Finest Hour 149, Winter 2010-11
Action This Day - Winter 1885-86, 1910-11, 1935-36, 1960-61
By Michael McMenamin
125 Years Ago
Winter 1885-86 • Age 11
“Making a wonderful fight”
In Belfast on 26 February, Lord Randolph appeared obliquely to urge Ulster to resist Home Rule by force. While he didn't utter those precise words in his speech, he made clear in a letter several weeks later that "Ulster will not be a consenting party. Ulster at the proper moment will resort to the supreme arbitrament of force. Ulster will fight, Ulster will be right!" [Italics added].
In March, Winston contracted pneumonia. His son wrote that he "was at this time closer to death than at any time during his daring and adventurous life." On the 14th his temperature was 104.3, and still over 103 the next day. Dr. Roose wrote to Lord Randolph: "Your boy, in my opinion, on his perilous path is holding his own well, right well! There can now be no cause for anxiety for some hours (12 at least) so please have a good night, as we are armed at all points."
By the morning of March 16th, Winston's temperature had dropped and Roose wrote: "....the left lung [is] still uninvolved, the pulse shows still good power and the delirium I hope may soon cease and natural sleep occur....your boy is making a wonderful fight and I so feel please God he will recover." Winston's fever broke that night Roose reported that he had enjoyed "6 hours quiet sleep. Delirium has now ceased. Temp: 99, P[ulse] 92 respiration 28. He sends you and her ladyship his love."
100 Years Ago
Winter 1910-11 • Age 36
"What was the Rt. Hon. Gentleman doing?"
The burglary of a London jewelry shop in early 1911 was led by a Russian Anarchist "Peter the Painter" and two accomplices. When six police arrived to arrest them, they shot and killed three. The killers then made their way to 100 Sidney Street in London's East End, where they were cornered by the police now armed with revolvers. The thieves, however, had Mauser rifles and opened fire, killing another policeman. More firepower was called in: twenty Scots Guards from the Tower of London. Thus began the famous "Siege of Sidney Street."
Churchill, the Home Secretary, was at home when the siege began but quickly went to the siege, which he subsequently described to Asquith: "...a striking scene in a London street— firing from every window, bullets chipping the brickwork, police and Scots Guards armed with loaded weapons artillery brought up etc."
While Churchill did not personally take charge of the operations, as his political opponents later claimed, he was no passive observer. As he wrote to the coroner: "I made it my business however, after seeing what was going on in front to go round the back of the premises and satisfy myself that there was no chance of the criminals effecting their escape through the intricate area of walls and small houses at the back...."
The house caught fire while Churchill was out back and the police told the fire brigade not to battle the blaze. Two of the gang died inside but Churchill's doubt of any escapes may have been incorrect because "Peter the Painter's" body was never found.
Churchill supported the police decision not to fight the fire, and confirmed this to a fire brigade officer: "From what I saw it would have meant loss of life and limb to any fire brigade officer who had gone within effective range of the building....I had not in any way interfered with the arrangements made by the police. I was only there to support them in any unusual difficulty as a covering authority."
Notwithstanding Churchill's explanations, newsreel coverage captured his lively presence at the scene, prompting the Conservative leader Arthur Balfour to remark in the Commons: "[Mr. Churchill] and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing, but what was the Rt. Hon. Gentleman doing?"
75 Years Ago
Winter 1935-36 • Age 61
"More stags than Tories"
This winter proved as bad for Churchill's political career as it was for the peace of Europe.
Churchill was in Barcelona when a political storm broke over the Hoare-Laval Pact between Britain, France and Italy, conceived by the anti-Nazi Sir Robert Vansittart, whereby Abyssinia was to surrender 20 percent of its territory to the invading Italians. It was initially supported by Prime Minister Baldwin and the Cabinet, but public opinion forced them to back down. As a result, Samuel Hoare resigned as foreign secretary and was replaced by Anthony Eden on 23 December.
Churchill took no position publicly on the Hoare-Laval Pact but his postwar memoirs suggest some sympathy for Vansittart's rationale, i.e., that Germany was a greater danger, and that having Italy as a friend was in both countries' strategic interest. Churchill was unimpressed with Eden's appointment, having preferred Austen Chamberlain. As he wrote to his wife on 8 January: "I think you will now see what a light-weight Eden is."
While Clementine returned home from Barcelona for Christmas at Chartwell, Churchill went to Tangier and from there to Marrakesh, where he spent four days with Lloyd George. Writing to his wife on the aftermath of the Hoare-Laval affair, he was pessimistic: "We are getting into the most terrible position, involved definitely by honour & by contract in almost any quarrel that can break out in Europe, our defences neglected, our Government less capable a machine for conducting affairs than I have ever seen. The Baldwin-MacDonald regime has hit this country very hard indeed, and may well be the end of its glories."
That same day brought more bad news: His son Randolph accepted the local Conservative Party's request to stand as a candidate in a Scottish by-election in Ross and Cromarty against Ramsay MacDonald's son Malcolm, a cabinet minister in the National Government. Churchill had mistakenly thought that his son would decline out of deference to his father's hopes for a cabinet post. As he had earlier written his wife, "it would put a spoke in my wheel & do nothing good for him.." He was disappointed over his son's decision, because his enemies in the Conservative Party automatically assumed that WSC was responsible. His slim prospects for a cabinet position were diminished accordingly.
In the event, Randolph had no hope of winning. As Brendan Bracken wired to Churchill in late January: "Randolph's prospects very doubtful. Socialist win probable. More stags than Tories in Cromarty."
In mid-January, Churchill predicted to his wife that Hitler's next move would be to occupy the demilitarized Rhineland, in violation of the Versailles Treaty. On 15 January, Japan withdrew from the London Naval Disarmament Conference, refusing to accept any limits on its Navy. WSC wrote to his wife on January 17th: "The Naval Conference has of course collapsed. Japan has ruptured it.... Meanwhile Japan is seeking more provinces of China. Already more than half of their whole budget is spent upon armaments. Those figures I quoted about German expenditure on armaments are being admitted in the press to be only too true. One must consider these two predatory military dictatorship nations, Germany and Japan, as working in accord."
In early March, the British Government issued a Defence White Paper which Churchill praised. On March 7th, Hitler fulfilled Churchill's January prediction and sent troops into the Rhineland. The British refused to support France's request to mobilize against the German actions and to bring Hitler's violations of the Versailles Treaty to the League of Nations. And, when German foreign minister Ribbentrop said on March 13th that Germany desired to cooperate in a peaceful manner in building a new Europe, Britain's new foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, issued a note welcoming Germany's statement—confirming Churchill's doubtful view of him in December.
On March 14th, Prime Minister Baldwin announced the creation of a new cabinet position, Minister for the Coordination of Defence. To no one's surprise, including his own, Churchill did not receive the appointment. It went to the distinctly unqualified Attorney-General, Sir Thomas Inskip. The most apt comment on this appointment was by Churchill's friend Professor Lindemann (in Martin Gilbert's Winston S. Churchill, volume 5): "The most cynical thing that has been done since Caligula appointed his horse as Consul."
50 Years Ago
Winter 1960-61 • Age 86
"...I will not press it too far"
Churchill spent Christmas and the New Year at Chartwell, having written earlier to his lifelong friend Consuelo Balsan, once Duchess of Marlborough, about the recent election of President Kennedy, with whom Churchill had exchanged post-election messages.
On January 10th Churchill wrote to French President Charles de Gaulle congratulating him on recent favorable events in France and Algeria: The Algerian referendum, Churchill wrote, "is, if I may say so, a triumph of your policies and for you personally. It is heartening to see that the French people continue so rightly to express their confidence in you."
In March, Churchill again joined Aristotle Onassis on his yacht Christina, and on the 20th (as Martin Gilbert writes in his volume 8), WSC painstakingly wrote his wife in his own hand for the first time in nearly two years, something his strokes had previously kept him from doing:
"Here is a line to keep us posted in my own handwriting—all done myself! And to tell you how much I love you: We have travelled ceaselessly over endless seas—quite smoothly for weeks on end and now here we are— within a few days of meeting Ari and his family. This is the moment for me to show you that I still possess the gift of writing & continue to use it. But I will not press it too far."