The young Winston Churchill on War

In his autobiography My Early Life: A Roving Commission, the young Winston Churchill writes about his feelings towards war and conflict. He seems to regard it all as one great adventure.

About his time at the Military College in Sandhurst:

Here the study was of divisions, army corps and even whole armies; of bases, of supplies, and lines of communication and railway strategy. This was thrilling. It did seem such a pity that it all had to be make-believe, and that the age of wars between civilized nations had come to an end for ever.

On the latter point, Churchill was wrong. He would live to see World Wars I and II, and make a considerable contribution on behalf of civilization in the second.

If it had only been 100 years earlier what splendid times we should have had! Fancy being nineteen in 1793 with more than twenty years of war against Napoleon in front of one! However all that was finished. The British Army had never fired on white troops since the Crimea, and now that the world was growing so sensible and pacific – and so democratic too – the great days were over. Luckily, however, there were still savages and barbarous peoples. There were Zulus and Afghans, also the Dervishes of the Soudan. […]

These thoughts were only partially consoling, for after all fighting the poor Indians, compared with taking part in a real European war, was only like riding in a paper-chase instead of in the Grand National.

In 1930, it was apparently absolutely OK to publish an autobiography riddled with racism.

The young Churchill was so eager for war that in 1895, he took leave from the British Army to sail to Cuba at his own expense and join the Spanish in the Cuban War of Independence. Always on the side of European colonialism.

Each officer received a solid block of two and a half months’ uninterrupted repose. […] as I could not afford to hunt, I searched the world for some scene of adventure or excitement. The general peace in which mankind had for so many years languished was broken only in one quarter of the globe. The long-drawn guerrilla between the Spaniards and the Cuban rebels was said to be entering upon its most serious phase. […] It seemed to my youthful mind that it must be a thrilling and immense experience to hear the whistle of bullets all around and to play at hazard from moment to moment with death and wounds.

What would get you on a terrorism watch-list today, in 1895 was considered to be a completely decent plan to spend one’s holidays.

The Colonel and the Mess generally looked with favour upon a plan to seek professional experience at a seat of war. It was considered as good or almost as good as a season’s serious hunting, without which no subaltern or captain was considered to be living a respectable life.

Churchill did indeed come under fire and received his first medal. Equally important, it was in Cuba that he discovered cigars.

A few years later, he still hadn’t lost his taste for war. About a battle in the Second Anglo-Afghan war, Churchill writes:

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.

Very jolly indeed, all this war stuff. It makes me regret that I never fought in one.

Winston-Churchil-Cuba.jpg

“Well, we didn’t have cinema yet. What else was a young man supposed to do?”

(Thanks to long-time reader Ana Alves who mailed me Churchill’s autobiography as part of her annual book package. If you want to support this blog too, here is my wishlist of books. It’s hard to get the books I want in English or in German in South America, so I appreciate any help. Thank you!) 

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Books, History, Military, UK and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The young Winston Churchill on War

  1. Anonymous says:

    To say it was savage is incorrect we now have weapons that mangle thousand at a time without you even seeing the person and yet we build bigger and better weapons.

  2. david wiebe says:

    Have you read Ernst Jünger?

    • So Churchill already had Islamophobics in his family? That’s a weird and wholly unnecessary “warning”, given Mr Churchill’s very negative views expressed about Islam in his own early writings.

      • ensnaturae2 says:

        ‘Islamophobics’ sounds like a ..haha you are a ninny, *put-down* word to me. My guess is that millions of Muslims have good reason to feel edgey about Islam…and need all the support they can get. It has many creepy.. and quite easily misinterpreted.. bits.

      • To me, all religions are crazy. There are no gods.
        But it doesn’t mean I am afraid of it.

  3. List of X says:

    Hmmm, now I wonder if you’re traveling in search of a war to participate in… :)

    • Unfortunately, the Peshmerga told me last year that they already have enough volunteers. Also, they are not looking for lawyers or philosophy graduates.

  4. Don’t forget that this is the much older Churchill looking back at his younger self. My impression is that this retrospective view is rather tongue-in- cheek. He is hinting that then, he was young and green, whereas, at the time of writing, he already knew better.The clue lies in the ironic remark about civilised nations no longer fighting wars with each other.

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