Pages: 1025. Imprint: Bello, Pan Macmillan, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., electronic edition: 26.03.2015. ISBN: 9781447279518. £8.03.
First published in 1983 by Michael Joseph.
© William Manchester 1983.
“The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932”, the first volume in William Manchester’s epic three volume series, is the definitive biography of Britain’s pre-eminent prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, who was born when Imperial Britain was at the pinnacle of her power. Yet, a few years later, the British Empire hovered dangerously on the brink of a catastrophic new era. This impressive biography of the aristocrat, soldier, and statesman covers the first fifty-eight years, a period during which his courageous vision charted the course for Britain’s future, guiding the nation through darkly troubled times. Portraying the illustrious life of one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century, in one of the most brilliantly well-executed narratives in historical literature, William Manchester is undoubtedly one of the best biographers, a master in the literary art, who wields his pen dexterously with a flourish. It is extremely significant that the dynamic and versatile Winston Churchill perfectly complements Manchester’s engaging, insightful style. “The Last Lion” is a brilliant and inspiring testament of the history of Britain in the Victorian, WWI, and post-war eras.
In the first volume, the Preamble “The Lion at Bay” begins with the Allied evacuation of France in World War II – the “Miracle at Dunkirk”, a disastrous catastrophe of overwhelming proportions, that saw the French collapse, the Dutch hopelessly overwhelmed, and the Belgians surrendered. The trapped British army fought free to beat a hasty retreat to the Channel ports, to a fishing town, then named Dunkerque. Totally defenseless, there was no escape, for behind them lay the deep, turbulent sea. England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, Britain found itself utterly alone. If the Germans arrived, all would be lost. The southern weald of England’s island was indefensible against armed forces, its southern terrain unsuitable for constructing strongpoints to establish uncontested beachheads. At Dunkirk, the two hundred and twenty-thousand troops were doomed to perish on the Flanders beaches. Only a handful of them might ever come home. The Royal Navy’s ships were wholly inadequate. At the crisis of the hour, King George VI was alerted that only seventeen thousand troops might be saved. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for imminent disaster. And that was when the miracle happened. Suddenly, out of the blue, from the silent streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, came a strange fleet of an unusual kind – a flotilla of trawlers, tugs, scows, fishing sloops, lifeboats and coasters, full of brave civilian volunteers, ready to face anything. England’s gallant fathers were sailing courageously to rescue Britain’s bleeding troops. Even by today’s standards, it was miraculous. British soldiers and French support troops were delivered. A staggering total of three hundred and thirty-eight thousand, six hundred and eighty-two soldiers in all.
Winston Churchill was an embodiment of the Victorian standards of honour, valour, loyalty, selfless duty, and the supreme virtue of action; uncompromising, who could inspire people with heroic visions of what they could become. He was a leader of intuitive genius, who believed in his national destiny and the supremacy of people, a master artist who gathered history’s light into his prism and reflected it to his ends, an embodiment of inflexible resolution, adept at imposing his will on people. After waiting in the wings of time, his hour had struck. He was the man for whom the bell tolled. Sitting in Parliament for forty years, he had grown old in his nation’s service, enduring slander and calumny only to be summoned to salvage hopeless situations. A BBC bulletin stated: ‘His Majesty the King has sent for Mr Winston Churchill and asked him to form a government.’
Hitler was supreme master of Europe. No one had ever sat on such a immovable pedestal or stood upon such a towering pinnacle. The Führer declared: ‘The war is finished. I’ll come to an understanding with England.’ On the first day of the Dunkirk evacuation, a negotiated peace with Hitler seemed to be England’s only alternative,the only reasonable decision a stable man of sound judgement could ever take. But Winston Churchill was not a reasonable man, being as sound as the Maid of Orleans. He himself said: ‘It’s when I’m Joan of Arc that I get excited.’ He was like an Elijah or an Isaiah; a political prophet with deep insight.
To the War Cabinet, Winston Churchill concluded: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’ He spoke courageously to the English people as no one had ever done before or is likely to do so again. His words became immortalized for ever: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ Churchill said: “Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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. ‘Behind us,’ he said, ‘. . . gather a group of shattered states and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Danes, the Norwegians, the Belgians, the Dutch – upon all of whom a long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must, as conquer we shall.’
It was in the same vein as the language of the greatest poet in history and the greatest English dramatist & poet, William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616): ‘This England never did, nor never shall, /Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.’ – (“King John”, Act 5 scene 7). Winston Churchill was fired by the conviction of one who had faced inner despair. To the demoralized and beleagered French, he boldly declared: ‘Whatever you may do, we shall fight on forever and ever and ever.’ When General Maxime Weygand asked what would happen if Nazi divisions landed at Dover, Churchill responded that they would be hit on the head as they crawled ashore.
Here are selected extracts of his speech ‘Never, never, never, never give in’ at Harrow School, London, England on October 29, 1941 –
“But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring up some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing has to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months – if it takes years – they do it. Another lesson I think we may take, is that appearances are often very deceptive, and as Kipling well says, we must “…meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same.
“You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone,…. this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
“Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.”
When the boys sang an old school song, rewritten in his honour: “Not less we praise in darker days /The Leader of our Nation, /And Churchill’s name shall win acclaim /From each new generation. For you have power in danger’s hour /Our freedom to defend, Sir! /Though long the fight we know that right /Will triumph in the end, Sir!” Churchill suggested that ‘Darker’ should be ‘sterner’, provided his watchword was followed: ‘Never, never, never, never give in.’ “Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.”
Winston Churchill saved Western civilization, its redemption worth any price. “The Last Lion” refers to the lion in Revelation, ‘the first beast,’ with ‘six wings about him’ and ‘full of eyes within.’ Aged eighty, he said: ‘It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart; I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.’ He made light of it but it wasn’t that simple. Their spirits lay dormant and inactive until he became prime minister, when renewed, revived and rekindled by his enlightening words, they emerged as a people transformed, to the immense admiration of the whole world.
Churchill wanted to be where the action was and the bombs fell. A man of extraordinary personal courage, each battle made him expose himself to gunfire fearlessly. At sea in 1943, when a U-boat was in sight, he said: ‘I won’t be captured. The finest way to die is in the excitement of fighting the enemy.’ On second thoughts he added: ‘It might not be so nice if one were in the water and they tried to pick me up.’ When Averell Harriman said that the worst a torpedo could do to this ship . . . was to knock out one engine room’, Churchill grinned, ‘Ah, but they might put two torpedoes in us. You must come with me . . . and see the fun.’ It was his sense of humour in the face of war that kept him from being gloomy. At the same time, he called war a ‘dirty, shoddy business, . . . disguise it as you may.’ ‘You cannot gild it. The raw comes through.’
Winston Churchill viewed war as an incredibly big adventure. As a war correspondent, he reported the sad death of a peer in battle ‘for which the only consolation is that the Empire is worth the blood of the noblest of its citizens.’ In 1914, the diarist Frances Stevenson, noted that war filled the British cabinet with gloom, whereas ‘in burst Churchill, radiant, smiling, satisfaction upon his face. “Well!” he exclaimed, “the deed is done!”’ Lloyd George said that ‘Winston was radiant, his face bright, his manner keen . . . You could see he was a really happy man”. Elected to Parliament at the young age of twenty-five, Winston Churchill saw war as something to be conquered, not feared. War inspired him to give his very best to the nation. He was a true son of England’s soil, faithful to Queen and country.