The Last Lion is an epic retelling of a life lived at a scale unimaginable today. Winston Spencer Churchill spent his life fighting for his view of the British Empire. This volume, the first of three, covers his life until the early 1930’s. From the Boer War, to the trenches of WWI, and his time in the political wilderness in the 30’s.
The sheer amount of research is staggering. The book is a shining example of writing craft and the power of research. William Manchester read an immense quantity of material. Much of it from the private letters and journals of Winston and his colleagues and friends. People corresponded constantly back then. Winston seems to have fired off many letters every day of his life.
The digressions into a general topic are fascinating and enlightening. Manchester explains the high rate of extramarital affairs amongst Victorians. The history of the Irish troubles and the Indian struggle for Independence. His account of Russian Revolution and the long Civil War that followed was riveting. And the rise of Hitler and his Nazi party, which Churchill with his daily newspaper habit, spotted early. These diversions enrich the tale and set the scene of the world that Winston lived in. The depth of his involvement in world affairs is staggering and no longer possible.
The book doesn’t shy from Churchill’s many faults but digs in and examines them. His anti-semitism and racism, while common for the time, now look terrible. But some of his most famous mistakes turn out not to be his.
The failed Dardanelles campaign lead to thousands dying on the beaches of Gallipoli. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston pushed for it and was held responsible for it’s failure. But delay, internal politics and naval officers without confidence lead to disaster. With more support, the British Navy could have taken Constantinople and changed the course of the War.
World War One
The chapters on World War One are grim but fascinating. The scope of the losses is near unbelievable. The Generals running the war thought nothing of throwing away thousands of lives for no gain. Their insistence to keep doing the same things while incurring the same defeats seems like madness.
Winston thrived in war. While other men shrunk and grew fearful, he grew bold. After losing his position as First Lord of the Admiralty he asks to go to the front. Sleeping in the trenches with his men he seemed fearless.
Many of the ideas he had were innovations ahead of their time. He saw the benefits of airplanes early and pushed the development of the tank. The War Cabinet discounted his superior grasp of startegy and pushed him aside for political reasons.
It’s hard to fathom a life as full as that of Winston Churchill. He took part in so many key events of the early twentieth century. This volume doesn’t even cover the era for which he is best known.
Is it worth reading?
I’ve never read a book of this scope and depth. The pure quality of the writing, and strength and skill of the research behind it shine through. The three volumes took William Manchester near thirty years to complete. The time was well spent.
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