision to go on the gold standard at a rate that proved to be catastrophically wrong.
Roberts: Yes. But the whole of the government was in favor of it. Labour, then in opposition, were in favor of it. The other party of the opposition, the Liberal Party, were in favor of it. The whole of the City wanted it. All of the financial press wanted it. Other than J.M. Keynes, it's difficult to look at any expert or major figure who didn't think that Britain should go back onto the gold standard at that particular level at that particular time. Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer — the person who actually made the call. And being Churchill he also made witty and amusing and on occasion sarcastic points in its favor (which of course ultimately came back and haunted him).
He had quite extraordinary ups and down as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He thought that he wasn't very good at money, but in fact almost all of his budgets were well-composed and appreciated by the City; the stock market went up after each of them. I think he recognized as well as anybody else that economics were not his strong point. As far as the general strike of 1926 was concerned, he was very aggressive and tough. But he had a Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, who was quite emollient, and they very obviously played "good cop, bad cop." He took the job of bad cop, and that's been held against him ever since.
He was never going to be acclaimed as Prime Minister because of his economics. Though he was a little bit better at economics than his father, who referred to decimal points as "those damned dots."
With the abdication crisis, he made another very bad mistake by supporting Edward VIII over King George VI. There are loads of other examples. Women's suffrage being a classic one.
So, if you add up the Dardanelles catastrophe, women's suffrage, the gold standard, and the abdication crisis, you've got a pretty good level of denunciation. An awful lot of people in 1920’s and 1930’s used this to decry what he then said about Hitler and the Nazis.
OR: Do you think that without Churchill the war might have gone in a different direction? Why was he able to see the threat Hitler presented when no-one else was?
Roberts: On the first: yes, definitely. On the second: I think it comes down largely to his sense of walking with destiny. I didn't come upon that subtitle for my book because it sounds good. He actually did believe that he was walking with destiny. All his life, from the age of 16 onwards, he spoke about destiny constantly. His whole concept of personal destiny was something that is epicentral to our understanding of him.
And part of that destiny was not making a peace deal with Adolf Hitler in May 1940. It was the exact opposite. He was going to be the descendant of his great ancestor, the first Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. And he was going to be a figure who fit into the grand continuum of British history, from the Armada through to the War of Spanish Succession to the Napoleonic Era.