CHURCHILL AND FRIENDSHIP – 11.11.2018
On this Remembrance Sunday I think it’s worth recalling that of all Winston Churchill’s amazing qualities, it’s his commitment to friendship that is one of the most appealing.
Churchill had and kept, family friends, political friends, literary friends, artistic friends, and heroic friends. My grandfather, Jack Seely, was one of these great heroic friends – one of what Andrew Roberts – in his magnificent new book – calls his “Paladins.”
Jack Seely was no Churchill, but he was a pretty fine and very courageous human being in his own right and the only former senior minister to fight on the Western Front in every year of The Great War.
Seely knew Churchill for 60 years, was Secretary of State for War to Churchill’s First Lord of The Admiralty in Asquith’s pre-war Cabinet and, fittingly on this Armistice Centenary, was never more important to him than during some of those desperate times in World War One.
So today I thought I would read you two letters not FROM the Front, but TO the Front. They are from Winston in Westminster to Seely near Ypres and then on the Somme. You will find their dates are significant, as of course is their context.
The first is from September 1915. The Dardanelles adventure had gone disastrously wrong and Churchill, as the perceived villain of the peace, had been moved from the Admiralty to the nebulous position of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – and his spirits were at their lowest ever ebb.
Churchill is replying to a letter of sympathy from Jack Seely who has been in the thick of it at Festubert and Kemmel since the middle of May.
“It is odious to me,” Winston wrote, “to remain here watching sloth and folly with full knowledge and no occupation. I was very touched by the great kindness of your letter. I hope you will not go beyond the line of duty sportingly conceived in going into danger. Do not seek peril beyond what is necessary to discharge your full task and do not get Archie (Archie Sinclair – Seely’s ADC and one of Churchill’s protégées) into trouble.
God Bless you and guard you both is the hope of your faithful friend.
The words have such feeling because Churchill had seen peril close up. His trousers had been soaked in blood as he fought off Pathan tribesmen on the North West Frontier, he had killed at least three men in 30 seconds at the climax of the Battle of Omdurman, and he had to dodge bullets and shift bodies in South Africa. Winston Churchill really understood the human cost of war.
As you know, in the winter of 1915/16 he found his own physical redemption at the Front – and in December spent a day with Seely and Sinclair, bombarding them with questions before taking command of a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers with Sinclair as his ADC – and come January he had Jack over to present the prizes and play the piano at a sports day and concert Winston had organised to lift the troops’ morale.
Seely stayed on in France until being gassed in 1918. Churchill returned to Westminster but not, at first, to any sort of power. Which is where the second letter comes in:
“My dear Jack,” he wrote bitterly later in 1916 – “let me know if there is any way in which I can serve you. It is very painful to me to be impotent and inactive at this time. But perhaps later I may find a chance to be useful.
Your devoted friend
Fortunately for all of us, that last phrase turned out to become one of the understatements of the century.
Asquith’s daughter Violet Bonham Carter has the best analysis. “Winston’s friendship,” she wrote, “was a stronghold, against which the gates of hell could not prevail. There was an absolute quality in its loyalty known only to those safe within its walls.”
For 50 years Jack Seely was within that stronghold. How much, on this Remembrance Day, would all of us have loved – to have been within that stronghold too.
35th Churchill International Conference, Williamsburg, Virginia, 9-11 November 2018