Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts

Ann H. Hart

Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts. New York: Penguin, 2018, xix + 982 pages, $40.00.

Amid the war against the coronavirus, historian Jon Meacham encourages Americans to look to Winston Churchill during WWII and how he rallied his nation around a common enemy. Rather than seeking a U.S. antecedent for our current crisis, Meacham reminds Americans of the blitz when German planes were dropping bombs on London. In a September 11, 1940 radio address, Churchill said, “Every man and woman will … prepare himself to do his duty, whatever it may be, with special pride and care” (595).

To understand Mecham’s references in a complete way, one would do well to turn to Andrew Roberts’s biography, Churchill: Walking with Destiny. Roberts had already written four books with “Churchill” in the title or subtitle before tackling this biography. Why another Churchill biography when more than 1,000 have been written already?

New archival material animated the author, including King George VI’s diaries from WWII recently opened by Queen Elizabeth II. Roberts relished his role as the first biographer to pour through the diaries (King George VI met with Churchill every Tuesday during WWII and kept detailed records of their conversations). The author has stated that there is some new material on virtually every page.

Roberts brings force and speed to his near 1,000-page narrative. While the book is a classic biography told chronologically, the pace is compelling. After gathering all his evidence, the author drafted the book in 100 days! It covers Churchill’s long life from his birth at Blenheim Palace to his death at Hyde Park Gate, shortly after his ninetieth birthday.

The book is divided into two major parts and thirty-four chapters. Part 1, “The Preparation,” includes twenty chapters covering the years 1874 to 1940. The long narrative is very accessible with its vivid writing, many photographs, maps, and family trees.

We learn quickly that Churchill’s paternal grandfather was a member of the aristocracy, a duke, but that Winston’s father was distant and hard to please. Churchill’s mother, an American beauty, was self-absorbed and inaccessible. Away at boarding school, Winston often wrote to her, begging her to correspond. Yet, it was his father’s approval that he sought throughout his life. This unfulfilled desire is a significant theme in this book.

Roberts summarizes large swaths of information concisely and memorably. Consider the close of the first chapter:

If there were ideal conditions for the creation of a future hero of the Empire, by the end of January 1895 Churchill had fulfilled all of them. A famous name, selfish and unimpressed parents, a patchy but patriotic schooling that taught him how great men can change history by great feats, a first-class military education, a schoolboy ambition to save the Empire, not enough money to become indolent, appreciation of English prose and a reverence for the British history that he felt ran though his aristocratic veins. (31)

Roberts resonates with his subject’s love of words and history. He writes admiringly of Churchill’s unpublished essay, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” where he outlined five elements that he would return to frequently in his rise to “the greatest orator of his age.” Those five steps included “[W]ell chosen words; carefully crafted sentences, accumulation of argument, use of analogy; and deployment of extravagances” (50).

Roberts writes that, “Few have set out with more cold-blooded deliberation to become first a hero and then a Great Man” (31). For Churchill, becoming a hero meant demonstrating courage in battle. He joined the Queen’s Fourth Cavalry and subsequently was shot at in Cuba, fought in what is now Pakistan, the Afghan border, Sudan; he escaped Boer captivity in South Africa. He recorded many of these episodes in newspaper accounts and jotted down notes for future books.

Becoming a great man, in Churchill’s view, required proving himself as a politician. Always haunted by his father’s early death at age forty-five, Winston entered politics and was elected to Parliament at age twenty-five as a conservative from Oldham.

“Churchill embarked on the Great War like a dynamo,” (184) Roberts writes. He was the Minister in Charge of the Navy when war broke out. After success in many battles, he made a terrible error. He wanted to invade Turkey at Gallipoli after coming through the Dardanelles. He believed that if you could get the Royal Navy through the Dardanelles, you could seize Istanbul. Overruling the first lord of admiralty, Churchill attempted to invade Turkey at Gallipoli. However, Turkey had laid 350–400 mines in the strait; 157,000 men lost their lives.

After a time away from power, engaging himself in reading, writing, and soul searching, Churchill returned to government as a conservative and Chancellor of the Exchequer. When war broke out in 1939, Neville Chamberlin offered him job as First Lord of the Admiralty. Here begins Part II of Roberts biography, “The Trial.” Churchill was one of the first politicians to recognize the threat of Adolf Hitler. In 1940, under extreme pressure and criticism from every side, Churchill stopped the British government from making peace with Hitler. More specifically, he prevented the foreign secretary Lord Halifax from making a peace deal with Hitler. The reader must stop to reflect on how different our lives might have been with a different decision.

But that courageous act was only the beginning of a long and grueling war which looked like Britain’s David against Germany’s Goliath. Churchill worked tirelessly to gather the right commanders around him. He approached President Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly to join the fight. Roberts meticulously describes the tick tock of these years: battles won and lost, mistakes made, deaths and casualties mounted.

In narrating the unfolding war, Roberts details Churchill’s inner thoughts and powerfully captures points of view of those around him—from his military advisors, his top lieutenants, the king, personal aids, his wife, and many others. And when not in his personal war room, he is always thinking strategically.

Through it all, the author presents Churchill as a passionate, hardworking, romantic, and flawed figure full of strengths and weaknesses. Born an aristocrat of entitlement with a sense of noblesse oblige, he didn’t care what others thought. He trusted himself to do the right thing. Yet his mistakes, like trusting Joseph Stalin, are acknowledged, and he is “redeemed” by admitting and learning from his mistakes.

Churchill was a lifelong nominal Anglican. Yet Roberts writes,

Although he did occasionally hint in later life that he believed in the existence of an Almighty—whose primary duty seems to have been to protect Winston Churchill—he did not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus Christ. Of all the five million words he uttered in his speeches, he never said the word “Jesus.” (43)

Instead, Churchill’s missionary zeal begins with his early pronouncement, “I shall devote myself to the preservation of the great empire and trying to maintain the progress of the English people ” (949).

Andrew Roberts expresses zeal for his subject in the book’s conclusion: he laments, “In a survey of 3,000 teenagers in 2008, more than 20 percent of them thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character” (982). However, he despises the “Black Legend” on the internet, which

has attached to Churchill’s name, in which he is held responsible for the sinking of the Titanic and Luisitania … ordering the bombing and strafing of innocent Irish demonstrators, poison-gassing Iraqi tribesmen, promulgating anti-Semitism, … genocidally starving Bengalis during the Famine, and very much more. Mostly these arise from (sometimes willful) misreadings of the original sources or from taking them wildly out of context, though some are just entirely invented. (982)

The partial antidote, Andrew Roberts contends, is “a return to the original archives and documents” (982). This absorbing and illuminating biography is the fruit of those labors. It could fill the hours well during an unexpected time at home.

Ann Henderson Hart is a member of Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, October 2020.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: October 2020

Mayflower 400: Pilgrims

Also in this issue

The Pilgrims: Forgotten, Remembered, Celebrated: A Review Article

The First Thanksgiving

Imago Hominis: Our Brave New World: A Review Article

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History by David D. Hall

Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ in the Westminster Standards by Alan D. Strange

A Thanksgiving to God, for his House

When Bradford and Company Landed

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church