Winston Churchill is one of the most famous and recognisable men in British history, and through countless biographies and historical insights we know almost everything about him. We know he was a world-class orator. We know he liked to smoke Romeo y Julieta cigars. We know he drank huge volumes of Pol Roger champagne. We know he led Britain through one of the darkest periods in world history to secure eventual victory over the Nazi war machine, and we know that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
But there are plenty of things about Winston Churchill you may not know. Here are ten of the best…
1. Churchill the Student
He ended his life as Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS, RA but in his earlier years it was far from certain that he’d end up with such a long and distinguished career.
His early school record wasn’t outstanding by any stretch of the imagination. He spent time at three independent schools – St George’s in Ascot, Brunswick in Hove and Harrow in Middlesex – but he was repeatedly punished for having a rebellious streak. When he got to Harrow he had the lowest grades and was in the lowest class, not even making it to the upper school as he refused to study the classics.
It took him three attempts to pass the entrance exam to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, finally passing in 1893, and applied for cavalry training rather than infantry training because the required grades were lower and he didn’t have to learn maths. He did, however, graduate eighth in his class of 150.
Despite a somewhat stuttering start, it’s fair to say that his military career – and subsequent career as a professional political operative – didn’t go badly.
2. Churchill the Charger
On September 2, 1898, the 350 men of the 21st Lancers charged – with lances – at a body of what they thought to be around 700 (actually around 2,000) Dervish tribesmen in the famous Battle of Omdurman during the second Sudan War.
A 23-year old Winston Churchill, then a young lieutenant in the 4th Hussars, rode in the force. The battle took place a few miles outside Omdurman, north of Khartoum, in what military historians consider to be one of the British army’s last full-scale cavalry charges. Seventy men from the regiment were killed or injured (along with 119 horses) and three men were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
3. Churchill the Escapee
After Churchill skilfully negotiated a salary of £250 to write as a war correspondent for the Morning Post, a conservative daily paper that ran from 1772 to 1937 until being taken over by the Telegraph, he set sail for South Africa on the RMS Dunottar Castle in 1899 to cover the Boer War.
He was on an armoured train between Frere and Chieveley in the British Natal Colony when the train hit a massive boulder that a Boer kommando force had put on the line. Rifle fire was exchanged for just over an hour, and when Churchill found himself alone in a gully faced with a Boer soldier pointing a Mauser rifle at him, he surrendered. In a remarkable coincidence, the Boer commander that day was Louis Botha, and both men would go on to be Prime Ministers of their respective countries.
He was imprisoned as a POW in a camp in Pretoria (the converted Pretoria High School for Girls), but managed to escape after scaling a prison wall. After three days spent hiding in a mine shaft, thanks to the assistance of the mine’s English manager, Churchill travelled 300 miles walking and hitching rides on steam trains until he reached the border of Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and on to safety.
Instead of coming home, he travelled back to join his colleagues and resumed his duties as a reporter. When he arrived at the camp, his tent was 45 metres from where he had been captured six weeks previously.
4. Churchill the Failure
The opening four bloody, horrific months of the First World War on the Western Front claimed almost a million British and French lives, and the impasse in the trenches infuriated Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. He famously asked Prime Minster Herbert Asquith:
“are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?”
Churchill’s solution was a second front. His idea was to carefully sail the British naval fleet through the Dardanelles, the 38-mile body of water connecting Europe to Asia in north-western Turkey; land on the Gallipoli peninsula, seizing Constantinople (Istanbul); take control of the Black Sea waterways; and finish the crumbling Ottoman Empire. ‘A good army of 50,000 and sea power – that is the end of the Turkish menace’, he wrote.
Ironically, he himself wrote in 1911 that ‘it should be remembered that it is no longer possible to force the Dardanelles, and nobody would expose a modern fleet to such peril.’
Fighting on the Gallipoli peninsula lasted eight months. The British vastly underestimated the strength – in numbers and military capability – of the Turks, and suffered severe losses to personnel and hardware.
The Battle of Gallipoli was a slaughter and became a stalemate, just like in the trenches on the Western Front. It claimed 500,000 casualties on both sides . Though bad planning, poor strategy and incompetence by all levels of the British military command were at fault, Churchill was made the scapegoat and was taunted throughout his parliamentary career.
5. Churchill the Bricklayer
Not only was Churchill a great leader, he was, surprisingly, an accomplished bricklayer. On his 14th wedding anniversary, his wife Clementine wrote to him, saying ‘if only we could get a little county home within our means and live there within our means, it would add great happiness and peace in our lives.’
One day later, he made an offer of £4,800 on Chartwell Manor, an Elizabethan home near Westerham in Kent. The asking price was £5,500 and they eventually settled on £5,000. He took a keen interest in the planning and building of the ancillary works, including brick outbuildings and a wall that winds its way through the property. A plaque on the wall, built between 1925 and 1932, states that it was crafted ‘by Winston with his own hands’.
He proudly stated that he produced ‘200 bricks and 200 words a day’ and his grandson, also called Winston Churchill, said ‘if anyone had asked me what my grandfather did, I’d have said: ‘He’s a bricklayer.’
The great man wrote:
“I lived mainly at Chartwell, where I had much to amuse me. I built with my own hands a large part of two cottages and extensive kitchen-garden walls, and made all kinds of rockeries and waterworks and a large swimming pool which was filtered to limpidity and could be heated to supplement our fickle sunshine.”
6. Churchill the Artist
Over the course of his lifetime, and as a respite from politics and war, Winston Churchill became an accomplished painter. ‘Happy are the painters’ he wrote, ‘for they shall never be lonely; light and colour, peace and hope will keep them company to the end – or almost to the end of the day’.
He only took up painting around the age of 40, and carried on until just a few years before his death in 1965. He found great pleasure in art and used it to cope with bouts of depression he called ‘the black dog’, especially after he resigned from the position of First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915 after the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.
He painted over 500 pictures in his lifetime – mainly impressionist landscapes – and he even garnered praise from Pablo Picasso, who said, ‘if that man were a painter by profession he’d have no trouble in earning a good living.’
Churchill had two works, painted under the pseudonym David Winter, accepted by the Royal Academy. Over the course of his life, they displayed 50 of his paintings. In December 2014, 15 of his paintings went under the hammer at Sotheby’s and raised £11.2m, including just over £1.76m for an oil-on-canvas entitled ‘The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell’.
7. Churchill the Pedestrian
In December 1931, Churchill was in New York giving a series of lectures on the ‘Pathway of the English-Speaking Peoples’. At around 10.30pm on the 13th, he went to visit a friend – financier Bernard Baruch – who lived at 1055 Fifth Avenue. Travelling north (for the exceedingly keen-eyed among you, Fifth Avenue was two-way back then), he climbed out of his taxi on the Central Park side and then tried to cross against the light.
Used to the traffic coming from the left, he looked, saw nothing coming and stepped out onto Fifth Avenue between 76th and 77th Streets. A car driven by an unemployed mechanic called Mario Contasino hit Churchill at about 30mph and dragged him several yards. He bruised his chest, sprained his right shoulder, and cut his forehead and nose.
Churchill took full responsibility for the accident, and Mr Contasino was fully absolved of all blame by the NYC police. While he was in hospital, he invited the mechanic to visit him as a gesture of goodwill. He finally gave his lecture six weeks later.
In an interesting aside, this was during the era of Prohibition and his physician, Dr Otto Pickhardt wrote a note for him saying:
“This is to certify that the post-accident concussion of Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times.”
8. Churchill the Ruthless
Winston Churchill was no fan of Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, and he spent a lot of his life opposing Indian autonomy. In 1931, he said of the non-violent independence leader that he was a:
“seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East“
and even went as far as suggesting that he (Gandhi) should be treated like anyone else if he stopped eating while being interned by the British, implying that if he went on a hunger strike, he should be allowed to die.
Gandhi was held in the palace of the Aga Khan in August 1942, after condemning the involvement of his nation in the fight against the Germans and calling for civil disobedience against British rule. However, it was deemed that death in detention would be far worse than death while on a hunger strike.
Sir Stafford Cripps, Minister for Aircraft Production, said that ‘he is such a semi-religious figure that his death in our hands would be a great blow and embarrassment to us’ but Churchill was furious. He felt that by letting him out, it would be seen by the world as a moral victory for Gandhi. ‘I would keep him there and let him do as he likes’, the Prime Minister said.
9. Churchill the Consistent
Despite being one of the most famous politicians that has ever lived, Winston Churchill liked familiarity and simplicity. During World War I he wrote ‘we live very simply—but with all the essentials of life well understood and provided for—hot baths, cold Champagne, new peas and old brandy.’
He wore a Breguet timepiece. Pre-Army, his suits were from E. Tautz & Sons and as soon as his parliamentary career started, his formalwear came from Henry Poole & Co. His bow ties came from Turnbull & Asser. Shoes were standard Oxford, although he had them customised with zips rather than laces, and his slippers came from Hook, Knowles & Co.
He wore a grey Homburg hat almost permanently, but the main element of his status as a style icon – which may come as a surprise to most – was his penchant for silk underwear. His wife Clementine was reported to have said that her husband was:
“most extravagant about his underclothes. They are made of very finely woven silk (pale pink) and come from the Army and Navy Stores and cost the eyes out of his head.”
10. Churchill the Linguist
Well-known as a master orator and a rhetorician of the highest order, Churchill also popularised language that today we take for granted. During the Second World War, he allied himself with the Soviet Union despite serious misgivings on Communism. But when the war was finished, he questioned their aims.
In a speech in March 1946, he talked of ‘an iron curtain [that] has descended across the continent. Behind that line, [countries are subject to] to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.’ Ever since, western commentators, politicians and writers have referred to the ‘iron curtain’ when talking about the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
Unbeknownst to Churchill, he was also a willing participant in the first incarnation of ‘text-speak’, 85 years before we all carried mobile phones. In a letter written to Churchill from Admiral John Arbuthnot ‘Jacky’ Fisher on September 9, 1917, in reference to some less than favourable headlines, he writes:
“I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis – O.M.G (Oh! My God!) – shower it all on the Admiralty!!”