Saturday, 27 June 2009

Churchill and Napoleon

Amidst his many reminiscences about the battle of El Alemain in which he appeared to have played a major part, I recall my history master recommending Churchill's My Early Life. Now, more years later than I care to admit, I have finally read it, and can confirm his judgement.

What an excellent read it is: beautifully written, at times funny, and a fascinating window into the world of late Victorian British Imperialism. I also like my Folio Society edition - in the digital age there are few pleasures greater than handling a finely bound book.

I was aware that Churchill was a francophile and vaguely thought that he was, like a number of his class and generation, an admirer of Napoleon. It was with interest therefore that I read his account of his capture in the Boer War.

Churchill, who had lost his pistol, was confronted by a lone Boer horseman whose rifle was pointed at him.
I thought there was absolutely no chance of escape, if he fired he would surely hit me, so I held up my hands and surrendered myself a prisoner of war.

"When one is alone and unarmed", said the great Napoleon, in words which flowed into my mind in the poignant minutes that followed,"a surrender may be pardoned".

I admit I had to read this more than once. Here is Churchill recording, some 30 years later, that at the moment when he was faced with likely death if he sought to escape, he had thought about what Napoleon would have done, and decided that in his circumstances the great man would have thought that a surrender was pardonable. I wondered whether this was simply another example of the ironic and self deprecatory humour which is a feature of the book, so I decided to fish around a little, and came across this extract from a recent article:

In September 1897, Churchill wrote to his mother from the North-West Frontier of India explaining the force of his ambition: "I have faith in my star--that is, that I am intended to do something in the world." As this allusion and innumerable others to Napoleon make clear, the 22-year-old soldier already imagined himself as the young emperor. During this period, he seems to have been consumed with Napoleon--he planned to write a biography of the French military genius, and the eponymous hero of his 1899 novel Savrola is nothing if not Napoleonic in his ambitions: "Ambition was the motive force, and he was powerless to resist it.... 'Vehement, high, and daring' was his cast of mind. The life he lived was the only one he could ever live; he must go on to the end." Right up to the devastating failure of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, Churchill was routinely criticized by his colleagues for his ebullient, Napoleonic sense of himself. In September 1913, Lloyd George noted that all politicians are keen on success but most lacked what Churchill possessed in abundance, that is "the Napoleonic idea." After the Dardanelles fiasco, he concluded in a similar vein that Churchill "had spoiled himself by reading [too much] about Napoleon." (1)

Hard to believe that Churchill has become the hero of American neo-conservatives, and that the US President who renamed French Fries "Liberty Fries" had a bust of him on his desk!

Size is Important

One of the things that the British have always held against Napoleon was his height, or rather his lack of it. A recent article in the left wing tabloid Daily Mirror described both Napoleon and President Zarkozy as French pipsqueaks . Napoleon has even been rewarded with his own syndrome, although modern scholars seem to think that he was actually of fairly average height for his time, 5' 6" - 5' 7". So the big question is, how tall was Sir Winston Churchill?
The answer seems to be 5' 7"!

Churchill on Captivity

Finally I was struck by Churchill's comments about captivity. When reading this it is worth recalling that he escaped after less than a month:

Prisoner of war! That is the least unfortunate kind of prisoner to be, but it is nevertheless a melancholy state. You are in the power of your enemy. You owe your life to his humanity, and your daily bread to his compassion. You must obey his orders, go where he tells you, stay where you are bid, await his pleasure, possess your soul in patience. Meanwhile the war is going on, great events are in progress, fine opportunities for action and adventure are slipping away. Also the days are very long. Hours crawl like paralytic centipedes. Nothing amuses you. Reading is difficult; writing impossible. Life is one long boredom from dawn till slumber
Moreover, the whole atmosphere of prison, is odious. Companions in this kind of misfortune quarrel about trifles and get the least possible pleasure from each other's society. If you have never been under restraint before and never known what it was to be a captive, you feel a sense of constant humiliation in being confined to a narrow space, fenced in by railings and wire, watched by armed men, and webbed about with a tangle of regulations and restrictions. I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I ever hated any other period in my whole life.

Although there are striking differences between Churchill's brief captivity and the captivity of Napoleon, this passage surely gives some indication of how Napoleon and his companions at Longwood must have felt.


(1) Paul Stevens, "Churchill's military romanticism"Queen's Quarterly , 2006.

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