At War and Thinking of War before 1939
Edited by B.J.C. McKercher & Antoine Capet
London: Routledge, 2019
Hardcover. xiii + 206 pages. ISBN 978-0367133030. £115
Reviewed by Allen Packwood
Churchill College, Cambridge
It is a particular pleasure to review this book, as it derives from the conference, “Winston Churchill (1874-1965) in Peace and War”, which was held in Paris in September 2015, and which I was sadly unable to attend. Reading it has confirmed me in my belief that I missed a highly stimulating occasion.
The origins of the book in conference papers mean that this is not a comprehensive overview of Churchill’s experiences or thoughts on war. There is for example nothing on the Boer War or on his attempts to support the White Russians in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, but there is nevertheless plenty for serious scholars to contemplate and consider. The book is arranged broadly chronologically into eight essays exploring aspects of Churchill’s involvement in war from the imperial conflicts of his youth, through the World Crisis of the First World War, and into its aftermath, though the last two on “Winston Churchill and the golden age of journalism” and “Winston Churchill, Islam and the Middle East” range more broadly across the whole period.
The selection gets off to a galloping start with James Muller’s highly readable account of Churchill’s early experiences as a soldier and journalist. “At War on the Nile” is surely a tantalising taster of Muller’s long-awaited edition of Churchill’s book The River War, in which he uses Churchill’s own writings about himself in My Early Life alongside extensive quotations from the River War to introduce Churchill as both a participant in and historian of the campaign. In so doing, it introduces various themes that link with the later essays: Churchill’s energy and dynamism, his unwillingness to wait on events and to follow established procedure, his confidence in his own abilities, and his use of his pen to justify his actions and shape his legacy, creating a love/hate relationship with the press.
Chapters 2-5 take up some of these themes in exploring aspects of Churchill’s thoughts and actions before, during and after the First World War. John Maurer shows how Churchill walked a political tightrope as First Lord of the Admiralty in meeting the challenge of German naval expansionism, caught between unionists and elements of the press who wanted an aggressive response, and members of his own liberal cabinet who favoured conciliation and agreement. John Young looks at Churchill’s role in mobilising the British fleet and manoeuvring his colleagues towards war, while Christopher Bell analyses the role of the British press in contributing to Churchill’s downfall over the Dardanelles Crisis. Churchill’s willingness to take unilateral action and bellicosity are common to all three chapters, but what worked for him prior to the conflict, brought him down in 1915, in large part because he was now too prominent and had thereby made himself the focus of political discontent and press criticism. Young makes a compelling case for the importance of understanding emotions in cabinet decision-making [86-88] and how Churchill’s “emotional enthusiasm for war may explain why he could so readily shift from his previous interest in striking a deal with Germany on naval armaments” . Emotion certainly played a role in the breakdown of relations between Churchill and his First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher over the Dardanelles.
Will Morrisey looks at the lessons that Churchill and de Gaulle took from the First World War, arguing that they both reacted against modernity. Churchill advocated salvation in maintaining the Empire and building a relationship with the United States, de Gaulle a return to tradition, order and hierarchy. Looking back on the interwar period Churchill shaped his own legacy, using The Gathering Storm, the first volume of his war memoirs to advance the argument that he foresaw the threat of fascism and “knew ways to obviate it” . McKercher argues that “such a judgment in illusory”  and that Churchill’s critique of appeasement is fundamentally flawed. The chapter is provocative and well argued, but while the reality of the appeasement policy was inevitably more nuanced than Churchill chose to present, McKercher seems to me to underestimate Churchill’s role as a very high-profile, vocal and prolific prod.
Richard Toye’s chapter makes the point that Churchill was perfectly placed in time to benefit from changes in method of communication, with the advent of the telegram and the telephone, which in turn transformed the style of politics, facilitating “a career of great showmanship” . His relationship with the press was complicated, as he was both a lifelong contributor to the newspapers and a recipient of often hostile press interest. In that sense it is similar to his relationship with the Islamic world, which as Warren Dockter shows is often too easily reduced to his quote from The River War, “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries!” , when in fact Churchill served with and praised Moslem troops on the Indian North-West frontier, balanced his support for Zionism with support for Arab peoples in Palestine, played a key role in the creation of Iraq and Transjordan, and worked hard to cultivate relations with Turkey before the First World War and during the Second. His guiding star was probably British national interest, and he recognised that her possession of India made Britain the biggest Moslem power in the world.
Overall, these essays build up a picture of Churchill as a new breed of politician, confident in his own abilities, prepared to speak his mind, impatient to act and prepared to use his pen as a weapon. The book is likely to be of most interest to specialists or those with some prior knowledge of Churchill’s career, but I am glad that the conference papers will continue to stimulate debate. After all, in words attributed to Winston: “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”
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