Mothers of Heroes: Jennie Churchill and Remembrance Sunday

By Anne Sebba, T2, The Times, 4 November 2008

When Lady Randolph Churchill was touring hospitals at the end of World War One she encountered a man lying quietly in his bed, so badly burned and with so many broken bones that he was not expected to survive.

“Well,” she boomed at the man, a survivor from the Royal Flying Corps. “You’ve heard of dear beer. And you’ve heard of dear bread. I want to tell you about Dear Winston and when you are well, I want you to vote for Dear Winston.”

While other “Lady Bountifuls” confined their remarks to saccharine enquiries about the standard of food or the state of their bowels, Jennie Churchill made this man believe in the possibility not only that he would get better but that, when he did so, his life was of value.

For ever after the man attributed his recovery to such positive thinking, as his daughter, who told me this story, attested. She sought me out after a talk I gave about Jennie, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Leonard Jerome who infused the Marlborough dynasty with much pizzazz but few dollars. It was too late to include this deeply revealing story, one even the Churchill family did not know, showing Jennie as the most pro-active mother of all time, in the hardback version of my biography. But it will have its place for posterity in the paperback. For Jennie not only promoted her son in peacetime. She had no equal when it came to pushing the interests of her first born, even if that meant him taking part in savage fighting. As the mother of a British soldier who has served in Iraq, I have often reflected with amazement on her vicarious ambition.

There are no mothers in poetry, Alice Macdonald Kipling famously told her son Rudyard. He had to get on in the world by his own merits. And most mothers of soldiers have traditionally accepted what their sons do and taken pride quietly in the fact that the boys they have nurtured into men have been prepared to pay the ultimate price. But they hope they won’t need to. It’s hard to imagine a British mother today behaving as Jennie Churchill did when Winston was just twenty, networking to get him to the most dangerous battles in the most bloodthirsty wars. Such unusual mothering, encouraging a child to seek out more danger, to fulfil himself through fighting and then write about it, is neither possible – nor credible – today. In the first place, the British Army does not allow combatants also to be journalists. Secondly most mothers have a nurturing, protective gene and so, like I did, will encourage their sons in war zones with food parcels and platitude-filled emails urging them to act as safely as possible.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the end of World War One and on Armistice Day itself, November 11, Channel 4 is broadcasting a documentary about Jennie*. It is almost the last opportunity, while a handful are, remarkably still living, to remember the sacrifice of thousands of British and Commonwealth servicemen not just in the trenches at the Western Front but also at Gallipoli in 1915, a catastrophe for which Winston Churchill has ever since been heavily criticised.

Winston always remained convinced that the battle to control the Dardanelles had never been fought to the finish, that he had been let down by the politicians – a view in which his mother supported him unstintingly.

“I thought he would die of grief,” said Clemmie, his wife, at the time. Yet it was Jennie, then in her sixties and newly divorced, who shored him up; Jennie who fumed on his behalf at the “slow and supine government;” Jennie who motored down to Hoe Farm, in Surrey, where he was living, and bolstered his courage to carry on the fight. Back in London it was Jennie who invited influential war correspondents to dinner so Churchill could harangue them about the expedition and what might have been. Jennie’s unwavering support in the face of her son’s looming black dog depression was crucial.

Jennie and her sisters suffered, like so many women during the Great War, proudly, bravely and stoically. Within the first few days, Jennie’s nephew, 28 year-old Norman Leslie, was killed by a sniper’s bullet. A few months later her nephew-in-law Wilfred, who had volunteered, was killed leaving two children. Yet somehow the wives, mothers and sisters carried on, grimly accepting these deaths. They ran canteens, drove ambulances, knitted mufflers for their menfolk in the trenches and they nursed.

Jennie wanted to be of service, on her own terms, and applied to the War Office. She hoped her fluent French might make her a useful translator for generals. But such skills were not in demand. The only vacancies were for women prepared to wash dishes in the soldiers’ canteen at Victoria Station. Handing out cups of tea to men as they left for the trenches was not Jennie’s style.

She threw herself into raising money for the American Women’s War Relief Fund and became Chairman of the Executive Committee. She also became Honorary Head Matron of a hospital in London at Lancaster Gate near her home, where she went regularly. Then she helped to persuade the millionaire, Paris Singer, of the sewing machine dynasty, to allow his magnificent home, Oldway House at Paignton in South Devon, a building modelled on the Palace of Versailles, to be used as a 250-bed hospital. The Fund also provided motor ambulances for the Front, clothes for refugees, employment for women and famine relief for Belgium. Jennie, an organiser and fine amateur pianist, toured barracks and hospitals hoping to entertain the troops by accompanying her friend, the soprano Lady Maud Warrender. She was deeply scornful of the “pseudo-benevolence” of some women she knew who liked to offer rides only to soldiers with visible bandages.

From the day he left the Royal Military College at Sandhurst aged 20 in 1895 as a professional soldier, a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Hussars, until his election as an MP at Oldham in 1900, young Winston fought in five campaigns in five years: India twice, Cuba, the Sudan and finally South Africa where his exploits resulted first in his capture and then, when he escaped, in his being “wanted dead or alive.” Such a tally is today considered unacceptable for soldiers in the British Army.
First Jennie paid his fare so that he could get to Cuba. She told him she would ensure that he received fame, medals and “plenty of Kudos” because she believed in him and in his destiny to survive. She also worked as his literary agent and social secretary, encouraging him to write an immediate account of the fighting he saw because “I think it important to be first in the field.” She was constantly writing letters and arranging meetings in order to get him to Egypt to fight in the most significant campaign of the day, the re-conquest of the Sudan. When her barrage of missives to General Kitchener failed to elicit the desired response, she told Winston she would travel up the Nile herself hoping a personal visit would sway him. This action, Winston told his mother, “If ever I have a biographer, will certainly be admired by others… your wit and tact and beauty should overcome all obstacles.” But, unknown to him, she was also using the visit for a romantic tryst with a handsome major in the Seaforth Highlanders with whom she was currently in love.

Although the love affair ended in catastrophe, the lobbying succeeded. Churchill was eventually attached to the 21st Lancers and fought in the last charge of the British Cavalry, the savage and bloody battle of Omdurman. He felt certain, having witnessed the deaths of so many fellow officers, that he had been picked to survive.

Jennie, as a favourite daughter, was confident of her own destiny in life and passed this on to her son. It was this strong faith which enabled her while her son was on the wanted list in South Africa, nonetheless to sail to Durban on the Anglo-American hospital ship, the Maine. This project, largely organised by Jennie, has often been ridiculed as a ruse to visit her lover, or sons or all three. By this time Winston and his younger brother Jack were both in uniform. But in fact it was a brave and extraordinary venture which required raising the massive sum of £45,000 in a few months to re-fit a former Atlantic cattle trader into a state-of-the-art hospital ship to treat the war wounded in South Africa during the Boer War.

Only when he returned to fight in the trenches in 1915, over 40 and married, did his mother finally caution him to take care, reminding him he was “destined for greater things… I am a great believer in your star.”

While researching my biography of Jennie my own son was serving in the Royal Green Jackets (now The Rifles) in Iraq and other places. His courage was neither expanded nor dented by anything I might say. Like almost all British soldiers he had a job to do and simply got on with it. If he had a difficult mission to undertake he might comment once it was accomplished – or perhaps not at all. Well-wishers would sympathise with how worried they thought I must be but, at the risk of sounding hard-hearted, mostly I was not. I believed he had the best training in the world and, although equipment often left much to be desired, he was innately sensible. Dangerous derring do of the Winston Churchill variety is not encouraged.

What has always concerned me more is the lack of respect in England, especially compared with the United States, for all three armed services (the latter a word too often used without consideration of its real meaning) largely on account of the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, which has prevented many in this country celebrating some real achievements and displays of courage. Last November 11 – Veteran’s Day – I was in Chicago and witnessed deep and spontaneous pride in the country’s military personnel irrespective of feelings about the Government of George W Bush.

This November 11 we will be remembering not only the dead of two World Wars but the more than 300 British men and women killed in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, the especial tragedy of land mine conflicts and roadside bombs is the number of those left with serious life-constricting injuries. Britain still has more than 4,000 combat troops in Iraq but, although their role may soon be over, those helping to secure a peaceful future for Afghanistan are facing as much danger as ever. Think R for Reconstruction as much as for Remembrance. Most of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 have been young men and women in their twenties, including a handful of outstandingly talented corporals, such as 24 year old John Rigby, who would have grown into inspiring future leaders in Britain. Jennie did not encourage her son because she believed he would die a hero’s death. She did not want the glory of dead soldier but knew that exposure to the armed services created an unrivalled springboard into public life.

Today in Britain it’s not just being the mother of a soldier that is an uncomfortable place to be; it is also being the wife, sister, child or friend. It would be good on November 11 not just to remember the dead but to reflect on how impoverished we all are as a nation by their loss.

Lady Randy Churchill’s Mother C4 9pm November 11th 2008

Anne Sebba is donating her fee for this article to Help For Heroes

Jennie Churchill : Winston’s American Mother (John Murray £8.99)