Winston Churchill has inspired shelves of books over the years and many are little more than hagiographies. "Churchill’s Shadow, The Life, and Afterlife of Winston Churchill," by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, is not one of these. Wheatcroft instead highlights Churchill’s mistakes, inconsistencies, foibles, and weaknesses.
Most of the book is a chronological rundown of Churchill’s military and political careers. After a little over a year’s training at Sandhurst, the British military academy, Churchill attained his commission as a sub-lieutenant in the British Army’s Hussars (cavalry). He served routinely in India and on one mission into Afghanistan and it was during his considerable downtime in India that he read voraciously to compensate for his self-consciously limited education. Churchill then exhibited his bravery during a cavalry charge in Sudan and also served briefly in the Boer War in South Africa in early 1900. In between, he began to hone his craft as a writer and think of a political career.
Churchill and his family were wealthy aristocrats, but not super-wealthy and his spending habits, especially his expensive tastes in, and prodigious consumption of wine and brandy left him constantly trying to stay above water financially. Undisciplined and inconsistent also as a politician, he was elected to Parliament as a Conservative in October 1900 and soon bolted to the Liberals, where he remained for over 20 years before returning to the Tories. (His adorned wife Clementine was a Lib through and through and never left them.) Churchill was not well-liked by his colleagues in either party and his early political career was not at all successful. But in all he did, Churchill’s way with words and his outsized personality cast a giant shadow. These qualities made him a bankable writer and earned him the money he needed to support his lifestyle and constant indebtedness.
As a wartime strategist and First Lord of the Admiralty in the First World War, he was responsible for the fiasco at Gallipoli, Turkey, which foreshadowed the many cockamamy schemes he proposed to Roosevelt in the Second World War. Churchill seemed obsessed with the Mediterranean in both wars as a vital link in the British lifeline to India and the Far East. But the key theater in the first war was in France and Belgium, not Turkey, and in the Second World War, the bulk of the German Army was fighting for most of the war with the Soviets in Eastern Europe, not the Mediterranean littoral.
Wheatcroft’s case is that Churchill’s political career in the early years of the century and at the end as prime minister in the early 1950s showed a singular lack of political skill or accomplishment. Similarly, his efforts as a military strategist were dubious. All of that, however, is overshadowed by Churchill’s unique ability to rally the British people in a seemingly hopeless cause during Britain and his “finest hour.” And even Wheatcroft gives Churchill his due for that.
There is no doubt that Churchill’s defiant leonine image, courage in the face of personal danger, and inspirational use of the English language were critical to Britain’s resistance in the summer of 1940. The images of Churchill surveying the smoldering ruins in London’s East End, the courage it took to travel long distances by air and sea through war zones to meet with his generals or with Stalin and Roosevelt, and the speeches that are still replayed on radio and television, these are what the world remembers of Churchill today.
Over the years since he died in 1965, Churchill has become the hero at various times and for various purposes of liberals and conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, despite his politics that veered from leftist championing of nationalized health care in the 1920s to his lifelong right-wing imperialism and unblushing racism. In the U.S., President Reagan brought his bust into the Oval Office and quoted him repeatedly, and Churchill has become the darling of the neoconservatives in this country and Britain.
Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a publisher, journalist, and occasional historian who has spent most of his career as a reporter and editor for various British periodicals and newspapers. He has written for several American outlets as well, and fittingly for this chatty work on Churchill, he also edited a gossip column for the London Evening Standard for a while.
Wheatcroft presents his prose with the ease and wit of the newspaper columnist he once was. He loves to slip in the pejorative, snarky adjective when describing a Churchill idea or profiling a Churchill confidant. The book is not a hard read, but it just wasn’t very enjoyable. The effort to take a great man down a few pegs became tiresome after several hundred pages and in Wheatcroft’s hands, reading about Churchill, of all people, becomes boring. In the end, Churchill’s Shadow is more hatchet job than a biography or history.
For a better—and fairer—picture of Churchill’s life and times, try Erik Larson’s intimate 2020 look at Churchill’s personal life during the Second World War in The Splendid and the Vile, or William Manchester’s magnificent three-volume biography The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, or the historian Andrew Roberts’ comprehensive one-volume 2018 biography, Churchill: Walking with Destiny.
Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke