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Churchill had to pay a steep price for being politically prescient. Photo: Ernest H. Mills/Getty Images
Churchill had to pay a steep price for being politically prescient. Photo: Ernest H. Mills/Getty Images

Book Review | Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill

A new biography of Winston Churchill throws light on his early years as a politician

Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill | Michael Shelden

The arc of greatness

When he was dismissed as the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, Winston Churchill was already 40. A brilliant career—from the last cavalry charge at Omdurman, Sudan, to the political head of the Royal Navy, interspersed with appointments in the British colonial office and as home secretary—seemed to be at an end. And effectively, it was: He would spend the next 25 years in the wilderness as other, less promising, individuals rose.

Much has been written about Churchill’s role as a great wartime prime minister. That story, however well told, has a certain thinness about it. It is as if he became great overnight by summoning immense amounts of resolve. That is the stuff of myth; real leaders are made. Michael Shelden’s new biography Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill offers a more continuous story. His narrative ends in 1915, but not before throwing sufficient light on Churchill’s early career.

Young Titan—The Making of Winston Churchill: Simon & Schuster, 383 pages, Rs699
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Young Titan—The Making of Winston Churchill: Simon & Schuster, 383 pages, Rs699

It is fascinating to note that as in the 1930s, Churchill was prescient about German intentions in 1913-14. In both instances, two “gentlemanly" leaders—David Lloyd George in 1914 and Neville Chamberlain in the 1930s—could see no wrong in German behaviour. In 1914, Churchill and Llyod George—who was chancellor of the exchequer—sparred in the cabinet over money for more battleships. It was not as if the chancellor had to write a personal cheque: The Asquith cabinet was populated with individuals whose hearts were not in war and who thought any efforts at arming would only provoke Germany. It was a cabinet of cautious and timid men. In the end, Churchill paid the price for being right.

As Shelden narrates, once the war broke out, Churchill made two mistakes. One, he placed too much trust in backing Admiral John “Jacky" Fisher. Two, he was too closely associated with the Dardanelles campaign in Turkey. Fisher, who was already 74 when he was reappointed First Sea Lord in 1914, had Churchill’s trust. But at 74, he was too old to be of any use in the Admiralty. No sooner did the campaign in Turkey begin to go wrong, that he disassociated himself from it. In the end, the disaster at Gallipoli consumed both Churchill and Fisher.

In any war situation, it is natural that persons responsible for a large military setback will be punished. But such was the timidity on display in 1915 that perhaps the only person who really understood military affairs was sacked. For all his brilliance, Churchill did not fully grasp the environment in which he found himself.

It is tempting to conclude that his “lost years" made him wiser. But as this book shows, a more reasonable conclusion would be that Churchill learnt from his last lost battle in 1915. His instincts about Germany were right in both instances; only, he was better prepared the second time. He did not repeat the mistakes when a similar situation evolved in the 1930s. The rest, from Chamberlain’s resignation to the triumphal march to Berlin, is history.

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