Is “Churchill: Walking With Destiny” by Andrew Roberts the best Churchill biography of them all?
Who in their right mind would presume to say, short of Winston Churchill himself, who maintained, “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”?
All Churchill biographies stand in the shadow of their subject and on the shoulders of Churchill’s official biographer, the late Sir Martin Gilbert, whose primary research constitutes the bulk of what we truly know.
In this sense, Roberts’ new biography (Viking, 982 pp., ★★★★ out of four) stands tall, re-illuminating the well-etched contours of Churchill’s monumental life with scrupulous scholarship and a flair for unearthing the telling detail; looking twice where most biographers have been content to glance once.
Here are five time-honored Churchillian bio-tropes, reframed and refreshed by Roberts’ keen attention to historical context.
1. The purported poor judgment of Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Churchill was scapegoated by his own government for the 1915 disaster at Gallipoli during World War I. Roberts re-examines this episode, as all Churchill biographers have, and largely exculpates him. Along the way, though, he shares an obscure, arm-wrestling exchange of letters between Churchill and King George V over the naming of new Royal Navy ships, begun in Churchill’s second month as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, that inexorably reveals just how full of himself the 30-something Churchill could be.
Churchill keeps pushing names that his King shoots down. “Instead of… letting the matter drop,” Roberts writes, “Churchill dug in his heels. So did the King… There was something almost comic about the obstinacy. Churchill would in all likelihood have continued the unequal struggle indefinitely,” Roberts concludes, had one high naval subordinate whom he “admired and trusted” not finally persuaded him to just drop it.
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