“Half-alien and wholly undesirable” was Lady Astor’s assessment of Winston Churchill.  For Winston’s father, Randolph Churchill, had taken an American wife, “a dollar princess,” as many cash-strapped members of the English aristocracy did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  But Lord Randolph, dead at age 46, left no inheritance.  Poor Winston had to make his own way in the world.

Though he had little money, he had a wealth of connections that he adroitly used to promote his own ambitions.  One of his tutors, noting Winston’s academic mediocrity, remarked, “that lad couldn’t have gone through Harrow, he must have gone under it.”  But Churchill, like many men of genius, found that formal schooling interfered with his education.  After leaving school, he joined the army.

In Victorian times, the service was a place for adventure; more importantly for Churchill, it was a place to make a name for himself, “the glittering gateway to distinction.”

Lord Salisbury, then prime minister, got Winston early postings in the Sudan and India—wherever the action was.  A talented writer, Churchill turned his adventures into two critically acclaimed books on his military experiences while also finding time to write a novel, all before he turned 25.  Churchill’s prose still excites today.  His book The River War (1899), about the Anglo-Egyptian reconquest of the Sudan, has been in the news of late.  John Weston, a candidate for English member of the European Parliament, was arrested two years ago for reading aloud this passage:

How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries!  Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.  The effects are apparent in many countries.  Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.  A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.

Winston Churchill worshiped his father and sought to imitate him.  He, too, stood for Parliament at the age of 25, having resigned his army commission to contest a seat in Oldham, Manchester.  Unlike his father, Winston failed to win election, and after the campaign landed himself a job at the London Morning Post.  Eagerly, he left for Africa as a war correspondent to cover what would come to be known as the Boer War (1899-1902), a struggle between Dutch, German, Huguenot, and English settlers for control of South Africa.

Almost immediately upon his arrival, Churchill found himself at the center of events, when a reconnaissance train he was traveling in was ambushed by Boer forces.  Under a hail of bullets and artillery, Churchill remained calm.  “Bullets are not worth considering,” he wrote.  “Besides, I am so conceited I do not believe the gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”  Though a noncombatant, Churchill took command of the situation: “I can never doubt which is the right end of the telegraph to be at.  It is better to be making news than taking it; to be an actor rather than a critic.”  While under constant fire, he succeeding in collecting the wounded and in clearing an overturned car that blocked the engine’s passage, and in doing so was captured.  Had he not left his pistol on the train, he would have been shot as a spy.  While in prison, Churchill was treated as the son of a lord, permitted to have suits made in town and to continue to send dispatches to the Morning Post.  War was more humane in those waning days of Christendom.

In his autobiography, My Early Life (1930), Churchill lamented that democracy and science had ruined war:

Instead of a small number of well-trained professionals championing their country’s cause with ancient weapons and a beautiful intricacy of archaic manoeuvre, . . . we now have entire populations including men and women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination.

The Boer War was a modern war in which automatic weapons and machine guns and concentration camps made their debut.  With the invention of smokeless gunpowder, patented by Alfred Nobel, the bright red British uniforms presented a perfect target and were rendered obsolete.  A new khaki (an Urdu word for dust) uniform was issued.  These were resented by the men, who complained that, wearing them, they looked “less like military officers than bus drivers.”  Edwin Arlington Robinson caught this attitude best in “Miniver Cheevy”:

Miniver cursed the commonplace

And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;

He missed the mediaeval grace


f iron clothing.

Churchill loathed prison in Pretoria.  “Hours crawl by like paralytic centipedes.  Nothing amuses you.  Reading is difficult; writing impossible.”  Adding to his prison doldrums was the fact that the British were losing the war.  After failing to gain release as an innocent press correspondent, Churchill resolved to escape to the Portuguese frontier some 280 miles away, a plan he described as “a scheme of desperate and magnificent audacity.”  A fellow newspaper writer in South Africa observed,

Winston is like a strong wire that, stretched, always springs back.  He prospers under attack, enmity and disparagement . . . He lives on excitement . . . the more he scents frustration the more he has to fight for; the greater the obstacles, the greater the triumph.

The escape plan had originally included two other inmates, but chance intervened, Churchill jumped the fence, made it to town, and jumped a train he called “my faithful ally of the night,” which took him to a farming and mining community 70 miles away.  Without compass or map, he steered by the stars, whose luck brought him to a door on which he knocked.  As the author of this wonderful historical narrative puts it, “Churchill had stumbled upon one of the few places in the 110,000 square miles where it was still possible to find an Englishman.”  After being briefly hidden in a mine, he was smuggled by train to Portuguese East Africa and liberty.

The empire needed a hero, and Churchill became an instant one.

The only exception to the seemingly endless series of disasters that had befallen the British empire since the beginning of the war was the escape of Winston Churchill.  The story of his audacious flight reminded the world what it meant to be a Briton—resilient, resourceful and even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled.

Churchill was the man of the hour, the right man at the right time who would be called on again to play the role of hero of the empire during World War II.

Yet the British Empire, which once ranged over one fifth of the world’s surface, five times the size of the Roman Empire and ruling a quarter of the human race, today is no more.

Solomon, where is thy throne?  It is gone in the wind.

Babylon, where is thy might?  It is gone in the wind.


[Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard (New York: Doubleday) 400 pp., $30.00