History portrays Winston Churchill as a robust British leader with a cigar, standing firm against German aggression during World War II. But Churchill was also a complex Renaissance man - a painter, a writer, and a butterfly fancier.
Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace, his family home, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, a British statesman from an established family. His mother was Jennie Jerome, a New York socialite.
Churchill's parents spent little time with him; they were busy with their lives and left him in the care of a nanny he called "Old Woom." The two were very close, and she taught him to read from a book called "Reading Without Tears."
In 1888 an independent and rebellious Churchill was sent to Harrow School, a boarding school near London. He joined the Harrow Rifle Corps in preparation for a military career. Young Churchill had red hair, earning him the nickname "Copperknob" at school. He was miserable at school, but his mother ignored his letters begging for a visit or permission to return home.
Churchill took three years to pass the entrance exam for the British Royal Military College, but he ultimately graduated twentieth in his class.
Churchill's father died in 1895, giving him the notion that he might die young as well, so he must quickly make his mark on the world. He joined the Fourth Hussars, serving in India and the Sudan. He saw action in the Battle of Omdurman. He chronicled these early adventures in two books: "The Story of the Malakand Field Force" and "The River War." In the first book he wrote, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." He also reported for "The Pioneer" and the "Daily Telegraph" while in the army.
Adventures as a War Correspondent
In 1899 Churchill left the army and signed on as a war correspondent for the "Morning Post." While reporting on the Boer War in South Africa, his train was ambushed and he was taken prisoner. Churchill gained fame after he escaped and traveled nearly 300 miles to safety in Mozambique. During his escape, he hid in a mine shaft for three days.
He published a book about his adventures, "London to Ladysmith." He would later work with his captor to help South Africa become a British Dominion. His captor was, incredibly, another future Prime Minister - Louis Botha.
About politicians, Churchill once said, "A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."
Churchill first entered the political arena in 1900, as a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party, but he soon switched to the Liberal Party to better promote social justice. He helped introduce reforms to the British prison system, introduced Britain's first minimum wage, and set up labor exchanges for the unemployed. He helped pass the People's Budget, imposing taxes on the wealthy to pay for social welfare.
In 1911 he became the First Lord of the Admiralty. He helped modernize warships with oil-fired engines rather than coal, promoted military aircraft, and helped create the Royal Navy Air Service. He helped develop the tank, which was first used in battle in 1916.
To help him understand the military potential for aircraft, Churchill took flying lessons. After he crashed a plane at Croydon Aerodrome, however, his wife convinced him to stop.
In 1922 Churchill lost his place as a Member of Parliament, due to fractures in the Liberal Party. He then served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, returning Britain to the gold standard.
He spent a number of years out of the political arena, writing, among other things, "A History of English Speaking Peoples."
As the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Churchill became an advocate for British rearmament. He criticized Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, even as Germany began invading neighboring countries. Regarding Germany, Churchill said, "A state of society where men may not speak their minds cannot long endure."
In 1935, lamenting Britain's failure to rise up against Germany, Churchill said, "Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong - these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history."
On September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. That very day, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and became a member of the War Cabinet. Churchill soon proposed that Britain should thwart Nazi aggression by occupying Norwegian iron mines and sea ports, but Prime Minister Chamberlain resisted and Germany invaded Norway. In 1940 there was a vote of no confidence toward Chamberlain, and in May of that year King George VI appointed Churchill as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. Within hours, Germany began its Western Offensive, invading the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Two days later, Germany invaded France.
In a famous 1940 speech, Churchill said, "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Churchill formed a coalition cabinet with members from the Labor, Liberal, and Conservative parties, then created a foundation for an alliance with the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Late in 1941 Churchill secretly visited the White House, seeking assistance from President Roosevelt. Churchill later said, "Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of champagne; knowing him was like drinking it." The U.S. entered World War II in December of 1941.
During this 1941 visit, Churchill reportedly had a mild heart attack, which was kept secret.
A Master of Communication
Churchill knew that public speaking was a powerful skill. He had a lateral lisp throughout his life, and he used it to best advantage. Believing that his speech impediment made his voice distinctive, particularly for radio broadcasts during World War II, he instructed his dentist to create dentures that would retain, rather than reduce, his lisp. Churchill destroyed the paperwork calling his dentist to military service, explaining that maintaining his dentures was crucial to the war effort, and he further showed his appreciation by confirming his dentist's nomination for a knighthood.
Radio broadcasts were an important part of Churchill's war strategy, rallying the British people. As he once said, "If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack."
Churchill attended meetings with U.S. and Soviet officials to develop a united military strategy and also to formulate a post-war world with oversight from the United Nations. World War II came to an end in 1945.
After World War II ended, Churchill wrote, "We have at length emerged from a scene of material ruin and moral havoc the like of which had never darkened the imagination of former centuries."
In July of 1945 Churchill was defeated in Britain's general election, most likely because the people thought of him as a wartime Prime Minister. He became the new leader of the Opposition Party.
Churchill eventually served another term as Prime Minister, starting in 1951. Unknown to the public or Parliament at the time, he suffered a series of strokes in 1953. In 1954 he introduced the Mines and Quarries Act, improving working conditions for miners, and also the Housing Repairs and Rent Act, establishing housing standards. He chose to retire from his post as Prime Minister in 1955, but remained as a Member of Parliament until the next general election, in 1964, when he did not seek re-election.
In 1908 Churchill married Clementine Ogilvy Hozier. He said, "My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me." He had proposed to three other women while in his twenties and they turned him down, but all remained friends.
Churchill and his wife had five children. Throughout their marriage, whenever they spent time apart, they sent each other letters, often with hand-drawn illustrations. Churchill's pet name for his wife was "Kat," and she called him "Pug."
Churchill was an accomplished painter, creating mostly landscapes, but also some interiors and portraits. Most of his works were oil-based, often impressionistic. All told, he created nearly 600 paintings, using the pseudonyms Charles Morin and Mr. Winter. He reportedly said, "If it weren't for painting, I wouldn't live; I couldn't bear the extra strain of things." For Churchill, painting eased his depression, a malady he referred to as his "Black Dog."
Also a prolific writer, Churchill used the pen name "Winston S. Churchill" to distinguish himself from the American novelist by the same name. In 1953 he received the Pulitzer Prize in Literature.
Churchill was a gentleman who believed in taking responsibility for his actions. During a visit to New York in 1931, he tried to cross Fifth Avenue after looking to the right, forgetting that Britons and Americans drive on opposite sides of the road. A car hit him from the left at 30 miles per hour, but Churchill told the police officer that the accident was his fault. He even invited the driver to visit him in the hospital.
Among Churchill's surprising beliefs, he opposed women's suffrage for a time, and admittedly believed in ghosts - once claiming that he saw the ghost of Lincoln during a stay at the White House.
Churchill collected butterflies during his early travels outside of Britain. Plans to begin breeding butterflies in 1939 were put on hold, due to the onset of World War II. In 1946, after the war, he had a building converted to a butterfly house, following advice from an expert. He cultivated garden plants to attract butterflies, including buddleia and thistles, at his home at Chartwell. He even dabbled as a bricklayer, adding walls to his garden.
Churchill was fascinated by all animals, not just butterflies. He once said, "I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals." Over the years he received animals from all around the world as gifts, including an albino kangaroo from Australia, many of which he donated to the London Zoo.
Queen Elizabeth II knighted Churchill in 1953. She once offered to make him the Duke of London, but he declined.
Churchill was the first person to be named an Honorary Citizen of the United States, in 1963, by President John F. Kennedy.
In January of 1965 Churchill suffered a severe stroke; he died nineteen days later, on January 24, at his London home.
As to how he wanted to be remembered, Churchill once wrote, "For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself."
Queen Elizabeth II decreed that he should be laid in state at Westminster Hall for three days, an honor normally reserved for the Royal Family. Churchill also had a state funeral, attended by representatives from 112 countries. The U.S. television audience for his funeral was larger than that for President John F. Kennedy, which had been held about fifteen months prior.
In a 2002 poll, countrymen were asked to select the 100 Greatest Britons. They named Winston Churchill as The Greatest of Them All.