Book Review: The River War

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In 1898 Winston Churchill, then a 23-year old army officer, served in Lord Kitchener’s army in the re-conquest of the Sudan and participated in the Battle of Omdurman as a troop commander with the 21st Lancers. In the climactic battle he rode in the regiment’s famous, but ill-fated, cavalry charge against the Dervishes. Churchill was in the Sudan in an unofficial dual role – one that was severely frowned upon by the army high command – as both an army officer and war correspondent. In Churchill’s case he had contracted with the Morning Post to write dispatches from the battlefield. After the campaign these articles became the basis for the book he wrote on the history of the war for the Sudan. Working at a furious pace, Churchill’s book was written in a year. In November 1899 The River War was published in two volumes by Longmans, Green, and Co. Controversial on its’ publications for criticisms of Lord Kitchener, the book has remained controversial for the author’s comments on Islam and the Sudanese. The two-volume edition did not sell well on its release. However, an abridged one-volume edition of the book was published in 1902. In the abridgement words, sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters were deleted. This one-volume edition became the basis for all subsequent editions; the original two-volume edition all but forgotten.

In 1989 James Muller (University of Alaska) while on a research trip to London located a copy of the two-volume edition held in the old British Library. In reading the 1899 edition he discovered the two-volume effort “was a much richer, more intriguing book than I had known from reading the shorter edition.” Thus began the long trek to bring out a new edition of the original two volumes that had been out of print since 1899. The editor’s efforts are described in the essay “The Making of the Book” that is included in this definitive edition of The River War. The final result has proved the effort to be more than worthwhile. The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, The Definitive Edition in Two Volumes published by St. Augustine’s Press is a brilliant work of scholarship.

Muller’s edition of The River War has meticulously restored all of the original 1899 text, colored maps, and the 50 diagrams by Angus McNeill. The text in the book is printed in black and red font. Words in red font are those that were deleted from the text for the 1902 one-volume edition. The new book is extensively footnoted as Muller provides biographical notes for every person mentioned in the text as well as notes for events and terms that may be unfamiliar to readers. He also traced and noted every quote used by Churchill, even those that were made without attribution. These passages range from Shakespeare to the Austrian missionary Father Ohrwalder, who wrote a memoir of his ten years as a prisoner of the Mahdi.

Muller’s edition also includes Churchill’s subsequent writings on the Sudanese campaign that were written after the publication of the 1899 and 1902 editions. Included as an epilogue and new appendices are Churchill’s introduction to the 1933 edition of the book; articles he wrote on the Sudan campaign, the Fashoda Incident, Gordon, and Kitchener; and the text of the original handwritten dispatches Churchill wrote for the Morning Post. These handwritten dispatches differ from the articles that were originally published in 1898 in the newspaper. Also included as an appendix are 25 additional sketches of the 1898 campaign by Angus McNeill beyond those that appeared in the 1899 edition.

The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, The Definitive Edition in Two Volumes is a remarkable publication and essential reading.

Churchill Research

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On 19 May 1940 Winston Churchill made his first broadcast since assuming the post of prime minister. In most published versions of the speech the last passage, which is drawn from 1 Maccabees 3: 58–60, reads:

“Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: ‘Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

In his article, “Winston Churchill and ‘Ye Men of Valour’: Sources and Corrections,” Philip Williamson (University of Durham) considers how the passage came to be added to the speech, the use and meaning of the passage, and the differences between the recorded speech as preserved by the BBC and the text as published in the newspapers the following morning. The article is published in Notes and Queries (68:3; September 2021). The journal web site is here.

Book review: Genesis of the Grand Fleet

Genesis of the Grand Fleet: The Admiralty, Germany, and the Home Fleet, 1896-1914 by Christopher M. Buckey studies the development of the Royal Navy, specifically the Home Fleet, in the 18-years prior to the start of the First World War. The navy underwent a transformation in these years as it sought to meet the challenge of German naval expansion. The well-researched volume considers the interrelated issues of technology, war planning, strategy and tactics, ship-building, and naval policy and spending under Conservative and Liberal governments. Buckey is particularly good at describing the role of the many out-sized personalities involved in these naval debates, including the leading politicians and admirals. Although he had previously been a strident “economist,” one of those who opposed additional naval spending, Churchill entered the story upon being appointed First Lord of the Admiralty by Prime Minister Asquith in 1911. Buckey sums up Churchill as being a “young tribune in a hurry, who as First Lord, often made proposals that were equally brilliant and divisive.” Genesis of the Grand Fleet is an excellent monograph which would be of interest to the general and specialist reader.

Book review: The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III

Andrew Roberts’ latest book, The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, is a revisionist account that seeks to redeem the much-slandered and maligned reputation of the “mad” and supposedly tyrannical king who lost America. During George’s 60 year reign from 1760 to 1820 the King’s many British and American critics attacked him as a villain and “ruthless despot” and assailed him for “his supposed lack of intelligence.” Charges which have been repeated many times since by historians and, as Roberts notes, on the stage in Hamilton: An American Musical. Rather than being the “royal brute of Great Britain,” as claimed by Thomas Paine, Roberts concludes that George was “well-meaning, hard-working, decent, dutiful, moral, cultured and kind” and loyal to the British constitution.

The central theme throughout The Last King of America is that George ruled as a constitutional monarch and was far from being a despot or tyrant bent on restoring royal power. Roberts writes that George believed in the “near-divinity of the British constitution” and wished to preserve the “constitutional status quo.” George did, however, exercise the royal prerogatives granted him under the constitution as he sought to challenge the Whig ascendency and bring Tories into the government and royal household. He did so as he “saw himself as the ultimate custodian of the national interest” against the backdrop of factional politics.

Roberts writes that George’s intentions and actions in America have likewise been “badly misinterpreted.” George never acted in a despotic manner against the colonies. Even as the situation deteriorated in the 1760s and 1770s and a peaceful solution remained out of reach, George did not emulate the despotic methods used by other European monarchs to suppress such unrest. There were no mass executions, censorship, arrests without trial, or banning of meetings. Indeed, Roberts writes the Americans were among the freest people in the world under George III. Specifically, the author challenges the 28 charges made against George by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Of these charges, Roberts finds the King innocent of all but two, the seventeenth about imposing taxes and the twenty-second about parliament being “invested with power to legislate for us.” These two, however, are the crux of the dispute between the colonies and London. The remaining 26 charges were “a mixture of political propaganda, hypocrisy, hyperbole, and ex post facto rationalization.”

Roberts also notes that unlike Jefferson and many signers of the declaration, George never owned a slave. Indeed, amongst George’s papers Roberts has found an essay written in the 1750s in which the then-Prince of Wales denounced slavery as evil (as king, George gave assent to legislation in 1807 that abolished the slave trade but never advocated for the abolition of slavery).

A further theme that Roberts runs through the volume is the mental health of the King, who suffered five bouts of mental illness. Roberts discounts the claim that George suffered from porphyria and instead contends, as recent studies have concluded, that he suffered from bipolar disorder. The illnesses are treated in detail, including the ghastly treatment that George received from his doctors and the cruel disparagement he endured from his son, the thoroughly irredeemable Prince of Wales and future George IV. Roberts observes that some previous historians have treated George’s mental illness as a sort of moral failing on the King’s own part; a view that has fortunately faded as progress has been made on de-stigmatizing mental illness.

Since being published The Last King of America has received much praise and many positive reviews. The acclaim is well-deserved as it is another outstanding volume from a historian and biographer whose previous books include biographies of Napoleon, Lord Salisbury, and Winston Churchill (Churchill: Walking with Destiny being the best one-volume account of Churchill’s life). Like Roberts’ previous biographies, The Last King of America is a large tome (running to 700 pages) that demonstrates a complete grasp of his subject’s life and a thorough command of the archival sources and published literature. It is written with the assurance expected of a Roberts’ book.

Book review: Churchill & Son

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In June 1963, Randolph Churchill was invited to join his father Winston aboard the yacht of Aristotle Onassis, the Christina, for a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. On the first few days of the voyage, Randolph treated his 88-year old father with “infinite affection and respect.” The long and complicated relationship between the father and son, however, meant that the tranquility could not last. One night at dinner aboard the yacht, without any obvious reason, Randolph suddenly exploded. He instantly worked himself into “an inchoate rage directed at Winston.” While the others at the dinner table tried desperately to calm him, he directed “violent reproaches” at his father, accusing him of encouraging his first wife Pamela’s affairs with Americans during the Second World War. Through the outburst, Winston sat silently staring at his son with “brooding rage.” Later when he was taken to his cabin, Winston was “shaking all over” and his private secretary Anthony Montague Browne feared he was going to suffer another stroke. Randolph left the yacht the next day. Accompanied on the launch from the yacht to the harbor by Montague Brown, Randolph was first silent and then wept. He finally confided to the private secretary, “I do very much love that man but something always goes wrong between us.”

Randolph’s observation about his feelings towards his father serves as an excellent description of the 54-year relationship of father and son, love but something always going wrong. This turbulent and complex relationship is the subject of Churchill & Son by Josh Ireland. It is a fine book.

Randolph was the first child and only son of Winston and Clementine Churchill and as Ireland notes Winston was determined to not repeat with his son the neglect he had experienced at the hands of his own father. Unfortunately he spoiled his son enormously, encouraging his arrogance and rudeness, endlessly indulging him, and was amused by his insolence to others. He also encouraged vast political ambitions in his son that included the premiership. In the 1930s, with Churchill in the political wilderness, Randolph was his closest lieutenant and their lives were “tightly entwined,” but this intimacy was lost during the Second World War and did not ever return. As Ireland notes, Winston lost faith in his son’s abilities and Randolph’s place at his side was taken by John Colville, Brendan Bracken, and later by his son-in-law Christopher Soames, while the role of political heir, much to Randolph’s jealousy, was filled by Anthony Eden. After the war, the relationship of father and son was marred by constant fights, rows, and painful scenes that always seemed to return to his parents’ failure to take his side in the breakdown of his wartime marriage to Pamela Digby.

Ireland concludes that Winston first built and then ultimately “broke his son” as “Randolph was shaped by his father’s affection, humor, courage, and generosity” and was “damaged [by] his egotism, his ruthlessness, [and] his obsession with his own destiny and desires.” It is a harsh judgement, perhaps too harsh, but Ireland makes a strong case for such a conclusion.

Book review: Winston Churchill: Painting on the French Riviera

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Winston Churchill: Painting on the French Riviera by Paul Rafferty is a delightful book that illustrates both Churchill as a painter as well as his enjoyment of the south of France, as the author notes Churchill had a “love affair with the Cote d’Azur.” Churchill first went to the Riviera in the early 1920s and would return many times throughout the rest of his life. He would often stay as a guest at the chateaux and villas of his friends, such as Lord Beaverbrook, as he relaxed, gambled in the casinos, and, of course, painted.

Although he started painting relatively later in life, Churchill painted 600 canvases, of which more than 150 were paintings of the south of France. Rafferty’s volume provides elegant reproductions of these paintings made on the Riviera, each is finely reproduced with the colours crisp, rich, and vivid. Rafferty, a professional artist who himself lives on the French Riviera, followed in the footsteps of Churchill as he tracked down the exact views and locations that Churchill painted in the south of France. In the book, each of Churchill’s Riviera paintings is accompanied by a color photograph of the scene as it looks today. The detective work involved in finding these locations is described by Rafferty in sidebars. A few locations remain elusive despite his efforts. The 12 paintings whose location are yet to be found are included separately on pages 200-201 of the book.

Other sidebars are provided in the volume on Churchill’s artist friends and mentors (John and Hazel Lavery, Paul Maze, Walter Sickert, Alfred Munnings), villas where he stayed (La Pausa), Churchill at the Casino Monte-Carlo, his painting colourman (Willy Sax), and his painting materials. Additionally, the volume is heavily illustrated with photographs of Churchill on the Riviera, including many of his painting expeditions. A few of these images are rarely reproduced, including one of Churchill in bathing attire on a waterslide at Chateau de l’Hoirzon in 1935.

Winston Churchill: Painting on the French Riviera is a wonderful addition to the Churchill literature.

Churchill Research

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“Static and Dynamic Strategy Making: Egypt, Singapore, Dill and Brooke” by Stephen G. Coulson (University of Oxford) has been published in the British Journal of Military History (volume 7, number 3; 2021). Coulson’s article studies the “strategic dilemma” facing the British government in 1941 as it sought to apportion its limited forces for the defence of the British Isles, the Mediterranean, and Australasia. Late that year Prime Minister Winston Churchill replaced Sir John Dill as Chief of the Imperial General Staff with Sir Alan Brooke. Coulson observes that at “the heart of the dispute” between Churchill and Dill that led to his replacement was the “question of strategic priorities.” Dill had argued that the order of strategic priorities were the defence of the British Isles followed by Singapore and then Egypt. Churchill disagreed. He placed Egypt ahead of Singapore. The article is available here.

Churchill Research

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In his article “Winston Churchill on the American Constitution,” Gerard N. Magliocca (Robert H. McKinney School of Law) “provides the first comprehensive analysis of Winston Churchill’s views on American constitutional law.” Churchill was a “keen observer of constitution law” and his writings and speeches on the subject provide an “extensive commentary” on the American Constitution. The article studies Churchill’s views on the parallels between the legal principles of Britain and America, the practice of judicial review in the United States, and his concept that “the unequal distribution of constitutional principles can harm constitutional authority,” such as in the case of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment.

The article is published in the St. John’s Law Review (94:3, Fall 2021). The law review’s website is here.

Book review

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During the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir Alan Brooke had a stormy relationship with many angry arguments over the conference table as they wrestled over British military strategy. The stern, humorless, and monk-like Brooke was continually critical of much of Churchill’s military proposals and thwarted many of the schemes that the prime minister brought to the British chiefs of staff. Churchill complained that, “I thump the table and push my face towards him, and what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me.” Despite his many frustrations with Brooke, Churchill never seriously considered replacing him and retained Brooke as his chief military advisor for the duration of the war.

Andrew Sangster in his new book Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Right-Hand Critic: A Reappraisal of Lord Alanbrooke concludes that Brooke was the best man who Churchill could have chosen for the position of CIGS due to the realism he brought to British military planning. He was often a brake on Churchill’s most “fantastic” ideas. Sangster calls Brooke “a powerhouse of energy” and “the driving force of much of the Allied strategy” as he originated most of the Allied strategic thinking, curbed Churchill’s more impetuous ideas, and argued the Americans into agreement.

As Sangster notes the central evidence in a study of Brooke is the diary he faithfully kept throughout the Second World War. The diary created controversy for its scathing criticism of Churchill and others when a highly edited and often misleading version of the diaries was published in two volumes by Arthur Bryant in 1958 (the entire unedited diary was published as War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alan Brooke in 2001). In his diary, especially in the later years of the war, Brooke often poured out his disdain for the prime minister, calling him hopeless, rude, and a spoilt child. Beyond Churchill, a long list of Allied leaders were the subject of Brooke’s scorn in his diary, including, among others, Eisenhower, Mountbatten, Pound, Alexander, de Gaulle, Beaverbrook, John Harding, Eden, Andrew McNaughton, and Macmillan. Even General Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson’s wife Hester came in for criticism as being unsuitable to go to Washington. Sangster writes that while reading the diaries might leave the impression of Brooke as “a bad-tempered moaner,” a more reflective interpretation is that the diaries were Brooke’s way of “letting off steam” after exhausting and frustrating days and demonstrate the great pressure he was operating under as CIGS.

George III debate

Andrew Roberts, historian and author of the best one-volume account of the life of Winston Churchill, has published a new book, George III: The Last King of America. The volume has received very favorable reviews, with The Times calling it “magisterial.”

On Monday, October 25th, Roberts will speak on a subject that absorbed a great part of George III’s reign as he debates with General David Petraeus on the question, “Could Britain have won the American War of Independence?” The event will be held at the National Army Museum and will be streamed free online. To reserve a seat for the virtual event, click on the link: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/ks3iuwg6.