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Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874–1945

by Carlo D’Este, HarperCollins, New York, 2008, $39.95.

Winston Churchill was a man of war. That may shock those who best know the diplomat and the politician, the writer and the orator. But in his own mind, from the beginning of his public career as an officer of the British Empire to its end as caretaker of a shrinking Britain, Churchill sustained an identity as a soldier. D’Este combines his familiar mastery of sources and his equally well-known facility with words in this analysis of a statesman who understood that politics is part of war, and who was a creative military thinker in his own right.

As a young man Churchill combined ambition and valor. He pulled strings to serve on the North-West Frontier of British India and then in the Sudan. He rode in the 21st Lancers’ charge at Omdurman, wrote a best-seller about the Sudan conflict, was captured and escaped as a civilian correspondent in the Boer War, and authored some 15 popular books. His veteran status facilitated a transition into politics: In 1911 Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, with the expectation that he would energize a still arteriosclerotic Royal Navy.

That phase of Churchill’s career ended four years later on the beaches of Gallipoli. D’Este perceptively summarizes the fiasco: audacious in concept, promising in rewards, execrable in results. Churchill failed to consider the consequences of failure. He paid the price: a quarter-century in the political wilderness. He was excoriated as a turncoat for shifting from the Liberal to the Conservative Party and denounced as “a hopelessly obsolete, old-fashioned warrior” for warning of the threats posed by Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Only with the outbreak of World War II did his fortunes change. Brought back to the admiralty in September 1939, he became prime minister in the aftermath of disaster in Norway and France in 1940. His chief rival, E.F.L. Wood, Lord Halifax, proposed Churchill for the post—perhaps, D’Este suggests, expecting to pick up the pieces when Churchill fell short. Whatever the motive, on May 10, 1940, Winston Churchill and the British people began their greatest trial and their greatest triumph.

It is here that Warlord takes off. Competent analysis rises to brilliant insight as D’Este presents a man who refused to lose. Beginning with his defiant “we shall never surrender” speech, Churchill focused Britain’s power. As prime minister he directed the nation’s war effort; as defense minister he commanded the armed forces. No detail of the war’s conduct escaped him—to the frequent despair of his generals. Determination did not mean arrogance. Churchill had misgivings about the bombing of Germany and the timing of Overlord. He made bad decisions, especially in urging the Italian campaign. But Churchill got most of his war right and better than right, from the Dunkirk evacuation through the North African campaign to the final battles in northwest Europe. His special relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt sustained Britain as its material resources waned. Churchill’s wife, Clemmie, said V-E Day could not have happened without him. D’Este heartily concurs.


Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.