As an old history buff, I have written earlier about what I consider one of the finest biographies ever written, that is the first two volumes of William Manchester’s epic “The Last Lion.”
But if you recall, Manchester died before he could complete the last volume of Churchill’s incredible life, his role as prime minister of Britain during World War II.
Manchester by my lights was one of the finest biographers and historians that English letters has produced. His “American Caesar,” the story of Douglas MacArthur, is a magnificent telling of this country’s finest generals.
But the first two volumes of the life of Winston Churchill stand as his finest achievement. Churchill was the epitome of the man who perhaps did more to shape the 20th century than any one individual.
Churchill was a man defined by the era into which he was born – the height of the Victorian Era. The first two volumes recount his life in startling detail. It paints the picture of a man born into one of the titled families of Britain, yet as the second son of an English lord, he would have to pave his own road to destiny. For those details I would ask you to read my earlier column about his extraordinary life leading up to his appointment as prime minister of Britain in 1940 (search Winston Churchill on northfulton.com).
But a stroke prevented Manchester from finishing his epic three-volume biography of Churchill. He had completed his exhausting research and written some 300 pages of the final volume, which would have recounted his steadfast leadership during the dark days of the conflict that would cast its shadow on all that would follow in the 20th century.
Today, we remember the United States’ role in defeating the Nazi empire in concert with Stalin’s remorseless death struggle with Hitler. But in 1940, all that stood between Hitler and his maniacal dreams of world conquest was that spit of land off the English Channel.
Volume 3 would be that tale of perhaps the only man who could galvanize the British will that would buy Russian and American might to come to bear against Hitler’s Evil Empire.
I read the first two volumes literally spellbound by Manchester’s herculean research and immaculate prose. Only then did I discover he would never finish it. But I was left with one tantalizing hope.
Manchester, knowing he did not have the strength to finish his epic, had passed the torch to Paul Reid, a journalist whom Manchester had met and handpicked to finish the masterpiece he had begun.
That was in 2003.
I contacted the publishers, Little Brown, and received the news and a deadline when it might be at last finished. Then it was put off again, and then again.
Finally, it was given a final date certain, 2012. When my eye strolled over a new volume, “The Last Lion, Defender of the Realm,” my heart stuttered. Here it was at last.
One thousand pages later, I had completed the feast that began nearly a decade ago.
Churchill’s life was spectacular by any definition. As the second son of an English lord, he would have to make his own way in the world. His dream was to follow his father, Lord Randolph, into politics. Randolph was a product of Victorian Britain. He was marked early for great things in politics and would certainly rise to be prime minister of the greatest world power in the world. It was Churchill’s dream to serve with his father in the halls of Parliament. Randolph’s early death prevented that, but the dream still burned.
His early adult life reads like a Victorian novel, but real life is not so straightforward. After a spectacular rise, he fell into “The Wilderness” during the decade of the 1930s. But by 1940, he had become the only choice to face Hitler and what most feared was the inevitable fate of all who stood before the Nazi juggernaut.
That is where Reid picked up the thread. It is not, perhaps, the equal of the previous two volumes, which used voluminous diaries, letters, government documents and personal accounts left to Manchester’s unflinching research.
But it does explain to us how this giant on the world stage – at the age of 69 – took the reins of Britain’s ebbing power to withstand what many saw as inevitable defeat and wrested victory.
Could Britain have withstood Hitler alone? No. But his energy, ingenuity and force of will defied all the odds to persevere until the combined resources of the United States and the Soviet Union could be brought to bear.
Had Britain fallen early in the war, no one could foretell what would have happened. All that we have is what did happen. And Churchill was its architect.
To understand it completely, you must read the trilogy. It is fascinating, spellbinding and a tremendous read. My thanks go to Mr. Reid for taking up the reins of a genius and finishing this monumental work.
If you would understand why the world is what it is today, I can say no more than to read this story of one man’s life.