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My Early Life: 1874-1904 by Winston S.…

My Early Life: 1874-1904 (1930)

by Winston S. Churchill

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This is one of the wittiest, and most poignant, books I have ever read. One laughs and cries throughout the reading; it is very difficult to put the book down. Written about 1930 during a time when Churchill was not very popular, his self-deprecating humor reveals a depth of character that only became clear to most people when he became Prime Minister during the darkest days of World War II. ( )
1 vote AlanEJohnson | Aug 27, 2014 |
It is said that "A man is not on his on oath in monumental inscriptions,." I'd say this is also true of autobiography. But WSC was a good journalist, and had a market for a volume of memoirs. Published at a low point in his career, he could see his past somewhat rosily, while reminding himself to some degree, that seeing what came next would be a sensible idea. It flows well, and gives one an idea about his interior mental furniture. The overall biography (one Volume) by Martin gilbert should be read after or before this one. There's also all eight volumes by (largely) the same writer. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Nov 9, 2013 |
4301 My Early Life 1874-1904, by Winston Churchill (read 15 Apr 2007) This is an amazingly enthralling book and one marvels at the extraordinary life Churchill had. The book was written in 1930 and so much of life still was in front of him. This is a great book, and while it portrays him in a good light, I agree he did have an amazing youth. One must admire his eagerness to be in exciting though dangerous situations. This book is a winner and fun to read. ( )
  Schmerguls | Oct 29, 2007 |
This memoir of Churchill's early life, spanning from 1874 to his twenty-sixth year in 1900, is well worth reading on two levels: superficially because Churchill's writing is superb, and more deeply for the historically knowledgeable reader, who can track back and forth between Churchill's perspective and others'.

The style is very pleasant, quick and often amusing or gripping to read--something that seems to have come very easily to Churchill, who was a very productive writer. He judiciously injects a very wry humor into almost everything, much of it engagingly self-deprecating. This brought me with him through the first third of the book, in which he discusses his childhood and schooldays and takes numerous opportunities to bestow his opinions on diverse topics--even though I can list the ones I agreed with on the fingers of one hand.

My Early Life was published in 1930 and what people then called 'The Great War' haunts its every chapter. I think it is this haunting that constitutes the work's best claim to literary merit. Churchill situates his youth in a carefree period of British history. "The minds of this generation, exhausted, brutalised, mutilated and bored by War, may not understand the delicious yet tremulous sensations with which a young British Officer bred in the long peace approached for the first time an actual theatre of operations." In this episode Churchill, nearing the completion of his training as a cavalry officer, has actually crossed an ocean in order to attend a war he has no part in (between the Cubans and Spanish, in 1895). Throughout the book he contrasts his youthful, patriotic delight in representing the world's strongest Empire in arms with his mature knowledge of the horrors of the First World War.

Neither of the above features is why I first picked up My Early Life. Rather, I was tracing a quotation from it that appeared in Sven Lindqvuist's stunning Exterminate All the Brutes. This work investigates the devastation of imperialism in Africa that is Europe's legacy. Lindqvist dwells at some length on the Battle of Omdurman (1898) in the Sudan. He sums it up: "At the battle of Omdurman, the entire Sudanese army was annihilated without once having got their enemy within gunshot" despite the overwhelming numbers of the Sudanese (or 'Dervishes'), due to British technological superiority.

Churchill's role here was that of newspaper war correspondent as well as military officer. He returns to the battle for some chapters in My Early Life, parts of which Lindqvist quotes. These quotations reveal Churchill's attitude to the battle--like a game, "full of fascinating thrills ... [n]obody expected to be killed" yet at the same time "the last link in the long chain of those spectacular conflicts whose vivid and majestic splendour has done so much to invest war with glamour."

My reading of these scenes in Early Life reveals Churchill watching with some admiration for the Sudanese who rush by the thousands down into the range of British bullets (but not yet in the range of Sudanese), their courage undimmed by the thousands upon thousands of corpses piling up until, as he romantically puts it, "the whole mass of the Dervishes dissolved into fragments and into particles and streamed away into the fantastic mirages of the desert." Directly put (which is something Churchill avoids when it means addressing the humanity, rather than the black-cloud-ness, of the Sudanese) this means that the Sudanese who were not slaughtered were forced out to die of exposure in the desert while the British army occupied the banks of the Nile and utterly demolished the Sudanese city of Omdurman.

I found Lindqvist to have exaggerated to some degree: Churchill participated in a cavalry charge whose object was to ride down a number of unmounted Sudanese, who at some point did achieve gunshot range. This seems to be where Churchill derives much of his nostalgically lamented "glamour," for the Sudanese unexpectedly turned out to be a better match at close range, unafraid of the galloping horses and able to inflict some damage before some hundreds of them were cut down.

Churchill at the same time deprecates his youthful enthusiasm for war and looks back with longing on the golden days when war did not mean being hidden in a trench without a shred of "vivid and majestic splendour," expecting to be killed at any second. The delightful rhetorical tension between these positions deflates sickeningly when with a more balanced understanding of the Imperial Era one realizes--the war of Churchill's youth was a play war because Churchill's side of it was so powerful as to guarantee victory with negligible losses against an enemy that few thought of being quite as human as white men.

Here is Churchill, putting his tongue in his cheek and speaking in the voice of his twenty-year-old self.

"It did seem a pity that it [military training] all had to be make-believe, and that the age of wars between civilized nations had come to an end for ever. If it had only been 100 years earlier what splendid times we should have had! Fancy being nineteen in 1793 with more than twenty years of war against Napoleon in front of one! However, all that was finished. The British Army had never fired on white troops since the Crimea, and now that the world was growing so sensible and pacific--and so democratic too--the great days were over. Luckily, however, there were still savages and barbarous peoples. There were Zulus and Afghans, also the Dervishes of the Soudan. Some of these might, if they were well-disposed, 'put up a show' some day. There might even be a mutiny or a revolt in India."

Don't we all miss the days when those uncivilized portions of the world provided such excellent toy soldiers to fight against, and we didn't have to inflict any REAL killing?
  dorothean | Oct 2, 2007 |
  jkuiperscat | Aug 27, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0684823454, Paperback)

The voice of a vanished England speaks from the pages of Winston Churchill's evocative memoir of his first 30 years (1874-1904). The young Churchill inhabits a world in which men fight like hell in meaningless colonial wars--India, Egypt, South Africa--soldiering across the imperial map then extending the hand of friendship to their erstwhile enemy as if they were schoolmates at Harrow. Yet Churchill, born into a privileged family, was not an uncritical supporter of the Victorian status quo. He himself loathed Harrow; an especially amusing chapter skewers the school's emphasis on an irrelevant classical education and rote learning. A firm Tory, he considered himself a friend of the working class, and in 1899 campaigned for parliament with a Socialist colleague. Looking back from his vantage point of 1930, Churchill expresses the most attractive values of the English aristocracy--honor, loyalty, fair play--without giving the impression he wants to live in the past. The book's appeal also stems from its magisterial but colloquial prose. Anyone familiar with recordings of Churchill's rousing speeches during Word War II will hear in their minds' ears that growling timbre and unmistakably patrician accent as they read. Though he would have preferred the peace prize, My Early Life offers good evidence that Churchill's 1953 Nobel for literature was aptly awarded. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:20 -0400)

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Packed with adventure and incidents, Winston Churchill's first 25 years were spent working as a soldier and a war correspondent in India, South Africa and Cuba. Churchill evokes a so-called golden age before 1914 in his autobiography.

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