BOOK REVIEW / Finding ten thousand Dervishes in a melee: Hugo Barnacle on two lives of Churchill, who was the right monster at the right time

There is a new monument to Winston Churchill being raised in Calais, a 15-foot high bronze hand that offers the Victory V salute to British visitors as they enter France. It was commissioned privately by a former Resistance fighter, who, when asked last week why he had spent his life savings to honour Churchill's memory, explained: 'He was the man who said no.'

Over here another two books on Churchill have appeared. Norman Rose (Churchill: An Unruly Life, Simon & Schuster, pounds 20) gives a good, balanced account; Clive Ponting (Churchill, Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20) has produced a malign catalogue of Churchill's mistakes and misdeeds which diminishes the author more than the subject.

When he became Prime Minister in May 1940, as the Allied front collapsed, Churchill expected to be seized and shot by the Nazis 'in three months'. It did look that way. Lord Halifax, the only other possible candidate, refused every plea to take the job, saying his stomach churned at the thought of it.

In the War Cabinet on 28 May, Halifax, as Foreign Secretary, insisted that Britain should at least find out through the Italians what peace terms Hitler would accept. Churchill, presiding, said no. He would 'jump at the chance' if it were genuine, but it was not. Even if Hitler pretended to settle for recognition of Nazi conquests plus, say, Malta and Gibraltar, he would soon be back for the Navy, and then for everything else.

Churchill told the country on 18 June, 'if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known or cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age . . .' No one else thought the stakes were quite that high, and a more common view even now is the one put by Oxford's Professor Stone. 'We would have won anyway,' because of the American atomic bomb.

But without British bases America would have been helpless. Her first transatlantic nuclear bombers, ready only by 1947, were the size of the Queen Mary and not much faster. Germany had jet fighters and radar; without British technology, America would have had neither for some time. So no bomb on Berlin. Unless Russia had fought through alone, which is not overwhelmingly likely, the Third Reich might well still exist.

In that event, at least Clive Ponting's book would be shorter. It would need few other changes to pass a Nazi censor. This is the kind of thing Ponting gets up to: as is well known, Churchill rode with the 21st Lancers against the Dervishes at Omdurman in 1898, and Ponting remarks, 'Churchill's contribution was, after the charge, to shoot down five men in cold blood with his Mauser pistol.' It is after a charge that cavalry engages the enemy. This is called the melee. At Omdurman the melee was especially fierce because the 21st fell into a dry riverbed they had not spotted, and found 10,000 Dervishes at the bottom of it. The Dervishes set to with spears, swords and rifles and killed a quarter of the regiment in ten minutes. Lt Churchill was surrounded on several occasions and, having a pistol with him for personal defence at close quarters, not unnaturally used it. 'I am sorry to say I shot five men for certain and two doubtful,' he wrote. 'In cold blood' is not the most obvious phrase to cover this.

To make Home Secretary Churchill's publicity-grabbing personal appearance at the Siege of Sidney Street in 1911 seem as ridiculous as possible, Ponting calls the gunmen 'a gang of burglars (believed to be Latvian)'. This is like describing the IRA unit cornered at Balcombe Street in 1975 as a gang of car thieves believed to be Irish. The Latvians, their identities recorded on Special Branch files, were Bolshevik terrorists who had murdered three Metropolitan Police officers during a jewel raid intended to raise Party funds. Their modern automatic weapons included the Mauser type that Ponting finds so alarming. Their ringleader Jacob Peters escaped to become a secret police chief under Stalin.

In 1945, says Ponting, 'Churchill's request brought 'Thunderclap' into operation - the attack on Dresden on 13-15 February.' Operation Thunderclap was a whole series of Anglo-American air raids across eastern Germany, designed to upset rail traffic and civil order in support of the Russian offensive. Most of these attacks did scant damage because of the dense February cloud. At Dresden the cloud broke just as the RAF arrived; the previously unbombed city had no fallen buildings to act as firebreaks; and the Luftwaffe controller, refusing to believe Dresden was the real target, failed to scramble his fighters. The resulting fireball was mainly fortuitous. Churchill had never suggested bombing Dresden: the idea belonged to Air Marshal Harris. Churchill's responsibility for the overall policy of strategic bombing is another matter - German officers were jailed for less at Nuremberg - but Ponting scarcely tackles it.

Churchill's character escapes Ponting altogether. 'He could never understand people who thought that their schooldays had been the happiest time of their lives.' Who can? 'He continued to spend money lavishly on a vast retinue of servants, large quantities of alcohol and food and entertaining at Chartwell.' Good. As Aristotle has observed, the noble mind inclines to magnificence in spending. 'Without servants he was at a loss how to pack his own clothes.' Not a talent any gentleman would cultivate, packing.

Norman Rose goes further, noting that Churchill was not even accustomed to pulling his own socks on of a morning, but where Ponting tut-tuts prissily at the man's self-indulgence, Rose remains amused and intellectually curious about it. He also includes every piece of political and personal folly listed by Ponting - Gallipoli, the 'ten-year rule' on defence budgets, India, Norway, the attempts to block Overlord, and all the rest - but gives them context in a well-written narrative with warmth and life to it, and does this at half the length of Ponting's book.

Ponting cannot write. 'After a disastrous failure at Arnhem, the allies, after liberating France and Belgium, settled down for the winter . . .' He keeps turning out sentences like that. It must take some sort of inverse artistry; which, rather than any neo-Nazi beliefs like David Irving's, is what lends his work its poor tone. Technically unable to achieve pace, proportion or subtlety, he has lumbered himself with a crude method of one knock per paragraph, on and on, hoping for the iconoclastic best. But everyone already knows Churchill was a bit of a monster, vain, erratic, domineering. That is not the point.

He was the right monster in the right place at the right time. Ask a Frenchman who remembers what a peace deal with Hitler actually amounted to. Norman Rose shows us through the dark woods and the open landscape of an extraordinary life. Clive Ponting just walks into one damn tree after another.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...