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July 2016: Biography Memoir > The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874–1932--William Manchester, 5 stars

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments A magnificent biography that constantly has you rooting for the tarnished idea that history is predominantly shaped by the actions of key individuals. If you are like me, books and films lead you to admire for Churchill’s leadership, resolve, and inspiration during World War 2, but you are short on details about his origins and accomplishments in the decades before his becoming Prime Minister in 1940 at the age of 67. My impression of him as a stooped, pudgy old man got revised with the reality of his physical prowess and some substantial skills as a soldier in his younger days. And though raised in the privileged class, I was surprised to learn how much he lived off his journalism and books. When he got into politics, I didn’t realize my blurry fix on him as a conservative or liberal was reasonable given his actual switching from Conservative to Tory Parties and back again. I imbibed some from other books about Churchill’s service as First Lord of the Admiralty during World War 1, but didn’t realize how he eventually served in six other cabinet positions. Another enlightenment this book helped me with is how much he suffered politically for the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli when others were more to blame for failures in its execution. The read was so action-packed and compelling with significant historical events I didn’t feel the weight of its 990 pages, and I was sad when it ended.

As the son of a Member of Parliament and Chancellor of the Exchequer (financial minister), Churchill had politics in his bloodline. Like his father Randolph before him, he became a true believer in the glory and goodness of the British Empire. Compared to his emotionally distant father, his mother Jennie, a former American socialite, was more personally involved in Winston’s life, often furthering his career through her sexual conquests among the aristocracy (including King Edward VII). His was a poor student in private school, but came to appreciate history in college (along with cricket and polo). Only with his first military service as a cavalry lieutenant in India did he take up a serious effort of studying history, educating himself in literature, and growing his ambitions for accomplishment in those spheres. Because his family lived beyond their means, he took up journalism on the side to make extra money. Having a soldier being critical in print in cases of the army’s failures or revealing the brutality of the warfare made enemies of his commanding general, Kitchener, and in high places at home.

In the Sudan, he participated in the fighting at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, which involved both the last major cavalry charges and a slaughter of musket bearing Arabs by artillery and machine guns. In the Second Boer war, he was captured by enemy forces and imprisoned. He made a successful escape and journey on foot through rough country. He proved brave under fire, but foolhardy (and lucky) given the risks he often took. He wrote: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Other cases of direct experience in war included directly managing the defense of Antwerp in 1914 with inexperienced marines and civilians for a brief when the Allied forces were desperately holding the line at the River Marne soon after the German invasion. One final case of direct action in war came when he was forced out of his Admiralty post after the Gallipoli defeat, and he took up a position as a lieutenant colonel for several months on the Western Front in Belgium, reportedly making 36 forays into No Man’s Land. Thus, Churchill personally experienced the horrors of war, and he was respected and liked by his fellow soldiers and troops under his command. The dark side is that he was one of those twisted ducks who glory in the experience of war.

He milked his early war experience and family political connections to garner a seat in the House of Commons. He soon mastered public speaking, the art of making carefully crafted speeches appear spontaneous and marshalling logic, humor, and irony in his rhetoric. His career as an MP and in various cabinet positions shows him directly involved in addressing all the major political issues of the day: supporting Home Rule for Ireland, promoting Free Trade, supporting labor unions but forcefully countering major strikes, pushing for the return to the gold standard, early grabs for oil in the Middle East, fostering innovations in warships, tanks, and aircraft, failed efforts to kill Bolshevism in the cradle, countering movements toward independence for India, and opposing women’s suffrage. His bedrock of support came from his wonderful relationship with his wife Clementine, whom he married late at 34. He called her Kat and Kitten, and she affectionately called him Piggy. Manchester guesses he was a virgin when he married. Regardless, it is clear that sexual conquest was not part of Winston’s make-up as it was for so many in the upper classes.

He has been quoted as advocating at various times defiance in defeat and magnanimity in victory. Consistent with this, he felt that the Treaty of Versaille was too punitive in its restraints on Germany and outrageous in its burden of war reparations. But he was out of political power after the war. His stance against movement toward Indian independence put him on the wrong side of Tory Party leadership. He entered a decade of isolation from political power that only changed when his lonely clarion call about the dangers of disarmament in the face of Hitler’s rise to power in 1930s began to be heard (the period of the second volume in the trilogy).

I share this one quote about Churchill in his 20s that bears out the good and bad about his Victorian sensibility, as well as revealing both the quality of Manchester’s writing and the development of Churchill’s voice as a writer:

The fruits of his formal schooling had been negligible. He had entered the army as an ignorant youth. Now, less than four years later, his command of the English distinguished him from every other correspondent in the field … He had arrived in Bangalore without knowing who Sophocles was or what ethics were. … He could capture, as few writers can, moments of utter horror. …As magnanimous to the enemy as he was rebellious toward his commander, he paid tribute to the slain Arabs:
“When a soldier of a civilized power is killed in action his limbs are composed and his body is borne by friendly arms reverently to the grave. …But there was nothing ‘dulce et decorum’ about the Dervish dead. Nothing of the dignity of unconquerable manhood. All was filthy corruption. Yet these were as brave men as ever walked the earth. …There they lie, those valiant warriors of a false faith and of a fallen dominion, their only history preserved by their conquerors, their only monuments their bones—and these the drifting sand of the desert will bury in a few short years. Three days before I had seen them rise eager, confident, resolved. The roar of their shouting had swelled like the surf on a rocky shore. The flashing of their blades and points had displayed their numbers, their vitality, their ferocity. They were confident in their strength, in the justice of their cause, in the support of their religion. Now only the heaps of corruption in the plain and fugitives dispersed and scattered in the wilderness remained. The terrible machinery of scientific war had done its work. The Dervish host was scattered and destroyed. Their end, however, only anticipates that of the victors, for Time, which laughs at Science, as Science laughs at Valour, will in due course contemptuously brush both combatants away.”

I am looking forward to the two other volumes of this biography (the third of which, 1940 onward, was completed posthumously by Paul Reed eight years after Manchester's death in 2004). Although he was a professor at my college, I only have previously read his wonderful memoir in the navy in World War 2, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War. His The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-72 is next in my ambition.

message 2: by Denizen (new)

Denizen (den13) | 1138 comments Michael wrote: "A magnificent biography that constantly has you rooting for the tarnished idea that history is predominantly shaped by the actions of key individuals. If you are like me, books and films lead you t..."

Excellent review, Michael.

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Thanks, Den. For a long time I preferred historical fiction to non-fiction, but I find character development and drama in narrative history can be just as compelling.

message 4: by Book Concierge (new)

Book Concierge (tessabookconcierge) | 6291 comments I have had this book on my shelf since it first came out. I really need to read it. Thanks for the nudge!

message 5: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Book Concierge wrote: "I have had this book on my shelf since it first came out. I really need to read it. Thanks for the nudge!"

That's staying power not to give up on a book for 32 years, all that time being visually encountered numerous times and reminding you, beseeching you, to be read under your original intention. The read is not as daunting as it seems, given that 100 pages are notes and biblio. To help the first chapter is a wonderful overview of his life in all its sweep, myth, and contradictions.

message 6: by Regina Lindsey (new)

Regina Lindsey | 1005 comments He is such a fascinating, complex, and flawed individual with a personality that's kind of fun to read about. Glad you enjoyed this one.

message 7: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Thanks, Regina. Imagine you will get mileage out of this month's tag.

message 8: by Becky Lynn (new)

Becky Lynn Michael wrote: "Thanks, Den. For a long time I preferred historical fiction to non-fiction, but I find character development and drama in narrative history can be just as compelling."

I second this. Great review!

message 9: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Thanks, Becky. Am 2/3 through volume 2 now. Another great time machine and doorstopper.

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