Finest Hour 108, Autumn 2000
Abstracts by Chris Hanger
“Churchill in Cuba” by Michael Blow, Quarterly Journal of Military History, [fall 1990], 3:1.
On 20 November 1895, the steamer Olivette entered Havana Harbor. Among its passengers were two young English subalterns, Reginald Barnes and Winston Churchill. They had come to Cuba as guests of the Spanish government. Churchill yearned for excitement and the thrill of hearing bullets whistling through the air. There had been uprisings in the British Empire among “savages and barbarous peoples,” but not the kind of real war that interested him. The Cuban excursion, Churchill’s colonel back home had said, would be “as good or almost as good as a season’s serious hunting.”
Their “official” mission was to determine the effect and striking power of the new smokeless powder bullet used by the Spanish. Eager to be in the thick of fighting, Churchill and Barnes arranged with a Spanish staff officer to join one of the mobile columns. The young Sandhurst graduates told the officer that they could catch up with a column just forty miles away, but the Spaniard told them that they would not last five miles. Guerrilla tactics, it seems, were not taught at Sandhurst.
Confused, Churchill asked where the enemy was. The Spanish officer replied, “They are everywhere and nowhere,” a reference to their lack of uniforms, irregular hit-and-run tactics, and the inability to distinguish insurrectos from ordinary peasants.
Churchill appreciated the sturdiness and stamina of the Spanish troops, who were required to bring all their provisions with them as they chased the legendary guerrilla leader Maximo Gomez across the landscape. The Cuban insurgents rode ponies, lived off the land with the support of the civilian small farmers, and carried little ammunition.
Nothing happened until November 30th, Churchill’s twenty-first birthday, when for the first time he briefly heard gunfire. Later, as he ate breakfast, a volley erupted “almost in our faces it seemed.” In the melee, a horse behind Churchill’s had been hit. Churchill realized that the bullet that killed the horse had come within a foot of his head.
They were fired upon the next day as they were swimming in a river. That night a bullet went through the hut where Churchill was sleeping. He first thought of lying on the floor but felt safe because a rather large, if not fat, Spanish officer was sleeping in the hammock between himself and the gunfire.
On December 1st the Spaniards continually attacked and Churchill was repeatedly exposed to enemy fire and “heard enough bullets whistle and hum past to satisfy me for some time to come.”
During this period Churchill gained much experience which would later serve him well. He met Bourke Cockran, a noted New York politician, who gave him insightful advice. He began his writing career and, to his great delight, was given the Cruz Rosa (“Red Cross”) medal from the Spanish government. He had tasted the excitement of battle and soldiering that was to play an important part in his career.
Chris Hanger diligently seeks out important articles involving Churchill and represents their view (not necessarily his) in abstracts. If you would like to see a specific article abstracted here, contact Chris by email ([email protected]) or better yet, send him a photocopy: 12904 Water Mill Cove, Austin TX 78729 USA. Be sure to cite the journal, volume, number and issue date.