Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS, RA was arguably the greatest statesman of the 20th century. He was many things in his life – student, soldier, husband, father, politician, orator, peacemaker, artist, writer, Nobel Prize winner and strategist – and here we examine the life of the man who, more than any other, guided Britain to victory in the Second World War.
Churchill was born two months prematurely on November 30, 1874 in Blenheim Palace, a magnificent stately home in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. It is the only non-episcopal country house in England to be designated a palace and is the principal home of the Duke of Marlborough.
His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and his mother, Jennie Jerome (later Lady Randolph Churchill), was the daughter of American millionaire financier Leonard Jerome. As a boy, he spent a considerable amount of time with his nanny, Elizabeth Everest, whom he called ‘Old Woom’ and loved dearly.
His relationship with his father was distant and they barely communicated. When his father died in 1895, aged just 45, the young Winston became convinced that he would also die young – it was at this point in his life that he made a conscious decision to ensure he left his mark on the world.
He spent time living in Dublin and attended three independent schools: St George’s in Ascot, Brunswick in Hove, and Harrow in Middlesex. While at Harrow – a school he disliked – he wasn’t an outstanding student, but it was here that he fell in love with the intricacies of the English language, a love that would serve him well as his life progressed.
LIFE IN THE MILITARY
After graduating from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, Churchill spent a number of years serving in the military. He spent time in Cuba during the Cuban War of Independence to act as an observer, and it was here that he developed his taste for the Cuban cigars he would smoke for the rest of his life. He was transferred to India in October 1896 to fight in the second Anglo-Afghan War and in 1898 he was sent to Egypt, joining an attachment of the 21st Lancers in the Sudan, serving under legendary soldier General Kitchener. It was here that he was actively involved in what has widely been described as the British Army’s last meaningful full-scale cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman in September of that year.
He combined his service with a reporter’s role, and had a number of articles published in leading newspapers. Upon his return to Britain, Churchill chose to resign his cavalry commission to become a professional journalist – more specifically a war correspondent – for a series of newspapers.
It was at this point that Churchill first entered the political theatre. The death of Conservative MP Robert Ashcroft prompted a by-election in Oldham, and Churchill stood as a candidate. He lost, but a good number of parliamentarians were impressed by the vigorous nature of his campaigning.
After Oldham he went back on the road, this time to South Africa, to report on the fighting between Britain and the Boer Republics. While reporting on the conflict, he was actually captured by Boer forces in an ambush. He subsequently escaped, and upon returning to Britain as a war hero he successfully published several books detailing the war. Yet despite his earlier failures in the arena, he had not abandoned his political ambitions. and stood once more as a candidate for Oldham at the General Election of 1900. He won the seat, beginning a meteoric political career.
In 1904 he crossed the floor of the House, becoming a member of the Liberal party, and the following year was appointed Under-Secretary of State at the Colonial Office. Swift promotions into the Cabinet followed thanks to his growing reputation as a dedicated and efficient political operative. He served as President of the Board of Trade in 1908 and as Home Secretary in 1910, where he affected a number of prison reforms, including helping offenders to reintegrate into society post-release.
Churchill met his wife as early as 1904 but they did not pursue a relationship until 1908, when they were seated next to each other at a dinner party hosted by Baroness St Helier. After a whirlwind romance, he proposed in August of the same year. A month later at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, Clementine Hozier became Clementine ‘Clemmie’ Churchill. They were married for 56 years and had five children: Diana, Randolph, Sarah, Marigold (who died of septicaemia aged two years and nine months in August 1921), and Mary.
FIRST WORLD WAR AND ISOLATION
After scaling the heights of the Liberal hierarchy, he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty where he oversaw (and was made the scapegoat for) the disastrous WWI Gallipoli campaign. He left his government post and temporarily went back to active service on the Western Front, commanding the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
During his brief political exodus, he discovered a love of painting and would go on to produce over 500 works, many of which were displayed at the Royal Academy.
He returned to government as a Conservative, and served variously as Minister for Munitions, Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air, before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. A controversial return to the gold standard, coupled with a full-throated condemnation of trade unions during the 1926 General Strike and his lone-voice opposition to semi-independence status for India, prompted another political exclusion.
Churchill spent most of the 1930s writing books and speeches, including a number warning of the growing power of Germany and vehemently opposing the appeasement of the Nazis. When Britain ultimately declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, Churchill was recalled from political exile to resume his position as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Upon Neville Chamberlain’s resignation on May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill assumed the position of Prime Minister of an all-party coalition government. With the successful German invasion of France and seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against Britain, Churchill faced a huge challenge as Britain stood alone. During this period he gave many of his most famous speeches, which went a long way towards galvanising national morale. He was the dictionary definition of ‘the right man for the job’.
Despite the bleak situation at this time, Churchill and Britain stood firm. Among numerous victories, he oversaw the RAF’s success in the Battle of Britain – the first war battle conducted entirely by air – and he courted US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s military help. Both the US and the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941 in what Churchill referred to as the ‘Great Alliance’.
Over the next four years, Churchill would become the linchpin around which British defiance and eventual victory would revolve. Successes with the Battle of the Atlantic and the North African Campaign were followed by victories in Sicily, Italy, and eventually the invasion of France and the march to Berlin. Churchill’s role in delivering a nation from the brink of defeat to the joy of victory was unrivalled, and the VE Day celebrations were as much a personal victory for the British Prime Minister as a military victory for the nation.
POST WAR CAREER
After the exultant delight of wartime triumph, Churchill had to find his place in a world at peace. Despite cementing his name as one of the world’s finest wartime commanders and a lead voice in the shaping of Europe’s post-war map, the British public felt that Churchill was somewhat lacking in his attitudes towards social reform. In the 1945 General Election, Churchill’s Conservatives were defeated by Clement Atlee’s Labour Party, giving them a 145-seat majority and a mandate to implement much-needed post-war reforms.
Once again, Churchill found himself without political power. He focused his time and attention on public speaking, coining the phrase ‘iron curtain’ in a speech in the US in 1946. During this trip as Leader of the Opposition, he famously lost a lot of money in a poker game with President Harry S. Truman.
Churchill suffered a mild stroke in France in the summer of 1949, which was carefully concealed from the public. In 1951, in a final political resurgence, he was re-elected as Prime Minister and remained so until he resigned in 1955. Politician Roy Jenkins said that he was ‘gloriously unfit for office’, and he may have had a point. Increasingly unwell but still armed with his world-class oratory, Churchill didn’t command the same fervour as he did during the war.
His government accepted Labour’s new Welfare State, and his diplomatic attempts to slow down the development of the Cold War produced few results. This, in conjunction with his ailing health – he had another stroke in 10 Downing Street in 1953 – forced his hand. He resigned in 1955, and was succeeded by his Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden.
RETIREMENT AND DEATH
Churchill finally stood down from professional politics at the 1964 General Election. His retirement was spent at Chartwell, his principal home since 1922, as well as at another residence in Hyde Park. He was also a regular face of the social scene on the French Riviera.
On January 15, 1965, Churchill suffered what was to be the stroke that eventually killed him. He died at his home in London nine days later, on Sunday January 24, 1965. He was 90 years-old.
By decree of Queen Elizabeth II, Churchill lay in state for three days in the Palace of Westminster, and a state funeral service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. One hundred and twelve world nations were represented – only China declined to send an emissary – and the funeral was broadcast to a worldwide audience of 350m.
He was buried in his family’s plot at St Martin’s Church in Bladon, a short distance from his ancestral home at Blenheim Palace.