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Remembering Greatness in Full

By Thomas B. Cotton

Pedestrian lists of the "Century's Greatest" are all the rage these days, but yesterday we celebrated truly the greatest man of our century: November 30 was the birthday of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, born one hundred twenty-five years ago in 1874. A celebration on these pages might rightly emphasize Churchill's life in the last century if we want to appreciate fully and learn from his greatness in our century.

Churchill was a mediocre student at Harrow; his father thought him "not clever enough to go to the Bar," and instead encouraged him to enter the army. As Churchill left Harrow, he predicted to his friends that one day he would lead the defense of London against a deadly foe. He also thrice took the entrance examination for Sandhurst (Britain's West Point) before passing, and even then scored only well enough to join the less prestigious cavalry.

At Sandhurst, though, Churchill began to shine. He graduated 20th in a talented class of 130 cadets, and then shipped out to India. In India, Churchill established himself as a national war hero and as an emergent man of letters. He felt the "desire for learning" at age twenty-two, and he gave himself a better education than his peers received from Oxford and Cambridge schoolmasters. He then began to write popular but anonymous war columns for London newspapers. Once he went to the front with the Malakand Field Force, he supplied Londoners with riveting accounts of the battle at the Malakand pass. He continued to entrance Londoners not only with columns about British campaigns in the Mamund valley and the Tirah mountains, but also with the courage and genius he displayed in these campaigns.

Churchill returned home as these campaigns ended--and as less talented but higher-ranking officers came to resent Churchill's fame. Then, at age twenty-three, he published his first book, a comprehensive account of the Malakand Field Force. He also insinuated himself into the battle of Omdurman, by which the British reconquered the Sudan. Although Omdurman was not the last cavalry charge of the Empire, it was last great charge, and Churchill again played a hero's role. He soon afterward left the army to stand for election to Parliament. He lost the election, but he used the leisure of the season to write a second book, a best-selling account of the charge at Omdurman.

As The River War arrived at bookstores, Churchill arrived in South Africa to cover the Boer War as a correspondent. He abandoned his civilian status within days when he valiantly came to the aid of stranded British soldiers. His efforts failed, however, and the Boers took the soldiers and Churchill as prisoners-of-war. Churchill spent a month, which included his twenty-fifth birthday, in captivity before he escaped and made a treacherous eleven-day journey out of Pretoria. Notwithstanding huge rewards offered for "W.S. Churchill, Dead or Alive," he arrived safely in Durban, where he learned that he was a hero not merely in the British press, but in the world's press. And what did Churchill then do? He immediately requested and received a commission and returned six weeks later to the site of his capture to lead the British forces in one of the decisive battles of the Boer War. And, of course, a book about his capture and the war soon followed.

These interesting scenes from Churchill's young life all occurred in the nineteenth century, but they prepared him for what would come in the twentieth century, beginning with his first election to Parliament in 1900. Churchill's service in the Cabinet before World War I, his return to the front in 1916, and his inter-war successes and failures are well known and easily discovered. Of course, even better known is Churchill's and Britain's lonely fight against Germany for two long years in World War II. But it is especially worthwhile that the readers of a college newspaper comprehend the connection between what Churchill did in the 1800's and what he did in the 1940's.

Or, to put a finer point on the matter, to comprehend that Churchill's youthful heroism accounts for his mature heroism. Had Churchill not faced down death as a young man, would he have had the courage to face down Hitler in 1940? Had Churchill not learned from and become one of history's great authors, would he have had the eloquence to steel the British people in 1940 against the most ferocious force ever to walk the earth? Churchill never flinched when he and Britain stood alone in June 1940. "Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. [I]f we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the light of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say 'This was their finest hour.'" These words, along with Churchill's deeds, moved a country to withstand the most overwhelming odds and to save mankind.

Greatness can inspire others, but greatness by its nature is usually too grand to affect the normal course of life. One may marvel at Churchill's greatness in World War II, but its scale is too magnificent to provide daily guidance. Instead, one must look to the greatness, large and small, that he displayed throughout his life. Many Harvard students, like Churchill, have boundless and justifiable ambition. As they prepare for their lives, they should be mindful that greatness, as Churchill shows, comes not from any particular deed, but from one's life itself. Hence, the reason to celebrate Churchill above all on his birthday: We celebrate his life, not any one deed, as the true measure of his greatness. As Antony said of Brutus, "This was a man!"

Thomas B. Cotton '98, a Crimson editor and former columnist, is a first-year law student at Harvard Law School.

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