A Point of View: Churchill, chance and the 'black dog'

Winston Churchill

The wartime prime minister's dark moods, plus a series of lucky encounters, may have transformed the course of human history, writes John Gray.

Towards the end of his long life, when he was staying in a house lent to him by friends in the south of France, Winston Churchill sent for a young man who was helping him write one of the books with which he occupied his retirement.

Churchill needed the young man as a researcher. But he also valued him as a companion, particularly in the evenings when he would otherwise feel lonely.

One cold night they were sitting before the fire, where pine logs were hissing and spitting as they were burnt away. Churchill watched the blaze in silence. Then he growled: "I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed."

Churchill had not one life but several. Each was full of challenge and excitement, and in one of them he changed the history of the world.

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John Gray
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Yet there were times when he felt his life had been futile, and the mood of despondency that had sometimes come upon him in his most active years - which, following Samuel Johnson, Churchill called the "black dog" - seems to have been with him in much of his later life.

But in a strange conjunction of events, it may have been this same black dog - together with the intervention of a loyal friend during a few fateful days in early May 1940 - that enabled Churchill to achieve the position from which he could alter the course of history.

There have always been those who think Churchill's recurring melancholy could have been a symptom of mental illness. Some have suggested he may have suffered from bipolar disorder, experiencing frequent mood shifts from intense bursts of impulsive activity to paralysing depression.

Nowadays we tend to interpret any type of character or behaviour that departs from our standards of tepid normality as a symptom of some underlying disorder. Churchill was certainly not tepid. He was passionate, volatile and intensely emotional in much of his life. That did not make him unbalanced.

Churchill's exceptional openness to intense emotion may help explain how he was able to sense danger that more conventional minds failed to perceive.

For most of the politicians and opinion-makers who wanted to appease Hitler, the Nazis were not much more than a raucous expression of German nationalism. It needed an unusual type of mind to see that Nazism was something new in the world, a radically modern movement with a potential for destruction that had no precedent in history.

A recent study by an American psychologist maintains that Churchill's insight was related to his episodes of mental ill-health. We needn't accept the diagnosis, but it's hard to resist the thought that the dark view of the world that came on Churchill in his moods of desolation enabled him to see what others could not. He owed his foresight of the horror that was to come to the visits of the black dog.

But Churchill's foresight would have counted for nothing if he hadn't become prime minister in May 1940. For Churchill himself, this may have been a matter of fate. Though not a religious believer, he seems to have felt that his life was ruled by a kind of destiny in which he was being prepared for a supreme trial.

Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook Bracken (left) and Beaverbrook were, arguably, instrumental in securing Churchill's rise to power

So it proved to be, and yet from another point of view his becoming prime minister when he did was the work of chance. Churchill became Britain's leader through the intervention of someone who is now practically forgotten.

Brendan Bracken was a strange, self-invented personality, who achieved success as the publisher of the Financial Times and the Economist and served as Churchill's minister of information during the war. Born in Ireland, Bracken grew up in Australia - where his father was a builder - before migrating to England, where he effaced his modest past and became Churchill's confidant during the inter-war wilderness years.

Bracken hero-worshipped Churchill, and supported him when the world had written him off. But the greatest service Bracken performed was in making it possible for Churchill to take power.

We tend to view the past as if it could not have been otherwise, but for Churchill to replace Neville Chamberlain in 1940 was a highly improbable turn of events. Almost no-one who counted wanted Churchill as leader. The press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who also played a role in securing Churchill the premiership, wrote: "Chamberlain wanted Halifax. Labour wanted Halifax... The Lords wanted Halifax. The King wanted Halifax. And Halifax wanted Halifax."

Beaverbrook was exaggerating. Chamberlain took a long time before deciding to resign, and it's not clear that Halifax did want to become prime minister. What is undoubtedly true is that a great many influential people wanted Halifax to take over, and it is highly likely that he could have been persuaded to do so.

Crucially, Churchill seems to have shared the view that Halifax (then foreign secretary) would be Chamberlain's successor. Churchill took for granted that he would serve under Halifax as minister of defence, and made it clear he felt it was his duty to serve in this way.

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For a couple of days in May 1940, the fate of the world turned on the fall of a leaf”

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We may never know the exact pattern of events over the days of 9 and 10 May 1940. Beaverbrook liked to dramatise his role, and the accounts left by others conflict in some of their details.

But according to Bracken's biographers, he anticipated that when Chamberlain decided to resign he would arrange a meeting in Downing Street from which Halifax would emerge as next prime minister.

Loyal to Churchill and an enemy of appeasement, Bracken was determined to prevent this outcome. So at about 01:00 on the morning of 9 May, he and Beaverbrook set out to talk to Churchill, eventually finding him brooding alone in one of his clubs.

They warned Churchill of the coming meeting, with Bracken urging Churchill to say nothing if asked whether he would serve under Halifax. In the end, Churchill was persuaded to remain silent.

As Bracken anticipated, a meeting was held at Downing Street later that day, and when the issue of the succession came up Churchill did what he had promised - he said nothing.

After a long pause, Halifax said that his position in the Lords would make it difficult for him to be prime minister. Next morning, news arrived that Hitler had invaded Belgium and Holland, and in the afternoon Churchill went to the palace to tell the King he was forming a government.

Some historians have suggested that Churchill's silence may not have been decisive. If Halifax had become prime minister, they argue, Churchill would still have been in charge of the war.

Winston Churchill The "black dog" may have prepared Churchill for the desperate struggle against Hitler

But Halifax would have sued for peace - that was the reason so many in Britain's ruling elites supported him - and this would have changed everything. With unchallenged command of Europe, Hitler would have been able to implement the full force of Nazi ideology.

Some historians have also argued that if the war had not continued, the Holocaust might not have happened. But genocide was the logic of Nazism. In the eyes of Nazis, racism was a science, claiming to show that some parts of humanity were inferior and fit only for extermination. There's no reason to think Hitler wouldn't have followed that logic to its terrible conclusion, and it's entirely realistic to think that the hideous world that Hitler aimed to create would have come fully into being and still exist today.

As Churchill said in a speech in the House of Commons in June 1940: "If we fail, then the whole world will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science."

Even if we don't think past events were bound to happen as they did, we tend to believe that the larger course of history is shaped by vast, impersonal forces. But for a couple of days in May 1940, the fate of the world turned on the fall of a leaf.

If Bracken hadn't left Australia to reinvent himself as an Englishman and appointed himself as Churchill's faithful protector; if Beaverbrook and Bracken hadn't found Churchill brooding in his club; if Bracken hadn't succeeded in persuading Churchill to remain silent; and if Churchill hadn't been prepared for the desperate struggle that followed by the visits of the black dog, history would have been very different and the world darker than anything we can easily imagine.


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  • Comment number 326.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    Whatever his faults ( and there were many as other posts have pointed out),BUT a great man and I am glad the he was there in 1940. Imagine Mr Blair / Mr Brown / Mr Cameron giving a 'fight them on the beaches' speech, perhaps adding ' ensuring that we comply fully, with their human rights and ensuring that any infringements by members of our Armed Forces are dealt with .... Anyone still listening?

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    i believe the "black dog" Chrchill referred to was what would be diagnosed as "major depression." He was extremely passionate and intellectual. He had to cope with times when he was psychologically exhausted and frustrated and probably felt suicidal. Also, he was a heavy drinker - a bottle of whiskey every day, before noon - so his body had to cope with that strain everyday. Great human being.

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    @314 The Soviet Union did not defeat Hitler. They needed the help they got from the western powers, and also a war on other fronts. If Hitler had been able to throw everything against Stalin, the Russians would have lost.

    BUT if the Russians had not fought on with astonishing tenacity, then we in our turn might have found we could not last out.

    Each needed the other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    The are very few modern politicians I can admire as most have never earned my respect for their exploits outside politics.
    Im going to guess that the thing which made Churchill most depressed was that his life although long and eventfull was not going to be long enough to achieve everything he wanted.
    Anyone seeking the PM ship today must be crazy, just look at how it aged Blair and Brown

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    The last paragraph reminds me of an old, Cuban saying: If my grandmother had wheels, she would have been a bicycle. We can't look at history that way, it's distorted: like looking through the back end of a pair of binoculars. Events occur; live in their effects. If there were other past events present, we wouldn't be able to appreciate our present perspective, nullifying the question: "What if..."

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    I found this article to be most interesting and enlightening. While I don't think that depression is one of the characteristics that neceessarily makes for a potencial great leader, I nevertheless find it most interesting that a lot of the world's great leaders (Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower) suffered from some form or other of despair. Lincoln had to be kept on suicide watch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    I hope I speak for all Americans when I say that should something happen again, we will not hesitate for a second to help an ally (particularly the British.) Hopefully by now we have learned our lesson; that countries need friends, and that in order to have a friend one needs to be a friend.

    Could the third time be the charm? I sure hope so!! time to practice what we preach in all its forms!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    What ever his flaws ,Churchill embodied the defiant courage against a looming threat.He inspired the world to be steadfast in the darkest hour and his indomentable spirit won the day.Mastery of language ,Ciceronian in power was unmatched even today .Modesty inhanced his staure when called the "Lion of the British Empire", he demurred saying ,No, I was only the Lion's roar! Leadership,needed now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    Digmen1 #66: "If Britain had been invaded America would have done nothing."

    How certain are you about this? I would cite specific things that the Roosevelt administration was either plotting or doing at the time to disprove your theory, but every time I have tryed to do that in the past on this forem my posts have been rejected.

    Know that shady and unconstitutional things were going on

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    I think people are too kind to Churchill, we seem to forget the Norway debacle (churchill's idea/project), Gallipol in in WW1 (Churchill). The treatment of Dorman-Smith pushing him towards Irish republicanism, finally he gave up our colonies and our trade routes, enabling American power.Churchill must be seen in balance, not through the rose tinted glasses of a war victory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    Samantha Pia Owen #122: While I don't disagree with your statement regarding the crucial help given by the British to the Americans in the Pacific theater, surely you agree that opporations such as D-day, for example, even with the entire Common Wealth's forces at Churchill's disposal, would not have been successfull without American assistance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    To all those who profess that Russia under Stalin was the real cause of Hitler's defeat:
    Where would Stalin have been without the huge influx of materiel from the UK & the US?
    Who pushed for this diversion of vital supplies?

    Now go back to your dreams of Soviet superiority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    Churchill was most certainly a 'Great Britain' and we rightly honour him as such.
    So much do we revere his memory that we have founded an entire insurance company named after him with a hilarious cartoon dog of the same name as it's spokesman (or perhaps that should be spokesdog?)

    Are advertising consultants the dregs of our society?

    Oh Yes

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    Holding out alone against Hitler with the vestiges of Empire until the arrival of America (late as usual) Churchill embodied all the qualities Britain, at her apex, was described to posses. And that's why the students' desecration of Churchill's statue in Westminster last year was so shocking and totally damaging to their cause.

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    139. OnTopic wrote. "Any person with 'clinical' depression would be rendered unfit for public service by it."

    Not so my friend. Thousands of sufferers in public service spend inordinate amounts of energy concealing their illness. Publicly we 'act' the required part; privately we torture ourselves.

    Yet, I would say my high profile public service has probably benefited from my depression.

  • Comment number 310.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    The article is probably correct that Britain could not have exerted much of a moderating influence on Nazi excesses. Take a look at Britain's influence on America today to see that. From British bulldog to poodle sniffing for scraps at the master's table. If Churchill indeed had the foresight this article claims, it's no wonder he was a depressive

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    Interesting it took a Canadian and an Irishman to push Churchill forward. Some in the upper classes were all for Hitler, reckon they would do just fine. Churchill should have had all those traiters shot. As for his drinking it's well attested that he drank small amounts watered down. Could' nt possibly have taken complex decisions when drunk,not many drunks see their 90's !

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    Comment number 303. Il Pirata
    37 Minutes ago

    it is a miracle Churchill ever got out of bed in the morning.

    And that bed often consisted of a cot and a few blankets in the Admiralty Citadel or latelry the basement of what is now The Treasury.

    The ordinary people would have paid a much higher price if Hitler had ever set foot on these shores


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