Castles of Steel

by Robert K. Massie

I have just read an excellent account of the British struggle for control of the seas during World War I. Castles of Steel, by Robert K. Massie, tells the naval history of two nations, Germany and Britain, moving inexorably toward war. It recounts their life and death battles on the high seas with eye witness skill, culminating in the battle of Jutland in 1916.

I had forgotten how important the role Winston Churchill played during this period of history as the First Lord of the Admiralty, and how often his judgment was brought into question. Very few Americans have ever questioned his leadership during World War II, nor understood the abuse his fellow countrymen heaped on him after the War ended in 1945. Robert MassieÕs careful charting of the great leader and the errors of judgment he exhibited during this early period of his career, never mentioned one of his greatest failings. I was reminded of that omission from an experience in my early career.

I first began the practice of law in Charlottesville, Virginia in 1951. The senior partner, John S. Battle, had just completed his term of office as Governor of Virginia. On his return from public service, he found a backlog of trial work awaiting him, and I had the job of researching some of his cases. I also served as chauffeur for the Governor driving him to court with his Virginia license plate, number 2, proudly displayed. I was saluted by every State police officer on the road wherever I went.
These were the happiest days of my legal career.

Governor Battle often told me stories of his life as we drove to various courthouses across the State. He was a marvelous raconteur and I listened with rapt attention.
Harry Byrd, held power in the Commonwealth of Virginia when John Battle was a young man in the state legislature. He worked hard to assist the then governor and fellow Democrat in the passage of important legislation.

In 1927, Governor Byrd received a cable from one of BritainÕs leading statesmen asking if Mr. Byrd could provide residence in Richmond for Winston Churchill, whom he did not know. Churchill was writing his two volume history of the American Civil War, and he wanted to find a residence in Richmond where the largest collection of research on that tragic part of American history was housed. Governor Byrd offered the guest quarters in the GovernorÕs mansion to this famous Englishman for as long as necessary to complete his study, never suspecting that Sir WinstonÕs visit would last nearly two years.

On the first evening of the extended visit, the two politicians dined alone. Mr. Churchill asked the governor if he could have all local newspapers delivered at six AM to his bedroom along with a quart of milk and a liter of brandy each morning. Governor Byrd said he would try to comply, but he reminded his guest that Prohibition was still the law in America and the brandy might not be of the highest quality.

During the many months that followed, the morning deliveries continued as scheduled until the two volume work on the American Civil War was completed and Mr. Churchill returned to England. Each morning at ten, when Churchill rose to pursue further studies in the Richmond library, the milk and brandy containers were invariably empty.
My employer told me this story as we drove to Louisa, Virginia for a jury trial involving a fatal airplane accident.

Mr. MassieÕs account of ChurchillÕs part in recent English history never alluded to that great manÕs drinking problem. Like Governor Byrd, the author of Castles of Steel, may have had too much respect for the British leader to mention his lifelong weakness for bootleg brandy.
A lot of what is happening today may then begin to make sense to you.
For the citizen of modest means, I recommend a Taser stun gun.
Richard E. McConnell January, 2004