Churchill the Pacifist

File:Churchhill 03.jpgI have been reading “Churchill: The Power of Words”, edited by Martin Gilbert. It comprises two hundred extracts from his books, journalism and speeches, annotated by his definitive biographer. I love his language- “blood toil tears and sweat”, and all that- and know him as the great Leader in war, File:Churchhill 04.jpgbut here I see Churchill arguing against increasing the size of the army, and as a young adventurer in Cuba and South Africa. H, a sprightly 71, loathes him as the Tory breaker of the General Strike and Miners’ Strike of 1926: she was brought up by people who retained and communicated that loathing. Churchill had just “re-ratted” from the Liberal to the Tory side.

In 1895, when he was 21, he went as a guest of the Spanish army to Cuba, to witness the rebellion there. He wanted that lure of youth, adventure for adventure’s sake. It is a great moment in our lives, one of the best we have experienced. We hope devoutly that something will happen. A volley rings out, and a bullet passes within a foot of Winston’s head, to kill a horse behind him. I began to take a more thoughtful view of our enterprise than I had hitherto done.

In 1898 he considered colonial warfare: The Akhund of Swat, Kruger, Lobengula, and the Mad Mullah, each with his complete set of crimes, File:Winston Churchill 1874 - 1965 Q113382.jpghorrible customs, and ‘minor peculiarities’, march one by one from the dark wings of barbarism up to the bright footlights of civilisation, like a pantomime scene at Drury Lane.

He did not admire Islam. How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries. Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathythe influence of religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.

In 1899 he was captured by the Boers. It matters very little whether your judgments of people are true or untrue, and very much whether they are kind or unkind. He escaped from Pretoria, and made his way to Durban. I have read elsewhere that he might have been disingenuous with his parole, but that is not discussed here. He rejoined the army, and sent reports to the Morning Post after each battle. After one battle, Anger had turned to pity in an instant. The desire to kill was gone… the soldiers succoured the Boer wounded.

Ah, horrible war, amazing medley of the glorious and the squalid, the pitiful and the sublime, if modern men of light and leading saw your face closer, simple folk would see it hardly ever.

He toured Britain, Canada and the US, speaking about the war, and made nearly £6000, which with his war correspondent’s salary and the profits from his books was a fortune enough to keep him independent so he could devote himself to politics.

File:Churchill 1904 Q 42037.jpgHis maiden speech to Parliament concerned the continuing Boer war. If I were a Boer, I hope I should be fighting in the field…This war in South Africa has been on the whole carried on with unusual humanity and generosity. This is not the book to inform me of the British use of Concentration camps in which nearly 28,000 Boer civilians, and an unknown number of Black Africans, died. He said the Army should be reinforced, not only to cover the losses from battle and disease, but to increase its strength by 2000 or 3000 men monthly, to overwhelm the enemy.

On 13 May 1901, as Tory MP for the working class constituency of Oldham, he argued against increasing the size of the army: a European war would demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community.

What I fear is that these costly and beautiful army corps which are to be kept ready almost at a moment’s notice for foreign war will develop in the country feelings of pride and power… when popular newspapers are prepared almost every morning to urge us into war against Great Powers, surely we ought not to make it seem so easy, and so attractive, to embark on such terrible enterprises?

Churchill the pacifist. Who would have thought it? This is a good argument, but it leaves so many questions: how does it fit with his other thought, writing and political action, at the time or any other- is it unique? If it were mere political opportunism, what made it opportune for him then?

6 thoughts on “Churchill the Pacifist

  1. Excellent post, Clare. It sounds to me like Churchill made choices and formed opinions based on personal experience and the signs of the times. I think it’s also easier to be a pacifist when one’s own country is not directly threatened.


    • I can’t say from these isolated passages, but it seems to me that he also supported or opposed particular proposals from political expediency. Ministers here are drawn from the House of Commons, with one minister from each department in the Lords. Members of the Government, however junior, must resign if they vote or speak against the Government. Perhaps Churchill was indicating to the Government that they might be better off with him a minister than a “back-bencher”, an MP with no ministerial role.


    • Thank you for that. Yes, it was beautiful, and I hope they get their signatures. I was delighted to read of New Mexico: there is no statute specifically stating that a couple need to be opposite sex to get married, therefore gay couples are getting marriage licences, since last week.


  2. Clare dear, I am a pacifist, and I am sorry but I can assure you that Winston Churchill was no such thing.

    This odious man was the butcher of Tonypandy. He sent the troops in to put down a miner’s strike which resulted in 500 injured and one dead.

    His bumbling during the First World War was responsible for the massacre of British and ANZAC troops at Gallipoli.

    He despised the working class, whom he referred to as “the enemy” and once stated that if there were ever a class war in Britain, the “upper” class would win because “we have the army” (foolishly forgetting of course that most of the army are working class.

    He once stated that he would like to sweep the entire population of Dundee into the River Tay (I’ve already heard the jokes such as “I’m failing to see the downside”).

    Churchill was openly anti-Semitic and long before World War II spoke of his admiration for Adolf Hitler.

    Certainly, he was a strong leader in WWII but that was a matter of “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. The people certainly had no love for him, as was proven when Clem Atlee’s Labour government swept to power with a huge majority in 1945.

    Churchill was clearly a pragmatist. He had personal experience of warfare in the Boer War and that no doubt caused him to see just how bloody it can be. But a pacifist? History says otherwise I’m afraid.

    Cutting back on troops does not a pacifist make. If it did, then surely with the recent round of defence cuts would make David Cameron a pacifist? Methinks that events which are currently unfolding in Syria shall soon prove otherwise.

    NB: The Spanish rulers in Cuba used the “reconcentrado” – concentration camp – system for the internment of pro-independence guerrilla fighters and subversives from 1896 onwards, before they were used in South Africa.


    • My title was deliberately provocative: of course Churchill was not a pacifist. It was even search bait, in case someone might search for such a term. I quote this one speech of 1901, in which he accurately describes the world war, and speaks against the increase of troop numbers. We are left with the question Why?- I have said I have no answer.

      I refer to the Dardanelles in my next Churchill post, in about a week. I mention the breaking of the strike, here. But on Hitler, the Nazi government saw Churchill as libelling him, not praising him. Here is the Strand article. While parts out of context might be called praise, the whole certainly is not.

      In this Reader, which I recommend, there is only a brief allusion to the General Strike, and no context for historical judgment. But as a Liberal, Churchill supported an Act which he argued freed unions from oppressive litigation by employers.

      I have amended to say “use” not “invention” of concentration camps. Thank you for that.


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