Winston Churchill

The master statesman stood alone against fascism and renewed the world's faith in the superiority of democracy

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A passionate believer in the navy's historic strategic role, he immediately committed the Royal Naval Division to an intervention in the Flanders campaign in 1914. Frustrated by the stalemate in Belgium and France that followed, he initiated the Allies' only major effort to outflank the Germans on the Western Front by sending the navy, and later a large force of the army, to the Mediterranean. At Gallipoli in 1915, this Anglo-French force struggled to break the defenses that blocked access to the Black Sea. It was a heroic failure that forced Churchill's resignation and led to his political eclipse.

It was effectively to last nearly 25 years. Despite his readmission to office in 1917, after a spell commanding an infantry battalion on the Western Front, he failed to re-establish the reputation as a future national statesman he had won before the war. Dispirited, he chose the issue of the Liberal Party's support for the first government formed by the Labour Party in 1924 to rejoin the Conservatives, after a spell when he had been out of Parliament altogether. The Conservative Prime Minister appointed Churchill Chancellor of the Exchequer, but when he returned the country to the gold standard, it proved financially disastrous, and he further weakened his political position by opposing measures to grant India limited self-government. He resigned office in 1931 and entered what appeared to be a terminal political decline.

Churchill was truly a romantic, but also truly a democrat. He had returned to the gold standard, for instance, because he cherished, for romantic reasons, Britain's status as a great financial power. He had opposed limited self-government for India because he cherished, for equally romantic reasons, Britain's imperial history. It was to prove more important that as a democrat, he was disgusted by the rise of totalitarian systems in Europe. In 1935 he warned the House of Commons of the importance not only of "self-preservation but also of the human and the world cause of the preservation of free governments and of Western civilization against the ever advancing sources of authority and despotism." His anti-Bolshevik policies had failed. By espousing anti-Nazi policies in his wilderness years between 1933 and 1939, he ensured that when the moment of final confrontation between Britain and Hitler came in 1940, he stood out as the one man in whom the nation could place its trust. He had decried the prewar appeasement policies of the Conservative leaders Baldwin and Chamberlain. When Chamberlain lost the confidence of Parliament, Churchill was installed in the premiership.

His was a bleak inheritance. Following the total defeat of France, Britain truly, in his words, "stood alone." It had no substantial allies and, for much of 1940, lay under threat of German invasion and under constant German air attack. He nevertheless refused Hitler's offers of peace, organized a successful air defense that led to the victory of the Battle of Britain and meanwhile sent most of what remained of the British army, after its escape from the humiliation of Dunkirk, to the Middle East to oppose Hitler's Italian ally, Mussolini.

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