Working with Winston: The Unsung Women Behind Britain’s Greatest Statesman by Cita Stelzer; Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill by David Stafford; Winston Churchill: At War and Thinking of War Before 1939 by B J C McKercher & Antoine Capet (edd); Attlee and Churchill: Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace by Leo McKinstry - review by Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts

Once More unto the Breach

  • Cita Stelzer, 
  • David Stafford, 
  • B J C McKercher & Antoine Capet (edd), 
  • Leo McKinstry

Working with Winston: The Unsung Women Behind Britain’s Greatest Statesman

By Cita Stelzer

Head of Zeus 377pp £20 order from our bookshop

‘Of the writing of Churchill books there shall be no end’ is an old publishing saw, and the appearance of these four books underlines it neatly. Each emphasises an important and interesting aspect of Churchill in a useful and scholarly way, and they all break new ground.

Cita Stelzer’s Working with Winston is about Churchill’s relationship with his secretaries and assistants. Concentrating on twelve of them – eleven women and one man – Stelzer expertly weaves a fascinating story of Churchill’s interactions with the people who took down and typed up his enormous output, which included thirty-seven books, over eight hundred articles and eight thousand pages of speeches.

Taking dictation from a man who marched around his study to military music, growling words with a sibilant S, often with a cigar in his mouth, was no easy task, as almost all of his assistants attested. As Churchill’s biographer Sir Martin Gilbert put it, ‘Churchill’s extraordinary productivity depended in such large measure upon those unsung labourers in the Churchill vineyard.’

It is noticeable how alike the stories often are: the young woman joins Churchill’s staff, nervous because of her new master’s reputation as a perfectionist and harsh taskmaster; she makes a mistake that sure enough draws his coruscating ire, sometimes reducing her to tears; she pulls herself together and decides to soldier on, thinking him an unpleasant tyrant; he apologises later, teases her kindly and treats her with thoughtfulness; she then worships him for the rest of her life. None of them denied his initial toughness towards them; all of them without exception forgave him for it. Stelzer tells their stories with empathy and wit.

Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill

By David Stafford

Yale University Press 302pp £20 order from our bookshop

David Stafford’s Oblivion or Glory is subtitled ‘1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill’ and argues – well in time for the centenary of that climactic year – that those twelve months were pivotal for Churchill’s political career, leaving him ‘a prime minister in the making’. Stafford has already written two good books on Churchill’s relationship with the secret services and Franklin Roosevelt, and this one is similarly engaging and well researched.

Churchill began 1921 by inheriting the fortune of a first cousin once removed, Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest, who died in a railway accident in January and left him an Irish estate that provided an income worth around £160,000 a year in today’s money. This helped Churchill transform his otherwise rickety finances in his forty-seventh year, giving him more time to concentrate on his burgeoning political career.

During those packed twelve months, Churchill became secretary of state for the colonies, brought peace to Ireland after negotiating independence for the Irish Free State, created Iraq and Jordan at a conference in Cairo, championed the policy of trying ‘to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle’ by sending assistance to the Whites in the Russian Civil War, saved the RAF from being split between the Admiralty and War Office, and suffered an extraordinary series of personal tragedies.

In April, Churchill’s brother-in-law Bill Hozier shot himself in a Paris hotel room in circumstances that have never adequately been explained, but seem to have involved a combination of gambling debt and depression. In June, Churchill’s mother, Jennie, died aged sixty-seven when the main artery in her leg haemorrhaged after an amputation. On 10 August, his faithful manservant Thomas Walden died. Only thirteen days later, Churchill’s young daughter Marigold (whom he had nicknamed ‘The Duckadilly’), not yet three years old, died of septicaemia. When Marigold breathed her last, her mother, Clementine, ‘gave a succession of wild shrieks, like an animal in pain’. Yet for all the family tragedies, Churchill’s career went from strength to strength in this period.

Winston Churchill: At War and Thinking of War Before 1939

By B J C McKercher & Antoine Capet (edd)

Routledge 206pp £115 order from our bookshop

Winston Churchill: At War and Thinking of War Before 1939 comprises a series of eight essays expertly edited by B J C McKercher, a history professor at Victoria University in Canada, and Antoine Capet, professor of British studies at Rouen University. They include scholarly contributions by such distinguished historians as James Muller (on the River War in the Sudan), John Maurer (on the German naval challenge before the Great War) and Christopher Bell (on how the British press forced Churchill’s resignation over the Gallipoli campaign).

Warren Dockter’s essay on Churchill, Islam and the Middle East is similarly readable and impressive. He concludes that Churchill ‘saw British power as a means to advance civilisation, which he ultimately believed helped everyone, including Moslems. Although Churchill’s views of Islam in many ways can seem patronising and problematic they were nevertheless a great deal more nuanced and sympathetic than is generally appreciated.’

Unlike the majority of the contributors, who are sympathetic to, if occasionally critical of, Churchill, Richard Toye, in his chapter on Churchill’s relations with journalists, offers a raucous rant rather than a serious contribution to the field. Toye’s previous works on Churchill have adopted a uniformly sneering tone towards him, so it was hardly likely that he was going to change his approach here.

Instead of concentrating on what made Churchill the best-paid war correspondent in the world and how he used newspapers to promote his policies, Toye tries to drag fashionable modern-day criticisms into what ought to have been an interesting essay. ‘Churchill’s story tells us much about the origins of the highly problematic media culture that exists today,’ he lectures. Except that it doesn’t at all. Toye’s efforts to convince us that Churchill’s supposed attempts to ‘browbeat’ and ‘manipulate’ the press and to pursue ‘shallow stunts’ and ‘showmanship’ actually tell us more about his own crabbed attitude towards Churchill than anything useful about the British press in the first half of the 20th century, let alone today.

Attlee and Churchill: Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace

By Leo McKinstry

Atlantic Books 737pp £25 order from our bookshop

By contrast, Leo McKinstry’s fine book on the relationship between Churchill and the Labour leader Clement Attlee is a subtle and nuanced work full of illuminating insights. Attlee had been one of the last men evacuated off the beaches at Gallipoli and always believed that the Dardanelles expedition had been one of the great strategic ideas of the First World War. Similarly, Churchill hugely appreciated Attlee’s patriotic refusal to put party advantage before the national interest when he entered Churchill’s National Government in May 1940, making no demands for a set number of Cabinet places for the Labour Party.

Of course, in peacetime Churchill and Attlee had to spar in public, as prime ministers and leaders of the opposition must, but in private Churchill would not hear a word against his friend and wartime deputy, and indeed once threatened to expel from Chartwell a Tory MP who had presumed to criticise Attlee. McKinstry has produced a first-class, highly readable account of a key relationship in Churchill’s career.

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