On the centenary of Sir Winston Churchill’s birth, a definitive edition of his complete works was prepared for publication in Great Britain in a limited edition edited by the Churchill scholar Tom Hartman. That was in 1974; and now, some fifteen years later, Hartman, working with the British publishers Leo Cooper Ltd., has begun republishing the same texts (but with newly written forewords by himself) in a commercial edition.
Copyright restrictions that did not apply to the 1974 Centenary Edition because it was a limited edition prevent the publication of many of these volumes; so Leo Cooper cannot reprint the complete works of Churchill, but says he will offer such volumes as he can.
Of the Cooper volumes that have already appeared, a few have been printed in an American edition by W. W. Norton & Co. They are selected from Churchill’s earliest works. The volumes are handsomely presented, uniform in appearance, and wear matching dust jackets. Tom Hartman’s forewords offer useful bibliographic information about each book.
The volumes issued by Norton are Churchill’s first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898); his fourth and fifth books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton’s March (both 1900), issued in one volume under the title The Boer War (bestowed upon it, not by Churchill, but by the editor of this edition in 1974); and his eighth book, My African Journey (1908).
Of works dating from the same period in Churchill’s life, Norton is not publishing his second book, The River War (1899); his third book, the novel Savrola (1900); his sixth book, a volume of collected speeches called Mr. Brodrick’s Army (1903); or his seventh book, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906), which The Times Literary Supplement described as being “certainly among the two or three most exciting political biographies in the language.”
In a release from its publicity department to reviewers, Norton describes the volumes it is issuing as constituting “a uniform edition of the early writings” of Churchill. Yet half the early writings, including some of the more important ones, are omitted from it. Norton’s phrase is accurate but may be misleading, for “uniform edition” somehow suggests a complete set. Indeed Norton may have misled itself, for when I telephoned I discovered that its publicity department did not know that this was not a complete edition—and, not knowing that four of Churchill’s eight first works had been omitted, was unable to tell me on what basis some volumes had been included and others not.
So much for fame! Churchill was the greatest public figure of the twentieth century, while I am a face in the crowd; but publishing houses, in their carelessness and unconcern, are levelers—they treat us all alike—and Churchill’s most recent publisher knows as little about his works as the publisher of my most recent book knows about mine.
Deciding to become a professional writer was young Winston Churchill’s salvation. Until then he had been a failure. His father had held him in low regard. At Harrow he had been at the bottom of his class. So low had been his academic attainments that his father had given up all thought of his going to a university. Applying instead to the military academy, Sandhurst, he was humiliated by proving unable to pass the entrance examinations until the third try. Though he graduated well from Sandhurst, in his first couple of years as a subaltern in the Fourth Hussars he was unable to find the quick path to glory for which he longed—and, more prosaically, was unable to live on his salary, and fell steadily into debt to meet expenses.
It was then that Churchill’s friend, the improbably named General Sir Bindon Blood, offered him a chance to come along as a war correspondent on a punitive expedition to India’s Northwest Frontier. The year was 1897, and Churchill was twenty-three; he jumped at the chance, and took leave from his regiment to do so.
Once he had filed his dispatches from the front, it occurred to Churchill that he might put them together into a book. Clearly he had competition, for other journalists were in the field: thus on August 17,1897, riding into the battle of Landakai as correspondent, for The Daily Telegraph, Churchill reported a heroic action in which Lord Fincastle, the correspondent of The Times, was later to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his attempts to save the life of Lieutenant Greaves, the correspondent of The Times of India.
Churchill rushed to get his book written and in print before Fincastle of The Times could publish his—but lost the race. Moreover, having entrusted the copy editing of his manuscript to a relative in England who proved incompetent, Churchill found “200 misprints, blunders & mistakes” and believed that his book, as printed, was shaming. Readers, he believed, would find it “an example of what my father would have called my slovenly shiftless habits.” Again a disappointment to the shade of his father, he was back, it seemed, to his pattern of failure.
But fortune smiled upon him: the book sold well, earned him money, and was enthusiastically received.
But fortune smiled upon him: the book sold well, earned him money, and was enthusiastically received. The reviewer of The Athenaeum, while noting that “one word is printed for another, words are defaced by shameful blunders, and sentence after sentence ruined by the punctuation of an idiot,” and surmising that it must have been copy edited “by a mad printer’s reader,” discerned genius in the author and found that in Churchill’s style at its best, the great Burke spoke again in passages that, as military history, would have been worthy of Napier.
Churchill had organized The Story of the Malakand Field Force methodically. He had begun by placing the story he had to tell in its geographic setting, on the Indian side of the mountainous frontier that divides what is now Pakistan from Afghanistan. He described the warlike Pathan hill tribes who inhabit that area, and told how, inspired by a religious leader known as “the Mad Mullah,” they had come into conflict with the British Government of India. He then told of the attack by these tribes on British military installations at Malakand and Chakdara in the middle of the summer of 1897, and of the Government of India’s immediate response in forming and sending out a powerful Field Force under the command of General Blood to repulse the attack. The remaining three-quarters of the book were then devoted to a detailed chronicle of how General Blood’s forces moved forward and pacified the tribes; and it was the picture this provided of the routine of daily life in frontier warfare that especially struck such admiring readers of the book as Lord Salisbury, the all-powerful Prime Minister, who sent for Churchill to congratulate him and offer future assistance.
Within months of the book’s appearance, an exciting new opportunity presented itself. Lord Kitchener, commander of the Egyptian army and of the British forces in Kenya, was planning an invasion of the Sudan to avenge the death of General Gordon at Khartoum; and Churchill managed to secure appointment as an officer in the Twenty-first Lancers and as a war correspondent for The Morning Post. Present at the famous battle of Omdurman which crowned the reconquest of the Sudan, Churchill emerged from the campaign with a second successful book, The River War.
Now that he was earning vastly more money as an author than as an army officer, Churchill chose to resign from the service and to support himself as a writer while seeking success in politics. His brilliant father had risen to become Chancellor of the Exchequer; his dream was to exceed his father and become Prime Minister. But politics did not pay: a seat in Parliament at that time carried no salary with it. The money would have to come from his writings. So he embarked on his program of becoming rich in one field in order to become famous in another.
He succeeded on both counts almost immediately. In October 1889 he went out to cover the emerging war in South Africa for The Morning Post, having obtained what his son and biographer later admiringly described as “the most lucrative contract into which any newspaper correspondent had entered up to this date.” The following month, having just arrived in South Africa, Churchill plunged into the adventure that was to make him world-famous: as a passenger on a train ambushed by the Boers, though a civilian, he organized a heroic if hopeless defense; and, having then been taken prisoner, he made a daring solitary escape and, with a price on his head, made his way across hundreds of miles to the Portuguese colony of Mozambique and freedom by Christmastime.
The two volumes that Churchill published in 1900, and that are here reprinted together under the title The Boer War, tell the story of Churchill’s adventures and also describe campaigns in the South African war. As history, they have been superseded long since; those looking for an authoritative account of these events can find it in Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War (1979). As for Churchill’s exciting firsthand account of his escape from the Boer prison camp, it is best read in his autobiography, My Early Years (1930), written later, when he was free to tell the whole story.
But Churchill’s journalism had fulfilled its purpose: it now supported him in his political career.
But Churchill’s journalism had fulfilled its purpose: it now supported him in his political career. In 1900, when these Boer War volumes appeared, he was elected to Parliament, taking his seat in 1901. In 1905 he was appointed to his first government post, in which capacity he took the trip to Africa in the summer of 1907 that he describes in My African Journey. It is a slight piece of writing, well below the level of what Churchill could do.
The journey to Africa provided a much needed rest for Churchill, in the nature of a holiday, and the magazine serial rights reimbursed him for all his personal out-of-pocket expenses. Royalties on the book gave him a clear five-hundred-pounds profit on the trip. On such matters he was obliged to dwell, for no matter how far he advanced toward leadership of his country—and by 1908, he had advanced far for his years—his career in politics was a luxury made possible only by his journalism; for it was as a writer who sold his work by the word that Churchill supported both his politics and himself.
From the outset, critics of Churchill’s books objected that he had written them to promote himself and that he was the hero of his stories. Even his adoring mother, having read the first dispatches that were to form the basis of his Malakand Field Force book, wrote to caution him, “Forgive a piece of advice . . . but be modest. All yr feats of valour are sure to come out & people will know. Let it be from others & not from yrself.”
As late as the 1920s, those who read his books continued to make fun of his habit of writing always about himself. Of Churchill’s history of the First World War, Lord Balfour famously remarked that Winston had written an “autobiography disguised as a history of the universe,” while another colleague commented that “Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis.”
But by the end of the Second World War, others came to recognize what Churchill had always felt instinctively: that his life and the public life of his times were interwoven. Churchill was the only person on any side (with the doubtful exceptions of Franklin Roosevelt, whose role in the Wilson Administration’s direction of the war was relatively unimportant, and of Philippe Petain) to have been in the inner circle that directed the Second World War as well as the First. Not since Palmerston a century before had anyone been at the center of world politics for so long. Winston Churchill was the only person who plausibly could have written the political history of the first half of the twentieth century in the first person.
So we now read these early works of his for what was once regarded as their flaw; we read them not for what he tells of his subject, but for what he tells us of himself. We leaf again through the pages of The Malakand Field Force not because we care about or even remember General Bindon Blood, and not because we take an interest in the Mad Mullah—for we have seen far madder mullahs since—but because the author now fascinates us all as much as he once fascinated only himself.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 7, on page 70
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