“I’m bored with it all“.
Considered by many to be the greatest Briton to have ever lived, few led a life as varied and eventful, and as replete with accomplishments and failures, as did Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965). He is best known for his leadership during WWII, particularly during the stretch when Britain stood alone and defiant against the Nazi juggernaut. But even before that supreme moment, Churchill had led a full life that would have exhausted most.
His father was a British lord and prominent Conservative Party politician, his mother was a wealthy American heiress, and neither had time to see him as often as Churchill would have liked. Sent to a boarding school, he did poorly, showing little of the brilliance that would mark his later life, so his father sent him to the army, whose officer ranks at the time were a convenient dumping ground for the dimmer scions of the British aristocracy.
It took Churchill three tries to pass the entrance exams into Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point) in 1893, and enroll as an officer cadet. Once in, he took to military life and began to blossom. Commissioned a cavalry officer in 1895, he took a side job as a war reporter, filing his first stories from Cuba. The following year he accompanied his regiment to India, and in 1898 participated in the Nile campaign that conquered Sudan, both as a soldier and reporter. During the climactic battle of that campaign, Churchill took part in the last cavalry charge in British Army history. A year later, he was in South Africa, as a war correspondent covering the Boer War. Captured and imprisoned by the Boers, he made a dramatic escape, and eluding a massive manhunt, made it back to British lines.
Only 25 when he returned to Britain, Churchill was already a celebrity, known for both his reporting and his personal exploits. Determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he parlayed that celebrity into a political career. He won the election to Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative MP, but increasing conflicts with his party’s platform led him to switch and join the Liberals in 1903. He rose in Liberal ranks, and by 1908 was in the government as a cabinet minister – the youngest in half a century – who, alongside Lloyd George, laid the foundations for the welfare state.
In 1911, he became First Lord of the Admiralty, and oversaw the Royal Navy’s rapid expansion in an arms race with Germany. However, when WWI broke out Churchill was criticized for a series of naval failures early in the war, culminating in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 that had been his brainchild, and whose humiliating collapse forced him to resign in disgrace, sending him into the first of many recurring bouts of depression. Gallipoli remained a stain on Churchill until it was washed out and redeemed by his WWII leadership.
After WWI, he regained office, and in 1924 switched back to the Conservatives, whose government he joined as Chancellor of the Exchequer, quipping: “anyone can rat. It takes genius, however, to re-rat“. His stint as Chancellor proved disastrous: he restored the gold standard, which resulted in an overvalued British pound and a consequent collapse in British exports, leading to massive layoffs, labor turmoil, a general strike that paralyzed Britain, and Churchill’s being out of a job when the Conservatives were defeated in 1929 and Labor took over the government.
Between the disasters of Gallipoli and his Chancellorship, Churchill entered the 1930s with a poor political reputation. When Conservatives regained office, he was not invited to join the Cabinet, and spent the decade in political isolation that he described as his “wilderness years”. He devoted his time to writing, and to issue warnings about the gathering Nazi menace that were ignored. He was vindicated when war broke out in 1939. Appointed Prime Minister in 1940, in his country’s darkest hour, he cemented his place in history as Britain’s wartime leader.
Booted out of office by British voters within weeks of final victory in Europe, he returned to writing, winning a Nobel Prize in Literature for his WWII memoirs. He returned for another stint as Prime Minister in 1951, before finally retiring in 1955. After such an eventful life, it was perhaps understandable that his final words before dying in 1965 were “I’m bored with it all“.