Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945

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WARLORD: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, Carlo D'Este, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 864 pages, 2008, $39.95.

Carlo D'Este's outstanding biography is a vivid profile of Winston Churchill, warts and all, a great man seemingly born and bred for war. Churchill was fascinated by all things military from his early years and invigorated by military training (Sandhurst), by combat experiences as a young man in India and Sudan, and exposure to combat as a war correspondent in the Boer War. He was also First Lord of the Admiralty prior to and during the first part of World War I, and after political disgrace resulting from the Dardanelles failure, was a fully engaged regimental commander in Belgium in 1916. He returned as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939 and became prime minister of England in May 1940.

In February 1915, just prior to the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, Churchill said to Violet Asquith, "I think a curse should rest on me--because I love this war. I know it's smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment--and yet--I can't help it--I enjoy every second of it."

D'Este describes a war leader who, if he could have done so, would have fought in the trenches, led soldiers in combat, commanded a theater of war, planned strategy and disposition of forces, and led the nation, all at once. Churchill's desire to fill every military role and to experience every adventure of war was as far from ordinary egoism as the spirit of self-sacrifice is from mystical intuition. Churchill's instinct was toward total identification and absorption in all aspects of the conduct of the war.

D'Estes' Churchill is a difficult, not very likeable child and youth, emotionally neglected by his mercurial father and beautiful mother. Churchill's father had a low opinion of his son's abilities, believed he lacked the intellectual capacity for law, and was exasperated by his son's refusal to apply himself to his studies or stay out of scrapes with other boys and school authorities.

Churchill left his adolescence with narcissistic wounds; from an early age he craved honor, glory, position, and influence, as well as riches. He lived well beyond his means throughout his life. He found acceptance at Sandhurst and applied himself to learning his profession. He was a superb and fearless horseman and an outstanding polo player. In addition, at Sandhurst he was in his element. Nevertheless, Churchill was always a difficult person who acted as if rules were made for other people: in his 20s he was ambitious, opportunistic, and self-serving. When he became an author and war correspondent, Churchill infuriated military leaders with his critical judgments of British ineptitude in the Sudan and Boer Wars. "Infuriating" is a term that appears frequently in authorities' reactions to Churchill's behaviors as a youth and young man. …