“I have no intention of writing anything more.”

“Lawrence of Arabia” has occupied a prominent place in popular imagination for a century. By this time, there should be little new to say about him. But, despite books, movies, and countless biographical examinations and portrayals, not to mention a staggering amount of press attention and speculation during and after his lifetime, Lawrence remains a remarkably enigmatic figure. Perhaps that’s why Lawrence’s correspondence continues to be so interesting. Correspondence – by its nature more ephemeral, candid, and more distinctly in and of the moment than published works – can convey a vital sense of the correspondent. Hence our post today about a letter we have just catalogued.

This is a 30 March 1923 autograph letter signed by T. E. Lawrence, noteworthy for testimony to his perpetually unresolved conflict over his magnum opus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, evolving complications of his public persona and media stardom, and for being signed with the name he would soon abandon. 

The letter is inked on the first panel of a single sheet of laid paper folded once to form two 6 x 4.44 inch (15.24 x 11.28 cm) panels. Lawrence’s letter, in 10 lines, reads: “30.3.23 | Dear Madam | This letter will do as an autograph. I | hope. | My account of the Arab Rebellion was first | in print (privately) some years ago, & | I have no intention of writing anything more. | Newspapers are seldom accurate | yours v. sincerely | T E Lawrence”. The letter to which this one replies and the recipient are unknown to us. But it seems quite likely that the unidentified “Madam” wrote to Lawrence as an admirer, both seeking an autograph and inquiring about the book he seemed always about to publish. Quite plausibly, elevated media preceding this letter is what prompted the recipient’s inquiry to Lawrence.

T. E. Lawrence’s (1888-1935) remarkable odyssey as instigator, organizer, hero, and tragic figure of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War transformed him from an eccentric junior intelligence officer into “Lawrence of Arabia.” He spent the rest of his famously short life struggling to variously reconcile, reject, share, and repress this indelible experience, ultimately recounted in Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

As indicated in this letter, Lawrence famously resisted publication for the general public during his lifetime. By 1923 he had already undergone a tortuous saga of writing and re-writing, including the loss of his original draft. In 1922, a 335,000 word version was carefully circulated to select friends and literary critics – the famous “Oxford Text” referenced in this letter – somewhat misleadingly – as “in print (privately)”. George Bernard Shaw called it “a masterpiece” and in December 1922 Shaw’s wife, Charlotte, told Lawrence “…it is one of the most amazing individual documents that has ever been written… Your book must be published as a whole.” 

In early 1923, many pressures came to a head for Lawrence. Months prior to this letter, Lawrence had been preparing an abridgement for publication by Cape. “He had often said that the purpose of the abridgement was to escape from the Airforce.” But Lawrence then resolved to stay in the RAF. He wrote to his agent “I .. made up my mind .. not to publish anything whatever: neither abridgement nor serial, nor full story: at least this year: and probably not so long as I remain in the R.A.F.” Consonant with this decision, Lawrence abruptly withdrew from his agreement with Cape on 1 January 1923. 

Of note, this withdrawal deprived Lawrence of a source of income unless he remained in the Royal Air Force or found some other form of employment. But two days after Lawrence jilted Cape, he was visited by Air Chief Marshal Hugh Trenchard, who warned Lawrence his presence in the newspapers was making his continued presence in the Air Force untenable. Lawrence again flirted with the idea of publication, this time about an unabridged, illustrated, limited subscription edition. But by the end of January, he had again abandoned publication. And he had been discharged from the RAF. (Wilson, p.701)

With the RAF closed to him, Lawrence enlisted in the Tank Corps. Concurrently, he seemed to close the proverbial book on publication; “Lawrence took the surviving manuscript of Seven Pillars to Oxford and presented it to the Bodleian Library”. On 12 March – 18 days before this letter was written – Lawrence arrived at Bovington Camp for his eighteen weeks’ Tank Corps basic training. (Wilson, p.711) Lawrence had enlisted in the Tank Corps as “T. E. Shaw” – a name he would later formally adopt, both signing his correspondence and publishing thus. Hence it is noteworthy that this letter is signed “Lawrence”.

Lawrence’s comment “Newspapers are seldom accurate” is telling. Media attention had just cost Lawrence his preferred life in the Royal Air Force. “Hitherto, journalists had eaten out of his hand, and this had led him to the dangerous illusion that he could influence them as he pleased.” But “From now on he would be regarded by the world’s press as an enigmatic figure, whose motives and influence were open to endless speculation .. popular interest refocused inescapably on his own life ..” and “.. imposed very real restrictions on his personal freedom ..” (Wilson, pp.701-7) 

As for Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “I have no intention of writing anything more” was either a failure of candor or, more probably, indicative of the tempestuous oscillations in his perpetually unsettled feelings about publication. In 1926, a 250,000-word “Subscriber’s Edition” was produced by Lawrence – but fewer than 200 copies were made, each lavishly and uniquely bound. The process cost Lawrence far more than he made in subscriptions. 

To recover the loss, Lawrence finally authorized an edition for the general public – but one even further abridged, titled Revolt in the Desert. It was only in the summer of 1935, in the weeks following Lawrence’s death, that the text of the Subscribers’ Edition was finally published for circulation to the general public. But the text released to the world as “Complete and Unabridged” in 1935 and which became so famous is, in fact, a significantly abridged version. 

The considerably longer “account of the Arab Rebellion… in print (privately) some years ago” remained unpublished. Not until 1997 was the text referred to in this letter published in an edition available to the public. When the full text – 84,500 words longer – was finally prepared for publication, it was checked against the copy Lawrence surrendered to the Bodleian Library not long before writing this letter.

Today, we most often access and investigate Lawrence’s character through his published works. But it may be that Lawrence’s letters offer some of the clearest views. It is worth noting that after he wrote Lawrence’s official biography and published Lawrence’s long-suppressed Oxford Text, renowned Lawrence scholar Jeremy Wilson (1944-2017) spent many years collecting, editing, and publishing many volumes of Lawrence’s correspondence. Wilson knew Lawrence as well as anyone can or will. Perhaps Wilson recognized that the fragmentary candor and verities of Lawrence’s correspondence may best enable us to approach this singular, complex, and fascinatingly conflicted person.

Click HERE to view this letter on our website.

Witnessing History – Churchill Pamphlets & Leaflets

On the eve of an attempted invasion or battle for our native land… The Prime Minister expects all His Majesty’s servants in high places to set an example of steadfastness and resolution…

These are the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill on a leaflet dated 4 July 1940. This extraordinary – and extraordinarily scarce – wartime message is a tangible reminder that, less than two months into Churchill’s wartime premiership Britain’s peril was dire and her resolve needed stern bracing, even at the highest levels. This leaflet conveys a visceral sense of the urgency of the moment that is harder to absorb from any of Churchill’s book-length works. Even his war speeches volumes.

Recently, we added a small hoard of 55 Churchill pamphlet and leaflet publications – including this one – to our listed inventory. Collecting Churchill’s words is often approached via books. After all, he wrote a lot of them. But it turns out that far more pamphlets and leaflets featuring Churchill’s words were published than books. Often they are printed on cheap paper and bound with little more than staples or string – if they are lengthy enough to be bound at all. Moreover, many of these ephemeral items are quite considerably scarcer than their bookish counterparts. Some are the first published appearance of the words they carry. More than a few are so rare as to be more elusive than all but the two rarest of Churchill’s book-length works.

But pamphlets and leaflets are compelling for reasons beyond mere scarcity. Churchill’s myriad pamphlet and leaflet publications span nearly the entirety of his public life. (The earliest of which we are aware dates from 1 June 1899.) More often than not they publish either his speeches (what the Nobel Prize folks called his “…brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”) or other exigent communication ill-suited to either the bulk or slow publishing process that appends to books. This exigence often results in a publication that feels more tethered to the immediacy of the moment that produced it. The leaflet discussed above is an excellent example. 

The historical narrative of Churchill’s Second World War Britain is tinted with a deeply-rooted sacrificial resolve that saw Britain persevere – and persevere with the inspiring, confident Churchillian persona that girded British resolve. Yet this unsettled message to Britain’s institutional leadership – and the notional necessity that provoked it – muddles a conventional narrative. 

The message is only 241 words printed on one side of a leaflet, but those words are quite striking. Perhaps not surprising is the exhortation to “maintain a spirit of alert and confident energy”. But it is telling that senior government officials needed to be explicitly told that “there are no grounds for supposing that more German troops can be landed in this country… than can be destroyed or captured…” Likewise, some of the phraseology of this message in Churchill’s name seems less than sure-footed. The phrase “The Prime Minister expects…” cannot help but feel like a rhetorical knockoff of Nelson’s famous Trafalgar message “England expects that every man will do his duty.” The more negative exhortations are understandable in the context of the time, but are nonetheless unsettling, bordering on Orwellian. Officials are directed to “check and rebuke expressions of loose and ill-digested opinion” and “report, or if necessary remove, any officers or officials…consciously exercising a disturbing or depressing influence, and whose talk is calculated to spread alarm and despondency.

This rare early wartime intra-governmental communication is a blunt reminder that when Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, Britain’s war was not so much a struggle for victory as a struggle to survive. Churchill’s first months in office saw, among other near-calamities, the Battle of the Atlantic, the fall of France, evacuation at Dunkirk, and the Battle of Britain – which was less than a week from commencing when this communication was distributed. Hitler’s massive, sustained aerial assault that began on 10 July 1940 was the preparatory effort to gain air superiority for a planned invasion of England, “Operation Sea Lion”. By most accounts, that outcome was only narrowly avoided. British resolve eventually became axiomatic, but as late as April 1941, the Ministry of Information and the Prime Minister were still issuing printed instructions to all British households regarding what to do in the case of invasion.

Of course, know all this from the volumes that have been written about the Second World War – both by Churchill and others. But we feel it when we read this leaflet. The moment actually seems to echo in this mere scrap of paper, which has improbably survived its original purpose and seems to convey far more than the few words printed on it.

Even less obscure wartime pamphlets and leaflets can convey the sense of the moment in which they are rooted. A compelling case in point is the series of Churchill’s speeches printed by the British Library of Information (BLOI) in New York, a branch of the British Foreign Office.

The British Library of Information published thirty-two statements, speeches, or broadcast addresses by Prime Minister Winston Churchill beginning with his first speech as Prime Minister of 13 May 1940 and ending with the broadcast address of 29 November 1942. These editions were often issued within two or three days of delivery and “reveal the political determination of the British government to bring the inspiration and steadfastness of the Prime Minister and the British nation to an American nation not yet engaged in the war. Indeed, twenty-two of the BLOI speech pamphlets were published before Pearl Harbor.”

In many cases, these BLOI publications of Churchill’s speeches in America were the first time these speeches were available in print to the public. Speed was deemed essential and “it was not always possible to check with the authoritative text.” Comparison of these BLOI texts with later definitive editions often reveals discrepancies. (Cohen, Vol. I, A120, p.513) These discrepancies are telling; given Churchill’s legendary attention to the specificity of his words – particularly those he committed to print – one can hardly imagine a more significant indication of the sense of urgency manifest in these publications.

Of course, Churchill’s pamphlet and leaflet publications are not all speeches and wartime. In those listed on our website you will find correspondence with world leaders, wonkish public policy prescriptions and presentations, prescient speculation and plans for the future, ruminations on the past, reflective essays, political exhortations, and poetic quotations.

The myriad campaigns and conflicts in which Churchill engaged over roughly two-thirds of a century in public life are now long-settled history. Churchill’s many published books testify to this history. Carefully crafted, soberly considered, diligently edited, and duly bound, they are a fixed and dignified presence, a still, sober weight on our shelves. But save some space between them. Certainly, Churchill’s myriad published pamphlets and leaflets are more humbly bound, often hastily conceived, slight in stature, and ephemeral in both material and purpose. But they are often very much of the time and place they were meant to influence. Many convey a sense that they still actively witness the history they – and their author – helped to make.


Beginner’s guide to book collecting

My colleagues here at CBC have been pestering me to post some thoughts on a so-called “beginner’s guide to book collecting”. I’ve resisted. But knowing I like to talk, one of them tricked me by asking me questions and typing down the answers while I paced the library pontificating. So here it is!

What kind of rare books should I collect?

That’s an easy one. Collect the books you love. 

I often remind myself – and customers who care to listen – that here at CBC we don’t sell anything that anyone actually needs. In no case of which I’m aware can the actual contents of a rare or valuable book in our inventory not be read or accessed less expensively. Once you embrace the fundamental impracticality of book collecting, it makes sense to collect what stirs you, what kindles and informs your personal passions. 

“Rationalize the obsession as an investment”

Don’t get me wrong, book collectors should be great rationalizers. Once we decide on what we want, then it’s OK to be rational. Once we know what we’re after, we should set about acquiring it in the most logical and even methodical way possible, sensible to condition, edition, state, and all those things. And, as is the case with real estate, not only should we buy sensibly, but should plan to hold the item for an appreciable period of time. This allows a chance to see value increase – and so gives us a chance to rationalize the obsession as an investment. But the prime directive that should underpin any indulgent impulse to collect is to seek and acquire what you love. Like all great loves, you don’t have to explain it for it to be valid.

How can I learn more about rare books?

Well—I suppose there’s really three things to learn, each different but of a piece. 

The first thing is to learn about the physical nature and characteristics of books. That is, how they are printed, how they are bound, and all the many permutations of materials and methods, and all the cool terms of art that pertain to the process and product. One of many books on the subject that’s worthwhile is The Dictionary of the Book: a Glossary for Book Collectors, Book Sellers, Librarians, and Others by Sidney E. Berger. 

The second edict is to know your author. For whatever author(s) you collect, you should familiarize yourself with what they wrote, when and where and how they published, and the many editions, printings, states, and issue points that pertain to their canon. Most noteworthy authors have a bibliography. A good bibliography is a map for the strange and wonderful journey of collecting. 

Of course, not all bibliographies are equal, but all are informative to some degree. Some authors, of course, do not have a bibliography, which presents its own interesting challenges to a collector, as you have to accumulate the knowledge on your own. Most of the time, it’s a bit of both. I consider Ron Cohen’s three volume bibliography of Winston Churchill to be perhaps the most exhaustively thorough bibliographic effort I’ve ever seen published. Ron devoted nearly a quarter of a century of research to the effort. Nonetheless, over decades, as I’ve encountered items unknown to Cohen, I’ve made a great number of emendations to my copy of his work. I think of it as adding my own notes to the map as I make the journey.

“old books aren’t necessarily precious, and precious books aren’t necessarily old”

Third and lastly, familiarize yourself with the market. You should have some idea of prevailing market history and trends for the items you seek to collect. If you are collecting a specific author, you should get to know all the nuances of value for different titles, editions, printings, etc. More broadly speaking, be aware that this is a terribly subjective market. Just because something is truly rare, doesn’t mean it’s valued or valuable. Moreover, old books aren’t necessarily precious, and precious books aren’t necessarily old. 

One example among many is Harry Potter mania. If you have a fine first edition of the first Harry Potter book—a book that is only a quarter of a century old—your book is worth more than some people’s homes. On the other hand, a few years ago, we had a nearly 500-year-old treatise on Justinian Law in an ancient sheepskin binding that had so little market interest we ended up donating it. 

Are there any memorable instances where you missed out on something valuable?

If by “memorable” you mean painful, then yes. 

Every collector has them whether they admit it or not. You accumulate stories of things you missed out on almost in equal proportion to stories about cool things you actually got. Sadly, sometimes the “one that got away” stories are better than tales of success. 

Years ago we were considering bidding at auction on a rather tattered copy of the first edition of Churchill’s Savrola – the author’s first, last, and only novel written and published before he entered politics. The reason we considered bidding is that it was inscribed and dated to “Pamela” half a century after it was published. We decided to pass, since condition was poor and we’d not identified “Pamela”.

Only a day or so after the auction was over did it occur to me that the Pamela in question was none other than Pamela Plowden, the woman to whom Churchill had been engaged when he was writing and publishing Savrola. After slapping my forehead, I checked the auction results and saw that the item had mercifully passed. No one had bid the reserve! I immediately phoned the auction house to see if I could still buy the item. To my chagrin, someone had beaten me to the punch by mere minutes. 

Now the really painful part. Years later I was at a book fair, and fell to talking with an accomplished Churchill collector. Naturally we were swapping tales of collecting triumphs and tragedies. I told this very story. As I was winding up my tale of woe, he was grinning. It was not empathy. Turns out that my missed opportunity was on his shelves. He thanked me for being a few minutes later than he was in calling the auction house. 

Can I collect rare books on a budget?

“be a true collector, not just a trophy hunter” 

Absolutely. You can collect worthwhile items with just about any budget. The most important thing is to align your expectations with your means. If you are the kind of person who gets jealous every time you see a better copy than yours, you’re going to be frustrated. But if you are the kind of person who can appreciate the singular arc of experience that brings any particular collectible book to you – if you are able to appreciate that every nick, or bump, or scuff, or dog-eared page, or stray bit of previous owner graffiti is part of the accumulated history that renders your book singular and special – then you’ll be a true collector, not just a trophy hunter. 

I want to go back to the question you asked about the one that got away. I didn’t pay enough attention to that copy of Savrola at the outset because it was tattered and worn. Now I realize that it was tattered and worn because fifty years after it was published the old man who had written it had to go find a first edition to inscribe for the old woman he had loved when he was an impetuous young man – and who some think is represented in the novel. Yeah. But if you just looked at the covers, you’d pass it over as a raggedy first edition not worth a serious collector’s time.

A worn first edition or humble later printing can be compelling even without such lofty provenance. Even the most modest books can have their own quiet stories and history. Indeed, much of the fun in collecting lies in teasing out those stories and lost fragments of history. And in appreciating books for what they are – remarkable physical encapsulations of distilled human enterprise, experience, and imagination.

How do you know if a book’s value will appreciate?

You don’t. You also cannot predict whether you’ll win big in Vegas, or whether your life insurance agent’s actuarial tables will accurately predict the span of your years. 

As with gambling and life insurance, you can play the percentages. But the bottom line is that what’s valuable in the collecting market place is ultimately a question of what’s regarded. And what’s regarded ends up being a strange, lucky strike alchemical mixture of exposure, popularity, and ever-evolving notions of quality and relevance, not to mention shifting socio-political and cultural tides. 

Winston Churchill gives us a great example. When he began writing, the future British statesman and Nobel Prize winning author was often conflated with a far more popular American novelist named… Winston Churchill. Today, when anybody bothers to look at the American novelist’s books, it’s on the assumption that he is THE Winston Churchill. Were he alive to do so, the American Winston, could testify that authorial fortunes are fickle. 

Do you have any advice for would be collectors – something you wish you had known or done early on?

I do. Don’t spend your hard-earned money on something you don’t think you will be happy to have on your shelf five years from now. A lot of beginning collectors buy “compromise copies”, by which I mean books that aren’t what they really want, but rather what they are settling for at the moment. Then a few years later, they find themselves buying what they actually wanted in the first place – and are left with something on the shelves from which it is difficult to derive either pleasure or return on investment. 

“a happy collector and a good steward to the objects that history is entrusting to your care” 

Let’s acknowledge that this is a passion. There is nothing practical about rare book collecting. That’s part of what makes collecting beautiful. If it doesn’t stir you when you see it, don’t buy it. There’s a reason we gift wrap every book we sell. Every time you put a new book on the shelves it should feel a little special. What you put on your shelves should give you an enduring sense of wonder and appreciation. That’s what will make you a happy collector and a good steward to the objects that history is entrusting to your care.

The Christmas Truce

We’ve just been reminded of a remarkable moment of holiday season humanity in the midst of the First World War that seems appropriate to share during these more than normally fraught 2020 holidays.

It begins with a bookplate

The catalyst is a set of the signed, limited, numbered, and finely bound first edition of Winston Churchill’s four-volume biography of his great ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough – one of England’s most celebrated military leaders. Marlborough: His Life and Times is noteworthy for being Winston Churchill’s final monumental interregnum work. Churchill had served both in the Cabinet and on the Front during the First World War. Almost exactly one year after publication of the fourth and last Marlborough volume, Churchill returned to the Cabinet at the outbreak of the Second World War. 

The publisher’s 150 signed, limited, numbered and finely bound sets of Marlborough are coveted, so it’s easy to dismiss the presence of old bookplates in each volume as merely a “previous owner’s bookplate”. But the bookplate in each volume of set #107 happens to be the armorial bookplate of “BUCHANAN-DUNLOP”. 

You’ve probably not heard the name, but it is one that merits attention, particularly at this time of year. On Christmas day, 1914, Lt Col. Archibald Henry Buchanan-Dunlop (1874-1947) did what even the Pope could not. 

“There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter”

The First World War was only a month old when Benedict XV ascended to the papacy. The first four of his seven and a half years as Pope were consumed by diplomatic attempts to quash the conflict he described as “the suicide of civilized Europe”. But secular exhortations proved no match for the terrible pent political and military forces that had been unleashed. That November Benedict XV said of the combatants in his Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum encyclical “…well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain.”

The Pope pressed his impassioned appeal for peace; on 7 December he called for a hiatus from war to last at least over the holiday, so that “the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” His request for an official cease-fire was universally ignored. Almost. A truce came not on the scale of secular institutions, nation states, and official decrees, but instead through a modest package, delivered to a British officer on the edge of the cold, muddy morass of No-Man’s Land in Ypres. 

“…it seems so silly under the circumstances to be fighting them.”

The recipient was Lt Col. Archibald Henry Buchanan-Dunlop. He had written to his mother about how he missed the songs the students would sing at the Chapel of Loretto School, where he had been a student and a teacher. The package from his mother contained a small program, a book of carols for the school’s annual Christmas production. On Christmas day, Buchanan-Dunlop organized an impromptu song among his company, which quickly erupted with more and more soldiers joining down the trenches. The Germans responded in kind, each side cheering after the other. Soldiers climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with their enemies. Some exchanged gifts of cigarettes and plum puddings. There was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides playing a good-natured game of soccer.

In retrospect, historical accounts tend to garland a single individual as the sole instigator of an event. In this way, of course it might be over-zealous to ascribe the 1914 Christmas Truce wholly to Lt. Col. Buchanan-Dunlop, but only marginally so. In a letter he sent to his wife on Christmas day 1914, Buchanan-Dunlop wrote, “Even out here this is a time of peace & goodwill. I have just spent an hour talking to the German officers & men who have drawn a line half way between our left trenches & theirs & have all met our men and officers there. We exchanged cigars, cigarettes, and papers. They are jolly, cheery fellows for the most part, & it seems so silly under the circumstances to be fighting them.” It’s clear from the remainder of the letter that Buchanan-Dunlop did not take credit for the truce—a testament to his character—but letters sent from fellow soldiers name him as the cause. 

2014 marked the centennial anniversary of the fabled events and a remembrance for the man who was said to have – even if only for a moment – “stopped the First World War”. Stained-glass windows were commissioned in commemoration of the truce, which have been installed in Loretto School’s Chapel. Descendants of Buchanan-Dunlop, as well as those of the German officer involved in the truce, Hauptmann Maximilion Freiherr Von Sinner, congregated as their forebearers did, during the unveiling of the windows, which in Latin read, Gloria in Excelsis Deo et in terra pax, meaning, Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace.

The return to exchanging fire

Many of the men who sang and shook hands on Christmas 1914 did not survive; they returned to exchanging fire. It went on for nearly four more desperately bloody and destructive years. Then it all began anew in 1939. The First World War had been called “The Great War” and even “The War to End All Wars”. Only four decades into the twentieth century the world was already jaded; the next global conflict became merely the “Second” World War. And in that sequel, three of Archibald Henry Buchanan-Dunlop’s own sons took up arms and served. 

It occurred to me as I was writing this post to search out an inventory of current global conflicts – incidences of organized, sustained, mass violence fueled by large-scale sectarian or political strife. This proved such a lengthy and dismal catalogue that I stopped.

Even the lovely, erudite, eminently worthy books in which we found the Buchanan-Dunlop bookplates suggest terrible inevitability. Winston Churchill’s history of his great ancestor – a vaunted military commander of the early 18th century – was written while Churchill himself was desperately seeking to forestall the next great engulfing conflagration of his own time. Churchill failed. Instead, it fell to him to lead his nation in war.

One can become understandably pessimistic. But there is more to it than that. Were there not, I’d be unable to write these words today. 

The “Moral of the work”

In the trenches of Ypres on Christmas 1914, Archibald Henry Buchanan-Dunlop sensed that there was more and helped his fellow soldiers, allied and enemy both, to momentarily do the same. We regard the Christmas Truce moment – we enshrine it in stained glass 100 years later – because we understand that even the depths of senseless depravity may harbor the fragile, stubborn, never-quite-fully-extinguished possibility of beneficent humanity.

After the First World War, Winston Churchill was asked to pen an inscription for a French First World War memorial. In response, Churchill offered the following:

In War: Resolution

In Defeat: Defiance

In Victory: Magnanimity

In Peace: Good Will

Churchill’s proposed inscription was rejected. France – and most of the leadership and populace among most of her allies – were in too vengeful a mood to enshrine any notions of magnanimity or good will. Indeed, the venomously punitive terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles are widely credited (including by Churchill) with helping aid the rise of Hitler. 

Like the resumption of hostilities after the Christmas Truce, the rejection of Churchill’s proposed inscription is a tremendously fitting commentary on the persistent failure to learn – to secure peace not just with frightful loss of blood and treasure, but with comprehending and conciliatory spirit. Prophetically, Churchill’s rejected inscription for a First World War memorial instead became his “Moral of the Work” when he published his history of The Second World War.

Wishing us all the resolution and defiance necessary to show magnanimity, achieve peace, and proffer good will.

This item may be purchased HERE.


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Do I have a valuable book?

Is my book rare or collectible? 

How do I sell my book? 

Do you want to buy my book? 

What is my book worth? 

How much will you pay me? 

Since we’re booksellers, we’ve been asked all of these questions. Many times. Because a tremendous number of factors are involved, the only universally applicable answer is “It depends…” Nonetheless, it seems long past time to write a bit about what makes books precious.

I say “precious” to acknowledge the curious passions and peculiarities that inform book collecting. Old does not necessarily mean valuable. I might have a 400+ year-old Latin treatise on Roman law that takes years to sell and fetches only a few hundred dollars. Or I may have a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that’s less than half my own age and yet will sell quickly and fetch enough to buy a car. A really, really expensive car. The kind of car you’d be afraid to park at the grocery store.

So is value a matter of scarcity? No, not necessarily. We’ve sold items of which only a handful of copies are known for 10x less than items of which there are more than 1000x as many surviving copies. Is that confusing? Tell me about it. But I’ve got to get us past some of the “It depends”. So here goes.


Have you ever bought a diamond? I did. Only once, thankfully. I remember trying to study up in advance for my parley with various diamond merchants. As a layman, it all came down to three big, overarching factors – cut, color, and clarity. Granted, there were a daunting number of additional factors, but the big three helped me orient to the market.

The good news is that there’s a similar big three for books. Generally speaking – albeit with a significant number of exceptions – the factors in determining a book’s value are:




Of course, there are a legion of devils in the details. Let’s tackle a few.  


“First edition” is the holy grail for most collectors. Behind that collecting goal and simple definition is a simple wish – to have a copy of the author’s work as it first appeared, by itself, between its own covers (i.e. not serialized in a magazine, etc.). But “First edition” is a far more complicated label than it seems.


Technically speaking, an edition is all copies of a book printed from the same setting of type. Later editions begin only when there are substantial changes made to the text or a new publisher takes over. But there can be many printings (also called “impressions”) of a first edition. 

Here’s one of many scenarios. Winston’s Churchill’s only work of pure autobiography – My Early Life – was first published in October 1930. That was the first printing of the first edition. But pre-publication demand was so strong for the book that a second printing was ordered by the publisher before the first printing was even published. The book sold well, so the publisher kept cranking them out; there were ultimately six printings of this first edition spanning a decade between October 1930 and December 1940. All of these are legitimately first editions. But it is likely the first edition, first printing that you really want – and probably what you really mean when you say “First edition”.


Just in case that’s not complicated enough, one first printing can be more first than another. Yeah. There can be different “states” of a first edition. Let’s say the printer notices a small error – like a punctuation mark or a page number or a missing book title in a list of other works by the author – and corrects this error during a print run. Or let’s say the publisher used a certain texture of cloth to bind part of the first printing but then ran out or changed their mind and started using a different cloth. Or let’s say they altered the layout of the title on the front cover during a print run. Then whatever came first becomes the first state of the first printing of the first edition. Whichever is more first is more desirable and valuable.

For Churchill’s My Early Life, there is a first state of the first printing of the first edition, identified by a minor text omission in the prelims corrected during the first printing. 

There are also multiple binding states, because for the first printing the publisher used two different textures of binding cloth and stamped the title on the front cover in two different layouts.

Confused? Wait, there’s more!

Back to that Churchill book. As byzantine as it sounds, we have two factors going for us. First, the publisher at least did us the courtesy of denoting “Second Impression”, “Third Impression” and so forth on the copyright pages of subsequent printings. Second, someone went through the trouble of writing an extensive bibliography about Churchill’s published works, which enumerates what we call “issue points” of each printing and the various states thereof.


It’s often not easy. Publishers differ vastly in how – or even whether – they denote first editions and various printings. Some make it easy for us, printing “first edition” or even “first printing” right there on the copyright page. Some are a little less clear but still decipherable, using a number code to denote various printings of the first edition. Some publishers use more arcane methods with no easy or universal way to distinguish between editions and printings. 

It can get worse. Publisher’s make mistakes, sometimes conflating the terms “edition”, “printing”, and “impression”, so that even when you see the actual words “edition” and “printing” and “impression” right there in black and white on a copyright page, you cannot necessarily trust their accuracy. Yes, sometimes the publisher is wrong. Then it is up to professional booksellers, expert collectors, and bibliographers to sort out the actual publishing history. Moreover, sometimes an individual publisher will change how they designate editions and printings, so even if you know what method the particular publisher used to denote publishing history, you must also know when they used that particular method. Denotation methods among publishers have changed and will continue to change over decades and centuries.


If you’ve ever shopped for a house, you’ve probably heard a real estate agent say “Location Location Location.” Condition Condition Condition is the rough equivalent for collectors and booksellers.

First, we need to acknowledge the underlying madness – or, to be kinder, the deep irony – of book collecting. Books are inherently perishable objects created to be consumed. As we’ve written before, books are a tenuous combination of perishable materials and discordant chemistry – paper and glue and string and cloth, material animal, vegetable, synthetic, or all of the above, all of which conspire to decohere almost from the moment they’re bound together. 

Under most circumstances, people are supposed to help books decohere. By fulfilling a book’s purpose – actually reading it – you accelerate the inevitable deterioration. Every time you merely open a book, you kill it just a little, letting in a little moisture or dust or finger oil, stressing the binding, pulling the head of the spine, creasing page corners… And that’s how it should be. If books have a single purpose, it is to encapsulate and convey the distilled perspective of another consciousness, and in so doing to be read and read until they’re wrecked.

But that’s not what most collectors want. They want the precious few books that did not suffer the depredations of actually being read. The more unblemished the better. Better still, unread.

I know. I know. But it does make a certain sort of sense in context. If the whole point of a first edition is a sort of communion with the very first time the words were printed and bound together, then it makes sense that there would likewise be a desire to feel like this book has been waiting, in a patient state of special preservation, for you.

Accepting this particular sort of madness for what it is allows you to understand (1) that condition is paramount and (2) that small gradations in condition can translate to considerable differences in value.

In general, for a collectible first edition to be of maximum value, it needs to be in excellent condition, as close to original as possible. If there was originally a dust jacket and that jacket is missing, that can make a stupefying difference in price. Spotting or soiling or some previous owner’s name written inside are all strikes against value. If the book or dust jacket has been repaired – even if it has been repaired professionally – that’s likely a significant mark against it, too.

Think of it this way – most of us would prefer a new car to a used car. Even though we are going to drive it ourselves. Even though the purpose of a car is to be used. Even though the age and mileage we put on a car will incrementally, inevitably ruin it. We still want it all shiny and low mileage if we can get it. And if we are considering a used car, we don’t consider dents and dings and seat stains from previous owners as desirable selling points. As for repairs… once a car has been in a serious accident and then salvaged with repairs, its title is legally changed and all future sellers must disclose that it’s been salvaged. Most people don’t want a salvage-titled car and those willing to buy one expect to pay a whole lot less for it. Much the same is true of books.


Booksellers use a gradation of terms to describe the condition of a book. These grades generally include, in descending order, as new, fine, very good, good, fair, and poor. But there are two problems with this system. One is that, since it is inherently subjective, one bookseller’s grading can differ significantly from another’s, not even factoring in the obvious incentives to grade a book as better than it actually is. Second is the fact that even the ostensibly straightforward condition terms used by professional booksellers can be misleading. Grades of “As new”, “Fine” and “Very good” are relatively self-explanatory, but “Good” actually means quite worn and not so good, “Fair” means bad, and “Poor” means that you should keep this book on hand just in case there’s another pandemic and you run short of toilet paper.


I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the how the big three – edition, printing, and condition inform the desirability and value of a book. Now it’s time to contradict myself. Sometimes edition, printing, and condition take a back seat to provenance.

“Provenance” is the fancy bookseller term for a book’s history – the details of who’s owned it, where it’s been, and what it’s been up to since it was published. This typically manifests in the form of “extra ink”, by which we mean words, numbers, or notation of some sort applied to the book after it was published. Most of the time provenance is pedestrian, and either diminishes value or is neutral. A previous owner name and address written on the endpapers. A small stamp or sticker from a bookseller affixed to the rear pastedown or the front flap of a dust jacket. That sort of thing. But…

A collectible book is valued as a physical piece of history. When you can add more compelling history to the book, the book naturally becomes more valuable. What do I mean? When an author signed or inscribed a book. If a previous owner was famous, or, even better still, both famous and connected with the author. If the book was demonstrably present at an interesting, relevant, or important place and time. These sorts of things can dramatically enhance the story, value, and appeal of a book as a physical artifact.

A few examples may help. We once had a worn copy of the 1933 third edition of The River War by Churchill. This third edition was abridged and published a third of a century after the first edition. Moreover, this copy had lost its original dust jacket and was considerably soiled and worn. Ordinarily we’d not even bother offering it for sale. But this copy had been owned by a hero of both World Wars who died gallantly in the field during Churchill’s wartime premiership. And this copy had been purchased in 1934 by this same soldier from a Sudanese bookseller in Khartoum – the epicenter for the events that led to the titular River War. This became a case where the provenance actually became worth significantly more than the inherent value of the book itself. 

Another such case was a later printing of the American edition of Robert Frost’s second published book – North of Boston. Normally, a later printing of the American edition of this book is not a value proposition. The true first edition was published in England, preceding the American edition. And this copy was not the first printing, had lost its dust jacket, and was a bit worn. As if to make things even worse, the publisher had incorrectly designated this as “Third edition” on the copyright page, even though this was actually the second printing of the first American edition. So why did we bother offering this book? Because this humble and confused second printing of the first American edition had belonged to the author’s friend and fellow poet David McCord. The book featured both McCord’s dated ownership signature and a 28 April 1924 autograph letter from Frost to McCord referencing a review McCord had written about New Hampshire – Frost’s first book to win a Pulitzer Prize. McCord’s late 1923 review is actually published on the Pulitzer website. Another case of the value of provenance far exceeding the value of the book itself.

A more straightforward example came to us just a few days ago. The first edition, first printing of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction masterpiece, Dune, is legendary. After being repeatedly rejected, Dune was first published by Chilton – a publisher best known for auto repair manuals. Dune went on to win the Hugo and Nebula Awards and has seen film adaptations and enduring acclaim. Dune also went on to multiple printings, Chilton issuing new printings of the first edition well into the 1970s. A first printing of the first edition can be worth many thousands, later printings some hundreds. A sixth printing of the first edition is typically not exciting. But this sixth printing is signed by Herbert. Twice. 


Don’t fret if your book is not a first edition and nobody interesting scribbled in it. First editions are the primary focus of many collectors, but they are by no means the sole focus. And provenance is not the only way to render a non-first edition compelling.

There are hosts of later editions that end up being quite coveted by collectors. Pretty much any of the hand-made books produced by the Kelmscott Press in the late 1800s are quite desirable and valuable indeed. If you have a Kelmscott Chaucer or Shakespeare, you definitely don’t have a first edition – and you definitely do have a very precious book. The first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922. But if you have the 1935 edition published by the Limited Editions Club in New York, you have a very valuable non-first edition. This 1935 edition was illustrated and signed by Henri Matisse. And make sure you look carefully, because some were signed by Joyce, too. There are myriad fine, limited, collected, commemorative and other editions of works by authors that are not first editions but nonetheless valuable.


That valuing collectible books is complicated and depends on a variety of mutually influencing and sometimes seemingly disparate factors. That appropriately identifying and assessing these factors requires a little intuition, a little alchemy, and a lot of experience. That the market for rare books is just as ancient, enduring, and capriciously evolving as the learnings, loves, and lusts that drive us to possess books. That even nearly 3,000 words on the subject just scratches the surface. But that despite all of this complexity and arcanum, there are some identifiable signposts and considerations, some of which we hope you found in this post.


We’ve just implemented an effort to make it easier for you to ask us to consider your book(s). Please see our new SELL TO US page on our website, which includes a straightforward, easy to complete submittal form. 

One final question to address before we finish writing:


We buy and sell books in dozens of nations spread over six continents (Sorry Antarctica!). Chances are that we have sent or received valuable books from someplace way more exotic than where you live. With email and digital images we can typically accomplish much of the communication we need to consider a book or collection. And international shipping is, in our experience, safer than rush hour traffic or a COVID-19 trip to the grocery store.


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“From: THE PRIME MINISTER” – the story of an extraordinary inscribed wartime copy of Churchill’s My Early Life

I am writing to beg you not to let me go to Canada… A. Because I don’t want 

to leave England in time of war… B. Because I should be very homesick…

C. Because it would be kinder to let me be killed with you, if such happened

(which is quite unlikely)… D. I would not see you for an indefinite time, 

perhaps never again… Those are my reasons, and I hope that you will

take them into consideration….

P.S. I would rather be bombed to fragments than leave England.

The 6 July 1940 edition of The Times printed this anonymous letter written by an 11-year-old boy to his father. This letter precipitated perhaps the most compelling inscribed wartime copy of Churchill’s autobiography we’ve ever encountered. This post tells the story.

When the boy’s letter was printed in The Times, the father prefaced his son’s letter thus:

“Sir, – As I see that your correspondence has turned to the important consideration of the child’s own point of view, I send you the enclosed letter, a copy of the one which I have just received from my little boy aged 11.”

The boy’s letter caught the eye of Winston Churchill, who had been prime minister for less than two months. Churchill “instructed his office to identify the author. They did and Churchill sent the young boy an autographed volume of one of his own works in recognition of his patriotic defiance.” (Alban Webb, The Guardian, 1 March 2017)

It turns out that it was not just any book, but, magnificently appropriate for a brave and precocious 11-year-old-boy, a copy of My Early Life – Churchill’s engaging story of his early years. Moreover, Churchill did not just sign and send the book, but inscribed it to the boy by name, signing and dating the volume before having it wrapped in brown paper and hand-delivered care of the boy’s father. We know because this very book, still wrapped as it was when delivered, came into our possession. We wager we were no less thrilled than the boy who first received it.

This book is a magnificently evocative artifact of the desperately imperiled days of early Second World War Britain and the fraught first months in office of her prime minister, Winston S. Churchill. The moment and family that provoked this inscribed book encapsulate both the critical struggle over the skies of Britain and the deeply-rooted sacrificial resolve that saw Britain persevere. Moreover, the brief convergence of author and recipient witnessed by this book limns an animating spirit of virtuous defiance that both shared and both employed in service to conscience and country.


When Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940, the war for Britain was not so much a struggle for victory as a struggle to survive. Churchill’s first months in office saw, among other near-calamities, the Battle of the Atlantic, the fall of France, evacuation at Dunkirk, and the Battle of Britain. Hitler intended the Battle of Britain as the preparatory effort to gain air superiority prior to a planned invasion of England, “Operation Sea Lion”.

Because the war’s outcome is now settled history, it is perhaps difficult to viscerally understand how imperiled Britain was in July 1940. As late as April 1941, the Ministry of Information and the Prime Minister were still issuing printed instructions to all British households regarding what to do in the case of invasion. Legitimate fear and anxiety in England were cresting in the summer of 1940.

The unprecedented development of aerial military power meant that the English Channel and British Navy no longer guaranteed the safety of British homes and, in particular, of British children. “When war broke out in September 1939, fear that German bombing would cause civilian deaths prompted the government to evacuate children, mothers with infants and the infirm from British towns and cities… Over the course of three days 1.5 million evacuees were sent to rural locations considered to be safe.” Many had returned by the end of 1939 when the widely expected bombing raids on cities failed to materialize, but “additional rounds of official evacuation occurred nationwide in the summer and autumn of 1940, following the German invasion of France in May-June…” (Imperial War Museum) Some children were even evacuated overseas to other British Dominions, such as Canada. Early July, when this letter was written, was a particularly anxious moment. Germany was about to begin its aerial bombing campaign of British cities that would become known to history as “The Blitz”. Germany’s sustained aerial assault would result in many tens of thousands of British civilian casualties.

It’s worth recounting – and will become more relevant still as the story unfolds – that even before the First World War, Churchill was deeply intrigued by the possibilities of air power and fully engaged in efforts to explore the military potential. In 1913, he learned to fly and, as First Lord of the Admiralty, founded the Royal Naval Air Service and argued “for the proper funding of the Royal Flying Corps and its successor the Royal Air Force.” (Roberts, Walking with Destiny, p.128) Churchill used his post-WWI positions as Secretary of State for War and Air – in the face of considerable resistance – to make military aviation a priority. He sought to build resources and organizational capacity, but also to ensure that the Air Force remained integrated within a unified defence Ministry. Even so, he could not have known how absolutely critical a role air power would play in the survival of Britain under his own premiership decades later. This imminent aerial crucible was the catalyzing event behind Churchill’s gift of this book to young David Julian Benn.


David Julian Wedgwood Benn’s (1928-2017) letter to his father proved “an early indication of David’s lifelong instinct to question received wisdoms and assumed orthodoxies, allied to a healthy sense of dissent.” These are, of course, qualities the young David would very much have recognized in the pages and protagonist of My Early Life

David “became a linguist and scholar whose work as a barrister, BBC broadcaster, journalist and academic author reflected his determination to seek out objective truth. Dedicated to the study of international affairs, he retained an infectious and boyish curiosity for making sense of the world around him.” The Churchillian echoes hardly need underscoring.

David proved “conservative in everything but politics” but, despite socialist inclinations, he was unwilling to sacrifice conscience and justice to ideology. In fact “It was another letter, this time to the Soviet newspaper Pravda in Moscow, that led David to his long and influential career at the BBC. Shaken by the Soviet Union’s brutal repression of the Hungarian uprising, in December 1956 David organized and drafted an open letter…” signed by Labour Party leaders “requesting a justification of Soviet actions.” When the BBC Russian Service broadcast the letter, Pravda printed a reply. David ended up working for the BBC until 1984 in a career spent substantially engaged in Cold War analysis and reporting. In retirement he continued to write and publish on Cold War politics and propaganda. (Alban Webb, The Guardian, 1 March 2017) The very same “Iron Curtain” Churchill coined in 1946 would become the defining intellectual, moral, and political line in David’s career.


Britain’s Prime Minister was far from the only model of resolution in David’s life. Winston Churchill may have been unsurprised to discover that the father of the courageous anonymous boy whose words had captured his attention was William Wedgwood Benn (1877-1960) – the “Rt. Hon. Wedgwood Benn D.S.O., D.F.C., M.P.” to whom this book was hand-delivered after it was inscribed for David. 

A month after inscribing this book, in August 1940 Churchill famously praised “British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the war by their prowess and by their devotion.” Churchill reckoned “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” He could rightly have had Wedgwood Benn in mind.

Benn, a decorated First World War veteran, was first a Liberal and then a Labour MP who served as Secretary of State for India (1929-31) and, as 1st Viscount Stansgate, Secretary of State for Air (1945-46). Of course, the first man to hold the post of Secretary of State for Air had been Winston Churchill in 1919. During the First World War William served in Churchill’s Royal Naval Air Service, qualified as a pilot, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other honors. But decades after he earned the D.F.C. and well before he ascended to the ministerial position, in May 1940 William joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve – despite being in his 60s. 

Though officially grounded, William “was known to have taken part in air operations” and may even have been the oldest man to serve as an RAF Bomber aircrew gunner. He resigned his commission in August 1945 with the rank of air commodore. David’s two older brothers, Michael and Tony, also both served in the RAF. Michael was killed in a crash in 1944. (ODNB) Tony entered the House of Commons as its youngest member in 1950, remaining until 2001 and becoming the Labour Party’s longest-serving MP.


The book itself, though wonderfully well-preserved, is the bibliographically humble third printing of the Keystone Library issue. The first edition was published by Thornton Butterworth Limited in 1930, when the recipient of this inscribed copy was still in diapers. The Keystone Library issue was published by Thornton Butterworth in the same setting and binding style as the first edition beginning in 1934. This third printing of the Keystone Library issue was published in January 1940, and thus would have been the most current British publication of My Early Life readily available at the time Churchill inscribed it as a gift to young David.

Though it was originally issued in a dust jacket, this copy obviously had its dust jacket removed when it was inscribed. Its current wrapping is testament to the English mania for wrapping things in brown paper. At the time it was gifted via hand delivery to David’s father, the book was carefully wrapped in brown paper carefully folded over the covers by means of flaps that were secured with tape. Clearly the brown paper and tape are original. The tape has left stains where it lay against the end sheets over the long years. Of far greater interest, Churchill’s office affixed to the brown paper cover a typed, blue-bordered label that reads, in seven lines:


The Right. Hon. Wedgwood Benn,

                        D.S.O., D.F.C., M.P.,

            40, Millbank,




We may reasonably assume that the dust jacket was removed by the Prime Minister’s office, replaced by the brown paper cover and delivery label. The original brown paper cover and the Prime Minister’s delivery label remain. The brown paper shows some wear to extremities and is split along the front hinge. The label is a bit soiled and worn, but nonetheless intact and clearly legible. Condition of the book beneath implies that it was both purchased new for the purpose of inscription and presentation and treasured thereafter as a gift. The vivid purple cloth binding remains beautifully bright and clean. The contents are equally untouched, showing only transfer browning to the endpapers and some age-toning, mostly evident to the page edges.

Precious few inscribed copies survive in such well-preserved condition. Indeed, arguably few were signed at this time so early during Churchill’s premiership; he was rather fully engaged in the pressing events of the day. Moreover, many inscribed early wartime copies of Churchill’s books either have long since entered the marketplace or remain held by families and institutions. In this case, explaining the appearance of this book eighty odd years after it was inscribed we have the unusual facts that David Wedgwood Benn was gifted this book at such a young age and lived such a long life thereafter.

Doubtless the specific choice of My Early Life for 11-year-old David Wedgwood Benn was intentional. In early wartime Britain under Churchill’s premiership, it is difficult to imagine a more fitting literary gift to a precociously verbal young man than Churchill’s own story about his early life. My Early Life covers the years spanning Churchill’s birth in 1874 to his first few years in Parliament, including his time as an itinerant war correspondent and cavalry officer, his early years as an author, and his capture and daring escape during the Boer War. Churchill took some liberties with facts and perhaps deceptively lightened or over-simplified certain events, but this is forgivably in keeping with the wit, pace, and engaging style that characterize the book. Certainly, Churchill’s style and liberties would have done nothing to diminish the book’s appeal to a determined young man surrounded by the conspicuous, unstinting, and intrepid courage of his father and older brothers.

“Come on now all you young men… You are needed more than ever now to fill the gap of a generation shorn by the War… Enter upon your inheritance, accept your responsibilities… Don’t take No for an answer… You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth.”

(Churchill, My Early Life, p.74)


It does not seem that either David or his father was of a temperament to abide sending David away from Britain during her darkest hours. Even had they been so inclined, the notional avenue was soon closed, not by David’s father, but by events. “In September 1940, the SS City of Benares travelling from Liverpool to Canada was sunk with the loss of 77 children… The British government immediately stopped the overseas evacuation scheme.” (The National Archives)

It took 120 years… the last word (and ALL the words) on Churchill’s The River War

Churchill’s second published book – The River War – presents a singular and strange case in the vast canon of Churchill’s published books.

Originally published in 1899, it swiftly saw a new edition in 1902. But that edition was considerably abridged and revised by the author, the text significantly reduced by one-third. While corrections were made, the chief spur to abridgement was indicated in the author’s own Preface: “What has been jettisoned consists mainly of personal impressions and opinions, often controversial in character…” Churchill had been elected to Parliament in 1900, and, among other things, the legitimate but impolitic criticisms of imperial cynicism and cruelty made in the first edition were a liability.

That’s understandable. Puzzling is the fact that every single edition of The River War since – and there have been many – has been based on the 1902 abridged and revised text. That means that anyone wanting to read the full text has been obliged to subject a scarce, expensive, and precious first edition to the rigors of casual reading.

Until now.

Today we have invited Professor James W. “Jim” Muller for a guest post. Professor Muller writes about the forthcoming complete, unabridged, fully annotated edition of The River War. It is the first time in nearly 120 years that the full text will be published. 

Dear Marc,

Thank you for the opportunity to let the Churchill community know about the forthcoming St. Augustine’s Press edition of The River War.

Winston Churchill wrote five books before he was elected to Parliament at the age of twenty-five. The most impressive of these books, The River War tells the story of Britain’s arduous and risky campaign to reconquer the Sudan at the end of the nineteenth century. More than half a century of subjection to Egypt had ended a decade earlier when Sudanese Dervishes rebelled against foreign rule and killed Britain’s envoy Charles Gordon at his palace in Khartoum in 1885. Political Islam collided with European imperialism. Herbert Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian army, advancing hundreds of miles south along the Nile through the Sahara Desert, defeated the Dervish army at the battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898.

Churchill, an ambitious young cavalry officer serving with his regiment in India, had already published newspaper columns and a book about fighting on the Afghan frontier. He yearned to join Kitchener’s campaign. But the general, afraid of what he would write about it, refused to have him. Churchill returned to London. With help from his mother and the prime minister, he managed to get himself attached to an English cavalry regiment sent to strengthen Kitchener’s army. Hurriedly travelling to Egypt, Churchill rushed upriver to Khartoum, catching up with Kitchener’s army just in time to take part in the climactic battle. That day he charged with the 21st Lancers in the most dangerous fighting against the Dervish host.

He wrote fifteen dispatches from the Sudan for the Morning Post in London. As Kitchener had expected, Churchill’s dispatches and his subsequent book were highly controversial. The precocious officer, having earlier seen war on two other continents, showed a cool independence of his commander-in-chief. He even resigned from the army to be free to write the book as he pleased. He gave Kitchener credit for his victory but found much to criticize in his character and campaign.

Churchill’s book, far from being just a military history, told the whole story of the Egyptian conquest of the Sudan and the Dervishes’ rebellion against imperial rule. The young author was remarkably even-handed, showing sympathy for the founder of the rebellion, Muhammad Ahmad, and for his successor the Khalifa Abdullahi, whom Kitchener had defeated. He considered how the war in northeast Africa affected British politics at home, fit into the geopolitical rivalry between Britain and France, and abruptly thrust the vast Sudan, with the largest territory in Africa, into an uncertain future in Britain’s orbit.

In November 1899, The River War was published in “two massive volumes, my magnum opus (up to date), upon which I had lavished a whole year of my life,” as Churchill recalled later in his autobiography. The book had twenty-six chapters, five appendices, dozens of illustrations, and colored maps. 

Three years later, in 1902, it was shortened to fit into one volume. Seven whole chapters, and parts of every other chapter, disappeared in the abridgment. Many maps, most illustrations, and most appendices were also dropped. Since then the abridged edition has been reprinted regularly, and eventually it was even abridged further. But the full two-volume book, which is rare and expensive, was never published again—until now.

This fall, St. Augustine’s Press, in collaboration with the International Churchill Society, brings back to print in two handsome volumes The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan unabridged. Every chapter and appendix from the first edition has been restored. All the maps are in it, in their original colors, with all the illustrations by Churchill’s brother officer Angus McNeill.

This new edition of The River War has been more than thirty years in the making. I’ve created it to be the definitive edition. The whole book is printed in two colors, in black and red type, to show what Churchill originally wrote and how it was abridged or altered later. For the first time, a new appendix reproduces Churchill’s Sudan dispatches as he wrote them, before they were edited by the Morning Post. Other new appendices reprint Churchill’s subsequent writings on the Sudan. Thousands of new footnotes have been added to the book, identifying Churchill’s references to people, places, writings, and events unfamiliar to readers today. A new introduction explains how the book contributed to Churchill’s career as a writer and an aspiring politician and examines Churchill’s early thoughts about war, race, religion, and imperialism, which are still our political challenges in the twenty-first century.

Half a century after The River War appeared, this book was one of a handful of his works singled out by the Swedish Academy when it awarded Churchill the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. Now, once again, its reader can follow Churchill back to the war he fought on the Nile, beginning with the words of his youngest daughter. Before she died, Mary Soames wrote a new foreword for this book, which concludes that “In this splendid new edition…we have, in effect, the whole history of The River War as Winston Churchill wrote it—and it makes memorable reading.”

With all best wishes,



James W. Muller

Professor of Political Science

University of Alaska, Anchorage

There is a reason this work took long years to achieve publication. 

Merely being the first unabridged edition in 120 years would justify some excitement. But this is far more than just an unabridged edition. Included in the edition are the following:

  • Churchill’s original, unedited dispatches from the Sudan
  • Churchill’s additional, later writings about the Sudan and its leaders
  • Unpublished illustrations from a notebook kept during the campaign by the original artist of Churchill’s book, his fellow officer Angus McNeill
  • A facsimile of Churchill’s original, handwritten draft of his chapter on the fate of Gordon – the only known chapter draft preserved in his hand
  • Professor Muller’s extensive, insightful, and helpfully contextualizing Introduction
  • Profuse and informative annotations footnoted throughout the work, identifying Churchill’s references to people, places, writings, and events unfamiliar to today’s readers.
  • A new foreword, written specifically for this edition by Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary Soames, before her death

Moreover, the entire text of The River War is printed in two colors, distinguishing between what Churchill originally wrote and how it was later abridged or altered.

The River War will be available in two forms.

The trade issue

A two-volume trade edition in a conventional hardcover binding will be available for $150. The trade issue dust jacket will feature a full-color drawing of a Dervish spearman by Angus McNeill (Volume I) and a photograph of Churchill in his Sudan uniform, which he signed on the day of the Battle of Omdurman (Volume II). Click HERE to reserve your copy with a deposit.

The finely bound, limited, and numbered Subscriber’s Issue

By special arrangement with the editor and publisher, Churchill Book Collector will offer a finely bound, limited, and numbered issue for subscribers.

This Subscriber’s issue will be personally hand-bound by the proprietor of Felton Bookbinding Ltd. in full navy morocco goatskin deferential in color and design to the publisher’s original illustrated cloth. Both binding illustrations – the Mahdi’s tomb on the spines and the gunboat on the beveled-edge front covers – are recreated from newly commissioned artwork and dies. The contents will be sewn, bound with silk head and tail bands and all edges gilt. Gilt-ruled turn-ins will frame handsome marbled endpapers. The limitation page of each set will be hand-numbered and signed by the Editor. The volumes will be housed in a navy cloth slipcase. Appearance of the volumes will be similar to those pictured.

There will be no more than 50 copies of the Subscriber’s issue of The River War. Click HERE to reserve your copy with a deposit.


The Beautifully Ruined

(or, more prosaically, on not judging a book by its cover)

My best lesson in not judging a book by its cover came from a bookseller, not a book. 

I was exhibiting for the first time at an antiquarian bookfair. It was during setup, our books still strewn haphazardly in piles on tables and in boxes on the floor. It is customary for dealers to wander during setup, perusing the unfinished booths of colleagues in search of “finds” and securing them before the doors open to the public. But it is strictly and only dealers and their staff who are allowed in the fair hall during setup. So I was shocked and not a little angry to suddenly notice a drug-addled, hygienically challenged, sartorial horror of a person riffling my inventory.

Let me clarify my leap to this uncharitable characterization. The person in question was tall with a gaunt aspect. He moved in an oddly disjointed manner suggesting either narcotics or nerve damage. His clothes were an aesthetic affront on multiple counts – fashion, condition, and cleanliness. His shaggy mane of matted, black hair looked as if it had last (and not recently) been cut with garden shears and combed with a rake. Perhaps just before he was left outside in a hurricane. In the clothes he was still wearing. Glimpsed through the wooly thatch curtain partially obscuring his face were an impressively English collection of teeth, these giving the impression of ruined dice tossed into the man’s mouth by a vengeful deity.

I would have thrown him out of my booth. But a friend and colleague with whom I was sharing the booth put her hand on my arm and said “Wait.” I heeded. 

In less than a minute, the man peremptorily announced to me “Right, I’ll take these”. The “these” were an assortment of $ four figure books, arguably the most interesting among the carefully curated items I had brought to the fair. I was gobsmacked at the literary scope, commercial acumen, and improbable speed of his discernment. The business card he dropped on his selected pile was that of one of the world’s foremost booksellers. The man’s employer was obviously able to see past the proverbial binding, even if I was not.

Most of us don’t get to profit handsomely from lessons in humility. I was fortunate in the gift of my wiser colleague’s staying hand on my arm. This allowed time for my own discernment to overcome my crude, cursory, and condescending assumptions.

In the years since, I have learned to apply a more patient regard to books – as well as to the eclectic, eccentric, and often unkempt savants who sell them.

Like all of us, I love a pretty book. I’m a sucker for immaculate old dust jackets, tastefully decorated publisher’s cloth, and, of course, a true craftsman’s fine leather binding. But I’ve learned to leave room in my heart and on my shelves for the beautifully ruined.

The Works of Lord Macaulay

So how about Volume V of the Albany Edition of The Works of Lord Macaulay? Is that one you covet for your shelves? What if I told you it was badly worn, with the sewn text block unraveling, splits on the front and rear endpapers, and the spine separated along the front cover, which remains attached only by a thin strip of cloth?

OK. A few more details. This is the work Winston S. Churchill would refute three decades later with his own four-volume biography of the Duke of Marlborough. And this particular volume was presented to the Midland Conservative Club in 1900 by its twenty-four-year-old President… Winston S. Churchill. Affixed to the front pastedown of this tattered volume was a plate reading “PRESENTED | TO THE | MIDLAND CONSERVATIVE CLUB | BY | WINSTON S. CHURCHILL, ESQ. | PRESIDENT | 1900”. 

1899 saw both Churchill’s first, unsuccessful run for parliament as a Conservative candidate for Oldham and his appointment as president of the Midland Conservative Club. Churchill remained club president until 1901, by which time he had become a member of Parliament. While president of the Midland Conservative Club Churchill launched a political career that lasted two thirds of a century, saw him occupy a cabinet office during each of the first six decades of the twentieth century, and carried him twice to the premiership and into the annals of history as a preeminent statesman.

Presentation bookplate from Winston S. Churchill

But first there was Macaulay. Perhaps no historian exceeded the impact of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) on Churchill’s literary life. Churchill’s own history with Lord Macaulay dated to schoolboy days at Harrow where he received a prize for reciting from memory 1200 lines of Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome”. While a cavalry officer in India, Churchill devoured Macaulay’s History of England, including lengthy treatment of Churchill’s great ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. Macaulay’s writing influenced Churchill’s own, with its “captivating style and devastating self-confidence”. This Volume V of Macaulay’s works contains the author’s generally negative treatment of Marlborough. 

Decades later, Macaulay would prove a literary catalyst for Churchill, who eventually came to regard Macaulay as a “prince of literary rogues, who always preferred the tale to the truth”. The most substantial work of Churchill’s “wilderness years” of the 1930s – Marlborough: His Life and Times – was conceived in part as a refutation of Macaulay’s history. Churchill spent 10 years researching and writing his four-volume biography with the express intent to “fasten the label ‘Liar’ to [Macaulay’s] genteel coat-tails.” More than half a century after he presented this book, when Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, it was partly for “mastery of historical and biographical description” on the strength of Marlborough, which was specifically cited and quoted by the Swedish Academy.

We once offered a first edition, first printing, first state of Churchill’s first published book  The Story of the Malakand Field Force – signed by Churchill during his first North American lecture tour. The binding remained beautifully bright, as did the contents. It was not only incredibly well-preserved, but clearly unequivocally unread, as all of the signatures remained uncut. Of course I’d want it for my shelves. But I’d not hesitate to put Volume V of the Albany Edition of The Works of Lord Macaulay on the shelf beside it.

In our quest for the perfect copy, it is easy to forget that the existential purpose of a book is to be read. As collectors, we may favor the few pristine copies that have eluded their fate, but there should be a place on our shelves for books roughened by the regard of previous readers. Such books tangibly witness the time, places, and experiences through which they traveled to us, not just neatly presenting history in tidy print, but accreting history in a mélange of scuffs, stains, and scribbles.

I own a lovely, jacketed, British first edition, first printing, six-volume set of Churchill’s history of the First World War, The World Crisis. But I still debate whether I should replace it on my shelves with an unjacketed, mixed printing set – a set not only worn, but full of writing in several hands. It is not a set that a fastidious collector would regard – unless they opened the covers.

The World Crisis

THIS is the set to which I refer. Like a certain bookseller I once met, the set is quite magnificent in its unloveliness.

This set has five dated inscriptions from Churchill to his Aunt and significant annotations by her son, Churchill’s first cousin. The worn condition owes to this cousin, who freely admitted “I am one of those horrible readers who deface their books with marginal comments…”

Inscription to Aunt Clara plus annotations by cousin Oswald

Normally I’d wince. But in this case the “defacer”, Captain Oswald Moreton Frewen (1887-1958), was a career naval officer who served under Churchill during his tenure as First Lord of the Admiralty in both the First and Second World Wars. Oswald participated in every naval engagement in the North Sea during the First World War, after the war helped the Admiralty prepare the official history of the Battle of Jutland, and during the Second World War served as King’s Harbour Master of Scapa Flow. Oswald’s extensive annotations in this set run to thousands of words. These annotations are remarkably informed and informative, sharply critical, compellingly interesting, and sometimes quite personal about his cousin, the author. 

This set is indelibly and uniquely endowed with a history beyond that which was printed therein. We may forgive that this came at the expense of condition. 

A final story, less rarified but to the point. Years ago we acquired a horribly tatty, poorly rebound first edition of My African Journey as part of an auction lot. No punchline here I’m afraid; there was nothing between the covers but worse-for-wear first edition contents. On a whim, I took the book with me when I traveled to Africa, where I read it. I spent my last night in Africa in a tented camp in the Serengeti. It is a semi-permanent camp, almost Victorian in the comparative luxury it affords in the middle of such a remote and unspoiled place. In the camp’s main tent was a small library with a selection of books about Africa. Right before we departed, I secretly left Winston’s book there on the shelf. I hope is has been read again, even unto pieces.


CBC stamp

“the beau-ideal of a cavalry subaltern” – How the death of a friend and fellow officer in “the last great British cavalry charge” shaped the man who led Britain during the Second World War

On 14 September 1943, sixty-eight-year-old Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill was returning from a lengthy trip to North America during which he conferred extensively with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Among many issues clamoring for his attention were the newly-begun invasion of the Italian Peninsula, accommodation of both his American allies and the paranoid petulance of Stalin, conception and timing of Allied invasion of northern Europe, a forthcoming Allied foreign ministers conference in Moscow, and how to constructively shape the post-war world and Britain’s place in it, even as some of the most bloody fighting of the war lay still ahead and far from resolved in outcome. Despite these pressing cares and an intervening 45 years of life experience, in the Admiral’s Cabin of the battleship Renown on his way back to England and to war, “Churchill called for a box of matches, and demonstrated to those present the disposition of Kitchener’s forces at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.”[i]

Long before he learned to fly, helped conceive the first tanks, converted the British Navy to oil-burning ships, directed development of the earliest computers, and presided as Prime Minister over the first British nuclear weapons test, in the twilight of Queen Victoria’s reign Churchill rode a horse into battle against the Dervishes of central Sudan in “the last great British cavalry charge”.

It was on horseback at Omdurman that Churchill viscerally comprehended “the shoddiness of war. You cannot gilt it. The raw comes through.”[ii] It was the death of a friend and fellow officer that shaped and charged this lesson. And it was in a letter of September 1898, posted by Churchill to a fellow officer as he was returning home, that Churchill gave a fittingly raw, affecting, personal remembrance of this fallen comrade. 

This autograph letter with its original envelope postmarked 20 September 1898 from Cairo was written by Winston Churchill to G.W. Hobson regarding the death of their mutual friend Robert Grenfell in the Battle of Omdurman on 2 September 1898. 

Churchill produced no shortage of letters in his long and prolifically worded life. Many survive, but seldom do we encounter a letter of such early candor and consequence. In both respects this letter is superlative.

It is enough that the letter is a wrenching tribute to a fallen friend and fellow officer from the 23-year-old Churchill, fresh from the battlefield. And it is noteworthy that the letter not only survives, but remains accompanied by the original envelope posted from Egypt as Churchill was en route home to England. Several additional factors render this letter not merely precious and compelling, but significant. 

First, this letter is neither referenced nor recorded in either the narrative or documents volumes of Churchill’s official biography. Second, although Churchill wrote about Grenfell many times in both print and correspondence, this letter appears to record the fullest and most deeply personal account of both Grenfell and Churchill’s friendship with him. Finally, it appears that the grisly death of his friend and fellow young officer was formative to Churchill’s conceptions of the hazards and necessities of battle, the role of chance in war, and a sense of his personal luck. These conceptions carried Churchill through countless additional battles, both as a soldier and a leader, for more than half a century after Omdurman.

The letter is inked entirely in Churchill’s hand on a single sheet of laid paper measuring 10 x 8 inches (25.4 x 20.3 cm) folded once vertically to form the four panels on which the letter is written, and subsequently folded twice horizontally to fit into the accompanying envelope. Condition of the letter approaches very good. The purple ink remains vivid, distinct with no appreciable fading. The paper is lightly spotted and toned with tiny loss to some fold corners and two small separations along fold lines, but with no loss to the contents. 

In 377 words in six paragraphs inked in 75 lines on all four panels, the letter reads:

Dear Hobson, 

I have felt inclined to write to you for some days and tell you how much I sympathise with your regiment in losing Robert Grenfell. Although I had not known him long, I got to know him very well and during our march up country we always lived together and ate our meals together. I had a very long talk with him the night before the action and we said several things which now seem strange and significant. 

I need not write to you of his charm or of the talent he had of making everybody like him – for all this you will know better than I. He was an extraordinarily keen soldier, and was always bustling about collecting details of boats, and stores and guns, which he duly recorded in his note book. Two days before the action he had a bad attack of dysentery and only his pluck enabled him to keep in the saddle. Indeed I think had he lived that he would have been sent to hospital the day after the fight.  

Just before the 21st Lancers charged, he was sent out with a patrol to reconnoitre the further side of Heliograph Hill and I myself saw him cantering easily along within two hundred yards of the Dervishes under a hot and dangerous fire – the beau-ideal of a cavalry subaltern. 

As to his death – I was of course no witness for we passed on and were busy reforming afterwards. But his body lay on the attack side of the Khor and I therefore conclude he must have been shot before ever reaching the enemy and cut up as he lay on the ground after we had passed through. 

I think the news took the pleasure and excitement out of most of us. For my part his figure – distinguished by his little red cap which had become familiar to everyone on the march up – will always be associated in my mind with a feeling of pain and sorrow. 

I write this to you because you are the only officer I know in your regiment. But if there is anyone who was a great friend of Grenfell’s it might interest him to read this before you destroy it. 

Sincerely yours

Winston S. Churchill

The letter is accompanied by the original envelope addressed in Churchill’s hand to “G. W. Hobson, Esq | 12thLancers | Cavalry Barracks | Aldershot” and the envelope itself is also initialed “W.S.C”. by Churchill at the lower left.

The upper right of the envelope features two circular postmark ink stamps, both reading “CAIRE 20 IX 98 VIII”, the second stamped over a rectangular stamp plus one small, vertical ink stamp on the right edge that reads “54027” on the postal tape that secures the left, right, and bottom edges. The envelope was ripped open by the recipient, extending to a closed tear across the flap. There is an additional circular stamp and several partial stamps on and just below the envelope flap.

Gerald Walton Hobson (1873-1962), the recipient of this letter, was with Robert Grenfell’s 12th Lancers during the Boer War and later wrote a history of the regiment. He was a polo player and steeplechase rider and plausibly knew Churchill through the commonalities of being cavalry officers with an interest in polo. Both Robert Grenfell and his brothers played polo during their military service.

The letter and envelope are now each protected within their own clear, removable, archival sleeves, these housed in a rigid crimson cloth folder.

By 1898, at the age of 23, Churchill had already demonstrated an eagerness to prove his mettle under fire and a facility not only for combat, but also for engaging with an audience as a well-compensated war correspondent. Attaching himself to General Bindon Blood’s punitive expedition on the northwest Indian frontier in 1897 had resulted in both his being mentioned in dispatches for “courage and resolution” and impetus to publish his first book – The Story of the Malakand Field Force – based on his dispatches to the Daily Telegraph and the Pioneer Mail.

Far afield from India, a different colonial conflict loomed in Sudan. In 1883, forces of a messianic Islamic leader, Mohammed Ahmed, overwhelmed the Egyptian army of British commander William Hicks and Britain ordered withdrawal. In 1885, General Gordon famously lost his life in a doomed defense of Khartoum. Though the Mahdi died the same year, his theocracy continued. By 1898, the British government was finally ready to send an Anglo-Egyptian expedition and it fell to Major-General Sir Herbert Kitchener (1850-1916) “to exact revenge and protect the southern part of British-controlled Egypt.” 

Churchill was “desperate to fight in the coming Sudan campaign” and pleaded with his well-connected and influential mother to help secure him a place with Kitchener’s expedition. This was no small task as “both Kitchener and Douglas Haig, his staff officer, were totally opposed to having journalists on the expedition, especially one as thrusting and high-profile as Churchill”. Kitchener – quite rightly it turned out – was wary of Churchill’s “reputation for criticizing generals in print.” Even appeal from Prime Minister Salisbury on Churchill’s behalf via the High Commissioner in Egypt did not sway Kitchener. In the end, Churchill secured a posting as a supernumerary lieutenant attached to the 21st Lancers only through the appeal of the wife of a family friend – and this only because a Lieutenant had died, creating a vacancy.[iii] Churchill was ordered to regimental headquarters in Cairo, but told by the War Office “It is understood that you will proceed at your own expense and that in the event of your being killed or wounded… no charge of any kind will fall on British Army funds.”[iv]

Churchill hastened to Egypt, where a troop had been reserved for him “in one of the leading squadrons” but a delay and uncertainty about his arrival meant that his position had been given to another – Second Lieutenant Robert Grenfell. “‘Fancy how lucky I am,’ wrote Grenfell to his family. ‘Here I have got the troop that would have been Winston’s, and we are to be the first to start.’”[v]

Lieutenant Robert Septimus Grenfell (1875-1898) was the brother of Colonel Cecil Alfred Grenfell (1864-1924) who married Lady Lilian Maud Spencer-Churchill (1873-1951), Winston’s cousin, in 1898. Robert and his eight brothers heeded their family’s distinguished military pedigree. Their maternal grandfather was Admiral John Pascoe Grenfell and their uncle Field Marshal Francis Grenfell, 1st Baron Grenfell. 

Robert’s generation of Grenfells gave extravagantly to the Empire. Three of Robert’s brothers (Cecil Alfred, Howard Maxwell, and Arthur Morton Grenfell) reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army. Arthur married the daughter of General Sir Neville Lyttleton, who served under and succeeded Kitchener in command in South Africa. One of Robert’s brothers, as well as a cousin, would die in the Boer War and both of Robert’s younger twin brothers, Francis and Riversdale, were killed in the First World War. Two other cousins – the poet Julian Grenfell and his brother Gerald, also fell during the First World War. But first of his generation of Grenfells to fall was Robert, who quite mistook “how lucky I am”.

On 2 September 1898, during the Battle of Omdurman, Grenfell was literally hacked to pieces by the Mahdist forces. Churchill later wrote “…at this shocking news, the exhilaration of the gallop, the excitement of the moment, the joy and triumph of successful combat, faded from the mind; and the realisation came home with awful force that war, disguise it as you may, is but a dirty, shoddy business, which only a fool would undertake. Nor was it until the night that I again recognised that there are some things that have to be done, no matter what the cost may be.[vi]

This was no affected recollection, but closely mirrors Churchill’s initial response when he wrote to his mother just two days after the battle about “poor Grenfell” whose death “took the pleasure and exultation out of the whole affair, as far as I was concerned.” In that letter, Churchill told his mother that he spent the night after the battle “anxious and worried” speculating on the “shoddiness of war.”

The visceral sense of war’s stark brutalities and fateful chances that Grenfell’s death imparted lingered. On 29 September Churchill wrote to his first cousin “Sunny” (Charles Marlborough, 9th Duke of Marlborough) “It is good to be able to look out on life again, without the feeling that perhaps death impended in the near future. I should have hated to lie in that hot red sand at Omdurman-after all the army had marched away. And yet on what do these things depend. Chance-Providence-God-the Devil-call it what you will. Had I started when I meant to from London I should have had Grenfell’s troop and ridden where he rode. I could not get a place in the sleeping car and delayed two days.[vii] Thirty-two years later, in his autobiography, Churchill was still reflecting on Grenfell’s death, and wrote of the incident “Chance is unceasingly at work in our lives, but we cannot always see its workings sharply and clearly defined.[viii]

For the rest of his life, Churchill conspicuously chanced and dared – with both his reputation and his life – but he would also seek to bend the vagaries of chance to his will and perspective. In this, his pen proved a far more formidable weapon than the horse and pistol that had seen him through the cavalry charge at Omdurman. 

To the point, half a century after Omdurman, Churchill told the House of Commons “I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.[ix]Churchill could not save his friend and comrade from death, but he could defend his reputation. When he published his account of the British campaign in the Sudan (The River War, November 1899), he gave Grenfell the posthumous gift of favorably written history. Before the battle, Grenfell was sent out at the head of a patrol “to see what the ground looked like from further along the ridge and on the lower slopes of Surgham.” Churchill watched Grenfell and his Lancers galloping back from this patrol under rifle fire “followed last of all by their officer, who looked, I remember thinking at the time… the beau-ideal of the cavalry subaltern.” Grenfell’s patrol reported a force “of Dervishes about 1,000 strong.” Churchill contends in The River War that Grenfell was not wrong, but rather that the Dervish force was reinforced after his patrol, increasing to 2,700. Either way, an attack was ordered based on Grenfell’s intelligence and the cavalry regiment – including both Grenfell’s 12th Lancers and Churchill’s 21st Lancers – confronted a force considerably larger than expected. 

During the first charge, “In 120 seconds five officers, 65 men, and 119 horses out of less than 400 had been killed or wounded.[x] Grenfell’s own troop “was practically cut to pieces in the charge which the regiment made… and its brave young leader was killed.[xi] Churchill is anything but neutral and detached in conveying the loss. “This young officer, who to great personal charm and high courage added talents and industry which gave promise of a successful and even a famous military career, and who had just before the charge reconnoitered the enemy under a hot fire in a manner that excited general admiration, had been cut down and killed.[xii]

Churchill stayed in touch with members of the Grenfell family, including dining with Robert’s younger twin brothers Francis and Riversdale and attending Francis’s funeral when he was killed during the First World War, days after Churchill was forced to resign his post as First Lord of the Admiralty.

It is noteworthy that Churchill’s book, a thoroughly edited and carefully considered work published more than a year after the events it describes – nonetheless uses some of the very same language to describe Grenfell employed in Churchill’s September 1898 letter describing Grenfell to Hobson. It seems reasonable to take this as further evidence of the enduring impact of Grenfell’s death on Churchill.

Of course, no single battle and single death can fully encapsulate or encompass a man like Churchill. Neither can a single letter illuminate the full complexity of his vast experience and perspective. Just the same, it is impossible not to regard this letter as testimony to a fundamentally formative loss that informed Churchill’s notions of war, courage, fortune, and fate for the rest of his life.

We will offer this remarkable letter for sale on 4 June 2020.


Marc Kuritz

[i] Gilbert. Vol. VII, p.506

[ii] WSC, letter to Lady Randolph, 4 September 1898

[iii] Roberts, Walking with Destiny, p.53-4

[iv] WSC, My Early Life, p.182

[v] WSC, My Early Life, p.183

[vi] WSC, The River War p.143

[vii] Letter held by the Library of Congress

[viii] WSC, My Early Life, p.183

[ix] Speech of 23 January 1948

[x] WSC, The River War, pp.132-143

[xi] WSC, My Early Life, p.183

[xii] WSC, The River War, p.143

Keep Calm and … Stay Home?

It always seems good advice to tackle the hard part first. So here goes.

There is a global pandemic. I am writing several days into a California-wide “shelter in place” order that affects 40 million citizens. The long bull market is done. Not only may a great many of our fellow citizens sicken and die, but as they do, they will overwhelm the limited capacity of our medical systems. And as the market drops, unemployment will like rise. Livelihoods, businesses, and savings will be lost. As these individual economic tethers dissipate, so too may confidence in the systems and social contracts that create our mutual prosperity. 

Help may be hard to come by. Recklessly, many governments indulged in significant deficit spending and suppressed interest rates during the now abruptly-terminated boom. This profligacy drastically limits the typical tools used to mitigate economic crisis – namely more deficit spending and interest rate reductions. Recklessness is not confined to monetary policy; many of the world’s leaders who had already forsaken science now also abandon sense. Various presidents and potentates are blaming adversary nations for the existence of an apolitical virus, indulging in inflammatory attempts to deflect from their own incompetence. To top it off, many of us are confined to our domiciles like middle ages peasants in the dead of winter – who also did not have toilet paper. 

In short, crisis.

While none of my immediate family members or close friends have yet contracted COVID-19, I did attempt to cut my own hair. This was an unmitigated aesthetic disaster. But it has at least made me grateful for enforced isolation…

It is nearly impossible not to think of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” motivational slogan conceived by the British Government in 1939 at the onset of the Second World War.

At the time, the slogan was meant to encapsulate the imperative of continuing to function – both as productive individuals and as a coherent, cooperating society – in the face of a clear and present existential threat, namely the prospect of Nazi occupation.

Several things seem important about this slogan in light of present exigencies. 

First is the admonition to keep calm. Hysteria is arguably far more of a danger in today’s over-populated, hyper-connected world than it was in the distinctly more message-controlled societies of the mid-twentieth century. The proliferation of bias-pandering mass media venues and the virtual viralities of the Internet seem to embolden crackpot preppers and prognosticators. What we need now – as always – are considered, considerate, and constructive perseverers. 

The guy I saw in Costco wearing a military gas mask, tactical boots, and camouflage vest seemed to be living his own personal dream. He may survive the rest of us, but it feels like precious little else of civilization-defining value would survive with him and his increasingly closely-related kin.

But there’s more to it than just keeping calm. And “carry on” is a deceptively nuanced instruction. It seems important not to conflate “carry on” with “keep doing the same things the same way”. Pre-WWII Britain saw radical changes after Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. And victorious but sapped post-WWII Britain saw still more radical changes.

Britons had to change their habits and expectations and endure in order to survive as individuals and as a society. And then they had to change and endure yet again to abide and adapt to prolonged economic austerities and geopolitical diminutions. 

So, too, may it be for us. If we carry on. If we adapt, abide, and endure.

This will be hard. The British bore the weight of hardship, but also the gift of purpose. Wartime Britons had to “carry on” because wartime production and productivity were necessary for their entire nation to survive. Without collective sacrifice and collective survival, there was no hope of individual survival and prosperity. 

Contrast that to the present state for many of us. If we are not trained health care professionals or other “essential” workers, there’s no brave and inspiring charge. We’re not to gird ourselves for battle, not to sacrifice life and fortune, not even to really sacrifice, but rather just to “shelter in place”. In other words, stay home and help by simply staying out of the way. We are not only to forego any usefulness, but also the physical comity and contact with those beyond our immediate household. 

Last night I watched the Pixar film “Inside Out” with my wife and daughter. In it, there’s a crisis. One of the characters draws a chalk circle on the floor for one of the other characters and tells her that she can best help by staying inside her circle. Yeah, a bit too close to home. What has been taken from most of us is the one of the few things we cannot endure long without – a sense of our own efficacy. An open-ended “shelter in place” order is an order to “Keep Calm and Twiddle Your Thumbs”.

During the Blitz, Londoners had to do the same in air raid shelters. But they did it together. And between the raids, they returned to work to “carry on”. How long would they have lasted as individuals and as a society if they hunkered in shelters in small family groups for weeks on end? 

Defying the letter of a shelter in place order would be grossly irresponsible, risking not only myself and my loved ones, but my fellow citizens. So I’m determined instead to defy the spirit of sheltering in place. I’ll try not to let prudence degrade to fearfulness. I’ll find a way each day to reach out to others, endeavoring to supplement their – and my own – lack of mutual engagement and reinforcement. If I have the means and ability to help someone less composed or prepared, I will. And I will keep productively busy, diligently applying the time I’m being given.

Lastly, I’ll watch some YouTube videos on how to cut hair.

Two and a half millenia ago, Pericles of Athens famously used the occasion of a state funeral in a time of crisis to exhort his fellow citizens to regard their role in a collective enterprise and ideal greater than themselves. Soon after his oration, Athens was besieged, the confined Athenians beset by plague, and Pericles himself numbered among the victims. Athens eventually fell to Sparta, later to Macedon, and eventually to Rome. In time, the splendor and accomplishments of ancient Athens decayed and distorted. But more than two thousand years after Pericles delivered his funeral oration, some unruly North American colonists carefully considered the lessons and legacy of Athens in framing their own efforts at self-government. And this morning I read the funeral oration of Pericles aloud in my backyard.

If that tale of sacrifice and adaptation seems too removed from present reality, we may be heartened by the arc of a more contemporary message. “Keep Calm and Carry On” began as a notional wartime slogan that was never widely used. Allegedly, years later one of the few test printings of the poster was discovered in a consignment of secondhand books. The bookseller created some of the first reproductions. From there – pardon the motif – it went viral. The message, born in true extremis, quickly morphed into a variegated, ubiquitously commercialized slogan. “Keep Calm and [fill in the blank] has been used to encapsulate every non-extremis form of triviality and silliness one might imagine, primarily in times and societies distinctly unaccustomed to hardship and sacrifice.

In short, the slogan itself survived, adapted, proliferated, and prospered. Shorn of original purpose, it found new application.

Given the notional origin of COVID-19, it may also be instructive to consider the apocryphal interpretation of the Chinese character for “crisis”. Setting aside the contested accuracy of the interpretation, it has often been said that the character is an amalgamation of those representing both “danger” and “opportunity”.

Here in Southern California spring has arrived early. Most of our deciduous trees have already erupted in leaves and nearly every plant in the garden bears the vivid hues of brand-new growth. Today I’m particularly smitten with the Ash sapling (Fraximus Vel Rio Grande for those more horticultural than I) in the courtyard space on the eastern side of the house. On the one hand, I should add concern about global warming and the presaged longer, hotter summer to come to the growing litany of dire warnings. Irrespective, it is impossible not to regard the invigorating light of this splendidly beautiful day. May I make the best of the available light and grow as well as my garden.

And if only one part of me grows, may it please be my hair… 

I hope these words find you safe and sane, well stocked with good sense, good companions, and, of course, good books.