Friday, June 29, 2012

The rhetoric that won the war


Review by Roger Lewis

My guess is that had Winston Churchill been more terse, a year could have been knocked off the Second World War. For what comes across in this anthology of his speeches and writings, chronologically arranged by his authorised biographer Sir Martin Gilbert, is how orotund he was, how fruity and ponderous, like an old fashioned ham actor of the Victorian period who has played King Lear too often.

When I read his famous radio broadcasts, which are as well-known as Shakespeare - ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets … We shall never surrender’ - it is impossible (a) not to hear that rich and much-imitated brandy-soaked bulldog growl and (b) to imagine any modern politician wanting to get away with being so poetical and mannered. Today people expect snappy ‘soundbites’ not lugubrious histrionics.

Perhaps Churchill was always anachronistic? Throughout his life he looked back wistfully to the golden age of the Dukes of Marlborough, even to a misty and romantic time of epics and sagas that never quite existed outside story books.

Visiting Haig and the generals on the Somme during the First World War, Churchill regretted that the heroism of military commanders had vanished.

His ancestor, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, had directed a battle ‘in the midst of the scene of carnage, with its drifting smoke clouds, scurrying fugitives, and brightly coloured lines … He sat on his horse often in the hottest fire’.

Haig sat behind a desk miles away, ‘a painstaking, punctual, public official’, poring over maps and replying to telegrams. ‘There is no need for a modern commander to wear boots and breeches.’ Churchill’s tone is regretful and nostalgic.

Churchill had served courageously in India and the Sudan, and in the Boer War. He took part in a cavalry charge at Omdurman in 1898. He was captured in South Africa in 1899 and escaped by hiding under coal sacks on a train. Though he witnessed plenty of horrors - ‘so terrible were the sights and smells that the brain failed to realise the suffering and agony they proclaimed’ - he nevertheless always saw war and warfare as glorious and glorifying, as something that paradoxically brought out the best in people.

He loved the danger and excitement, which ‘invest life with keener interests and rarer pleasures’. This schoolboyish enthusiasm, couched as it was in the prose style of the authors he’d devoured as a pupil at Harrow (Macaulay, Gibbon, Kipling - what would he have made of Hemingway or Tolkien?), affected all he wrote and said.

Even if only giving a speech about trades unionism or the recent budget, Churchill’s language and narrative thrust was colourfully bellicose and bombastic, full of apocalyptic Old Testament images of fires, floods, clashing swords, ‘the perils of the storm’ and a determination that ‘the fight will be a fight to the finish’. Whether his adversary was Herr Hitler or a political opponent in Dundee, Churchill always saw ‘fire and murder leaping out of the darkness at our throats’.

President Kennedy said of Churchill, ‘He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’. Churchill was forever choosing to get himself into the thick of it - and it wasn’t only words.

He began the First World War as First Lord of the Admiralty, but resigned from government in order to join the Royal Scots Fusiliers and see action in the trenches. He wanted to share ‘the toils and passions of millions of men. Their sweat, their tears, their blood bedewed the endless plain …’

As mentioned above, what modern politician would dare talk about blood bedewing endless plains? And how many modern politicians would willingly put their own lives at such risk? Churchill may have deployed rhetoric - but at bottom it was not empty rhetoric, even if it got him nowhere in the short term. Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, when for the ruling classes it was the era of cocktails and laughter, Churchill alone kept worrying about the Hun. As early as 1924 he noticed that ‘the enormous contingents of German youth growing to military manhood year by year are inspired by the fiercest sentiments’.

British bright young things were fox-trotting to Noel Coward. In Germany there was a new generation wishing ‘to square the black accounts of Teuton and Gaul’, and for whom Hitler was the figurehead. As Churchill pronounced in 1932, there was ‘the light of desire in their eyes to suffer for their Fatherland’.

For gathering evidence of the neglect of Britain’s defences and warning the Commons about the scale of German rearmament, ‘I was depicted a scaremonger’, Churchill lamented. ‘Masses of guns, mountains of shells, clouds of aeroplanes - all must be ready,’ he implored.

They were not. Neville Chamberlain was duly humiliated by Hitler, and in September 1939 Churchill moved into full weather forecaster mode, promising that ‘the storms of war may blow and the lands may be lashed with the fury of its gales’.

By May the following year, Churchill, at the age of 65, at last became Prime Minister. ‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.’

His style became Biblical, Wagnerian, Homeric. His radio broadcasts were clarion calls ‘to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime’. It was as if he feared the end of the world, and was half relishing it.

The culmination of the measured, thunderous cadences came in the summer of 1940, when 526 pilots were killed in action in the skies above Britain. ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’

Here we see the orator’s tricks. 526 was a heck of a lot to lose. But perhaps Britain really did only have Churchill’s rhetoric to protect it? When the Nazis were poised to invade, we had only 20,000 trained troops, 200 artillery guns and 50 tanks. Realistically, during our ‘darkest hour’ we couldn’t even have defended Eastbourne.

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