The Woman Who Was “The Real Force Behind Churchill”

After the greatest darkness...There is light. (2).png

In researching my upcoming release, The Light Over London, I was continually amazed at the many—often unsung—ways women contributed to the war effort in Britain during World War II. The Lightseekers is an ongoing series of articles that highlights some of their work and the ways they brought light to Britain in one of its darkest times.

She was married to the most famous man in the world during World War II, but Clementine Churchill did far more than stand by her husband. She was an active, dynamic part of his war efforts from handling informal diplomatic duties to managing the man himself.

Born April 1, 1885, Clementine Ogilvy Hozier was the daughter of Henry Montague Hozier and Lady Blanche Hozier, although there is question about her actual paternity given her mother’s well-known affairs. (Lady Blanche is reported to have managed ten lovers at once, although verifying this is, understandably, somewhat difficult.)

Clementine was educated at home and then at schools before attending the Sorbonne in Paris. At 18, she became secretly engaged to Sir Sidney Peel—twice—who had fallen in love with her. However, she would not marry him. 

  Winston Churchill  (1874-1965) with fiancée  Clementine Hozier  (1885-1977) shortly before their marriage in 1908, Wikimedia Commons

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) with fiancée Clementine Hozier (1885-1977) shortly before their marriage in 1908, Wikimedia Commons

Clementine met Winston Churchill in 1904 at a ball at Crewe House. Winston thought her beautiful at this first meeting. But in 1908 they would meet again, this time at a party hosted by one of her distance relatives, and this time he recalled that she’d become an intelligent woman of character. He proposed five months later at Blenheim Palace, and they were married just over a month later on September 12.  

During World War I, Clementine distinguished herself with her efforts on the home front. She organized canteens for munition workers in London and was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918 in gratitude for her work.

When World War II broke out, Clementine resumed her war work with the Red Cross, serving as chairman of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund. She was also the President of the Young Women’s Christian Association War Time Appeal (YWCA) and the chairman of the Maternity Hospital for the Wives of Officers, Fuller Chase. She was also a fire watcher during the Blitz and was held up as an example of how British women could pull together and help their country.

 The wife of the Prime Minister, Mrs Clementine Churchill, inspects members of the ATS at the Royal Artillery Experimental Unit, Shoeburyness, Essex, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The wife of the Prime Minister, Mrs Clementine Churchill, inspects members of the ATS at the Royal Artillery Experimental Unit, Shoeburyness, Essex, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

However, some of her most important work during the war came when Winston became prime minister on May 10, 1940. Judith Evans, the house and collections manager at the Churchills’ home Chartwell, offered perspective on Clementine’s role in an interview in the Telegraph. [LINK] “She was quite a big player,” said Evans. “She helped maintain difficult relationships and worked quietly behind the scenes for the war effort.”

Not only did Clementine act as a hostess and a de facto diplomat, she was her husband’s confidant. So close was their relationship that she had a room of her own in his War Rooms, a bunker just to the east of St. James Park in London that became the nerve center of Britain’s wartime strategy.* She was called to comfort Winston the night before the D-Day landings when her husband was sitting despondent in the operations rooms. Although they presented a united front in public, she was also one of the few people who could openly criticize his ideas in private. She held him accountable and supported him during one of the most uncertain times in British history.

Winston’s chief of staff, General Ismay would later say that the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story” without Clementine.  And Winston Churchill wrote that, Clementine made “my life and any work I have done possible.”

Lady Clementine Churchill, Baroness Spencer-Churchill and a life peer in her own right, outlived her husband by 12 years. She died in 1977 in her London home at the age of 92.

Read every story of the The Lightseekers in the series archive. You can also learn more about their stories by following the hashtag #TheLightseekers on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and Pinterest, and sign up for Julia's newsletter to receive every episode of The Lightseekers.

*The Churchill War Rooms are fascinating. The underground bunker that was the nerve center of Britian’s war effort was mothballed after the war ended in 1945. The Imperial War Museum has made considerable effort to restore and display it as it would’ve appeared during the war. If you choose to go, which I highly recommend, time your arrival for the opening as a limited number of people can be in the exhibition space at a given time. Plan to give yourself a couple of hours to go through the maze of rooms.