In Command of History

Robert Pearce | Published in
In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War
David Reynolds
Allen Lane  xxvi + 646pp  £30   
ISBN 0-713-99819-9
Defeat in the 1945 general election shocked Winston Churchill, and the size of Labour's majority seemed a personal disgrace. When his wife ventured that it might be a blessing in disguise, he replied, with remarkable self-control, that it ‘seemed quite effectively disguised’. Yet Clementine was correct, for now Churchill had the time to produce The Second World War, his monumental account in six volumes and two million words of the conflict still in progress when Attlee replaced him in Downing Street.
Reynolds begins by asking whether there is anything new to say about Churchill, a question he answers with an emphatic affirmative. The rest of his book fully justifies this confidence. Several historians, notably John Ramsden, have illustrated the degree to which Churchill acted as his own historian of the Second World War in order to safeguard his reputation. But Reynolds has broken new ground in utilising voluminous documentary sources, and puts his findings into a wide historical context. The result is a highly specialised book but also a highly significant one, and one that is commendably readable and engaging.
It seemed inevitable that Churchill would produce his war memoirs of 1939-45. Yet several problems had to be overcome. The first was income tax, at a staggering 97.5 per cent. Churchill was no blockhead and would not have begun the venture without an ingenious tax-avoidance deal whereby he would be paid for the sale of his papers rather than via royalties. Second, he needed official permission to reproduce government sources. This was accorded with remarkable generosity, and indeed mandarins Norman Brook and Edward Bridges looked upon Churchill as a ‘quasi-official historian’ and gave exceptional support. Third, Churchill needed the help of a team of research assistants. Three Ds – Documents, Dictation and Drafts – were the staple for the books, and Churchill needed assistants to help select the first, to temper the second and, most importantly, to undertake the third. Reynolds pays tribute to the sterling work of these men, including Bill Deakin, Henry Pownall, Pug Ismay, Gordon Allen and David Kelly (‘the Syndicate’), exposing in the process just how little of the finished product Churchill himself actually wrote. His forte was in revising text. Most chapters went through up to a dozen versions, the last four being designated ‘Provisional Semi-Final’, ‘Provisional Final’, ‘Almost Final’ and, finally, ‘Final’ - but even this was ‘Subject to Full Freedom of Proof Correction’.
Looking at each volume in turn, Reynolds compares Churchill’s account with the reality of the war. There were many discrepancies, the most important being a downplaying of the role of the Red Army. Some of Churchill’s most memorable reminiscences turn out to be unreliable, and sometimes the documents, even when ‘edited’, do not support the interpretations supposedly based on them in the main text. Reynolds also identifies the motives which accounted for the inaccuracies. These included Churchill’s wish to cover up his errors and uncertainties, in particular misgivings over the Second Front. He comes across in the books as far-sighted and consistent whereas in reality he was often volatile. But there were other motives, including the wish to highlight Britain’s contribution to the war, to cross swords with rival authors, and to have an impact on the evolving Cold War.
The details of In Command of History, as Reynolds compares different draft versions, examines correspondence with long-suffering publishers and reviews the reviews, are impressive. Equally remarkable, however, is the author’s lightness of touch. What might, in other hands, have been a plodding, ponderous book turns out to be positively jaunty in places. Reynolds cannot resist quoting the proof-reader Charles Carlyle Wood pontificating about punctuation (‘I understand it myself, but few do’) or Churchill’s description of him as ‘indefatigable, interminable, intolerable’. And when, in the dark days of September 1940, Keith Park replied to Churchill’s query about RAF reserves with the words ‘There are none’, we are told that his grammar was ‘crumbling under the strain’.
How will this exposé of Churchill’s working methods and of the shortcomings of The Second World War affect the great man’s reputation? Churchill’s account of 1940 omitted the Cabinet debates on a compromise peace and also his very real doubts about victory or even survival. But the fact that he looked into the abyss and still managed to inspire the nation makes him ‘a more impressive figure than the almost blindly pugnacious bulldog of popular stereotype’. This is a generous judgement, even though few nowadays adhere to such a stereotype. Yet some will query Reynolds’ verdict that Churchill’s working methods are analogous to those of a master chef who may not chop the vegetables or lay the table but knows how to produce a six-course meal. The book ends with the assertion that Churchill ‘remains in command of history’. But is he still standing, or has Reynolds unknowingly pulled the rug from beneath his feet?
  • Robert Pearce is the general editor of Routledge Historical Biographies.
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