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Le Dictionnaire


Antoine Capet


Paris : Perrin 2018

Paperback. 862 pages. ISBN 978-2262065355. 29€


Reviewed by Paul Addison

University of Edinburgh




Churchill’s career as a statesman was so full of dramatic events as to resemble a history of the world in the first half of the twentieth century. Add the fact that he was also a prolific author, journalist, and orator, a human being of almost infinite variety, and the subject of a vast body of literature, and we have on our hands a severe case of information overload. The official biography, a superbly researched chronicle in eight volumes, records Churchill’s life in astonishing detail from day to day, but the narrative moves ponderously forward like a juggernaut, crushing historical analysis beneath its wheels. Many historians, of course, have explored particular facets of the great man’s life: ‘Churchill and the Dardanelles’, ‘Churchill and the Jews’ and so on. Numerous controversies rumble on in scattered and separate fashion. All in all it is a very confusing scene, but help is at hand. Professor Capet has compiled an encyclopaedia of Churchill in which narrative and chronology, together with all the key themes, topics and controversies, have been gathered into a single volume.

Rejecting a purely alphabetical scheme, the author has organised the material into sixteen thematic sections:

I       Enfance et Scolarité

II      Famille

III     Constitution Physique et Mentale

IV    Convictions, Schémas Mentaux et Préjugés

V     Goûts et Loisirs

VI    Lieux de Résidence

VII   Churchill Officier

VIII  Carrière Politique

IX    Controverses et Querelles Politiques

X     Churchill et le Monde Extérieur

XI    Churchill Homme de Lettres

XII   Titres, Distinctions Honorifiques et Décorations

XIII  Amis et Adversaires Politiques

XIV Autres Cercles

XV  Milieux Militaires

XVI Lieux de Mémoire

Each section is then broken down into numerous sub-topics. The basics are here: a list of every election he contested and the votes cast, a timeline of all the allied conferences he attended in World War Two, a guide to the many decorations and distinctions he received. Most of the book, however, consists of lucid and cogent essays on every kind of topic, and concise biographies of a huge cast of characters.  

As the content headings indicate, the book strikes an excellent balance between the great man’s private and public lives. Professor Capet has made himself an expert on such topics as Churchill’s love of animals, his clothes and his tailors, his tastes in food and drink, the villas where he liked to stay in France. Press lords, playwrights, actors and movie moguls, painters and sculptors, publishers and editors, valets and secretaries, all appear in cameo roles as cronies, courtiers and servants in the Churchill entourage. His marriage to Clementine, and the troubled lives of three of their children – Randolph, Sarah and Diana – are sensitively treated.

A Channel 4 documentary in the UK, screened in March 2018, caused a brief sensation with the claim, supported by fresh evidence in the shape of a taped interview given late in life by Churchill’s former private secretary, Sir John Colville, that Churchill had an affair in the 1930s with Doris Castlerosse. This was news to most of us but Capet, who cannot have known of the Colville tape, was already aware of the alleged affair and had written an entry on Castlerosse for the Dictionnaire. He accepts that Churchill, who painted four portraits of her, was under the spell of her beauty, but suspects that rumours of an affair were ill-founded. He is right to be sceptical. Colville, who never met Churchill before 1939, may simply have been repeating a well-worn piece of gossip.

The lion’s share of the book is rightly devoted to Churchill’s public life.  Capet summarises his activities in the various offices he held, and the campaigns he waged from the backbenches. From this core narrative readers can branch off to explore related topics. For Churchill’s term as First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-1915), see also ‘Dardanelles’. For his role as Leader of the Opposition (1945-1951), see also ‘Churchill et la construction européenne’. The other great resource for readers is Capet’s gallery of biographical portraits. Recognising that politics at the top was (and still is) about the rivalries and manoeuvres of a handful of leading personalities, he is an acute observer of the attitudes of men like Bonar Law or Neville Chamberlain to Churchill, and the reasons why he inspired so little trust. Until Churchill himself solved the problem by winning the premiership, successive Prime Ministers had to weigh up the trouble he would cause if he were out of the Cabinet against the trouble he would cause if he were in it. The Dictionnaire is excellent on his political contemporaries, but many of his top civil service advisers like Edward Troup at the Home Office or Oscar Niemeyer at the Treasury, are absent. Doubtless this is due to the fact that they were always shadowy figures in the background, but they deserve to be included.

The Dictionnaire is like a globe that spins around to display the many different facets of Churchill’s world. In a remarkable sequence of essays in section 10, Capet traces his relationships with Ireland, India, the white Dominions, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Greece and the Balkans, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and Turkey. The geographical tour is followed by biographical sketches of no fewer than 64 leading imperial and foreign statesmen, including Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt, Stalin and de Gaulle.

In international relations Churchill claimed to be a realist acting cold-bloodedly in the national interest, but his approach to foreign affairs was always entangled with personal sentiments. Capet devotes key passages to Churchill’s love affair with France, his faith in the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the United States, and his sympathy with Jews and Zionism. In all three cases Churchill’s policies were sometimes influenced by his sentiments, but there were often times when circumstances compelled him to override them. The consequent ambiguities in his position can be traced through Capet’s entries on Roosevelt, de Gaulle, Weizmann and others.

One of the virtues of the book is the freedom it gives the reader to jump from one topic to another in any direction curiosity dictates. It is but a short step from the entry on France to the subject of his first motor car, a French vehicle with a French chauffeur, his friendship with Odette Pol-Roger, and his love of the Côte d’Azur. There is indeed a strong emphasis on his relations with France, and it is tempting to conclude that they were deeper and more intimate than his relations with the United States.

Churchill’s life as a soldier, strategist and war leader receives the substantial treatment it deserves. Having written a biography of Field Marshal Montgomery, the author was well prepared to tackle the controversial question of Churchill’s dealings with his generals, and his conflicts with Alanbrooke, the head of the Army and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee from March 1942. In his war memoirs, Capet writes, Churchill perpetuated a legend of himself as ‘un grand chef de guerre omniscient et infaillible qui avait tout prévu, tout facilité, tout organisé, et enfin tout réussi, sauf quand les piètres stratèges américains ou les malfaisants manipulateurs soviétiques avaient entravé ses plans’. The Alanbrooke diaries, published in two volumes in 1956 and 1959, revealed Churchill in an altogether different light as a hot-headed amateur strategist whose repeated demands for peripheral operations had to be stoutly resisted. In fact, as Capet observes, Churchill and Alanbrooke were agreed on the fundamentals of British strategy. And however fraught their relations might be, they managed to work together in a partnership that proved essential to the conduct of the war.

In a work of 862 pages there are likely to be factual mistakes, but I could only find two. Firstly Churchill was not, as the author claims, in the front rank of those who denounced the Hoare-Laval pact of December 1935. He was away on holiday when the crisis broke and stayed out of the country in the vain hope that Baldwin would restore him to office. Secondly Churchill did not make Attlee deputy Prime Minister in May 1940 but in February 1942. No matter. A more serious problem is the frustrating omission of source references for the many fine quotations that punctuate the text.

The final section of the book is devoted to sites of memory such as Harrow School, or the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. In one respect, however, memory is conspicuous by its absence. Capet discusses the films that have been made about Churchill, but not the books that have been written about him. He examines a number of controversial episodes in Churchill’s career but makes no mention of the historians involved. When John Charmley argued that Churchill should have entered into negotiations with Hitler in 1940, a terrific furore ensued, but the Dictionnaire passes over the affair in silence. In addition to Charmley, Martin Gilbert, Robert Rhodes James, David Reynolds and Roy Jenkins would all be worth discussing as leading figures in the historiography of Churchill.

How to sum up? In the introduction to the Dictionnaire Capet explains that it contains no new facts. Nor, for that matter, does it have a new or startling thesis to propose. In a broad sense Capet is in line with the prevailing school of thought among British historians, who think of Churchill as a great war leader with feet of clay, or as Attlee put it, ‘half genius and half bloody fool’.  The Dictionnaire is, however, a magnum opus and a major landmark in Churchill studies: the first comprehensive and critical guide to every aspect of his life and times. It is a prodigious feat of intellect and hard work. It emancipates readers by handing them the keys to scores of Churchillian themes and topics. It is written with meticulous attention to detail, and a mastery of the subject reflected in a sparkling stream of insights and reflections. It is deeply serious for long stretches but great fun at intervals. C’est magnifique.


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