Andrew Roberts

Churchill as villain – but is this a character assassination too far?

Revisionist biographies of the great wartime leader are nothing new, but this one really takes the biscuit

Churchill outside 10 Downing Street in June 1943. Credit: Alamy

The veteran journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft claims in his prologue to Churchill’s Shadow that: ‘This is not a hostile account, or not by intention, nor consciously “revisionist”, or contrarian,’ before launching into a long book that is virtually uninterrupted in its hostility to Winston Churchill, his memory and especially anyone who has had the temerity to admire Churchill or learn lessons from his life and career.

Churchill revisionism is hardly new. The very first book I reviewed was Clive Ponting’s revisionist biography of 1994, since when there have been scholarly books by John Charmley, a predictably vicious one by David Irving (whose hero’s career was somewhat curtailed by Churchill) and a shelf-load by detractors such as Richard Toye, Madhusree Mukerjee, Nicholson Baker and Alan Clark. Abusing Churchill in print is thus a well-trodden path, but most of those earlier authors tried to stick to facts, whereas Wheatcroft has generally ignored them.

He claims, for example, that ‘Churchill was never really a well-travelled man’, when in fact he visited America 16 times and Canada nine times, crossing both from coast to coast. He served for years in India and Afghanistan, fought in Cuba, South Africa, the Sudan and on the Franco-Belgian border, honeymooned in Italy, holidayed in France, Italy, Florida, Monaco, Madeira, Morocco, Bahamas and Spain, mountaineered in Switzerland, twice visited Stalin in Moscow, held conferences in Cairo and Tehran, watched army manoeuvres with the Kaiser in Germany, cruised the Mediterranean and Caribbean, and also visited Palestine, Iceland, Turkey, Cyprus, Uganda, Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), Mozambique, Kenya, Bermuda, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Malta, Holland, Trinidad, Jamaica and Greece.

Wheatcroft cannot have read Churchill’s book London to Ladysmith via Pretoria if he believes that he viewed Afrikaners ‘fondly’. Although Churchill admired their fighting spirit, and liked some individual Boers, such as Jan Smuts, that book is full of distaste for the Afrikaners’ ill-treatment of the Hottentots, Xhosa and other native tribes.

The tone of perpetual snideness grows wearing

‘Churchill’s judgment was strategically flawed,’ it is claimed.

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