Monday, 6 July 2009

Churchill and Napoleon -a postscript

Since my last blog I have had another look at Roy Jenkins's excellent biography of Churchill. Not a single mention of Napoleon - but an interesting comment about Churchill's famous ancestor John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough : as famous for ruthless self-advancement as he was for martial prowess (1).

Not surprising perhaps that the young Winston also had a great interest in Napoleon as well as in his famous ancestor. By all accounts, including his own, Churchill was a young man in a hurry - and there was no better example of what a young man could achieve in the worlds of war and politics than that of Napoleon.

Churchill's many contemporary critics, particularly after the costly failure of the Dardanelles Campaign and his support for intervention in the Russian Revolution certainly made the connection with Napoleon.

The cartoonist Low began caricaturing Churchill in a cast-off Napoleonic uniform, embodying his image as an adventurer with an obsession, like that of Napoleon himself, to conquer Russia. This image of a Napoleonic Churchill was also popular amongst contemporary opinion, as most people viewed him at the time as an emblem of concealed reaction. H.G. Wells also had little sympathy for Churchill's view of the new Communist State, and parodied him as Napoleon in his play Men Like Gods(2)

Take also this mocking article from the New York Times in 1922:

At Harrow, the lad, moody as Napoleon, was alone. ...

others lived within the regulations; he looked - sometimes leaped - beyond them. .. He thus became a soldier of fortune - a buccaneer - using the pen while he wore the sword. And his only real comrade was Bonaparte. True they did not see much of each other in the flesh, but in his library Winston collected hundreds of volumes on the Corsican, and these he has bound sumptuously in the leather with which every book is honored when it enters the archives of the British aristocracy. 'Chatting thus with Napoleon's memory, Churchill unbends; you see him in velvet, even climbing a ladder - only a short one is needed - to reach his companion's loftier pages. To say this is no reflection on Churchill, for Napoleon himself would have had to do it if he had collected so many books about Winston.

What Rosebery has admired in Napoleon is "the last phase." That is because Rosebery is our greatest living expert on abdication, and to him, St. Helena is the holy place, in fact his Mecca. But Churchill values Napoleon chiefly because in his youth he reduced the pretensions of older men. He was one who met experience with explosions. Indeed, there is only one point of strategy on which Churchill differs from his associate and that is but a passing incident - the Battle of Waterloo. This is where Churchill would have been prepared to offer Bonaparte a friendly hint. He would have warned the Emperor that while Wellington was, of course, no Marlborough, he had, like Haig, qualities which we generals of genius must not despise.

The final verdict on Churchill will be probably that he is interesting but expensive. He works. He thinks. He knows. He acts. He even gambles. If only his ventures had all succeeded, they would have been admirable. In some countries not far from England he would have been by now an Emperor, reigning not - it may be - in Paris, but certainly over Elba. Of England it has to be said reluctantly that she is too stupid to appreciate dictators.(3)

Churchill was of course not alone on the Liberal benches in Parliament in the Edwardian era in his interest in Napoleon. There also for a time sat two who have appeared already on these blogs, Sir Walter Runciman and William Hesketh Lever, who unlike Churchill were not soldiers but creators of very successful business empires. So also has Churchill's friend, Lord Rosebery, the former Liberal Prime Minister and author of the famous book on Napoleon's captivity. (4)

Perhaps though rather than his Liberal affiliations at that time, a far better explanation of Churchill's own interest in Napoleon lay in his military background. A recent study by Gerald D. Swick makes a good point:

Churchill was one of the rare leaders of history, men such as Frederick the Great, Oliver Cromwell, and his own famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, who were “born for war,” as Napoleon once described himself. These were war leaders who “instinctively understood it in all of its aspects: strategic, political, diplomatic, moral and psychological.” Moreover, as one of Churchill’s most astute biographers, Sebastian Haffner, has observed: “No one will ever understand the phenomenon that was Churchill by regarding him simply as a politician and statesman who was ultimately destined like Asquith or Lloyd George, Wilson or Roosevelt, to conduct a war; he was a warrior who realized that politics forms a part of the conduct of war. (5)

Churchill and St. Helena

Churchill never set foot on St. Helena. I doubt whether it would have interested him. By the time he appeared on the scene its importance to the British Empire had gone. It was not a place where cavalry could charge or where an officer could play a few chukkas of polo. In later life it could not compete with the attractions of Madeira and the South of France. More than that, the island was associated with the ultimate failure of Napoleon. It was a road to nowhere. Churchill was interested only in adventure, ambition and destiny.

Churchill's friend, the Prince of Wales, later for a short time to be Edward VIII, did make a brief official visit in 1925. In a speech on his arrival in Jamestown he paid his respects to Napoleon's memory in terms of which I would imagine that Churchill, as a life long francophile, would not have disapproved.
I need not assure you of the deep interest with which I set foot on an Island whose name is so well known to all students of History, not only because it was here that were written the closing pages of a great and romantic life story – the story of the Emperor whose mortal remains now lie on the banks of the Seine, where many soldiers of France have found a resting place ... (6)

Like Napoleon though, St. Helena has honoured Churchill in its stamps.

1. Roy Jenkins, Churchill (Macmillan 2001)
2. Timothy S. Benson Low on Churchill
3. The mocking tone of the article is set from the beginning: When one discusses unseen things with Winston Churchill, one finds that he believes firmly in an all-wise and an all-powerful Being because, despite Darwin, none other could have devised the family of the Duke of Marlborough, which after centuries of uphill effort has culminated at last in himself. P.W. Wilson, Winston Churchill, His Interrogation Mark
4. See blogs on Lord Lever Art Gallery and the blog of 11 February 2008 which among others discusses Walter Runciman and his book,The Tragedy of St Helena and Lord Rosebery's Napoleon: The Last Phase .
5. WARLORD: A Life of Winston Churchill at War Debuts by Carlo D'Este
6. Churchill's friendship and support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis did little for his reputation in the years leading up to the second world war. Churchill's francophilia is described by Jenkins as a never to be underestimated feature of Churchill's long life. The full text of the Prince of Wales's speech is displayed in the Council Room in the Castle on St Helena. The speech also celebrated St Helena's loyalty to the Empire, and acknowledged the importance of the flax industry on which much of your material prosperity depends.


Gerald D. Swick said...

Hi, your informations cited in footnote #5 is credited to a "a new study by Gerald D. Swick." Actually, the book Warlord and the article you cited were actually written by Carlo D'Este; my name erroneously showed up as the author when I published the article on, one of the three sites I edit. I'll correct ACG; would you please correct your info to credit Carlo? Thanks. Sorry for the mistake on ACG. - Gerald D. Swick

John Tyrrell said...

Have made the change. Thanks for pointing it out.