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The historian and author Hugo Vickers met Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough in 1975 when she was 95 years old and had been living in a private psychiatric hospital for many years. They became friends, with Vickers being her only visitor until her death two years later. In The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon – Duchess of Marlborough Vickers chronicles Gladys’ turbulent and ultimately unfortunate sad life. It was, however, certainly a dramatic life, from her father’s murder of her mother’s lover, endless travels around Europe as a beautiful, charming, rich, and spoilt socialite, the tragic death of her sister, numerous quarrels with her unstable mother, affairs with many admirers and suitors, and a botched plastic surgery. At the age of 14, Gladys read about the Duke of Marlborough’s marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt and set it as her childhood ambition to marry the duke. She eventually met Marlborough and began an affair with him in 1912 by which time Marlborough and Vanderbilt were already legally separated. After the Marlboroughs divorced in 1921, the duke and Gladys were married. It was, of course, a doomed marriage. There were many angry arguments and much irrational behavior on the part of both parties, including Gladys musing to guests at a party about shooting the duke. In the end, Gladys had to be evicted from Blenheim, but the duke died before they could be divorced. After leaving Blenheim, Gladys became a recluse (despite her fortune) and was eventually admitted to the hospital where she lived her last years. Gladys did not like Winston Churchill, her husband’s cousin, complaining that “he was in love with his own image – his reflection in the mirror.” Churchill, for his part, was bored by the company of Gladys and her socialite clique, noting that they were “strange glittering beings with whom I have little or nothing in common.”

Churchill Bulletin

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The December 2020 issue (#150) of the Churchill Bulletin: The Newsletter of Winston Churchill has been released. It includes articles on Churchill’s Scottish links, Harrow’s annual tradition of Churchill Songs taking place online, as well as a book review of the new edition of Winston S. Churchill, Greatest War Speeches: 1939–1945. The Churchilliana column is about an election campaign for the American Winston Churchill and the Churchill Style column features Edward Marsh. The December bulletin is available here.

 

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The Hunt for History: On the Trail of the World’s Lost Treasures – from the Letters of Lincoln, Churchill, and Einstein to the Secret Recordings onboard JFK’s Air Force One by Nathan Rabb is an entertaining book that recounts the adventures of one of the country’s leading dealers in rare documents. In his career, Rabb has handled documents ranging from Napoleon to George Washington to Martin Luther King. It’s an engaging story as Rabb describes his discoveries, detecting fakes and forgeries, and negotiating with sellers and buyers. His greatest discovery was finding two audiotapes of the radio traffic aboard Air Force One from the day of the Kennedy assassination. The announcement of this find brought a deluge of media attention and telephone calls from lawyers at the National Archives. The government lawyers were under pressure from members of Congress who were apparently dumbfounded that the unknown tapes had turned up with a Philadelphia rare document dealer. The inclusion of Winston Churchill in the subtitle seems a stretch – probably at the insistence of the publisher – as there is one lone Churchill document briefly covered in the book. It was from his capture and escape in the Boer War. Rabb’s passion and enthusiasm for rare documents and the individual story each one has shines through in this interesting read.

Churchill Research

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Lee Pollock, former executive director of The International Churchill Society, has published “The Art of Losing: Advice for an outgoing President” in the American Purpose. The article considers the example Winston Churchill’s electoral defeat in 1945 and return to power in 1951 holds for President Donald Trump. The article is available here.

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John Campbell in Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Britain and Canada makes a convincing argument that Richard Haldane, a philosopher-statesman, was one of the great figures of British and Canadian history. Born and educated in Scotland, Haldane was a brilliant lawyer and was first elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal member of parliament in 1885. He held cabinet office as a reforming War Secretary (1905-1912) – Douglas Haig considered him to be the finest war secretary Britain had ever had – and as Lord Chancellor (1912-1915 and 1924). The ambitious and indefatigable Haldane created or influenced the establishment of a long list of institutions or bodies, including the Imperial General Staff, Territorial Army, British Expeditionary Force, Royal Air Force, MI5, MI6, Medical Research Council, Imperial College, London School of Economics, and a host of other universities across England, Wales, and Ireland. As Lord Chancellor, in the Asquith and the first MacDonald governments, his judicial judgements shaped Canadian federalism (for good or ill).

Haldane greatly admired Germany, being fluent in the language and enjoying German culture, literature, and philosophy, and thought that a peaceful accommodation could be made between Britain and Germany. This admiration of Germany, contributed to Haldane being the target of a vicious and thoroughly reprehensible newspaper campaign in the opening months of the First World War. He was denounced as pro-German and accused of colluding with Berlin. Prime Minister Asquith, despite Haldane having been the best man at his wedding, dropped him from the cabinet on the formation of the coalition government in 1915. Winston Churchill was among those that notably did not defend Haldane, writing to him that, “I am so short of credit at the moment that I can only make an encouraging signal but you must take the will for the deed.”

Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Britain and Canada is a fine work of scholarship that is extensively researched, complete with nearly 100 pages of Notes and Bibliography. It, however, has a somewhat awkward structure that might make for difficult reading for a reader unfamiliar with Haldane’s life. Rather than a chronological biography, the volume is arranged by themes and different aspects of Haldane’s life. 

Also ranking among Haldane’s many accomplishments in his long career was a besting of Winston Churchill on at least one occasion. Churchill had run across Haldane one day in the lobby of the House and tapped him on his great stomach and asked, “What’s in there, Haldane?” “If it is a boy,” said Haldane, “I shall call him John. If it is a girl, I shall call her Mary. But if it is only wind, I shall call it Winston.”

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Winston Churchill’s Illnesses 1886-1965: Courage, Resilience, Determination by Allister Vale and John Scadding is the definitive history of Churchill’s health from his first bout of ill-health to his terminal illness. In short chapters the authors cover the nature of each bout of illness Churchill suffered, the medical treatment provided, and a summary evaluation of the medical aspect of the illness. Although he was largely free from ill-health until he was in his mid-sixties, over his long life, Churchill suffered accidents (a fall in 1893, car accident in 1931), bouts of illness (pneumonia, strokes, hernia), and falls. As can be expected, his illnesses and the necessity for medical attention increased as he grew older. Churchill’s most famous illnesses were his appendicitis in October 1922 that occurred during his defeat in the general election (causing him to quip that he was “without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix”) and his stroke in June 1953 while serving his second term as prime minister. His amazing recovery from the stroke in time to address the Conservative Party Conference in October 1953 has been studied and retold in a fictionalized form in a movie. Additionally, it is commonly repeated in regard to Churchill’s heath that he suffered from depression, what he called his “Black Dog.” Vale and Scadding (along with chapter co-author Dr. Anthony Daniels) consider this question in detail and conclude that “the available evidence suggests that Churchill suffered no major psychiatric disorder.”

The authors make excellent use of primary sources, including the medical notes and clinical records of the physicians who attended on Churchill. Vale and Scadding are both themselves physicians and their training and experience is evident in the interpretations and judgements made on the medical issues discussed in the volume. Based on their series of journal articles on Churchill’s medical history, the book is extensively researched and well-written.

Winston Churchill’s Illnesses 1886-1965 is the authoritative account of the widely discussed subject of Churchill’s medical history.

Churchill Bulletin

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The November 2020 issue (#149) of the Churchill Bulletin: The Newsletter of Winston Churchill has been released. It includes a report on the 37th International Churchill Conference, which averaged 2,000 viewers watching live, as well as articles on a Churchill Commemorative Box set, the name change of the National Churchill Library and Center at George Washington University, and Churchill’s American ancestry. The Churchilliana column is about a Battle of Britain mug and the Churchill Style column features Siegfried Sassoon. The November bulletin is available here.

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The Yalta Conference, the second and last meeting of President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, took place on February 4-11, 1945 as the Second World War was rapidly entering its final stages in Europe. Eight Days at Yalta: How Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin Shaped the Post-War World by Diana Preston provides a well-researched and readable narrative history of this much-studied conference. Preston details the proceedings at the conference table, the lavish dinners, and vignettes from the conference. The conference, code-named Argonaut, was held at Stalin’s insistence in the Crimea forcing Roosevelt and Churchill to make long and difficult journeys to the peninsula, which had only recently been liberated from the Germans and was still largely devastated. As Preston writes, the Soviets had to hastily rehabilitate the palaces used for the conferences, including denuding Moscow’s leading hotels of “anything and everything that might be useful,” commandeering the hotels’ staff to serve the guests at the conference, and employing “half-starving Romanian prisoners of war clad only in rags” to restore the palaces’ “rutted, long-neglected gardens.” During the conference, the “Big Three” – as Preston notes consisting of a “seriously ill” Roosevelt, a “war-weary” Churchill, and “an autocrat determined to make no concessions” in Stalin – and their delegations considered, among other topics, the creation of the United Nations, the occupation of Germany, the post-war borders of Poland, and the Soviet entry into the war against Japan. In the book’s epilogue, Preston considers the outcomes and interpretations of Yalta, from being another “Munich” to the best Roosevelt and Churchill could achieve. Preston is a historian and author of several books, including Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, and The Boxer Rebellion.

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Churchill’s Phoney War: A Study in Folly and Frustration by Graham T. Clews is a meticulous and thorough study of Winston Churchill’s record and decision-making as First Lord of the Admiralty in the War Cabinet of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain from September 1939 till he himself became prime minister in May 1940. Although this opening stage of the Second World War has been dubbed a Phony War, it was only a phony war on land, not at sea where the Royal Navy was engaged in active and costly operations against the Germans. It was also a period of intense frustration and disappointment for Churchill whose performance, as Clews concludes, was “decidedly mixed.”

The book is divided into two parts, with Part One: Churchill as First Lord considering his role in the U-Boat campaign, Operation Catherine, and the naval construction program, while Part Two: Churchill and the Wider War examines Churchill as a War Cabinet member, including his role in Royal Marine, Narvik and Finland, and the Norwegian Campaign. Clews describes Churchill’s errors, mistakes, and misjudgments, but rejects the caricature of Churchill as “an ardent and independent arbiter of Admiralty policy, routinely rejecting the good advice of his advisers.” The Admiralty was indeed struggling with such matters as the debate on Convoy-offensive patrolling and Churchill often supported the consensus view. Likewise, Clews rejects the argument that attributes all missed opportunities or errors in the Norwegian Campaign as being due to the “unwelcomed interference” of Churchill and First Sea Lord Dudley Pound. He writes, “the culpability of [Churchill and Pound] is likely overstated; their decisions were not unreasonable in the circumstances, and the negative consequences of their input is not as clear as claimed.”

Clews concludes that Churchill on becoming prime minister in May 1940, “continued to be the complicated mix of strengths and failings that he had been during the first nine months of war, but the circumstances now fitted his strengths much more closely. The events of May 1940 meant that he was freed from the frustrating politico-military straitjacket of the Phony war that had confounded him as much as it had his predecessor: his path was clearer, his task was simpler, if much more formidable. The man finally met his moment, and this gave him his finest hour.”

Churchill’s Phoney War is a detailed academic study with somewhat dense writing. It might be a daunting read for the general reader. It is, however, an important, balanced, and much needed comprehensive study of Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.

The volume is published by the Naval Institute Press as part of the Studies in Naval History and Sea Power series. Clews is also the author of Churchill’s Dilemma: The Real Story Behind the Origins of the 1915 Dardanelles Campaign.

Churchill Review

Churchill’s Britain: From the Antrim Coast to the Isle of Wight by Peter Clark is a very enjoyable travel guide to the sites and places across Britain and Ireland related to the life of Winston Churchill. Covering 146 locations, each described in short 1-2 page entries, the book includes the many places famously associated with Churchill (Blenheim Palace, 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, the Cabinet War Rooms, Chartwell, and the House of Commons) as well as lesser known locations, such as Jermyn Street (location of Churchill’s shirtmaker), St. Margaret’s Churchill (where Winston and Clementine were married), and 105 Mount Street (Churchill’s first independent home). The entries are accompanied by eight maps, but there are no photographs or illustrations. When the pandemic is over and travel encouraged again, the Churchill enthusiast would do well to have Churchill’s Britain in hand as they visit Churchill sites across London and elsewhere in the UK and Ireland. Clark is the author of nine books.