The car struck him with tremendous, crunching force. Traveling at least 35 miles per hour, the driver barely had a chance to brake. Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill absorbed the force of the blow fully, without mitigation. His friend and scientific advisor known formally to us as Lord Cherwell—“the Prof”—later calculated that Churchill had effectively fallen from a three-story building. It was a telling moment: on December 13, 1931, in New York City, Winston Churchill was hit with a blow that would kill most of his fellow mortals on the spot.
Two insights spring from this anecdote. First, if Churchill had died on that day as he should have, he would be known to us in history as a colorful, successful, but ultimately checkered English politician. He had served in most roles in the cabinet—chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, first lord of the admiralty, and had known much influence and notoriety as a result. From a long and elite line of statesmen, Churchill had by his fifty-seventh year largely fulfilled his promise.
But not quite. He had never been prime minister, the much-sought goal of his entire career. What’s more, the 1915 fiasco in the Dardanelles of World War I had marked Churchill as a man of initiative but also riskiness. Nature abhors a vacuum, and bureaucracies abhor a risktaker. In the case of the Dardanelles, the scope of the tragedy still fell—16 long years later—like a shadow across Churchill’s path. Despite all his accomplishments, had he died in New York in 1931, Churchill would have been known as a dazzling but failed politician. In this respect, oddly enough, he would have had much the same reputation as his eminent father, Randolph Churchill.
Lord Churchill also served in numerous governmental roles and also had unsurpassed oratorical firepower; he was especially effective as a voice of lucid scorn. But his star never rose to its promise. So, it seemed in 1931, for his son Winston. Churchill did indeed have a difficult decade overall. But then, on May 10, 1940, 80 years ago this very week, he became prime minister. In the midst of the worst crisis in one thousand years of Western history, he took the seals of office and began staging a master-class in statesmanship for the ages.
The substance of his leadership in the hour of civilizational desperation was this: he took the full force of a rushing enemy, absorbing it almost singlehandedly for the people he led. Here we glean the second insight from Churchill’s near-death accident: it foretold the nature of his premiership. The man’s greatest hour would be the time of England’s greatest body blow, the weathering of truly terrifying aerial blitzkrieg, vicious U-boat hunting in the Atlantic, and much more besides.
In what follows, we examine three scenes from Churchill’s life following his accident. To honor the eightieth anniversary of the inauguration of his and Britain’s finest hour (and the seventy-fifth anniversary of V-E Day, beautifully memorialized recently by the queen), we consider Churchill’s “wilderness years,” firstly; his war years, secondly; and his dying days, thirdly. In these “scenes” we do not exhaustively recount details, nor do we quote Churchill at length, as a thriving sub-industry of books do. Instead, we revisit chapters of his story in order to take the measure of the man. We thus begin to understand just how different his legacy—to say nothing of our world—would have been without the last 34 years of his epic life, and without his assumption of the premiership some 80 years ago.
Alone but Alert: The Wilderness Years of a Statesman-Prophet
The period of 1932–40 in Churchill’s life is often called his “exile” or “wilderness” decade. Through a series of controversies and missteps, Churchill lost his place at the table. What C.S. Lewis called “the inner ring” barred Churchill from power. This led to some very difficult days for Churchill. Andrew Roberts has shown persuasively in his masterly biography that Churchill did not experience the “black dog” depression some have said he did, but regardless the politician seemed to have irretrievably fallen from power. The controversy over India; the Commonwealth-demeaning fall from grace of the fatuous Duke of Windsor and the viperish Wallis Simpson; the difficulties with Stanley Baldwin and others. It all made for a low time.
But Churchill built something grand in the shadowlands. In this season, he constructed an extensive subterranean intelligence network, foreshadowing his formal oversight of all Britain’s war agencies, with the codebreakers leading the way (and his detached but intentional development of the early special forces, recounted in this superlative text by Giles Milton). It was in this period that Churchill, distanced from the need to mouth party formulations as a frustrated cabinet member, found his voice as the world’s foremost critic of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi empire.
It was in this time that Churchill’s breathtaking life—operating at intentionally ferocious speed since his 1899 escape from Boer captivity (invigoratingly retraced by fellow Kansas Citian Candice Millard)—slowed down. He had time to paint; time to craft his parliamentary speeches, and raise them in places to the level of poetry; time to invite guests to the impossibly beautiful Chartwell for delicious meals; time to think, and brood in the garden, and unknowingly gather strength for the role that awaited him, implausibly but surely, in his seventh decade of life.
This was a time for truth-telling as mentioned above. Churchill knew early on that appeasement of Hitler and martial Germany would not work. As a soldier himself, he understood soldier psychology. More broadly, he understood manhood, an aggrieved, defeated, yet blood-hungry manhood at that. He saw that there was festering evil, truly untamed and almost untamable evil, at the core of Nazidom. He knew that peace conferences and treaties and alliances could not ultimately calm a tiger. Aggression had to be met with aggression. Stanley Baldwin did not know this (or did not want to); Ramsay MacDonald did not know this (or did not want to); Neville Chamberlain, the high priest of appeasement, surely did not know it (and definitely did not want to). Churchill, however, knew it.
Churchill’s mark rose steadily in the late 1930s. In contrast to the appeasers, Churchill stood out as a voice of wisdom, courage, and perception. (Across cultures, citizens deeply and rightly distrust those who twist and take cover behind words.) He was a gentleman, we note; as Barry Singer has enjoyably captured, he wore the finest suits, wore plush slippers with “WLSC” embroidered on them, founded his own supper club, and created a butterfly garden at his country manor. (His was the original “Scrutopia,” a thinking man’s paradise.) But while a gentleman, Churchill did not hide behind his gentility. He knew how to fight; at appropriate moments, when the tones of peace and light simply would not do, he knew how to snarl.
This is what his father had; this is what the truly great statesmen possess. Anyone can read a teleprompter. Only the truly great can stand evil down by their God-given strength, a strength that comes out not in uncontrolled fury, but in controlled defiance that is utterly terrifying to the wicked, for they recognize in it the real prospect of their defeat. The lion—to use William Manchester’s arresting motif—roared in the 1930s. He roared from a cage, though barred from higher office. In May 1940, however, the cage was unlocked and the battle against Hitler was joined. In the war years, Britain was no longer led by a thoroughly overmatched bureaucrat, but by the one man on Planet Earth who had a stronger will to fight, and to win, than Adolf Hitler.
Embattled but Intransigent: The War Years of a Warrior Prime Minister
On May 10, 1940, Churchill became prime minister. He came to power in the lowest moment in modern English history. Hungry for victory, Churchill instead led his country to survival, and achieved it only with tremendous cross-societal deployment of traditional British inventiveness, pluck, and nonchalant daring.
The war years are nearly impossible to summarize or capture. But one theme of this period stands out above all others: Churchill’s intransigence. This largely vanished word is descended from the Latin transigere (the original meaning of which was “come across,” roughly). The one who is “intransigent” will not yield, in simpler language. (Churchill loved simple Anglo-Saxon words as well we should, but he also—like fellow conservative titan William F. Buckley, Jr.—loved complex speech.) Churchill would not come across, even when the enemy killed thousands by bomb where they huddled and slept. He was intransigent. (Churchill and Charles de Gaulle were very similar in this respect; de Gaulle’s epic turn as leader of the “Free French,” nobly defiant leadership spurred by his Catholic beliefs, would alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt have been the superlative political performance of the century were it not for Churchill.)
This is what Churchill’s 1931 accident, an anecdotal curiosity to many, tells us: in God’s common grace, there was otherworldly strength of will in Churchill. This ferocity of spirit fueled the warrior prime minister as he led the nation to death-defying survival in 1940, through the peak of the terrible battle for the Atlantic in 1940 onward, to a slowly cascading series of victories in Africa in 1942 and Italy in 1943, and finally to the coalitional success of D-Day in 1944 and beyond. Churchill and England lost their top billing in the Allied hierarchy as America found its footing and Russia punched back hard, but all the later Allied successes were made possible by the intransigent warrior leadership of Churchill beginning in May 1940. To use one of his favorite words, a term that recurs in his wartime speeches (as Roberts has shown), he was a paladin of paladins—the bravest of the brave.
Dying but Unyielding: The Last Days of the Last Lion
Following his shocking ejection from office in July 1945, Churchill entered his long last act. His 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, set the edge against communism, the next major terror to the globe (to learn why it was held in tiny Fulton, read this helpful book). Further, in his mid-70s, Churchill returned to Number 10 Downing Street, a remarkable achievement. By all accounts, though, he did so with less agency than before.
These days, alas, were not always happy. The costs of a life enrobed in power were not small for Churchill, even as they are not usually small for any major leader. Two of his children battled alcoholism; one predeceased her father, and Randolph—a figure of quicksilver intellect but surging personal instability—died not long after his father, his great promise unfulfilled. Churchill was no perfect man, and lived to see both familial difficulty and also the encroachment of socialism in his beloved land. Beyond this, British imperialism died hard, and with it came much criticism of some of Churchill’s views (criticism that was fair in select places and unfair in others; I recommend this judicious rendering of imperialism by Niall Ferguson for further context). It seems that Churchill found the postwar world troubling, and perhaps for this reason he was lasered in when Billy Graham visited him and shared the Gospel with him in a private meeting.
But though the postwar years were not easy, there was one final scene that showed the man’s resolve and character. This one is not often discussed, but it brings to resolution the theme begun in the introduction. In the closing days of Churchill’s life in January 1965, he fell into a coma. His wife of 57 years, Clementine, sat by his side, according to one profile of Clementine. She would not leave his side, and kept vigil over him.
Clementine was a woman of impressive fiber herself. Marriage to Winston meant tremendous upheaval, a bewildering number of moves from one domicile to another, the death of precious two-year-old Marigold in 1921 (which according to Churchill produced a “succession of wild shrieks like an animal in mortal pain” from shattered Clementine), and much more. But Clementine—from a troubled background, and almost certainly illegitimately born—loved and served her husband through it all, listening to his speeches line by Psalmic line, making up after another marital clash between “Pug” and “Cat,” hosting an impossible number of dinners with a dizzying spectrum of guests (among them the Queen Mother, Charlie Chaplin, and the composer Irving Berlin, whom Churchill hilariously thought was the philosopher Isaiah Berlin).
Though Churchill was comatose, his ferocious strength was not yet gone. He could not speak and could not wake up, but he held his wife’s hand tightly. (One thinks of how Ronald Reagan was comatose in 2004 for several days before suddenly opening his eyes, looking directly at his wife Nancy for a full minute, and then dying.) Here was Churchill’s final act of intransigence. Death called out to Winston to come across, to leave this mortal coil behind, but he simply refused.
So it had always been: Churchill nearly met his end numerous times, but managed to hold the reaper off. A man of this vintage does not go gently into the good night. As in life, so in death: he held fast to Clementine, not willingly letting her go. This closing episode from a cinematic existence is not just a demonstration of will, though. No, there was true love between Winston and Clementine. Such love is not easily won, and when it is secured, it is not easily undone. Love is a fragile thing.
Churchill’s tenacity in his comatose state was not simply stubbornness in marital form. Much more than this, it was a living illustration of his love for his wife. His marriage formed the longest and happiest relationship of his 90 years in this realm. His example reminds us what God told Adam in Eden: “hold fast” to one wife, the Lord said. Witnessing the close of a six-decade marriage, we men hear this call afresh. Until our strength is taken from us by the Almighty, we must hold fast. By God’s grace, we must grip our wife’s hand and never let it go, yielding only when eternity calls, leaving our beloved only when the king of heaven bids us come and be healed by the tree of life (Revelation 22:2).
Winston Churchill was no perfect man. But in this week, the eightieth anniversary of the beginning of his prime ministerial effort to save Britain particularly and Western civilization generally, we speak peace to his ashes and honor to his memory. This is not all, however. I surmise that in the age of the postmodern anti-hero, an age when the West is derided and the disciplines of history and statesmanship are less an inquiry into virtue than an occasion for the donning of sackcloth before our cultural superiors, Churchill actually speaks to us.
It is an imagined scene, yes. But it seems real. Transposing ourselves to his beloved gardens, it might just be that we catch a glimpse of him, up ahead in the distance. Beautiful Clementine is nearby, preparing for a tennis match. Lost in thought, Churchill paces, perhaps remembering brilliant speeches given in Parliament, perhaps musing distractedly on the good and the terrible, perhaps simply enjoying the sight of his golden roses. Then, without warning, he stops. He seems to recognize that someone is near. He turns slowly toward us, his old frame stooped, his face tired. But he gathers himself. He straightens. The light is again in his eyes; the shoulders, well beaten by time, are again strong and broad; the voice is low, rubbed with gravel, but still carries iron in it. It is as if he is at the Palace of Westminster once more, and the hour is dire, and everyone sits rapt before him, listening to him speak thunder unto tyranny as in olden times.
He looks directly at us: Be intransigent, he seems to say. In the face of tremendous evil and desperate conditions, never, never, never, never give in.
The last lion then turns back to his flowers and his reverie, and the imagined moment is over. But we who would learn the lessons of history have heard Churchill speak. No: confronting the real threat of civilizational eclipse in our own finest hour, we have heard him well and truly snarl.
Addendum: There is a vast world of Churchill appreciation and interest. To begin engaging it, consult Andrew Roberts’s definitive one-volume biography, and note carefully the “paladin” motif mentioned above; it is one of the key insights of Roberts’s study of Churchill. By all means acquire the rapturous first two volumes of The Last Lion trilogy—splurge on the boxed set—by William Manchester, first recommended to me by the estimable evangelical statesman R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Though Manchester’s record with quotations is occasionally spotty, he more than any other historian elucidates the drama and glory of Churchill’s life. The introductory sketch that opens Volume Two represents truly for-the-ages history writing. I also enjoyed the Paul Johnson biography and the Boris Johnson text (very glad the premier is healing). See also the rich book on Churchill’s statesmanship by Larry Arnn; Leo Strauss once observed that Churchill’s two volumes on Marlborough were the best historical work of the twentieth century, and Arnn carries on the project of Straussian reflection on Churchill (in purely locational terms, can we call it Midwest Straussianism?).
When we can travel again, visit Chartwell Booksellers in Manhattan; the Churchill War Rooms in London, where you can buy the iconic “Churchill bulldog” salt and pepper shakers, a key acquisition for any fine wooden desk; Chartwell itself in Kent, England, arrayed in cultivated natural splendor per the great man’s own aesthetics; and the aforementioned Churchill museum. Eminent Churchillian Dr. Jason Allen introduced me to this important Missouri place, and I have gone on to expose my children to it. Do consider joining the Churchill Society as well, a good, noble, and august company. Younger men and women can connect to the Young Churchillians, an organization chaired by George S. Repard, great-great-grandson of Sir Winston, that as a “youngish” Churchillian myself I hope to link up with in days ahead.