Books discussed in this essay:

The Churchill biography, by Randolph S. Churchill, as published to date by Hillsdale College Press:

Winston S. Churchill, Volume 1: Youth, 1874-1900

Winston S. Churchill, Volume 2: Young Statesman, 1901-1914

The document volumes, edited by Randolph S. Churchill, as published to date by Hillsdale College Press:

The Churchill Documents, Volume 1: Youth, 1874-1896

The Churchill Documents, Volume 2: Young Soldier, 1896-1901

The Churchill Documents, Volume 3: Early Years in Politics, 1901-1907

The Churchill Documents, Volume 4: Minister of the Crown, 1907-1911

The Churchill Documents, Volume 5: At the Admiralty, 1911-1914


The official biography of Winston S. Churchill is said by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the longest biography ever written. Commenced in 1962, and orginally published in England by William Heinemann, it is more than 25,000 pages—almost 10 million words—long. Hillsdale College Press has undertaken the republication of the entire biography. Eventually all eight volumes of the narrative will be back in print. In addition, the 16 existing volumes of documents (up to the year 1941) will be republished. The college and Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer, have agreed to complete the publication of the documents to the end of Churchill's life in several more volumes.

So far narrative volumes 1 and 2 and document volumes (now called The Churchill Documents) 1 through 5 have appeared. These cover the period from Churchill's birth in November 1874 until August 1914, when the First World War began. The first two narrative volumes were written by Churchill's son Randolph, who was given the job by his father, and who served as biographer from 1962 until his death in 1968. Gilbert wrote volumes 3 through 8 and is the editor of the document volumes beginning with August 1914. More must be said about the qualities of Sir Martin and his decisive contribution to the whole work, but this is better said on a later occasion, in a review of the volumes that he wrote.

For now, reflecting on the first two volumes and their five volumes of companion documents, one is already compelled to wonder, not how can one read it all—that seems impossible—but whatever can fill such a life to such a size? The answer is simple enough: it is a book of adventure—supreme and instructive adventure.

The Armored Train

Consider just one story, which happened at a pivotal moment in the years covered by Volumes 1 and 2, and tells us much about the man who is the subject of this vast tome. Once upon a time there was a train….

This was an armored train, which left the station in Estcourt in Natal, South Africa to reconnoiter northwards towards Chieveley, and met its fate early on November 15, 1899. The Boer War was raging, and Boer troops were reportedly in the area. Captain J.A.L. Haldane, who knew young Churchill from soldiering in India, was in command of the train. He invited Churchill, at that moment a war correspondent, to come along. The armored train was not the best idea, and this journey would not go well. Or from another point of view, it would go as Providence decreed.

The Boers got between this armored train and its way home, piled some rocks on the track, and opened fire from a position that would drive the train toward the rocks. The locomotive was in the middle of the train. It got up steam to run for it. Three of the cars it was pushing hit the rocks with a terrible crash, were derailed, and blocked the track. To go forward was impossible. Behind were only Boers, who opened fire from about 1000 yards with artillery and rifles. It was loud and accurate fire, and it would kill four men and wound at least 30 others.

Churchill was 15 days from his 25th birthday. He had been a commissioned officer for four years and 10 months, and he was already familiar with gunfire. He had been, with a few interruptions, a war correspondent for nearly as long as he had been a soldier. The prominence and makeup of his articles in the press had brought criticism upon him, in one case a letter from the Prince of Wales to Churchill, and in another a letter to the Army and Navy Gazette from "a General Officer." The heir to the throne and senior commanders in one's service are not minor critics. The "General Officer" said that young Churchill was "careering over the world, elbowing out men frequently much abler and more experienced" than himself. His articles, continued the general, criticize "general officers highly placed in authority," and they influence public opinion in ways that are out of proportion to Churchill's rank.

These are not unfair points. Churchill did a lot of military service in a hurry, and sometimes he would go to the scene of the action even though the commander had forbidden him to be there. He got himself into some dangerous situations by these methods. What's more, his articles were popular, written without editing or prior comment from higher military authorities, and had very much to do with the public impressions of the war. And they made him a lot of money. Little wonder that colleagues got cross.

Undaunted by the criticism, Churchill replied to the General Officer that it is unseemly for a ranking officer to "bandy words with subalterns in the columns of the public press." He concluded:

I do not wish to further excite the anger of a gallant officer nor to show disrespect to his high military rank, but it is necessary in conclusion, whether it be painful or not, to observe that to make personal attacks on individuals, however insignificant they may be, in the publicity of print, and from out of the darkness of anonymity, is conduct equally unworthy of a brave soldier and an honourable man.

"The darkness of anonymity": not a bad phrase for a young man aged 24 in a situation of such pressure. Moreover, he came near to calling the General Officer a dishonorable coward. The young Churchill, like the later one, was not easy to cow. Also he liked to argue.

Churchill had resigned his commission in March 1899 in order to write his second book, The River War, and to run unsuccessfully for Parliament. He was given a most lucrative contract to go to South Africa as war correspondent to cover the Boer War. Criticism in the past notwithstanding, he considered applying for a commission upon his departure and even drafted the application, just in case a good opportunity for soldiering should come up while he was down there writing articles. Later he decided to look for opportunities once he reached Africa. They would come soon enough.

Under Heaven: Circumstance and Genius

So there he was, a war correspondent on a trapped armored train under deadly attack in a war zone. Never mind his civilian status; Churchill volunteered in a heartbeat. "Knowing how thoroughly I could rely on him," Haldane said, he put him to work. Amidst heavy fire, with many wounded and several killed in the train, the locomotive itself damaged and threatening to explode, Churchill began to walk about in plain sight, surveying the damage. Others, shielding themselves as they could, gaped in wonder.

He formed a plan to use the engine to push the derailed cars off the track. This was delicate work. He enlisted help. To the wounded engineer of the train, about to abandon his post, he said: "buck up a bit, I will stick to you." Also, he continued, you will be decorated; later Churchill himself would move the decoration as Home Secretary. For more than an hour, he walked, looked, and labored, calm and calculating. The heat and smoke and noise were oppressive. Metal rained down. Men returned fire, bled, and died. Finally part of the train came free.

Brave men on a battlefield are often animated, dashing about with excitement. A few—George Washington, for example—have instead a special kind of deliberateness. Young Churchill proved himself a member of that serene, lethal company on more than one occasion, but especially here beside the armored train.

The engine got away with the wounded and Churchill on it. The rest of the force was left behind to be killed, wounded, or captured. Having made safety, Churchill abandoned the train and went back on foot to help those left behind. Horsemen with rifles rode him down. He reached for a pistol, but he had laid it down while freeing the engine. He surrendered.

By his own report, this made a sore trial for Churchill. He had exposed himself to artillery and rifle fire for an extended period, but now he had to give up at the prospect of a single bullet. Courage has its deficiency, but also its excess. To run away spooked is the deficiency; to throw one's life down for nothing is the excess. To choose which is right in the heat of fire, when there are not even seconds during which to choose, is a feat that requires courage but consists in prudence, the choosing virtue. The careful reader of this biography will discover that Churchill spent time with one of the great translators of the classics. Then and at other times he learned and eventually wrote very much about the classic themes of the relation between courage and prudence, between the moral and the intellectual virtues, between the circumstances that beset us and the ends that beckon us. For example, he would describe the capacity possessed by the greatest military commander:

Circumstances alone decide whether a correct conventional maneuver is right or wrong…. And it is the true comprehension at any given moment of the dynamic sum of all these constantly shifting forces that constitutes military genius…. Nothing but genius, the daemon in man, can answer the riddles of war, and genius, though it may be armed, cannot be acquired, either by reading or experience.

On the one hand, "circumstances alone" must decide. On the other hand, the riddles of war must be answered. Are they answered by the "circumstances alone"? In that case, why must a man be a genius to provide the answer? In a beautiful statement years later Churchill would say that Greece could not be abandoned to Hitler, even by a powerless and jeopardized Britain. He explained:

By solemn guarantee given before the war, Great Britain had promised them her help. They declared they would fight for their native soil even if neither of their neighbors made common cause with them, and even if we left them to their fate. But we could not do that. There are rules against that kind of thing; and to break those rules would be fatal to the honor of the British Empire, without which we could neither hope nor deserve to win this hard war.

Where, one wonders, can one find these "rules" that command you to risk your life and the life of your nation? Apparently, they can be known. Apparently, they are beyond the power of circumstances, and in some cases, at least, they too must decide "alone."

These two quotations make an interesting contrast. In one case, Churchill the historian is writing about events that happened 200 years before his lifetime. In that case, Churchill directs us to the details, to their commanding nature, to the necessity they represent. When we are studying history, or when we are evaluating the actions of others, especially in politics, these details are distant from us. We know our own circumstances very well. We act in accord with them all the time. We forget that others must do the same. For this reason we lose proportion. Great achievements diminish in our eyes; we fall into the easy and satisfying habit of thinking we could do better. We expect utopian solutions.

In the other case, Churchill is acting as a statesman in desperate circumstances. The life of the nation is threatened. Death, wounds, and servitude await the population, man, woman, and child, and they know it. London is in flames. Churchill has called upon them never to surrender. Here circumstances are in the most urgent condition. If these circumstances are to decide "alone," then what can they possibly decide? The British cannot save the Greeks; they will fall anyway. The British forces are needed desperately at home. So why send them? Because, it seems, there are ultimate things beyond any narrow calculation of advantage, plightings of soul that simply must not be violated. These things are more precious than victory; than life itself. Would these things demand that everything be sent to the Greeks, not just a force, but the whole force? Apparently not. But something must be done to satisfy honor and keep faith, lest the British concede the very principles that render them worthy of victory.

In his speculative writings, then, Churchill points in some cases to the most immediate practical necessities. In pursuing urgent tasks, Churchill points in some cases to the heavens. He does not provide a formula for explaining when to do which. But he does provide his own example of how thought informs action, and how action rises to contemplation.

A Cross of Thought and Action

One reason for the length of the official biography is found in Churchill's habit of writing. He writes as much as he acts; he writes about every action. His books number sixteen, filling thirty-three volumes. His speeches, written almost exclusively by him, take up more than 8,000 large and crowded pages in a series that only purports to be exhaustive. His articles are almost numberless, and his memos and letters stream out in eloquent profusion. His writings have a dual character. They are like the actions he takes in being themselves acts of ambition, meant to advance himself and his causes as much as any decision he makes or vote he casts, as much as any charge he launches or retreat he endures. At the same time they are explanations and reflections, commentaries on the way of politics, as politics reflects the way of life. He wrote famously, and also wisely, that "a man's Life must be nailed to a cross either of Thought or Action." He made his choice, but the record he leaves in pursuit of action is a fabric woven seamlessly of thought and action together. He invites us both in precept and example to contemplate their relation and to learn the dance of their distinctness and inseparability.

What did the people who saw the action of the armored train think? Haldane: "indomitable perseverance." Captain Wiley: "as brave a man as could be found." Colonel Long: "…thinks Mr. [Churchill] and the engine-driver will get the VC [Victoria Cross, highest military decoration for valor]." Private Walls: "he walked about in it all as coolly as if nothing was going on…. His presence and way of going on were as much good as 50 men would have been." General Joubert (Boer commander), urging the Boer government not to release Churchill from captivity: "I urge you that he must be guarded and watched as dangerous for our war; otherwise he can still do us a lot of harm."

What was Churchill thinking? The record tells us four things.

First, Churchill was thinking about danger. Courage requires a sense of danger. On several occasions he exposed himself to harm to gain the notice of others, and that was apparently part of his motive in this action of the armored train. To his mother he wrote, "Bullets…are not worth considering. Besides I am so conceited I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending." Also: "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." From the prison to his American friend Bourke Cochran, Churchill wrote, however: "I think more experience of war would make me religious. The powerlessness of the atom is terribly brought home to me, and from the highest human court of appeals we feel a great desire to apply to yet a higher authority. Philosophy cannot convince the bullet." Churchill was afraid. His fear reminded him of something outside the circumstances; something above them. He did what he did despite the fear, in mind of the thing above it.

Second, Churchill was thinking about politics. Speaking with Haldane right after they were both captured, and as they walked wearily over damp ground, Churchill thanked him for giving him the chance. He realized that Haldane would not get so much glory from the episode as would he. Churchill had been able to act "in full view of the Durban Light Infantry and the railway personnel." This would open "the door for him to enter the House of Commons." He would, he committed, thank Haldane in the newspaper. He took for granted that Haldane had wanted as much as he to get out there in the open and be shot at with people watching.

Churchill the warrior is preparing to be Churchill the statesman, and already he shows signs of understanding the difference between these realms. Much of this understanding was obtained through the observation of battle. The best of his early books, The River War, was published while he was in South Africa, nine days before he was taken prisoner. Itconcerns the invasion of the Sudan by a British force to avenge the death of General Gordon and retake Khartoum. The invasion is led by General Kitchener, a man with whom Churchill had many differences both then and later. Kitchener refused to permit Churchill to join the force, and, of course, Churchill joined anyway. The battle was the occasion of the last British cavalry charge and, of course, Churchill was in the charge.

One would think that Churchill would exult in the victories of the Sudan campaign, especially the climactic Battle of Omdurman. He fought bravely there. The British won an overwhelming victory—as overwhelming as the American victories in the first and second Gulf wars. Churchill's story of it in The River War is like most of his writing, meant to make his reputation and advance his political career. The people of Britain, at that time an imperial people, were indignant over the killing of Gordon. Whereas Churchill admired the Boers openly and highly (except for their attitude to the black people of the region), he despised the Mahdi who ruled the Sudan and his regime. Still, his description of the Battle of Omdurman is no mere exercise in glory.

On the plains of Omdurman Churchill noticed the horror of modern war, a theme that he would return to over the course of his life. In coming to understand its profound costs he saw war first as a political more than a military event, a line of thought that would be sharpened by the terrors of the First World War. Here, in describing the breaking of the Dervish charge at Omdurman, he introduces it:

The ‘White Flags' were nearly over the crest. In another minute they would become visible to the batteries. Did they realise what would come to meet them? They were in a dense mass, 2,800 yards from the 32nd Field Battery and the gunboats. The ranges were known. It was a matter of machinery. The more distant slaughter passed unnoticed, as the mind was fascinated by the approaching horror. In a few seconds swift destruction would rush on these brave men.

Notice the phrase "it was a matter of machinery." Churchill continues that "it was a terrible sight, for as yet they had not hurt us at all, and it seemed an unfair advantage to strike thus cruelly when they could not reply." Unfair, he says.

Then he describes the British:

The infantry fired steadily and stolidly, without hurry or excitement, for the enemy were far away and the officers careful. Besides, the soldiers were interested in the work and took great pains. But presently the mere physical act became tedious. The tiny figures seen over the slide of the backsight seemed a little larger, but also fewer at each successive volley. The rifles grew hot—so hot that they had to be changed for those of the reserve companies. The Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets, and several had to be refreshed from the water-bottles of the Cameron Highlanders before they could go on with their deadly work. The empty cartridge-cases, tinkling to the ground, formed a small but growing heap beside each man. And all the time out on the plain on the other side bullets were shearing through flesh, smashing and splintering bone; blood spouted from terrible wounds; valiant men were struggling on through a hell of whistling metal, exploding shells, and spurting dust—suffering, despairing, dying.

This juxtaposition between the mechanized modern army and the valiant but impotent cavalry portends a generation of writing that Churchill will do about the character of modern war, the immense destructiveness it implies, and the moral problem it presents. He did not understand this moral problem then, or in the future, in only the common way in which most of us view it: a very large number of people can die. Churchill hated that aspect of it, but that is not perhaps the worst. Worse than that is the severance of the moral virtues, particularly courage, from the achievement of victory. Now it would be "a matter of machinery." Worse also is the way modern organized societies, when impelled upon each other, could be required to devote their every resource, even the "last dying kick," to war. What then becomes of liberal society, of limited government, of the protection of private rights as the first purpose of politics? It seemed possible to Churchill that liberal society contains within itself the seed of its destruction, that the prosperity it generated would contrive and fund its own annihilation. Having this problem, liberal society is still also the best available. How can it be rescued?

Churchill came to think it the task of generalship, but more than that, of statesmanship, to avoid these evils. Under modern conditions especially the wrong kind of victory would be the same as defeat. He spent much of his life pursuing the right kind. This helps to make sense of the name that Churchill wanted to give to the Second World War: "The Unnecessary War," a name that seems to besmirch the conflict in which he won his greatest glory. The key lessons to be drawn from the war were how, by prescient combination, by strong preparedness, by recognition of the danger of aggressive tyranny, to avoid such a thing in the future. Lest we think this a perfect solution, remember that Churchill tells us that the kind of genius necessary "cannot be acquired, either by reading or experience." He goes on to say that it is "much rarer than the largest and purest diamonds."

This means that someone possessing rare ability in politics could meet, in principle, a need of supreme urgency. Which leads to the third thing on Churchill's mind as he fought his battle, suffered his capture, and planned his escape in South Africa in those fateful days: time. He was in a hurry. Upon capture, he began immediately a series of urgent appeals to the Boer government for his release. He was, he said, a war correspondent. Sweltering "in durance vile," as he put it in a letter to a friend, was not part of his plan. In these letters he artfully downplayed his part in the escape. He compared himself to the railroad employees seeking to retire to safety with all the scary guns around. One of his letters, revealing about many things, complains that he is almost 25 years old and is nearly out of time. He did not seem to think that he would live to 90, which however he did, nor that his greatest deeds would be done past age 65, which however they were.

Finally, Churchill was thinking about victory. He wanted to win. This had two aspects. One was grand and aggressive: by the time he reached his prison in Pretoria, the Boer capital, he had figured out the lay of the city and where the officers and the enlisted men were kept. Upon reaching the prison, he proposed to the British POW command that the officers overcome their guards and march to the nearby stadium. There they could liberate the British enlisted men, take the capital, seize the president, and end the war. The commanders refused despite much insisting, so Churchill confined himself to the more prosaic matter of his own personal escape. This he effected soon enough to become a hero and, as intended, a Member of Parliament. He still regretted missing the chance to win the whole war with a single blow.

A Photograph

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. One of the best photographs of Winston Churchill was taken three days after his capture. It is not published in the biography, a rare instance of a worthy thing not being included there, but the CRB has kindly broken precedent and included it here. The photograph does not mean so much without knowing the events surrounding it. Taken together with its circumstances, one can see in it something essential about Churchill.

Reprinted by kind permission of the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa. 

Notice that most of the men look bedraggled and down, as well they might, having fought a battle, watched their friends wounded and killed, suffered capture, stood and marched in the rain, traveled by train under guard, and arrived in the capital of the enemy three days after the battle to be displayed before the townspeople. Notice around them are gathered the burghers of Pretoria, to gawk at the vanquished who have committed the indignity of surrender.

Two of the party seem different. One stands with his hands on his hips, his chin out. He is defiant. He looks a fighter. Likely the guards will watch him closely.

The other, Churchill, is aloof, off to the right, erect yet relaxed. He looks at the camera, and though we cannot know if he saw it, he did know he was being observed by a throng. He looks unconcerned; not quite contemptuous. He seems at ease and untroubled. But you cannot quite mistake that he seems not only watched, but watching.

It is the contrast between the face and the posture, on the one hand, and the actions he was taking throughout this time, that makes one think. Churchill is embarked at that moment on both the planning and the execution of several contradictory courses of action. He will inspire an attack on the whole capital; he will argue that he is a non-combatant; he will write his friends of the valor of others while he meditates his own election to Parliament as a hero; he will plan his own escape; he will write for the press; he will talk with his captors, befriend them, and find out information. All this is moving in his mind and very soon in his actions, and yet he shows neither distress nor impatience in his demeanor. As on the battlefield before their shells, so in the capital before his captors, he seems—in the one photograph we have of him in that episode of his life—cool, self-contained, almost indifferent.

Half a lifetime later, a certain former German corporal, in the fatal decision of his life, turned his back on this man and attacked to the east. He might have benefited from seeing this photograph and knowing its story. He might have thought longer before he exposed his entire nation to this calm captive, this vigorous author and proud warrior. Churchill's letters and articles from South Africa revealed the seed of an eloquence that would stir a nation to stand and fight. Churchill's negotiations with the Boers portended the skill that would finally outmaneuver the appeasers in 1940. Churchill's self-restraint and self-effacement before his captors, as he plotted their undoing, were stirrings of a capacity to stoop and to woo that would entice Franklin Roosevelt. The man in this photograph was a man who could live amidst the fires of 1940 and sleep well every night, get up every morning ready to fight, and think it, even at the moment, the best time he had ever had.

Here then, with six volumes and Churchill's greatest achievements still to come, we may reach an initial conclusion. The young Churchill is a character of unusual type. He can fight with the pen and the sword alike. He can say just what he means, in light of the circumstances, even when he is in a hurry, and even under duress. He takes risks that astound the bravest among the onlookers. Then, within minutes, he surrenders before a different risk. He writes out carefully his reasons for just about every action he takes.

This is a man of action. He explains that the quality of the actions can only be measured amidst the circumstances in which they take place. In one sense, this behemoth of a biography exists to explain these circumstances. It exists to explain, for example, that photograph, or rather what it means that the man in the photograph looks just the way he does. Perhaps you will think him a charlatan, a show-off, an opportunist. Here is the material with which to prove your case. Together with his great biographer, he has helped to supply it.

Then again you may think him a hero, bold, assertive, yet humble, a genius who saved the world. Perhaps you will see him as one of the "ambassadors of Providence sent to reveal to their fellow men their unknown selves." Here then is a story of how such a life operates. It is beautiful to see. It is an adventure.