Marlborough: His Life and Times [six vols.], by Winston S. Churchill (1933-38)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

During his wilderness years in the early and mid-thirties, Churchill wrote his masterful history of Britain’s greatest general, his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough. It is probably Churchill’s finest piece of historical writing, which is saying a great deal. Indeed, at this point in his life, the great politician was at the height of his command of the English language. The prose in these volumes foreshadows the great speeches that would come in 1940, speeches that call the British to arms against another tyranny that was threatening their values and way of life.

In his four volumes, Churchill lays out Marlborough’s great campaigns; the diplomatic and strategic framework within which he worked; the extraordinary difficulties which confronted him in working with his Dutch, German, and Austrian allies; and the tangled political difficulties that he confronted back home. What Churchill produced was an eloquent, sweeping, and magisterial account of one of the most important Englishmen to have lived. What Churchill also produced was rousing, thrilling military history, written by the greatest writer of English prose in the twentieth century.

Churchill spells out what made Marlborough such a great general, namely his ability to connect grand strategy with the operational possibilities that French commanders and their mistakes created. But what made him a great strategist was his ability to understand the aims and weaknesses of his allies. The War of Spanish Succession lasted for over a decade, and at its end, Great Britain had emerged as one of the great European powers, while France had begun its century-long decade decline, which would eventually lead to the French Revolution. Modern scholarship has indicated flaws in portions of Churchill’s account, but as the historian Maurice Ashley pointed out, Churchill understood how great statesmen and generals interacted in a fashion that most historians are incapable of depicting. In every respect, Marlborough: His Life and Times is great history, written by a great strategist.