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The Mental Condition of Winston Churchill

"Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." Churchill said in 1897 in Afghanistan.


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Such was Churchill’s depression and ‘shell shock’ one presumes, which today would be called PTSD, that a minor but important detail about Churchill is the little known fact that his hands frequently shook. One of a number of tell-tale signs of PTSD.

Also for decades, Churchill avoided standing too close to balconies and train platforms. I have known others from the military with very similar problems.

“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”

Churchill understood his depression and named it his “black dog”, following the likes of Samuel Johnson. Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway et al, who, like many extraordinary men, suffered from similar bouts of manic depression.

Some men - and countries, notably America - simply enjoy guns, fighting, battles and all aspects of warfare. They find it glamorous and romantic, amongst other reasons. Its usually part of their nature; they are born like it; also its due to their childhood experiences and/or culture.

I confess to having been in combat environments over three decades, so I have great empathy for the mental issues that are a consequence of being involved in firefights and seeing horrific carnage.

In Churchill’s case I contend, the consequences of the totality of such experiences, on top of his undoubtedly unusual character, made him, to say the least, an extremely paradoxical and difficult man.

He found literally, well he said he did, a “love” for war which he confessed to during the time he spent in Afghanistan:

"Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result." Churchill said in 1897 in Afghanistan

Churchill at 21.

Churchill’s moods were such that he sometimes was so paralysed by fear and despair even, one must surmise, of war, that he spent long periods in bed, had little energy, few interests, lost his appetite, couldn’t concentrate. When in this state he was minimally functional; and this didn’t just happen once or twice in the 1930s, but also in the 1920s and 1910s and earlier. These darker periods would last sometimes as long as a few months...and then he’d come out of it suddenly and be his ‘normal’ self.

But abnormal for Churchill was normal for him....apart from when he was severely depressed and low in energy and lying in bed, Churchill otherwise had very high energy levels. He often wouldn’t go to sleep until two or three in the morning, sometimes even staying up all night, often dictating multiple books simultaneously. 

He could talk incessantly in a tantivy of whirling thoughts. So much so that the then US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, once said of him: “He has a thousand ideas a day, four of which are good.”

After some time, could be weeks or months, Churchill would go back to not talking, not having any ideas, not having any energy etc. And then bounce back up again, and so on. His mood swings were also more than likely related to his heavy drinking as much as anything else.

Churchill was often very rude and inscrutable and as likely to insult as to charm, for example, dinner party guests. He drank a lot, admitting: “I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.” He was irascible, clear by his hot temper and easily provoked into anger. However he remained self assured to the point of arrogance, and very wilful. 

Many who shared his conservative politics couldn’t stomach his erratic nature caused in the main, I believe, as stated earlier, by his heavy daily drinking.

Churchill was no pacifist; in fact, in the middle of World War I, he said:

“I think a curse should rest on me because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands and yet I can’t help it, I enjoy every second of it.”

A comment which could be construed as a sign of youthful insecurity perhaps...perhaps not, but denoting certainly, at a minimum, severe sociopathic tendencies. 

A larger than life man, though rather short and small in stature, who wrestled with alcoholism and depression, with such contradictions described here swirling in a cocktail nearing, some might say, a form of insanity. Therefore one must conclude he had a bi-polar condition, a problem that remained with him throughout his lifetime.

One could argue his unpredictable nature during WWII greatly confused Hitler and the German generals...(well actually everybody including his own staff).....that alone must have helped the Allies in their war efforts.

Though without the Russians, as a Brit I must admit, we would certainly now all be speaking German! The US Forces came late to both World Wars and their losses were a fraction of the Russian Army and other Allies, in the cases of both Wars.

Churchill’s early military life is worth further scrutiny. As referred to above, in 1897, then aged 22, he accompanied British forces who launched a savage campaign against Afghanistan's Pashtun tribesmen, forebears of the Taliban, on the North West Frontier. It was the first time Winston Churchill, as an aspiring journalist/war correspondent, while also ranked as a junior (Lieutenant) cavalry officer, experienced serious contact with the enemy and bloody hand to hand combat.

Rudyard Kipling best described what the experienced British soldier (during that time) felt about ‘the locals’, the Afghanis, in his ‘The Young British Soldier’: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains…” 

The experience of war effects men in many ways which makes their usual love and hate for it often appear like they are schizophrenic; as two sides of the same coin. Many of course actually become simply addicted to the adrenalin rush.

Despite such personality drawbacks, one cannot deny Churchill’s unique gift for oratory coupled with the huge positive effect of his tremendous inspirational speeches - most having similar content of previous speeches, years old, honed and recycled over decades - that were given to the British people during WW11. Nevertheless he was a walking contradiction with also another major disadvantage to allied commanders - a tremendous ego.

However one wonders why the British electorate voted him out of office immediately after the end of World War 11. A subject that should be covered in a separate article.

The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ is one of those truisms that has been often attributed to Winston Churchill but I can't find any evidence, or sources for him being the first person to say it. There is in fact no evidence that he ever said it at all. That same quote has also been attributed by historians to Napoleon Bonaparte, Mark Twain and Niccolo Machiavelli. Perhaps the reason it is attributed to Churchill is because he did come close to saying something similar when he said “History will be kind to me (Churchill) for I intend to write it.” 

Though he did often in his writings make reference to his ‘black dog’, one doubts he would have described the magnitude of his depressed periods.

I end on a whimsical note, that might seem unnecessary to some, and an over simplification to others. I would generally assert, that the majority of women have more sense than fight and make war. 

But why I don’t know!

A subject that requires experts, anthropologists maybe, to do an in-depth study of one day, unless its already been done. If any readers of this article know, or have information on this subject, please, by all means, say so in the comments section.

It is a tragedy for women that men romanticise war, especially for wives, daughters and mothers, as well as the rest of us who aspire to normality....though I confess that I am at a loss personally to understand what normal is.

Here ‘endeth’ my personal observations of a specific aspect of this clearly great and complex, controversial for some, man.


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