Smuts and Churchill, two flickering lamps in the gloom
'How is it, you may ask, that the name of this long-forgotten South African legend could have been so deeply intertwined with that of Churchill?'
Churchill & Smuts - The Friendship by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball Publishers, June 2017)
To the reading public – an ever diminishing subset of homo sapiens – the appearance of the name ‘Churchill’ in yet another new title may well elicit a passing yawn. In his Acknowledgements, author Richard Steyn notes that Winston Churchill has been the subject of more than 1 500 biographies, and “the number continues to rise”. He is clear that he has no intention in his new book of rehashing what has already been accomplished by acclaimed historians such as Martin Gilbert, William Manchester’s trilogy (finished by Paul Reid in 2012, 24 years after Manchester’s second volume on Churchill was published in 1988), along with Roy Jenkins’s biography, master-historian Max Hastings’s numerous books on World War 11 , and so many more. Boris Johnston’s more recent biography on Churchill never once mentions the name of Jan Smuts.
How is it, you may ask, that the name of this long-forgotten South African legend could have been so deeply intertwined with that of Churchill, who bestrode the first half of the 20th century like a colossus? And yet, there is one fascinating fact which Steyn reveals in his Prologue: prominently displayed on Churchill’s old writing desk at his country estate, Chartwell, in Kent (which I had the good fortune to visit a few years ago) is a photograph of Jan Smuts – almost all other photos on the desk are of Churchill family members.
And so begins an absorbing, riveting narrative of two titans of their age – one rightly doted on by successive generations of authors, historians, politicians and ordinary folk across the globe, the other a forgotten figure in both his own beloved country and across the global stage. If truth be told, Winston Churchill idolised Jan Smuts – as did so many leaders in countries across the world during the savagery of two lengthy World Wars. Likewise, Smuts adored Churchill. The two could not have had more contrasting backgrounds: the Afrikaner born four years earlier, on an isolated farm near Riebeek West in the then Cape Colony; the Englishman at Blenheim Palace (the largest private home in Britain) in Oxfordshire.
The wonder of Steyn’s book is that he never attempts to re-hash ground that has been covered so thoroughly by so many before him. Indeed, the narrative is clearly focused on a relationship that unfolded over some 50 years. In so doing, the author has crafted a magnificent, highly readable and engrossing story of The Friendship. There is no verbosity in these 300-odd pages. Churchill would have approved – as he once growled about then prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, he knew of no one who “combined so many words with so few thoughts”.
Like his earlier book, Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness, Friendship is meticulously annotated and indexed. Even those who’ve read extensively on Churchill will find this a fresh and absorbing read. Many will be familiar with the earlier narratives of the outrageously precocious young Winston in the Boer War and other theatres of conflict in the vast empire, which he unashamedly pursued in his single-minded quest for glory and fame. Far less well known, even among South Africans, are Smuts’s extraordinary academic achievements (and of whom his tutor at Christ’s College, Cambridge described as the best student he had ever taught). His rise to prominence in SA began with the Boer War, and was to witness his astonishingly brave guerrilla warfare against Kitchener’s forces and subsequent rise to high office alongside General Louis Botha.
Jump forward to March 1917 in WW1 when Smuts arrived in England, hailed as the “hero of the hour”. Three days later, Lloyd George introduced him to members of the Imperial War Cabinet where he was to serve until the end of the war. Neither Churchill nor Britain’s successive war cabinets could do without the sheer brilliance and incisiveness of this extraordinary man. So began an intimate working relationship and friendship between the two which was to endure and flourish through two catastrophic conflagrations.
Steyn has done us all a huge favour. A new generation of South Africans can learn about this truly remarkable individual from our history – one of whom, in introducing him by correspondence to General Dwight Eisenhower, Churchill described as a “magnificent man and one of my most cherished friends”. His simple home (now a monument) in Irene outside Pretoria, constructed largely of corrugated iron, speaks volumes about the values of a bygone age. Jan Smuts and Winston Churchill, the former a prophet without honour even in his home country, the latter a global icon. Two flickering lamps in the gloom, one thinks, as humankind meanders towards the abyss.