Warlord: Churchill at War

David Stafford looks at a readable history of Churchill the soldier but is left wanting more

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Reviewed by: David Stafford
Author: Carlo d’Este
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30

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Carlo d’Este is a retired US army lieutenant colonel who has written books on the Normandy campaign, the battles for Sicily and Anzio, and biographies of Patton and Eisenhower. Now, in this 900-page doorstopper, he turns his attention to Churchill. More precisely, he turns his gaze on what he calls “Churchill the soldier”. 

It’s hardly a secret that Churchill’s early ambition was to be a soldier, that he fought on the North West frontier, and that he took part in the last cavalry charge of the British army at the battle of Omdurman. His thrilling escape from a Boer prisoner of war camp that catapulted him into parliament is the stuff of legend. Forty years later, after a chequered career, he became the nation’s saviour in its hour of desperate need. His quarrels with his generals over strategy have generated acres of print. Dozens of books have been written about him. Sir Martin Gilbert’s official biography comes in volumes.

So it’s surprising to read d’Este’s claim that “very little” has been written about the military Churchill. In fact, his book is evidence to the contrary because it draws heavily on a vast published literature. It’s certainly fluently written, and d’Este pitches the book well for the non-specialist reader with a narrative that positively hums with verve. It also has a good, almost filmic, opening scene, even if it features Hitler rather than the Nazi dictator’s nemesis.

But it’s hard to discern what new his book tells us about Churchill’s fascination with war and what d’Este calls the “riddle of his genius and imperfection”. That he was deeply ambivalent about war is a cliché of Churchilliana. So is the fact that he almost destroyed his political career during the First World War over the disastrous campaign in the Dardanelles. And what writer on Churchill has not remarked on his weakness for heroes, his impulsiveness, his romantic conception of war, his love of risk, his boundless ego, his often shaky grasp of strategy, the micro-managing of his generals?

It’s not as though d’Este could not have brought a fresh eye to the subject, either, for he possesses an acute and forensic eye for matters strategic. Not surprisingly, as the author of a detailed study of Anzio, he is withering about Churchill’s role in that ill-fated expedition to hasten the liberation of Rome during the Second World War which carried, as he rightly says, “a strong odour of Gallipoli”. Carlo d’Este clearly admires Churchill. But he is refreshingly immune to his often seductive self justifications, and rightly identifies moments when he deployed self-serving arguments to diminish his responsibility for things that went wrong.

Yet, for a military historian, he is also curiously weak in some areas. He claims, for example, that Churchill had a “suspicion of intelligence and its handlers” supposedly stemming from the First World War, yet tells us nothing of his role in the founding of the Admiralty’s famous intelligence centre, Room 40, whose products he pored over like those of the Bletchley Park code breakers 30 years on. Likewise, his comments about Churchill’s high hopes for the Special Operations Executive in fostering resistance behind enemy lines are at best cursory and float disturbingly disconnected from his subject’s youthful and impressionable experience encountering guerrillas in Cuba, the North West frontier, and South Africa. Yet they reveal an enormous amount about Churchill’s notion of war.

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In the end, d’Este tells us that Churchill was a poor strategist yet “a benevolent warlord who led and others followed”. But what persuaded others to follow? One thing, surely, was Churchill’s rhetoric. Another was his powerful sense of history that led ordinary people to believe they were essential players in yet another act of the nation’s secular drama. That too was part of being a warlord, but D’Este, with his military focus, throws little light on it. His book is highly readable. Yet at the end of it we are little closer to understanding the riddle of Churchill’s genius than we were when we began.