Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)
Winston Churchill was voted the UK’s No 1 ‘Great Briton’ in a BBC poll – best remembered for his leadership and speeches during the Second World War, the man who once modestly claimed to ‘have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ was much more than an orator; a great politician, writer, warrior, artist and historian, Churchill drew on all these skills and experiences to unite not just the British nation, but also the politically opposed USA and USSR, in what was ultimately a victorious, but costly battle against the tyranny of Nazism.
Born Winston Spencer Churchill, in 1874 at his ancestral home of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, he was the son of the English politician Lord Randolph Churchill, and American heiress, Lady Churchill (formerly Jennie Jerome). Born eight months after his parents hurriedly wed to avoid anymore blushes, Churchill’s parents’ seat-of-the-pants courtship was a metaphor for how the young Winston would live much of his life.
Not an all round scholar, Churchill did however excel at history and English whilst at Harrow boys school, where he was also the fencing champion. Never close to his parents, Churchill decided he would leave his mark on the world following his father’s untimely death from syphilis at the age of 45.
After Harrow, Churchill moved on to Sandhurst Military College where he graduated fourth out of an intake of 150, before taking up a commission in 4th Queens Own Hussars cavalry regiment, in which he would participate in the British Army’s last real cavalry charge.
With a taste for adventure, Churchill also worked as a war correspondent for the Times of London and the Daily Telegraph, with his reports and books gaining quite a following back in the UK. During his time in the army Churchill served in India, Pakistan (then Malakand), Sudan, South Africa in the second Boer War, where he was taken prisoner but made a daring escape that entailed hiding down a gold mine, before making his way back to British lines. The escape made the young Churchill something of a hero back in Britain.
After the Boer War, Churchill moved back into politics and served in the Tory government as a trade minister, Home Secretary, and First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of WWI. However, Churchill’s brainchild the Gallipoli landings, when Commonwealth troops found themselves trapped under the cliffs of the Dardanelles, and murderous Turkish machine gun fire, in an attempt to exploit what Churchill termed the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe; it proved to be anything but. Gallipoli led to Churchill’s resignation from government and back into service as an officer on the Western Front.
After the war Churchill re-entered politics, and the Conservative Party, from which he had previously defected from to the Liberals, and moved into Chartwell in Kent, with his wife Clementine and their children. Churchill continued to live at Chartwell until his death in 1965. Churchill’s political career prior to WWII was chequered, and he received criticism for his brutal handling of workers during the 1926 General Strike, his avocation of the use of gas on tribes people in North Africa, and his vocal support of Italian fascist Mussolini.
Churchill’s bullish political style really came into its own when he became British Prime Minister following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain at the start of the Second World War. With their backs against the wall, and the Nazi domination of Europe, the British people’s morale was kept high by the stirring speeches of Churchill – from the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, and the Cabinet War Rooms - as he worked tirelessly to bring the USA and USSR together against the threat of Nazi Germany. Eventually Germany was brought to its knees, crushed between the combined force of Soviet and American military might, and although the part played by British forces was relatively small, it was Churchill’s political manoeuvring bringing the allies together, that led to Hitler’s eventual defeat.
Churchill was voted out of office by the British people in 1945, as they decided a Labour Government would bring the change so desperately needed to a war torn and bankrupt Britain. Churchill turned to finishing his history of the world, a tome of work for which he later received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1950 Churchill was voted back into Downing Street, but it was more of sympathy vote by the public, and it was clear the great man’s powers were weakening as the years advanced.
Churchill died in 1965, and was granted a state funeral by the Queen. As the nation hung its head in mourning, the service was carried out at St Paul’s Cathedral, which saw one of the greatest ever gatherings of world leaders in one place. Churchill left behind a well documented account of a life well-lived, and free and changing British people, who would have his words ringing in their ears for generations to come.