Pride of place at Chartwell

The current Prime Minister apparently models himself on Churchill and has written a biography to prove it. In turn, Churchill’s admiration for Napoleon was not as unusual as it now appears. John Tyrrell reviews the implications.

Britain has always had many collectors of Napoleonic memorabilia. This fine Sevres bust resides in Kent. Its owner was a lifelong admirer of Napoleon, whom he described as “the greatest man of action ever known to human records”. Accordingly, the bust had pride of place on his desk at Chartwell.

Left: image courtesy of William Mayer

Modern admirers of Winston Churchill, many of them supporters of Brexit, the Anglosphere and even of Donald Trump, find this and his Francophilia difficult to process.

In the context of his aristocratic Whig background, Churchill’s admiration for Napoleon was not as unusual as it now appears. A century earlier, many Whigs had admired somewhat enviously the changes Napoleon brought to France: the legal code, the concordat with the Church, order and defence of property, freedom of religion, careers open to talents.

A number felt that Britain was on the wrong side of history in fighting alongside the absolutist monarchs of Europe against the ideas of the French Revolution. Even the Duke of Wellington’s own brother voted against the Waterloo campaign. These views were not confined to Whig aristocrats. A recent study of the large amount of popular song about Napoleon in the British Isles concluded that “the eponymous Bonaparte was better loved and respected by the general populace than Wellington, Pitt or the Prince Regent.” That may of course have been a pretty low bar!

Churchill saw himself as a man of destiny. I “have faith in my star” he wrote to his mother from the North-West frontier of India in 1897, “I am intended to do something in the world.” As a young man in a hurry, there was no better model than Napoleon who had risen from nothing to become the ruler of France at the age of 30. In 1901, a life-size David portrait of Napoleon gave him “a queer sensation. It seems pervaded with his personality; and I felt as if I had looked furtively into the very room where he was working, and only just got out of the way to avoid being seen.”

In 1912, now First Lord of the Admiralty, travelling by train across the Alps, Churchill waxed so eloquently about Napoleon’s crossing the Alps that his wife in the next compartment thought he was reading aloud. In 1915, in the wake of the Dardanelles disaster, which was thought to have ended his political career, he cited Napoleon to Admiral Fisher: “We are defeated at sea because our admirals have learned – where I know not – that war can be made without running risks.”  

In My Early Life (1930),  Churchill claimed that the words of “the great Napoleon” had come to him when he surrendered in the Boer War:- “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.” He was still planning to write a biography of Napoleon in the 1930s, and as wartime Prime Minister publicly defended Napoleon’s reputation against those who sought to compare him to Hitler.

“All behind you, Neville”
Graham T. Clews, Churchill’s Phoney War: A Study in Folly and Frustration. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 2019, 360 pages, $44.95.
November 1939: Standing, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty (1874 – 1965), Leslie Hore-Belisha , Secretary of State for War, (1893 – 1957) and Lord Hankey (without portfolio) (1877 – 1963). Front Row, Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary (1881 – 1959), Sir John Simon, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1873 – 1954), Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister (1869 – 1940, Sir Samuel Hoare, Home Secretary (1880 – 1959) and Lord Chakfield, Co-ordination of Defence.
(Photo by Walter Bellamy/London Express/Getty Images)

Returning to office as First Sea Lord in 1939, the photo (above) of the newly constructed War Cabinet shows Churchill striking a familiar Napoleonic pose behind the man he was shortly to replace, whose hands are clasped in anguished prayer.

Churchill’s admiration of Napoleon was also related to his love of France, which he frequently visited and where his wife had lived before they were married. His early years had seen the end of centuries of enmity and the establishment of L’Entente Cordiale. As Prime Minister, he made an offer of union with France in 1940, and in 1944 said, “All my life I have been grateful for the contribution France has made to the culture and glory of Europe. Show me a moment when I swerved from this conception, and you will show me a moment when I have been wrong”.

The current Prime Minister apparently models himself on Churchill and has written a biography to prove it. One is reminded of Marx’s ironic comment on the accession of Louis Napoleon to power in France: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”