100 Years Ago, Churchill Began 'The World Crisis'
Reflecting on Winston Churchill as an historian, J.H. Plumb wrote that, “History was the heart of his faith; it permeated everything which he touched, and it was the mainspring of his politics and the secret of his immense mastery.” John Lukacs noted that although Churchill was never trained as an historian, his “mind was steeped in history.” One hundred years ago, Churchill began writing his massive six-volume history of the First World War entitled "The World Crisis."
Churchill was a writer before he was a statesman. His early books, written before he reached age 26, were "The Story of the Malakand Field Force" (1898), "The River War" (1899), "Savrola" (1900), "London to Ladysmith" (1900), and "Ian Hamilton’s March" (1900). "Savrola," his only novel, is a story about a revolution in a fictional Mediterranean country. The other early books are about real wars — fighting on the northwest frontier of India, in the Sudan, and in South Africa. Churchill observed some of the fighting as a war correspondent and occasionally as a combatant. His daring escape from the Boers in South Africa made him famous and launched his political career. Churchill’s first “big” book was a two-volume biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, which he began writing in 1902 and completed four years later.
Churchill served as First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, and Secretary of State for Air and War during and immediately after the First World War. He had ensured that the fleet was ready when war was declared against the Central Powers in August 1914. But after the Dardanelles debacle in 1915 that he had championed long after its failure was evident, Churchill was forced to resign from the War Cabinet and spent a few months serving in combat on the Western Front. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motives in writing "The World Crisis" was to attempt to salvage his reputation — he believed, with some justification, that he was unjustly blamed and singled out for the failure of the Dardanelles campaign.
"The World Crisis" was a hot commodity
Churchill patterned his writing style after Gibbon and Macaulay. He began writing the first two volumes of "The World Crisis" at the end of 1920 and into the early months of 1921, a time during which he left the War Office to become Colonial Secretary (where he worked on, among other issues, the postwar settlement of the Middle East). He hired literary agents for the project in November 1920. In December of that year, he asked the Admiralty’s Permanent Secretary for access to his Admiralty papers. On Jan. 1, 1921, Churchill told Lord Riddell that he had already written parts of the first volume, and that he found the research and writing “very exhilarating.” Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert noted that publishers in Britain and the United States offered him substantial advances for publication rights. Initially, Gilbert explains, “Churchill intended to confine his two volumes to his years as First Lord, and to concentrate on the role of sea power in the first nine months of the war.” Churchill suggested that the work’s title be “The Great Amphibian,” but U.S. publishers insisted instead on “The World Crisis.”
Churchill wrote to his wife from Cannes in southern France in late December 1920 and early January 1921, that Prime Minister Lloyd George read two of his chapters and praised Churchill’s style. Churchill noted that he had been working very hard on the book and had written “more than twenty thousand words” in a few days. Other readers, he told her, “pronounced it thrilling.” “The more I do,” he continued, “the more I feel the need of doing. One thing brings up another.” Churchill hired retired Admiral Thomas Jackson, a former Director of Naval Intelligence, to help him in “the technical, professional, and historical accuracy” of naval matters during the war. He also received help from Edward Marsh, who served as Churchill’s private secretary, and Major-General Sir James Edmunds, the editor of the "Government’s Official War History."
The first volume appeared in 1923. Lord Balfour referred to it as “Winston’s brilliant autobiography, disguised as the history of the universe,” while another colleague remarked, “Winston has written an enormous book all about himself and calls it 'The World Crisis'.” Although the work has many critics, it also has plenty of admirers. Churchill biographer William Manchester compared it favorably to Thucydides’ "History of the Peloponnesian War," and the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and Henry Kissinger. Manchester noted that T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") “described the second volume as ‘far and away the best war-book I’ve yet read in any language.’” John Maynard Keynes praised Churchill for his “energies of mind and his intense absorption of intellectual interest and elemental emotion.” The work’s deepest theme, wrote Manchester, was its “re-creation of the past, the illusion of immediacy created by the author’s powerful presence.”
Churchill had a way with words
In the first volume of "The World Crisis," Churchill wrote an unforgettable and unsurpassed description of the global catastrophe:
The Great War through which we have passed differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. All the horrors of all the ages were brought together, and not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them. The mighty educated States involved conceived with reason that their very existence was at stake. Germany having let Hell loose kept well in the van of terror; but she was followed step by step by the desperate and ultimately
avenging nations she had assailed. Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a greater scale and of longer duration. No truce or parley mitigated the strife of the armies. The wounded died between the lines: the dead mouldered into the soil. Merchant ships and neutral ships and hospital ships were sunk on the seas and all on board left to their fate, or killed as they swam. Every effort was made to starve whole nations into submission without regard to age or sex. Cities and monuments were smashed by artillery. Bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or
were smothered, often slowly, in the dark recesses of the sea. The fighting strength of armies was limited only by the manhood of their countries. Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and these were of doubtful utility.
Originally conceived as two volumes, the work expanded to four volumes, and finally to six volumes with the addition of "The Aftermath" and "The Unknown War" (devoted wholly to the Eastern front). The final volume appeared in 1931.
Churchill subsequently wrote a four-volume biography of his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, a six-volume history of the Second World War (which won the Nobel Prize for literature), and a four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill’s history of the Second World War is brilliant and more well-known than "The World Crisis." But if the First World War is what George Kennan called the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th Century, then you cannot understand the Second World War, or for that matter the rest of the 20th Century (and arguably the early part of the 21st Century) without learning about the First World War. And to fully understand and appreciate the significance of that war, you should read "The World Crisis."
The work’s importance was perhaps best explained by the writer Algis Valiunas in an article in The American Spectator:
To read The World Crisis is to begin to understand how the crisis in political thought that the war brought on ought to have been resolved; to see a compassionate and sorrowing soul regard without flinching the greatest catastrophe of human devising; to study a composed and resolute intelligence as it resists the nihilistic desperation and utopian fantasy that the carnage has begotten; to hear a majestic voice, ringing with admiration, piercing in anger, hushed with grief and pity, speak those words which alone preserve dead and survivors alike from the ashen wastes of the meaningless and