Some thoughts about Churchill, who is under attack these days.

I am currently reading Andrew Roberts’ excellent biography of Churchill.

It does a better job with his early life than the other biographies I have read. I am 2/3 through it and have not yet reached Pearl Harbor so the emphasis is clear. I have reflected on a couple of items, not necessarily about Churchill but about his times.

Churchill was an observer in the Boer War but had some adventures, which included being captured and escaping from a POW camp.

For example, had Cecil Rhodes and the British gold miners not invaded the Transvaal would the Boer War have occurred and, if it had not occurred, would Germany have built its High Seas Fleet?

Now the Transvaal Republic might, like the Orange Free State, have simply remained as a small shut-in self-governing state without creating any disturbance. But the Transvaalers were the sons of the stalwarts who fifty years before had sought to escape from all British control. They looked upon South Africa as a Dutch not a British inheritance; they resented the limitations imposed on them by the British, and their experience had not taught them any respect for the British Empire. Their president, Paul Kruger, had himself gone on the great trek in his boyhood. It is not possible to doubt that President Kruger dreamed his own dreams of a United South Africa, but a South Africa under a Dutch flag, not under the Union Jack; though how far those dreams were shared by others is not equally clear. But whatever his ambitions outside the Transvaal, within the borders of the republic he intended to go his own way.

But then gold was discovered in Transvaal.

In 1885, however, the discovery was made of valuable goldfields within the territories of the republic; aliens, Uitlanders as they were called, for the most part British subjects, whatever their actual nationality might be, poured into the Transvaal to exploit the mines. The Boer government had no objection to the exploitation of the mines on its own terms, which did not include the concession of citizenship to the Uitlanders till after a very prolonged residence. All the burdens of citizenship were laid on the Uitlanders without its privileges. The Uitlanders began to feel that they had no security for justice, and to demand approximately the opportunities for acquiring citizenship in the Transvaal which were readily accorded to the Transvaaler who migrated into British territory.

Then came The Jameson Raid.

The Jameson Raid is one of the great mysteries of British imperial history. Launched in the early hours of the penultimate day of 1895, it has provided historians with juicy morsels to toy with ever since. Naturally, it caused enormous interest and controversy at the time, and, arguably was one of the main causes of the Boer War of 1899-1902. The Raid, led by Cecil Rhodes’ lieutenant and confidant, Dr Jameson, was a crude attempt to settle the Transvaal problem of the 1890’s by overthrowing Kruger’s republic, with the help of the English-speaking Uitlanders of Johannesburg and the Rand, and establishing a pro-British government of some sort in its place. The plan was a disastrous flop: Jameson’s troopers of Rhodes’ British South Africa Police Force were easily rounded up by the Boer Commandos, and the Uitlander uprising went off at half-cock; British policy in South Africa lay in ruins.

Germany was sympathetic to the Boers but the British Navy banned any attempt to help them.

Who were the Boers ?

The Dutch East India Company had been formed in the Dutch Republic in 1602, and the Dutch had entered keenly into the competition for the colonial and imperial trade of commerce in Southeast Asia. In 1648 one of their ships was stranded in Table Bay, and the shipwrecked crew had to forage for themselves on shore for several months. They were so impressed with the natural resources of the country that on their return to the Republic, they represented to the directors of the company the great advantages to the Dutch Eastern trade to be had from a properly provided and fortified station of call at the Cape. The result was that in 1652, a Dutch expedition led by surgeon Jan van Riebeek constructed a fort and laid out vegetable gardens at Table Bay.

Landing at Table Bay, Van Riebeek took control over Cape Town, the settlement developed during the previous 10 years. In 1671 the Dutch first purchased land from the native Khoikhoi beyond the limits of the fort built by Van Riebeek; this marked the development of the Colony proper. The earliest colonists were for the most part people of low station; but, as the result of the investigations of a 1685 commissioner, the government worked to recruit a greater variety of immigrants to develop a stable community. They formed a class of “vrijlieden”, also known as “vrijburgers” (free citizens), former Company employees who remained at the Cape after serving their contracts.[8] A large number of vrijburgers became independent farmers and applied for grants of land, as well as loans of seed and tools, from the Company administration.[8]

How did the British get involved ?

In 1795, Holland having fallen under the revolutionary government of France, a British force under General Sir James Henry Craig was sent to Cape Town to secure the colony for the Prince of Orange, a refugee in England?, from the French. The governor of Cape Town at first refused to obey the instructions from the prince; but, when the British proceeded to take forcible possession, he capitulated. His action was hastened by the fact that the Khoikhoi, deserting their former masters, flocked to the British standard. The burghers of Graaff Reinet did not surrender until a force had been sent against them; in 1799 and again in 1801 they rose in revolt. In February 1803, as a result of the peace of Amiens (February 1803), the colony was handed over to the Batavian Republic, which introduced many needed reforms, as had the British during their eight years’ rule. One of the first acts of General Craig had been to abolish torture in the administration of justice. Still the country remained essentially Dutch, and few British settlers were attracted to it. Its cost to the British exchequer during this period was £16,000,000. The Batavian Republic entertained very liberal views as to the administration of the country, but they had little opportunity for giving them effect.

When the War of the Third Coalition broke out in 1803, a British force was once more sent to the Cape. After an engagement (January 1806) on the shores of Table Bay, the Dutch garrison of Castle of Good Hope surrendered to the British under Sir David Baird, and in the 1814 Anglo-Dutch treaty the colony was ceded outright by Holland to the British crown. At that time the colony extended to the line of mountains guarding the vast central plateau, then called Bushmansland, and had an area of about 120,000 sq. m. and a population of some 60,000, of whom 27,000 were whites, 17,000 free Khoikhoi and the rest slaves, mostly imported blacks and Malays.

What about Germany and the Boer War ?

german volunteers

Germany was sympathetic and many volunteers from Germany joined the Boers.

The relationship between the Boers and the German nation was an unusual one. During the Boer war there was great support for the Boer struggle within Germany and the Kaiser sent a telex to the Boers voicing his support for their war efforts.

The Boers were armed with weapons made by Mauser and Krupp. Although the Boer Commandos fought in a manner foreign to European battlefields the Artillery was well trained in European methods. Major Albrecht, the officer commanding the Orange Free State artillery was a German Veteran.

A German Freikorps of Volunteers was formed who fought on the Boer side. This included German Officers and Graf Zeppelin who was killed at the battle of Elandslaagte. Another prominent European volunteer killed in action was the French colonel Villebois de Mareuil, a Foreign Legion officer serving on the Boer side.

Any attempt to provide more aid to the Boers was blocked by the Royal Navy, which threatened ships that carried contraband.

In Dec 1899 the British cabinet allowed the Royal Navy to search and impound foreign ships suspected of carrying war material to the Boers. Three German ships, the Bundesrath, Herzog and General were forced into port and searched, with negative results. These incidents certainly fanned the flames of Anglophobia in Germany, and actually allowed the German government to pass their Navy Bill of that year with minimum fuss. This bill set out plans to double the size of the German Navy, starting a European arms race that of course came to a head in 1914.

Intervention by other Great Powers in 1899 wasn’t a practical possibility though because of the Royal Navy’s overwhelming superiority.

But although foreign governments didn’t actively support the Boers, foreign anti-British volunteers most certainly did, including Germans Irish, Dutch, French, Scandinavians, Russians and Americans. Often they distinguished themselves: the Germans under Colonel Schiel at Elandslaagte, the Hollanders in Natal, the Scandinavians at Magersfontein (where a platoon was nearly wiped out when overrun by Highlanders).

The Kaiser’s frustration at this rather high handed behavior by the British was one major reason he began to build the High Seas Fleet. The rest can be read in Massie’s great history of the coming of World War I.

Another thought about Churchill and the wars:

The second of the issues about Churchill arises from my reading of Pat Buchanan’s book, “Churchill, Hitler and the unnecessary War.” I like Buchanan’s books but disagree with most of what he writes here. He blames Churchill and Edward Grey for WWI. This prompted me to get a biography of Edward Grey, who was Foreign Secretary from 1905 to 1916 and I think it is fair to say, he had much to do with the beginning of the war. I disagree about Churchill who did not hold a post in the Liberal administration until he became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. In this role he is given credit for getting the fleet ready for war. He did not have a role in the crisis of July 1914 which led to it.

In The Second World War, his role was mostly early warning about Hitler and his ambitions. He spent the 1930s warning that Britain should rearm as Germany was doing. He was ignored. His warnings were so dismissed that his columns and radio broadcasts were stopped during the height of appeasement.

There is an interesting issue that Churchill had nothing to do with. The last moment Guarantee to Poland. His statement at the time and in his book, was:

‘Here was decision at last, taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground, which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people. Here was the righteous cause deliberately and with a refinement of inverted artistry committed to mortal battle after its assets and advantages had been so improvidently squandered. Still, if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves.’

Buchanan makes fair case that, had Chamberlain not done his last minute and hopeless Polish Guarantee, Hitler might have gone on to attack Poland and then the Soviets and avoided war with France and Britain. There was no chance of avoiding war altogether once the Germans had occupied the Rhineland and been left alone. Czechoslovakia was a more difficult case. The Czechs might have been able to defeat the Germans in 1938. Perhaps Hitler would not have risked it.

By 1939 and with Poland landlocked and far away from France and Britain, there was no chance the guarantee would do anything but create a larger war. Poland, in fact, had carved off part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and had no moral case for help. It was a disastrous error but it was made by Chamberlain, not Churchill. Churchill, himself, called World War II “The Unnecessary War” but for very different reasons.

18 thoughts on “Some thoughts about Churchill, who is under attack these days.”

  1. Thanks for the book/Churchill review. I’ve not read any biography on him, but have always been very interested. I didn’t know much of what you wrote on the Boar War… and very much appreciate what you did. I might just have to get this book.

  2. Another excellent book on Churchill is by Wm Manchester, the Last Lion. I had my suspicions on Poland confirmed – that Hitler did not expect the British and French to declare war over Poland – in reading Albert Speer’s book, Inside the Third Reich. After Austria and Czechoslovakia Hitler had to reason to suspect anything else.

    According to Speer, once war was declared, Hitler was in a depression for some time.

    Interesting to play “what if” in history…

    Most interesting I got out of Manchester’s book was the half dozen or so chances Britain and France had to confront Hitler before. But they had no more stomach for war.

  3. My great-grandfather John Y.F. Blake, West Point Class of 1880, a 6th Cavalry Chief of Scouts (commando) in the last Apache wars called “my brother” by Geronimo (!), metamorphosed to Oom Paul Kruger’s chief intelligence agent undermining Cecil Rhodes in London before becoming Colonel of America’s storied Irish Brigade in the Boer War.

    For all his derring-do, Col. Blake’s extreme anglophobia was entirely misplaced. Citing Blake Baronets of Galway, his Irish mother had gotten two lines precisely backward: As surname DNA attests, the Colonel was of ultra-Norse, Danish Viking Jute extraction “in ancient Wiltshire line” of knights and Manor Lords extending to pre-Conquest branches in 8th Century Copenhagen and scenic Pays d’Auge Normandy.

    Though Churchill could hardly have realized it, Col. Blake’s Boer raiders’ guerilla focus on Rand railways were a direct reflection of Sherman’s operations in America’s late Civil War.

  4. I don’t believe for one second that there was any chance that Hitler wasn’t going to invade France at some point, to gain revenge for WWI, no matter what happened.

    I also find it impossible to make complete sense of pre-WWII histories, since they are in general dominated by post-war attempts to shift blame from one group to another.

    Also, I recall enjoying The Last Lion, but feeling that there were at least a few anecdotes that seemed completely impossible to believe–there was one story that (I may be getting some details wrong) when Chamberlain backed down, preventing war from immediately breaking out, Hitler dropped to the floor in front of the British ambassador and thrashed about like a toddler. Doesn’t seem remotely plausible.

    Finally, one’s feelings towards Churchill seem to be a very good proxy for their overall political sanity. Those who hate him are invariably nutters.

  5. Paty Buchanan hates him but makes better arguments. I disagree with him on a lot but the disagreements still makes you think.

    Churchill is getting attacked recently by Indian nationalist radicals, blaming him, for example, for the deaths in the 1943 Bengal famine.

    Here is one example.

    When British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed regret this week for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 in Amritsar (in which at least 400 unarmed Indian men, women and children were massacred by British soldiers), he omitted any reference to Britain’s role in a far greater tragedy of colonial India: the Bengal famine of 1943.

    Seventy years ago, at least 3 million people died from starvation and malnutrition during a famine in the Indian province of Bengal — a partly man-made disaster that has been largely forgotten by the world beyond northeastern India.

    A complex confluence of malign factors led to the catastrophe, which occurred with the world at war, including, as Indian parliamentary member and leading agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan cited in the Hindu newspaper, the Japanese occupation of neighboring Burma and damage to the local rice crop due to tidal waves and a fungal disease epidemic.

    Swaminathan also blamed “panic purchase and hoarding by the rich, failure of governance, particularly in relation to the equitable distribution of the available food grains, disruption of communication due to World War II and the indifference of the then UK government to the plight of the starving people of undivided Bengal.”

    But while famines were not uncommon in India throughout history, largely because of periodic droughts or monsoons, the tragedy in Bengal had the unmistakable hand of man in it, making it an even greater calamity of recent global history.

    In the prior year, 1942, when Japan seized Burma, an important rice exporter, the British bought up massive amounts of rice but hoarded it. The famine only ended because Bengal thankfully delivered a strong rice harvest by 1944.

    In the midst of a war in which Britain was on the edge of starvation from U boat attacks.

    The Churchill biography has some useful information on this and on the role of Gandhi, who was an admirer of Hitler.

  6. It’s interesting to play ‘what if?’ with history…

    This is where Alternate History SF is born, me boyo… ;-)

  7. There is a decent “The World Crisis” edition on Kindle. Since it’s Kindle, the maps and charts are scanned in at about 10dpi, but the text is un-mangled.

    Something that’s often overlooked about Churchill is that he made his living as a journalist and, especially, an author. Most of his books would qualify as best sellers. I doubt that there are any recent calumnies that don’t have very capable defenses in his own words.

    I wouldn’t waste much time looking for heroic statues of him in South Asia.

  8. I have the first two volumes of “The World Crisis” and am rereading them. The last two volumes are quite rare. I may see if I can find #3 and #4.

    There are six in all.

  9. It’s been a couple of years so my memory might be a little off. Volumes 5 and 6 might be the most important. They cover the peace conference and settlement, the mostly Anglo-American (with some important contributions from the Czechs)intervention in the Russian Revolution and the aftermath of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.

    There’s a lot of interesting material in the other two, including his time as a line officer in the Belgian trenches. The last two are where the personal memoir leaves off and some of the shape of the future starts to emerge.

    I find it quite amazing, how little happened in the first half of the Twentieth Century that he didn’t have some hand in.

  10. In re “The World Crisis” – I found several sources for purchase, but only one for electronic access, although that is not as satisfactory as the paper copies, I am sure. Also, some list six volumes and some only five. ???

    This very peculiar source shows a picture of 5 volumes, but I was reluctant to trigger their pdf download because of the very strange verbiage of the invitation, which I link for its very strangeness.
    This person seems to have a lot of book pdfs available, though, so maybe she is legit.

    I ran into some confusion in the search, as there is a book by the American novelist Winston Churchill called simply “The Crisis,” on the American Civil War.
    There appear to be 8 volumes in this one.
    Some of the searched-sources do not sufficiently distinguish the two.

  11. There are sources of soft cover versions in UK that are new.

    The frequency of the later volumes is related to the fact that they were written at five year intervals and Churchill’s audience had shrunk by the 30s when volume 6 came out at last, I think volume 6 copies are rare but the soft cover version, which is new, probably has them.

  12. Deep Lurker Says:
    March 14th, 2019 at 8:25 pm
    And interestingly enough, Churchill played the what-if/alternate-history-SF game himself: “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.”
    * * *
    What a delightful essay – thank you.

    However, I have often mused recently on the dependence that alternative history has on its readers’ knowledge of actual history, and wondered how many of our current crop of mal-informed elites, pundits, and students might mistake the faux for the real, as they currently confuse the two continually.

    Some of our Hollywood block-buster docudramas seem to me to verge on alternative history in their details, although not in their broad presentation of uncontrovertible facts.

    By analogy, one could conceive of a series of oceanic archipelagos in World A vs World B, which look the same on the visible surface, but have radically different structures underwater.

  13. I should add that AmaZon is probably not a good source,. I checked on his “Life of Marlborough” and the set was about $500 to $700.

    At ABEBooks, I found the set as separate volumes for a total of $25, two of which were one dollar each, They are former library copies.

    I bought the Biography of George Marshall the same way. One volume at a time.

  14. Mike K –

    When I moved to the UK, I discovered that it was often cheaper to still purchase English-language books from or than from, even with the more-expensive shipping. When I mentioned this in conversation, a friend turned me on to the website, ad- & link-supported, but it works even in North America for comparing all of the online bookstores that post their catalogs in a way that they can grep.

    In NA it is not often that continental Europe booksellers are cheaper after delivery, but for secondhand copies often one or another of the charity book resellers will almost always be cheaper than US Amazon.

  15. Thanks for the information. I should add that I found the page for rare books on abehbooks and found several sets of “The World Crisis” for as much as $20,000. Several with Churchill signatures or notes. Well out of my range, The two volumes I have, I paid about $175 for both and they are now worth more than twice that.

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