Churchill: The End of Glory

There have been many attempts to demolish the Churchill Myth. John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory is one of the most thorough, and most devastating. Of course, as Charmley admits, once a myth establishes itself no amount of rational argument has any effect.
Charmley describes his book as a political biography and that is what it is. Churchill’s private life is only touched on insofar as it is relevant to his political career. Churchill’s personality on the other hand is very relevant indeed and Charmley has much to say on that subject.
Throughout his career Churchill was dogged by suspicions of disloyalty and treachery. He did after all change parties twice and he was never trusted by his parliamentary colleagues. Charmley however makes it clear that such accusations are unjust. Winston Churchill was a man whose views on most subjects were formed very early in his life and he was remarkably consistent in adhering to his views. When the Conservative Party abandoned free trade (something in which Churchill believed passionately) Churchill abandoned the Party rather than change his views. His abandonment of the Liberals in 1924 can hardly be seen as treachery – the Liberal Party had simply ceased to exist as a viable force in British politics. It was not really a matter of deserting a sinking ship – the ship had already sunk. 
Churchill in fact was never truly either a Conservative or a Liberal. He had a distaste for party politics and he never even pretended to be a loyal party man. He was happiest when serving in coalition governments. He was, if such a thing could exist, a liberal conservative. His belief in social reform was perfectly sincere. In this he was motivated partly by a conviction that the only way of saving the traditional Britain in which he grew up was by giving those at the bottom of the heap a much better deal. He was also, to do him justice, genuinely shocked by the condition of the poor in late Victorian Britain. It might in fact be more accurate to describe Churchill as a liberal reactionary.
Churchill also believed just as strongly that Britain could and should continue to play the part of a Great Power and that the Empire could and should be preserved. 
The difficulty, as Charmley makes clear, was that by the twentieth century Britain simply could not afford to remain a Great Power and maintain the Empire and embark on ambitious social reform. It was doubtful if the country could afford to do even two of these things; doing all three was out of the question. This was something that Churchill was never able to understand or accept.
Churchill’s greatest flaw was unquestionably his belief in his own military genius. Having been a humble Second Lieutenant in the 4th Hussars and having participated in a minor colonial campaign on the Northwest Frontier in 1895 had convinced him that he knew more about military strategy than any general. Having been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty he assumed that this was enough to transform him into an expert on naval strategy as well.
His unshakeable belief in his genius led him, and the nation, into one disaster after another. Lord Nelson had famously expressed the very firm view that ships cannot fight forts but after all what did Lord Nelson know about naval tactics? Winston Churchill knew better and the catastrophic attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915 was the result. This ill-judged operation was typical of all of Churchill’s forays into the realm of strategy. He would come up with a hare-brained scheme and then convince himself that success was certain and that enormous advantages would be gained. Wiser heads would point out the folly of the operation and Churchill would ignore them and then use his considerable powers of persuasion to get the plan approved. And, invariably, the plan would end in utter disaster. Norway in 1940 was another superb example although ironically it was not Churchill’s career that was ended as a result but Neville Chamberlain’s. The British intervention in the Greek campaign in 1941 was yet another prime example.
Churchill’s ineptitude as a strategist was bad enough but even worse was his inability to foresee inevitable consequences at the level of grand strategy. Charmley makes it clear that Churchill’s reputation as the man of the hour in 1940 was deserved but sees his conduct of the war thereafter as disastrous as he had no actual war aims. Wars are fought to achieve political objectives. Without clear and achievable political objectives war is merely a futile waste of lives. Churchill thought that defeating Hitler was a sufficient objective and had no clear idea whatsoever of what should happen next. Unfortunately both Stalin and Roosevelt had very clear and very definite ideas about what should happen next and neither had the slightest concern if their aims happened to be very disadvantageous indeed for Britain. Britain ended up fighting a war that served the interests of other nations without in any way serving Britain’s interests.
By February 1945 Churchill had realised his mistake and had recognised the danger posed by the soviet Union. Unfortunately after three-and-a-half years of appeasing Stalin this sudden volte-face was too little too late.
Churchill was a monstrous egotist with immense ambition but he was by no means a bad or malicious man. He was in his own way an idealist and no-one has ever desired more ardently to serve his country. Sadly the verdict that so many of his contemporaries had delivered upon him, that he was a man of vast talent and extraordinarily poor judgment, proved to be all too accurate.
Charmley does not set out to execute a mere hatchet job. He finds much to admire in Churchill. Churchill’s strengths and his weaknesses were both on an epic scale. The tragedy is that the weaknesses led to his ultimate failure and led to precisely the consequences that he was so anxious to avoid – the loss of the Empire, the reduction of Britain to the status of a third-rate power, the growth of class bitterness and resentment and the loss of the nation’s belief in itself.
Whether you agree or disagree with Charmley’s conclusions Churchill: The End of Glory is essential reading. Highly recommended.
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6 comments on “Churchill: The End of Glory

  1. What a bizarre interpretation! Churchill was certainly a genius (in terms of his nature – abilities, motivation, mode of thinking) but his greatness was very simply that in 1940 he was the right man in the right place at the right time. If it had been anybody else, Britain would have fallen. Everybody who is sufficiently informed and whose opinion I respect is sure about this. What more is needed?

  2. Mr. Doom

    If your review is accurate and I think your generally a good reviewer this book is horrible.

    It has been the custom since 1915 to put all of the blame for the Gallipoli campaign upon Mr. Churchill's shoulders. He did make mistakes in the planning for the campaign, but he was neither a General nor an Admiral and he did not have command of the forces there. The Army and Naval High Command's gets off scot-free. It was the navies decision to force the straits without any troops. Which gave notice to the Ottomans and they reinforced the penninsula, making the task so much harder, maybe impossible.

    Norway like Dunkirk was a disaster years in the making, to again put all of the blame on Mr. Churchill is to excuse far to many others who failed to arm and train the British forces in the years of peace and during the phony war.

    There was also no choice but to send troops to Greece in 1941. Politically the issue is clear, everyone was watching, particularly the Soviets. When the Soviet Union was attacked British action in Greece went a long way to making cooperation easier as the Soviets could see that Britain would support their allies even when the battle was going badly. The lack of air support in Greece was a decision of the Theatre Commander…and a really bad one!

    As for having no war aims, I find that very bizarre.

    Defeating Germany and Italy are war aims I would have thought?

    The idea that Mr. Roosevelt had war aims other than defeating the axis powers is also very bizarre. Mr. Roosevelt was primarily a domestic President, not a foreign policy President. Non of the Allied war leaders had any real post war plans until 1943 and most of those were scrapped before the war ended because they were mostly based on fantasies.

    Mr. Churchill made many mistakes, the ten year rule and having Colossus (the worlds first computer, used at Bletchley Park) smashed at the end of the war for example. Something I find very interesting is that both Generals Marshal and Lord Alanbrooke, Roosevelt and Churchill's chief military advisors respectively, said that they vowed, independently, never to smile or laugh in their political superiors presence as they needed to be serious at all times to counted their tendencies to have flights of fancy.

    Mark Moncrieff
    Upon Hope Blog – A Traditional Conservative Future

  3. dfordoom says:

    Churchill was certainly a genius (in terms of his nature – abilities, motivation, mode of thinking) but his greatness was very simply that in 1940 he was the right man in the right place at the right time.

    Definitely and Charmley would agree with you about 1940. Charmley's argument is that Churchill's failures after 1940 undid most of the good he'd done in 1940 and that Churchill himself finally realised, in 1945, that both the international situation and Britain's position were worse than they had been in 1939.

  4. dfordoom says:

    It has been the custom since 1915 to put all of the blame for the Gallipoli campaign upon Mr. Churchill's shoulders.

    Just to be clear, Charmley doesn't blame Churchill for the Gallipoli campaign. He blames him for the attempt to force the Dardanelles with warships alone prior to the Gallipoli campaign. All it achieved was to alert the Ottomans to Britain's intentions so in that respect it made the chances of success of the Gallipoli venture much less likely.

    Non of the Allied war leaders had any real post war plans until 1943

    The problem is that Stalin had very clear war aims at least as early as 1941. In fact Stalin arguably had clear war aims as early as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939 which he hoped, and believed, would lead to war. Stalin was one of the few people who was absolutely certain that Chamberlain would go to war over Poland. He was certain because the Soviet intelligence services were aware of British diplomatic conversations. He knew Chamberlain would not back down.

    Oddly enough the book isn't really a hatchet job on Churchill. It's obvious that Charmley has quite a bit of admiration for Churchill. I can find much to admire in Churchill as well.

  5. James Higham says:

    Australians, of course, have a more jaundiced view of Churchill, especially around April 25th, and also of Mrs. Thatcher.

    All the above is so and yet that image of him through the radio did give a frightened population heart through those dark years.

  6. dfordoom says:

    Australians, of course, have a more jaundiced view of Churchill, especially around April 25th

    My grandfather (who alas died before I was born) served at Gallipoli. He did not like Churchill. In fact he hated the British as a whole after Gallipoli. He actually liked the Turks a lot more than he liked the British!

    I've always been an Anglophile (which would have disgusted my grandfather). I don't feel any bitterness about Gallipoli. Or even Singapore.

    I personally don't think Churchill's ideas on pursuing a Mediterranean strategy in both world wars were all that bad. In fact in WW2 he may well have been broadly correct. He opposed Operation Dragoon (the invasion of southern France in August 1944) and he was probably right. Securing the Balkans may have been wiser, although unfortunately he bungled badly by supporting the Communists in Yugoslavia. He was also right in opposing Eisenhower's absurd decision not to push for Berlin.

    The problem with Churchill's Mediterranean strategies is that he interfered too much in operational matters that he should have left to the professionals.

    As for Singapore, I don't see how that could really have been avoided or foreseen. Unless the British had concentrated on defending their empire by sending modern fighters to Malaya rather than aiding Stalin, but no-one in late '41 realised how strong the Red Army still was and that it was not actually on the point of collapse.

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