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A Study in Character

by Richard Holmes

Pub Date: June 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-465-03082-3
Publisher: Basic

The greatest Briton—so a 2002 BBC poll declared Winston Churchill—comes in for scrutiny in this absorbing profile by military historian Holmes.

Of the 20th-century’s politicians, Churchill seemed ablest to swirl in the currents of controversy without drowning. He was eminently practical; he worked tremendously hard; he was unquestionably brave; and in almost everything he turned his hand to, he proved a “gifted amateur.” He also nourished contradictions, among them an odd steadiness against what was almost certainly advanced alcoholism and a fondness for wearing uniforms; “apart from that foible,” remarks Holmes of the latter, “he was the antithesis of a militarist.” Yet for all his fine qualities, Churchill was not altogether admirable; as Holmes reveals, he was something of a bully toward his widowed (but by no means cowed) mother, and throughout his life he was an opportunist through and through. Early fame came to him, for instance, when Churchill escaped from a prison camp during the Boer War, leaving two fellow inmates behind; though Holmes believes that Churchill did not intend to abandon them, “I cannot imagine him waiting too long on the far side of that wall.” Churchill, however, was plenty self-critical and self-aware. One of Holmes’s discoveries in the course of this study of character is especially revealing: haunted by the needless deaths of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers at Gallipoli, a WWI campaign he had championed, Churchill was near-paralyzed at the thought that the Normandy landings of WWII might fail. In the face of neocons who are now busily trying to claim Churchill as a forebear, Holmes reminds us that Churchill was a liberal whom opportunity, and opportunism, swept into the Conservative Party, “which only grudgingly accepted him.” He reminds us, too, that Churchill was early on an advocate of a strong united Europe—in part as a way of containing American expansionism as well as Soviet ambitions.

A nuanced portrait of leadership, and a fine complement to recent portraits of Churchill by, among others, John Keegan and John Lukacs.