Walk into the average teenager’s room and it would be adorned with posters of people they are fans of. People, usually music stars, that they look up and admire, and more importantly people to which they role model. These people are powerful icons which shape them psychologically.
To an adult, after a more experienced life, the icons who have moulded them – their role models, the people they admire most usually end up in picture frames or as small statues on mantels, desks and tables, very often family but very often also great thinkers, leaders who have step-changed their world and great sportsmen and women (even the odd music star from their teens might even make an appearance).
It’s no different with Winston Churchill, his desk at Chartwell is the most telling of who shaped him as a person, who he admired the most, who he loved and who he looked to for inspiration when writing his accounts of history, his epoch changing speeches and his great works on shaping the future of Great Britain.
Churchill suffered from great bouts of depression, which he called his ‘black dog’ and it is in these people represented on his desk that he would also find light and drive, these are very important individuals to him.
In and amongst his family portraits on his desk, he positioned three non-family members in the middle of his desk – his ‘heroes’ looking strait back at him for inspiration – Napoleon, Nelson and, believe it or not, Jan Smuts.
One Englishman, one Frenchman and one Afrikaner … now that’s a strange combination for someone who epitomised everything British and her Imperial Empire. Horatio Nelson you can understand, but two great former enemies of Britain, that’s odd.
So let’s understand why Churchill was such a big fan of Nelson, Napoleon and Smuts and examine why these specific people shaped him as a leader, a man who was to be voted by the British in 2002 as the greatest Briton in their history ahead of a nomination of 100 others in a BBC survey. A man, whether some like it or not, who is one of the most influential men to have shaped our 21st Century’s social, political and economic landscapes.
Perhaps owing to Churchill’s role as First Lord of the Admiralty (a position which he held twice) Churchill developed a serious love of Nelson. A bust of Nelson sat on his desk at Chartwell and Churchill had a grey cat which accompanied him on trips to Chequers during the war which he named for the great Napoleonic Wars admiral.
One of Churchill’s favourite movies was Lady Hamilton, a film about Nelson’s mistress. Churchill also wrote about Nelson in History of the English Speaking Peoples. Lets face it he was a fan.
But not just Churchill, in the BBC vote for the greatest Briton, Horacio Nelson also made the short-list. The British we such fans of Nelson they went further than a small busts of him, they erected a column (which extends the full length of the HMS Victory’s mast) in the middle of their most famous square in the centre of London and put him on the top. Nelson still towers over London on his ‘column’ to this day.
What Nelson did to get all this admiration is he ‘saved Britain’ whilst at the ‘helm’ of the Royal Navy by destroying the French Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and this is really why Churchill found inspiration in him. Churchill was to emulate his hero exactly when he too ‘saved Britain’ at the ‘helm’ of the Royal Air Force by destroying the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
That is why Nelson sits on Churchill’s desk.
Churchill had a fascination and an immense respect for Napoleon. His bust also sat on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell, but was slightly larger and more prominently placed than Nelson’s – in fact it sits dead centre and dominates his desk.
Churchill enjoyed reflecting on Napoleon’s military genius, perhaps wanting to emulate the French emperor. After all, like Churchill after the Dardanelles, Napoleon made a significant comeback. Churchill even hoped to write a biography of Napoleon but never found the time.
More than that, he hated it when people would compare Hitler to Napoleon. “It seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior,” he said, “to connect him in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher”.
But most of all, during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) it was Napoleon’s quote that came to his mind when he surrendered to Boer forces once he found him isolated from an armoured train which the Boer’s attacked. Of the incident when a Boer horseman pointed a rifle at his head and waved it to signal he should come out, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.” So he obeyed the Boer’s signal to surrender or die and walked out. Napoleon had literally saved his life.
However, Churchill’s admiration of Napoleon is a lot deeper, what Churchill saw in Napoleon was a reformer. Napoleons influence on the modern world brought liberal reforms to the numerous territories that he conquered and controlled. His Napoleonic Code has influenced the legal systems of more than 70 nations around the world. British historian Andrew Roberts summed up Napoleon very well;
“The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire”
With France capitulating to Nazi Germany early in World War 2, Europe’s great bastion of liberty forged by Napoleon was no longer in contention, and Churchill saw Britain as the last hope to carry this flame and become the next great reformer of Europe, and it has manifested itself in the creation of the European Union, the roots of its creation and thinking can be traced to none other than Churchill when after the 2nd World War he called for the creation of a ‘United States of Europe’.
That is why Napoleon sits on Churchill’s desk.
Jan Smuts’ portrait sits to the left of Napoleon’s bust on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell, sitting alongside what is arguably the two greatest military strategists known – Nelson and Napoleon. Here Churchill viewed Smuts as an equal to two of the biggest hitters in European history. But why this lessor known Afrikaner General, why Smuts?
Some would say it was Churchill’s close personal relationship with Smuts as his advisor during World War 2, that he was simply Churchill’s ‘friend’ with loads in common. But that too would be incorrect, Smuts was the extreme opposite of Churchill, Smuts was a near teetotaler whereas Churchill was seldom sober, Smuts was an early to bed early riser, Churchill was a night-owl, Smuts maintained a stringent diet whereas Churchill was a glutton, Smuts enjoyed exercise and long walking and climbing treks and Churchill hated the very idea of it.
So, nothing in common as friends go then.
Less informed people in South Africa would venture it’s because Smuts turned ‘traitor’ on his people and turned ‘British’. But that’s both grossly ignorant and entirely wrong as the rather inconvenient truth to these detractors is that Winston Churchill admired Jan Smuts precisely because he was a ‘Boer’.
Churchill emulated and admired Smuts, because Smuts had been his great adversary during the South African War (1899-1902). He was a fan of Smuts’ strategic and tactical military capability and leadership in the field. Churchill, like many of his peers and the general population in England, admired Smuts preciously because he epitomised the legacy of a great Boer fighter.
There is credit in the arguments which expose certain officers and South African based British politicians for ‘Boer hatred’ during The South African War (1899 to 1902), it’s true in some cases and there is no denying that – but it is not generally true of the whole, in fact it’s entirely the opposite. Across the English-speaking world, in Britain and America particularly the Boer fighter would take an on almost legendary and mythical status.
Consider this famous influential Briton’s admiration of the Boer nation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, said of the Boers after the South African war;
“Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots, who gave up their name and left their country forever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes . The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon the face of the earth. Take these formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances in which no weakling could survive; place them so that they acquire skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman and the rider. Then, finally, put a fine temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual and you have the modern White Boer.”
Smuts found thousands admirers for his speeches, in the general public, political circles and even in the British Parliament who received him with a resounding ovation, all of them within living knowledge of the South African War and the extremely hard time tenacious Boers, including Smuts, had given the British during the war.
The value of the ‘little guy’ standing up to the giant and giving it a bloody nose resounds very well in the English-speaking world. So too the very British value of ‘pluckiness’ which the British saw in a tiny Republic taking on a Superpower, you just had to admire it. Again, the Boer cause strikes the British value of ‘fortitude’, the ‘stiff upper lip’ required for supreme perseverance against intense adversary – and the Boer fighter amplified this value in buckets.
The 2nd Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) was the single biggest event to ‘shape’ the young Churchill as a character, it forged him into who he became and his exploits in South Africa directly contributed to his success as leader. He was time and again to encounter the Boer fighting spirit and strategic and tactical capability, the Boers made a POW of him, shot his horse out from under him and so narrowly killed him on so many occasions that Churchill would describe the sonic wakes of Boer bullets so close to blowing his head off they ‘kissed his cheeks’, his survival of Boer military assaults and marksmanship he puts down to his own sheer luck and nothing else.
What’s not to admire about these ‘pesky’ Boers made up of small groups of simple farming folk in their thousands using skilful military manoeuvrability and marksmanship to keep an entire professional army expeditionary force in their hundreds of thousands at bay with their heads down.
But not in his home country, Smuts would not find hordes of adoring fans, instead the nationalists spin-doctored this fame and admiration to further reinforce their argument that Smuts had turned ‘British’ and split him from his voter base and people. Not that this mattered a jot for Churchill in his worship of Smuts and the Boers, to him the ‘National Party’ was nothing more than a relatively small bunch of misled Nazi sympathising politicians, their brand of politics in countenance to just about every fibre in this body and they had nothing at all to do with the values he so admired in the Boers and Afrikaners in general.
It’s precisely because Churchill considered Smuts an ‘enemy’ and not a ‘friend’, that he was ‘Boer’ and not a ‘Brit’ that he found so much admiration in Smuts, that he thought himself an equal military strategist to wrestle his ideas with his old foe, to grapple with this formidable ‘Boer’ General for strategic perspective and in so not make the kind of mistake he made with the Dardanelles operation and the resultant, rather disastrous, Gallipoli campaign in World War 1. Smuts tempered Churchill throughout World War 2 advising against his intrinsic disposition for impulsiveness with sheer reason. Smuts ‘balanced’ Churchill perfectly.
It was the sheer fortitude of the Boer fighter that Churchill admired so much, the little guy giving the big guy the old two-fingered ‘Agincourt’ up-yours ‘mate’ salute the English archers gave the superior French forces in 1514 in defiance of them, a salute which Churchill (and even Smuts) would later turn around in a double-entendre of the gesture to indicate ‘Victory’ without losing its actual meaning.
Simply put – he admired all the ‘Boer’ traits of fortitude, versatility and mental toughness in Smuts, and it manifests itself in Churchill in just about every speech he made and work he did.
Richard Steyn in ‘Unafraid of Greatness’ sums this up very well;
“Yet the great paradox of (Smuts’) life was that – as Leif Egeland pointed out – it is precisely because Smuts was a Afrikaner and a Boer soldier that he built up such a formidable reputation world-wide. On his many visits abroad and in his personal life, he kept the image of the Boer general, ‘one of the most romantic and bravest figures in history’. Whilst many of his countrymen described him for being an Englishman at heart, in Britain and around the world ‘General Smuts’ was respected and revered for being a true and patriotic Afrikaner – the finest example of his tribe”.
That’s why Smuts sits on Churchill’s desk.
Related work and Links
Churchill and The South African War; Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa
Smuts’ speech to the Houses of Parliament; A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.
References include ‘The National Trust Collections’ Chartwell, Jan Smuts reconsidered by Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015. ‘Who were Churchill’s heroes’ by Warren Dockter, historian 2015. Horatio Nelson portait by George Baxter, Image of Smuts and Churchill – Imperial War Museum