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In the Footsteps of Churchill
Richard Holmes
London: BBC Books, 2005.
£20.00, 351 pages, ISBN 0563521767 (hardback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen


As Richard Holmes candidly admits in his Introduction, "there are already rafts of books" about Churchill. (1) It is therefore now almost mandatory for the author of a new book on Churchill to provide a justification for his addition to the enormous (and fast growing) list. In Holmes's case, we are not promised new archival material or the implementation of some new interpretative technique—he gives a starkly simple (and perfectly legitimate) explanation: "I felt irrestibly impelled to take him on." He had already written a number of books on great men, (2) and a number of books on war, (3) and Churchill of course provides the ultimate intersection between these two fields.

Richard Holmes is also well known as the presenter of television documentaries, and In the Footsteps of Churchill is actually showing on the BBC at the time of publication. These "tie-ins" always raise the problem of the chicken and the egg—which came first, in this case in the author's mental process? His Introduction gives no clue. Still, one added interest of such books is the interplay in the reader-cum-viewer's mind between the images impressed in his memory and the "corresponding" text. In this particular instance, thanks to the BBC's adoption of satellite transmission, I was able to see the series in Rouen. People familiar with Holmes's previous television programmes will remember the format: we have the usual photographs and newsreels of the time, interspersed with visits which Holmes pays to significant places in the narrative. For instance, in the instalment devoted to the First World War, Holmes goes to a farm near the Franco-Belgian frontier, identified as "Laurence Farm," where Churchill had his HQ according to his topographical research. The present occupier, interviewed in French with no English subtitles, seems to have no inkling of the historic importance of her farm. Likewise, "Churchill's footsteps" take us to a dilapidated château where he was staying when he heard that Field Marshal Sir John French accepted to entrust him with a command. The conclusion which the viewer is expected to draw is not clear: the obliteration of important landmarks in Churchill's life by the passage of time? The gross ignorance of Continentals regarding the Churchill saga?

The episode on the inter-war years not unexpectedly often takes us to Chartwell, with Holmes talking about "Winston"—an irritating "popular" form of speech which he also adopts in the book—while the crew of cameramen try to keep pace with him as he rushes towards the next Churchill landmark and talks to them (us) over his shoulder. In the episode on D-Day, Holmes addresses the viewer from a DUKW—at the steering wheel, of course. In the passage on El Alamein, they film Holmes as he swims in the Mediterranean, just as "Winston" did when he came to see the preparations in 1942. Sometimes, an actor (excellently) imitating Churchill's voice and intonations reads extracts from a letter written by Churchill. Some people obviously like this kind of television programmes, largely based on the "then-and-now" format, since many are produced. The more conservative academics are usually put off by the mimics, gimmicks and hype generally associated with them—not out of snobbery, but simply because they do not find these artificial props necessary to enjoy history programmes. One might reply that it is not fair to apply scholarly standards to TV series—but the BBC insists on presenting the author as Professor Holmes, who teaches at Cranfield University: the academic reference is then evidently part of the claim made for the programme.

Is the book more convincing from that point of view? Yes—if only because the irritating gimmickry of television "special effects" is necessarily absent. Professor Holmes seems to have read everything important on Churchill when preparing his programmes and book. Readers of The Guardian will remember that Paul Addison, the eminent Churchill scholar, recently published his list of the "top 10 books on Churchill" (there are in fact eleven) in its columns, now accessible on the Internet (4), and it is interesting to see that Professor Holmes includes most of the eleven in his six pages of "Further Reading." Some "omissions" are understandable: Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter by Mary Soames, or The Iron Curtain: Churchill, America and the Origins of the Cold War by Fraser J. Harbutt. Some are curious: Churchill and Secret Service by David Stafford, and even more so, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and his Legend since 1945 by John Ramsden. On the other hand, the very recent (and outstanding) In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War by David Reynolds is indeed included. Professor Holmes, however, sometimes makes a curious use of these sources, as when he starts his inevitable discussion of the restoration of the Gold Standard in 1925:

Roy Jenkins' chapter on this period of Winston's life coolly dismembers one of the most treasured myths of the British left, namely that the restoration of sterling to the Gold Standard in 1925 at pre-war parity was a smack in the face of the working class by the Tories and employers. [134]

Few members of the general public, I suppose, will then have the curiosity to follow Holmes's Note 45: "Jenkins: Churchill, Chapter 21: Gold and Strikes," but a dutiful reviewer must of course go to the source of this surprising statement. Nothing in Jenkins's chapter seems to substantiate this interpretation! On the contrary, Jenkins quotes approvingly Arthur Ponsonby's contemporary judgement: "while Churchill's 'sympathy for the poor was eloquent, his sympathy with the rich was practical,'" and concludes on the coal crisis "which in one form or another dominated the life of the government from the summer of 1925" that Churchill was "partly the cause of the trouble, for the return to Gold at the 1914 parity was devastating to the coal industry (because the higher pound further damaged its already declining exports), which then employed a million men." (5).

Another instance when the notes are surprising is provided by the first sentence of Chapter Eight, "Centre Stage 1940-1942": "The events of May 1940 and the two years that followed are the most studied in the entire history of Britain." This appears curious to the bibliographer, as the Royal Historical Society Bibliography editors seem to notice that each new recent decade brings an increasing number of publications devoted to it (i.e. more publications on the 1990s than on the 1980s, etc.). 1940-1941-1942 may well be an exception and, since Holmes complements his statement with a note, the intrigued reader thinks he will get the source for this in the end notes. But the reference is disappointing, since it only recommends two books as "a good starting-point" on 1940. So we will never know whether the author followed his own personal intuition in providing these statistics, or relied on some authority which he chose not to disclose.

We would also have liked to have a note giving the authority for the very interesting (because so improbable) statement that "As late as 1942 [Lloyd George] was still conspiring with a group that included future Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas Home, to replace Winston" [203]. The point here is not that Holmes's assertions are unfounded, but that it would have been intellectually satisfying to have the full references. In other words, the "footnoting" (inverted commas are required because of course we only have infuriating end notes, very awkward to find and clumsy to consult, as in all books intended for the "general reader") is not consistent: sometimes it quotes chapter and verse, sometimes it gives recommendations for further reading, and sometimes it is irritatingly absent.

So, the factual content of the book is a secondary consideration in that all the information could probably be found elsewhere, with far more useful footnotes. What remains is Holmes's approach: how does he arrange his material? How does he present Churchill himself? What general picture emerges from the book? Here, the present reviewer was at times extremely uneasy, because, like many activists from the American Right, Holmes often seems to use Churchill as a weapon to fight the "bureaucrats" and "collectivists"—his bugbear being the archetypal Labour militant from the "Keep Left" tendency, Aneurin Bevan (Clement Attlee, the "moderate," fares far better). He seems to start from what is after all a common preconception: "Collectivists are compelled by their creed to belittle Churchill" [300].

The evidence which Holmes adduces to argue that Bevan "concluded in a bizarre twist of logic [that] Winston was no orator" seems counter-productive, because the words which he quotes from Bevan's final tribute to Churchill sound most appreciative of his oratory, with no pervert irony apparent to the bona fide reader:

He cast himself in the role of the great advocate who put the case of Britain to the world and the destiny of Britain to the British. His name will stand so long as war is remembered as a symbol of what words can do when there is a strong, brave and devoted nation free and willing to back them up with words. [298]

One is in fact reminded of the famous phrase taken up by President Kennedy when presenting Churchill with honorary American citizenship, which Holmes correctly attributes to the journalist Ed Murrow, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle" [217]. Why should that suggestion be appreciative in President Kennedy and damning in Aneurin Bevan's mouth? Here, in his obvious desire to score points against the Left, Holmes seems to deserve for himself the criticism which he levels at "those who attack Winston more as a symbol of some current preoccupation than as an historical figure" [17].

Thus Holmes really seems to wade out of his depth and lose all sense of objectivity and perspective when he discusses Churchill in the light of the high politics of Right and Left—he is in fact at his best when he follows his obvious personal enthusiasm for military affairs, as shown by his balanced (but negative, as it turns out) judgement on Churchill's "share of the collective responsibility that weighs on the Liberal governement of 1914 for committing the small British army to a land war among continental giants" [17], with well-documented list of his failures between 1911 and 1916 [17-18].

The text proper is complemented by excellent maps of operations connected with Churchill: The North-West Frontier (Malakand, 1897); The Nile Campaign and Omdurman, 1898; the Boer War, 1899-1902; the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, 1915-1916: "Plugstreet" (Ploegsteert), 1916—once again showing Holmes's interest in military affairs. The book also has three sections of glossy photographs, some in colour. Many are commonplace: Churchill as a boy in his sailor suit, or the Karsh portrait of 1941. Some are less common: "Churchill leaving the water at Deauville in 1927." A few are scarce, either because of their nature (his secret screen test for BBC TV at 10 Downing Street in 1954) or because they are in colour, when we are used to seeing them in black-and-white (the Big Three at Yalta, or Churchill at his easel, Florida, 1946).

Likewise, the five short Appendices are of unequal value. The Atlantic Charter (Appendix B) can easily be found in books or on the Internet, but the Broadcast of 16 November 1934 (Appendix A) is not readily accessible, and neither is the summary of the Morgenthau Plan given in Appendix E.

For all these reasons, the book is not an easy one to assess from an academic point of view. There is absolutely no doubt that it provides a valuable approach to Churchill, in its own way. But one could probably recommend it only to advanced students and postgraduates, who would be able to tell when Holmes is in fact grinding his own anti-Left, Europhobic axes under cover of discussing Churchillian politics. Not a priority for impoverished University libraries, but a useful addition to already well-stocked ones which aim to have a comprehensive Churchill section.


(1) Many of them reviewed in Cercles.
See entering "Churchill" in the Word "find" facility.
(2) E.g. The little Field-Marshal: Sir John French. London: Cape, 1981, or Wellington: The Iron Duke. London: HarperCollins, 2002.
(3) E.g. Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket. London: HarperCollins, 2001; The Oxford Companion to Military History. Oxford University Press, 2001; Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front, 1914-1918. London: HarperCollins, 2004.
(4) See,6109,1457173,00.html
(5) Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. London: Macmillan, 2001 (Pan Books, 2002, p. 404).


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