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Great Contemporaries: Leopold Amery
Leopold Charles Maurice Stennett Amery (1873–1955)
Of all those appointed to his cabinet in May 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had known Leo Amery the longest—back to when they were schoolboys. Despite the longevity of their relationship, they were never very close. Rather, as Robert Rhodes James wrote, “there was always a deﬁnite restraint, a lack of warmth, a noticeable caution and reserve” between them. Nevertheless, Amery played a notable part in ensuring Churchill’s premiership.
Churchill and Amery first met at Harrow School when Young Winston pushed an unsuspecting Amery into “Ducker,” the school’s swimming pool, a routine prank became a mortal crime because the victim was a year older than Churchill, head of his House, a gym champion, recipient of football colors, and holder of other impressive titles. Amery immediately chased down Churchill and hurled him into the pool. Churchill apologized, but the encounter foreshadowed future difficulties.
From Harrow, Amery went to Oxford where he proved to be a brilliant scholar. He was elected a Fellow of All Souls College in 1897. Two years later he went to South Africa as a war correspondent for The Times. There he encountered Churchill, who was working likewise for the Morning Post. Together they arranged with an army colonel one evening to go out with a British armored train the following morning.
It was raining the next morning and Churchill volunteered to go ahead and check on the departure of the train. Amery kept dry in his sleeping bag, certain that with the rain the train would never leave on time. Churchill only just caught the departing train and two hours later Amery was woken by the sound of gunﬁre. He met the returning train carrying the survivors of the famous armored train incident, in which Churchill was captured, imprisoned, and escaped.
Years later Amery joked with Churchill that the events of that morning proved that the “early worm was apt to get caught.” Churchill replied, “If I had not been early, I should not have been caught. But if I had not been caught, I could not have escaped, and my imprisonment and escape provided me with materials for lectures and a book which brought me in enough money to get into Parliament in 1900—ten years before you.”
It was indeed not till 1911 that Amery was elected to the House of Commons. A strong supporter of Joseph Chamberlain, he was returned as a Conservative for the safe seat of South Birmingham, Chamberlain’s political heartland.
In Parliament and later in cabinet together, Amery and Churchill rarely agreed. They differed over free trade, the gold standard, naval strength, the Empire, the relationship with the United States, and India. Amery was devoted to the Empire with the fervor of a “faith” and supported the protectionist policy of Imperial Preference to forge an economic partnership that could rival the United States. The protectionist policy was an anathema to free trader Churchill. Neither man could move the other on the subject. They did find agreement on some issues, such as a Jewish national home in Palestine. Both were ardent Zionists, and Amery helped draft the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
The vigorous Amery was a cross-country runner at Oxford, an outdoorsman, an excellent skier and accomplished mountaineer. He scaled the Matterhorn several times and continued to climb into his sixties. Three mountains in the Canadian Rockies, South Africa, and on Kerguelen Island were named after him. At ﬁve-foot-four-inches, Amery was bespectacled and pugnacious; he once was ﬁned two pounds for boxing the ears of a political opponent who had refused to apologize for calling him a liar. A remarkable linguist (speaking fourteen languages), he kept a life-long diary and authored several books, including most of the seven-volume The Times History of the War in South Africa. He published three volumes of political memoirs that took his life up to 1940. Amery was politically hampered in politics by being ineffective in discussions, including cabinet debates. He intervened too often, and his speeches were too long. A wag said that if Amery was a half foot taller and his speeches a half hour shorter, he would have become prime minister. Amery married in 1910 and had two sons, Julian and John. His family was very close.
Allies of a kind
Both Amery and Churchill served in Stanley Baldwin’s 1924-29 cabinet. Amery was Colonial Secretary, Churchill Chancellor of the Exchequer. With Churchill trying to put a brake on spending, the two constantly disagreed. In cabinet meetings their battles were so continuous that Baldwin claimed half the time was taken up by Churchill’s speeches and the other half with Amery’s. Although he was without “rancor or guile,” Amery was not above political maneuvering. In 1922 he was part of the “revolt of the undersecretaries” that helped bring down the Lloyd George coalition government. He twice urged Baldwin to move Churchill from the Exchequer, suggesting he be made coordinator of the three ﬁghting services or, later, Foreign Minister.
When debate over the future of India began in the 1930s, both Churchill and Amery were backbenchers in the political wilderness. Yet again they were on opposite sides. Churchill was a bitter critic of self-government for India, while the pragmatic Amery thought self-government was probably inevitable. Amery favored an independent India within the Commonwealth and closely associated with Britain.
The issue of appeasement and rearmament in the face of Nazi Germany saw Amery and Churchill loosely aligned. As early as 1932, Amery warned that supposing disarmament would bring lasting peace was “based upon a profound delusion.” While on a climbing holiday in Germany in August 1935, Amery accepted an invitation to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden. But unlike other British politicians (most notably Lloyd George), he did not emerge spouting Hitler’s praises.
As the European situation deteriorated, Amery allied with a small number of dissident MPs including Churchill, Austen Chamberlain, and Anthony Eden. Careful not to go too far against the prevailing wisdom, he argued for rearmament, not against appeasement. After the 1938 Austrian Anschluss, Amery, became a leading critic of the Neville Chamberlain government, declaring that there could be no settlement with Germany.
Later that year, he was further horrified by Chamberlain’s impending betrayal of Czechoslovakia, writing The Times: “Are we to surrender to ruthless brutality a free people whose cause we have espoused but are now to throw to the wolves to save our own skins or are we still able to stand up to a bully?”
On September 28th, Chamberlain dramatically announced to the House of Commons that he would be going to Munich to meet Hitler. Only Churchill, Eden, and Amery remained seated as the other members cheered. After Munich, Amery was in the first rank of opposition to Chamberlain’s policy. By late 1938 he was convinced war was certain. Churchill remarked that Amery was the only person whose judgement had “proved consistently sound in the preceding three years.”
“Speak for England!”: Amery at his best
On 2 September 1939, after the invasion of Poland, with Britain still not at war, Amery electrified the House with a simple phrase. To a packed chamber, Chamberlain delivered a lethargic speech about an ultimatum to Berlin. Arthur Greenwood, the deputy Labour leader, rose to reply. A frustrated Amery, fearing Labour would remain on the fence cried out, “Speak for England, Arthur!” The words brought cheers, but “Chamberlain’s head whipped around as if he had been shot.” After war was declared, Chamberlain left Amery out of the cabinet shuffle that brought Churchill back to the Admiralty.
Ironically, as he was considered a poor speaker, Amery’s greatest moment came in the famous Norway Debate on 7-8 May 1940. The debate on the disastrous attempt to forestall Hitler’s invasion of Norway quickly became a debate on the future of Chamberlain. Amery spoke on the first day, an annihilating attack on Chamberlain which astonished members. The criticism was made all the worse because Amery represented Birmingham, Chamberlain’s home town.
“In the name of God, go”
Knowing he was no orator, Amery assiduously prepared his speech. Condemning Chamberlain’s government, he called for a coalition to fight the war, as in World War I. “We are fighting today for our life, for our liberty, for our all. We cannot go on as we are,” he declared. “There must be a change.” Although reluctant to be “drawn into a discussion on personalities,” Amery said Britain needed “vision, daring, swiftness and consistency of decision.” Then, facing the government front bench, he administered the fatal blow:
I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.”
Amery sat amidst the uproar. “I knew I had done what I meant to do,” he later reflected. “I had driven the nail home.” In the vote after the Norway Debate, Amery was among forty-two Conservatives who voted against the government, fatally wounding Chamberlain who resigned on May 10th. Winston Churchill thus became Prime Minister.
Amery in the War Cabinet
Given his long experience and great abilities, Amery expected a senior position in Churchill’s new government. He was disappointed only to be named Secretary of State for India. He accepted the appointment out of a sense of duty, but it was a “stunning and almost humiliating blow.” The India Office was a secondary post that would keep Amery out of the War Cabinet and well-away from the central direction of the war.
It is quite puzzling that Churchill offered Amery only India. He certainly knew that Amery held diametrically opposed views of India and the Empire, and they were soon in contention. Amery sought to maximize India’s contribution to the war effort with the provision of soldiers and production of war materials coupled with the promise of self-government after victory had been won. Indian volunteers made a huge contribution to the Allied armies, but Churchill continued to resist moves toward Indian independence and the upheaval it would bring.
Churchill interfered in Amery’s department even more than other ministries. He often appeared to goad his old schoolmate and Amery was on the brink of resigning several times. In cabinet, Amery, however, was not intimidated by the prime minister and would yell back at him. They were at odds too over measures to alleviate the Bengal famine. In the end, though, Amery admitted that without Churchill the Bengal famine would have been worse.
India’s future remained unresolved during Amery’s five years’ tenure. Yet he proved otherwise to be an “efficient and effective Secretary of State.” Amid their quarrels, Amery and Churchill had pleasant moments too, Amery always accompanied Churchill on his annual visit to Harrow during the war to meet the boys and hear the school songs.
Triumph and Tragedy
The victory of 1945 marked a horrible year for Amery. In the Labour landslide that July he lost his seat in Parliament. That was a minor disappointment compared to the shocking execution of his son John for treason in December. John Amery, long erratic and unstable, had remained in France during the war and became a Nazi collaborator. He toured prisoner of war camps seeking, without much success, recruits to fight with the Germans, and made pro-German radio broadcasts.
In November 1942, learning that his son was about to speak on Berlin Radio, Amery informed Churchill and offered to resign. The Prime Minister would have none of it. Amery could not be blamed for “the aberrations of a grown-up son.” As historian Lynne Olson observed, Churchill was loyal and compassionate when it mattered most, and Amery was always grateful.
After Germany’s surrender John Amery was arrested and brought to trial. He shocked everyone by pleading guilty to all eight counts in the indictment even though it would mean the death sentence. His father lobbied valiantly but unsuccessfully for clemency. He took the blow with characteristic courage. Amery’s remaining son, Julian, was himself elected to the House of Commons and held cabinet posts under Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath. Julian usually held conservative views on most issues of the day, save for the death penalty, which he always vehemently opposed.
Leopold Amery died in London on 16 September 1955, aged 81. On learning of his passing, Churchill said he was “deeply grieved” at the loss of his friend who was a “statesman and man of letters, [and] above all a great patriot.”
David Faber, Speaking for England: Leo, Julian, and John Amery, The Tragedy of a Political Family (New York: Free Press, 2005).
William Roger Lewis In the Name of God, Go! Leo Amery and the British Empire in the Age of Churchill (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).
Lynn Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).
Bradley Tolppanen is Professor of Library Services, History Librarian and head of Circulation Services at Eastern Illinois University. He is the author of a definitive study, Churchill in North America, 1929.