I 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, but 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, horrible 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 apathy… the 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.
His 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?