Carlo D'Este, a retired US army lieutenant-colonel much admired in military history circles for his books about World War Two, knows a real soldier when he sees one, and on most counts Churchill doesn't measure up. He was certainly fascinated by soldiering from an early age - it was his toy soldiers, he claimed, that did it - but he seems to have gone to Sandhurst only because his father thought he was too dumb for Oxford, and to have mainly relished the Boy's Own side of war. Ordinary soldiering in India he found boring, apart from the polo, which he was good at. So he wangled his way instead to Cuba, the Sudan, South Africa and the North-West Frontier for some real action, as a soldier-cum-journalist (a combination of roles that wasn't greatly approved of, and was later banned). He liked it best when it involved charging around on horses, under fire, especially when others could see him being brave. 'Given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble,' D'Este writes. 'Without the gallery things are different.' His main concern was to win fame: enough of it to propel him quickly into public life (he was obsessed with his father's early death). Though he liked soldiering, he said early on, he thought politics were more his 'métier'.
LRB 27 August 2009 | PDF Download