During this pandemic we can all point to things that we probably would not otherwise have done. For me, that included reading about Winston Churchill. I read a lot of history, but usually avoid wars and biographies of heads of state. It just so happened that books about Churchill by two of my favorite history writers arrived not too long before COVID.
Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard and The Splendid and the Vile by Eric Larson bookend Churchill’s career. Millard writes of a 25-year old Churchill in the Boer War at the turn of the century. Larson writes of a prime minister defending his country against the Nazis some 40 years later.
There are some common characteristics. Churchill is dogged, fearless, self-absorbed and restlessly ambitious. In 1900 these traits made him something of an asshole. In 1940 they made him a true hero.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard
By the time 25-year old Winston set sail for the Boer War he had already seen himself in three other wars, Cuba, India and the Sudan. Such was the nature of the turn-of-the-century British Empire. Churchill came to southern Africa, not as a soldier, but as a war correspondent for a London newspaper. Merely observing, however, was not Churchill’s nature.
Churchill thrust himself into the action to the extent that he was captured by the Boers and held as a prisoner of war in Pretoria. He escaped. Much of Millard’s story is about his harrowing trip to safety through hundreds of miles of the Transvaal (one the two Boer South African states) to safety in Portuguese East Africa (now Madagascar). Millard has very much written a thriller.
The backdrop for the Churchill story is the Boer War. You get the sense that this conflict involves the brave Boers heading out in their farmers overalls to take on the uniformly uniformed Brits strutting off to battle in their tight formations. One is tempted to root for the underdog, but for the fact that the Boers, later known as Afrikaners, were among the most racist people to walk the face of the earth. These are the ancestors of the folks who brought the world apartheid.
This is Mallard’s third book and I’ve enjoyed all three. She writes vastly accessible history. Earlier works include a book about James Garfield (Destiny of the Republic) and one about Theodore Roosevelt (River of Doubt). In both River of Doubt and Hero of the Empire, she has chosen a widely written about subject but focused on a not very well known episode in his life.
At 25, Churchill is an insufferable self promoter and narcissist. He is also courageous. Did his thrilling Boer War escape lead him to 10 Downing Street? Well, lots of other stuff happened in between but it did lead to his first election to Parliament.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
One year in history: mid-1940 to mid-1941. It’s a story that’s been told before. Sometimes called the Battle of Britain and sometimes the Brits’ finest hour. It’s Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister and his countrymen are under constant bombardment from the Nazi Air Force.
This is not about what it was like to be in London during the persistent bombing but rather about what it was like to be at 10 Downing Street or in Churchill’s country retreat Chequers at the time. While the country is known generally for its grittiness in the face of the Nazi bombers there is still an aristocratic air that surrounds the prime minister, his family and associates. One may spend the night on the veranda of a country estate watching the bombers streaking by overhead. On the other side of the channel is German Air Force chief Hermann Goring sitting atop a hill that the French had used for picnicking proudly watching his fighters fly off toward London.
The title comes from an entry in the diary of one of Churchill’s private secretaries Jack Colville. With a full moon rising over Westminster and the German bombers overhead, he notes: “never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.”
As always, Larson writes edge of your seat history. But there’s a gossipy side as well. What does Churchill’s wife think of his closest advisors? What presents did Mary Churchill get on her 18th birthday? He even devotes some space to Colville’s love for a young woman who couldn’t be less interested.
The first time I read one of Larson’s books I found myself checking the book jacket more than once to see if I was reading history or historical fiction. This isn’t his best, I prefer Devil in the White City and Dead Wake, but for those of us who enjoy his writing it’s worth the read. You can’t question its thoroughness.
What does come through again and again is the bravery of the English people. And Churchill was the right leader for the moment, a leader who is both courageous and who isn’t afraid to shed a tear for his countrymen.