Commentary Magazine


In Search of Churchill by Martin Gilbert

Genius & Plod

In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Journey
by Martin Gilbert
Wiley. 338 pp. $30.00

In the summer of 1915, having been sacked as First Lord of the Admiralty during the troubled Dardanelles campaign, Winston Churchill made preparations to go to the battlefield on his government’s behalf. Though the trip never came off, Churchill did write a letter to his wife to be opened in the event of his death. Eager to vindicate his conduct of affairs at the Admiralty, he asked her to gather his papers: “There is no hurry; but some day I should like the truth to be known. Randolph will carry on the lamp.” Churchill was obviously taking the long view; in 1915, his son was four years old.

Randolph was in fact busy at work on the official biography when his father died a half-century later. But then Randolph himself died in 1968 after completing only two volumes, leaving the task to one of his research assistants, Martin Gilbert. Now a very well-known Oxford scholar, Gilbert has produced many important works on the Holocaust and on Jewish history in addition to his labors on Churchill, which are simply prodigious.

Gilbert’s principal work, in eight stout volumes, traces Churchill’s thoughts and actions virtually day by day. Joining it is a series of extremely useful companion volumes, some over a thousand pages long, containing much of the raw material that went into the making of the biography. Fifteen of these are in print; at least eight more are expected. And mounted on top of it all is a highly readable single-volume biography, which in several respects improves on the original.

_____________

 

Now Gilbert has given us In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Journey. In it, the biographer himself, hitherto retiring to a fault, moves closer to center stage. As he explains in the preface, the theme of the book is Gilbert’s own lifelong search for “the character, struggles, and achievements of Churchill.” This search began with Churchill’s V-E Day address, which Gilbert heard on the radio as a small boy. It continued when, after defeat at the hands of Labor in 1945, Churchill fell into academic neglect. This, together with the fierce disagreements over Churchill among Britons, further provoked the young Gilbert’s curiosity.

It was an invitation to join Randolph’s biographical “factory” at East Bergholt, Suffolk, in 1962 that set Gilbert on the way to his life’s career. (The warden of his college at Oxford assured him that “the whole thing could not possibly last more than six months.”) In Search of Churchill gives us a good portrait of Randolph, whom Gilbert depicts as exacting and irascible—he dubbed himself the “Beast of Bergholt”—but also loyal, forgiving, and generous with his “young-gentlemen” researchers. Indeed, even as he enters his criticisms of Randolph’s contribution to the biography, Gilbert takes pains to stress the debt he owes his mentor. Randolph’s irrepressible curiosity, his mastery of reference books, his insistence on getting the story straight, his enthusiasm when a “lovely grub” was uncovered, and his rigorous methods of work all made their impression on a grateful understudy.

Gilbert was given a roving commission to talk to anyone who remembered Winston Churchill—friends, colleagues, family, secretaries—and he carried it out with exemplary diligence and to exceptional effect. In pursuing the story of Churchill’s dismissal from the Admiralty, for example, he came across the romantic correspondence between Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and Venetia Stanley, which explained why Asquith was so distracted during the Dardanelles crisis; in working on Churchill’s speeches to Parliament in the 1930’s on the deficiencies of British military strength, he tracked down the names of his secret informants; and so forth. Again and again, in reading this book one is struck by how much Gilbert’s biography of Churchill has contributed to our knowledge not only of its subject, but of a good chunk of the 20th century.

In Search of Churchill also provides a useful and much-needed tutorial on the art of historical research. In Gilbert’s refusal to deprecate great men, his warnings against sloppy scholarship, his rueful admission of unwitting errors in his own work, even in his reminder that historians often overlook the importance of the weather, there is an implicit rebuke and an excellent corrective to many bad habits that plague the contemporary writing of history.

Still, the most enjoyable aspect of this book is what it tells us not about Martin Gilbert but about Winston Churchill. There is, for instance, Churchill’s advice to a Scottish duchess about where to place a podium for his nemesis Neville Chamberlain: it could go anywhere, he said, “as long as [Chamberlain] has the sun in his eyes and the wind in his teeth”; or the letter to his brother Jack from his country retreat, where he rejoiced in having “all the essentials of life . . . hot baths, cold champagne, new peas, and old brandy.”

Gilbert informs us that some of the most famous “facts” about Churchill are apocryphal. Despite his best efforts, he has never been able to turn up the telegram which was reputedly sent to every ship in the fleet when Churchill returned to the Admiralty in 1939: “Winston is back.” Nor can he authenticate Churchill’s famous alleged put-down of the traditions of the Royal Navy as amounting to “rum, sodomy—and the lash.” Though the underground Cabinet War Rooms are even today one of London’s premier tourist attractions, it seems that—sentimental myth notwithstanding—Churchill rarely spent a night there during the Blitz, preferring to take his chances in an above-ground apartment around the corner. Finally, despite all the tales of Churchill’s drinking, we learn from Gilbert that those around him never saw him drunk; rather, they watched him nurse the same weak whiskey-and-soda all morning.

_____________

 

Near the end of this book, Gilbert tells us that his “search for Churchill heightened my sense of the ability of a single person to influence events, and of the impact of leadership in both the foreign and domestic scene.” How did Churchill manage to do so much? Readers of In Search of Churchill will be struck by the ruthless agenda he set for himself; by his phenomenal powers of concentration; by how he learned to make two days out of one, and not to “waste a single talent.” Harold Macmillan claimed that Churchill never missed anything said in conversation, though he may have appeared not to be listening, and Adlai Stevenson was dazzled by his ability to recall speeches memorized 60 years before. To his son Randolph, Churchill once said that he hated “to go to bed at night feeling I have done nothing useful in the day.”

In gauging the sources of Churchill’s achievement, Gilbert points to a verse by Longfellow much favored by both Randolph and his father:

The heights by great men
  reached and kept,
Were not attained by sudden
  flight,
But they, while their companions
slept,
Were toiling upward in the
  night.

To rise in the world, one of Churchill’s correspondents told him in his youth, takes “genius and plod.” It has been Martin Gilbert’s achievement to help us see how, and in what measure, Churchill possessed both of these gifts, and never neglected either.

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