Winston Churchill and the Treasure of Mapungubwe Hill: A Novel

Winston Churchill and the Treasure of Mapungubwe Hill: A Novel

by Chris Angus

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631580031
Publisher: Yucca
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Chris Angus is the author of several works of nonfiction and is also a newspaper columnist. He has published more than four hundred essays, articles, book introductions, columns, and reviews in a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Albany Times-Union, Adirondack Life, American Forests, Wordsworth American Classics, Adirondack Explorer, and many more. Angus lives in Canton, New York.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Blaaw Kranz River, Natal, South Africa

November 15, 1899

THE STEAM ENGINE BELCHED BLACK coal smoke into a blazing Natal sky. The huge machine, nicknamed Hairy Mary by the troops, looked like a cross between a rag mop and Medusa's head, every inch hung with heavy braided rope armor. A constant rhythmic panting emanated from the locomotive as though it were a large beast chomping at the bit. But for the moment, the train remained stationary, the eyes of its two engineers fixed on the small figure sitting on the ground on the shaded side of the train. He was dressed in jodhpurs and a dark jacket with a rakish, if crumpled, cowboy hat over his fair hair. His hand fairly flew as he wrote his daily dispatch for the Morning Post of London.

One of the engineers leaned out and looked down the length of the track. The town of Ladysmith was barely visible in the distance, shimmering in the late-afternoon heat. In the other direction, a hazy cloud rose against the distant horizon of rolling veldt, whether a dust storm or moving troops was unclear. He grunted and turned to the other man who stood leaning on the catwalk that encircled the engine, staring at the oblivious writer on the ground.

"If that's Boers, we're as good as dead if we don't get out of here now," he said.

"Save it," the second man said. "That's Churchill. I saw him once in India when he was a second lieutenant in the 4th Hussars. Walked through a bloody riot to deliver his dispatch to the telegraph office. We're not going anywhere until Winston completes his writing."

"Stupid," said the first man and spat over the side. "God damn suicide. I'd like to know whose bright idea it was to send an entire train, over a hundred men, straight into the teeth of General Botha's forces. All so that maniac can get close to the action."

"Better be careful. He doesn't take well to that kind of comment. His father was Lord Randolph Churchill, you know. Whole family thinks pretty highly of itself."

The first engineer snorted, but he stared at the man below with more care.

Of course it wasn't an entire train. There were only six cars, three in front of the armored engine and three behind. The lead car was a flatcar with a mounted muzzle-loading seven-pounder naval gun manned by four seamen and commanded by a petty officer from HMS Tartar. The next two cars were armor-plated, with slits through which one hundred and seventeen men from the Durban Light Infantry and the Dublin Fusiliers could fire their rifles. Then came the locomotive and tender. Bringing up the rear were two more armored cars, followed by one for the breakdown gang and the guard.

Despite the engineer's remarks, their presence here was not all about Winston. The train made regular forays along this track, designed to reconnoiter the countryside as far as Colenso. The ostensible purpose of the exercise was to mask the weakness of the British garrison at Estcourt through a show of force and activity. Show the colors. It was a laughable military maneuver. The rail route was fixed, the size, smoke and noise of the locomotive precluded any possibility of surprise, and the Boer forces were poised to attack any plums that might fall into their laps.

It was true, however, that this particular excursion, under the command of Captain Alymer Haldane, had the sole purpose of getting journalist Winston Churchill into Ladysmith, which was virtually surrounded and cut off, so he could give his readers the latest news from the front. Most Britons still believed the war would be a short one. How could 90,000 Afrikaners, more or less, fight off the crack British troops that had begun to flow into South Africa? But the guerilla tactics of the Boers were proving effective. It would be three long years before the British broke their resistance and then only by using a scorched earth policy, burning 30,000 farms in the South African Republic and Orange Free State and interning 25,000 Afrikaner women and children. In the lead-up to World War II, the Nazis would remind members of Parliament repeatedly that it was Great Britain that had invented the concentration camp.

The pale twenty-five year-old Winston, head drooped forward in concentration, looked more like a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old. But he was already being lionized in England for his dispatches and for his new book, The River War, about the Sudan campaign, during which he had participated in the last great cavalry charge in history. The book had become a best-seller.

Though he'd failed in his recent attempt to get elected to Parliament, everyone knew he was a man destined for great things, most of all Winston himself. And indeed, he was currently the highest paid journalist in South Africa, no mean feat in a war that had attracted such eminent correspondents as Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling.

At last Winston stood up, dusted off his pants and folded his notes into his pocket. He rested one hand on the Mauser strapped to his hip, removed the cowboy hat and wiped his forehead, then saw the cloud on the horizon. He stared at it intently before turning to the engineers. "What do you make of that?" he said.

"Boers," the engineers said simultaneously.

"You think so?" said Churchill. He turned and looked again. "How far away do you figure?"

"Five miles maybe," the first engineer replied.

Captain Haldane appeared. "We'd best be getting on, Winston," he said and nodded to the engineers, who wholeheartedly jumped into action.

Winston and Haldane climbed to the catwalk at the front of the locomotive as the train began to move forward. Haldane was twenty years Winston's senior, an experienced officer with a Distinguished Service Order to his credit. But he was deferential to Churchill, whose family connections and burgeoning reputation would have made him a figure of importance even if he weren't also brilliant, impetuous and ambitious in the extreme.

"Look!" Haldane said, pointing to their right.

Winston turned and saw perhaps a hundred Boer horsemen cantering in a southerly direction a mile distant from them. Beyond they could see a low hill occupied by artillery.

"Magnificent!" Churchill said, staring at the riders, his hands gripping the rail tightly. "Aren't they grand? What say you, Aylmer, shall we give them a lesson in marksmanship?"

Haldane nodded at the hill. "They hold the high ground Winston. I don't like the idea of that artillery bearing down on us."

But Winston was eager for action. What a story it would make for his paper! Though he'd been in battle before, he had no experience of artillery bombardment or concentrated rifle fire. Excitedly, he said, "If we move quickly, we can get between the horsemen and their line. We can cut them off."

Haldane hesitated, but young Winston's enthusiasm was infectious. He leaned back and yelled at the engineers to increase their speed.

General Botha's men held their fire until the train reached the section of track closest to them. Then a series of large flashes followed by delayed booms emanated from the hilltop. The Boers opened up at six hundred yards with two large field guns, a Maxim that fired small shells in a stream and a barrage from riflemen lying on the ridge.

Winston and Haldane quickly sought shelter in one of the armored train cars as bullets whined and ricocheted against the steel. The engineers, desperate to escape the onslaught, poured on the speed, rounded the curve of the hill and headed down a steep grade straight into a large boulder that had been placed on the tracks.

There was a tremendous crash as the train came to an abrupt halt. The first car jackknifed into the air landing upside down. The armored cars holding the troops were thrown on their sides, scattering the occupants onto the ground like kernels of rice spilled from a sack. Haldane was also thrown to the ground. Winston, who'd seen the boulder at the last instant, managed to leap from the train just before impact, hitting the hard, baked earth and tumbling head over heels. Somehow, he emerged unscathed. With the captain dazed if not badly hurt, Churchill assumed control, though he held no military rank or authority.

Dodging bullets in complete disregard for his own safety, he ran the length of the train, assessing the damage. Blind good fortune had kept the locomotive from leaving the tracks. "You," he shouted to a group of forty or so soldiers crouched behind one of the overturned cars. "Direct your fire on the hill. I need a dozen men to come with me."

The soldiers obeyed him instantly. At this juncture they could care less who was in charge, so long as it was someone who seemed to know what he was doing. The way things were going, their lives wouldn't be worth six pence unless something happened to alter their circumstances quickly. The big guns on the hill were landing shells all around the train. At any moment one might penetrate the boiler, ending their chances for escape completely.

The damaged cars had to be disconnected from the locomotive and one of them pushed off the track. The men struggled at the task under fire the entire time. Four were killed, but finally the locomotive managed to push past the last obstructing car by running at it full tilt and ramming it off the track. With a screeching and tearing of metal, the locomotive blasted free and the track was clear. Winston now hoped to tow the rear cars and men to safety but discovered that the couplings had all been damaged by shells, leaving the cars stranded some way behind.

Haldane appeared at his side, recovered sufficiently to help organize the men to carry the wounded forward and place them on board the locomotive and its tender to evacuate. The rest of the soldiers used the locomotive as a shield from the blistering Boer fire, as they moved toward the trestle bridge over the Blaaw Kranz River half a mile away. The armored locomotive and the tender were pocked with bullet marks. As the engineer forced the engine to greater speed, the soldiers began to be left behind and the Boers increased their fire even more. At last the train crossed the bridge and was out of range.

Winston jumped off as soon as they slowed down. "Wait here, damn you," he shouted to the engineer above the din. "We can't leave those poor buggers to their fate." He sprinted across the bridge to look for the straggling soldiers and help them back to safety. It was the last time the engineer would see the young journalist. After waiting a short time, he determined no one was returning and headed for Estcourt.

Meanwhile, Winston proceeded along a slight rise between the ambush site and the Blaaw Kranz River, searching for his comrades. He kept low, listening to the whine of bullets hitting the ridge line just over his head. He came to a pile of boulders that offered enough cover for him to climb up and peer over the hill. A hundred yards away, he saw the soldiers standing in the open, their hands held high, guns on the ground in front of them. They had already surrendered, a line of Boers encircling them. He swore and ducked back behind the rocks.

Suddenly the boulder next to him exploded as a heavy bullet struck inches from his head. He was under direct fire from two horse soldiers who had appeared from behind a rock outcrop less than thirty yards away. He dove into the brush and scrambled down into a small depression overlooking the river far below. But there was almost no useful cover. The two horsemen closed on him quickly.

He looked about frantically for some avenue of escape. He calculated he might make it into the river gorge if he fired several shots to delay his pursuers, but as he reached for his pistol, he discovered that the Mauser was gone. He'd taken it off and placed it in the cab while working to free the locomotive. Cursing his stupidity, he slipped farther down the side of the gorge, until his feet ran out of purchase, only barely stopping himself from a headlong fall over a fifty-foot precipice. He could now go neither forward nor backward and was little better than a clay pigeon in a shooting gallery.

Though he'd only recently filed a dispatch in which he railed against soldiers who surrendered too quickly, he now found himself in just such a situation. Alone, unarmed, in open country with riflemen on horseback bearing down on him, surrender was the only option.

Winston was a prisoner of the Boers.

CHAPTER 2

CHURCHILL STARED SULLENLY at the ground beneath his tired feet. This was only the second rest break since their forced march to the Boer railhead at Elandslaagte had begun. There they would entrain for Pretoria, the capital city of the Transvaal where all British prisoners of war were being held. They had already walked thirty miles from the point of their capture in a pouring rain, with an equal distance yet to be covered. A lifelong horseman, Winston was unused to walking such distances. His feet, encased in uncomfortable army-issue boots, were covered with blisters.

The previous day, after ten hours forced march, they'd forded the chest- deep Klip River and made camp. Winston was billeted with the other officers in the black shadow of Bulwana Mountain surrounded by rugged, boulder- strewn hills. His captors were uncertain of his status but assumed he was someone of importance thanks to the deference and even salutes that many of the captured soldiers now gave him following his bravery during the attack. He'd spent much of the evening befriending two Boer guards named Spaarwater and Swanepoel, trying to bribe them into looking the other way so he might escape, but to no avail.

Some might have looked askance at such a ploy and his willingness to leave the other men behind. But it was a typical, impetuous Churchill effort. His head was filled with one thought only, the need to escape and report to his paper what was happening. He was certainly of no use to anyone as a prisoner of war. From his earliest boyhood, he'd always felt in charge of whatever situation he found himself in, his fierce intellect directing his somewhat less than imposing physique. Now, for the first time, he was completely helpless, his fate in the hands of others.

Haldane sat beside him humming softly, anything to distract his thoughts from their potential fate.

"What is that?" an irritated Winston said.

The captain stopped but continued to stare out across the soaking veldt. "I'm not sure," he said. "Something my wife used to sing, but I don't remember what it's called."

"Well try something more military," said Winston. "We ought to be thinking of ways to escape."

Churchill had seen himself furthering his reputation with this conflict by covering great battles and the movements of large forces, writing dispatches, keeping his name in the papers. Instead, here he was, sitting on a dirt path in the Transvaal, soaking wet, surrounded by armed guards. If he was interred for the duration, it would be the greatest lost opportunity of his young career. That he might actually be shot for a spy, since he'd been engaging the enemy while not wearing a regulation uniform, hardly concerned him. He trusted in destiny and firmly believed his own included great things still to come.

Haldane sighed. "A soldier's duty, to be sure, Winston. But you might want to recruit someone else. This ..." he indicated his leg that had received a glancing shard of shrapnel. It was tightly wrapped with a filthy bandage and although he'd managed to keep up on the forced march, it was obviously an injury that was likely to become infected. Then he would be nothing but a liability in any escape attempt.

Winston put a hand on his shoulder. "You've done well to keep the pace, Aylmer. It must be quite painful." He stared down the line of exhausted men. "Perhaps it would be better to wait until we reach Pretoria and have managed to rest and recuperate ... but I wonder if conditions will ever be better than now, while we're still in the open. In Pretoria we'll certainly be placed in some kind of stockade."

In fact, the accommodations the Boers offered for captured officers in Pretoria were far better than a stockade. The States Model School, a large, single-storied brick building with a steep, corrugated tin roof and a wide verandah, had housed two hundred students when it had opened as a college in 1897. Now it had been requisitioned to provide quarters for officer prisoners of war.

The building stood at the intersection of two broad, dusty thoroughfares crowded with carriages, carts and pedestrians. The so-called prison with its seventy-yard-square grounds was enclosed by a simple, chest-high ornamental iron fence. The only evidence that prisoners resided within was ten sentries who patrolled the fence. Inside, twelve classrooms on either side of a long corridor had been converted into dormitories with additional rooms for dining and recreation. Churchill found himself sharing a dormitory with Haldane and four other officers. This would be his home for the next twenty- five days.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Winston Churchill and the Treasure of Mapungubwe Hill"
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Copyright © 2014 Chris Angus.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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