Winston Churchill was one of the foremost statesmen of the 20th century. A political leader, orator, prolific author, artist and soldier, his service as Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II and his central role in the Allied victory are recognized today as key influences in the post-war and modern world.
Churchill was a gifted public speaker, and his steadfast determination became legendary during one of the darkest periods of world history. His leadership helped galvanize the British people to resist Nazi tyranny and even the potential invasion of their homeland.
Winston Churchill’s early life
The eldest of two sons, Churchill was born on Nov. 30, 1874, at his family’s estate in Blenheim, Oxfordshire, England. His parents were politician Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, an American heiress. Winston Churchill was a direct descendant of the First Duke of Marlborough, and his American grandfather was a wealthy stock trader and minority owner of the New York Times.
Churchill attended Harrow Prep School, before enrolling at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, passing the entrance examination on his third attempt.
"Like many young men he had a great thirst for fame and glory driven by the impetuousness of youth," Anthony Tucker-Jones, author of the book "Churchill Master and Commander: Winston Churchill at War 1895-1945" (Osprey, 2021) told Live Science via email. "Foremost though, Winston wanted to please his parents, especially his father Lord Randolph. Quite wrongly as it turned out, Randolph decided his son was a dunderhead with no academic aptitude – therefore, his only career choice lay with the military."
Following graduation, Churchill was commissioned as an officer Queen’s Own Hussars and traveled extensively. He was a "voracious reader," according to Tucker-Jones, and he discovered a talent for journalism as a war correspondent when he needed money.
After a 19-month posting to India, Churchill wrote about his experiences during expeditions to the Northwest Frontier. His first book, "The Story of the Malakand Field Force" (Dover Publications, 2010), was first published in 1898. By the turn of the century, he had written five books. While in the military, he was hired by the London Morning Post as a correspondent during the Second Boer War. When his train derailed, Churchill was taken prisoner but escaped, climbing through a bathroom window, stowing away aboard freight trains, hiding in a mine and eventually making his way back to England, as Celia Sandys, granddaughter of Churchill, author and founder and chairman of Churchill Leadership, wrote in her book "Churchill: Wanted Dead or Alive" (Skyhorse (2019).
Winston Churchill married Clementine Hozier on Sept.September 12, 1908., and their union endured for more than 56 years. Their relationship washas been described as affectionate and quite close despite the continuing strains of political life and periods of separation by historian William Manchester in his 1989 biography "The Last Lion" (Bantam). They had five children.
Churchill and politics
The story of Churchill’s exploits made him something of a celebrity. The notoriety was useful as he was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative in 1900 at the age of 25. A champion of social reform and improved conditions for workers, he came into conflict with Conservative views and by 1904 had "crossed the floor" to join the Liberal Party. An advocate of the eight-hour workday, public health insurance, a minimum wage, and the rights of workers, he also favored an unemployment insurance program. Elevated to Home Secretary in 1910, he instituted prison reforms while supporting home rule for Ireland.
One of the hottest issues of the era was a woman’s right to vote. On the issue of women’s suffrage Churchill was "lukewarm" in his support according to the Churchill Archive, although he did vote in favour of a bill in 1904. Despite mounting pressure from the Suffragette movement, he claimed he would not be "henpecked" into making a decision.
In 1911 Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, and with the outbreak of World War I, he led Britain’s naval involvement. However, his advocacy of the Gallipoli campaign, a dismally failed attempt to take control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits in the eastern Mediterranean compelled him to leave the Admiralty. He accepted the minor post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In the autumn of 1915, Churchill resigned from the government, subsequently serving briefly as an army officer on the Western Front.
"When I think of Churchill, the word ‘complex’ always comes to my mind," William L. Anderson professor of economics at Frostburg State University, Maryland, wrote in an email. "The 'soft underbelly' description actually involved mountainous territory that was hard to conquer. Also, the Turks were damn good fighters, something the Brits and the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) found out at Gallipoli. While the armed forces delayed too much at the Dardanelles to give Churchill’s idea a fighting chance, I suspect even in the best of circumstances the gains would have been cursory and the costs very high."
Failures and redemption
Between the world wars, Churchill held several political posts including Secretary of State for War and Air and Secretary of State for the Colonies. His perspective on Britain’s preeminent position in the world was similar to many other leaders of the nation. "Churchill, like many politicians and soldiers of his day, was an ardent imperialist," Tucker-Jones said. "He made no apology for this, and it was woven into his DNA. Rightly or wrongly, he firmly believed in the benefits of Empire."
With the end of coalition government, Churchill lost his seat in Parliament in 1922. Following an attack of appendicitis and surgery, he quipped in a 1931 article for The Strand magazine, "In the twinkling of an eye, I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix."
By 1924, Churchill had rejoined the Conservative Party, resuming his political career as Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the defeat of the Conservatives in 1929 relegated him to the minority and heralded a decade of minimal political impact. Although he remained vocal regarding issues he held dear, he was out of substantive office, often referring to this period as his "Wilderness Years." At times, he battled depression, his so-called "Black Dog."
Wartime Prime Minister
With the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, Churchill vigorously opposed the British government’s policy of appeasement and argued for rearmament according to Richard Toye, professor of history at University of Exeter in his book "Winston Churchill: Politics, Strategy and Statecraft" (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). Churchill understood the Nazi menace for what it was – a perilous threat to Western civilization. Ever the resilient politician, he rose to the office of Prime Minister in 1940 after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, just as the debacle of the Battle of France was unfolding. On May 13, he told the House of Commons in his first defiant speech after taking office, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."
During the bleak days of the Blitz, when German bombers devastated British cities and the nation stood alone, Churchill’s gift for oratory shone brilliantly. In one of his most famous speeches before the House of Commons on August 20, 1940, he paid tribute to Royal Air Force fighter pilots defending against the Nazis declaring, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
With Churchill’s leadership, the spirit of the British people proved indomitable. His, "speeches and broadcasts made an important contribution to national morale," Toye wrote. A shrewd political leader, Churchill cultivated the goodwill of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, forging what Toye describes as one of the most celebrated political relationships in modern history , and later confirmed that he knew victory was assured with U.S. entry into World War II.
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"As a war leader, the vast majority would agree that Churchill came to the top at exactly the right moment and brought a lifetime of experience and the colorful personality that Britain needed, and the world possibly, in the late spring of 1940 when the situation was dark in Europe," Nigel Steel, a curator and Head of Content at the Imperial War Museum, told Live Science. "He gets rid of the notion of coming to a settlement with the Nazis and starts laying the groundwork with President Roosevelt because he knows Britain will not be able to do this on its own."
A vehement anti-communist, Churchill was also a political pragmatist, extending the hand of military alliance to the Soviet Union when that nation was invaded by the Nazis in the spring of 1941.
Churchill’s Postwar Years
After the defeat of Germany in 1945, Churchill attended the Potsdam Conference, and the first national election in years loomed. On July 5, 1945, the Conservative Party lost in a landslide to the Labour Party, and Clement Attlee succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister. On the surface, it seemed that Churchill, the victorious wartime leader, would easily remain in office. However, several factors contributed to the major defeat. Among these were the lingering resentment of the Conservative appeasement policy prior to the outbreak of war and the party’s near-total focus on Churchill as a national hero during the 1945 campaign.
Labour, on the other hand, offered the war-weary people a focus on the future that included social reforms, national healthcare, and improved workers’ rights. "The key thing Labour had was well-thought-out policies that appealed to people desperate for a new start. The Tories had a lot of baggage from the 1930s when the economy had not been that successful, and people remembered those pre-war days," Tucker-Jones told All About History magazine in an interview.
"In a way, the war against Japan was a long way off as far as the British people were concerned," Steel said. "They had lived five years under the privations and restrictions of food and movement, and they wanted a better life. Just before the war started there had been a movement to create a better safety net for people against poverty and for health and education.
It was on the table before the war and set aside. During the war he left most of the running of the country to Attlee, who was interested in that. Although he was exactly the person to defy Hitler, the British people remembered the Churchill of the 1920s and even the 1910s and didn’t trust or know what he stood for. He was a member of the ruling elite, and those values were not what they wanted after the war."
Following his stunning ousting from office, Churchill remained politically active as leader of the Opposition. He recognized the threat of post-war Soviet expansion, warning the free world that a tremendous ideological struggle lay ahead. He spent three months in the U.S. in 1946, and during a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, coined a famous phrase that became common during the Cold War years. He told the audience, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent."
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With the general election in the autumn of 1951, the Conservative Party regained power, and the resilient Churchill once again became Prime Minister. Much of his time in office was spent in an effort to develop better international relations between East and West, with a particular concern about the threat of nuclear war according to Toye. However, in the midst of his own failing health, there were circumstances at home that required his attention.
King George VI died on February 6, 1952, and the reign of Queen Elizabeth II began. Churchill and the Queen developed a close friendship despite significant differences on certain issues. According to British Heritage, when Churchill retired from the office of Prime Minister in 1955, the Queen penned an emotional personal letter to him, writing that no prime minister would "ever for me be able to hold the place of my first prime minister, to whom both my husband and I owe so much and for whose wise guidance during the early years of my reign I shall always be so profoundly grateful."
Churchill’s death and legacy
After a series of strokes, Winston Churchill died at the age of 90, on January 24, 1965. Traditionally, the Queen is the last to arrive at a public event; however, Queen Elizabeth II broke protocol, arriving for Churchill’s state funeral before the family of the deceased in a poignant display of respect for the Churchill family.
Possessed of a rapier wit, Churchill is remembered for his many famous quotations, as well as his eloquence in public speaking and writing. While continuing his political career in the post-war world, Churchill completed two of his most famous literary works. "The Second World War" (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951), a multi-volume chronicle of the great conflict from the end of World War I to July 1945, was published between 1948 and 1953 and received widespread acclaim.
In 1937, he had began writing the four-volume "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples" (Barnes & Noble, 1983), but the work was not completed until the mid-1950s. In 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Since his days with the Admiralty during World War I, Churchill had been an artist. In the course of his lifetime, he completed more than 500 paintings. Many of them were created under the name "Charles Morin" and remain on display today at Chartwell, Churchill’s country estate in Kent, where he lived intermittently from 1922 until his death.
Despite his deserved place as one of the great leaders of the 20th century, Winston Churchill remains a controversial figure in some respects. His own steadfast belief that he was a man of destiny sometimes led to overbearing, rash and unsound decisions. His views on race and empire have recently come under scrutiny.
"Regarding Churchill, the present political and social climate makes it difficult to deal with people like him," Anderson said via email. "People who did both great things and terrible things but who also had great insights and ultimately came out on the positive side. It isn’t hard to vilify Hitler, and there are still Stalin worshipers in our midst. And it was Churchill who turned the tide after the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919 after British troops fired on a peaceful assembly, when Parliament was about to honor the officer that gave the order to fire."
"In the 21st century, Churchill is becoming increasingly challenging to place in the historical narrative of the UK," Steel said. "He occupied a vital position during a period of national survival from 1940-1945, but there are other characteristics that define him that exist outside the war years.
"How do we deal with a non-war legacy that is controversial and divides people? Depending on how old people are, there are generational differences, I think. We’re just beginning to look at Churchill’s meaning in the middle decades of the 20th century.
"He had such a long life professionally and personally, and the world changed greatly. One of the problems is that he doesn’t change his outlook and beliefs as fast as the world. Anybody born in the 21st century isn’t going to have a residual awareness of the enormity of what he did, so if there is no longer a counterbalance they will come to different conclusions from those holding onto what he achieved."
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Michael E. Haskew, who has been studying military history for more than 25 years, is the Editor of WWII History magazine and The World War II Desk Reference with the Eisenhower Center for American Studies. He is also the author of several books, including the "West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On," "Appomattox: The Last Days of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginias," and "Tank: 100 Years of the World's Most Important Armored Military Vehicle."