Sir Winston Churchill, one of the greatest statesmen in history, inspired the British during World War II. Just his presence, with two fingers raised high in his familiar “V for victory” sign, cheered his war-weary countrymen.
Born 30 November 1874 at Oxfordshire, England, young Winston was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, a beautiful American woman. He longed for attention from his parents, whom he dearly loved, but Lord and Lady Randolph were caught up in political and social responsibilities and spent little time with their son. Consequently his nurse, Mrs. Everest, whom he affectionately called “Woom,” was the one whom he grew to love as a mother.
When Winston was seven, he was sent away to St. George’s, a prestigious boarding school. He did not like Latin and stubbornly refused to study any subjects that did not interest him. He was often severely whipped by the headmaster for doing poorly in his classes.
Winston was also a sickly child during his early school days. After two years at St. George’s, he was sent to a school by the seaside, in the hope that the fresh air and climate would improve his health. At Brighton, Winston was allowed to study French and history—his favorite subjects—memorize poetry, and ride horses and swim. He soon grew healthier and became athletic.
When Winston was twelve, his father decided to send him to Harrow, a reputable public school (in the United States, it would be called a private school). However, on his entrance examination, Winston was not able to answer even one question on the Latin test. But because his father was one of the most brilliant and influential men in England, Winston was admitted. He spent the next four and a half years at Harrow, consistently finishing at the bottom of his class.
Because he kept failing Latin, Winston had to repeat the lowest form, or grade, again and again. This meant that he also got to retake the same English grammar class each time. He never did learn Latin very well, but he did become a great journalist and author—in 1953 he won the Nobel prize for literature—and an excellent speaker. Even though he was assigned to the form for the slowest learners, Churchill tried out for the school prize in recitation. He wrote to his father, proudly telling him that he was memorizing a thousand lines of Macaulay, a popular British writer. Then, the day before the recital, he found out that he needed to recite twelve hundred lines! He spent every spare moment memorizing the additional lines and won the top prize, to the amazement of the school.
During his early life, Woom was the only person who gave Winston any real love. When she visited him at Harrow, he walked hand-in-hand with her, despite the ridicule of his schoolmates. Years later, one of his classmates wrote that it was one of the greatest acts of courage and compassion that he had ever seen. Winston wrote and visited Woom often, and he kept a picture of her on his desk until he died.
One of Winston’s favorite pastimes was maneuvering his collection of fifteen hundred toy soldiers in battle formation and playing out his strategies of war. Lord Randolph decided that if nothing else, Winston could become a soldier. However, Winston twice failed the entrance exam to Sandhurst, the famed military college, before barely passing it.
After two years of learning about military tactics and law, fortifications, map making, and riding, Winston graduated with honors, eighth in a class of 150. After leaving Sandhurst, he participated in various wars in Cuba, India, and Africa, often as a foreign correspondent for newspapers.
During the Boer War in South Africa, the armored train in which Winston was riding was ambushed, and he was taken prisoner. He made a daring escape and traveled nearly three hundred miles on foot and by freight train until he reached safety. When he arrived in England, he received a hero’s welcome. The following year he was elected to Parliament.
During his lifetime, Churchill was a member of Parliament, a cabinet member in the English government, and First Lord of the Admiralty during World Wars I and II. When he was appointed Prime Minister in 1940, during World War II, he told the people, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”—which he gave plenty of for the next five years!
Churchill was a tough politician and leader, but there was also a sensitive side to him. He was devoted to his wife, Clementine, and their five children. In his later years he took up painting as a form of relaxation and surprised many critics with his talent.
Although Lord Randolph never showed his son the love he longed for, Winston tried to make his father proud of him and wrote his biography as a tribute to him.
In 1953 Churchill, who was then Prime Minister for a second time, was knighted a member of the Order of the Garter, Britain’s highest order of knighthood. Two years later he retired as Prime Minister but kept his seat in Parliament until 1964.
Americans also greatly admired England’s defender of freedom, and in 1963 Congress made him an honorary United States citizen.
Winston Churchill, soldier, war reporter, author, orator, and statesman, died in 1965 at the age of ninety.