Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, a prime minister of Great Britain as well as a statesman, historian, biographer, soldier, and painter, holds a secure place in the history of nations and the history of literature. As a personality, he was the nineteenth century hero in a twentieth century world, bringing to the crises of a totalitarian and atomic age the urbanity, moral sense, and stubborn courage of an earlier era.
His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was at one time Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. His mother was the American-born Jennie Jerome, daughter of a wealthy financier. Because his parents were deeply involved in the social and political life of the times, the boy would have had a lonely childhood but for the loving attention of his nurse, Mrs. Everest. He had an unhappy time at various preparatory schools but did better at Harrow and began to demonstrate his future qualities of leadership while a cadet at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
His military career began with service as a sub-lieutenant in the Fourth Hussars, a cavalry regiment. It continued, after a journalistic tour to report on the revolution in Cuba, with the Bengal Lancers in India. He based his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, on his experiences there. In the Sudan he engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with the dervishes at the battle of Omdurman. A year later he returned to Africa as a correspondent for the Morning Post. Captured by the Boers during the South African War, he was sent to prison in Pretoria. His escape became an international sensation, and it catapulted him into public life.
In 1900 he published his novel, Savrola, and in the same year was elected to Parliament as a Conservative. He took an active part in debates and made news again when he “crossed the aisle” to the Liberal party in 1904 over the issue of free trade. His marriage in September, 1908, to Clementine Hozier, the daughter of a retired army officer, was a great social event of the London season. In the meantime he had published Lord Randolph Churchill, a biography of his father.
Churchill was first lord of the Admiralty when World War I began, but he lost his cabinet post in early 1915 after the Dardanelles disaster. After serving with the army in France he returned to become minister of munitions in 1917, secretary of state for war and air from 1918 to 1921, and colonial secretary in 1921. He returned to the Conservatives in 1924 and as Chancellor of the Exchequer achieved fame when he took over the nation’s press during the great general strike of May, 1926. The first four volumes of his monumental history of the war, The World Crisis, appeared between 1923 and 1929. Because of his opposition to self rule for India and his conviction that England should rearm, he spent the next decade on the periphery of politics. In 1936 he advised King Edward VIII during the abdication crisis and composed the moving speech that Edward delivered in relinquishing the throne.
With the outbreak of World War II Churchill was appointed first lord of the Admiralty and soon afterward became prime minister, succeeding Neville Chamberlain, whom he had severely criticized in the months before the war. His stirring speeches, with their phrases like “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” and “We shall fight on the beaches,” made him a symbol of the national determination to be victorious. During the war he played a determining role in a series of international conferences with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, the “big three” of world politics.
After the war the Conservatives were defeated by the Labour Party in a general election in July, 1945, and Churchill was succeeded as prime minister by Clement Atlee. Responding to the developing Cold War, in a speech made at Fulton, Missouri, in March, 1946, he warned of the “iron curtain” that had come between the Soviet Union and its satellites and the rest of the world. Out of office, Churchill turned to the writing of his six-volume history, The Second World War. As the result of the 1951 election he was returned as prime minister. He served until his retirement in 1955. He then devoted himself to completing A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, a project abandoned when he was called to the Admiralty in 1939.
Winston Churchill was both a maker and recorder of history. If the writer was subordinated to the statesman, it was because through successive decades of crisis he stood at the center of the events about which he later wrote. Given the nature of his experience, his view of history was personal rather than academic. Master of a rhetorical style and a coiner of striking images and compelling epithets, he had an ability to dramatize personalities and events that is rare among professional historians. He was the only national leader to have written history on a scale commensurate with that presented in his histories of two world wars and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, works vast in design and yet illuminated at many points by his own knowledge and experience. In recognition of his lasting contributions to historical knowledge, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953.