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Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

4.7 3
by Candice Millard

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From New York Times bestselling author of Destiny of the Republic and The River of Doubt, a thrilling narrative of Winston Churchill's extraordinary and little-known exploits during the Boer War
At age twenty-four, Winston Churchill was utterly convinced it was his destiny to become prime minister of England one day


From New York Times bestselling author of Destiny of the Republic and The River of Doubt, a thrilling narrative of Winston Churchill's extraordinary and little-known exploits during the Boer War
At age twenty-four, Winston Churchill was utterly convinced it was his destiny to become prime minister of England one day, despite the fact he had just lost his first election campaign for Parliament.  He believed that to achieve his goal he must do something spectacular on the battlefield.  Despite deliberately putting himself in extreme danger as a British Army officer in colonial wars in India and Sudan, and as a journalist covering a Cuban uprising against the Spanish, glory and fame had eluded him.
Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, there to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. But just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner.  Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape—but then had to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him.
The story of his escape is incredible enough, but then Churchill enlisted, returned to South Africa, fought in several battles, and ultimately liberated the men with whom he had been imprisoned.
Churchill would later remark that this period, "could I have seen my future, was to lay the foundations of my later life." Millard spins an epic story of bravery, savagery, and chance encounters with a cast of historical characters—including Rudyard Kipling, Lord Kitchener, and Mohandas Gandhi—with whom he would later share the world stage. But Hero of the Empire is more than an adventure story, for the lessons Churchill took from the Boer War would profoundly affect 20th century history.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

Candice Millard is already the author of two superb dramatic works of nonfiction: River of Doubt, which tells the tale of Theodore Roosevelt's expedition to explore Rio da Dúvida deep in the Amazon jungle, and Destiny of the Republic, which takes up the shooting of President James Garfield and his subsequent death at the hands of the medical profession. Both were stirring, revelatory studies in the interaction of character and extreme circumstance, well stocked with lively side stories and material detail. Now Millard trains her inquisitive eye on young Winston Churchill in Hero of the Empire: Boer War, A Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, a study in ambition, bravery, luck, recklessness, self-confidence, and swagger.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, European colonization of Africa had become a frantic and bloody scramble. With the discovery of diamonds in southern Africa in 1867 and large deposits of gold in the Witwatersrand mountain ridge in 1886, British imperial lust for Transvaal territory, then controlled by the Boers — a group of colonists who were chiefly Dutch with Huguenot and German elements — became uncontainable. (Needless to say, the genuine claim on the land by native peoples was not even considered.) Britain annexed the Transvaal in 1877, but that came to naught when, outmatched by the Boers' "ungallant and cowardly" guerrilla tactics, superior marksmanship, and battle cunning, the British were defeated with great loss of life in the First Boer War. Waged from December 1880 to March 1881, it was a short, mortifying affair that ended with the Battle of Majuba and "the shocking, sickening sight of British soldiers fleeing in humiliating retreat."

The British, however, were not to be thwarted: "Imperial troops must curb the insolence of the Boers. There must be no half measures," wrote Churchill a few years after the disaster. The result was the Second Boer War (1899–1902), the first four months of which brought further misfortune, casualty, and defeat. Finally, at the end of February 1900, British troops managed to win a couple of costly battles and relieved their comrades besieged at Ladysmith. Over the next two years, imperial forces — taking "no half measures" — prevailed by virtue of Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener's scorched-earth policy, which resulted in the destruction of some 30,000 Boer farms and the incarceration of Boer women, children, and noncombatant men in brutal concentration camps. These disease-ridden, food-deprived, inadequately sheltered enclosures were themselves the cause of tens of thousands of deaths, the great majority of them children. The entire conflict was ugly in every possible way, but it was the making of Winston Churchill's political career.

The Winston Churchill who arrived in Cape Town in October 1899 as a war correspondent was not yet twenty-five, but he had already served as an observer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, as a soldier and correspondent in India during the Pashtun revolt of 1897 and in the Sudan in 1898. Earlier in the year, he had lost a by-election in his first attempt to become a member of Parliament, the initial and necessary step toward his goal of becoming prime minister. Churchill, who made no real distinction between civilian correspondent and soldier, came to southern Africa not only to teach the Boers ("a very small and miserable people") a lesson but, most crucially, to perform heroic deeds. Properly publicized, these would, he was certain, ensure his election to Parliament and propel him onward to his glorious destiny. He had already acted with reckless courage, even foolhardiness, in combat in India, and there was no possibility in his mind that he would die on the battlefield. ("I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.")

Three weeks after the outbreak of war, Churchill — equipped with a servant and a large supply of fine wine and liqueur, plus eighteen bottles of scotch — had made it to Estcourt, some forty miles from besieged Ladysmith, where, under the command of Colonel Charles Long, troops were awaiting the arrival of the main British force. Long, a man of indecision and blunder, sent an armored reconnaissance train bearing soldiers, civilian railway workers, and Winston Churchill right into the teeth of a Boer ambush. In the midst of devastating enemy gunfire, Churchill, notionally a civilian, led a near-suicidal attempt to free the engine, an act of resourcefulness and monstrous bravery. ("Surrounded by screaming shells and deafening explosions, dead and dismembered men, desperation and almost certain failure, Churchill, eyes flashing, cheeks flushed, began shouting orders.") Eventually, after truly appalling difficulties and setbacks wonderfully described by Millard, the engine was freed and, packed with men, many wounded and dead, managed to make its way back to a British camp. Still, to his infinite disgust, Churchill was captured with many others and marched off to Pretoria to be locked up as a POW. Nonetheless, the main goal was met: News of his valor, leadership, and determination in freeing the train filled the British newspapers.

From the moment of his capture, Churchill thought of little but getting free. He eventually inserted himself into the escape plan hatched by two other men, neither of whom wanted him along. They had good reason: He was out of shape, his now famous person would be quickly missed, and he couldn't keep his trap shut. The last was immediately borne out as Churchill at once began boasting to his follow prisoners of his intended escape. And he did get away, completely fouling up the original plan and leaving its two originators behind. By what means this impetuous hero made it over more than 300 hundred miles from Pretoria to the British consulate in Portuguese East Africa is for you to discover, as I do not wish to take one excruciating pang of suspense away from you. I will say only that the ordeal involved jumping on and off moving trains, trekking across arid lands surrounded by enemies on high alert, living with rats down a mineshaft, and being smuggled across a border buried in wool. It was an enterprise in which Churchill's remarkable courage, audacity, and luck played equal parts along with the bravery and willingness of others to put their own lives on the line to aid him.

Millard has enriched this tale of adventure with details of the quiddities and tribulations of late-nineteenth-century British warfare: the change in battle dress from the glorious red tunic to despised khaki; the use of bicycles and hydrogen-filled balloons; the danger of being hit by lightning on the veldt; and the deplorable rations that included Johnston's Fluid Beef, an unpalatable substance processed into such incorruptibility that the leftovers were served to the troops in World War I.

The book also includes a fine selection of photographs, including one of Churchill at age seven, wearing such a look of haughty disdain that it not only made me laugh but summed up the man as I have always conceived him. And, indeed, until now, a very little of the imperialist, racist, anti-Hibernian snob, money scrounger, and spendthrift Winston Churchill has gone a very long way for me, but I read this book with real pleasure (and pounding heart). It is, quite simply, a thumping good read.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

The New York Times - Jennifer Senior
On its face, Churchill's role in the Second Boer War may not seem like a substantial enough subject for a book. Don't be fooled. Over the years, Ms. Millard has made a stylish niche for herself, zooming in on a brief, pivotal chapter in the life of a historical figure and turning it into a legitimate feature-length production. In The River of Doubt, she focused on Theodore Roosevelt's adventures in the Amazon basin to recover from his defeat in 1912…In Destiny of the Republic, she focused on the assassination of James A. Garfield, particularly the doctors who serially bungled their attempts to save his life. The story Ms. Millard tells here is no less cinematic or dramatic…Ms. Millard…has a great ear for quotes—an underrated virtue in writers of history…Her eye for detail is equally good. With just a few key images, she conveys how the most formidable empire on the planet could be so discomfited by an unpolished, seemingly ragtag army of Boers…
The New York Times Book Review - Alex von Tunzelmann
…gripping…[Hero of the Empire] is a tremendously readable and enjoyable book. The material may feel well rehearsed to Churchill buffs, but breaking new research ground is not Millard's goal: She aims to retell the story in a thrilling, contemporary style for a new generation of readers, and in this she succeeds. Most historians will have cause to envy her narrative ability. Her prose gallops along; her short, action-packed chapters often screech to a halt on a cliffhanger. A picture develops of Churchill as an extraordinary young man: deeply flawed yet indomitable.
Publishers Weekly
Millard (Destiny of the Republic) takes a relatively minor episode in the life of Winston Churchill—his escape from prison during the Boer War—and makes hay with it, painting young Churchill as a brilliant soldier, talented raconteur, and politician in waiting. Churchill’s escape from a jail cell in Pretoria and subsequent trek through enemy territory are presented as the first signs of the grit and determination he would later show as prime minister. Apart from some enjoyable biographical detail (Millard has a weakness for hair “shining like a dark jewel” and interiors of “rich yellow silk”), the book contains little of interest for readers who are not already die-hard Churchill buffs. Churchill’s racism is consistently underplayed, the politics of the Boer War are ignored, and figures such as Leo Amery are reduced to drawing-room caricatures. By dwelling on Churchill’s privileged upbringing, Millard effectively extinguishes any sympathy the reader might feel for a pompous young man who once wrote, in typically overblown fashion, that if his plans for political office fell through, “It will break my heart for I have nothing else but ambition to cling to.” Not even some late attention to the wider world beyond Churchill can save the book from its hagiographic bent. (Sept.)
Library Journal
★ 06/01/2016
In the best-selling The River of Doubt, Millard chronicled Theodore Roosevelt's dangerous exploration of an uncharted river in the Amazon. Here the author documents the equally risky adventures of Winston Churchill (1874–1965) during the Second Boer War, in which Churchill and his fellow soldiers were captured upon arriving in South Africa. Churchill managed an escape, eventually returning to South Africa to free the men with whom he was imprisoned. The details of these exploits describe endless walking, narrow getaways from captors, and Churchill toting nothing but a squashed bit of foreign currency and some chocolate. Even more incredible is Churchill crossing paths with future historical greats such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rudyard Kipling. Millard shows how the hard lessons learned during this period influenced Churchill's character, decision-making, and personality. Riveting, bizarre, heroic, and sometimes humorous, this thrilling history will cause readers to shake their heads in disbelief throughout. VERDICT Enjoyable for all readers, especially fans of Churchill, military and world history, narrative nonfiction, and survival stories. [See Prepub Alert, 3/28/16.]—Benjamin Brudner, Curry Coll. Lib., Milton, MA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-06-08
A history of the danger-seeking young Winston Churchill during the Boer War, which "had turned out to be far more difficult and more devastating than the amusing colonial war the British had expected."Although Churchill's life has been amply documented by himself and many others, Millard (Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, 2011, etc.) ably weaves a seamless and gripping narrative of the future statesman's early career and involvement in the Boer War (1899-1902). It is the story of a man unfailingly convinced of his destiny to lead, undaunted by setbacks, and supremely confident of success. "I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending," Churchill wrote to his mother from the bloody battlefield of Malakand. As the author demonstrates, even as a child, Churchill shared his countrymen's idea that war "was about romance and gallantry." "There is no ambition I cherish so keenly," he said, "as to gain a reputation for personal courage." At 24, he passionately urged Joseph Chamberlain to recover Britain's prestige in South Africa by avenging a humiliating defeat; in an electrifying speech, he whipped up fervor for war. In October 1899, Churchill's wish was realized: Britain was at war, and he was off to battle, this time as a journalist. He meant to travel in comfort: along with his personal valet, he brought wine, spirits, liqueur, and luxurious accessories from London's finest shops. Although he became dramatically involved in the army's travails, he, along with around 60 officers and soldiers, was taken prisoner. For Churchill, it was a fate almost worse than death. "With the loss of his freedom," Millard writes, "he had, for the first time, also lost his ferocious grip on life." In vivid, entertaining detail, the author chronicles Churchill's audacious escape, which was reported in British newspapers with pride and glee. As Millard concludes, he had proved himself exemplary: "resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled." A fresh, captivating history of the enduringly colorful Churchill.
From the Publisher

Chosen as a Washington Post and New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2016

"A thrilling account...This book is an awesome nail-biter and top-notch character study rolled into one...Could someone be persuaded to make a movie about this episode of his life? I’d watch."
New York Times Critic Jennifer Senior's Top Ten Books of 2016

“Gripping…tremendously readable and enjoyable…”
Alex von Tunzelmann, The New York Times Book Review

"[A] truly fascinating book."
Financial Times

"A gripping story...It's a thrilling journey and Millard tells it with gusto."
The Guardian

“Millard’s tome is a slam-bang study of Churchill’s wit and wile as he navigates the Boer War like [a] proto-James Bond.” 
USA Today

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Crouching in darkness outside the prison fence in wartime southern Africa, Winston Churchill could still hear the voices of the guards on the other side. Seizing his chance an hour earlier, the twenty-five-year-old had scaled the high, corrugated-iron paling that enclosed the prison yard. But now he was trapped in a new dilemma. He could not remain where he was. At any moment, he could be discov­ered and shot by the guards or by the soldiers who patrolled the dark, surrounding streets of Pretoria, the capital of the enemy Boer repub­lic. Yet neither could he run. His hopes for survival depended on two other prisoners, who were still inside the wall. In the long minutes since he had dropped down into the darkness, they had not appeared.

From the moment he had been taken as a prisoner of war, Churchill had dreamed of reclaiming his freedom, hatching scheme after scheme, each more elaborate than the last. In the end, however, the plan that had actually brought him over the fence was not his own. The two other English prisoners had plotted the escape, and agreed only with great reluctance to bring him along. They also car­ried the provisions that were supposed to sustain all three of them as they tried to cross nearly three hundred miles of enemy territory. Unable even to climb back into his hated captivity, Churchill found himself alone, hiding in the low, ragged shrubs that lined the fence, with no idea what to do next.

Although he was still a very young man, Churchill was no stranger to situations of great personal peril. He had already taken part in four wars on three different continents, and had come close to death in each one. He had felt bullets whistling by his head in Cuba, seen friends hacked to death in British India, been separated from his regiment in the deserts of the Sudan and, just a month earlier, in November 1899, at the start of the Boer War, led the resistance against a devastating attack on an armored train. Several men had died in that attack, blown to pieces by shells and a deafening barrage of bullets, many more had been horribly wounded, and Churchill had barely escaped with his life. To his fury and deep frustration, however, he had not eluded capture. He, along with dozens of Brit­ish officers and soldiers, had been taken prisoner by the Boers—the tough, largely Dutch-speaking settlers who had been living in south­ern Africa for centuries and were not about to let the British Empire take their land without a fight.

When the Boers had realized that they had captured the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and a member of the highest ranks of the British aristocracy, they had been thrilled. Churchill had been quickly transported to a POW camp in Pretoria, the Boer capital, where he had been imprisoned with about a hundred other men. Since that day, he had been able to think of nothing but escape, and returning to the war.

The Boer War had turned out to be far more difficult and more devastating than the amusing colonial war the British had expected. Their army, one of the most admired and feared fighting forces in the world, was astonished to find itself struggling to hold its own against a little-known republic on a continent that most Europeans consid­ered to be theirs for the taking. Already, the British had learned more from this war than almost any other. Slowly, they were real­izing that they had entered a new age of warfare. The days of gallant young soldiers wearing bright red coats had suddenly disappeared, leaving the vaunted British army to face an invisible enemy with weapons so powerful they could wreak carnage without ever getting close enough to look their victims in the eye.

Long before it was over, the war would also change the empire in another, equally indelible way: It would bring to the attention of a rapt British public a young man named Winston Churchill. Although he had tried again and again, in war after war, to win glory, Churchill had returned home every time without the medals that mattered, no more distinguished or famous than he had been when he set out. The Boer War, he believed, was his best chance to change that, to prove that he was not just the son of a famous man. He was special, even extraordinary, and he was meant not just to fight for his country but one day lead it. Although he believed this without question, he still had to convince everyone else, something he would never be able to do from a POW camp in Pretoria.

When Churchill had scrambled over the prison fence, seizing his chance after a nearby guard had turned his back, he felt elated. Now, as he kneeled in the shrubs just outside, waiting helplessly for the other men, his desperation mounted with each passing minute. Finally, he heard a British voice. Churchill realized with a surge of relief that it was one of his co-conspirators. “It’s all up,” the man whispered. The guard was suspicious, watching their every move. They could not get out. “Can you get back in?” the other prisoner asked.

Both men knew the answer. As they stood on opposite sides of the fence, one still in captivity, the other achingly close to freedom, it was painfully apparent that Churchill could not undo what had already been done. It would have been impossible for him to climb back into the prison enclosure without being caught, and the punish­ment for his escape would have been immediate and possibly fatal.

In all the time he had spent thinking about his escape since arriv­ing in Pretoria, the one scenario that Churchill had not envisioned was crossing enemy territory alone without companions or provisions of any kind. He didn’t have a weapon, a map, a compass, or, aside from a few bars of chocolate in his pocket, any food. He didn’t speak the language, either that of the Boers or that of the Africans. Beyond the vaguest of outlines, he didn’t even have a plan—just the unshak­able conviction that he was destined for greatness.

Part One

Pushful, the Younger

Chapter 1 - Death by Inches

From earliest childhood, Churchill had been fascinated by war, and dreamed of gallantry in battle. “There is no ambition I cherish so keenly,” he had confided to his younger brother, Jack, “as to gain a reputation for personal courage.”

As a boy, he had collected a miniature army of fifteen hundred toy soldiers and spent hours sending them into combat. “From very early youth I had brooded about soldiers and war, and often I had imagined in dreams and day-dreams the sensations attendant upon being for the first time under fire,” he wrote. “It seemed to my youthful mind that it must be a thrilling and immense experience to hear the whistle of bullets all around and to play at hazard from moment to moment with death and wounds.” At Sandhurst, the Royal Military College, from which he had graduated in 1894, Churchill had loved nothing more than to participate in war games, regretting only “that it all had to be make-believe.”

To be an aristocratic Englishman in the late nineteenth century meant being surrounded not merely by the lavish benefits of imperial power but by its equally vast responsibilities. Covering more than a fifth of the world’s land surface, the British Empire had come to rule about a quarter of the human race—more than 450 million people living on every continent and on the islands of every ocean. It was the largest empire ever known, easily outranking the once mighty Spanish Empire, which had been the original object of the awe-filled description “the empire on which the sun never sets.” It was five times the size of the Roman Empire at its zenith, and its influence—over people, language, money, even time, for the clocks in every time zone were set to Greenwich mean time—was unrivaled.

By the time Churchill reached adulthood, the greatest threat to the empire no longer came from the other major powers—Spain, Portugal, Germany or France—but from the ever-expanding burden of ruling its own colonies. Although long the object of admiration, envy and fear, the British army had been stretched impossibly thin as it struggled to keep the empire intact, crisscrossing continents and oceans to put down revolts everywhere from Egypt to Ireland.

To Churchill, such far-flung conflicts offered an irresistible opportunity for personal glory and advancement. When he entered the British army and finally became a soldier, with the real possibility of dying in combat, Churchill’s enthusiasm for war did not waver. On the contrary, he had written to his mother that he looked forward to battle “not so much in spite of as because of the risks I run.” What he wanted most from his life as a soldier was not adventure or even battlefield experience but a chance to prove himself. He wanted not simply to fight but to be noticed while fighting.

For a member of Churchill’s high social class, such bold, unabashed ambition was a novelty, if not an outright scandal. He had been born a British nobleman, a direct descendant of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, his parents personal friends of the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s oldest son and heir. Yet in his open pursuit of fame and popular favor, Churchill seemed far less Victorian than Rooseveltian. “The immortal Barnum himself had not a greater gift for making himself and his affairs the talk of the world,” his first biographer, Alexander MacCallum Scott, would write just a few years later. “Winston advertises himself as simply and unconsciously as he breathes.”

In a world in which men were praised not just for their stiff upper lip but for extreme modesty when it came to their own achievements, Churchill was widely criticized for being that most offensive of creatures, the medal hunter. He was called a “self-advertiser,” a “young whippersnapper,” even, by a reporter for the Daily Chronicle, “Pushful, the Younger.” He was not unaware of these criticisms and even years later, bewildered by the viciousness with which he was attacked, would admit that it was “melancholy to be forced to record these less amiable aspects of human nature, which by a most curious and indeed unaccountable coincidence have always seemed to present themselves in the wake of my innocent footsteps.” He was not, however, about to let them slow him down.

Churchill knew that the surest and quickest route to recognition, success and perhaps, if he was lucky, fame was a military medal. It was “the swift road to promotion and advancement in every arm,” he wrote, “the glittering gateway to distinction.” Distinction, in turn, could be parlayed into political clout, opening a door onto the kind of public life that he longed for, and which he believed was his destiny. So while the military was not, for Churchill, an end in itself, it was certainly a very useful means to an end. What he needed was a battle, a serious battle, one that would be talked about, would be remembered, and, with a good dose of courage and a little showmanship on his part, might propel him to the forefront of the military stage. For that, he was willing to risk anything, even his life.

Churchill had seen real fighting for the first time in 1895. Instead of spending his leave playing polo or foxhunting like most young officers, he had gone to Cuba as a military observer, joining a fighting column of the Spanish army during an uprising that was a prelude to the Spanish-American War. It was here that he began smoking cigars, giving birth to a lifelong habit and a distinct preference for Cubanos. It was also here that on his twenty-first birthday he heard for the first time “bullets strike flesh.” In fact, he had very nearly been killed by a bullet that, by the capriciousness of fate, had sailed just a foot past his head, striking and killing the horse standing next to him. In Cuba, however, he had been only an observer, not an active participant, and for Churchill that would never be enough.

Churchill’s true education in the harsh realities of Britain’s colonial wars began the next year, in the remote mountains of British India’s North-West Frontier, modern-day Pakistan, whose sweeping vistas, unforgiving beauty and lethal conflicts would later suggest powerful parallels to those of southern Africa. For the British army, no colony had been more difficult to subdue than India, the jewel in the empire’s crown, and no part of India had proved more deadly for British soldiers than the tribal lands of the Pashtun, an ethnic group renowned for their military skill and unyielding resistance to outside control.

It was, in fact, the Pashtun’s unmatched ferocity in battle that drew Churchill to India, and to the Pashtun heartland known as Malakand. In October 1896, Churchill had arrived in India with his regiment, the Fourth Queen’s Own Hussars. He had come hoping to find himself quickly at the center of action. Instead, he had spent month after frustrating month in Bangalore, which he irritably described to his mother as a “3rd rate watering place.”

The incredible luxury in which he lived had made little difference. Left to find their own lodgings, Churchill and two fellow officers had chosen what Churchill described to his mother as “a magnificent pink and white stucco palace in the middle of a large and beautiful garden.” They paid for this lavish abode by combining their salaries, given to them in silver rupees poured into a string net bag “as big as a prize turnip,” with any allowance they managed to pry from dwindling family fortunes.

Like some of his fellow officers, Churchill came from a family that was rich in titles and grand estates, but little else. The Churchill family palace, Blenheim, was, like most great houses in England at the end of the nineteenth century, hovering on the brink of collapse. The 5th and 6th Dukes of Marlborough had lived lives of such extravagance that when Churchill’s grandfather inherited the title and the palace, he had been forced to sell not just land but some of the treasures that the family held most dear. In 1875, when Churchill was not yet a year old, the 7th Duke sold the Marlborough Gems, a stunning assortment of more than 730 carved gemstones, for more than £36,000. A few years later, despite the protestations of his family, he sold the Sunderland Library, a vast and historically significant collection.

The most effective means the Churchills had found of keeping the palace from going under, however, had been to marry the successive dukes off to “dollar princesses,” enormously wealthy heiresses whose families longed for an old British title to burnish their new American money. Soon after becoming the 8th Duke, Churchill’s uncle George Spencer-Churchill, whose first wife divorced him in the wake of an affair, married a wealthy New York widow named Lillian Warren Hamersley. His son, now the 9th Duke, dutifully followed in his footsteps, marrying a dollar princess of his own, the American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, in 1895.

Despite his family’s financial failings, Churchill was accustomed to a lavish lifestyle, and he hired a veritable army of servants while in India. “We each have a ‘Butler’ whose duties are to wait at table—to manage the household and to supervise the stables: A First Dressing Boy or valet who is assisted by a second DB: and a sais [syce] to every horse or pony,” Churchill had coolly explained to his mother. “Besides this we share the services of 2 gardenders [sic]—3 Bhistis or water carriers—4 Dhobies or washermen & 1 watchman. Such is our ménage.”

When a Pashtun revolt began in the mountains of Malakand the next year, Churchill, bored and restless, had been on leave in London, at the world-famous Goodwood Racecourse. It was a perfect day, the racecourse was so beautiful that the Prince of Wales referred to it as a “garden party with racing tacked on,” and Churchill was “winning my money.” As soon as he learned of the revolt, however, Churchill knew that this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, and he was not about to waste a moment or wait for an invitation.

Meet the Author

CANDICE MILLARD is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic. She lives in Kansas City with her husband and three children.   

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Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous 9 months ago
A fascinating, candid portrayal of W. Churchill & his parents in easy-to-read style. Excellent notes, illustrations, bibliography & index, worthy of buying for one's personal library
Anonymous 11 months ago
Brilliantly written with historical backround and great insight into the experiences that helped make Winston Churchill.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago