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Brinkman Review: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill

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IMG_0123The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 – By William Manchester

Little Brown and Company – 1984 – 992p

Reviewed by Daniel Brinkman –

It was election night 2008 and this reviewer, aged 21, found himself by strange fortune seated opposite the retired President of the Illinois Senate chatting about history as the former oft-present-voting member of that body was elected President of the United States. The next day at my office, his marvelous wife presented me with a gift from him, the boxed-set two volume William Manchester biography of Winston Churchill. I’ve since read through those first two volumes at least three times and eagerly awaited the release of the third and final volume only a few short years ago.

No one else has been able to capture the essence of the most essential man of the twentieth century more fully than has Manchester. Like a good cigar, this is not a brief diversion. It gives one the chance to savor WSC, to know him, to appreciate his character, his courage, his humor, his brilliance, his flaws. Nor however should it be brief to appreciate him deeply and fully.

The first volume deals with the beginning of Winston’s life until the beginning of his wilderness years in 1932. While Winston began life as the son of a rising political star Lord Randolph Churchill, that star was beginning to fade. His adolescence and early adulthood would be the story of grappling with diminishing fortunes as his father lost first his career, and then his mind to syphilis, and ultimately succumbed to the disease. His mother didn’t give him the time of day until he “became interesting.” His early career path was shaped by his father’s low estimation of his abilities which landed him at the British Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he at last began to thrive. “"For years I thought my father, with his experience and flair, had discerned in me the qualities of military genius. But I was told later that he had only come to the conclusion that I was not clever enough to go to the Bar."

His prodigious memory was already in evidence however as he won a prize at age thirteen for memorizing all 1,200 lines of Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome.” Sixty years later he would still recite it with relish to his guests at Chartwell.

Thus out spake brave Horatius

The Captain of the Gate

“To Every Man Upon this Earth

Death cometh soon or late

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds

For the ashes of his fathers

And the temples of his gods”

As he began his military service in India as a subaltern, he began also his self-education in earnest. He sent requests for hundreds of books for his mother to send, from Gibbon and Macaulay, from whom he would draw his style as an orator, to the parliamentary reports of Hansard from which he lovingly mastered the idiosyncrasies of the House of Commons which became his home for sixty years.

Using his mother’s influence among the highest circles back home WSC got all the choice military assignments; from being at the last cavalry charge of the British Empire at Omdurman, the jungles of Cuba just before the United States went to war with Spain, India, and to South Africa where the Boer War was then raging. He also negotiated a unique arrangement where he remained in service while also being contracted as a war correspondent (and the highest paid correspondent in the empire at that!).

His quest for glory continued in South Africa where he displayed extreme courage under fire during a train attack. He salvaged the situation for his men, yet was himself captured. Before long, he escaped out of the Boer POW camp and a nationwide manhunt ensued for his re-capture. When the train he was hidden aboard crossed out of Boer territory, in scene fit for a movie, he shot his pistols out of the train in jubilation for being at last free!

Churchill finding himself a celebrity at home for his heroism and daring in South Africa won a seat at last in the House of Commons. His dream to serve alongside his father in that house would remain a forlorn hope. Churchill wanted nothing more than to redeem his memory, in his maiden speech to the house of commons, “I am very glad the house has allowed me, after an interval of fifteen years, to raise the tattered flag I found lying on a stricken field.”

His star catapulted to various cabinet posts until he was First Lord of the Admiralty as Europe descended into war in 1914. “War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid.” The true tragedy of the war’s severity was the almost total absence of any imagination among entente commanders. Winston was a rare exception to this dismal state of affairs. He conceived the idea of the tank, and concocted a stratagem to seize the Dardanelles, Constantinople and knock Turkey out of the war. The Turks were utterly unprepared for this attack, but the British commander on the ground fearing losses hesitated. The window of opportunity closed, surprise was squandered, the bold venture failed, and its failure was flung at Winston without ceasing for the rest of his life. Winston, his fortunes shattered, did not long despair, after being sacked from the war cabinet, he joined his countrymen in the trenches of France. He faced the bullets and shells and grime along with them.

Before long, his services were again required in Whitehall and he was recalled to the cabinet once more, serving as Minister of Munitions for the remainder of the war. The next decade saw a continued ascendency for WSC rising to Chancellor of the Exchequer, but failing in his quest for the premiership. He was a chief negotiator for the crown in the formation of the free Irish state and after earlier setting a price on Michael Collins’ head, the two became friends. He attempted and failed to strangle the Bolshevik experiment in its cradle. Brought Britain back to the gold standard. And finally alienated much of his party by correctly predicting the religious violence that would result from Indian Independence. Through it all he wrote more than Shakespeare did his entire life, learned to fly an airplane, took up bricklaying, painting, married, and sired five children.

In his early years Winston faced the hazards of fortune at every stage. In his personal life he lost a child. In his finances he was always only a half step ahead of his creditors. He grew up with parents who ignored him and then had his father taken from him in a cruel way as his mental faculties, for which he was famed, disintegrated before his eyes. In most of his early speeches Winston was shouted down and constantly interrupted by suffragettes, trade unionists, separatists and Bolsheviks. He repeatedly reached the pinnacle only to be publicly disgraced. Yet the defining characteristic was that one trait that made all the others possible, courage. In a furnace of trial he grew to rely on courage and dogged persistence as his lodestars, and it was these traits that one day saved the western world.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a great book(s), but it’s sad that William Manchester died before he could finish the series.
    Manchester wrote several other good books – I’ve read them all.
    It’s worth going to your local library to check them out.

  2. I entirely agree. I too have read most of William Manchester’s output, including this work on Churchill. He was a genuinely great popular historian. His “Pacific Diary” – his account of his experiences as a US Marine in fierce combat, was genuinely moving.
    I still keep a photo of my old dog, MacArthur, in my copy of Manchester’s excellent “American Caesar: The life of Douglas MacArthur.”