The Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said that the "Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." Simon Ball's deftly written comparative biography, "The Guardsmen, Harold Macmillan, Three Friends, and the World They Made", examines the lives of four men who may be thought of as being among the last generation for which Wellington's adage has more than folkloric meaning.
The four Guardsmen were: Harold Macmillan, Oliver Lyttelton, Bobbety Cranborne and Harry Crookshank. Cranborne (the future Lord Salisbury) and Lyttelton were members of the aristocracy. Macmillan and Crookshank were from newer wealth, known then as "new men". The four entered Eton together in 1906. They all joined the Grenadier Guards in 1914 and saw service during the First World War. Conservatives all, they each entered politics in the 1920s. They all held positions in the British cabinet under Winston Churchill during the Second World War. One of the group, Harold Macmillan served as Prime Minister from 1957 until his resignation in 1963. Although Macmillan may be the only one of the group familiar to American readers they each were very well know figures in Britain during their time.
The Guardsmen's story really begins not on Eton's playing fields but on the killing fields of World War I France. Lyttleton, Macmillan and Crookshank fought with valor and distinction. On the same day, September 15, 1916, fighting with a mile of each other in the trenches, Macmillan and Crookshank were horribly wounded and Lyttleton was awarded a DSO (a medal for valiant service) for his heroic acts. Macmillan and Crookshank's injuries were catastrophic. Macmillan right arm and left leg never worked properly again. Crookshank was castrated by shrapnel. Cranborne served only briefly at the front.
Following the War the Guardsmen made their way into Parliament. Ball's exploration of the parallel lives of the Guardsman enables the reader to get a bird's eye view of British political life from the 1920s through the 1960s. Ball's treatment of the saga of these men is intriguing in many respects. Ball's examination of the parliamentary experiences of these four men in the 1930s, for example, provides a unique perspective on British political life in the years leading up to the Second World War. It is easy to forget that during the premiership of Neville Chamberlain that it was not Winston Churchill who stood out as a threat to Chamberlain's appeasement policies but Anthony Eden. Churchill was thought of by all as a has been. The Guardsmen were considered "Edenites. Eden, for all his intelligence, comes across as a timid and vacillating political rival notoriously incapable of making tough political decisions. Referred to by his foes and friends as Hamlet he reminded me more of Leon Trotsky in that both managed to fall ill or absent themselves from the center of action at critical moments in time and were made to look like political amateurs by men who, though perhaps less talented, had no compunction about grasping for power.
The Guardsmen, all on the anti-appeasement side of the aisle, found roles in Winston Churchill's war-time cabinet and the book takes us through their (second) war years. The Conservative Party's return to power in 1951 saw the Guardsmen reach the peak of their achievements. The story here centers around Macmillan, who served as Minister of Housing under Churchill and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Eden until becoming Prime Minister in 1957 after Eden's Suez Canal fiasco. Macmillan fought his fellow Conservatives and insisted on an economic policy that promoted employment rather than monetarist policies likely to create higher unemployment rates. Macmillan's tenure was also marked by the commencement of independence for former British colonies in Africa. He angered white settlers in Rhodesia and South Africa and their English allies (including a profoundly bitter Cranborne) by noting with no small degree of accuracy that " The Africans are not the problem in Africa, it is the Europeans who are the problem." This was followed in short order by his famous "Winds of Change" speech in which he noted that: "The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact."
As he notes in his conclusion, by the end of their lives the notion of public service (at least by the upper classes) was quaint at best and worthy of scorn at worst. These men are thought of, to the extent they are thought of at all, as antiques from an age long gone by. However, even while showing us their many flaws, Ball makes it clear that there was a certain sense of honor and integrity about these men. (This is particularly true of Macmillan.) It was once said sarcastically of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that she was not noblesse and was disinclined to oblige. Ball takes us back to a time and place where the concept of noblesse oblige still had some residual meaning.
In the hands of a lesser writer "The Guardsman" might have come across as merely a wistful yearning for "the good old days" of Conservative Party aristocratic rule. Instead, "The Guardsmen" paints a literate and informative portrait of the lives of these men and the impact the searing experiences of the First World War had on their public lives.
"The Guardsmen" left this reader wondering why and when we stopped expecting our leaders to possess core values of honor and integrity and as such it has value far greater than a mere look back in time.