William Deakin: Obituary

Historians in the News

'A man of great spirit and courage'. Those were the terms in which Keith Feiling wrote from Christ Church to recommend F. W. Deakin to Winston Churchill 70 years ago. All those present today, and a far greater number beyond these shores, will recognise the acuity of a devoted tutor's judgment. Bill fitted from the start at Chartwell. Soon we find Churchill writing '1 like Mr. Deakin very much' and a little later 'Deakin has been here four days and has helped me a lot. He shows more quality and serviceableness than any of the others. '

Hitherto, Churchill had sought danger and political excitements and had then written about his experience; placing it in the context of larger themes, to be sure, but with his own figure prominent in the foreground. Hence a delicious remark of the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, when yet a further volume of The World Crisis appeared, '1 am immersed in Winston's brilliant Autobiography, disguised as a history of the Universe.'

The Life of the Duke of Marlborough, by contrast, represented an enterprise different in its nature and it was for this that Mr. Deakin had been recruited. The events of more than two centuries earlier must be re-created in the imagination and reconstructed; vast archives, at The Hague and Vienna no less than Blenheim, must be trawled. Churchill was bent upon the rescue of his great ancestor's reputation from the ravages inflicted upon it by Macaulay. For his literary assistant, an academic historian accustomed to appraise sceptically, this situation held an immanent conflict. But as Bill once put the point, soon after Churchill's death, he had 'surrendered without terms long ago to the magic of the man.' To be close to Churchill was a privilege for which it was worth paying the price, which Bill observed for the rest of his life, was one of strict loyalty and discretion, the dividend beyond calculation. Possessing the accomplishments ofa scholar, he soon acquired something still rarer; for in the study at Chartwell, starting late at night and not ending until 3 or 4 in the morning - after which he would drive across country to Oxford and teach at Wadham from 9 - Bill learned 'vastly more of the sense of history than my formal education as a student, and later as a teacher, ever taught me.' The point was no doubt apparent to his academic colleagues from an early date; we must doubt whether it brought them much joy.

In such research and discussion at Chartwell Deakin saw, and helped Churchill to appreciate, the conduct of coalItIon warfare in the hands of a master. Soon both of them were to witness the process in its modem guise. Churchill discovered that the Duke had possessed immense patience, without which allies could not be coaxed along and great designs executed. Insofar as his tempestuous nature allowed, Churchill had absorbed the lesson.

One day early in 1939, Bill said to Mr. Churchill (for in those formal days, they invariably addressed each other as 'Mr. Churchill' and 'Mr. Deakin'), 'You know I have never asked you for anything on my own behalf, but now I want to make a request. I'm anxious to join the Territorials. Would you write me a letter of recommendation to the Oxfordshire Hussars? After all,' he added brightly, 'I'm only asking for a chance get killed.'...

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