The Gathering Storm

The other day, my mind restless with the somber news of the world, and its echoes of familiar themes, I took from the shelf The Gathering Storm, the first book of Winston Churchill’s incomparable six-volume History of the Second World War. I say “incomparable” because there is really nothing else like it in all of historical literature: an account of the greatest armed conflict of all time, written by a man who was not only one of the foremost masters of the English language ever to lift a pen, but who was also the man who led, by his command of the spoken word, his enormous military expertise, and the sheer power of his personality, the armies of freedom to their ultimate triumph.

It’s a lot to read; the six volumes are dense with detailed accounts of affairs military, political, diplomatic, and economic, but the beauty of Churchill’s writing, and the matchless drama of the story itself, carry the reader along. And one is often caught up short by Churchill’s staggering eloquence, and the prescience with which he foresaw the course of coming events. From an earlier essay, as quoted on pages 40-41 in the chapter Lurking Dangers, he discusses, with remarkable foresight, the future of technological warfare in the aftermath of World War I:

May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings — nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives even of the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp, or dockyard?

As for poison gas and chemical warfare in all its forms, only the first chapter has been written of a terrible book. Certainly every one of these new avenues to destruction is being studied on both sides of the Rhine with all the science and patience of which man is capable. And why should it be supposed that these resources will be limited to inorganic chemistry? A study of disease — of pestilences methodically prepared and deliberately launched upon man and beast — is certainly being pursued in the laboratories of more than one great country. Blight to destroy crops, anthrax to slay horses and cattle, plague to poison not only armies but whole districts — such are the lines along which military science is remorselessly advancing.

That was written in 1925. And here is a passage from 1928, quoted on pages 38-39, again considering the dangerous state of the world at the end of the Great War:

The campaign of 1919 was never fought; but its ideas go marching along. In every army they are being explored, elaborated, refined, under the surface of peace, and should war come again to the world, it is not with the weapons and agencies prepared for 1919 that it will be fought, but with developments and extensions of these which will be incomparably more formidable and fatal.

It is in these circumstances that we entered upon that period of exhaustion that has been described as Peace. It gives us, at any rate, an opportunity to consider the general situation. Certain sombre facts emerge, solid, inexorable, like the shapes of mountains from drifting mist. It is established that henceforward whole populations will take part in war, all doing their utmost, all subjected to the fury of the enemy. It is established that nations who believe their life is at stake will not be restrained from using any means to secure their existence. It is probable — nay, certain — that among the means which will next time be at their disposal will be agencies and processes of destruction wholesale, unlimited, and perhaps, once launched, uncontrollable.

Churchill now concludes this gloomy appraisal with a paragraph of harrowing power and eloquence:

Mankind has never been in this position before. Without having improved appreciably in virtue or enjoying wiser guidance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfailingly accomplish its own extermination. That is the point in human destinies to which all the glories and toils of men have at last led them. They would do well to pause and ponder upon their new responsibilities. Death stands at attention, obedient, expectant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peoples en masse; ready, if called on, to pulverise, without hope of repair, what is left of civilisation. He awaits only the word of command. He awaits it from a frail, bewildered being, long his victim, now — for one occasion only — his Master.

Little has changed — save that now, as the clouds mass and darken once again, we have not giants to lead us, but pygmies.

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  1. Commiserations on the painful excavation.

    Unnecessary warning to you, I’m sure, but beware ‘Winnie’s’ luscious prose! The historians seem to agree that he was a little careless with the ‘actualite’ from time to time. Also, the military of the time were left holding their heads at some of the madcap schemes with which he kept pestering them. Perhaps his greatest virtue was his ability to *galvanise*; some task given the turgid condition of the British establishment. I love the stories of ‘Winnie’s prayers’, that endless stream of memos headed, “Pray tell me …”, particularly the one (I write from memory!) to the First Sea Lord, “Pray tell me *on one sheet of foolscap* what your plans are for the development of the Royal Navy over the next 5 years.”

    Posted July 11, 2007 at 4:30 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    Oh, I’m well aware that there are variations and embellishments in Churchill’s account, but still it does stand as probably the most valuable history of a major conflict since Thucydides, and certainly the most comprehensive account of WWII itself, at least from the Allied perspective (although Shirer and Lidell Hart are essential reading as well).

    Churchill himself admitted as much: he said “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

    The military commanders may have been holding their heads, but one of Churchill’s more special qualities was his faith in, and imagination for, technological innovation, as is evident in the first quotation above. He led the way in a number of technical developments — often over the objections of stiff-necked military traditionalists — that were important in shifting the tactical and strategic balance.

    As it happens I have just begun reading In Command of History, by Cambridge historian David Reynolds, which is both a biographical account of Churchill’s labors upon his masterpiece and a careful comparison of his account of the war with what is known from other historical sources. It should be fascinating.

    But even if it were all made up out of whole cloth, such writing! Such style! What an extraordinary man.

    Posted July 11, 2007 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  3. “Such style! What an extraordinary man.” Here, here!

    Have you read his “Marlborough”?

    Posted July 12, 2007 at 2:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    I have not. It’s on my list.

    Posted July 12, 2007 at 3:00 pm | Permalink