Norwich alumnus’ latest book brings Winston Churchill’s military life to light © Oct. 24, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications
It is unlikely that Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain from 1940 to 1945, ever heard of Norwich University, but one writer believes he lived by its motto.
“Norwich’s motto of ‘I will try’ embodies what Churchill did with Britain during World War II,” said Carlo D’Este, a 1958 graduate of Norwich and author of an upcoming biography of Churchill. “He never gave up. It wasn’t a personal challenge for him. He had the literal survival of Britain at stake.”
D’Este’s book, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, will be published in November 2008 by HarperCollins. A prolific military historian, lecturer and author of several books on World War II, D’Este approached writing about Churchill in a way no one else had.
“Although nearly 1,000 biographies of Churchill have been written, none of them had told the story of his childhood and included his personal military history as well,” said D’Este, who spent five years completing the book. During the research, he realized that there were dots that connected events from Churchill’s childhood with events that happened while he was prime minister.
When he rose to the position, London was undergoing bleak times due to Germany’s aggression in central Europe. Churchill possessed a remarkable ability to hang on, D’Este said. One of his biggest challenges was to convince the government that there needed to be a greater sense of urgency. They wanted to negotiate with Hitler, and Churchill had to talk them out of it.
“Churchill never gave up,” D’Este said. “It’s a good prescription for life.”
Picking subjects, he said, is easy. “The subjects choose me. I’d written about Churchill in every other book I’d written. Though I did think long and hard about taking on Churchill. If I couldn’t bring something new, it wasn’t worth doing.”
Taking the easy route is not in D’Este’s nature. Looking back on his student days at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college located in Northfield, Vt., he recalls the influence of one professor in particular. Peter Dow Webster taught English from 1924 through his death in 1959. At the time D’Este was a student, Webster was chairman of the English department with a reputation as a very tough teacher.
“He worked the heck out of us,” D’Este said. “He taught you to think.”
D’Este continued to take classes with Webster, despite the difficulty. “It took me years to really appreciate what he brought to Norwich as a professor and to me.”
The University that D’Este graduated from has changed enormously, with new resources, buildings, academic and athletic programs, women in the Corps of Cadets and the addition of civilian students. He believes, however, Norwich still challenges its students in a similar fashion.
“The essential thrust of Norwich never changes,” D’Este said.
After graduating, D’Este spent 20 years in the army, retiring as lieutenant colonel in 1978. He believes this experience, as well as his work as a Norwich student, help him maintain the self-discipline required to be a researcher, writer and military historian.
Tom Taylor, dean of social sciences at Norwich, has great regard for D’Este. “His biographies are meticulously researched and extremely well-written,” Taylor said.
D’Este stays involved with Norwich through his work as president of the Friends of Norwich Library and member of the Board of Fellows, but his role as one of the founders of the Colby Military Writer’s Symposium affects students the most.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, he believes the annual conference has become more relevant to the experience of students. He is thrilled by feedback he hears about how authors touch students’ lives.
Ellen Hall, director of the Kreitzberg Library at Norwich, couldn’t agree more. “Both the Colby authors and the students really enjoy the opportunity for the close classroom interaction. In the public sessions held around campus, the students ask challenging questions and receive thought-provoking answers.”
“Norwich is a school with only 2,000 students,” D’Este added, “and we have the Colby. Not any of the Ivy League schools, just us.”
D’Este encourages students interested in becoming writers, researchers and historians. “Go for it!” he said. “If you write well at Norwich, it will stand out in the world. Writing is an act of perseverance.”
Acknowledging that all writers are readers first, D’Este listed his three favorite military historians and influences: Barbara Tuchman, author of Guns of August; John S.D. Eisenhower, author of The Bitter Woods: The Battle of the Bulge; and Martin Blumenson, who was Gen. George S. Patton’s official biographer.
“Being a writer and a historian is a challenge and a reward,” D’Este said. “The rewards are intangible.”