Shortly before noon on Wednesday 26 January 1921 an express train bound for Shrewsbury in England was speeding towards the small rural station of Abermule, close to the Severn river in Wales. It was on a single-track line. A safety system used by the Cambrian Railway Company involving the exchange of tablets ensured that no two trains travelling in opposite directions should enter the same section. But the experienced stationmaster was on holiday and junior members of his staff made a series of catastrophic errors. As the express approached the station, its horrified crew saw a local passenger train heading straight towards them. They immediately threw on the brake. It was too late. In the shattering impact that followed, the express train mounted the oncoming engine and crashed down on the roof of the first carriage, smashing it into fragments. Many of the fragile wooden carriages of the express were brutally telescoped together, crushing and maiming their passengers. Miraculously, the express crew crawled out of the wreckage alive after jumping clear at the last moment. But both the driver and fireman of the local train were instantly killed. Fifteen passengers also perished in the collision and dozens of others were injured.
Amongst the dead was a director of the Cambrian Railway Company who’d been travelling in the express. Lord Herbert Lionel Vane-Tempest was fifty-eight years old, a Justice of the Peace, an Honorary Lieutenant Colonel in the Durham Artillery Volunteers, and a Knight Commander, Royal Victorian Order (KCVO). More importantly, he was the youngest son of the fifth Marquess of Londonderry and owned Garron Towers, a large estate in Ireland that produced an annual income of some £4,000 (approximately £160,000 in today’s values). He was also unmarried, and his heir was a first cousin once removed. Lord Herbert’s name is long forgotten. But the man who unexpectedly inherited his fortune was one of the most controversial British politicians of the day: Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for War and Air in the Coalition government of the Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George.
The year 1921 proved pivotal for Churchill in crucial ways. For his personal life it was, in the words of one his closest friends, both ‘wonderful and terrible’. The inheritance delivered by the railway disaster helped transform his finances, as did the signing of lucrative contracts for The World Crisis, his multi-volume history of the First World War which established his reputation as a man of action who understood the grave issues of war and peace confronting the new century. He had also just turned forty six, thus surpassing the lifespan of the father whose legacy and memory he idolized. ‘Curse ruthless time! Curse our mortality,’ he once exclaimed despairingly during his thirties. Now, he was able to imagine a longer-term future with a normal lifespan. This was also the year that he fully realized his abilities as a gifted amateur artist and enjoyed success with the first public exhibition of his works.
Yet it was also marked by tragedy and grief caused by the sudden and unexpected deaths of beloved family members as well as old friends. The end of youth and the passing of loved ones are part of the human condition. But he overcame these everyman losses with a resilience and courage that demonstrated formidable strength of character along with an acceptance of life’s tragedies. ‘The reflections of middle age are mellow,’ he confessed to his wife Clementine. Although no less ambitious than before, he was no longer the impetuous young man in a hurry, desperate to make his mark.
Politically, the year was also a milestone. When it began, his position was precarious and no one could be sure whether he was headed for oblivion or glory. Damned as impetuous and belligerent for his role in the disastrous Dardanelles Expedition of 1915, his violent denunciations of the Russian Bolsheviks and his enthusiastic support for reprisals against armed rebellion in Ireland had only strengthened this view. ‘Winston has a reputation as a buccaneer,’ observed one shrewd insider in British politics shortly before the year began. ‘The country regards him as a bold, bad man.’ Yet by the end of 1921 another critic was offering a radically different view of him, as both a statesman and a peacemaker with a shining future ahead of him: ‘Were I an ambitious young backbencher I would hitch my wagon to [his] star,’ he declared. ‘Winston seems to be the only man in the Cabinet with a sane and comprehensive view of world politics.’ Churchill clearly stood at a crossroads. It was to take him two more decades to obtain the keys to 10 Downing Street and become the leader of his nation in war. But in these crucial twelve months he laid the foundations for his future glory.
From Oblivion or Glory by David Stafford. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
David Stafford is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria and a renowned expert on Churchill. His former publications include Churchill and Secret Service, Roosevelt and Churchill, and Endgame, 1945.