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.”

Pamela, not so serene, had been urging Churchill to come home as he had certainly achieved the notoriety and, indeed, the public acclaim he was seeking. His escape had been the one bright spot for the British in their Black Week of the Boer War when, Churchill wrote, they had “suffered staggering defeats, and casualties on a scale unknown to England since the Crimean War.” Churchill declined Pamela’s entreaties, writing to her: “I am quite certain that I will not leave Africa till the matter is settled. I should forfeit my self-respect for ever if I tried to shield myself like that behind an easily obtained reputation for courage. No possible advantage politically could compensate–besides believe me none would result…but I have a good belief that I am to be of some use and therefore to be spared.”

Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph, joined him in South Africa in late January, along with his brother, Jack. Lady Randolph had organized and raised funds from Americans to send a hospital ship, the Maine, to South Africa; Jack, with his brother’s help, had been named a Lieutenant in the South African Light Horse. Despite his brother being wounded in a minor skirmish on February 12th, Winston persevered, through heavy fighting, and was with the first relief column on February 28th which lifted the siege of Ladysmith. Churchill stayed in Ladysmith for over a month where he started work on his fourth book, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria.

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