In giving up his government post to go out to the horrific battlefields of Flanders and ‘take some active part in beating the Germans’, Churchill demonstrated again the courage he’d displayed in those battlefields of the North West Frontier and Sudan. And he certainly experienced the horrors and dangers of the trenches first hand.
He wrote to Clemmie of ‘[f]ilth and rubbish everywhere, graves built into the defences & scattered about promiscuously, feet & clothing breaking through the soil, water and muck on all sides; & about this scene in the dazzling moonlight troops of enormous rats creep & glide, to the unceasing accompaniment of rifle & machine guns & the venomous whining & whirring of the bullets which pass overhead’ (Churchill to Clementine, 23 November 1915).
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Winston Churchill as POW © Churchill Archives Centre, Broadwater Collection
More action was to beckon. A serious colonial war had begun in South Africa and Churchill managed to secure another lucrative assignment to report on the war for the Morning Post. In this last youthful military adventure, Churchill set off and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899. He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers, when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. The following month, having spent his twenty-fifth birthday imprisoned, Churchill made a dramatic escape by climbing over a wall, riding a freight train, hiding in a coal mine and eventually boarding a train into Portuguese East Africa. He made his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. His brother Jack was wounded and became one of the first patients to be treated by their mother, Lady Randolph, on the hospital ship she had organised. But Churchill’s luck held. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was hailed a hero.
‘Here life itself, life at its best and healthiest, awaits the caprice of the bullet … Existence is never so sweet as when it is at hazard.’
Churchill, 4 February 1900 (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words)
The onset of the WWI in August 1914 thrust Churchill into the limelight again, but this time at centre stage in an international crisis. For a ‘man of action’, this was the place to be. Eager to emulate the deeds of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill felt anticipation and excitement – and the promise of glories to come – as the prospect of war became unavoidable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill issued the order to the Navy to act – to ‘commence hostilities’. WWI was to be a time of great personal challenge for Churchill; it was to demand personal bravery and resilience in the face of both physical danger and intense mental battles. He did indeed ‘put his head into the lion’s mouth’.
‘I’m finished … I’m done. What I want above all things is to take some active part in beating the Germans … I’d go out to the Front at once.’
Churchill to Violet Asquith, in Champion Redoubtable: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1914–1945 (ed. Pottle)
Field Marshal Horatio Kitchener © Imperial War Museum
On his return to London from India, Churchill – keen to get into politics – made a speech at a political meeting in Bradford. But he also desperately wanted to join Kitchener’s army in the Sudan: he saw action in the field – and writing about it – as a way to gain further attention. Persistent as ever, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post. In August 1898 he set off on his next adventure – travelling up the Nile with the expeditionary force under General Kitchener.
‘There is no doubt the charge was an awful gamble and that no normal precautions were possible. The issue as far as I was concerned had to be left to Fortune or to God – or to whatever may decide these things. I am content and shall not complain.’
Churchill in a letter to his mother, Lady Randolph, 17 September 1898
Churchill on one of his polo ponies © Churchill Archives Centre, Broadwater Collection
In February 1985, Churchill joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant, as a way of gaining some experience before working his way into politics. While at Sandhurst, Churchill had learnt to play polo. Now that he was an officer with the Queen’s Own Hussars, he played regularly at the Hurlingham and Ranelagh Clubs in London. It was here that he demonstrated his talent with horse and polo stick and he soon became a skilled player. Churchill continued to play polo until his fifties, despite having a weak right shoulder (injured in a fall when disembarking from the ship in India) and having to wear it strapped to prevent it ‘going out’. (He could never play tennis because of this, even though Clementine was a very good player and they had a hard court installed at Chartwell; it was later turned into a croquet lawn.) Click here to see the draft constitution of the ‘Fourth Hussars Polo Club’ (Churchill’s name appears sixth under ‘Members’).
‘For men like Churchill, polo was war; it was like a miniature battlefield. Bloodshed and injury to horse and rider was common and the faint of heart need not apply … Courage and audacity on the polo field translate into savvy and audacity on the battlefield.’
Carlo D’Este, Churchill and Polo
© Reproduced from Other Deposited Collections Relating to Sir Winston Churchill held at The Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge. Image ref: WCHL 04 041 pt 2 of 2
Churchill later claimed, in that embarking on a military career ‘was entirely due to my collection of soldiers’, although the influence of Blenheim and his ancestor’s glories on the battlefield, as well as Churchill’s determination to follow his father into politics (for which he regarded the army as a great training ground), probably also played key roles. His toy soldier collection, based on the toy army he played with at Blenheim, was set up as an infantry division and he and his brother Jack, even in their teens, played out famous battles, with Jack’s soldiers playing the enemy.
On his arrival in Durban in December 1899, Churchill was hailed a war hero after his daring escape from the Boer POW camp. His new fame allowed him to override the objections of the War Office and he continued to assume the dual role of officer – with a local volunteer unit, the South African Light Horse – and war correspondent.
For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was feted on the streets of Oldham.
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Old College, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Wikimedia Commons/Albert Sydney
Churchill left Harrow School in 1892 and went to a ‘crammer’ to help him pass the entrance exam into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, which he eventually did on the third attempt in 1893. He found life at Sandhurst much more suited to his temperament and talents than school life. Military topics such as tactics and fortifications were far more appealing to him than mathematics and he was a skilled horseman. The practical nature of the course appealed to him and he passed with credit in December 1894, twentieth out of a class of one hundred and thirty.
In February 1985, Churchill joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant, as a way of gaining some experience before working his way into politics. Churchill’s regiment, the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, amalgamated with the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars in 1958 to form the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars. After further cuts in 1993, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars amalgamated with the Queen’s Own Hussars (formerly the 3rd King’s Own Hussars and 7th Queen’s Hussars) to form the Queen’s Royal Hussars.
It is a fine game to play – the game of politics – and it is well worth a good hand – before really plunging.
Churchill, in a letter to his mother, 16 August 1895
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In his last youthful military adventure, Churchill joined British forces in the Boer War. Churchill set off, armed with the important things in life – sixty bottles of spirits, twelve bottles of Rose’s Lime Juice and a supply of claret – and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899.
He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. He made a dramatic escape the following month, making his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. His dispatches from the Boer War were republished as two books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian Hamilton’s March (1900).
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Desperate to join the army reconquering the Sudan, lost following the death of General Gordon in 1885, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post.
In August 1898 he travelled up the Nile with the expeditionary force under General Kitchener.
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With all his writing and journalism gaining the attention of the political authorities (due in no small part to a promotion of his activities by his mother Lady Randolph), he resigned from the army in April 1899. Politics beckoned.
He had already spoken at a few political meetings in the Autumn of 1898 and attempted to enter Parliament as a Conservative, but failed – by a small margin – at the by-election in Oldham in 1899. But more action was to beckon. A serious colonial war had begun in South Africa and Churchill managed to secure another lucrative assignment to report on the war for the Morning Post. The contract he negotiated with the newspaper, a salary of £250 a month and all expenses paid, made him the highest-paid war correspondent of the day.
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Back home in Britain, in 1896, Churchill did all he could to get posted to Egypt or Matabeleland in South Africa, where he could see some action and get noticed – to no avail. He eventually sailed to India with his regiment in the Autumn of 1896.
Confined to a life of polo and military routine in Bangalore, he eventually took matters into his own hands and, armed with a contract as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, travelled to the North West frontier to join the Malakand Field Force. Here he did find himself in danger. Although the fighting on the north-west frontier against the Afghan tribes in 1897 couldn’t really be called battles, there was a real risk of being killed and Churchill had several narrow escapes.
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Churchill had a period of leave and managed to obtain his first assignment as a war correspondent for the newspaper. He was reporting on the rebellion against Spanish rule by guerilla rebels in Cuba when he first came under fire. It was also in Cuba that he first refined his well-known taste for fine Cuban cigars. He was attached to the Spanish forces as an observer but his writings reveal considerable sympathies for the Cuban rebels.
Read more about Churchill’s time in Cuba here.
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Finest Hour 174, Autumn 2016 Page 18 By Andrew Stewart Andrew Stewart is Reader in Conflict and Diplomacy in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London and the Director of Academic Studies (KCL) at the Royal College of Defence Studies. The views, analysis, and opinions expressed here are his own. For Britain and its […]
Finest Hour 172, Spring 2016
Review by Chris Sterling
Simon Read, Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent, Da Capo Press, 2015, 309 pages, $26.99. ISBN 978-0306823817
Read, a former California journalist born in England, begins his book with a clear disclaimer: “I don’t consider this a biography or a work of history—though it contains elements of both. It is, instead, a true tale of adventure featuring Winston Churchill in the starring role. When writing the book, I described it to friends as ‘Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones’” (ix). And therein lies both the appeal and drawback of this latest addition to the ever- growing “Churchill and _____” shelf.
Read’s breezy style stitches together the adventuresome story of Churchill’s first four wars on which the initial newspaper columns and several of WSC’s early books are based. These include his trip to Cuba to observe Spanish forces fighting rebels (1895–96), the fighting role of the Malakand Field Force in what is now Pakistan (1897), the “river war” in Sudan (1898), and the bitter South African Boer War on which Churchill reported (1899–1900). In all save the first, Churchill was also a serving officer in the British Army, an odd combination that raised eyebrows.
Churchill’s “lucky” placement in four such widespread conflicts over less than five years was no mere happenstance. His well-connected mother Jennie opened the right London doors to reach key government and army officials who surrendered to her charm and persuasion, often against their own better judgment. The seeming Churchill luck created more than a bit of envy and jealousy among many of the soldiers with whom he served.
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