- Introduction & Quick Facts
- Political career before 1939
- Leadership during World War II
- Postwar political career
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Winston Churchill, in full Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, (born November 30, 1874, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England—died January 24, 1965, London), British statesman, orator, and author who as prime minister (1940–45, 1951–55) rallied the British people during World War II and led his country from the brink of defeat to victory.
What did Winston Churchill do during World War II?
What was Winston Churchill’s family background?
Where was Winston Churchill educated?
After a sensational rise to prominence in national politics before World War I, Churchill acquired a reputation for erratic judgment in the war itself and in the decade that followed. Politically suspect in consequence, he was a lonely figure until his response to Adolf Hitler’s challenge brought him to leadership of a national coalition in 1940. With Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin he then shaped Allied strategy in World War II, and after the breakdown of the alliance he alerted the West to the expansionist threat of the Soviet Union. He led the Conservative Party back to office in 1951 and remained prime minister until 1955, when ill health forced his resignation.
In Churchill’s veins ran the blood of both of the English-speaking peoples whose unity, in peace and war, it was to be a constant purpose of his to promote. Through his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the meteoric Tory politician, he was directly descended from John Churchill, 1st duke of Marlborough, the hero of the wars against Louis XIV of France in the early 18th century. His mother, Jennie Jerome, a noted beauty, was the daughter of a New York financier and horse racing enthusiast, Leonard W. Jerome.
The young Churchill passed an unhappy and sadly neglected childhood, redeemed only by the affection of Mrs. Everest, his devoted nurse. At Harrow his conspicuously poor academic record seemingly justified his father’s decision to enter him into an army career. It was only at the third attempt that he managed to pass the entrance examination to the Royal Military College, now Academy, Sandhurst, but, once there, he applied himself seriously and passed out (graduated) 20th in a class of 130. In 1895, the year of his father’s tragic death, he entered the 4th Hussars. Initially the only prospect of action was in Cuba, where he spent a couple of months of leave reporting the Cuban war of independence from Spain for the Daily Graphic (London). In 1896 his regiment went to India, where he saw service as both soldier and journalist on the North-West Frontier (1897). Expanded as The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), his dispatches attracted such wide attention as to launch him on the career of authorship that he intermittently pursued throughout his life. In 1897–98 he wrote Savrola (1900), a Ruritanian romance, and got himself attached to Lord Kitchener’s Nile expeditionary force in the same dual role of soldier and correspondent. The River War (1899) brilliantly describes the campaign.
Political career before 1939
The five years after Sandhurst saw Churchill’s interests expand and mature. He relieved the tedium of army life in India by a program of reading designed to repair the deficiencies of Harrow and Sandhurst, and in 1899 he resigned his commission to enter politics and make a living by his pen. He first stood as a Conservative at Oldham, where he lost a by-election by a narrow margin, but found quick solace in reporting the South African War for The Morning Post (London). Within a month after his arrival in South Africa he had won fame for his part in rescuing an armoured train ambushed by Boers, though at the price of himself being taken prisoner. But this fame was redoubled when less than a month later he escaped from military prison. Returning to Britain a military hero, he laid siege again to Oldham in the election of 1900. Churchill succeeded in winning by a margin as narrow as that of his previous failure. But he was now in Parliament and, fortified by the £10,000 his writings and lecture tours had earned for him, was in a position to make his own way in politics.
A self-assurance redeemed from arrogance only by a kind of boyish charm made Churchill from the first a notable House of Commons figure, but a speech defect, which he never wholly lost, combined with a certain psychological inhibition to prevent him from immediately becoming a master of debate. He excelled in the set speech, on which he always spent enormous pains, rather than in the impromptu; Lord Balfour, the Conservative leader, said of him that he carried “heavy but not very mobile guns.” In matter as in style he modeled himself on his father, as his admirable biography, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906; revised edition 1952), makes evident, and from the first he wore his Toryism with a difference, advocating a fair, negotiated peace for the Boers and deploring military mismanagement and extravagance.
As Liberal minister
In 1904 the Conservative government found itself impaled on a dilemma by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain’s open advocacy of a tariff. Churchill, a convinced free trader, helped to found the Free Food League. He was disavowed by his constituents and became increasingly alienated from his party. In 1904 he joined the Liberals and won renown for the audacity of his attacks on Chamberlain and Balfour. The radical elements in his political makeup came to the surface under the influence of two colleagues in particular, John Morley, a political legatee of W.E. Gladstone, and David Lloyd George, the rising Welsh orator and firebrand. In the ensuing general election in 1906 he secured a notable victory in Manchester and began his ministerial career in the new Liberal government as undersecretary of state for the colonies. He soon gained credit for his able defense of the policy of conciliation and self-government in South Africa. When the ministry was reconstructed under Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith in 1908, Churchill was promoted to president of the Board of Trade, with a seat in the cabinet. Defeated at the ensuing by-election in Manchester, he won an election at Dundee. In the same year he married the beautiful Clementine Hozier; it was a marriage of unbroken affection that provided a secure and happy background for his turbulent career.
At the Board of Trade, Churchill emerged as a leader in the movement of Liberalism away from laissez-faire toward social reform. He completed the work begun by his predecessor, Lloyd George, on the bill imposing an eight-hour maximum day for miners. He himself was responsible for attacking the evils of “sweated” labour by setting up trade boards with power to fix minimum wages and for combating unemployment by instituting state-run labour exchanges.
When this Liberal program necessitated high taxation, which in turn provoked the House of Lords to the revolutionary step of rejecting the budget of 1909, Churchill was Lloyd George’s closest ally in developing the provocative strategy designed to clip the wings of the upper chamber. Churchill became president of the Budget League, and his oratorical broadsides at the House of Lords were as lively and devastating as Lloyd George’s own. Indeed Churchill, as an alleged traitor to his class, earned the lion’s share of Tory animosity. His campaigning in the two general elections of 1910 and in the House of Commons during the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, which curbed the House of Lords’ powers, won him wide popular acclaim. In the cabinet his reward was promotion to the office of home secretary. Here, despite substantial achievements in prison reform, he had to devote himself principally to coping with a sweeping wave of industrial unrest and violent strikes. Upon occasion his relish for dramatic action led him beyond the limits of his proper role as the guarantor of public order. For this he paid a heavy price in incurring the long-standing suspicion of organized labour.
In 1911 the provocative German action in sending a gunboat to Agadir, the Moroccan port to which France had claims, convinced Churchill that in any major Franco-German conflict Britain would have to be at France’s side. When transferred to the Admiralty in October 1911, he went to work with a conviction of the need to bring the navy to a pitch of instant readiness. His first task was the creation of a naval war staff. To help Britain’s lead over steadily mounting German naval power, Churchill successfully campaigned in the cabinet for the largest naval expenditure in British history. Despite his inherited Tory views on Ireland, he wholeheartedly embraced the Liberal policy of Home Rule, moving the second reading of the Irish Home Rule Bill of 1912 and campaigning for it in the teeth of Unionist opposition. Although, through his friendship with F.E. Smith (later 1st earl of Birkenhead) and Austen Chamberlain, he did much to arrange the compromise by which Ulster was to be excluded from the immediate effect of the bill, no member of the government was more bitterly abused—by Tories as a renegade and by extreme Home Rulers as a defector.