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A Gentleman of History

In war or peace, Winston Churchill's cigars were never far from his hand.
Peter Welsh
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 2)

In addition to the military exercises and an occasional battle, Churchill devoted himself during his years in India to the serious study of history, philosophy and economics. He called this period "my university years." The English historians Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay were easily his favorite writers and arguably those to whom Churchill's own rhetorical style is most indebted. In describing his 800-page epic, The River War, for example, Churchill wrote, "I affected a combination of the styles of Macaulay and Gibbon...and I stuck in a bit of my own from time to time."

In 1899, Churchill left the army to run, unsuccessfully, for Parliament and to write newspaper articles and a book. It was as a newspaper columnist that Churchill, in October of that year, traveled to South Africa to observe the Boer war of independence against the British Empire. In South Africa, Churchill was traveling with a soldier friend aboard a train carrying English troops that was ambushed and derailed by the Boers. While exhibiting great valor in coordinating the escape of many of the troops who were aboard the train, Churchill was captured by the Boers and taken as a prisoner of war.

Although treated well by his captors, he later wrote of his time as a POW, "I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life." He hated captivity above all because it thwarted his ambition for heroic action: "The war was going on, great events are in progress, fine opportunities for action and adventure are slipping away." So, after unsuccessfully appealing his capture on the grounds that he was a noncombatant, Churchill escaped from prison. Before escaping, however, he left a letter of apology on his bed to Louis de Souza, the Boer secretary for war. The letter began: "I have the honour to inform you that as I do not consider that your Government have any right to detain me as a military prisoner, I have decided to escape from your custody." It ended: "Regretting that I am unable to bid you a more ceremonious or a personal farewell, I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient servant, Winston Churchill."

The colonial wars of India and Africa were the sort of conflict for which Churchill and his fellow officers had longed in the days shortly after they graduated from Sandhurst: "This kind of war was full of fascinating thrills. It was not like the Great War. Nobody expected to be killed."

Less than 15 years after the war in South Africa, however, came the first fully modern war, "The Great War," "Armageddon"--the First World War. "The age of Peace had ended," Churchill wrote in one of his memoirs, My Early Life. "There was to be no lack of war. There was to be enough for all. Aye, enough to spare." At the time of the outbreak of the First World War, Churchill was serving as first lord of the Admiralty. He had spent the previous three years successfully preparing the British navy for war. He continued to serve as head of the admiralty through most of 1915. He also advised the War Office on land strategy and tactics during this time.

Churchill's understanding of the true nature of the war on sea and land was complete. He saw events from a clearer perspective than most of his contemporaries. Churchill's insights on the war are recounted at considerable length in his five-volume The World Crisis, a work that ranks with the greatest books ever written on warfare. No less an authority than T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," who as a scholar and translator of Latin and Greek was well acquainted with the greatest Western classics of military history, called The World Crisis "far and away the best war book I have yet read in any language."

Seeking to better understand the war on land, in October 1914 Churchill visited the front lines in France. While there, he was observed by an Italian journalist, Gino Calza Bedelo. Bedelo's account of Churchill, according to Gilbert, became somewhat famous around London shortly after it was given in a talk at the Lyceum Club: "I was in the battle line near Lierre, and in the midst of a group of officers stood a man. He was still young, and was enveloped in a cloak, and on his head wore a yachtsman's cap. He was tranquilly smoking a large cigar and looking at the progress of the battle under a rain of shrapnel, which I can only call fearful. It was Mr. Churchill, who had come to view the situation himself. It must be confessed that it is not easy to find in the whole of Europe a Minister who would be capable of smoking peacefully under that shellfire. He smiled, and looked quite satisfied."

In 1915, when Churchill returned to the front as a major, after resigning as head of the admiralty, he was to make quite a similar impression on his fellow officers and subordinate soldiers. And he was to have the same effect on his colleagues at Downing Street during the countless German air raids over London in the Second World War. At all times, his fearlessness seemed to know no limits, and nearly everyone who came into contact with Churchill under dire circumstances was most impressed by it.

Throughout the 1920s, Churchill served in a number of ministerial posts, and his political career was punctuated by a few political triumphs as well as an occasional setback. The most significant setback of this period was the Conservative Party's defeat in the 1929 general election. With that defeat, Churchill was put out of cabinet office. Thus began what Churchill called his "wilderness" years, the years spent out of responsible office and away from all vital decision making, a period that would last for over a decade. Churchill passed considerable time during these years at Chartwell, his beautiful country home in Kent, which he had purchased in 1922 with royalties from The World Crisis.

Life at Chartwell in the 1930s was a marked change from Churchill's earlier political and military adventures. He did keep busy, however. "I never had a dull or idle moment from morning till midnight," he later wrote, "and with my happy family around me dwelt at peace within my habitation." While still remaining politically active, he was able to spend a great deal of his time on what may be called noble leisure--reading, writing, painting and dining with friends and family.

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Comments   3 comment(s)

jose acosta — galena pk , texas, usa,  —  December 21, 2012 2:42pm ET

excellent editorial.

jose acosta — galena pk , texas, usa,  —  March 18, 2013 10:29am ET

Thank you for the recent copy you sent to my home I had an active paid for account but some how I never heard from you guys again after a couple on months were sent to me,can you possibly look into this and let me know what happened to my subscription??

David Savona March 18, 2013 10:49am ET

For help with your Cigar Aficionado subscription, please call: 800-365-4929.

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