Winston Churchill purchased that insight with dear experience. I didn’t realize what a rollercoaster of Himalaya-highs and Death-Valley-lows his life was until I listened to The Teaching Company lecture series Churchill by J. Rufus Fears.
The great orator who “marshaled the English language and sent it into battle” (John F. Kennedy) spent his childhood with a stutter and speech impediment. Through hard work he overcame the stutter, though a lingering lisp persisted his whole life.
The great author who made a fortune from his many books – and who won the Nobel Prize for literature — was a scholastic flunky. He was dead last in his academic class, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it convinced Churchill’s father (who mercilessly criticized Churchill his whole life, telling Winston he was a total failure) to accede to Churchill’s desire to join the military, since Churchill “wasn’t smart enough to be a lawyer” anyway. In his father’s defense, Churchill almost died in 1931 when he was hit by a car in New York City. He was bedridden for weeks, and he admitted the accident was entirely his own fault, so maybe Churchill really wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer.
But deciding to join the military and being accepted by the military were two different things. Churchill failed the entrance exams to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. So he took the tests again. And failed a second time. Not deterred, Churchill went for special tutoring and finally, on his third try, just barely squeaked by.
Then came one of Churchill’s highs: at Sandhurst he did well. He graduated and was commissioned a cavalry officer. Consider that for one moment: cavalry. As in horses. That gives you some inkling of the changes Churchill witnessed in his life. He started his military career on horseback, and saw World War II ended by the power of the atomic bomb. He lived through the transition from horseback cavalry to men in space. And Churchill took an interest in those new-fangled air-machines, becoming a pilot himself.
But those days were still yet to come. Back in the days of combat from horseback, Churchill saw action from Cuba to Afghanistan to Africa, and distinguished himself for bravery under fire. Once he was in an advance unit on a scouting mission in the mountains of Afghanistan that was ambushed and overrun by a vastly larger enemy force. He barely survived, but managed to rescue wounded comrades by carrying them to safety on his back.
In another engagement, during the Boer War in South Africa, he was on a troop train that was ambushed and derailed. For four hours he worked under enemy fire to get the train back on the track, and managed to save many British soldiers. Churchill was so calm under fire that one of the soldiers on the train said that Churchill was either the bravest man he ever saw, or the craziest.
But Churchill himself was captured by the Boers and sent to a military prison.
And he escaped.
He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t speak a word of Dutch. He was alone in Africa. Wanted posters went up showing his face and noting that he could be identified by his speech impediment. But Churchill made his way across South Africa to British territory and freedom.
The story of his escape was carried in newspapers, and Churchill became a war hero. He capitalized on the fame by running for office. It wasn’t his first try at Parliament. He had already run for office once before, in 1899, and lost. But in 1900, with the fame of his escape adding luster to his name, he won. It was another high for Churchill. By this time he had published four books, all of which had sold well, he’d been on the lecture circuit, and at 26 years of age he was a self-made millionaire wunderkind and he was now a Member of Parliament.
He began advancing in government and by the time war broke out in 1914 Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, a position that put him in the War Cabinet, with heavy responsibility for running the war effort. Churchill was aghast at the destructiveness of trench warfare and advanced a plan for a campaign in the Dardanelles, hoping to knock Turkey out of the war and get at Germany through a back-door route that would end the massive bloodletting of the Western Front. But things didn’t work out that way. The Dardanelles campaign ended in disaster, with over 40,000 dead and 90,000 wounded.
Churchill’s wife said the disaster almost killed Churchill. It certainly killed his political career, or seemed to at the time. He was removed from office and an official investigation was launched against him.
Churchill’s response? To go into the trenches himself. Removed from office, Churchill went to fight on the very Western Front which he had tried to render obsolete, and he saw heavy action.
But another turn was on its way. Despite Churchill’s political enemies, who must have thought they’d made a final end of him, Britain was at war — and Churchill was needed. Due to bureaucratic ineffectiveness, the British couldn’t keep their troops at the front supplied with munitions. The Dardanelles investigation had cleared Churchill, and Prime Minister Lloyd George knew that Churchill got things done, so in the face of protest he brought Churchill back and made him Minister of Munitions. Churchill didn’t disappoint. He turned things around at the Ministry and soon armaments were flowing again.
At the end of the Great War, Churchill celebrated victory with his nation, and in the post-war years his responsibilities in the government began growing once more. He became Secretary for War and Minister of Air, and eventually Colonial Secretary.
Then in 1922 another sudden reversal: Churchill lost his re-election campaign! And he didn’t just lose, he lost huge, coming in fourth! It was part of a massive change in voter sympathies that saw Churchill’s whole party losing a huge number of seats and beginning to disintegrate. He could forget about high office, he was entirely out of Parliament. And as if that weren’t bad enough, as an extra kicker he had appendicitis. He quipped later: “Out of government, out of office, I woke to find myself without a seat, without a party, without an appendix.”
Churchill didn’t wallow in self-pity. Instead, he changed to a new district (in British politics you don’t have to be a resident of the district you represent), a new party, and ran again. To no avail. He lost a second straight election. So he switched districts yet again, and switched parties yet again – and lost yet again. His third straight loss. Still no seat in Parliament, still no appendix. From the 26 year old wunderkind who first entered parliament in 1900, Churchill had become an overweight 50-year-old three-time loser.
But Churchill kept at it and on his fourth try he finally won an election. Back in Parliament, he rose again in government, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. Only to again be thrown out as Chancellor of the Exchequer five years later, after yet another tectonic electoral shift (but this time Churchill retained his seat in Parliament). After this latest reversal Churchill endured a long period as an outsider. He still had his place in Parliament, but he was out-of-fashion, out-of-influence, and out-of-favor. These were called his “Wilderness Years.”
Churchill used the new-found free-time that came with being removed from office to tour America with his son. While aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic, Churchill wrote his wife reflecting on how wonderful it was to have the financial security that came from their investments in the American stock market. Though Churchill’s political career looked to be over, at least with their financial security he’d be able to do the things he’d always wanted without having to worry about money. It was 1929 when Churchill made that Atlantic crossing and wrote that letter. He disembarked in America just in time for the Black Thursday stock-market crash and the onset of the Great Depression — and the end of his own financial security.
It was just par for the course in the strange mix of uncanny timing and odd paradoxes that made-up Churchill’s eventful life. Like his unlikely pairing of hobbies: oil painting and brick-laying (among many others – he was a man of many interests). Along the way, he also had married, welcomed five children into the world, and suffered the tragedy of one daughter’s death from illness at two years of age.
His was a life already well-seasoned in adversity — in guts, grit and glory – by the time the great struggle was thrust upon him when, at the age of 65, he was called upon to lead his nation in World War II. Those were dark times. Times of despair and defeatism. Times when people were losing hope.
Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlin, the advocate of appeasement who had promised peace by abandoning Austria and Czechoslovakia. Once war was declared, there was a widespread lack of confidence in Chamberlin’s ability to prosecute it, and he was forced to step down. In the resulting confusion the names of several possible successors were bruited about.
Lord Halifax was one contender. He was the Foreign Secretary under Chamberlin and another proponent of appeasement. He was also the favorite of the King of England, who, like Halifax himself, believed England could not win a war against Germany and must make terms with Hitler. Their idea was that Britain should let Germany have the European continent uncontested in exchange for Hitler’s promise not to interfere with England’s overseas Empire. Hitler told Herman Goering, “‘England is finished . . . they will make a peace with me.’” (Fears).
But Halifax didn’t get the job. Instead Churchill was named Prime Minister. Still, both Neville Chamberlin and Halifax remained in the War Cabinet, and a hard push was made to try to force Churchill to negotiate a truce with Hitler. Denmark had already surrendered, after only a few perfunctory shots. Belgium had already surrendered, trapping British forces at Dunkirk. The French were in the process of surrendering, so quickly and in such large numbers that the Germans couldn’t collect all the prisoners.
In the midst of this, Halifax still urged Churchill to seek a truce with Hitler. At a meeting of the War Cabinet Halifax let it be known that he, as Foreign Secretary, had already opened lines of communication through Mussolini so that Britain could negotiate with Hitler. All that Britain had to do was give Mussolini some English naval bases in the Mediterranean, and Mussolini would use his influence with Hitler to help Britain beg for terms.
But Churchill wasn’t buying it. He told Halifax and the rest of the War Cabinet that Britain would fight until “each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” (Patrick J. Garrity, 125th Anniversary of Winston Churchill’s Birth, Ashbrook Center).
Then Churchill went out and told the British nation, and the world, in his famous speech: “We shall never surrender.”
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen . . . We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight . . . in the air, we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. 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 fight in the hills; we shall never surrender . . .
Churchill gave the British lion its roar back during England’s “finest hour,” but his own journey was far from over. After leading Britain to eventual triumph, and shortly after celebrating Victory in Europe Day along with the British people, Churchill’s party lost an election and he was out of office as Prime Minister!
Then he was in for ridicule. In 1946 he gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, warning of the dangers of Communism and the Communist threat to Eastern Europe. The expert wags of the day considered Churchill’s speech laughable. It was ridiculous and farfetched, they said, not to mention alarmist, to suggest that Russia had any interest in subjugating Eastern Europe.
Churchill also suffered health problems. He had a stroke in 1949. But he kept at it, and six years after losing office he was back as Prime Minister — at the age of 76. In 1953 he suffered another stroke and stepped down as Prime Minister, but continued in parliament until 1964. He suffered more financial set-backs and almost had to sell his home, until a group of admirers came together to bail him out. Churchill’s death was another of the strange coincidences that marked his life: he died on January 24, 1965 at the age of 90 – on the exact same day his father had died 70 years before.
This is just a brief thumbnail of the life of a man who said in a 1941 commencement speech: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
Churchill would understand well the words of Scripture that “for any among the living there is hope” (Eccl 9, 4).
Churchill’s life shows the power of truth, as opposed to calculation. His example shows that principled determination can achieve a kind of success that unprincipled cleverness never will — even, or perhaps especially, when it looks like the clever path is smooth and easy, and the way of principled determination looks rough and full of obstacles. All of the great things Churchill achieved came from principled determination in the face of adversity. Just consider what the world would be like today if Churchill had followed the easy way of surrender that Halifax tried to force him into – a way already made wide and tramped smooth by many others. France and Denmark and Belgium didn’t get the peace and security they sought by giving up and giving in. Nor did the appeasers in England, who tried to take what looked like the easy way by abandoning Austria and Czechoslovakia. In the end, taking the hard road of principle produced a victory, preserved a nation, and passed on liberty to their children, despite all the fears and seemingly impossible odds.
Churchill’s struggles were written on a grand scale across history, but the same holds true even for those of us whose deeds don’t loom large on the stage of world geopolitics. We all face situations everyday where we see what’s right, what must be done . . . and cringe. We can see the blood, sweat, toil and tears that the hard road of principle will require. It will be tough going, and we know it, and sometimes we wonder: is their an escape hatch somewhere? When it’s gut check time, Churchill’s example can be a beacon to us, reminding us that the way of principle, hard though it may be, is the only way that leads anywhere we really want to go. And though the odds may be long, where there is life there is hope — and sometimes victory for what is right. So never give in!