Churchill I, 1874-1939

Fifty years ago last January, Great Britain lost one its greatest leaders.  Winston Spencer Churchill had been Prime Minister twice, once during World War II in the reign of George VI and then under George VI again, until king’s death in 1952 ;  then  under Queen  Elizabeth II, as she started her long reign.  In fact during the first half of the 20th century there were very few years that Churchill was not a part of the government of the British Isles.

Followers of “Downton Abbey” would recognize the world that Churchill was born into in 1874.  His father was the youngest son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough.  His mother was one of a number of American society women who married British nobility (see “Downton Abbey again”)   When Churchill was born the sun never set in the British Empire, when he died, in 1965, that empire had shrunk and turned into a commonwealth of self-governing nations.

In Victorian England, children born into the aristocracy saw little of their parents.  Nannies and tutors saw their raising and education.  As they grew older, boarding schools took up the learning.  With young Winston it was Harrow, not Eton.  Churchill was not much of a scholar, not bright enough for civil service.  It took three attempts to pass the entrance  exam for the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he ended his formal education, after which he joined the 4th Hussars, a cavalry regiment.

On duty with the 4th Hussars in India 1896, Churchill managed to moonlight as a newspaper correspondent, sending back dispatches on the war on the Afghan frontier.   From there, in 1899, he joined Kitchener’s army in Africa, where it was charged with avenging the  1885 murder of Charles George Gordon at Khartoum.  That ended his military career, except or a short time in the Great War.  After that, he resigned from the army and went as a reporter to cover the Boer War in South Africa, where he was captured and put on a prison-of-war camp, but later escaped.

Then it was time for him to step into politics. It took Churchill two attempts to get himself elected to the House of Commons. In 1900, he won the election for the Oldham constituency, in the greater Manchester area, in the Conservative Party.  Unlike the United States Congress, a member of the House of Commons does not have to reside in his constituency, he only needs keep a office there.   It did not take Churchill long before he disagreed his party’s policies and began vote against the Government.  Finally, in May 1904, he crossed the House and joined the Liberal members in opposition.  Four years later, he was elected from a secure seat in the Scottish city of Dundee and he married Clementine Hozier.

As part of the Liberal Party, Churchill was appointed to different positions in the government:  the Colonial Office, the Board of Trade, and the Home Office.  Much like he did in the years leading up to World War II, Churchill spoke out in Commons for the government to spend money on  the Army and Navy to match to power of the European nations who were in an arms  race with Germany.  In 1911, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the British Navy.   He was in that position when war broke out on the continent in August 1914.   The Gallipoli fiasco  the next year brought his resignation from that post and eventually from the government.  After that he spent six months as officer in the trenches in Belgium. (See my last blog for details on Gallipoli)

After the Great War, Churchill was made Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air from January 1919 to February 1921 in the government of David Lloyd George.  However, in General Election of 1922, Churchill lost his Dundee seat. In the However, two years later he was  returned to the Commons as the Member for Epping, a seat he held until 1945  In the mid-1920’s Churchill crossed the House again and rejoined the Conservative Party.  . When Stanley Baldwin led the Conservative Party to victory in 1924, Churchill was made Chancellor of Exchequer, a post he held until 1929.  For the next ten years Winston was out of government but still in the Commons.

Though he spent a decade out of government, Churchill remained busy.  He needed to make money to make up what he lost in the way of investments due to the stock market crash in 1929.  He finished his story of the Great War, The World Crisis and an autobiography,  My Early Life.  A multi-volume biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough was finished in 1938.  When he was not writing his books, he was publishing newspaper articles and making speeches warning about looming crises in Europe brought on by Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany.   The Nazi leader’s expansion of his country’s borders was met a policy of appeasement by  the Conservative Party until the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.  Churchill was once again First Lord of the Admiralty.


David Cannadine, Editor.  Winston Churchill, Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat:  the Great Speeches

Winston Churchill.  Frontiers and Wars

John Keegan.  Winston Churchill

William Manchester.  The Last Lion:  Visions of Glory

William Manchester.  The Last Lion:  Alone

Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, 1929-39 (Video)