Winston Churchill’s grandson reflects on Franco-British relations

In a speech to members of the UK chapter of the Legion d’honneur, Sir Nicholas Soames placed UK-France relations in a historical perspective. His unique testimony exemplifies the deep ties uniting our two countries.

Thursday 10 December 2020

"It is a great honour for me to have been invited to speak to this gathering of Members of the United Kingdom Chapter of the Legion d’Honneur and I am delighted to do so before such a distinguished virtual audience, including Her Excellency the Ambassador of France, albeit it at what is for many of us, a very melancholy, uncertain and fragile time in our lives, and those of our two countries.

We meet in what has been a terrible year for both Britain and France because of the COVID 19, but also a year of great significance. For this year marks the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s APPEL on the 18th June, 1940.

President Macron honoured London when he visited us to mark the APPEL, which served as such a magnificent and heroic rallying cry to the French people, in the aftermath of the deeply painful occupation of France in 1940.

The President spoke in the shadow of General de Gaulle’s statue in Carlton Gardens, where the Free French had had their Headquarters.

He there presented to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, the framed insignia of the Legion d’Honneur, as he said; “As an expression of the French Republic’s infinite gratitude, by awarding London, in a wholly exceptional capacity, the Cross of the Legion d’Honneur” for London’s support of France during the long and bitter years of the Second World War.

The Prince of Wales in replying to President Macron said this; “Your presence here today, is a powerful demonstration of the bond between our two countries, and between our people, and of our shared determination that it must endure.

“It is a bond forged through common experience, sanctified through shared sacrifice and burnished by the deep affection in which we hold each other.”

Ladies and Gentlemen I should declare my hand at once. I grew up as the child, the grandchild, and great grandchild of a family who greatly loved France and knew it very well. My Great Grandfather, Lord Randolph Churchill became engaged and subsequently married at the British Embassy in Paris in 1873 and spent a great deal of time in France.

Winston Churchill was a very regular visitor to France for nearly 80 years.

My father and mother met at the British Embassy in Paris in 1946 and within a week were engaged and my parents subsequently returned to Paris, when my father became the British Ambassador to France in 1968. My siblings were partially educated in Paris. They were golden, profoundly happy and memorable years in my family’s life and the connections and friendships that were made at that time have lived with us all, and will do so for the rest of our lives.

I grew up at Chartwell, my Grandfather’s home in Kent and as a child was always fascinated by the French military helmet that was in my grandfather’s library, and that he had worn in the First World War when he served in the trenches of France and Flanders in 1915. It was the helmet of a Poilu, a French infantry soldier, which he wore in Battle as a mark of respect for the French Army.

And as I grew up, I learned to understand the great significance of that helmet, and of the part that it played in my Grandfather’s life. My family were greatly touched when at Churchill’s State funeral on that bitter cold January day in 1965 at which General de Gaulle represented France, he wore the uniform of a Poilu, with no medals or decorations.

For the simple truth is that Churchill and de Gaulle were in many ways very similar.

Both were soldiers, men of action of great physical and moral courage. Each regarded himself as a man of destiny, who in their person embodied their peoples. They read deeply of the Histories of their Nations, and of others. Each seemed to others to be separate, aloof, egotistical and even ruthless, but de Gaulle dedicated a great deal of time and sensitivity to his adored mentally handicapped daughter, and Churchill was deeply sentimental, easily moved to, and not at all ashamed of tears. There was a hardness in both, but also gentleness, understanding and compassion. Each of them wrote and spoke incomparably.

There was, I was told by my father, an unforgettable occasion when de Gaulle came to London on a State visit in 1960 when, in Westminster Hall, in front of a huge audience of Members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and many others, he held the Hall enraptured with a faultless delivery, without notes, and with a grand gesture that rolled away all the disputes and animosities of the past, he referred to “Le Grand Churchill” – upon which Churchill burst into tears, and the entire audience trembled with emotion, knowing that they were present at a true reconciliation between two very great, yet very difficult, men.

They were also, both of them, rather lonely men, who preferred to march alone rather than in company, and who in old age reflected rather more on what they had not achieved rather than on what they had. Both had a strong romantic streak, but also one of melancholy, and both were subject to periods of depression and unhappiness. This is, perhaps, the price that we today can now understand of genius and of greatness.

Both were great war leaders, but also in peacetime shared a vision of Europe. It was a different vision, it is true, but a vision nonetheless. Both wanted to be great leaders in Peace as in War, and in their way they both succeeded. And where would Britain and France, indeed Europe, be if Churchill and de Gaulle had not lived, and not conveyed to their fellow countrymen their passionate faith in their own peoples who together helped deliver the liberation of Europe.

There is no need to retell here the long tale of Churchill’s relations during the war with General de Gaulle. What had been a warm and valued friendship in 1940 declined into quarrels, misunderstandings and periods of outright hostility, often for good reasons.

But Churchill’s profound admiration for de Gaulle’s vision, his courage and Patriotism always carried the day, borne high on Churchill’s deep love, affection and genuine understanding of France, and her then very difficult position. Nor should we question his sincerity, when he broadcast in the Autumn of 1940 to France; “Never will I believe that the soul of France is dead. Never will I believe that her place amongst the greatest nations of the world has been lost forever.”

As a man, throughout his life, Churchill had strongly entrenched attitudes and principles, from which he seldom deviated for long, and amongst them was his enduring love of France.

This theme persisted throughout the War and in 1945, Churchill believed that without a strong France, impoverished and battle scared western Europe had little hope of revival. Churchill, no longer Prime Minister, pleaded for a partnership between France and Germany; partly, no doubt, because no one was more conscious than he, of the ruin which had fallen on the world as a consequence of Germany’s brutal bids for power.

“In this way only”, he said, “can France recover the moral leadership of Europe.”

That was a really remarkable thing for him to say in 1946, and showed very clearly his magnanimity and vision.

So it wasn’t only General de Gaulle who possessed, and was possessed by, “Une Certaine Idée de la France”. To Churchill, France was a country which he had visited from his boyhood and whose glorious martial tradition had nurtured the most heroic of all European legends, that of Joan of Arc.

To Churchill, France harbored a civilisation of infinite richness and variety and it was not just because it was the land of sunshine and Pol Roger champagne.

In 1944 he wrote; “All my life I have been grateful for the contribution that France has made to the culture and glory of Europe and above all for the sense of personal liberty and the rights of man which has radiated from the soul of France”.

This love affair was no passing fancy, for France gave him something else in particular, in which he found great comfort and pleasure, and through which he restored and refreshed his life and spirits. From the age of 40 he became absorbed with painting.

Painting was a way of enjoying the open air and the intensity of hue, something which he associated with holidays and good conversation and time away from politics.

No one who sees his paintings of France can fail to be struck by their gaiety and by their vivacity. This ardour for France speaks to us as clearly from the canvass as from his books and speeches. He revelled in the clear light and the limpidity of the waters; he loved the buildings and the landscape of the old France, as he found at Carcassonne and Avignon in particular.

France and painting – the trees, the mountains, the buildings, the play of sun and shadow, had become inseparable in Churchill’s life and mind.

He went to the South of France for many years and painted constantly near Marseilles and along the Côte d’Azur. Sometimes he would find a subject as equally appealing to his eye and his brush with bold colours and sharp shapes and with the unique glitter of the play of light on water.

Indeed, at St Georges Motel in Normandy, the Chateau where King Henry of Navarre had slept the night before the Battle of Ivry in 1590, Churchill was at work with his great French friend the artist, Paul Maze in August, 1939. As they parted, Churchill remarked to his companion; “This is the last picture that we will paint in peace for a very long time.”

Churchill’s love for France runs like a golden thread throughout his entire life and indeed that of his family.

I have tried throughout this not to stray into controversy of any sort but it would be wrong for me to let this moment pass without saying something about the future.

My country has taken a decision which I personally profoundly regret and that I believe will lead to grave consequences in the future. But France, whatever our disagreements maybe, remains and will always remain a profoundly important ally, partner and friend and it is my firmest hope that we never become detached from France or the friendship of her people. As President Macron said; “The channel has never managed to separate our destinies; BREXIT will not do so either.”

For if there is one truism more mis-leading than the idea that France and the UK could not be more different, it is, deep down and in power terms that we are essentially the same. It is true, to a degree, that we both share the same global scale of thinking, the same status as permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council, the same deployable military capability and nuclear weaponry.

Indeed our joint interests are as broad as they can be, culturally, politically, commercially and in so many other fields.

Whatever happens next I am quite sure that between us we will make it work.

For more than a century, in good times and in bad times, the United Kingdom and France have been allies, partners and friends. Long may that friendship and relationship continue as an abiding beacon in a complex world."

Published on 24/12/2020

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