Book Review: My Early Life by Winston Churchill

Intro

Winston Churchill is one of my heroes. His book “My Early Life” is an adventure story about one of the interesting figures in the 20th century.

Background

Few pedigrees read as impressively as Winston’s: a descendant of John Churchill, “the Duke of Marlborough,” according to some historians the greatest military leader Britain has ever produced.

Winston was the son of Sir Randolph Churchill, a man of such political ability he was made England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons simultaneously at the unheard of age of only 37. His mother was Jeanette Jerome Churchill, a beautiful American heiress. Her favor was sought throughout Victorian high society.

Despite his impressive oratory ability and personal charisma Winston’s father’s ambition and pride drove him to make disastrous decisions. Those decisions led to the destruction of his career with alcohol and drugs. He died in 1892 at the age of 48.

His mother was a young woman of great beauty but questionable morals. She was a notorious adulteress. Her renowned promiscuity saw her married three times and forever scandal-ridden.

The marriage of Winston’s parents was a hushed and hurried affair. Jeanette had gotten pregnant prior to it, presumably by Lord Randolph but no one could be quite sure.  Of his mother, Winston later wrote, “I loved her, but at a distance.”

Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill ignored their two son’s – Winston the first, John the second (believed sired by someone other than Sir Randolph). They devoted their time to far more important matters of high society and career advancement.

What time they did spend with young Winston was hurried and fraught with contempt for their “little monster.” His father thought Winston was retarded, rarely talked to him, and often vented his mounting rage on the child.

They sent off Winston, a sickly redhead with a tendency to throw temper tantrums, to the new nanny’s care as they lived the 19th Century equivalent of “la vida loca”.

His mother spent her time throwing parties and seducing other men. She hired Elizabeth Everest to care for him.

“Woom”

It was in Elizabeth Everest – whom he called “Woom”, it was the closest thing he could to say to ‘woman’- became not only his nanny, but his dearest companion. He would share with her an understanding of his widening world as he grew older.

She was the stereotypical British nanny; plump, simple, cheery, ever optimistic, and always compassionate. Winston grew to love her completely. Her encouragement shaped the man he would become.

Mrs. Everest provided a steady regimen of love, understanding, faith, and Christian instruction. When the his day of destiny arrived, Winston was ready to lead the world with a trumpet call of the solid faith he had learned from his Christian nanny.

When Winston learned that Mrs. Everest was gravely ill he rushed to her bedside. He was the only member of his family to attend to her, and upon her death provided the tombstone for her grave.

Winston later wrote, “She had been my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole twenty years I had lived. I shall never know such a friend again.”

Winston the Man

Winston had a lifetime of achievements. He displayed physical courage as a Cavalry Officer on the battlefield serving in India, Afghanistan, Africa and Belgium during World War I.

He wrote vivid articles for British newspapers that were well received. The articles advanced both his literary and political career.

His oratory and bulldog determined leadership was instrumental in his country’s defeat of Nazi Germany.  Churchill received both the Nobel Prize Peace and for Literature.

Churchill was the recipient of a remarkable variety of honors and awards at a relatively young age. No matter what his accomplishments were, Winston saw himself, first and foremost as a soldier.

Summary

“TWENTY to twenty five, those are the years.” wrote Winston in his autobiography “My Early Life” in 1930, was Winston looking back on his life from the summit of middle age at fifty-five years old.

Winston recalls his childhood, his schooling and the times that shaped him into being a great leader. He is kind to his cruel parents and speaks warmly of “Woom.”

He saw combat on three continents, won four medals and an order, was mentioned in dispatches, wrote five books, gained international fame, and won a seat in Parliament, all before his twenty-sixth birthday.

His Times

Churchill began his military career in 1895. The world was a very different place. In the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was on the throne, her Diamond Jubilee to be held in 1897.

At that time the British Empire covered one-quarter of the earth’s land surface, its 380 millions of inhabitants lived on every continent and on the islands of every ocean. The sun truly never set on the Union Flag. It was a world without radio or television, without automobiles, or computers.

As a young man, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill set out to become a military hero. He exceeded everyone’s expectations, except maybe his own.

Analysis

The material is an adventure story, a story that would defy belief if it were in a novel. Yet, it did all happen to one man.

In the space of one year alone, Winston was in the cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman, he tried to save an ambushed train in the Boer War, and he made a daring escape from a prisoner of war camp in Pretoria, South Africa.

He describes it all with the detail of the war correspondent.

Winston wrote, “We had the very strong spirit of the ‘diehards’ and the ‘young bloods’ of the enemy,” he recalls of his time in the Malakand Field Force, fighting on India’s North-West Frontier in the late 1890s.

“They wanted to shoot at us and we wanted to shoot at them. … So a lot of people were killed and others were badly wounded and hopped around for the rest of their lives, and it was all very exciting and, for those who did not get killed or hurt, very jolly.”

On one punitive expedition among the mud villages of the Mamund Valley (on today’s Afghan-Pakistan border), Lieutenant Churchill found himself with five British officers and eighty-five Sikh soldiers when, in an area that had seemed totally quiet, “Suddenly the mountainside sprang to life. Swords flashed from behind rocks, bright flags waved here and there.”

In no time, “The British officer was spinning round just behind me, his face a mass of blood, his right eye cut out. Yes, it was certainly an adventure. It is a point of honour not to leave wounded men behind. Death by inches and hideous mutilation are the invariable measure meted out to all who fall in battle into the hands of the Pathan (Pashtun) tribesmen.”

Impact

Winston wrote his book was, “a picture of a vanished age.” He’s right. To fully understand Winston Churchill and his times, his book is essential reading.

Winston tells us about trooping and defending the British Empire. His amazing book is a final gun salute to a time when the Victorian British Empire was on full display in all its pageantry and glory. It was a time of hope, expectation, and adventure before the disaster and sorrow of World War I.