1896-1900

Autumn 1900 (Age 26)

“…you must remember how much money means to me…”

Money, or his lack of it, was very much on Churchill’s mind after his election to Parliament for Oldham on 2 October. Thereafter, he toured the country during the remainder of the three-week polling period speaking on behalf of many Conservative candidates, including Balfour and Chamberlain. Of a proposed lecture tour in England after the election concluded, he wrote to his mother, “But you must remember how much money means to me and how much I need it for political expense and other purposes, and if I can make £3000 by giving a score of lectures on the big towns throughout England on the purely military aspect of the [Boer] war, it is very hard for me to refuse….”

Churchill didn’t refuse and ended up with over £3700 for twenty-nine speeches during a thirty-day period in November. In one speech, he defended British tactics in South Africa against accusations that they constituted “atrocious barbarities…[in] violation of all the practices of civilised warfare,” stating that “the justification of the measures resorted to in order to put an end to guerrilla warfare is that no methods, however stringent, or painful, or severe, can possibly cost so much misery as the continuance of the anarchy and disorder now prevailing.”

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Summer 1900 (Age 25)

“[A war] is not a long line of continuous successes”

Churchill returned home on 20 July 1900 on the Dunottar Castle, the same ship on which he had arrived in South Africa eight months earlier. On the very next day he began inscribing copies of his latest book, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, beginning with an inscription to Oliver Borthwick, The Morning Post editor who had sent him there (see Finest Hour 105, p. 45). An election was in the offing so Churchill next set out for Oldham, for his second try at elective office.

“Over 10,000 people turned out in the streets with flags and drums beating and shouted themselves hoarse for two hours,” Churchill wrote his brother Jack. “Although it was 12 o’clock before I left the Conservative Club, the streets were still crowded with people.”

Churchill criticized opponents of the war: “I noticed this evening a flaring newspaper placard announcing another British military disaster….I do not like the exaggerated use of words. These incidents of war are the inevitable accompaniment of military operations. What is a war? It is not a long line of continuous successes. At least it is not usually that. It is an out and out fight with rough and tumble in which both sides must give and bear good blows. If we are going to call every insignificant operation on the line of communications a British disaster we should soon run a great danger of losing the calm and self-possession which has hitherto distinguished the demeanour of the country.”

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Spring 1900 (Age 25)

“Politics, Pamela, finances and books all need my attention…”

Spring 1900 found Churchill very much engaged in the war against the Boers, heedlessly taking chances with his life on occasions where only his death would have afforded him any publicity. On one occasion, in April, 1900, Churchill, as a correspondent, joined a cavalry attempt to capture a small hill, racing a group of Boer horsemen to the summit. The Boers won and Churchill and the others were in danger of being cut off. They had just dismounted when the Boers arrived and started firing. Churchill’s horse was spooked and bolted, leaving him behind and on foot. Dodging bullets, he ran towards his own men and was saved by a trooper who picked him up but whose horse was killed in the process. His son Randolph recounts that the trooper was unawed: “Oh my poor horse,” moaned the trooper. “Never mind,” said Churchill, “you’ve saved my life.” “Ah,” rejoined the scout, “but it’s the horse I’m thinking about.”

On another occasion in late May, WSC risked being shot as a spy when, based on a report from a Frenchman he had just interviewed for an article, he rode a bicycle through the middle of Boer-occupied Johannesburg, dressed in civilian clothes, carrying a British military report from General Hamilton to Lord Roberts. Manchester critically wrote: “Even the debonair Frenchman—if indeed he was what he said he was; Winston, with his own atrocious French, was no judge of that, and no one else here had ever laid eyes on the man before—conceded that armed Boers were thick in the streets. A simple search by any one of them and Winston would be shoved against the nearest wall and executed by an ad hoc firing squad.”

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Winter 1899-1900 (Age 25)

“Continually Under Shell or Rifle Fire”

Churchill spent Christmas Eve at the headquarters of General Redvers Buller, scarcely a few hundred yards from where he had been captured by the Boers 36 days earlier. During January, General Buller gave Churchill a commission as a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse despite the fact that he continued to serve as a war correspondent for The Morning Post. The War Office had prohibited soldiers from holding a dual position, largely because of Churchill’s dispatches during the Omdurman Campaign and his subsequent book. Buller indicated in a letter to a friend why he had been inclined to ignore the prohibition: “Winston Churchill turned up here yesterday escaped from Pretoria. He really is a fine fellow and I must say I admire him greatly. I wish he was leading irregular troops instead of writing for a rotten paper. We are very short of good men, as he appears to be, out here.”

“He really is a fine fellow and I must say I admire him greatly.”

Buller specified Churchill was to receive no pay from the Army while serving as a correspondent. Churchill didn’t care and was soon in the thick of fighting at the battle of Spion Kop, writing in late January to Pamela Plowden: “The scenes on Spion Kop were among the strangest and most terrible I have ever witnessed….I had five very dangerous days continually under shell and rifle fire and once the feather on my hat was cut through by a bullet. But in the end I came serenely through.”

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Autumn 1899 (Age 24)

“World-Famous Overnight”

Autumn 1899 began with Churchill the war correspondent traveling by ship to South Africa to report on the Anglo-Boer War. It ended with Churchill the escaped prisoner traveling by train surreptitiously out of South Africa into Portuguese East Africa. In between these two journeys, Churchill became famous throughout the world.

As a special correspondent for The Morning Post, Churchill sailed to South Africa on 14 October, two days after hostilities began. It was not a pleasant voyage. Churchill called it “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” He arrived on 31 October at Cape Town and quickly made his way to Durban. Two weeks later he was a prisoner of the Boers.

Winston Churchill: £25 reward “dead or alive

Churchill had accompanied an armored train which was ambushed by the Boers on its way to Ladysmith. While technically a non-combatant, he had been armed with his Mauser pistol and had volunteered his services to the train’s commander, Captain Aylmer Haldane, after the train came under fire. Several rail cars had been derailed by Boer artillery, preventing the engine from retreating to safety. Under constant machine gun and artillery fire from the Boers, Churchill directed the clearing of the line, helped load wounded onto the engine’s tender and then accompanied the engine to safety at Frere Station. After doing so, he returned on foot to the action to assist the remaining wounded and was captured. The driver of the train was quoted in contemporary accounts as saying of Churchill that “there is not a braver gentleman in the army.” One of the wounded officers who Churchill helped lead to safety called him “as brave a man as could be found.”

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Summer 1899 (Age 24)

The First Defeat

Churchill-Boer-War-1899 Morning-Post copyChurchill spent the summer of 1899 in his first parliamentary election campaign, attempting, unsuccessfully, to persuade Pamela Plowden to join him. He wrote to her describing the campaign:

“I shall never forget the succession of great halls packed with excited people until there was not room for one single person more – speech after speech, meeting after meeting – three even four in one night – intermittent flashes of Heat & Light & enthusiasm – with cold air and the rattle of a carriage in between: a great experience. And I improve every time – I have hardly repeated myself at all. And at each meeting I am conscious of growing powers and facilities of speech, and it is in this that I shall find my consolation should the result be, as is probably, unfortunate.”

Churchill’s prediction was accurate. He and his running mate, the trade union leader Mowdsley, lost the two Tory seats to the Liberals in the July 6th election. The results were close, however, and The Manchester Courier reported that Churchill “might have been defeated but he was conscious that in this fight he had not been disgraced.” Balfour agreed, writing Churchill, “this small reversal will have no permanent ill effect upon your political fortunes.”

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Spring 1899 (Age 24)

The First Political Campaign

In late March, 1899, on his way home from Egypt, Churchill wrote to his grandmother explaining his decision to leave the Army for a writing career: “Had the army been a source of income to me instead of a channel of expenditure I might have felt compelled to stick to it. But I can live cheaper & earn more as a writer, special correspondent or journalist; and this work is moreover more congenial and more likely to assist me in pursing the larger ends of life.”

To Churchill, “the larger ends of life” meant a career in politics. His son Randolph reports in the official biography that Churchill even “consulted a fashionable palmist, Mrs. Robinson, who claimed to see favourable omens in his hand.” Churchill was courted by a number of Conservative constituencies who wanted him to stand as their candidate at the next general election.

One of them was Oldham, a working-class district where there were two members, one of whom, James Oswald, was in poor health. The other member, Robert Ascroft, asked Churchill to stand with him in Oswald’s place at the next election. In the event, it was Ascroft who unexpectedly died on 19 June 1899 and Oswald resigned in turn, setting up a double by election.

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Winter 1898-99 (Age 24)

Polo and The River War

Early in December 1898, Churchill returned to India to play in the annual Inter-Regimental Polo Tournament. On board ship, he worked on his manuscript for the River War, writing his mother on 11 December: “I have however made good progress with the book. Three vy long chapters are now almost entirely completed. The chapter describing the fall of Khartoum Gordon’s death etc is I think quite the most lofty passage I have ever written.”

Churchill continued to be pleased with his progress on the book after he reached India. In another letter to his mother early in 1899, he told her that, while progress was slow, what he had written was “really good.” He offered as an example, one sentence about the Mahdi who had been orphaned as a child (Martin Gilbert suggests that this may have been based on Churchill’s own experience with his father):

“Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong: and a boy deprived of a father’s care often develops, if he escape the perils of youth, an independence and a vigour of thought which may restore in after life the heavy loss of early days.”

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Autumn 1898 (Age 24)

“In love, but not yet prepared to commit himself…”

The Nile War over, Churchill returned to England where he immediately became embroiled in controversy over his military and political activities. The Prince of Wales wrote him that “I think an officer serving in a campaign should not write letters for the newspapers or express strong opinions of how the operations are carried out.”

“A General Officer” wrote to the Editor of the Army and Navy Gazette: “Can it be for the good of the Service that young subalterns, however influentially connected and able they may be, should be allowed as Lieut. Churchill is to go careering over the world, elbowing out men frequently much abler and more experienced (in a worldly sense at any rate) than themselves?”

Churchill responded: “Your correspondent’s quarrel is not with me but with the Army authorities. They are antagonists more worthy of his rank. He should not bandy words with subalterns in the columns of the public press. What can be more prejudicial to the discipline for which he professes so extravagant a regard? He should go to the War office with this new grievance. …to make personal attacks on individuals, however insignificant they may be, in the publicity of print, and from out of the darkness of anonymity, is conduct equally unworthy of a brave soldier and an honourable man.”

He continued to lay the foundation for a political career. Before returning to India, he made several speeches to Conservative Associations, identifying himself with the progressive wing of the Tory party. “To keep an Empire we must have a free people, an educated and well-fed people.”

In his personal life Churchill was in love with Pamela Plowden but, as his son later wrote; “such were his ambition and his slender means that he was not yet prepared to commit himself.”

Summer 1898 (Age 23)

Departs for Egypt and fights in the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan

Shortly after he arrived back in England from India Churchill, as author of The Story of The Malakand Field Force, was invited to meet “The Great Man, Master of the British world, the unchallenged leader of the Conservative party, a third time Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary at the height of his long career” (as he referred to Lord Salisbury).

Salisbury told him: “I have been keenly interested in your book. I have read it with the greatest pleasure and, if I may say so, with admiration not only for its matter but for its style.” He offered to be of any assistance requested by young Churchill. Winston responded immediately with a request to join the expedition to Khartoum.

For whatever reason, a vacancy occurred to which Churchill was appointed. In order to avoid a recall to India, he caught “a filthy tram” out of Marseilles, thus keeping himself out of touch from the authorities in London.

Before leaving for Egypt he made his second political speech (not in Robert Rhodes James’ Complete Speeches). He wrote his mother that the 15 July speech at Bradford was a complete success.

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Spring 1898 (Age 23)

“Everybody is reading it…”

Winston thought that his brother Jack would follow him into the Army but his mother knew that he would not pass the medical examination because of his eyesight, and she could not provide him with the necessary allowance. She had other plans for her second son “He will go to Germany for a year, learn bookkeeping and German, and one of these days make a fortune.” (At his mother’s insistence Jack later became a stockbroker.)

“Everybody is reading it, and I only hear it spoken of with praise.”

Meanwhile her elder son was pursuing a military and literary career in India, while laying the groundwork for his eventual entry into political life in England. He wanted to write a life of Garibaldi and a short and dramatic History of the American Civil War, but while The Story of the Malakand Field Force was being edited and published, he worked on his first and only novel, Savrola. He later recalled that his fellow officers had made suggestions for “stimulating the love interest which I was not able to accept. But we had plenty of fighting and politics, interspersed with such philosophisings as I was capable of.” He said later “consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.”

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Autumn 1897 (Age 23)

Lt Churchill writes his first book

After rushing back to India, Churchill waited impatiently for word from Sir Bindon Blood that the commander of the Malakand Field Force would appoint him to his headquarters staff. On 22 August he received word that there was no room for him, but that he could join the expedition as a war correspondent. “Army Head Qrs make all appointments except personal staff and are very jealous of their patronage. I have hardly managed to get any of my pals on my staff, though I have asked for several. However if you were here I think I could and certainly would if I could, do a little jobbery on your account.”

“No ice – no soda – intense heat – but still a delightful experience.”

From India Churchill wrote a series of unsigned telegrams and letters for the Pioneer Mail. To identify them, Frederick Woods compiled a schedule of Churchill’s movements during the Malakand campaign. He notes that “the stylistic evidence in their favour is also tolerably strong.” He did not, Woods however noted, write The Risings on the North-West Frontier. But Churchill did write The War in the Indian Highlands by a Young Officer. Personally he wanted to sign them because it would advance his political career. The first of fifteen articles was published in the Daily Telegraph on 6 October, the last on 6 December. They formed the basis for his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. He was paid five pounds per column.

Privately he wrote his mother about his ambitions and experiences. He warned her that he had to take risks so that his behaviour would be noted and get him attached to Blood’s staff. “I mean to play this game out and if I lose it is obvious that I never could have won any other. The unpleasant contingency is one which could have permanent effects and would while leaving me life‹deprive me of all that makes life worth living.”

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Summer 1897 (Age 22)

Churchill makes his maiden political speech

On July 26 Churchill made his maiden political speech. He was pleased with the press reports on his efforts.

On the same day an uprising began on the Indian frontier. Sir Bindon Blood had offered to let him join future expeditions in the area, and Churchill left England so quickly that he had no time to say goodbye to his brother and mother. Aboard the SS Rome, near Aden, he wrote of the conditions to his mother: “We are just in the hottest part of the Red Sea. The temperature is something like over 100 degrees and as it is damp heat it is equal to a great deal more. Several people who have been about 20 years in India tell me that they have never known such heat. It is like being in a vapour bath. The whole sea is steamy and there is not a breath of air – by night or day.” It was so hot, he said, that his views on a new novel he had just read (Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) had melted.

While he waited in Bangalore, India, for word from Blood, he worked on his own novel, subsequently published as Savrola. When word did come, it was disappointing news: Blood was unable to get “his pals” appointed to his staff. He advised Churchill to come to the frontier as a war correspondent and, as soon as possible, he would have him appointed to the staff of the Malakand Field Force.

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Spring 1897 (Age 22)

Churchill looking for ‘Action’

May marked the end of Churchill’s almot superhuman effort to educate himself by reading yards of classic literature and studying the Annual Register for all years since his birth. Now his search for fame and action demanding his return from India. Though Lady Randolph resisted this on grounds of cost, and feared he would get a reputation for not sticking to anything, Churchill wanted action.

The Greeks and Turks were at war in Crete, where he asked his mother to get him a correspondency. On May 8th he sailed on the Ganges but the war in Crete was over before they reached Port Said. So Churchill visited Naples, climbed Vesuvius, “did” Pompeii and Rome, and visited his brother in Paris before returning to England. Aboard ship he made friends with a Colonel, Ian Hamilton, who was to affect his life greatly in later years.

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Winter 1896-97 (Age 22)

“The University of My Life”

Churchill always regretted that he did not have a university education but he covered this disappointment with his famous wit. He once noted that he had received many more degrees than he had passed examinations. Nevertheless, he was extremely well-read. That process began while he was in India, a period which called “the university of my life.”

His reading was prodigious. In the intense Indian heat he devoured Gibbon’s eight-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and twelve volumes of Macaulay. He thought that Macaulay “is easier reading than Gibbon and in quite a different style. Macaulay crisp and forcible, Gibbon stately and impressive. Both are fascinating and show what a fine language English is since it can be pleasing in styles so different.”

He was, however, shaken by Macaulay’s indictment of his famous forebear, the First Duke of Marlborough. In My Early Life, Churchill recalled how he had been misled by Macaulay: “There was no one at hand to tell me that this historian with his captivating style…was the prince of literary rogues, who always preferred the tale to the truth, and smirched or glorified great men and garbled documents as they affected his drama.”

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