A diverting account by Churchill’s granddaughter.
- Castle Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.19(d)
Read an Excerpt
* * *
`War service was the swift road to promotion and advancement. It was the glittering gateway to distinction. It cast glamour upon the fortunate possessor alike in the eyes of elderly gentlemen and young ladies.'
WINSTON CHURCHILL, My Early Life
By the age of twenty-four, Winston Churchill was already a seasoned campaigner. Leaving the Royal Military Academy in December 1894, a fortnight after his twentieth birthday, he had been commissioned into a fashionable cavalry regiment, the 4th Hussars, on 20 February. He was impatient to make an immediate impact, but found the army almost entirely occupied with the chores and pleasures of peacetime soldiering. The usual pursuits of the cavalry officer during his five months of winter leave, pursuing foxes across the English Shires or young ladies through London drawing rooms, were not for the young Churchill, and he looked around for some scene of active service which would provide experience and perhaps medals. The world was largely at peace, but in Cuba a guerrilla war between indigenous rebels and the island's Spanish rulers was reaching a conclusive stage.
Within eight months of joining his regiment, Churchill set off for Cuba. He had used his family connections to good effect. Not only had his father been a national figure, but Lady Randolph Churchill, his beautiful and talented mother, numbered Edward, Prince of Wales among her many admirers. Little wonder that in Churchill's pocket was an introduction to theSpanish Captain-General. For company he had Reggie Barnes, a fellow officer who had been persuaded that an adventure in Cuba would be more beneficial and less expensive than a season fox-hunting. To defray the expense of this private venture Churchill had secured his first journalistic contract, having arranged with the Daily Graphic that he would be paid five guineas for each `letter from the front' he dispatched to the paper.
On his way to Cuba he stopped off in New York. Here he was looked after and introduced around by Senator Bourke Cockran, another admirer of Lady Randolph. Cockran, a distinguished lawyer and politician, was probably the first person to recognise the young man's vast potential, and admitted himself profoundly impressed with the vigour of Churchill's language and the breadth of his views. The two men were to strike up a friendship and maintain a long-standing political correspondence. Years later Churchill was to say of Cockran's political oratory, `He was my model I learned from him how to hold thousands in thrall.'
After a week in New York, a thirty-six-hour train journey to Tampa, Florida and a short sea-crossing, Churchill and Barnes arrived in Havana on 20 November. They lost no time in setting out by train and coastal steamer for the war zone, where they attached themselves to the Spanish General's staff. There followed days in the saddle, advancing through `endless forests and undulations of a vast, lustrous landscape dripping with moisture and sparkling with sunshine'.
Having researched even thus far into Churchill's adult life, I could already see that he always made the very best of whatever cards he held. A winter of idleness was being put to the best possible use. His mother's sponsorship, which others might have used simply to enhance their social life, provided him with a passport to New York and Cuba. His contract with the Daily Graphic was no doubt obtained largely on the strength of his father's reputation with that paper for which he had written from South Africa in 1891. Lord Randolph would have been agreeably surprised, having only a year before his death in January 1895 expressed his concern that his son would become `a mere social wastrel, one of the handful of public school failures'.
The cards were not always to be so favourable. In the next few years Churchill would be dealt hands which others would have thrown in without hesitation. Somehow he always turned them into winners.
Churchill did not celebrate his twenty-first birthday on 30 November 1895 with a ball at Blenheim Palace, his ancestral home. That would have been conventional, and he was not a conventional young man. It was not the popping of champagne corks but the crack of rifle-fire which heralded his coming of age. In Cuba, under fire for the first time, a bullet missed his head by less than a foot before fatally wounding the horse beside him. It was the first example of what would be Churchill's phenomenal luck in the face of enemy fire.
This short adventure in someone else's war brought Churchill his first medal the Spanish Red Cross, which unfortunately he could not wear on his British uniform and earned him a certain amount of notoriety in the British press. It also earned him twenty-five guineas, his first income as a journalist. His letters from Cuba, written while living rough, were a portent of his formidable journalistic talents.
In January 1896 Churchill returned from Cuba to rejoin his regiment, with whom it was intended he would leave later that year for an eight-year posting in India. While most young officers looked forward with keen anticipation to military life in India polo, pigsticking and a host of servants Churchill increasingly saw it as a political backwater he must avoid. Nine months remained before the regiment would set sail, and during this time he once more prevailed upon his mother to use her influence with those in power. He wished to be posted, as he put it, `to scenes of adventure and excitement to places where I could gain experience and derive advantage'. He would have liked to join General Sir Herbert Kitchener's expedition to reconquer the Sudan, but when that prospect dimmed he set his sights on Rhodesia, which, he explained in a letter to his mother on 4 August, would provide `excitement and adventure'. Meanwhile, assiduously promoted by Lady Randolph, he used his time in England to cultivate many important people.
Having failed in his attempts to obtain a more exciting posting, Churchill sailed for India on 11 September 1896. Here, in the garrison of Bangalore, he was to endure two years of peacetime soldiering, alleviated only by polo, a great deal of reading `the desire for learning came upon me' and Miss Pamela Plowden.
Pamela, seven months older than he, was the first love of Churchill's life. She was the daughter of the Resident of Hyderabad, and they met during a polo tournament. He wrote the next day to his mother, `She is the most beautiful girl I have ever known ... We are going to try to do the city of Hyderabad together on an elephant.' The love affair would continue for several years at a desultory pace dictated by the demands of Churchill's main aim: to win the fame and fortune he felt he needed to launch his political career. (She would marry the Earl of Lytton in 1902, would remain friends with Churchill, and would outlive him.)
It was during his time in Bangalore that, as far as we know, Churchill first confided his ultimate political aspirations, to Captain Bingham of the Royal Artillery. Bingham was Master of the Ootacamund Hounds, and was bringing the pack home through the dusty, undulating country when a young cavalry officer out riding fell in with him. They struck up a conversation, during which the young officer, puffing on a cigar, said he would be giving up the army for politics, and would one day be prime minister.
In the summer of 1897 Churchill came home on leave. On the lawns at Goodwood, while he was enjoying the racing and improving his finances, an opportunity arose for further adventure. The news arrived of a rebellion among the Pathan tribesmen in the mountains along the North-West Frontier of India. A British expedition, the Malakand Field Force, had been formed to quell the uprising, and the General appointed to command it was none other than Sir Bindon Blood, who the year before had promised Churchill a place on his staff should he ever command an expedition again.
As I looked through the archives, I was struck once again by the alacrity with which Churchill seized this outside chance. Abandoning his leave, he took the next boat to India, cabling General Blood to remind him of his promise. Blood was unable to find an immediate vacancy, but his reply was encouraging: `I should advise your coming to me as a press correspondent ... If you were here I think I could, and would if I could, do a little jobbery on your account. Yours in haste, B. Blood.'
The hint was more than enough for Churchill. Having persuaded his Colonel to grant him leave, he set off by rail for the two-and-a-half-thousand-mile journey from Bangalore to the scene of operations. He had been commissioned as a war correspondent by an Allahabad newspaper, the Pioneer, and had also arranged that the Daily Telegraph would pay him £5 a column for his letters from the front.
Within a month of arriving at General Blood's headquarters, Churchill had been attached to the force as a replacement for an officer who had been killed, had been involved in heavy fighting, and mentioned in dispatches. He had achieved all his aims. Was he lucky, or had he simply made the most of the situation? I think the latter. He continued to write for the Daily Telegraph, and thus got the best of both worlds as an officer on active service and a war correspondent. Thinking he had struck an insufficiently hard bargain with the paper, he sought his mother's help in negotiating for better terms: `When I think of the circumstances under wh. those letters were written ... temperature of 115 degrees or after a long days action or by a light which it was dangerous lest it drew fire ... I think they are cheap at the price.' (Greater financial reward would come with his book The Story of the Malakand Field Force, which he wrote in five weeks and which, on its publication in March 1898, was widely recognised as a military classic.)
His letters home spared Lady Randolph none of the details which soldiers usually conceal from their loved ones:
I rode forward with the 35th Sikhs until firing got so hot that my grey pony was unsafe. I proceeded on foot. When the retirement began I remained till the last and here I was perhaps very near my end ... I was close to both officers when they were hit almost simultaneously and fired my revolver at a man at 30 yards who tried to cut up poor Hughes's body ... Later on I used a rifle which a wounded man had dropped and fired 40 rounds at close quarters. I cannot be certain but I think I hit four men. At any rate they fell ...
In one letter to his mother, written on the eve of a battle, he expressed for the first time a sentiment he was to repeat at intervals over the next few years: `I have faith in my star,' he wrote, `that I am intended to do something in the world.' It was a faith that was reinforced when he emerged unscathed on the frequent occasions he recklessly exposed himself to enemy fire: `I rode my grey pony all along the skirmish line where everyone else was lying down ...' There is no doubt he actually enjoyed the danger. `Bullets,' he wrote to Lady Randolph, `are not worth considering. Besides I am so conceited I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.'
The Malakand Field Force's successful campaign ended with punitive action against the rebellious tribes. There is little of Churchill's usual animation in his laconic description of this final action, rather a hint of disapproval: `We were to stay in the Mamund Valley and lay it waste ... we lost for every village two or three British officers and fifteen or twenty native soldiers. Whether it was worth it, I cannot tell. At any rate, at the end of a fortnight the valley was a desert, and honour was satisfied.'
Churchill managed a second attachment in early 1898 when he joined the Tirah expedition, also on the North-West Frontier. However, negotiations brought peace, and he returned disappointed to his regiment in Bangalore. He had not given up his hope to join Kitchener in the Sudan, and he now bombarded his mother with requests for her to influence those who could help. The main stumbling block was Kitchener himself, who took exception to Churchill's attempts to manipulate the military system for his own ends, and refused to accept him.
Due for leave, Churchill returned to England in May 1898. He had sent a copy of The Malakand Field Force to the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, who invited the author to come and see him. Five days later Churchill was notified of his attachment to the 21st Lancers for the Sudan campaign: it was obvious that Prime Ministerial influence had been successful where feminine allure had failed. The military were not amused, and instructed him to proceed to North Africa at his own expense, warning him that should he be killed or wounded, `no charge of any kind will fall on British Army Funds'. Ignoring these barbs, Churchill set off forthwith for the Sudan and the campaign which he would call `the River War', after the River Nile. The War Office had forbidden him to write for the press, but he arranged to send dispatches to the Morning Post, in the guise of letters ostensibly written to a friend.
We may imagine Kitchener's annoyance when, of all the officers who might have been sent to reconnoitre the enemy positions, it was Churchill who cantered across the shimmering desert to deliver his personal report: `I saw the Union Jack by the side of the Egyptian flag,' Churchill was to write many years later. `Kitchener was riding alone two or three horses' lengths in front of his Headquarters Staff. His two standard bearers marched immediately behind.'
The report given, Churchill reined in his horse to let the retinue flow past. A friendly voice invited him to lunch: `in our path appeared a low wall of biscuit boxes which was being rapidly constructed, and on top of this wall I perceived a long stretch of white oil-cloth on which again were being placed many bottles of inviting appearance and large dishes of bully beef and pickles.' He was no doubt thinking of the cavalry charge promised for the following day when he summed up the meal as being `like a race luncheon before the Derby'.
The battle of Omdurman, on 2 September 1898, saw the last British regimental cavalry charge. In a clash with hundreds of massed Dervishes, `ten or twelve deep at the thickest, a great grey mass gleaming with steel', Churchill survived unscathed, although the two minutes cost the regiment nearly a quarter of its strength. His survival probably owed much to the fact that, due to an injured shoulder, he was wielding a pistol instead of the traditional cavalry sword: `I saw the gleam of [a Dervish's] sword as he drew it back ... I fired two shots into him at about three yards ... I saw before me another figure with uplifted sword. I raised my pistol and fired. So close were we that the pistol actually struck him.'
His book of the campaign, The River War, was published a year later, and would become the standard history.
Churchill's formidable abilities were already evident, but their impact on the world at large had so far been confined to his trenchant writing, as he combined the roles of cavalry officer and war correspondent. He now decided it was time for him to leave the army and enter politics. This was an audacious move for a young man with considerable debts, who would need an income if he were to pursue a Parliamentary career. He had been trained for no profession other than the army, and although he had demonstrated a rare ability to write, his pen remained an uncertain source of income.
He was, however, sanguine, and wrote explaining his decision to his grandmother, the Duchess of Marlborough:
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 pursuing the larger ends of life. It has nevertheless been a great wrench and I was vy sorry to leave all my friends & put on my uniform & medals for the last time.
Courted by the Conservative Party, Churchill stood in a by-election for the Parliamentary seat of Oldham in Lancashire on 6 July 1899, but was narrowly defeated. However, fortune was about to favour the brave.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >