One summer, a few years ago, I decided to read all six volumes of Churchill’s take on WWII. Why, is what most people want to know. I’m not sure. I like to set myself epic tasks. I think I had just read War and Peace and was feeling smug. Anyway, I spent many, many hours in the garden with one of these thick, red-linen bound, first run books at my side. And I got through them all, from The Gathering Storm to Triumph and Tragedy. I knew then that as far as history goes, I had to take in quite a bit of these 1948 – 1953 tomes with the salt shaker on hand. Case in point:
Winston Churchill began his career as a journalist in the South African War where he was a special correspondent to The Morning Post. I use the term journalist loosely. Churchill was never prone to letting the facts get in the way of a good story. In his autobiography My Early Life, he claims to have been a witness to one of the most famous handshakes of the era, between Sir George White and Lt.-Col Hubert Gough after he rode in with troops to relieve Ladysmith in 1900.
“[We] galloped across the scrub-dotted plain, fired at only by a couple of Boer guns. Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome. On we pressed, and at the end of a battered street of tin-roofed houses met Sir George White on horse-back, faultlessly attired. Then we rode all together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out Ladysmith.” In fact, Churchill was miles away, and didn’t arrive in Ladysmith until the evening. (A delightful Churchillian tid-bit I learned from reading Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War.)
And like everyone, I’m still moved by Churchill’s speeches – particularly his famous address to parliament, thanking the RAF during the Battle of Britain, delivered at a time when England was bracing for possible invasion without American support. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
He did so much in his long life, certainly not all of it good. This was the man who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was responsible for the decimation of Anzac troops at Gallipoli in 1915, a disaster than nearly cost him his political career. He was widely considered to be an eccentric old fart for calling on re-armament in the post WWI years. Always a prolific writer, then painter, who probably suffered from depression ( he referred to it as The Black Dog), he was such a wonderful contradiction. I think that’s what I find most compelling about him.
The ashtray, incidentally, was given to me by my Aunt Rene, who proudly served in WWII in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and who knows, first-hand, a hell of a lot more about Churchill than I do. I treasure the ashtray, and smile to think that at one time, people crushed out their butts into his Keep Buggering On smile.