Geoffrey K. Krempa
Review of Carlo
D'Este, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War,
1874-1945. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Pp. xvi, 847.
Few figures in history have been as closely
(and deservedly) scrutinized as Winston Churchill. As a war
correspondent and a junior officer in the late nineteenth-century
British army, his exploits had already made his a household name.
His meteoric political rise landed him in high office before he
turned forty. His fall after the disaster at Gallipoli was equally
precipitate. Cast adrift in the sea of political uncertainty during
the interbellum, Churchill returned to lead Great Britain to victory
in World War II. He has been praised and scorned as a hero and a
villain, a genius and a fool; nearly every aspect of his life has
scrupulously analyzed. What new perspective, then, might shed light
on a man who is already the subject of countless studies? In
Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, retired
lieutenant colonel and highly regarded military historian
chooses to focus on Churchill's "military life" broadly defined,
arguing that "his love of soldiering" was lifelong and profoundly
influenced his civilian leadership as well (xi, xiii).
Comprising sixty chapters, Warlord is
structured chronologically according to four phases in Churchill's life.
In the first, his early years, D'Este presents a conventional
image of the young Winston as an impetuous, disagreeable youth prone
to tantrums and missing the acceptance of his distant father, Lord
Randolph Churchill. Generally a poor student, he was schooled at two
elite academies before his father deemed him "unworthy of being sent
to Oxford to further his education and become a lawyer," enrolling
him at Harrow to prepare for Sandhurst and an army career (18).
D'Este stresses this crucial "practical turn" in the life of a young
man who was happiest marshalling his legions of toy soldiers or
leading playmates in war games on the family estate (20). Churchill
embraced his military training and excelled in history and writing
In the second phase of Churchill's life, he served as an officer in
the British army, a six-year period when, as presented by D'Este,
the lion of the twentieth-century was made. Against his father's
wishes, after Sandhurst the newly commissioned and
independent-minded first lieutenant joined the cavalry instead of
the infantry, which offered better career opportunities. However,
Churchill "never intended to make a career out of military service,"
viewing the army as a means to an end--a seat in Parliament (33).
His "thirst for adventure" drew the young junior officer wherever
the action was, earning him a reputation as a "medal and glory
seeker" (35, 58). He came to the attention of the British
public through his war correspondence and publication of books on
the Malakand and Omdurman campaigns. Churchill's
time as a correspondent, D'Este maintains, also proved to be pivotal
in shaping his views on war:
The dozens of dispatches he wrote reflected not only his
observations (and often criticism) but also his growing knowledge of
weapons, their capabilities, their employment – and their frequent
misuse. Read closely they were in fact a primer for a discerning
reader to gain a profound impression of the [Boer] war and how it was
fought. The war also significantly enhanced the military education
of Churchill himself, and the lessons he learned from its few
triumphs and myriad blunders were all duly noted and many years
later put to effective use in other wars (115).
In the third phase of his life, Churchill rose to prominence by his
actions during the First World War. In this portion of his study,
D'Este demonstrates how his time in the British military influenced
his behavior and decisions during his first stint as a civilian
political leader, when he capitalized on his "newfound stature as a
well-known and heroic figure" to win a parliamentary seat in 1900
(121). By 1908, he was president of the Board of Trade, but, as
D'Este notes, Churchill "could never entirely divorce himself from
military life" (131). He attended German military maneuvers, taking
careful note of developments in the Kaiserheer and relishing
his time in the army reserves. As First Lord of the Admiralty
(1911-15), he initiated many reforms in the Royal Navy, including
the development of larger, more powerful battleships, a naval
air-arm that later became the Royal Air Force, and the conversion of
the fleet from coal to oil propulsion.
Once the war began, Churchill was directly involved in both planning
and operations. He took charge in Belgium, acting "every bit the
military commander of British forces" during the siege of Antwerp
(185). Strategically, he advocated operations in the Baltic and the
disastrous attempt to force the Dardanelles and take Gallipoli,
which ultimately brought his fall from grace. Determined to have a
continued role in the war "he had once helped to mastermind" and
rehabilitate his reputation, Churchill naturally made a "return to
soldiering" (210). Though his tactical and strategic abilities were
never tested during his five and a half months commanding an
infantry battalion on the Western Front, he was well regarded by his
troops and returned to Britain and parliament "having done his duty
and done it well" (229).
The fourth and most comprehensive portion of D'Este's study focuses
on Churchill's return from the political wilderness and his
leadership during the Second World War. Here, of course, the man finally
found a role commensurate with his ambition and talents: he may have
been the only person able to guide Great Britain through its darkest
days. His second tenure at the Admiralty (1939-40) was largely a
continuation of his first. The admirals were wary of him--his
"reputation for meddling in operational matters was well
known"--though pleased to have "inherited a tough taskmaster ... who
had been the lonely voice of rearmament in a sea of appeasers"
(267). After succeeding Neville Chamberlain as prime minister and
effectively Britain's "generalissimo," Churchill "never lost his
appetite for the attack," viewing "defense as an occasional
necessary evil"; D'Este notes that his audacity and willingness to
ignore precedent set him apart from the "culture of failure" that
permeated Britain's military establishment (ix, 274, 286). This
mindset did, however, lead to setbacks, including the early debacle
at Anzio and the disastrous attempt to take Rhodes. Right up to the
launching of Overlord, Churchill always tried to influence the
direction of the war; after the opening of the second front in the
West, however, Britain's warlord was marginalized for the remainder
of the conflict.
Given the generally positive reception of
D'Este's previous efforts, which include several campaign studies
and biographies of generals Patton and Eisenhower,
the current volume disappoints. It is flawed by weak argumentation
and fails to advance any significant, critical discussion of the military
Churchill. D'Este is more concerned to refute critics who, he
believes, unduly "demand perfection" with "no grasp or experience of
the grave burdens that fell upon Churchill's shoulders in 1940" and
to demonstrate that, despite his flaws, the "benevolent warlord"
should serve as a model "for successive generations of democratic
leaders" (550-51). His didactic intent is evident in several oblique
references to present-day conflicts with the Islamic world (65, 81,
122, 133, 550).
While D'Este obviously admires the man he feels "words alone are
insufficient to portray" in depth, Warlord is no
hagiography--Churchill's many mistakes comprise a significant
portion of the narrative (553). He rightly argues that his dogged
insistence on action for action's sake sometimes made Churchill
fixate on ill-advised and impracticable operations and strategies.
Besides the setbacks at Anzio and Rhodes, he notes that, throughout
the war, Churchill never quite gave up on Norway or the
Mediterranean, urging renewed or continued action there long after
the Western Allies had decided to concentrate on a cross-channel
invasion. In general, D'Este well contextualizes Churchill's
distinctly British approach to war--as the civilian head of the
British Empire, his first priority was always to hold that empire
However, D'Este's concern to mitigate
Churchill's involvement in controversial situations leads him to
downplay or ignore some critical moments in his subject's career.
For instance, he mentions Churchill's involvement in labor unrest
only in passing, as cases of his being "willing, as always, to do
the unpopular thing" (139). Chris Wrigley has provided a better
explanation, noting that, as home secretary (1910-11), "his role was
not to judge who was right or wrong but to maintain the peace."
While admitting that his presence at the scene of the notorious Siege
of Sidney Street (omitted altogether by D'Este) was a poor decision
on Churchill's part, Lewis Broad has argued that in storming the
house where Latvian extremists had barricaded themselves against
police in London's East End, the "experience of the man of war was
of value." Indeed, the full complexity of the future warlord was on display.
Concerned for the safety of the police and soldiers, Churchill
offered prudent military advice and procured improvised metal
shields for an assault. He was also ruthless, letting the building
burn after it unexpectedly caught fire with the suspects still
inside in an effort to flush them out.
actions certainly qualify as "military" as D'Este uses term, the
lack of treatment is curious.
Warlord is blemished by many smaller but
cumulatively irritating problems, including errors of fact. For
example, Gallipoli was not the "south most tip of what was then
Bulgaria" in 1915; Erich Ludendorff was not a "von"; the
Anschluss occurred before the Munich conference; Austria was
directly annexed to Germany, not made "a vassal state"; and the Nazi
war-machine was not "dependent on the production of synthetic oil
from coal" in 1940 (194, 234, 235, 253, 379).
At the Battle of Tannenberg, and
indeed along the Eastern Front, men did not fight and die "for
scraps of terrain that were often measured in yards and were of
questionable military value" (170).
Stauffenberg's failed attempt to assassinate Hitler took place not
in the "underground bunker" at the Wolfsschanze, but in an
above-ground conference room.
And, to describe the
immolation of Hitler and Eva Braun's bodies in the chancellery
garden as "a scene befitting a Wagnerian opera" is romantic drivel
Another frustration is the publisher's dispensing with superscript
numerals in the text to designate endnotes in favor of keying quotation sources
to their corresponding page numbers. This is a shame, since the work, despite its flaws, is well-researched.
For the popular
audience Warlord aims at, these criticisms will not matter
much. Its celebration of Churchill's many virtues and remarkable
personal story will appeal to general readers. But for scholars and
researchers, Geoffrey Best's Churchill and War
a more focused
option. Indeed, D'Este's more explicitly biographical work is a
missed opportunity. Though his assessment of Churchill's attitude
toward war is sound, his narrative passes over the monumental social
changes during Churchill's life. By contrast, Ian Kershaw, in his
excellent two-volume biography of Hitler,
fully examines "the political structures and social forces" that
brought the Nazi leader to power, while reconciling "the
personalized method of biography" with the "contrasting approaches
to the history of society." Had D'Este adopted such a methodology, he could have given greater
contextual depth to many of Churchill's actions and decisions. This
is not the type of history he wanted to write, but to distinguish
Warlord from previous studies on the subject, it is the kind he needed to.
University of Tennessee
 See, e.g., Decision in Normandy (1983;
rpt. NY: HarperPerennial, 1991) and Fatal Decision: Anzio and
the Battle for Rome (NY: HarperCollins, 1991)—"enjoyable,
thoughtful reading, ... establishes d'Este as a major writer of
military history," A. Wilt, Amer. Hist. Rev. 97 (1992)
 Patton: A Genius for War (NY:
HarperCollins, 1995)—"a formidable accomplishment for D'Este
after the torrents previously written about Patton during the
past half century," L. Sorley, Journ. Mil. Hist. 60
(1996) 786; Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life (NY: Holt,
2002)—"a fine study and a welcome addition to the literature,"
P. Nash, Journ. Amer. Hist. 90 (2003) 712.
 "Churchill and the Trade Unions," Trans.
Royal Hist. Soc. 11 (2001) 282.
 Winston Churchill: The Years of
Preparation (NY: Hawthorn Books, 1958) 143.
 See Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction:
The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (NY: 2006) 382,
Dov B. Lungu, Romania and the Great Powers, 1933-1940
(Durham, NC: Duke U Pr, 1989) 218-27, and Richard Overy,
Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941-1945
(NY: Penguin, 1998) 53 for discussion and figures for the
massive oil shipments Germany received from both Romania and the
Soviet Union. Overy notes in Why the Allies Won (NY:
Norton, 1995) 228-34 that in 1939 Germany was only producing
one-third of its oil from coal and not till 1943 did that figure
balloon to seventy-five percent.
 See Robert Citino, The German Way of War:
From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich (Lawrence: U
Pr of Kansas, 2005) 224-30, for a detailed account of Tannenberg and John Keegan's chapter on the Eastern Front in
his The First World War (NY: Vintage, 2000) for
discussion of the vast distances armies had to traverse there
relative to the more familiar Western Front.
 See Walter Warlimont, Inside Hitler's
Headquarters, 1939-1945, trans. R.H. Barry (Novato, CA:
Presidio Pr, 1964) 440.
 Contrast with Ian Kershaw, Hitler,
1936-1945: Nemesis (NY: Norton, 2001) 830.
 NY/London: Hambledon and London, 2005.
 See note 9 above and Hitler, 1889-1936:
Hubris (NY: Norton, 1998).