Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire Cover Crop

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: The 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.

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