“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.



Six Degrees of Winston

Valentine’s Day seems an appropriate occasion to rhapsodize about connectedness. So I’m writing to introduce Six Degrees of Winston – our new catalogue which includes signed or inscribed books, ephemera, and correspondence by or about Winston S. Churchill, his contemporaries, and his time.

Six Degrees of Separation

Of course, there’s some contrivance in the catalogue title; we like to keep it interesting, and merely titling a catalogue “Some more cool stuff you should buy” is not our style. That said, there’s a little more to the six degrees idea than mere marketing. Hence this post.

“Six degrees of separation” is the idea that any human being can be connected to any other human being through a chain of acquaintances with no more than five intermediaries. Frankly, it can seem hard to believe.

Frigyes Karinthy

Skepticism seems warranted, particularly given that the idea is nearly a century old and originated as fiction. Conception of the phenomenon is attributed to a 1929 short story titled “Chains” by Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. Despite origins in fiction, this notion that social distance disregards physical and social barriers, that an ever-swelling global population is still proximately interconnected, resonates in the zeitgeist.

Since 1929, a number of mathematicians, sociologists, and physicists have conducted various experiments more or less validating the idea. In the late 1960s, Stanley Milgram and Jeffrey Travers designed an experiment using the mail that tested and validated Karinthy’s idea, which they called the “small world” hypothesis. Others followed. And then came the Internet. Twenty-first century “six degrees” experiments conducted by the likes of Columbia University and Microsoft access the unprecedented data mine of electronic communication.

Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon\

But we don’t have to rely on scientific experiment. For anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and others who poo-poo objective data, there’s a less methodical way to go about substantiating Karinthy’s notion – “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon”. That’s the parlor game where movie buffs challenge each other to find the shortest connection between any arbitrary actor and actor Kevin Bacon. For example – John Malkovich. He acted in Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman who acted in Sleepers with Kevin Bacon. You get the idea.

The “six degrees” notion has proven not only persistently captivating, but also presciently persistent. The world’s population has roughly quadrupled since Karinthy’s story was published in 1929, but the addition of nearly six billion human beings has not appreciably increased the degrees by which we are separated.

Even as I type these words, engaging in the doubly archaic exercise of introducing a print catalogue intended to sell items of paper and ink, the cultural prairie fire of social media is – for better or for worse – validating the perceptive imagination of Frigyes Karinthy.

Which, of course, doesn’t tell you anything about what this has to do with Winston Churchill and our shiny new catalogue.

A number of “six degrees” inferences pertain.

Six Degrees of Winston

First, as the contents of our catalogue demonstrate, Churchill’s “remarkable and versatile” life was connected to a tremendous quantity and variety of extraordinary people.

Second, who we are is affected by those to whom we are connected – whether by direct experience and association or mere acquaintance and regard. An individual’s “six degrees” are the gut bacteria of their personality – prolific, symbiotic, cumulatively vital, and experientially inseverable.

Third, the “six degrees” hypothesis reminds us that many distances – whether between people or between divergent places and perspectives – may be less than we suppose. But the sundering distances created by time are different.

History recedes. Not just in time, but in relevance and relatability. “Now” crowds “then”. “Is” eclipses “was”. “We” decays to “they”. Degrees of separation lengthen with years. In the words of someone we tend to quote, “History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.” An understanding and appreciation for history enables the relatably small world of the six degrees hypothesis to fend – at least to a degree – the depredations of time.

Which returns me to our catalogue – and a bit of apropos bookseller numerology.

There are six times six items offered in Six Degrees of Winston. These include the signatures of sixty-six individuals. Winston Churchill’s signature is found in several catalogue items, but the balance of the signatures are those of individuals connected to his life and labors – as is he to theirs.

Six Degrees of Winston catalogue 2020

Among the sixty-six are prime ministers and presidents, generals and field marshals, historians, photographers, novelists, soldiers, relatives, and royalty. We did not pull off a literal “A to Z” list, but we did make A to W. Here’s the full list of signatures:

Field Marshal Harold Rupert Leofric George Alexander, first Earl Alexander of Tunis

Emma Margaret “Margot” Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith

Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith

Roy Asser

Wing Commander P. P. C Barthropp

Wing Commander R. P. “Bee” Beamont

Squadron Leader G. H. “Ben” Bennions

Air Vice-Marshal H. A. C. Bird-Wilson

Air Commodore P. M. Brothers

Henry Worthington Bull

Pamela Frances Audrey Bulwer-Lytton (née Plowden), Countess of Lytton

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan

Baroness Clementine Ogilvy Spencer-Churchill

Jeanette “Jennie” Spencer-Churchill

Sir Winston S. Churchill

Winston S. Churchill (namesake grandson)

Sir Julian S. Corbett

Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling

Group Captain W. D. David

Air Commodore A. C. “Al” Deere

Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu

Squadron Leader B. H. Drobinski

Flight Lieutenant J. H. Duart

Dwight David Eisenhower

Gerald R. Ford, Jr.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris

Sir Martin Gilbert

Herbert John Gladstone, 1st Viscount Gladstone

Group Captain T. P. “Tom” Gleave

John Golley

Ethel Anne Priscilla “Ettie” Grenfell, Baroness Desborough

William Henry Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough

Bill Gunston

Douglas Southall Freeman

Wing Commander N. P. W. Hancock

Squadron Leader C. Haw

Commander R. C. Hay

Freddie Hurrell

Yousuf Karsh

Group Captain C. B. F. Kingcome

Colonel Henry Gaston Lafont

Richard M. Langworth

Arnold Walter Lawrence

Thomas Edward Lawrence

Sir Reginald Lister

Clare Boothe Luce

Alfred Lyttelton

Edith Balfour Lyttelton

Air Commodre A. R. D. MacDonell

Squadron Leader M. J. Mansfield

Kimon Evan Marengo (nom de plume “Kem”)

Brian Masterton

John McClelland

Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

Wing Commander A. G. Page

Wing Commander P. L. Parrott

Michael Pierce

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

Group Captain D. F. B. Sheen

Wing Commander F. M. Smith

Walter Ernest Stoneman

Wing Commander J. E. Storrar

Millicent Fanny Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland (nom de plume Erskine Gower)

Harold John “Jack” Tennant

Wing Commander G. C. Unwin

Helen Venetia Vincent, Viscountess D’Abernon

Harold James Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx

Lady Cornelia Henrietta Maria Wimborne

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, Queen Elizabeth II

Each of the thirty-six artifacts in the catalogue signed by one or more of these individuals is a tangible link, a flicker limning that “trail of the past”, and of course, a collectable connection to Winston Churchill. We leave it to you to count the degrees.

Churchill Book Collector

Announcing publication of A Fresh Station: T. E. Lawrence writing and riding at Cranwell

So I just co-authored a book about a letter. The experience was about as much fun as I’ve ever had as a lifelong bibliophile.

Among the oddities of life as a rare bookseller is that handling scarce and precious items can become a routine occurrence. But no matter how seasoned and jaded the bookseller becomes, there are still experiences that can invoke the giddy collector within.

In 2018, we acquired a copy of the 1935 British limited issue of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence, better known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia.

It’s a handsome and desirable book. In the summer of 1935, in the weeks following Lawrence’s death, the text of the 1926 Subscribers’ Edition was finally published for circulation to the general public in the form of a British first trade edition. Simultaneous with the first trade edition, the British publisher Jonathan Cape issued a finely bound, hand-numbered limited edition of 750 copies. This limited issue was bound in quarter tan pigskin over brown buckram boards with gilt stamped spine, gilt front cover illustration, and gilt rule transitions. The text is printed on untrimmed sheets with gilt top edge and bound with decorative headbands and marbled endpapers. It’s a handsome book, nice copies are reasonably scarce, and this is a fairly nice copy. Moreover, it is number 50, so early in the run. 

But this story is not about the book. It’s about what we found in the book.

Our book arrived in the mail and was routinely opened by my assistant. Elise is smart, capable, diligent, and seldom misses an important detail about a book. I should have responded attentively when she called to me in the library and said “Hey, doesn’t this look like Lawrence’s handwriting?” Instead, I confess that I was initially dismissive. 

Actually, I was a bit of an ass. Picture classic bookseller pose. I turned to look at Elise, theatrically lowered my reading glasses, and told her that the publisher included facsimile reproduction of Lawrence’s handwritten notes in the book. Elise’s response – a deserved look of huffy condescension – got me off my high horse and over to her desk, where I found a letter, apparently entirely in Lawrence’s hand, tipped onto the book’s limitation page verso.

No kidding. Turns out that the jaded bookseller’s heart still goes pitter-patter.

A remarkable First World War odyssey as instigator, organizer, hero, and tragic figure of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire transformed Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) from an eccentric junior intelligence officer into “Lawrence of Arabia”. This indelible experience and celebrity, which he spent the rest of his short life struggling to reconcile and reject, to recount and repress, became Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

His letter prompted my own personal T. E. Lawrence odyssey. First, we reached out to a few experts – among them Nicole Wilson, co-founder of Castle Hill Press and widow of Lawrence’s official biographer, as well as Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books, a bookseller colleague who is an accomplished Lawrence collector, purveyor, and author. They, among others, validated our confidence that the letter was indeed written by Lawrence. Then we identified an appropriate conservator to carefully remove the letter from the book to which it had been adhered at two points. That led to a whole new round of excitement, as it turns out the letter had been penned on the back of an RAF “Application for Mechanical Transport”.

Lawrence’s correspondence has been painstakingly documented, much of it published by Lawrence’s official Biographer, Jeremy Wilson, and his wife, Nicole, of Castle Hill Press. Nonetheless, it turns out that nobody in the Lawrence community had ever seen or heard of this particular letter. 

Once we ticked the authentication and conservation boxes, it was time for research. That proved a proverbial rabbit hole, as we sought to identify the time and context in which the letter was written and some of the more ambiguous references therein. This was, of course made more challenging by the fact that both the upper right corner of the letter, ostensibly bearing a date, and the signature at the lower right, had been excised – plausibly owing to the fact that even as early as the late 1920s, Lawrence’s signature already commanded considerable monetary value.

Here’s what the letter says:

Four lines at the upper right read: “All this is my present name & | address. I’m one of the Cadets’ | slaves: not a cadet: God be | praised. Life is v. good, up here.” The body of the letter reads: “Dear Goslett | A bit slow in the reply: but better than last time, | I think. What? | Lowell Thomas? Curses on L.T. What? | Your bet with Makins will have to be declared “off”. They | sent me up here, to a fresh station, where I | have no leisure after the day’s work. So | my proofs only receive treatment on half-days | and Sundays: and then usually only if it | rains: for I love the road: and my bike. | Consequently the book will not be ready till the | new year: | You and Makins each get a copy of the complete | (but un-illustrated) text. Remember me to him. | Tell him Darracqs are slow (compared with my | Brough). Yet I’ll accept one of the three Brooklands | T.D.’s, if he will offer me one. It would do | for a run-about, when I felt lazy & peaceful.” 

Though short, the letter is compelling. In just 164 words, Lawrence references many of the disparate, competing threads that skeined his life – complicated feelings about fame, attempted retreat to the comparative anonymity of the RAF, personal conflict about publication of his literary masterpiece, the famous 1926 subscribers’ edition, love of motorcycles, the sensibility for comradeship that made him, however reluctantly, a leader of men, and even a glimpse of the personal peace he always seemed to want but seldom seemed to find.

Eventually, we narrowed the date of the letter with reasonable certainty to between August 1925 and December 1925. It turns out that “Goslett” is Captain Raymond Goslett M.C. (1885-1961), “the supply wizard of Al Wajh and Al Aqabah,” a key figure in the Arab Revolt and wartime friend of Lawrence who inadvertently played a role in facilitating his fame. “Makins” is Arthur Dayer Makins, D.F.C., R.R.G.S., F.I.M.T. (1888-1974), a Royal Flying Corps flight lieutenant with X Flight in Arabia who after the war was associated with the motor trade. Lawrence cited both men in his acknowledgements for the 1926 subscribers’ edition of Seven Pillars and each was gifted a copy. To the American radio commentator, lecturer, author, and journalist Lowell Jackson Thomas (1892-1981), who Lawrence “Curses”, Lawrence owed the discomfort of both his fame and famous sobriquet.

Note that I keep saying “we”. The aforementioned Richard Knowles, proprietor of Rickaro Books, shared my enthusiasm. As research and contextualization unfolded this long-lost little letter, we decided it merited an essay. This in turn became an illustrated book, which we titled “A Fresh Station”, taking the title from Lawrence’s own reference to the RAF Cadet College at Cranwell – “…a fresh station, where I have no leisure after the day’s work.” Lawrence was posted to Cranwell in August 1925 and where he completed the famous 1926 “subscribers’” or “Cranwell” edition of Seven Pillars of WisdomA Fresh Station sketches Lawrence’s life writing and riding at Cranwell specifically through the prism of this newly discovered letter. 

Winston Churchill said of his friend, Lawrence:

“Lawrence had a full measure of the versatility of genius. He held one of those master keys which unlock the doors of many kinds of treasure-houses. He was a savant as well as a soldier. He was an archaeologist as well as a man of action. He was an accomplished scholar as well as an Arab partisan. He was a mechanic as well as a philosopher. His background of sombre experience and reflection only seemed to set forth more brightly the charm and gaiety of his companionship, and the generous majesty of his nature.”

These are just a few of the millions of insightful and eloquent words written both by and about Lawrence. 

So why another Lawrence book?

It may be helpful to note that *after* he wrote the definitive and widely praised official biography of Lawrence and *after* he edited and published the most complete and definitive edition of Lawrence’s magnum opus, Jeremy Wilson took on the mammoth task of attempting to gather, cogently organize and contextualize, and systematically publish all of Lawrence’s correspondence. Jeremy was still working on this task when he died in 2017, nearly three decades after he published his biography of Lawrence.

I shouldn’t presume to speak for Jeremy, but I suspect that what may have helped drive his interest in and commitment to Lawrence’s correspondence is the fact that we still don’t know who Lawrence was. Not really. “TE” as he was known to friends, remains a remarkably enigmatic figure. We investigate his character and exploits though his published works – which span the WWI Arab revolt and life inside the inter-war RAF to crusader castles and ancient Greek translation to technical manuals on high speed boats – but it may be that Lawrence’s letters offer some of the clearest views. As this letter and the enfolding essay A Fresh Station suggest, the fragmentary candor and verities of Lawrence’s correspondence may best enable us to approach the animating spirit of this singular, complex, and multi-faceted person.

A Fresh Station is another small window on Lawrence, opened by the welcome discovery of a few more of his own words.

Of a limited edition of 150 hand-numbered copies of A Fresh Station, 149 are bound by the Fine Book Bindery in quarter cloth featuring navy spine and blue-grey boards evoking RAF colours, the spine printed in silver, the front cover bearing the initials Lawrence was wont to use at the time. The illustrated contents are printed by The Logan Press on 150 gm Logan Book Wove paper and include a full facsimile of Lawrence’s letter, as well as images of Lawrence, Goslett, and Makins. 

These new, hand-numbered copies are offered exclusively HERE by Churchill Book Collector and HERE by Rickaro Books.

Copy “Number One”, signed by the authors, now houses and accompanies the original letter. “One” is specially bound by the Fine Book Bindery in blue-grey morocco (evoking the RAF) and housed in a custom cloth solander. This copy, the letter, and the accompanying copy “50” of the limited 1935 UK issue of Seven Pillars, in which this letter was found, will be offered for sale in our forthcoming print catalogue Six Degrees of Winston: Signed or inscribed books, ephemera, and correspondence by or about Winston S. Churchill, his contemporaries, and his time.

Lovely, dark and deep

Southern California’s December sends me looking for Frost. 

Here, it’s likely that the only precipitation a big winter coat will endure is sweat. And kicking palm fronds in my Tevas is just not the same as shuffling booted feet through mounds of mouldering leaves. 

But even if our woods here are never “lovely, dark and deep”, there is Robert Frost. New England provides us with culturally quintessential visions of winter. And Frost remains the elemental poetic voice of New England, baring branches with brisk, gusting whorls of ink and leaving crisp, listening silences between.

That’s why I stop by Frost’s proverbial woods this time of year. To cool the early darkness of an un-snowy San Diego evening. To crystallize the too-clement softness of waning December days. 

But this December evening I’m at the desk instead of in the reading chair. That’s because I had the good fortune to have a bit of Frost mystery to sleuth.

We recently acquired an intriguing 1915 U.S. edition of Frost’s second published book, North of Boston. The book was curious in two regards – first for the original autograph letter signed by Frost tipped onto the front free endpaper, but also for the publication history.

The publication history is the more arcane and less subtle of the two puzzles, but still impressively bibliographically byzantine. The copyright page of this copy of North of Boston features three printed lines thus:

First edition, 1914

Second edition, 1915

Third edition, 1915

The curious bit is that even bibliographers don’t seem quite in accord. Joan St. C. Crane states that the “Second American Edition” of North of Boston was published in 1919 and calls the first American edition of 1915 just that – the “First American Edition”. This obviously prohibits a “Third edition” published in 1915. W. B. Shubric Clymer and Charles R. Green designate the First American edition of 1915 as “Second American Edition”, but detail no editions thereafter. Neither bibliographic designation allows for a “Third edition” issued by Henry Holt and Company in 1915 – which is what the publisher states we have here.

The binding of this copy is the same size, material, and style as that of the first American edition printed and published by Holt in 1915. The binding is the same dark gray-blue fine linen cloth. The contents are printed on the same rough wove white paper with untrimmed fore and bottom edges. So what is this book? Here’s the story.

That Robert Lee Frost (1874-1963) became the poetic voice of New England is a bit ironic; Frost was born in San Francisco and it was a 1912 move to England with his wife and children – “the place to be poor and to write poems” – that catalyzed his recognition. A Boy’s Will was completed in England, published by David Nutt in 1913.  A convocation of critical recognition, introduction to other writers, and creative energy supported the 1914 English publication of Frost’s second book, North of Boston, after which “Frost’s reputation as a leading poet had been firmly established in England, and Henry Holt of New York had agreed to publish his books in America.”

The 1914 British first edition sheets were issued in a diverse array of bindings (designated A-F) over the course of a decade. Among these many bindings of the first edition, the one designated “B” was comprised of 150 copies in brown cloth-backed boards. These were the 1914 first appearance of North of Boston in America. This was not a separate edition, but rather just an issue of the British first edition sheets, bound with a Holt cancellans title-leaf. (see Crane A3.1.) 

The first American edition – the first edition printed in America for American publication – was published by Holt in late March 1915. This is the edition referred to on the second line of the copyright page of this copy as “Second Edition, 1915”. More accurately informative would be “First American edition, 1915”. The third line of the copyright page – “Third edition, 1915” – is just plain bibliographically incorrect. This copy is accurately described as the second printing of the first American edition, which given the print history on the copyright page, was issued the same year as the first printing. The actual third edition – an illustrated edition in an entirely different binding and limited to five hundred copies – was not published by Henry Holt until 1919.

So, small mystery solved. Amusingly, the folks who printed the book were wrong and this is the First American edition, second printing, of 1915 rather than “Third edition, 1915”. 

Now the more interesting bit – the letter. The letter, written entirely in Frost’s hand in black ink, filling both sides of a single sheet of blank stationery twice folded and tipped onto the front free endpaper recto, reads:

Amherst Mass | April 28 1924 | Dear Mr McCord: | You were kept | from ever sending me your | Transcript article by what I | said about wanting to live in a | fools paradise. You shouldn’t | have taken me quite so at | my word. All I meant was I | hated to be too feelingly |persuaded what I was. | I have just ordered you | from Ward a couple of | photographs to choose between. | Perhaps they had better come| round by way of me for my | autograph. | Your wanting my picture | is very friendly and shows | you must have forgiven me | any sins. If I spoke too | warily that night instead of | jumping at your article with | thanks it was because you | caught me at a moment when | I was oversensitive from just | having been too public| Sincerely yours | Robert Frost.

At the upper right corner of the front free endpaper to which the letter is affixed, the subject “Mr McCord” did us the favor of leaving the only other previous ownership mark in the book – “David McCord | Cambridge, | May 13, 1926.”

Armed with this information, we did our usual homework. From the letter’s salutation and previous ownership name, city, and date, we are able to confirm a substantial association.

David Thompson Watson McCord (1897-1997) was just 26 years old when the 50-year-old Frost wrote him this letter. A poet himself, McCord had graduated in the Harvard class of 1921 and earned his master’s in chemistry there the following year. For 38 years he was director of the Harvard Fund, retiring in 1963 – the year Robert Frost died. McCord became and remained a personal – and valuable – friend to Frost. 

As for Frost, a move led McCord to his poetic voice; when he was twelve, he moved from New Jersey to Oregon to live on a remote farm with his uncle. “It was there, on the edge of the wilderness, that he began to learn to write.” (Mike Pride: A forgotten review of Robert Frost’s ‘New Hampshire’)

In 1938 McCord proposed that Harvard Press publish a collection of poetry edited by Frost. The book was negotiated and a contract was signed but Frost never produced the volume, likely due to personal tragedy; Frost’s wife, Elinor, died in 1938, and McCord served as one of her pall bearers. McCord continued to champion the elder poet; he chaired the committee that established the Emerson-Thoreau Medal which was bestowed on its first recipient, Robert Frost, in 1958. And in 1962 McCord played a critical part in Harvard’s role in the resolution conferring the Congressional Gold Medal on Frost. Harvard honored the achievements of McCord with the award of its first honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1956. He was also the recipient of the first National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant. These accompanied a collection of honorary doctorates from 22 universities. McCord authored and edited more than 50 books and more than 500 children’s poems over his long life.

From the letter, it is reasonably easy to infer that at some public event the younger poet offered some bit of writing he wanted the older to read. Frost apparently declined, peremptorily and with some glib remark, which he later regretted. Consequently, he wrote McCord to mend fences, offering both apology, an explanation, and a signed photograph.

That was certainly enough information to figure that we’d never know exactly what McCord offered Frost and we had discovered enough to narratively frame both book and letter – which is really the extent of our job as booksellers.

But something about the letter insisted, branch tips gently tapping a winter windowpane. What I heard was “Pay attention” and “Look again.”

There was the capitalized “T” in “Transcript in the third line of the letter, preceding the word “article”. There was also the interesting reference to “what I said about liking to live in a fools paradise.” And there was the timing. 

Frost published New Hampshire, a Poem with Notes and Grace Notes in mid-November 1923. March and April 1924 found the poet lecturing in places like Chicago, Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, Indianapolis, and Richmond (Indiana). The lecture schedule may contextualize Frost’s closing explanation to McCord: “You caught me at a moment when I was oversensitive from having just been too public.

In early 1924, Frost was read and regarded, but his fame was still new and not yet fully fledged. But on 12 May 1924, two weeks after this letter was written, it was announced that Frost had been awarded the Pulitzer. It was only the third Pulitzer awarded for poetry and the first of an eventual four Frost would receive (1931, 1937, and 1943). 

It turns out that a young Harvard chemist named David McCord wrote a review of New Hampshire. That review was published in the Boston Evening Transcript on 8 December 1923. Undoubtedly, it was this article which McCord had offered to Frost to read. The “fools paradise” comment of course refers to Shakespeare’s phrase, encapsulating a state of contentment based on ignorance or false hope. This must have been the phrase Frost used when he dismissively refused McCord’s offer of his review. 

Thankfully, McCord’s review is not lost to history; it is currently published on the Pulitzer website. It is both insightful and urbane.  And it is decisively complimentary of Frost. 

Of the book, McCord wrote:

Perhaps the subtitle is misleading. The “notes” are nothing less than poems of moderate length, each fastening a vital tendril upon individual lines or parts of the central poem, and the “grace notes,” which will be the first read and the most admired, are brief lyrics, small shatter fragments of clear beauty, the not too remote supplements of their larger-bodied brothers.

Of the poet himself, McCord wrote:

It becomes more and more apparent that Robert Frost is New England’s most authentic poet, and by authentic poet we mean the most sincere, foursquare and forthright who has tried to lay a finger on the slow and positive pulse of the New England north of Boston and sound the secret of its heart… In his creative mood we may think of him as leaning across a stone wall in the hush of a summer afternoon and talking intimate-fashion… with almost everything that Robert Frost has done one shuffles through the autumn leaves upon a lonely road – and enjoys it immensely.         

We can only assume that, subsequently to snubbing McCord, Frost read the review and, having done so, was chagrined and reached out to McCord.

If this was not the first correspondence of the two men, it was certainly quite early in their relationship. 

Frost spent his final decade and a half as “the most highly esteemed American poet of the twentieth century” with a host of academic and civic honors to his credit. Two years before his death he became the first poet to read in the program of a U.S. Presidential inauguration (Kennedy, January 1961).Two years before McCord’s death at the age of 99, in 1995 The Boston Globe published an article titled “The Forgotten Poet” about McCord’s lonely wait in a nursing home, “crumpled in a wheelchair, one of the great writers of children’s verse in 20th century America… living his final days in obscurity.” 

There are indeed many kinds of winter, some less harsh than others.

Wishing you the blessings of the season. Whether you are blanketed in snow or bathed in sun, may this December find you in the company of good people and good books.

(Please) Don’t!

So today we’re writing about a don’t. Something we don’t do, something we hope you don’t do either, and things we *really* wish others hadn’t done.

The unifying theme is stewardship. You may have heard me cheekily assert that, even when you pay us a lot of money for a precious item, you don’t own it. 

Yep. That’s right. As a professional bookseller I’m asking you to pay lots of money for precious objects and then telling you that you don’t own what you bought.

Perhaps I should clarify before I hear from your attorney. I encourage you not to regard such things as if you own them. I respectfully suggest that your job as a discerning collector is to make sure your collection outlives you and your custody thereof. Relish, of course. Covet, obsess and even, if you must, brag a little. But foremost serve as a diligent and conscientious custodian. Take care to preserve what is in your custody. And make sensible provisions to ensure that your charges find a successor custodian with commitment and sensibility equal to your own.

Stewardship informs our don’ts.

Beyond the fairly straightforward considerations of preservation (see our How to Protect Your Collection post), if we can prosthelytize one prime directive, this is it:

Don’t write in the book unless you wrote the book!

Why? Because it’s not about you.

The Story of the Malakand Field Force… and Who?

Some years ago, we were delighted to discover a first edition, first state of Churchill’s first published book not only in exceptional condition, not only signed by Churchill, but with provenance indicating that it was signed during his first American lecture tour. It had remained in the same family until acquired by the collector from whom we, in turn, acquired it. 

The book was just gorgeous inside and out in all but one respect. The most recent owner had pasted his own bookplate on the verso of the signed page. A modern bookplate, composed of non-archival paper and ink, and affixed with non-archival adhesive. This gracious, kind, otherwise decent gentleman had defaced something that had miraculously survived over 100 years, virtually unscathed. I couldn’t help asking him: “Why?” He paused before he replied “Well, I thought people might want to know who owned it before.” 

The man has since died. He was uncommonly courteous and urbane and I genuinely enjoyed his company – as I expect did many who knew him. And he loved books. Nonetheless, this book left his stewardship poorer than it entered. Assuming the good offices of the current and future stewards, I expect the only question the bookplate will prompt in the future years is “Who was this guy?” Followed swifty by “Why the F@%$ …?

There’s worse.  Much worse.


India is one of Churchill’s more scarce and obscure works of his 1930s wilderness years. Hardcover issues of the two printings of the first edition are scarcer still. Positively rare – even extravagantly rare – are signed or inscribed copies.

So imagine our delight at discovering a hardcover first edition, second and final printing inscribed by Churchill within weeks of publication to James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon of Stormont and first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Not just signed, but inscribed and dated.  Not just inscribed and dated, but an important association. And not just any association but one splendidly charged with irony given the book in question. Churchill vigorously opposed Indian independence on the grounds that it would unleash the destructive potential of religious strife, lead to bitter partition and disputed borders, and unleash sectarian violence. Churchill came to support Irish Home Rule – which entailed both a bitter partition and fueled the ensuing better part of a century of sectarian violence and territorial disputes. James Craig was a vehement opponent of Irish independence, though he became the first Prime Minister for Northern Ireland and worked – closely with Churchill – to ensure the viability and perpetuation of a self-governing Northern Ireland.

Wow, right?

Here’s the rub.  One of the “stewards” of this book had been a former mayor of Beverly Hills. In a noteworthy act of vandalism, our mayor inked inked “Hugh W. Darling | From H.S.D.” one inch below Churchill’s gift inscription. “H.S.D.” is presumably Darling’s wife, Hazel, from whom Darling ostensibly received the book as a gift. This one might possibly be persuaded to pardon as the misplaced gratitude of a spouse.

Alas, Good Mayor Hypergraphia doubled down on the stupid, using the book as a reading copy in the late 1960s. Twice. Which we know because he dated each reading. On the inscribed page. And underlined liberally throughout at each reading in red and blue colored pencil. 


You doubtless do not recognize the mayor’s name.  Which, I suppose, is precisely the point. We just wish someone had told him “It’s not about you!” – and maybe bought his-and-hers coloring books for the couple instead.

One might, of course, cite clever exceptions to our “Don’t write in the book unless you wrote the book” rule. If Alexander wanted to scribble on the scrolls of his tutor, Aristotle, and if we were lucky enough to inherit same, we wouldn’t complain. Likewise, nobody is bemoaning the recent discovery that a surviving Shakespeare First Folio bears John Milton’s annotations. You might even counter in less rarified fashion that archaeologists now take keen interest in Roman graffiti.

OK, fine. If you conquer the known world or pen Paradise Lost, then you can scribble away in your Gutenberg Bible. When you are 2000 plus years old, you can write graffiti on whatever you want. Until and unless, please, please don’t.

As any dog will show you, this urge to mark can be compelling.

“But it’s only pencil” you might say. Yes, but even erasing pencil can cause abrasion, loss, and tears.

“But I want to read it” you might say. Well, of course! So get a less precious reading copy and read it as many times as you want, annotating all the way. 

I’ve read Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides several times since my early twenties. I cannot imagine reading it without annotating as I go. But my annotated copies are sufficiently humble in historical importance to be precious to nobody but me.

Calvin and Hobbes, Library

Every time you merely open a book, you kill it just a little. Books are a tenuous combination of perishable materials and discordant chemistry – paper and glue and string and cloth, material animal, vegetable, synthetic, or all three. The constituent elements of books court entropy and conspire to decohere almost from the moment they are bound together. As are the thoughts and sentiments that fill it, a book is a small miracle of ephemeral sentient alignment. For most books, their purpose is fulfilled in being read and wrecked. 

But for the very few… Collectible books become a precious, lingering signal amid the static with the sole, fragile, lovely purpose of being regarded. The magic of rare books and ephemera is that often the longer they endure, the better they are regarded. 

Protect and pass them on.


“It is a good cause.”

So, imagine Winston Churchill telling you to donate books.  

We recently acquired an original Second World War poster featuring a lengthy August 1944 exhortation by Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill to donate reading material to the troops during the campaign to liberate Europe.  

This is the first and only copy of this poster we have encountered.  It measures 14.875 x 9.875 inches (37.78 x 25.08 cm) printed in red and black on white stock in a simulation of Churchill’s 10 Downing Street Stationery with an elaborate red border.  The quite salutary overall effect is that of a giant letter from Churchill.

The red title reads, all in capital letters, “THE PRIME MINISTER’S MESSAGE” above “10 Downing Street, Whitehall”.  The message, in four paragraphs, reads: 

In 1942 on the eve of the great campaign for Africa, I sent an appeal to you all for books and periodicals for the Forces at home and abroad.  Now at the opening of the battle for the liberation of Europe I renew my appeal to you. 

As more of our men and women go overseas to the fighting fronts the demand for books, magazines and periodicals increases rapidly and we want your help to meet this need.  Every family can respond and you may be sure that any book you send will give pleasure and relaxation, not to one only but to many.  

To send your books to the Services is simplicity itself.  Just hand them in, unwrapped, unstamped and unaddressed to any Post Office.  And once having started, keep up the good work. Take your books and magazines to the Post Office as often as you can and so ensure a regular supply.  

You can also help by giving books and magazines to the collectors whenever there is a book drive in your district.  It is a good cause.  Let your response again be prompt and generous.” 

The message ends with Churchill’s facsimile signature “Winston S. Churchill” and a printed date of “August, 1944”.   Printed at the lower right margin of the poster the number “7,500” likely indicates the print run, “10/44” an apparent print date, and “Fosh & Cross, Ltd.” is presumably the printer.  

As both a bibliophile and Churchill admirer, it is pretty much impossible not to gush over this item. Here is the only Prime Minister to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature trying to see to the literary needs of his soldiers while in the middle of leading his nation during the Second World War.

If you are looking for an elegant symbol of fundamental difference between representative democracy and Hitler’s Third Reich, this might be it.  While Churchill was appealing to his people to donate books, across the channel Hitler’s Germany was systematically burning them. Beginning in 1933, state sanctioned book burnings were organized, purging libraries and public and private collections of texts deemed “un-German”.  By the war’s end, the Nazi’s destroyed an estimated 100 million books.

As referenced in this poster’s message, this wasn’t the first time Churchill had asked for books for the troops.  In late 1942, during the campaign to liberate North Africa and shortly before Operation Torch, Churchill made an appeal to the British people for the donation of books. His message, printed in newspapers across the country, said: “If you had seen, as I have seen on my many visits to the Forces, and particularly in the Middle East, the need for something to read during the long hours off duty, and the pleasure and relief when that need is met, you would gladly look, and look again, through your bookshelves and give what you can.”  The people of Britain responded enthusiastically.  Newcastle reported donations that “filled 195 sacks and weighed close upon six tons.”

Anecdotally, we can assume that the books provided the intended comfort to soldiers on the front line.  A moving letter by a battle-wounded American Marine to Betty Smith related how her novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, affected him: “A surge of confidence has swept through me and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all.  I’ll never be able to explain to you the gratitude and love that fill my heart in appreciation of what your book means to me.”

Few – if any – world leaders can claim Churchill’s deep, sustained, prolific intimacy with the printed word.  In 1950, when he was 75, Churchill irreverently quipped “…already in 1900… I could boast to have written as many books as Moses, and I have not stopped writing them since, except when momentarily interrupted by war…”  If anything, he was underselling his literary output.  In 1953 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. By the time he died in 1965, Churchill had authored 58 books – not to mention 260 pamphlets, 840 articles, and roughly 9,000 pages of speeches.  

Moreover, few world leaders would have better understood the value of reading material for the soldier abroad.  Perhaps Churchill’s own soldiering youth was on his mind when he put his signature to this “Message” as wartime Prime Minister.  Nearly half a century earlier, as a young cavalry officer, “When he sailed for India Churchill embarked on that process of self-education which was to prove so serviceable a substitute for the opportunities which he had neglected or rejected in his formal education… he eagerly devoured the books that were sent to him.” (Gilbert, Vol. I, p.318-19)  It was as a young soldier abroad that Churchill learned not only to devour the printed word, but “discovered a great power of application which I did not think I possessed.” (Letter to his mother of 22 December 1897) Churchill wrote his first published book (The Story of the Malakand Field Force, 1898) while deployed abroad – a book about a campaign on the northwest frontier of colonial India in which he had fought and about which he had reported as a war correspondent.

Before the Second World War, at the height of appeasement and the nadir of his own popularity and political fortunes, Churchill spoke out against Nazi suppression of words and ideas. In his 16 October 1938 broadcast to the people of the United States, Churchill proclaimed:

            “It is this very conflict of the spiritual and moral ideas which gives the free countries a great part of their strength. You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police.  On all sides they are guarded by masses of armed men, cannons, aeroplanes, fortifications, and the like – they boast and vaunt themselves before the world, yet in their hearts is unspoken fear.  They are afraid of words and thoughts; words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home – all the more powerful because forbidden – terrify them.  A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.  They make frantic efforts to bar our thoughts and words; they are afraid of the workings of the human mind.”

How terribly fitting that, six years later, Churchill would be the British Prime Minister soliciting book donations for the very troops – his troops – fighting to liberate Europe from Nazi dominion.  

After he killed himself in his bunker on 30 April 1945, Hitler’s body was doused with petrol and unceremoniously set afire in the Reich Chancellery garden – not unlike the books he had defiled and destroyed.  

In accordance with the freedom he had labored so hard to defend, less than a year after this poster was issued, Churchill lost – and graciously conceded – the free and fair British General Election that followed Victory in Europe.  He occupied much of his time out of office writing the history of the war that he and his ideas had won.

Walking with Churchill and Andrew Roberts

Today – late but enthusiastic – I join the many who have written about Andrew Roberts’s new biography of Winston Churchill,Walking with Destiny.

Walking with Destiny

I have now read all 982 pages with care and attention, most of them twice, many more than twice.  My takeaway is that Andrew Roberts has made an impressive fight.

Yes, a fight.  Because wrestling a figure like Winston Churchill into biographic encapsulation is a battle.  One made perhaps harder by the fact that so many have stepped into this proverbial ring before.

Which brings me to another metaphor – the elephant in the room, the venerable heavyweight champion of Churchill biography, Sir Martin Gilbert (1936-2015).  Over decades, Gilbert wrote what is not only the longest, but also arguably the most thoroughly researched, exhaustively documented, most ambitiously comprehensive biography in human history.  Gilbert substantially adhered to Randolph Churchill’s guiding maxim (who had borrowed it from Lockhart): “He shall be… his own biographer.”  This made – in both Gilbert’s eight-volume opus and the later, one-volume condensation – a laudably informative read, but perhaps one not always compelling as a narrative.

There is no want of scholarship underpinning Andrew Roberts’s own effort. Walking with Destiny delivers a steady current of salient and evocative facts.  Moreover, Roberts is conspicuously even-handed.   Indeed, sometimes Roberts is almost painfully fair in framing Churchill’s errors and deficiencies – of discernment, of impulse, and of character.

But these very compliments of Roberts’s new work might beg the question – why?  Why this fresh biographic work about a figure so exhaustively chronicled?

One can attempt to answer the question from a perspective of scholarship.  To be sure, the hitherto unmined diaries of both the Soviet Ambassador, Ivan Maisky, and King George VI are a noteworthy addition to the historical record.  They provide dimension and, in at least one case, alter some conventional perspective. Nonetheless, this new material alone would not seem to justify a wholly new thousand pages about Churchill.

So again, why?  

My own answer begins simply – because once I started reading this book, despite its mammoth size and my significant familiarity with the subject, I found it quite impossible to set aside.  Walking with Destiny showcases Roberts’s rare combination of manifest erudition and engaging narrative skill that only a precious few historians seem to reconcile and command.  Moreover, Roberts does not just compose history, but, like his subject, has a deep sense of it.  Of the unfolding and enfolding context, nuance, and import.  Of the constituent elements – events, decisions, time, and place. These he weaves without warping and shades without obtrusively coloring.

In short, Roberts tells Churchill’s story compellingly, fully, and evocatively in a way at once engagingly readable, substantively filling, and intellectually provoking.  That more than justifies the addition of a new biography to the canon.

To be substantive in my praise, I owe some specifics.

Speaking to Roberts’s scholarly pith, I was struck by the manner in which he repeatedly used a statistic to convey far more than bare fact.  On the disappointments and unrequited supplications of Churchill’s childhood: “…in the seven years from 1885 to 1892, Churchill wrote to his parents seventy-six times; they to him six times.” 

To understand the urgent compulsion of his early quest for glory, we are told how, seeking an opportunity for combat, Churchill “…took a train over 2,000 miles in five days of sweltering heat from Bangalore to Nowsherea…”

The dizzying arc of Churchill’s early ambition and burgeoning influence is illustrated thus: “In 1903 he made twenty-nine speeches (travelling over 2,200 miles), in 1904 thirty-eight (5,500 miles), in 1905 forty-four (over 3,700 miles), in 1906 fifty-nine (3,800 miles) and in 1907 (despite his East African trip) forty-two.  These speeches of often more than 5,000 words each…. He kept up this extraordinarily high level… even after the peak year of 1908, with sixty-nine speeches in 1909, seventy-seven in 1910 and sixty-five in 1911, traveling a total of 10,000 miles to deliver them.” 

Regarding the impactful and enduring presence of the Other Club in Churchill’s life: “Churchill was to attend more than 300 dinners of the Other Club, by far the largest number of meals he ever had in one place other than with his own family.”

The highly effective use of fact to limn Churchill’s character and core is not limited to statistics.

Roberts tells us that “Churchill habitually drove fast, routinely jumped traffic lights and occasionally went up on to the pavement when faced with traffic congestion.”  It is no great effort to make the metaphorical extension to many aspects of Churchill’s life.

But Roberts’s effort is more than clever application of fact and extrapolated metaphor.  Churchill was masterfully able to locate himself, his people, his place, and his time in the tributaries and currents of history.  Roberts is similarly able to tease and trace the many convergences threading Churchill’s life.  Sometimes this is fairly straightforward; Roberts highlights that it was Churchill’s loss in his first bid for Parliament that left him free to go to South Africa, where he won the fame that catapulted him to prominence.  Sometimes the connections are more subtle, but no less vital; Roberts draws the connection between Churchill’s early, formative experience with fanaticism in the Victorian colonial conflicts of sub-Saharan Africa to Churchill’s instinctive, recoiling identification of similar fanaticism in Nazi Germany decades later.  Likewise, rather than simply cataloguing Churchill’s more obstinate decisions – both good and bad – Roberts illuminates these decisions as a path both consonant with and illuminating Churchill’s guiding principles, beliefs, and impulses.

Churchill’s death came half a decade before my birth, so I am without any living memory of him.  I’m interested in the man because he is interesting.  And perfection is not interesting.  I find Churchill engaging for his humanity and loathe hagiography which, to my reckoning, diminishes both the reality and relevance of Churchill’s remarkable life and character.

Among Roberts’s gifts to readers is not only unsqueamish disclosure of Churchill’s errors of judgement, but also acknowledgement of where Churchill’s core notions deviate from modern sensibilities.  But this is done without a partisan agenda.  Roberts neither selectively edits statements and events to demonize Churchill, nor apologizes for when Churchill was boorish or wrong.  Rather, Roberts deftly contextualizes, revealing flaws and deficiencies in a manner that better suits frank understanding than retroactive judgement.  

Roberts’s discussion of Churchill’s views on women’s suffrage is a case in point. The portrayal of Churchill’s views and political postures was honest enough to make me wince.  But, most illuminating, there is a particular incident related when Churchill, on the cusp of adopting a more progressive position, instead literally orates himself into a reactionary retreat.  It is painful.  It is certainly no “finest hour”.  But it is fascinating, informative, and of a piece that Churchill’s oratory could sway not just the mind and will of others, but his own as well.   

In his Conclusion, Roberts spends nearly an entire page cataloging “many times when Churchill’s judgement could legitimately be called into question”.  The list is excruciating to read.  And it is justly set upon the scales.  Yet such is the nature of Roberts’s balanced presentations that this inventory of fault and failure can be acknowledged, absorbed, and carefully weighed.   

As can Roberts’s own book.  To be sure, Walking with Destiny is not a flawless effort.  It was a fight, and some of the knuckled thrusts and bumps are hard to obscure. To the point is Roberts’s intriguing decision to remain fairly even-handed in the massive, 951-page sweep of the narrative while saving the weighty Conclusion (pages 965-982) for more partial contextualization.  “Conclusion” understates; this is a lengthy, substantive, referential essay that, frankly, feels of sufficient weight to stand and be read on its own, rather than simply mortar and tassel the book.

But even this – though far from seamless – worked very well for me as a reader. In retrospect, it afforded a salutary digestive exercise – opportunity for a lengthy, provoking, warts-and-all regard for the sweep of Churchill’s life before having it more conspicuously hued and appraised.  Roberts’s Conclusion proved to be the literary equivalent of a strong tonic, brisk walk, and settling reflection after a taxingly large, rich, and volubly companioned repast.  

Churchill once wrote that “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy, then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” Roberts might identify.  There is that sense here that Roberts’s undertaking was no gentle affair, but more of a Churchillian struggle in its intellectual and narrative demands and exertions.  This seems fitting to the life Andrew Roberts has so ably framed and chronicled.

A Life in Pictures – an archive of hundreds of original press photographs of Winston S. Churchill

“Churchill Book Collector” implies a certain staple in our inventory.  Namely books.  But many of you know that there is more to our inventory than merely books – including ephemera, correspondence, and… photographs.

Press photos of Winston Churchill

Over the past year, we have acquired a treasure trove of roughly 300 original press photographs of Winston Churchill, spanning the latter half of Churchill’s life, from the 1920s through 1964. In this blog post we give a brief history of these remarkable repositories of history and a preview of our offerings to come.

Through this remarkable collection of photographs we glimpse the vigorous ambitions of the young Cabinet minister, the isolation of his wilderness years, his leadership during the war years, his sojourn as leader of the opposition, his valedictory second premiership, and his final decade, when Churchill passed “into a living national memorial” of the time he had lived and the Nation, Empire, and free world he had served. 

We have just listed the first tranche of 60 of these 300 photographs.  These 60 original press photographs span Churchill’s resignation from his second and final premiership in April 1955 to his death in January 1965.

Churchill’s long career coincided with the evolution and ascendance of photojournalism. He witnessed its early years, remarking “It is the misfortune of a good many Members to encounter in our daily walks an increasing number of persons armed with cameras to take pictures for the illustrated Press which is so rapidly developing.” (letter of 26 June 1911 to Alfred Lyttelton) And during the war years he was a frequent subject of photojournalism’s golden age – often with noteworthy and occasionally with truly iconic results. 

Soon after the development of photography in the mid 19th century, newspapers began to look for ways to supplement the written word with this new technology. For decades the only means of publication was through highly labor-intensive wood engravings reproduced by hand. In March 1880 – just half a decade after Churchill’s birth –  The Daily Graphic of New York became the first paper to publish a halftone reproduction of a photograph. The development of this new photochemical reproduction process allowed for papers to begin to easily and quickly publish photographs. 

Guardian ca. 1940

These newly illustrated newspapers were an immediate success with the public, and a new profession, the photojournalist, was born. Only the largest newspapers had the resources necessary for in-house photographers, so news agencies were quickly established to meet the demand. Naturally, there was great incentive for each news agency to be the first to have available a photograph of a major event. All modes of transportation – including carrier pigeons – were used to speedily transport negatives to the agency bureaus where they were developed out and supplied to papers. This intense competition led to the Associated Press’s development of the most important photojournalistic inventions since the halftone, the Wirephoto.

Developed in 1921, AP’s Wirephoto allowed for the first “instantaneous” transmission of visual images. The technology involved scanning photographic images and translating the image density into audio tones which could then be transmitted over dedicated phone lines. The audio transmission could then be received by special equipment that would translate the signal back into light, exposing a silver gelatin photographic support that could be processed in the dark room. Until 1954 – the year before Churchill would relinquish the premiership for the second and final time – nearly all press photos were printed using this process.   

Press photo archive

As newspapers began to collect photographs from staff photographers, news agencies, and third-party photographers expansive archives, called “photo morgues”, were established. Within these archives physical copies of all photographs published or deemed useful for future use were filed away. These archives often grew to hold more than a million images. Most newspapers’ filing processes included stamping the verso of each image with the copyright holder, publication notes, typed captions (often supplied by news agencies), reproduction notes, and clippings of the image’s appearance in print. During wartime censor information was occasionally also included. As a result, photo morgues serve as vast, rich archives of primary historical sources.

In addition to their historical importance, photo editing techniques of the early 20thcentury often make these unique and aesthetically fascinating visual objects. Before Photoshop made such edits possible at the click of a button, newspapers’ photo departments would often take brush, paint, pencil, and marker to the surface of photographs. These additions ranged from the mere adjustment to the total re-contextualization of a photo. 

Press photo versos

With the addition of paint these photographs become not only repositories of historical memory and technological artifacts but also striking pieces of vernacular art.  And as the photographs were archived for reference and potential re-use, extensive notes were often made to the versos, including stamps and notations of provenance and captions.

In recent decades, as newspapers declined and publications increasingly turned to digital production, the contents of photo morgues have been made available for acquisition by libraries, archives, museums, and, occasionally, private parties such as Churchill Book Collector. 

The photographs we will offer show a compelling slice of 20th century newspaper press photography through the prism of an individual who was integral to much of that century’s momentous history. The photographs come from a variety of sources, from standard news agencies to direct from the studios of noted photographers. The hand-applied edits range from mere contrast adjustments to the complete erasure of figures. 

Photo of boxers with faces of Churchill and Attlee pasted over

One remarkable photo, of Churchill and Attlee’s faces pasted onto the bodies of two sparring boxers, reminds us that photos mischieviously edited for humor have existed for longer than we might assume. 

Photo of Winston and Clementine Churchill

In this collection of press photographs, we see Churchill as a family man, his arm around Clementine in the midst of the Battle of Britain, or brushing the cheek of his grandchild. We see Churchill as a military leader, inspecting troops and firing guns.

Photo of Churchill with grandchild
Photo of Churchill inspecting troops
Photo of Churchill with Nixon

We see Churchill the statesman with world leaders both expected (George VI and FDR) and more unexpected (Nixon and a Nazi leader). 

Churchill the orator

We see Churchill the orator as he gives speeches and radio broadcasts.  

Churchill in his final years

And in the photos of Churchill’s final years we are reminded of the inescapable and inexorable toll of physical mortality, which disregards the longevity of words or deeds. 

Which brings us full circle to the notion of why a bookseller trades in photographs. 

As we have written before, published work has limitations inherent to the very acts of drafting and editing, of expert input, careful consideration, and diligent preparation.  Published words, however luminous and illuminating, can find themselves separated from the vitality and immediacy of a moment or perspective.

Photographs are something different.  More ephemeral, more candid, more distinctly in and of the moment.  Able to impart a vital sense of things that no acclaimed book or carefully crafted speech – however Churchillian in mastery – can quite capture.  So even though Churchill left us a wealth of published words, there is more yet to see and to feel from photographs.

At present we plan to release these images for sale in groupings, in roughly reverse chronological order, beginning with the first 60 we have just listed spanning Churchill’s final decade.  We are likely to offer the final 100 or so in a dedicated catalogue released concurrent with the 36thAnnual Churchill Conference, to be held in Washington, D.C. 29-31 October 2019.We look forward to sharing with you the incredible wealth of history and photography contained within this archive of original press photographs of Winston. S. Churchill.

Click HERE to browse our entire listed inventory of photographs.

“… the indiscriminating bullet settles everything”

We recently acquired a remarkable association copy of the first edition of Winston Churchill’s first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force.  This copy was owned by the bereaved family of Lieutenant-Colonel James Loughnan O’Bryen, whose death in action Churchill eloquently mourns within its pages. The book, noteworthy on its own merits for condition alone, not only has the association to O’Bryen’s family, but also came to us accompanied by a small archive including an original drawing of the Malakand Pass and five contemporary photographs depicting Colonel O’Bryen, his 30th Punjabi Regiment, and what appears to be a native militia.

The Story of the Malakand Field Force, British first edition with photos from India

At pages 245-7 of his first published book, Churchill wrote:

The Story of the Malakand Field Force

Meanwhile the 31st Punjaub Infantry, who had advanced under Colonel O’Bryen on the right, were exposed to a severe fire from a rocky ridge on their flank. Their attack was directed against a great mass of boulders, some of them of enormous size, which were tenaciously held by the enemy. The fighting soon became close. The two advanced companies were engaged at a distance of under 100 yards. Besides this the cross fire from their right flank added to their difficulties. In such a position the presence of Colonel O’Bryen was invaluable. Moving swiftly from point to point, he directed the fire and animated the spirit of the men, who were devoted to him. It was not long before the enemy’s marksmen began to take aim at this prominent figure. But for a considerable period, although bullets struck the ground everywhere around him, he remained unhurt. At last, however, he was shot through the body, and carried mortally wounded from the action.

I pause to consider for a moment the conditions, and circumstances, by which the pursuit of a military career differs from all others. In political life, in art, in engineering, the man with talents who behaves with wisdom may steadily improve his position in the world. If he makes no mistakes he will probably achieve success. But the soldier is more dependent upon external influences. The only way he can hope to rise above the others, is by risking his life in frequent campaigns. All his fortunes, whatever they may be, all his position and weight in the world, all his accumulated capital, as it were, must be staked afresh each time he goes into action. He may have seen twenty engagements, and be covered with decorations and medals. He may be marked as a rising soldier. And yet each time he comes under fire his chances of being killed are as great as, and perhaps greater than, those of the youngest subaltern, whose luck is fresh. The statesman, who has put his power to the test, and made a great miscalculation, may yet retrieve his fortunes. But the indiscriminating bullet settles everything. As the poet somewhat grimly has it:—

Stone-dead hath no better.

Colonel O’Bryen had been specially selected, while still a young man, for the command of a battalion. He had made several campaigns. Already he had passed through the drudgery of the lower ranks of the service, and all the bigger prizes of the military profession appeared in view: and though the death in action of a colonel at the head of his regiment is as fine an end as a soldier can desire, it is mournful to record the abrupt termination of an honourable career at a point when it might have been of much value to the State. 

Battlefield sentiment was not an abstract concept to Churchill. A combination of youthful exuberance, political ambition, sense of destiny, and need to prove his mettle – we leave to others the task of determining the exact proportions of each – put Churchill decisively in harm’s way on the same 1897 battlefields of the colonial northwest Indian frontier.  The fate of those, like O’Bryen, who faced the same risks on the same battlefields impressed upon Churchill the potentially dire cost of this particular type of ambition. 

Churchill’s memorial to O’Bryen is remarkable in several respects.  Like Thucydides long before him and many others writing in the intervening millennia, Churchill clearly regards the role of chance in warfare. Moreover, Churchill shows a deep respect for those who risk all in battle.  But below the eloquent philosophy and homage are manifest aspects of the self-focused, very young man Churchill was.  Clearly on display is the driving force of his as-yet unrealized political ambition – even in this memorial, Churchill cannot resist articulating the metaphor of “The statesman, who has put his power to the test, and made a great miscalculation” but “may yet retrieve his fortunes.”  The metaphor would, of course, prove particularly prophetic for Churchill… Also on display is the nascent, apparently instinctive Churchillian gift for nobly framing events and setting them in greater context.  But while Churchill’s talents and ambition are both clearly on display, so too are the limitations of his youth and experience.  The conclusion – “…it is mournful to record the abrupt termination of an honourable career at a point when it might have been of much value to the State.” – cannot help but strike this reader as thuddingly detached and unsympathetic.  O’Bryen left behind not only his “honourable career” and potential use to the State, but also a wife, a daughter, and the full measure of his own perspectives and passions.  Before winning the Nobel Prize in Literature more than half a century later “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.“, Churchill would risk, lose, achieve, and suffer much – and in the process learn to do better.

Churchill’s words about the unfortunate Lt. Colonel O’Bryen apparently reached his surviving wife and daughter.   The sole previous ownership mark in this copy is three lines, inked on the half title: “O’Bryen | 29 Ellerker Gardens | Richmond-Surrey”.  The ownership mark was almost certainly made by O’Bryen’s wife or daughter; the only other marks in the book are a folded upper corner at the p.245-6 leaf and faint pencil lines in the margins beside text giving Churchill’s account of O’Bryen’s death. The book is a beautifully clean copy of the first edition, only printing, its preservation thus substantiating the notion that it was a family memento of significance.  Confirming that supposition are the original drawing and five photographs of O’Bryen and his 30th Punjabi Regiment that accompanied this book.

Malakand Pass map

An unsigned drawing depicting “Malakand Pass” is in black ink on a 4.5 x 7 inch piece of laid paper, folded once and spotted. The lower left of the drawing has what are presumably triangular representations of tents captioned “Dargai Camp”.  At the lower right, the drawing is captioned “Dotted line shows Malakand Pass”.  (The dotted line in question is at the right portion of the drawing 1.5 inches above the caption.)  Though we cannot confirm the identity of the drawing’s creator, it is certainly contemporary and has kept company all this time with the other personal effects of O’Bryen.

Indian regiment

The five photographs are decisively those of Lt. Colonel O’Bryen, two of them depicting him and two of them the men of the regiments in which O’Bryen served.  There is a silver gelatin group portrait of the 30th Punjabi Infantry in uniform.  This is a very clean, high contrast image measuring 4.75 x 6.75 inches with a small piece missing from the lower left blank margin.  A penciled caption at the bottom of the photograph reads: “30th PUNJABI INFANTRY”.

30th Punjabi Infantry

Another, larger silver gelatin group portrait of the 30th Punjabi Infantry in uniform set against a different background. Though this group of soldiers is appreciably larger, some of the figures are recognizably the same, as are the uniforms. This photograph measures 6.5 x 8.125 inches is pencil captioned on the verso: “30th PUNJABI INFANTRY”.

Colonel O'Bryen

The sole non-military silver gelatin photograph, measuring 6.25 x 8.125 inches, is a study in Victorian colonial casual archetype. Colonel O’Bryen in a suit is sprawling on porch stairs, hand in pocket, double-breasted waistcoat exposed, legs crossed, with a child leaning against him and two women in voluminous skirts seated in chairs on the porch above him to the left and right.   The photo is clean, though with irregular breaks to the brittle paper along the top and left edges, a triangular loss at the lower left corner, and a short, closed tear at the bottom edge.  

Photograph of uniformed men and boys

An 8.5 x 11.25 silver gelatin portrait of un-uniformed men and boys, some of the men visibly armed, is captioned in pencil “Central Group Young [illegible]”.  The final word, which we cannot definitively decipher, could plausibly be “Militia”.  This clean, high contrast image is affixed to a mount at the corners and has irregular breaks to the brittle paper along the bottom edge, not affecting the figures depicted therein.  This photograph is ink-stamped on the verso: “Gillmore T Carte | Dalhousie, Punjaub | photographer”.

Native soldiers with Colonal O'Bryen

A large, 9.25 x 11.25 inch albumen group portrait is arguably the standout piece of the collection, depicting four rows of native soldiers with their British officers intermixed, Colonel O’Bryen prominent among them.  The photograph is captioned in pencil at the bottom: “COL OBRYEN WHITE OFFICER 2 ROW THIRD FROM LEFT / 5th AND 30TH PUNJABI INFANTRY”.  The lower right is signed in the print “F. Winter”.  Winter was a photographer in Muree, Punjab.

Lieutenant-Colonel James Loughnan O'Bryen

Lieutenant-Colonel James Loughnan O’Bryen was born in Delhi, India on 8 January 1854.  His father was a decorated Colonel with the Indian Staff Corps who served in the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845-6.  James was evidently sent to England for his education as he was recorded in the 1871 UK census as a 17-year-old scholar in a London household and there is evidence that he attended the Downside school in Somerset.  His service papers in the National Archive indicate that he first entered into the Army at “20 1/12” years with the 11th Infantry Regiment in 1874 (the year Churchill was born) before joining the Indian Staff Corps in 1876.  In 1879 he served during the Afghan War with the Kandahar and Khyber Field Forces.  He also served in the Third Anglo-Burmese War, General Lockharts’s expedition against the Isazai tribes, and in the Chitral expedition.  In 1894 O’Bryen obtained his majority with the Indian Staff Corps and was placed second in command of the 30th Punjabis before he was appointed to command of the 31st Punjab Regiment of the Bengal Infantry on 5 August 1897.  Less than two months later he was killed in action.  

O’Bryen was survived by his wife and one daughter, to whom this book and images ostensibly belonged.  After his death, O’Bryen’s body was recovered and moved to Peshawar, where he was buried with full honors and commemorated with a simple plaque reading: “In memory of Lieutenant Colonel James Loughnan O’Bryen, Commandant 31st PI who was killed in action at the head of his Regiment at Agrah in the Mamund Valley, Bajaur on 30th September 1897. Aged 43 years.  Deeply regretted by his brother officers by whom this tablet is erected.”

Churchill’s own story would be written quite differently. And, beginning with this book, substantially written by his own hand.

When this book was written and published, Churchill was a young cavalry officer still serving in India. While he had successfully applied his pen as a war correspondent – indeed the book is based on his dispatches to the Daily Telegraph and the Pioneer Mail – this was his first book-length work. The young Churchill was motivated by a combination of pique and ambition. He was vexed that his Daily Telegraph columns were to be published unsigned. On 25 October 1897 Churchill wrote to his mother: “…I had written them with the design… of bringing my personality before the electorate.” Two weeks later, his resolve to write a book firming, Churchill again wrote to his mother: “…It is a great undertaking but if carried out will yield substantial results in every way, financially, politically, and even, though do I care a damn, militarily.” Having invested his ambition in this first book, he clearly labored over it: “I have discovered a great power of application which I did not think I possessed. For two months I have worked not less than five hours a day.” The finished manuscript was sent to his mother on the last day of 1897 and published on 14 March of 1898. 

Rear catalogue

Publication was arranged by Churchill’s uncle while the author was still in India, resulting in numerous spelling and detail errors. Churchill was incensed by the errors and acted with haste to address them. Hence later states of the first edition bear errata slips. Home Issue copies also bear a 32-page Longmans, Green catalogue bound in at the back, which is dated either “12/97” or “3/98” at the foot of page 32. With only a little more than 1,900 copies bound, this first edition of Churchill’s first book is both desirable and elusive.  The O’Bryen copy is an early second state, featuring the tipped-in errata slip and a rear catalogue dated “12/97”.  


Apart from being an association copy, it is noteworthy for condition alone, approaching near fine.  The publisher’s green cloth binding remains square, tight, clean, and beautifully bright with no discernible color shift between the spine and covers.  We note only trivial wear to the hinges and corners and some minor wrinkling at the spine ends.  The gilt on both front cover and spine remains vividly bright.  

Title page

The contents are equally and notably clean for the edition, atypically bright.  Some incidental spotting is confined to the page edges, which are otherwise clean with only mild age-toning.  All maps are intact, including the folding maps at pages 1 and 146, as is the frontispiece and tissue guard.  The original black endpapers are present and intact, with none of the typical cracking or splitting.  While the mull is visible in the gutter following the endpapers and half title, this is strictly a cosmetic issue and in no way affects binding integrity.