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Walking with Destiny


Andrew Roberts


London: Allen Lane, 2018

Hardcover. xix+1105 p. 24 p. of maps. 32 p. of plates (some colour). ISBN 978-0241205631. £35


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen





When he became Prime Minister, he was quite sure that God had created him

for that purpose

(Clementine Churchill to the 2nd Earl of Birkenhead [740])


If one were to follow the standard 1,000-word review format, this would allow less than one word per page for this massive new one-volume biography of Churchill: Mission Impossible. Rather than trying to examine each page of this superlative tome in detail, it seems more useful to discuss what distinguishes it from its glorious predecessors. Arguably, it is possible to classify Churchill biographies by size under five headings.

First, the so-called ‘Official Biography’ – so-called because it is not official, though its authors, Randolph Churchill (Churchill’s only son) and later Sir Martin Gilbert were given access to all the papers kept in the family. With its volumes of supporting documents initially called Companions (now The Churchill Documents in the new Hillsdale edition), it will eventually run to 8 volumes of biography proper (initially published between 1966 and 1988, totalling 8,880 pages) and 23 volumes of documents (21 having appeared at the time of writing, vol. 22 & 23 being planned for 2019 – with a total page count of some 30,000 for the 23 volumes). This ‘Official Biography’, whose generic title is Winston S. Churchill, is of course sui generis. At 3,000 words, William Manchester’s three volumes come far behind in terms of sheer size (The Last Lion. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983-2012).

Secondly, the over 1,000-page tomes – and Churchill : Walking with Destiny clearly belongs with that category. Thirdly, the c. 750-page middle-sized biographies, with an enormous offer, among them John Charmley’s controversial, though excellent Churchill : The End of Glory : A Political Biography (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993. x+742 p.+plates) and Henry Pelling’s Winston Churchill (London: Macmillan, 1974. v+724 p. +plates).

Fourthly, the (relatively) compact monographs, c. 300-400 pages, the best being Paul Addison’s Churchill : The Unexpected Hero (Oxford: University Press, 2005. viii+308 p.) derived from his 60,000-word entry in the New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, with Geoffrey Best’s Churchill : A Study in Greatness (London: Hambledon & London, 2001. xii+370 p.) coming a close second. Lastly, the ‘short’ biographies, whose typical example is John Keegan’s Churchill (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002. vi+181 p.)

Now, to come back to the 1,000-word range: Churchill : Walking with Destiny is in competition with two acclaimed biographies – Sir Martin Gilbert’s own offering, Churchill : A Life (London: Heinemann, 1991. xxii+1066 p.+plates+maps) and Roy Jenkins’s Churchill (London : Macmillan, 2001. xxi+1002 p.+plates).

Naturally, Roberts is fully aware of this, and in his ‘blurb’ he forestalls the inevitable question – why write another Churchill biography?:

There have been over a thousand previous biographies of Churchill. Andrew Roberts now draws on over forty new sources, including the private diaries of George VI, used in no previous major Churchill biography, to depict him more intimately and persuasively than any of his predecessors.

Without giving a formal list of these ‘forty new sources’, the Acknowledgements give the reader a fair idea of their nature outside ‘the private diaries of George VI’: mostly unpublished memoirs (in connection with Omdurman, Antwerp and Gallipoli) and memories (Marquess of Salisbury), private papers (2nd Earl of Birkenhead) and diaries (Marion Holmes, Woodrow Wyatt) as well as various records like the Chequers visitors’ books for 1940-1945 and 1951-1955, Churchill’s wartime monthly engagement cards or the ledgers of Vickers da Costa [xvi]. To take only the latter, it is indeed perfectly true that they considerably add to our knowledge of Churchill’s speculative investments before the 1929 Wall Street Crash, usefully complementing the information in Lough’s No More Champagne [339]. And to Marion Holmes’s diaries for 1945 we owe another Churchill pronouncement which deserves to enter the canon, when he told her just after VE-Day that ‘Death was the only democratic institution – it comes to everyone’ [876].

Leaving aside any undue influence of snobbery or deference, it is clear that George VI’s private thoughts are of the highest interest, and that they shed light on aspects of his relations with Churchill which were hitherto mistaken. George VI’s diary entry for 10 May 1940, from which he gives the relevant passages [511-512], enables Roberts to demolish Churchill’s famous narrative of their meeting at the Palace when the Sovereign asked him to form a Government:

This charming anecdote, in which the King makes a light joke of the profound importance of appointing a wartime premier while the Germans were attacking, has always been accepted as just that. However, it is clear from the King’s own diary account that he genuinely thought Churchill did not know why he had been sent for, and took seriously Churchill’s reply to what Churchill had thought was a joke. [511]

We are given two entries connected with the celebrated pas de deux over the Sovereign and his Prime Minister boarding naval ships on D-Day – a plan countered by their horrified entourage, as is well known, with the King finally listening to the voice of reason and trying to persuade Churchill to do the same. ‘I am very worried about the P.M.’s seemingly selfish way of looking at the matter’, George wrote on 1 June, followed two days later by ‘I was not raising any constitutional point. I asked him as a friend not to endanger his life and so put me and everyone else in a difficult position’ [827-828] when Churchill argued that the Prime Minister should keep his freedom of movement whatever the injunctions from the Sovereign – the entries on this particular incident, usually treated in a light tone by commentators, showing that the King could be irritated by Churchill’s attitude, and nuancing the conventional representation of George as an unconditional admirer of his Prime Minister from June 1940. Still, one must not exaggerate the importance of such exasperated entries, as Roberts aptly reminds us of Robert Rhodes James’s remark that Churchill ‘was the only one of the King’s four premiers to be addressed by his Christian name’ [594].

Just as Churchill insisted that a pudding should have a theme, Roberts insists in his Introduction that he has a guiding thread, namely that Churchill was in no way exaggerating when he recalled in his memoirs the thoughts that crossed his mind before he went to bed on the night of 10-11 May 1940: ‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial’ (The Gathering Storm. London: Cassell, 1948 : 527) – a phrase taken up again in the Conclusion [968]. For Roberts, ‘it was a destiny that he had consciously spent a lifetime shaping’ [3]. Thus, we are tacitly invited to consider all the chapters which precede Chapter 20, ‘Seizing the Premiership, May 1940’, as a kind of Bildungsroman, a narrative of Churchill’s ups (there were many) and downs (possibly more numerous as the years went by until 1939). Yet, the downs were equally fruitful, since consciously or not, Churchill practised the old saying, ‘you learn by your mistakes’ [967].

The book dwells extensively on Churchill’s health – his serious illnesses, his near-fatal accidents, his deteriorating faculties with age. Roberts’ aim is to show that Churchill was no superman in his physical constitution – or at least that he was submitted to probably more assaults on it than other mortals, each of course leaving its scars (one being visible in the middle of his forehead on the dustcover photograph). As for his mental health, Roberts gives short shrift to the ‘amateur diagnoses that he was bipolar’ and he methodically demolishes the ‘black dog’ legend, largely due to the unreliable Moran published diaries [224], though he does not deny that Churchill must have had understandable ‘moments that certainly approached despair’ over disasters like Singapore and Tobruk in the first half of 1942. ‘Any other response would have been strangely inhuman’, he most convincingly adds [740].

Roberts also argues that Churchill may have been a master of Realpolitik – but not for selfish Machiavellian purposes: for a higher motive as he saw it, the preservation of Britain’s glory and the British Empire:

At first sight Churchill’s…attitude towards Russia seems completely inconsistent. He started out with trying to support Russia through the Dardanelles in 1915, then proclaimed a profound enmity of the Bolsheviks, then by the late 1930s advocated an alliance with them, then in 1939-40 supported Finland in her war against them, then in 1941 he allied Britain with them overnight, then in 1946 denounced them, only in the 1950s to seek détente with them. He ratted and re-ratted on his parties in the House of Commons, but his stance towards the USSR he changed no fewer than six times. The explanation was not so much a lack of consistency, as is often alleged, but a consideration of what was in the ‘historic life-interests’ of the British Empire at each stage. [472-473].

No doubt Ivan Maisky, Soviet Ambassador to the Court of St James's, 1932-1943, would have agreed – as evidenced by the passage from his Diaries (which previous Churchill biographers were not able to use since they were not available) that Roberts does not fail to quote: ‘Churchill has told me more than once over the years, and I have no grounds not to believe him, that the British Empire is his alpha and omega’ (7 May 1941) [977].

A strong point of his extensive use of diaries and private recollections and records is in evidence in Chapter 20, whose title, ‘Seizing the Premiership, May 1940’ deliberately challenges Churchill’s own narrative in The Gathering Storm after re-examining all these testimonies:

Of the six relatively contemporaneous accounts of the interview [between Chamberlain, Halifax and Churchill in the presence of Margesson, on 9 May 1940] – that is Halifax’s contemporaneous diary entry, Halifax’s contemporaneous report to Cadogan, Chamberlain’s report to Kennedy, Halifax’s report to Cadogan reported to Lampson, Churchill’s account to Moran and Churchill’s memoirs – in all but the last two (from the late 1940s) Churchill took the premiership rather than waiting for it to be awarded to him. [506]

Needless to say, Roberts authoritatively and definitively (one hopes against hope) puts an end to the countless canards, rumours and slurs which have been circulating about Churchill since the 19th century. To mention only two relatively recent ones (one important, the other trivial), he rightly devotes three pages to a demolition of the titillating ‘Castlerosse’ fabrication as the prurient Press likes them [385-387] and four pages to a refutation of the unfounded Bengal Famine accusation [785-788]. This does not mean that all that he offers is hagiography. As he says in his Conclusion, citing The River War (1899):

‘To do justice to a great man’, Churchill himself wrote, ‘discriminating criticism is necessary. Gush, however quenching, is always insipid’. This book has not been short of criticism, which I hope has been discriminating. [965]

Indeed, his next page gives a long list of the many points (some of them little known) which expose Churchill to legitimate criticism – and Churchill would have accepted it, but with a twist, as when he wrote to Clementine from the trenches on 7 January 1916: ‘I shd have made nothing if I had not made mistakes’ [966]. But then, of course, on the great scales of history, these mistakes – some of them grievous ones, as Roberts readily admits – are far outweighed by an incontrovertible fact:

Yet when it came to all three of the mortal threats posed to Western civilisation, by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the Second World War, Churchill’s judgement stood far above that of the people who had sneered at his. On those three vital junctures, Churchill’s judgement was right. [966]

In truth, if Churchill continues to arouse so much interest among film-makers (who do not like losers and negative characters as opposed to positive heroes) and if so many biographies of him continue to be written today, including Roberts’ one, it is undoubtedly because of his vital – and correct – decision to fight on in May-June 1940, which was vindicated by events.

Roberts’s writing technique and style now seem to have reached perfection, after less convincing publications in the relatively distant past. His reasoning is crystal-clear, with absolutely no jargon and many witticisms à la Churchill: ‘Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master’, in the phrase attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Two will suffice here: ‘Whether or not illicit sex was taking place in the South Seas [between Clementine and ‘the lounge-lizard Terence Philip’], incest was certainly under way at Chartwell [between the black swans]’ [383-384] and the title of Chapter 29, ‘The Hard Underbelly, September 1943-June 1944’, contradicting Churchill’s repeated advocacy of an easy offensive against what he called Germany’s ‘soft underbelly’ in Italy. Only one slight mistake was noticed in the whole book, on a minor point: it was Montague Browne’s sister, not Duncan Sandys, who presented Churchill with another budgerigar after his beloved Toby flew away [957]. No mean feat, of course, in a heavy tome like Walking with Destiny. Likewise, the proof-reading must have been of the highest order (an uncommon phenomenon these days), since not a single typo was detected.

The text proper is complemented by useful, clearly legible maps, a double page with the Churchills’ complex family tree and a comprehensive Index (61 pages on three columns), while the 1947 colour maps of Churchill’s wartime journeys provide very attractive end papers. The up-to-date 24-page Select Bibliography, with three sections: Archives Books Articles and Theses, will be found extremely useful by anyone intending to undertake further research on specific aspects of Churchill’s extraordinarily rich life.

Unreservedly recommended to students at all levels as well as academic colleagues – all University Libraries should have a copy. Also a choice present for friends and relatives interested in Churchill.



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