His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero

Mike Wood - February 12, 2018

Winston Churchill is one of Britain’s most revered figures. In fact, in the eyes of the majority of the public, he is not just a great Briton, but the greatest ever – he was voted as such in a national poll in 2002, beating out the likes of Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Sir Isaac Newton and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the title. The level of respect that Churchill enjoys largely results from his actions during the Second World War, which are seen to have galvanised the British public and inspired them to win the war. His deeds at this time have been brought into the centre of the public consciousness by the recent movie, Darkest Hour, which spans from his accession to power on May 10 1940 to his delivering of a speech to the House of Commons on June 4, shortly before the Dunkirk Evacuation.

While Churchill’s deeds in maintaining British resistance to Nazism were indeed vital – at least in the sense of keeping the war going until the Soviets could win in the East and the Americans decided to join in – his legacy as a “great” Briton is one that is hardly secure. Churchill had a political career that lasted over 6 decades and an army career before that, in which he was an active proponent of British imperialism around the world. Born into a family ensconced in the British aristocracy, Churchill was handed every possible advantage in life: his father was a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the young Winston was educated at one of the most exclusive private schools in the world and then at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, the breeding ground for the officer class of the British Army. It was from this background that Churchill learned the key tenets of the British imperial outlook: stoicism, courage and confidence, traits that would serve him well in World War Two; but also a supremacist attitude that would lead him to horrific acts at other points in his career.

In this article, we will focus on the latter – the 12 times in which Winston Churchill was far from heroic.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
The young Winston Churchill. Owlcation.

1 – Churchill had some really dubious views about race

“I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

When the young Winston was born in 1874, the British Empire was coming close to its peak. By the time he left Sandhurst and entered into the British Army in 1895, the imperial might of Britain was arguably at its height. The empire on which the sun never set spread from Australia to India in the east, from Arabia and Egypt down to Cape Town in Africa as well as Canada, Ireland and the West Indies. It covered around a quarter of the world’s landmass and sustained itself through a combination of terror, economic control and bureaucracy. It was into this mindset that Churchill was reared.

Children of his background, groomed for military and imperial service, were raised with the idea that Britain was best and that the natural order was for them to be in charge. Thus, when he was first sent to India in October 1896, he was sent to be part of an administration that solely existed for the furthering of British goals: namely maintaining the flow of wealth out of India and back to Britain.

Churchill might not have been particularly racist by the standards of fellow Edwardian aristocrats, but from the very beginning, Churchill exhibited a level of racism that would shock a modern observer. He thought that those over whom the British presided were little more than savages, whom were protected from killing each other by the patronage of the colonists. “The strong aboriginal propensity to kill, inherent in all human beings, has in these valleys been preserved in unexampled strength and vigour,” he wrote in his memoirs of his time in what is now Pakistan. Churchill wrote extensively of the way in which the warring tribes in the Northwest Frontier provinces fought each other and paid no respect to each other’s dead, but at no point mentioned that the British did exactly the same when they killed natives.

Of the Chinese, he wrote: “I think we shall have to take the Chinese in hand and regulate them. I believe that as civilized nations become more powerful they will get more ruthless, and the time will come when the world will impatiently bear the existence of great barbaric nations who may at any time arm themselves and menace civilized nations. I believe in the ultimate partition of China — I mean ultimate. I hope we shall not have to do it in our day. The Aryan stock is bound to triumph”.

Later Churchill managed to get himself posted to the Sudan – though the leader of the British campaign there, Lord Kitchener, protested vehemently against having to bring the young Winston, whom he thought little more than a glory-hunter. Churchill fought at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, in which the Sudanese, armed with spears, were massacred by the heavily-armed British.

A witness described it as thus:
“They could never get near and they refused to hold back…It was not a battle but an execution…The bodies were not in heaps – bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composedly with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces.”

Churchill later wrote of his “irritation that Kaffirs (blacks) should be allowed to fire on white men” and his personal physician, Lord Moran, once remarked that “Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin.” The final word on Churchill’s views on race might well go to journalist and biographer Max Hastings, who described it as such: “Churchill’s view of the British Empire and its peoples was unenlightened by comparison with that of America’s president [Franklin Roosevelt], or even by the standards of his time.”

Churchill would, throughout his career, reserve the worst of his ire for the Indians – read on to discover what he thought of them.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
Churchill in India in 1896. Inperial & Global Forum.

 

2 – He learned his trade as part of the brutal British occupation of India

“We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.”

By the time Winston Churchill got to India, the British rule there – the Raj, as it was known – had been in effect for almost 40 years. The British East India Company had set up shop on the southern tip of the subcontinent in 1757 and had gradually expanded across the whole region before being absorbed into the Empire proper in 1858. At the time, it encompassed all of modern India, as well as what is now Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma).

India was the jewel in the crown of the empire, providing untold wealth to the British crown. Naturally, very little of these riches were ever seen by any Indians, who lived in perpetual fear of both soldiers and famine. It is estimated that 10 million people died in the Great Famine of 1876-78 and a further 6 million between 1896 and 1900, the years that Churchill was there. On top of that, there was a series of severe disease outbreaks, with malaria, leprosy and cholera rife.

The Indian into which Churchill arrived was one which was finally tiring of British rule. The Viceroy at the time, Lord Curzon, had angered many through the mismanagement of the famine of 1899 – “any government which imperiled the financial position of India in the interests of prodigal philanthropy would be open to serious criticism; but any government which by indiscriminate alms-giving weakened the fibre and demoralized the self-reliance of the population, would be guilty of a public crime” wrote Curzon – and uprisings were beginning to spring up.

Winston, whom called India a “godless land of snobs and bores” and had no time for the natives, was sent to quash one such rebellion in Malakand, close to the border with Afghanistan. “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” said Churchill of his experiences fighting in Malakand. He later wrote an account of the war entitled “The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War”, which included such choice phrases as “The forces of progress clash with those of reaction,” with the Pashtun Muslims cast as the religion of backwardness and war. “The religion of blood and war is face to face with that of peace. Luckily the religion of peace is usually the better armed,” it continued.

Churchill seemed to see his time in India as a great time of colonial derring do, taking on natives and spreading the good word of British “civilisation” to every corner of the earth, later calling them “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples”. Only briefly did he consider that perhaps the locals in India did not think that much of the men from the other side of the world who had arrived in their country to subjugate them, writing that the natives seemed angered by “the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own.”

Churchill left India for Africa, but his interest in the colony – although, clearly, not in the vast majority of the people who lived there – was far from over. When the poll was published that named Churchill as the greatest ever Briton, a similar one was published in India, one man was so popular that he was not even included in the list. That man was Mahatma Gandhi, and he was a man that Winston Churchill reviled…

3 – Churchill really, really hated Gandhi

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
Mahatma Gandhi giving a speech. Indian Express.

“It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir… striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal Palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”

By the time that Churchill came back to the subject of India, the situation in the subcontinent had drastically changed. Independence from Britain was a major issue, with millions engaging in civil disobedience against the Raj and the colonial authorities. At the centre of it all was Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi had been a lawyer in South Africa and participating in civil rights struggles against the British there, and now found himself as the leader of the resistance.

By the 1930s, Churchill was one of the most well-known figures in British politics and had served as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Secretary of State for the Colonies and First Lord of the Admirality, essentially the head of the Navy. He found himself increasingly isolated, however, due to his intransigence over the question of Indian independence. He founded the Indian Defence League, to oppose any movement towards giving India Dominion status – as enjoyed by Australia, New Zealand and Canada – and heavily criticised the Round Table Conferences, in which British authorities met with Indian leaders (including Gandhi) to discuss reforms of the Raj.

“Churchill was very much on the far right of British politics over India,” wrote historian John Charmley, author of several books about Churchill. Contrary to the popular notion that Churchill’s more outlandish statements were merely the commonplace opinions of Georgian British aristocrats, Charmley adds “even to most Conservatives, let alone Liberals and Labour, Churchill’s views on India between 1929 and 1939 were quite abhorrent.”

Of course, these opinions, which were far out of line with that which were considered acceptable by the majority of his colleagues, did force many to conclude that Churchill had a lack of judgement regarding many of the major political figures of his time. “People sometimes question why on Earth did people not listen to Churchill’s warnings about Hitler in the late 1930s,” reiterated John Charmley in an interview with the BBC in 2015, “to which the short answer is that he’d used exactly the same language about Gandhi in the early 1930s.”

The historian wasn’t wrong. “The truth is that Gandhi-ism and everything it stands for will have to be grappled with and crushed,” Churchill said in a speech in 1930. In another speech, in 1920, he stated: “He ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”

Moreover, many considered him profoundly anti-democratic and out of touch. His view seemed to refer back to the “Golden Age” of the Raj into which he had been born, which no concessions whatsoever to the fact that the majority of people in said Raj had been dead set against it. Churchill’s credibility was destroyed by the issue of Indian independence and, as we will touch on later, a few other incidents which had led many to severely question his judgement.

Nevertheless, he would rise again. When he did, however, the Indians would again suffer at his hands. Right in the middle of the war, he would preside over one of the worst excesses of the whole period of the British Empire – the Bengal Famine.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
Starving Indians during the Bengal Famine of 1943. YourStory.

4 – Churchill allowed the deaths of 3 million Indians during the Bengal Famine

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Churchill’s Indian obsession was not done with, and once he had ascended to the position of Prime Minister during the Second World War, it would reach its lowest ebb. While the war was raging in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific – a war in which an estimated 2.5 million Indians fought for Britain, with 87,000 being killed – back home in Bengal, a horrendous famine struck. The region, centred on Kolkata and encompassing much of modern Bangladesh, was predominantly rural and agricultural, with much of the population living on subsistence farming, so when a combination of rice crop disease, cyclones and changes in agricultural practices came together, the devastation was massive.

That said, the rest of India was less affected, not to mention the rest of the empire. The Raj government refused to trade grain to Bengal and the British back home would not countenance sending relief to India. According to Indian historian Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s War Cabinet “ordered the build-up of a stockpile of wheat for feeding European civilians after they had been liberated. So 170,000 tons of Australian wheat bypassed starving India – destined not for consumption but for storage,” as well as exporting rice from India at a time when millions were dying back in Bengal. “The War Cabinet’s shipping assignments made in August 1943, shortly after Amery had pleaded for famine relief, show Australian wheat flour travelling to Ceylon, the Middle East, and Southern Africa – everywhere in the Indian Ocean but to India. Those assignments show a will to punish,” continues Mukerjee.

This imperialist logic will not surprise many with a knowledge of the history of the British Empire – they did the same in Ireland in the 1840s, among other places – but it is certainly indicative of the priorities at the top of the Churchill regime and the huge fall in the importance of India to the United Kingdom.

Indian economists, most notably Amartya Sen, have argued that there was absolutely no shortage of food in India and that it was the inadequate economic policies of the colonial government that caused the famine, while there is concrete evidence that Churchill actively refused donations of food from both the Americans and the Canadians during the height of the Bengal famine. An estimated 3 million people died.

Whether not sending relief to India helped the war effort back home is intangible, but the effects on the nationalist movement in the Raj was huge. Many had argued on behalf of India entering the war on the Allied side with independence as a price, but the British had never accepted such a deal. Now, even the last remnants of those who thought Indian independence impossible began to change their minds. Britain had shown that it cared little for the fates of Indians, and that it was quite incompetent in organising an effective government too. Once the Second World War ended, the inevitable happened and, after nearly 300 years in control on the subcontinent, India would finally govern itself again.

The best words to summarise Churchill’s view on India might be those of Leo Amery, the Secretary of State for India at the time of the Bengal Famine. He wrote that “on the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane… I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s.” Of course, the Indians were not the only people that Churchill did not care for: there were plenty of others too. While he may have been part of forces that defeated the Nazis and saved untold Jewish lives, he himself had very little time for them…

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
“Zionism versus Bolshevism”, an article written by Churchill in 1920. European Independant Media Centre

5 – Churchill was prone to outbursts of anti-Semitism

“It may be that, unwittingly, they are inviting persecution – that they have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer. There is the feeling that the Jew is an incorrigible alien, that his first loyalty will always be towards his own race.”

The question of just how anti-semitic Winston Churchill was is one that is hotly debated. Supporters of Churchill will point to his detest for the Nazis and his avid support of the foundation of the State of Israel, while detractors can point to a lifetime of anti-semitic comments that still exist in print. Even his official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, was torn on the issue. He calls Winston “a fervent believer in the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own and that state should be in what we then called Palestine,” while also remarking that he “shared the low-level casual anti-Semitism of his class and kind.”

Of course, many defenders of Churchill point to his aristocratic background and British (and white) supremacist ideas, which vacillated between the outlandish, such as his views on Indians, and the mainstream. It is possible that he held both opinions at the same time. Certainly, he was an outspoken supporter of Zionism, though as we will read later, he also hated Muslims, so perhaps that merely places Jews above Arabs in his racially-ranked worldview.

He drew a large distinction between those Jews whom he saw as loyal to their nation and those whom he saw as internationalists, Jews loyal to other Jews. In particular, he saw Bolshevism and communism as a predominantly Jewish phenomenon. “This movement among the Jews is not new,” he wrote in an article in 1920. “From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxemburg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States), this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing.”

Churchill’s views on the formation of the Jewish state were formed by ideas that there was a battle over the Jewish community in which those of a “national” character – whom he perceived to be loyal to their countries and more religiously observant – contrasted with the Bolshevik Jews, whom he described as “adherents of this sinister confederacy are mostly men reared up among the unhappy populations of countries where Jews are persecuted on account of their race. Most, if not all, of them have forsaken the faith of their forefathers, and divorced from their minds all spiritual hopes of the next world.”

He saw Zionism as a bulwark against Communism and thus admissible. It conveniently ignores, for example, the individual agency of Jews to think whatever they liked, while also denigrating those Jews who aligned themselves with other countries that he didn’t like, such as the millions of Jews in Germany, thousands of whom had fought against Britain in the First World War. When there was a real anti-semitic presence on the streets of England in the 1930s in the form of the British Union of Fascists, Churchill did little to assist anti-fascists.

While he did ameliorate his stance in later years, his words were always those of one who thought the Jews were a strategic pawn to be moved where appropriate and dropped whenever necessary. When the state of Israel was finally formed in 1948, Churchill was out of office – but he would have been pleased with the way that it ill-affected another of his most hated groups: the Muslims.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
Churchill in Palestine. The Jerusalem Post.

6 – He was also a noted Islamophobe

“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia [rabies] in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.”

Churchill’s disdain for Muslims was not always as strong as it would become. Indeed, in 1907, when he was Secretary of State for the Colonies, his interest in Islam was such that some family members feared that he might convert. “Please don’t become converted to Islam;” wrote his sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, “I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalize, Pasha-like tendencies, I really have. If you come into contact with Islam your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do fight against it.” There was no real danger of Churchill converting, but he was certainly interested at one stage.

When discussing Churchill’s views on Judaism and Jews and Islam and Muslims, it is worth considering the contradictions and contrasts between what he said and the way in which he acted in the real world. For example, Churchill would regularly say anti-semitic things and lazily and maliciously stereotype Jews, while in practice laying the ground for the foundation of the Jewish state and, of course, fighting against the virulently anti-Jew Nazis. Contrast this with Islam: Churchill was outwardly something of an Islamophile, who enjoyed the cultural aspects of Islamic countries and according to a close friend, Wilfrid S. Blunt, would even dress in Arab garb at points in his later life, but in his actions, he was capable of incredibly brutality against Muslims and responsible for some of the land-grabs and naked imperialism that have created such huge discord in the Islamic world.

“Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it,” he wrote in 1889 in his account of his experiences fighting Islamic forces in Sudan. “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.” Naturally, there is no time at all for the clear fact that there was one civilisation going around the world and colonising things and it certainly wasn’t the Sudanese.

What we can see from this deep dive into the words and actions of Winston Churchill is that, if there is one thing that defines his worldview, it was that British was best. And given that almost all British people were Christians and white, then that was best as well. Churchill might not have been that dissimilar to other men of his age and background – which, lest we forget, was an incredibly small group and yet one tasked with ruling a quarter of the globe – he was in the rare position of being able to carry out the racist and bigoted views that he had.

Now we move on from Churchill’s early life and writings to the man himself and his actions in power. There were plenty of reasons why, when he was mooted as a potential successor to Neville Chamberlain in 1940, many thought that he was wholly unsuited to the job. First among them, perhaps, was that he had been roundly useless at most of the posts of high office that he had been given before, beginning with the disaster that was Gallipoli.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
The destruction of Gallipoli. Radcliffe on Trent WWI.

7 – Churchill created one of the biggest disasters of the First World War

“The price to be paid in taking Gallipoli would no doubt be heavy, but there would be no more war with Turkey. A good army of 50,000 and sea-power – that is the end of the Turkish menace.”

Long before the heroics of the Second World War, there was the shame of the First. In the film Darkest Hour, it is briefly alluded to that there was a great mistake in the past that precluded Churchill from ever retaining any leadership role in a wartime government and the time has come to discuss it. That disgrace was the Dardanelles Campaign of 1915 and in particular, the defeat at Gallipoli.

This catastrophe – arguably the worst British expedition of the First World War, in a war filled with horrendously ill-thought out expeditions – would hang over Churchill for the next two decades. The Dardanelles Strait is found in modern-day Turkey, in what was previously the Ottoman Empire, and was seen as a key route to supplying the British ally of Russia via sea. With the Western Front of the war a stalemate, it was seen as potential breakthrough, but few thought it possible. Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty and in charge of the Navy, thought otherwise.

Churchill drummed up support for a sea campaign in the Dardanelles, but was unable to gain the number of troops that he wanted. Nevertheless, he tried to break the stalemate anyway, with disastrous results. A planned naval assault on February 19, 1915, failed spectacularly in the heavily mined straits, and the Admiral in charge at a nervous breakdown. A second attempt failed again on March 18, losing half the fleet. Undeterred, Churchill ordered a land assault, with the first troops landing on the morning of April 25.

3,000 men were lost on the first day alone, and the Allies lost over 45,000 men in the first month, barely advancing up the beachhead. A stalemate then ensued, in which disease ran rife throughout the Allied lines and caused untold suffering. “The general health is bad with as many as 50 per cent of the men unfit for duty and unless relieved there will be, to a certainty, a severe epidemic of pneumonia, dysentery and enteric fever as the resisting power to disease is practically nil,” wrote on solider of the 12th Infantry. The forces fighting for the Crown at Gallipoli included huge numbers of Australians and New Zealanders, Irish, Indians, Canadians and Nepali Gurkhas, as well as French colonial troops. Six months after the invasion, and after nearly 90,000 people had been evacuated sick, the Allies withdrew.

Churchill, the architect of the Gallipoli Campaign, was roundly criticised. There had been no clear goals, inadequate support, poor maps, troops who had never seen combat before and a bevvy of poor strategic decisions. A commission was set up to investigate what had gone so horrendously wrong, while Churchill was demoted from his position at the head of the Navy and excluded from the Cabinet.

The experience should have been chastening for Churchill, but instead, he tried to extricate himself from the blame. He went on fighting in France, having resought an officer’s commission with the Army. He would later be made Minister for Munitions, in charge of supplying the forces, eventually ending the war there.

When the war ended, however, plenty of other conflicts would result. There had been an uprising in Ireland in 1916 (partly as a reaction to the amount of Irish killed unnecessarily at Gallipoli) and almost as soon as the war was over, another independence struggle sprang up. Churchill, so intransigently opposed to any British imperial loss, would have a large role to play in Ireland as well.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
The Black and Tans frisk an Irish civilian. MilitaryHistoryNow.com

8 – He created the infamous Black & Tans, who terrorised Irish people

“We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English”

Churchill had seen firsthand what the British imperial project meant while serving in India and Africa, and just how successful terror could be as a weapon against people in revolt. He would find in Ireland that it was not always successful.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Ireland – then a constituent part of the United Kingdom without its own Parliament – had been promised Home Rule, but had had it suspended due to the conflict. During the war, however, militant nationalists staged the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, an attempt at revolution that was brutally suppressed by the British. All the leaders were executed and the rebellion crushed, but the tide of public opinion had shifted massively against Britain. At war’s end, a general election was held in 1918 and the radical Nationalist party in Ireland, Sinn Fein, won a resounding victory. They refused to take up their seats in the House of Commons and instead declared independence.

The Irish War of Independence began in early 1919 and the military wing of the Irish nationalist movement, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began attacking British Army units stationed in Ireland. Churchill, who was at the time Secretary of State for War, proposed a paramilitary force that could back up the regular army, to be recruited from unemployed veterans from the First World War. Nearly 10,000 men were raised, trained in a hurry and shipped over the Irish Sea. Due to their uniforms, which did not match, they were known as the Black and Tans. Alongside them were the Auxiliaries, a paramilitary wing of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the police, recruited from former British Army officers, again spearheaded by Churchill.

Between them, they wreaked havoc on the local population. As the IRA tended to work in flying columns and attack and withdraw quickly, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries would take out their revenge on the local civilian population. They were poorly disciplined and often drunk, as well as arbitrarily violent and destructive. In November 1920, they killed 14 civilians at a Gaelic Football match in Dublin, while in December, they burned the centre of Cork to the ground and shot at firefighters attempting to put out the blaze. It was clear that they were out of control and the Irish public only galvanised themselves against them. Back in England, public opinion turned against the Army because of their strongarm tactics.

“If the British Commonwealth can only be preserved by such means, it would become a negation of the principle for which it has stood,” wrote Lionel Curtis, a staunch defender of imperialism. When peace was offered by England, Gandhi wrote: “it is not fear of losing more lives that has compelled a reluctant offer from England but it is the shame of any further imposition of agony upon a people that loves liberty above everything else.”

Churchill’s decision to vastly escalate the conflict in Ireland through paramilitaries begat the end of the closest colony to England and again diminished his reputation further. He remained Secretary of State for War, however, and would again show his brutality in the near future: this time, in the Middle East.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
British troops parade through an Iraqi town, 1919. Smithsonian Magazine.

9 – He was responsible for massacres of entire villages in Iraq

“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilized tribes… it would spread a lively terror.”

The extent of the influence that Churchill had on the Middle East ranges from individual acts of brutality to organisational terror that lasts right into the present. The question of how much he was responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Mespotamia, now Iraq, is also one that it is debated, with official records claiming that no gas was used, while on the ground reports say that it was. Whether you believe it was or wasn’t, the truth of the matter is that Churchill was heavily in favour of it being used and heartily recommended it, despite that being a direct contravention of the accepted rules of war.

Chemical weapons as we know them today were in their infancy in the First World War, but had proven effective against static trench lines. The British Manual of Military Law, the general outlines for how war should be conducted, strictly forbade using it against “uncivilized” people, which certainly would have included those in Mesopotamia at the time. Churchill certainly thought so: in the quote above, he calls the residents as such in a memo taken from May 1919, which also includes lines such as “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.” It is fairly unequivocal stuff.

When discussing British imperial military tactics in the colonial period, the myriad reasons why Britain might have been in the countries that they were in are often laid by the wayside. The Empire had been present in the Middle East since the demise of the Ottoman Empire during World War One, roughly splitting up the region with France along lines drawn up in secret by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. The north of Iraq and Kurdistan, where the chemical weapons were used, did not actually fall into the British sections, which were centred on what is now Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait and southern Iraq, but a later agreement had agreed to hand them over to Britain. Naturally, oil was the major draw and Mosul, in the area intended for France but controlled by Britain, was the major centre of production.

Mesopotamia, as it was then known, was never an official part of the Empire and the locals had no desire to become one. They rose in May 1920 in Baghdad and made a case for independence, which was dismissed out of hand by the British. A fatwa was released that read “It is the duty of the Iraqis to demand their rights. In demanding them they should maintain peace and order. But if the English prevent them obtaining their rights it is permitted to make use of defensive force.” As the revolt spread, Churchill, in his role as Secretary of War, was swift to react.

He despatched two squadrons from the Royal Air Force and bombed the civilian population – the Iraqis, unsurprisingly, had no air force – causing somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 deaths. While historians debate whether gas was used, the point is somewhat moot given the willingness of the British to drop bombs on people’s homes. The revolt was ended and a puppet government installed, ensuring that oil, and more importantly, oil profits, flowed out of the Middle East and into Britain.

The mass bombing of civilians was not invented by Churchill, but the idea of “aerial policing”, the term he coined to describe what the British did in Iraq, was. One of the fighter pilots of 1920, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, wrote

“The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means. Within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured, by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.”

He would do his job again in the Second World War, when the idea would be taken to its logical conclusion – at Dresden.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
The wreckage of Dresden after the bombing. Wikipedia.

10 – He ordered the bombing of Dresden, even though everyone knew it was unnecessary

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed.”

The bombing of Dresden is still discussed as one of the worst excesses of the Allied forces during the Second World War, and as evidenced by the quote above, one of the few that made Churchill sit back and think that he might have gone too far. Bombing of civilian cities was something that was elevated to commonplace status in the destruction of World War Two, and there is no doubt that it played a vital role in the conflict, but by the time the bombers appeared above the Saxon city of Dresden in the middle of February 1945, it was winding down.

The war was in its death throes: on the Eastern Front, the Soviets had crossed the Oder river and entered into modern-day Germany, less than 100km from Berlin, with the Nazi forces in total retreat, while in the West, American and British forces were winning the Battle of the Bulge and pushing towards the Rhine. With cities in the East – namely Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden – now within range, Churchill canvassed opinion on whether he should engage them. Cheif of the Air Staff Charles Portal wrote a memo that read “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West,” and another that advocated a bombing on Dresden, claiming that it “will cause great confusion in civilian evacuation from the east and hamper movement of reinforcements from other fronts.”

The civilian evacuation mentioned might better be read as a concentration of refugees. Dresden had once been a city of importance to the Nazi war effort, but was thronged with civilians escaping from the East. An attack was conceived to deliberately target these people, but the industrial suburbs that housed the factories were left untouched. A further memo noted the propaganda power of an attack on Dresden, stating that the British could “show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.” Dresden might well be considered an early battle of the Cold War.

When the bombers arrived, they were merciless. The entire historic city centre was destroyed and an estimated 25,000 people killed over the course of 3 nights, partly by bombs and partly by the firestorm that ensued. “The final phase of Bomber Command’s operations was far and away the worst,” wrote Wing Commander H.R. Allen of the Royal Air Force. “Traditional British chivalry and the use of minimum force in war was to become a mockery and the outrages perpetrated by the bombers will be remembered a thousand years hence”.

Many later classified it as a war crime and even a genocide. There were an estimated 300,000 refugees in the city centre, the city held little military significance and the tactic of firebombing, which the Allies knew would have hardly any strategic effect and cause maximum casualties, was devastating. Churchill’s actions replicated those of the Nazis that he had seen first hand during the Blitz, but they were far from the first time in which tactics more commonly associated with his enemy would be attributed to him…

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
A Kenyan concentration camp, 1954. South African History Online.

11 – Churchill forcibly evicted thousands of Kenyans and put them into concentration camps

“This course [detention without trial and forced labour] had been recommended despite the fact that it was thought to involve a technical breach of the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 and the Convention on Human Rights adopted by the Council of Europe”

As we have discovered, Churchill presided over a campaign of civilian bombing in the Middle East that foreshadowed what would follow in the Second World War. In that case, it was trying something out before the war and then using it to devastating effect in a larger conflict, whereas in the case of Kenya, it was taking something that had been seen in the war and then reapplying it in the colonies. One would think that, having seen the horrors of a brutal imperialist project and the logical conclusion of racist beliefs, he might have ameliorated his views on imperialism and race. Not for a second.

Churchill was deposed immediately after the Second World War and replaced by Clement Atlee, a Labour Prime Minister, but soon returned to power in 1951. Britain had spent the immediate post-war period messily splitting the Raj into India and Pakistan (and fermenting sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims) as well as attempting to squash a rebellion in Malaysia, and in 1952, a further uprising started in the hugely profitable colony of Kenya.

As ever, the British imperial project wasn’t particularly concerned about the people of wherever they were colonising, and instead about just how much wealth they could wring out of it. In the case of Kenya, that wealth lay in the fertile soil and the bountiful crops that could be grown in it. The Deputy Governor of Kenya wrote to London in 1945 saying: “The principal item in the natural resources of Kenya is the land, and in this term we include the colony’s mineral resources. It seems to us that our major objective must clearly be the preservation and the wise use of this most important asset.”

An earlier report, in the 1920s had described Kenya as having “some of the richest agricultural soils in the world, mostly in districts where the elevation and climate make it possible for Europeans to reside permanently,” and recommended that thousands of settlers be given land to farm. Thus, some 7 million acres had been forcefully taken from locals and given over to white settler farmers, with the natives then forced to work the land as labourers for their white masters.

When the Mau Mau, as the local forces were called, rose up against the British, a state of emergency was declared in 1952 and some 150,000 people forcibly moved into concentration camps. Rape was a common weapon, while suspected rebels were tortured with electricity. Others were summarily executed. Churchill presided over all of this. The story of the Mau Mau Uprising was suppressed for decades and only in recent years was documentation found that told the whole story of the brutal treatment of Kenyans.

An editorial in The Guardian in 2011 on the Mau Mau Uprising, shortly after a group of Kenyans who had lived through the horrors of British rule had sued the British Government for compensation, read: There is something peculiarly chilling about the way colonial officials behaved, most notoriously but not only in Kenya, within a decade of the liberation of the concentration camps and the return of thousands of emaciated British prisoners of war from the Pacific. One courageous judge in Nairobi explicitly drew the parallel: Kenya’s Belsen, he called one camp.”

In this piece, we have spoken extensively of Churchill’s disdain for basically anyone who was not white and British – but he was also no big fan of plenty of other British people too. In fact, he wasn’t above turning the troops on his own people when he saw fit.

His Darkest Hour: 12 Times Winston Churchill Was Far From Being a Hero
Striking miners at Tonypandy in 1910. Libcom.

12 – Churchill was happy to attack his own people

“Make your minds perfectly clear that if ever you let loose upon us again a general strike, we will loose upon you”

As we have heard, Churchill was the product of an upbringing that instilled beliefs in the power of Empire, the supremacy of white British people and the need for a strong, patronly leadership to keep order. We have also seen how ready he was to strike back against anyone who defied him and his class’ god given right to rule over the whole world without any dissent. While this was usually expressed far away from home, whether starving Indians, beating up Irish people, herding Kenyans into concentration camps or massacring Africans, there is ample evidence that Churchill did not think much of those with whom he shared his own island.

The young Winston was the child of an aristocratic family and lived his life as an aristocrat, but the time in which he lived was the absolute height of British industry and the British working class movement. Trade Unionism was as strong as it would ever be and the newly-founded Labour Party was representing the interests of the organised working class in Parliament and beyond. Winston had very little time for the working man, especially when that working man exercised his right to strike or to demonstrate against those in power.

The most notable incident was the Tonypandy Riots, which took place in 1910 and 1911 in Wales, when Churchill was Home Secretary. Miners had been in a dispute with mine bosses for several months and, when the bosses locked workers out of their workplaces, the miners went on strike. They managed to get 12,000 workers all over South Wales to come out with them and, fearing the potential for destruction that such a force possessed, the bosses called in the police. All pits were closed in the Tonypandy region of South Wales by picketing miners and they clashed with police sent in to keep the mines open.

When the police were unable to quell the miners, they appealed to the Home Secretary for help. Churchill sent in the Army and they clashed with the strikers, with an estimated 500 injured and at least one killed. Rumours spread all over Wales that the Army had fired on unarmed demonstrators. Churchill was widely blamed for the incident, as he had ordered that the troops in. Furthermore, by sending in the soldiers to a civil dispute, he had made it impossible for the miners to win their strike, essentially intervening directly on the side of bosses in an industrial dispute.

In the eyes of many working-class Britons, Churchill’s reputation as a posh bully boy was never erased. When giving a speech in the Welsh capital of Cardiff in 1950, he was forced to acknowledge his huge local unpopularity and even in the late 1970s, his grandson was told by then Prime Minister James Callaghan not to speak on a House of Commons debate regarding the pay of coal miners for fear that people associate it with “the vendetta of your family against the miners of Tonypandy”. He would later utilise the Army against striking workers in Liverpool in 1911 and then, after the First World War and while serving as Secretary of State for War, set the troops on protestors in Glasgow during the so-called Red Clydeside period.

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