Campaigns

The Thrusting Young Conservative He began his political career in 1900 for the constituency of Oldham

Although he was defeated in his first attempt to enter Parliament in 1899, Churchill’s fame following his dramatic escape from the Boers tipped the balance in the election of 1900. He achieved a small majority and won his longed-for ‘seat’ as a Conservative MP for Oldham, Lancashire, beginning a political career that would last over sixty years.

He made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 18 February 1901 at the age of twenty-six, speaking immediately after Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.

I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory party, their men, their words and their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them – except to my own people at Oldham.
Churchill to Lord Hugh Cecil (unsent), 24 October 1903

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The Reactionary

Churchill was appointed Home Secretary following the January 1910 election, when the Liberal party was again returned to power. It was during this time that he most clearly demonstrated that strange mix of his nature – of the radical reformer and the reactionary. While he helped introduce reforms to the prison system, reducing sentencing for younger people and improving conditions, he also opposed strikers and refused to support votes for women.

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The New Liberal Churchill takes up his first cabinet post in 1905

In 1905, Prime Minister Balfour resigned and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed a government pending a January election, appointing Churchill as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, assisting Lord Elgin. And in the Liberal Party’s landslide election victory in early 1906, Churchill was elected as the Liberal MP for North-West Manchester. Churchill, the ambitious, shining ‘glow-worm’, was on his way.

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Dunkirk 'Wars are not won by evacuations.'

Despite Churchill’s visits to Paris to stiffen French resolve, his attempts proved futile as the German blitzkrieg shattered the French resistance and drove the British Expeditionary Force back to the Channel ports. A pause in the German attacks between 27 May and 4 June allowed the evacuation of over three hundred thousand British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk – turning what was in reality a colossal military disaster into what came to be seen as a success; the saving of lives by the ‘little ships’ (fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) that ferried men to the destroyers waiting offshore.

For more on Dunkirk, and a collection of personal accounts from some of those who took part in the mass evacuation, see the BBC’s Archives.

We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.
Churchill, speech of 4 June 1940

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South Africa The POW escapes and makes his way to Durban

In his last youthful military adventure, Churchill joined British forces in the Boer War. Churchill set off, armed with the important things in life – sixty bottles of spirits, twelve bottles of Rose’s Lime Juice and a supply of claret – and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899.

He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. He made a dramatic escape the following month, making his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. His dispatches from the Boer War were republished as two books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian Hamilton’s March (1900).

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Sudan Churchill was posted to server under General Kitchener

Desperate to join the army reconquering the Sudan, lost following the death of General Gordon in 1885, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post.

In August 1898 he travelled up the Nile with the expeditionary force under General Kitchener.

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Politics Interferes – Briefly Churchill becomes the highest paid war corresponent of the day

With all his writing and journalism gaining the attention of the political authorities (due in no small part to a promotion of his activities by his mother Lady Randolph), he resigned from the army in April 1899. Politics beckoned.

He had already spoken at a few political meetings in the Autumn of 1898 and attempted to enter Parliament as a Conservative, but failed – by a small margin – at the by-election in Oldham in 1899. But more action was to beckon. A serious colonial war had begun in South Africa and Churchill managed to secure another lucrative assignment to report on the war for the Morning Post. The contract he negotiated with the newspaper, a salary of £250 a month and all expenses paid, made him the highest-paid war correspondent of the day.

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Radicalism and Reform Social reform and building a modern welfare state were on the agenda

Churchill rapidly established himself as a prominent New Liberal, combining a commitment to free trade with support for a programme of social reform and was one of the main architects of Britain’s incipient welfare state. To those Tories he’d ‘betrayed’ by ‘crossing the floor’, he was now betraying their class, too. By April 1908, however, his ‘star’ seemed to be shining clearer and clearer (see prophecy), as he achieved cabinet rank, as President of the Board of Trade in Herbert Asquith’s new government, at the age of only thirty-three. In this role he introduced a number of initiatives (not all of which were adopted during his tenure but were later).

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India and the North West Frontier

Back home in Britain, in 1896, Churchill did all he could to get posted to Egypt or Matabeleland in South Africa, where he could see some action and get noticed – to no avail. He eventually sailed to India with his regiment in the Autumn of 1896.

Confined to a life of polo and military routine in Bangalore, he eventually took matters into his own hands and, armed with a contract as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, travelled to the North West frontier to join the Malakand Field Force. Here he did find himself in danger. Although the fighting on the north-west frontier against the Afghan tribes in 1897 couldn’t really be called battles, there was a real risk of being killed and Churchill had several narrow escapes.

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Cuba Churchill was able to get himself posted to Cuba as an observer

Churchill had a period of leave and managed to obtain his first assignment as a war correspondent for the newspaper. He was reporting on the rebellion against Spanish rule by guerilla rebels in Cuba when he first came under fire. It was also in Cuba that he first refined his well-known taste for fine Cuban cigars. He was attached to the Spanish forces as an observer but his writings reveal considerable sympathies for the Cuban rebels.

Read more about Churchill’s time in Cuba here.

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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.

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