This month, I am focusing on my favorite writer, Winston Churchill. Most people think of Churchill as a dynamic wartime prime minister who led Britain through that nation’s darkest year of World War II.
He is less well known as an author, even though he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”
Today, many would object that he only defended white human values., Churchill was an unabashed defender of colonialism and the British Empire. His books contain language and thoughts that were accepted in his day, but considered racist and jingoistic by our standards.
Certainly he believed in the superiority of the white race, especially in his earliest writings, when he was actually shooting Muslim warriors in wars in Northwest India and in the Sudan. Of course he was also shooting at whites in South Africa in the Second Boer War.
But Churchill often praised the courage and skill of those he fought against and especially the Indian soldiers who fought on his side. His writings show sometimes show pity, but no hatred of other races. He was more than willing to include Indians in even the something most sacred to him.
In his first book, “The Malakand Field Force” he wrote “A proposal has recently been made to give the Victoria Cross to native soldiers who shall deserve it. It would seem that the value of such a decoration must be enhanced by making it open to all British subjects.
“The keener the competition, the greater the honor of success. In sport, in courage, and in the sight of heaven, all men meet on equal terms.”
Even when he is writing about “barbarians” and Muslim “fanaticism,” his writings still exhibited an extraordinary style that led to his Nobel Prize. Some argue the Nobel Committee for Literature may have been swayed by his recent leadership in World War II, but his books reach the high standard of the Swedish Academy.
His written word has the same soaring, universal quality of his still-powerful speeches. He has a professional writer’s sense of pacing and drama.
The reason he had a professional writer’s style is because he was a professional writer. He began his professional writing career at age 20, even though he was just entering service as a cavalry officer in the British Army.
He continued writing for most of the rest of his life, even though he served much of that time in Parliament and sometimes as a cabinet officer when his party was in power.
Of course, being at the highest levels of the government in both World Wars was certainly helpful in writing his six-volume accounts of each of those wars: “The World Crisis” (1923-1931) and the “Second World War” (1948-1953). It was also helpful he had a long period after each war when he was out of power.
Why did such a powerful man spend so much of his time writing? The simple answer is: that is how he earned his living and provided for his family. It is true that Churchill was born to parents who were at the very highest level of the British aristocracy. By being premature, Churchill was born in the magnificent Blenheim Palace. Primogeniture denied a silver spoon and guaranteed he would make his living by honing his skill as a writer
Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the younger son of the Duke of Marlborough. Randolph obtained wealth by marrying Jennie Jerome, the daughter of Leonard Jerome, who was one of the most successful speculators on Wall Street during its wild and mostly unregulated days of the Gilded Age.
Fortunately for those of us who love his books, Churchill’s talents did not include attracting rich American debutantes.
Some may wonder why Churchill couldn’t make ends meet when he became a successful politician. After all, he was in Parliament and often a cabinet member. Before that, he was an army officer, although a low-ranking one.
The answer is that when Churchill first entered Parliament, the members were not paid, and most felt that paying members would only dilute the quality of the men in Parliament.
A bill to pay members was not passed until 1911. The pay would be only 400 pounds per year. David Lloyd George argued that was equal to a junior clerk in the civil service.
As for his compensation as a military officer, Churchill was in the cavalry. Churchill described a letter his father wrote about how unhappy he was that his son could not get in the infantry.
Among the reasons his father gave for his displeasure was the financial burden of cavalry service. An officer would have to pay for the keeping of his horse. Years later, Churchill wrote: “little did he foresee not only one horse, but two official chargers and one or two hunters besides — to say nothing of the indispensable string of polo ponies!” (“My Early Life”).
According to a Google article on Churchill’s career as a writer, his pay as a cavalry officer in 1895 was 300 pounds a year and he calculated he needed an extra 500 pounds a year to meet the obligations expected of him.
Even before he reported to his first duty station, Churchill began his writing career in order to earn some of this additional 500 pounds.
He managed to obtain this opportunity by getting permission early in 1895 to go to Cuba as an observer during the Spanish efforts to put down rebels. In “My Early Life,” Churchill described how he used his father’s connections to secure permission to serve for several weeks as an observer.
He also lined up his first professional job as a journalist and war correspondent. Churchill noted that at the time, very few officers from captain on down and ever been in combat. Churchill got plenty of experience hearing bullets whistle around him.
It was a pattern Churchill would repeat three times over the next few years, getting assigned to hotspots around the Empire: in Northwest India at Malakand; in Omdurman, Sudan along the Nile River; and finally, in South Africa for the Boer War.
He certainly gained a tremendous amount of war experience in those four wars on three continents, as well as jobs describing the action for newspaper readers back in England. By the end of the Boer War, he would become the highest-paid war correspondent in the world.
Those experiences would also be the source for his first history books: “The Malakand Field Force (1898),” “The River War (1899),” “London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900),” and “Ian Hamilton’s March (1900).”
In my next installment, I will discuss Churchill’s exploits in those four wars and how he became a hero of the empire, as well as one of the most read men of the time.