Monday, June 8, 2009

A remarkable letter from a wife to a husband

As readers will know, I rarely post on subjects other than the Hill. A private interest is the study of leadership and another the Second World War. Martin Gilbert's excellent eight volume biography of Churchill, published by Heinemann/Minerva, has kept me happily occupied on and off for many years: it contains many fascinating insights. I was recently rereading volume VI: 'Finest Hour' and came across the following striking passage relating events of late June 1940:

"At Chequers that weekend, the slow pace of United States supplies', the uncertainty of the future of France, and the extent of Britain's own weakness in the event of a German invasion, were causes of grave concern. The strain on everyone who knew the full extent of the dangers was considerable; it was greatest on Churchill, whose responsibilities, so recently acquired, were formidable, yet his power, so long denied, might still prove insufficient to avert defeat. His own mood reflected the grimness of the hour, and affected even his personal behaviour, so much so that one of his friends complained that weekend to Clementine Churchill, and she set down in writing her report:

"My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know.

One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner -- it seems your Private Secretaries agree to behave like school boys & 'take what's coming to them' & then escape out of your presence shrugging their shoulders. Higher up, if an idea is suggested (at a conference) you're supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming. I was astonished & upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who worked with & under you, loving you -- I said this & I was told 'No doubt it's the strain' --

My Darling Winston -- I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders & if they are bungled -- except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury & the Speaker you can sack anyone & everyone. Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm. You used to quote: -- 'On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme' -- I cannot bear that those who serve the country & yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you.

Besides you won't get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality -- "(Rebellion in War Time being out of the question!)

Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful


Clementine Churchill ended this letter with the sketch of a cat. Then she tore the letter up. Four days later she pieced it together again and gave it to her husband."

This letter was given to Churchill on 27 June 1940: might it strike a contemporary note on the behaviour of leaders?

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