Churchill's grandson: A love of France 'runs in our family'

In the Connexion September edition, Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, talks to columnist Simon Heffer about his family’s long and abiding ‘love affair’ with France.

11 September 2020
Churchill and his wife Clementine with their family. Photo credit: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo.Churchill and his wife Clementine with their family. Photo: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo.
By Simon Heffer

Until his retirement from the House of Commons last year, Sir Nicholas Soames was one of the most charismatic MPs in Britain. He represented Crawley and then, after boundary changes, Mid-Sussex from 1983, and served with distinction in the Major administration, notably as armed forces minister.

Although he began as a career soldier, he was inevitably going to be a politician. His father, Christopher (later Lord) Soames, was an MP, cabinet minister and British ambassador to France from 1968 to 1972. His grandfather was Winston Churchill, who needs no introduction. But when I spoke to Sir Nicholas recently about his and his family’s long connection with France, it turned out that the story begins with his great-grandparents, Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill. 

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Winston Churchill enjoying an al fresco lunch in the south of France. Photo: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo
Winston Churchill enjoying an al fresco lunch in the south of France. Photo: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo

“Lord Randolph and Jennie got engaged at the British Embassy in Paris, and the Embassy just runs through this story,” he told me. “Lord Randolph had a tremendous love affair with France himself – though, perhaps, possibly not for the same reasons that my grandfather did – and, of course, in those days there was a great deal of va et vient between some of the great French and British families that went on quite naturally.

“A lot of young men went to France as part of their further and higher education, and there’s no more wonderful country that one could go to for those purposes.” Sir Nicholas maintains that a love of France is something that runs in families. “If you spend part of your childhood there it becomes part of your life, and you can’t help but love it, really.”

One of the first times Winston Churchill went to France was at Christmas 1891, when he was 17, to stay near Versailles with a master from Harrow to improve his French to a level where he would get into Sandhurst. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion. “It was a heroic love affair. That’s the only way to describe it. If de Gaulle had une certaine idée de la France, my grandfather had the same thing in spades. It was a mixture, like most of my grandfather’s things, of romance and history: he regarded Jeanne d’Arc as being one of the greatest saints and martyrs of all time."

“I think that historical love affair and emotional love affair transferred itself, as he got older, to a really deep and a binding affection for France, its culture, its institutions, which was sealed and cemented in his paintings. There are more paintings done by my grandfather of France than of any other place: the second is Morocco. In both places he loved the light, particularly in the South of France. He painted water very well, my grandfather, and he learnt to do that in France. It was the land of sunshine, of infinite richness and variety, and very, very different to an England that was the root of his being.”

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A family of Francophiles

Sir Christopher Soames, British ambassador to France 1968 to 1972, with General de Gaulle. Photo: British Embassy Paris Archives.
Sir Christopher Soames, British ambassador to France 1968 to 1972, with General de Gaulle. Photo: British Embassy Paris Archives.

Francophile Sir Nicholas said Churchill’s Francophilia “was with him throughout his entire life”. “It survived all the ups and downs of his later experiences with the General [de Gaulle], and became even stronger after the war, when he made a firm stand supporting the General – and in trying to help France in any way that he could to re-establish herself at the head of affairs in Europe. I think he achieved this absolute love of France by going there. He understood French politics, which was a complete minefield in those days".

“His life in France was politics, painting, the absolute love of the South of France – it was the place that gave him the greatest pleasure for the greatest period of time.” There was, however, an occasional downside to this love affair. “My grandmother was terribly worried about his love of the south of France, because it meant gambling. Because he stayed at Cap d’Ail quite a lot, he was within easy reach of the [Monte-Carlo] casino. She was always very worried that he and FE [Smith, Lord Birkenhead] and other very rich men would go and lose too much at the tables, which my grandfather could not afford. Like all gamblers, he won and lost. You didn’t hear a lot about the losses, but you heard about the winnings".

“My grandmother was once with him in the south of France. She was furious with him for going to the casino. He won a lot of money, and woke her up when he got back by throwing the money over her while she was in bed.” Churchill had been in favour of war in 1914, not least to take France’s side.

“He was hugely impressed by France’s martial vigour: a great army, great generals, he was very, very impressed. I think all that goes back to Marlborough, to his knowledge of the Marlborough campaigns and the continental armies of Europe, and his reverence and support for Napoleon".

"On November 12, 1944, my grandfather went to Paris to meet de Gaulle. In the morning, he was made a citizen of Paris and made a great address. The French government asked what he wanted to do in the afternoon – and what he wanted to do was to visit the tomb of the unknown warrior, to visit Les Invalides, and to place a wreath on the tombs of Clemenceau and of Foch. There are those pictures of him and my grandmother at the French military manoeuvres. His admiration for France was based on what he thought was French martial superiority.”

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Winston Churchill relaxing with Somerset Maugham and HG Wells at Cap Ferrat in 1937. Photo: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo.
Winston Churchill relaxing with Somerset Maugham and HG Wells at Cap Ferrat in 1937. Photo: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo.

The heroism of Verdun was not repeated in 1940. In the days before the fall of France, Churchill, who had just become prime minister, twice went to seek to stiffen the French government’s backbone. To do this, he suggested a union of Britain and France. “He’d been twice to France – and he’d been absolutely astonished that the French had folded, and this vast defensive line had just melted like the winter snow, and what was there left to do? His desperation to keep France fighting, to keep her engaged with the enemy – it was the last throw of the dice, and can you imagine what a throw that must have been?”

Reverence

How would he have felt about France giving in? “I’m sure he was disappointed, but he was deeply shocked. It wasn’t what he expected them to do. His reverence for France, and the fact that France bore the heat and burden of the first two years of the First World War with unbelievable consequences, was something that he very much admired."

“He was appalled by what happened, I imagine, but it never altered his sense of commitment to France. With all the tribulations with General de Gaulle, and all the provocations, which were considerable, he never lost sight of the main objective, which was the support of France. He put the General in an aeroplane, I think at Bayonne, and watched as it flew away, and he wrote that, ‘in that aeroplane was the soul of France’.”

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Churchill’s command of the rhetoric of insult was peerless, but he held himself back when de Gaulle annoyed him. “I am surprised at his restraint,” said Sir Nicholas, “but I think that he understood in his heart exactly what de Gaulle was trying to do, which was to keep France alive. I think my grandfather was impressed by the fact that the General saw himself as the embodiment of France – and after all, there was no one else – who was on the right side".

“It shows a marvellous side of my grandfather – his magnanimity, his strategic understanding of the role the General was to play. The fact that my grandfather walked down the Champs Elysées with him in 1944 was a clear signal to France that ‘this man is your leader’. His feeling for France, and his understanding of what France had been through, really overcame everything. De Gaulle went to dinner with my grandparents once – I can’t remember which year of the war it was – and he was so rude that my grandmother turned round to him and threw him out. And my grandfather wrote a letter to [his son] Randolph saying: ‘Your mother dropped on him like a jaguar out of a tree’".

“Even de Gaulle realised he’d gone too far, and the next day sent round to my grandmother a beautiful glass Lalique cockerel, which is now at Chartwell, and which Chartwell lent to the government when President Macron came over recently. “Ed Llewellyn, our Ambassador to Paris, discovered it was at Chartwell, rang me up, I rang Chartwell up, and we managed to get the Lalique cockerel for Macron to see.”

Champagne lifestyle

Churchill once said he had taken more out of alcohol than alcohol had taken out of him, and his boisson de choix was Pol Roger champagne. “The Pol Roger connection started when my grandfather met Odette Pol Roger,” Sir Nicholas recalled. “She was by any standards – and I knew her when she was a relatively old lady – absolutely beautiful as a younger woman. And to my grandfather, who was an incurable romantic, she embodied the absolute best of France – she was beautiful, gay, funny, brilliantly clever, a marvellous, amazing woman, and her family made champagne: and for that reason he never drank any champagne from that day on save for Pol Roger".

“Not only that, he named a very good racehorse after her, who, as my mother said, did the decent thing and beat a French horse in a race at Kempton. He adored Odette – as a child, I remember her coming to Chartwell regularly, and then, of course, she was a great friend of my mother and father".

“I remember her coming to lunch at the Embassy when my father was the ambassador. If someone said to me ‘French’, I would say ‘Odette’.” Sir Nicholas continues: “Every year from my grandfather’s death onwards, the Pol Roger label has been edged in black. Pol Roger have behaved with immense dignity. They never, ever have abused the relationship – every time they wanted to do something that was connected with my grandfather, they used to check it with my mother and ask: was she happy with it? And she always was happy with it, because they did it so charmingly, and it was so obviously a gesture of the heart as well as a commercial gesture".

“The Pol Roger family, ever since his death, have been the most faithful, loyal friends and supporters of my grandfather, his memory, and particularly my mother loved them, and they were very, very sweet to her. It’s a relationship all of us in the Churchill family value very highly indeed, and not just because of the wonderful champagne and their kindness, but because they are a real link with my grandfather’s love of France.”

Christopher Soames’s connection with France started in the nursery. “My father’s family had a French-speaking governess, and they were made to speak French from a young age. My father went to France a lot before the war and loved it. He was commissioned at 19 and, because he spoke perfect French, halfway through the war – he was in the Coldstream Guards – he was detached from the 8th Army to the French general, General de Lattre de Tassigny, who commanded French troops in the desert, as his liaison officer".

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Love at first sight

Churchill and General de Gaulle in 1944. Photo: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo.
Churchill and General de Gaulle in 1944. Photo: Fremantle / Alamy Stock Photo.

“At the end of the war, he was appointed assistant military attaché in Paris. Duff Cooper was the ambassador, General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, a legendary figure, was military attaché and my father was one of two assistants. He adored Duff Cooper, he adored Paris – he had a wonderful, wonderful time in Paris – he adored the job, and it was at the British Embassy that he met my mother for the first time".

“She came over with my grandfather, for him to receive the Order of Liberation, and Duff Cooper gave a lunch for them. There was room for a spare man so Diana Cooper said ‘we’ll ask Christopher Soames, he’s in the building’. So papa went to lunch with them and it was love at first sight. They got engaged a week later. “He followed her to Rome and they were engaged on the steps of St Peter’s. They both of them, collectively, had a love affair with France. In my father’s ambassadorship, mama was so much part of it, of course she was, because she was Churchill’s daughter".

“It was a Labour appointment – it was a brilliant idea. I was so proud of what they achieved, and people still talk about it to this day. My father had the Embassy lit, and it was known as Soames et lumière. They entertained on an enormous scale. They were privileged to host a state visit from the Queen, which was extraordinary – I was able to be part of it. I was a soldier at the time in the north of Germany and I used to drive down for the weekend.”

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Happy days

Cap D'Ail, the South of France, where Churchill used to stay.
Cap D'Ail, the South of France, where Churchill used to stay.

He reminisced: “They were happy days. My sister Emma was at Sciences Po, my brother Jeremy became a radio journalist, and we took part in French life. That is the connection with my family, from Lord Randolph, through my grandfather, to my parents. The Embassy played an enormous role in all our lives, as has France.”

There was one fly in the ointment: l’affaire Soames, when de Gaulle attended a private lunch with Sir Christopher and Lady Soames and told them of the possibility of a new negotiation about British membership of the Common Market. Sir Christopher reported this to London, and it leaked. “Relations with the General were very good until the terrible moment when Harold Wilson released the dispatch, which made it break down. He got on well with Pompidou, he’d known him beforehand.”

The relationship passed through the generations. In keeping with the French tradition of widows wearing their husbands’ medals, “when my grandfather died, the General wrote to my grandmother and said ‘I’d be honoured if you would wear Sir Winston’s Order of Liberation’, which she did”.

When Lady Churchill died in 1977, President Giscard d’Estaing wrote to Lady Soames and asked her whether, given the exceptional circumstances, she would continue to wear it. “I was with my mother, in 1994, at the 50th anniversary of D-Day, at Ouistreham, when the British veterans marched past the Queen, on the beach, and afterwards we went into the town square. Then 50 or 60 women in deepest black, wearing medals, all came up to my mother and all they did was just touch the Order of the Liberation." 

“I was so moved by that. It was such an extraordinary, solid, real link with France that these people had taken the trouble to come to see it.” His own instruction in things French started young. “We had a French governess who came to teach us – we had French tea once a week. My sister Emma and I went to Paris for the first time with my mother when I was 10. We did all the things – we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, we went to the Louvre, we did everything. Then my parents sent me for an Easter holiday with a French family, M and Mme Bracque, and five sons, who kept goats in Bourges.

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Daunting

Paris is Sir Nicholas Soames's favourite part of France.
Paris is Sir Nicholas Soames's favourite part of France.

“They didn’t speak a word of English, and it was daunting – but I learnt an enormous amount. They were wonderful and I loved being there. From then on, we spent holidays in France very regularly. When my father was ambassador, I drove down at least once a month. We spent all the great feasts of the church together as a family in the Embassy."

“France has always been a big part in my life and I have many, many French friends whom I love and cherish and don’t see often enough. But they’re now rather old – they were beautiful young women and glamorous young men who are now old and not so glamorous – but still very beautiful.”

His favourite part of France? “I’m ashamed to say it’s Paris. But I have travelled around, and I love Lyon. There’s not a great city in France that is the same as any other one. But if anyone’s ever bored with Paris, then they really have got a problem.” 

Leaving the Commons will give him more time to indulge in Francophilia. “I am president of the Franco-British Conservative Association, which is based in Paris. I am a friend of Ed Llewellyn, the Ambassador, and I hope to go more than I have been. I’m interested in French racing – my father had a succession of racehorses in France, and we used to go racing almost every weekend we were there."

“They used to give a lunch every year for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in the garden of the Embassy, and would have 250 British racing people to lunch, and then we all went to the Arc together – it was great fun. It went on for five or six years and brought a lot of French and British racing people together. It’s a great bond, racing, between France and England.”

Sir Nicholas was a passionate Remainer at the time of the referendum. Does he think we can maintain a good relationship with France outside the EU? “Of course we can. Not only can we, we will, and we absolutely have to. I think the general attitude in France is that they deeply regret the fact that we have decided to go, and that we have to get through this period of a tricky negotiation where all sides in the talks have to resolve their differences. But, au fond, the relationship with France is, in my view, extremely solid, certainly in defence – in which, when I was a defence minister, we did an enormous amount with the French."

“The French military and British military are close, as are our intelligence services. We have immense interests together – nuclear, trade, cultural, political – it is a country that is bound to us with strong hoops of steel. We have to make it work.”

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