FINEST HOUR 152, AUTUMN 2011
BY ALLEN PACKWOOD
Mr. Packwood is director of the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge, and executive director of the Churchill Centre UK. This paper was delivered at the 27th International Churchill Conference in Charleston, South Carolina in March 2011.
The first few sentences, whether of a proposal of marriage or of a newspaper article, require more thought and involve more effort, than any of those which follow. And if this is the case with those who are accustomed by experience to break the ice in either circumstance, how much more does it apply to the beginnings of the beginner. It is on account of these difficulties that I shall allow their enumeration to stand in place of a further prelude and plunge at once into the middle of the subject—and the harbour of the city of Havana.”
—Opening of Churchill’s first despatch as a war correspondent, 13 December 1895
Many books cover Churchill’s years as a young officer in the British army, showing how his experiences in Cuba, India, Sudan and South Africa helped to shape his character and world view, exposing him to mortal danger, and instilling bravery and a first-hand experience of warfare. The five years from 1895 to 1900 were crucial for young Winston.
But Churchill had two careers during these years; he was also a war correspondent—and, arguably, more successful in the latter role. Promotion in the Victorian army was a slow process, and Churchill entered and left it as junior officer, yet his earnings as a war correspondent increased tenfold. In 1895 he received 25 guineas (about £1500 or $2500 in today’s money) for his Cuban articles. By 1899 the Morning Post was prepared to pay him a staggering £250 (£14,000 today) per month, plus expenses, to cover the war in South Africa.
In My Early Life Churchill downplayed his journalism in favour of his youthful adventures, but his two skills developed side by side and fed off one another, framing his life as both a leading participant in and a leading chronicler of events. He made the news by writing it, ensuring first that he made the headlines.
Of course he had pedigree. His father was a noted orator; his mother wrote articles and a memoir, and edited her own literary journal, The Anglo-Saxon Review. Churchill’s 1895 Cuban adventure would not have been possible without his mother’s introductions to Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, the British Ambassador in Madrid and former political colleague of Lord Randolph; and would not have got off to such an inspirational start in New York without her close personal friendship with Bourke Cockran.
Time and again in this period we see young Winston pressing his mother to use her contacts to facilitate his assignments. In hindsight it is easy to forget that in these early years he was very much in the shadow of both parents. Indeed, in November 1900, when Major James B. Pond, self-styled “proprietor and manager,” became the New York agent charged with arranging Winston’s North American lecture tour, he invited Lady Randolph to “accompany your son on the voyage and witness his reception here….I need not add that it would doubly enhance the value of the lecture.” This makes clear that the now-Mrs. George Cornwallis-West, or “Lady Randolph Churchill-West” as some of the American press styled her, was at least as well known in east coast circles as her famous son.
But pedigree and contacts are not the whole story. Winston had talent and enthusiasm for writing, particularly for news reporting. His gift for language perhaps first manifested itself at school at Harrow, where he celebrated his learning of English in My Early Life. He was wilful and rebellious, his independent nature asserted early, in a series of letters that he wrote to The Harrovian between October 1891 and June 1893, between ages sixteen and eighteen. In a letter of November 1891, signed “De Profundis,” he doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind:
The Class rooms provided for several forms are very bad. In some the light is meagrely doled out, as in the Old Music Room, the towers of the new Speech Room and Mr Welsford’s Room. In others, as the “cock-loft” the wind of heaven has free access from every quarter. Something ought to be done. Either the number of the school should not exceed the number for whom proper accommodation can be provided or new class rooms should be built. Since that conspicuous, though unsightly edifice, the Music Schools was erected with so much ease I would respectfully suggest the latter alternative.”
This letter was apparently not published, but rejection might have encouraged him, and a month or so later he is writing again, this time under the pseudonym “Junius Junior,” about the poor performance of the school in the gymnasium display. All of his Harrovian pieces are witty, gently sarcastic, and critical in tone. There may well have been others. In October 1906, his old maths teacher, C.H.P. Mayo, wrote to congratulate Churchill on his biography of Lord Randolph, and to remind him of his first literary effort, which was apparently a criticism of the school concert for The Harrovian.
Yet Churchill needed motivation to take up his pen professionally. The personal catalyst was the death of Lord Randolph Churchill in January 1895, aged just forty-five, leaving Winston the head of the family and focus of his mother’s ambitions, needing to establish an independent income and prove himself worthy of his father’s memory. Like the age in which he lived, with the advent of motorcars and aeroplanes, he was suddenly a young man in a hurry; determined, as he wrote his mother from barracks outside London in August 1896, to “beat my sword into an iron despatch box.”
This letter is very revealing. Churchill may have originally been motivated to join the army by dreams of derring-do, but even before his regiment was despatched to India, it is clear that he now saw an army career as a means to an end. Yes, he still wanted “scenes of adventure and excitement,” but now he wanted them in “places where I could gain experience and derive advantage…. The future is to me utterly unattractive. I look upon going to India…as useless and unprofitable exile.” It was useless, he added, to preach the gospel of patience to me. Others as young are making the running now and what chance have I of ever catching up.”
The personal correspondence between Winston and his mother during this period dwells heavily on the need to raise income, for both of them were given to luxury and Lady Randolph even to extravagance. On 5 March 1897, in the midst of a quite acrimonious exchange about his spending, Lady Randolph wrote, “I really fear for the future. I am telling you this darling in order that you may see how impossible it is for me to help you [financially]—and how you must in future depend on yourself. I make out that you get about £200 pay, which makes your income for the present £700 per year.Of course it is not much and I can quite understand that you will have to deny yourself many things if you mean to try and live within it.”
Reminding us of the rarified class of society the Churchills occupied, £700 in 1900 is the equivalent of £40,000 ($65,000) today. Yet this was not a lot on which to maintain the Victorian officer’s lifestyle of horses and servants—much less than the income of his fellow-officers. Replying to his mother on April 6th, Churchill was still complaining: “This country is no economy. British cavalry have to pay nearly double for servants, food, forage etc.”
Though often charged with not understanding money, young Winston showed himself astute in his early personal financial dealings, more so perhaps than his mother who was often acting as his UK-based literary agent. In 1897 he was scathing to her about the £5 per article that the Daily Telegraph was paying for his Indian frontier, despatches, and promising to return any cheque less than £10. (See Dan Myers’s foregoing article.)
Yet money like soldiering was not Churchill’s primary motivation; his real aim was to establish himself on the political stage. His methods were risky. Young officers were supposed to do their duty—not to engage in self-promotion, especially by leaving their regiment at any excuse to find attachment on the front line, or writing despatches critical of aspects of the British military command. But Churchill was not to be diverted.
Installed uneasily in peaceful, polo-playing Bangalore, Churchill seized every opportunity to get himself to a theatre of war. April 1897 found him desperate to use army leave to cover a Greco-Turkish clash, only to be disappointed in May: “The war has fizzled out like a damp firework.” Three months later he was writing his mother about the Pathan uprising on the Indian North-West frontier, to put in a “a good word about me in case this thing spreads…”
Deciding not to wait, Winston grasped the initiative: returning to India from leave, he took an arduous five-day train journey to join the Malakand Field Force, on what is now the Afghan frontier, with no guarantee of an army vacancy awaiting him. He repeated the pattern in 1898, when, finding his request for transfer to the Sudan expedition blocked by Lord Kitchener (who disliked his dual role as officer and correspondent), Churchill returned to London and successfully petitioned both Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and Sir Evelyn Wood, Adjutant General at the War Office. In travelling thousands of miles and risking the wrath of superiors, we can see the lengths he was prepared to go to in order to make his own luck—incidentally developing the nascent political skills that would serve him well in later life.
Churchill took risks, but they were calculated ones. His contemporary letters capture his faith in his abilities, his enthusiasm and ambition, married to his personal bravery. From the North Western Frontier in September 1897 he wrote to his mother:
…there will be a battle—probably the biggest yet fought on the frontier this year. By the time this reaches you everything will be over so that I do not mind writing about it. I have faith in my star—that is that I am intended to do something in the world. If I am mistaken—what does it matter? My life has been a pleasant one and though I should regret to leave it—it would be a regret that perhaps I should never know. [And afterward:] I rode on my grey pony all along the skirmish line where everyone else was lying down in cover. Foolish perhaps but I play for high stakes and given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble. Without the gallery things are different.
Equal to these physical risks were the intellectual hazards of writing about his adventures, in despatches for newspapers and then books. Because he was a serving officer, contemporary convention meant that his despatches from Cuba were unsigned but rather credited, “From our own correspondent,” while his accounts of the Malakand Field Force were cited, “by a young officer.” By 1897, Churchill had had enough of convention, asking his mother to demand his byline on his Daily Telegraph despatches, “as otherwise I get no credit for the letters. It may help me politically to come before the public in this way.” His mother preferred a more cautious approach, and when they were published again unsigned he protested at being unable to bring “my personality before the electorate.” He brushed aside her argument that he should suppress certain views for the sake of his army career: “…certain elements must always be hostile and I am determined not to allow them to interfere with my actions.”
Churchill did not need to worry about acquiring notoriety. Travelling to Cuba to ride with the Spanish forces had provoked considerable comment in the British and American press. The Newcastle Leader of 7 December 1895 waspishly wrote: “spending a holiday in fighting other people’s battles is rather an extraordinary proceeding, even for a Churchill,” while the Eastern Morning News added, “A Churchill is sure to do something erratic.” Some were slightly better disposed: “Mr Churchill, like his father, has an anxiety to distinguish himself,” noted The Star, “but his leaning is towards romance rather than to a parliamentary career, his mother would have preferred that he should not risk his life on such a harebrained expedition, but he has a will of his own.” The gossip column “Table Talk” in a morning paper credited Churchill with having inherited “his father’s dash and pluck” as well as Lord Randolph’s brains, and correctly if prematurely surmised that he had “determined to give up the army and go into politics at once.” (The paper then lowered itself to an unnecessary and salacious remark: “Lord Randolph’s second boy ‘Jack’ Churchill is at Harrow, and, as the saying is, takes after his mother.” I wonder if this is a first appearance in print of the inference about Jack’s parentage that Peregrine Churchill and others have had to spend so much time fighting?)
Even if the Daily Graphic articles were nominally anonymous, it was pretty clear from accompanying press coverage who was writing them. This remained the case even when Churchill wrote from the Indian frontier or the Sudan. Hearth and Home’s “frontier correspondent” identified WSC as the Daily Telegraph author. The Eastern Press praised Churchill’s courageous exposé of the blunders perpetrated in the frontier campaign, noting that British authorities “were understood to be so mortified by the revelations that desperate efforts were at once made to induce the chief authorities to withdraw Lieutenant Churchill’s leave.” This was exactly what Lady Randolph had feared—and her son wanted.
Churchill’s success was underpinned by hard work. He travelled far and endured arduous conditions to write when not occupied with military duties. His Daily Telegraph letters from the Malakand “were written, on the ground in a tent temperature of 115o or after a long day’s action or by a light which it was dangerous to use lest it drew fire—when I was tired and hustled and amid other adverse circumstances.” Conditions were as bad in tropical Cuba or the deserts of Egypt and the Sudan. Yet he put in the time, often writing for more than one publication or recycling his articles in different publications, a precedent he would follow in his later career.
The success of Churchill’s writings may have obscured the work involved, because they flowed effortlessly and wittily, an illusion he encouraged. His public persona, in interviews and early speeches, is different from the ambitious, money-conscious, focused young man of his private letters. It had to be, for if he were seen as too self-serving, the public might turn against him and the plan might fail. Thus, whilst the private Churchill could tell his brother that American journalism was “vulgarity divested of truth,” he was adept at charming those same American journalists upon his return from Cuba, showing them an insurgent bullet that had killed a Spanish soldier standing only a few feet away, before joking that it took 2000, or 20,000— depending on which paper you read—to hit each man!
He was capable of dodging potentially controversial issues. When he was called a “land pirate” for going to Cuba to fight with the Spanish imperialists so unpopular in the USA, he responded as soon as he reached Tampa from Havana: “There is no truth in the statement that I have taken part in the fighting against the Cubans. I have not even fired a revolver. I am a member of General Valdez’s staff by courtesy only; and am decorated with the [Spanish] Red Cross only by courtesy.” A fine example of what today we call “image management,” this was picked up by many newspapers. Today this technique is an essential part of any politician’s armoury. Clearly, Churchill was gifted at it.
South Africa and the Boer War marked the high point of Churchill’s career as a war reporter, though it wasn’t clear to him at the time. He’d left the army in the hope of being elected as Member of Parliament for Oldham, but had lost the by-election, the first setback in his political career. Becoming a war correspondent for the Morning Post to cover operations against the Boer republics may have seemed a retrograde step, but proved a career-enhancing move.
Because Churchill no longer had an army commission, there were no constraints arising from being a serving officer. He was fully entitled to his byline and his opinions. Nor had he to look for employment—the papers were now looking for him, ensuring him financial resources and independence.
Then there was the Churchill luck. When his armoured train was ambushed and he was taken prisoner, he might easily have been executed for taking part in its defence. Instead he was flung into gaol, where he quickly went “over the wall” and somehow stumbled upon the only British mine owner in the vicinity, who would give him shelter and aid his escape. He quickly capitalized on his luck after reaching safety in Portuguese Lourenço Marques, sending two telegrams, which we have in the Churchill archive.
Churchill the officer and gentleman cabled Louis de Souza, the Boer Secretary of State for War, assuring him that his escape was no fault of his guards; Churchill the journalist cheekily cabled the editor of the pro-Boer Standard and Diggers News to say he was now writing, “How I escaped from the Boers,” but regretting that he could not “for obvious reasons disclose many interesting details.” He could not resist adding, “Shall be happy to give you any you may require when next I visit Pretoria probably third week in March.” Both telegrams are care- fully crafted to capitalise on his newfound heroic status and thus raise his profile.
Churchill did not rest: by the end of his short boat journey to Durban, where his triumphal reception was watched by the international press, he had already produced the first account of his great escape. Again we have the manuscript. There is a wonderful passage towards the end, written in his own hand as he sailed down the African coast: “Of course, I am a man of peace. I do not fight. But swords are not the only weapons in the world. Something may be done with a pen.”
The escape made him an international celebrity, a famous Churchill in his own right, and the worldwide press cuttings alone filled one of his volumes. The Star of 17 November 1899 published a sketch of him in his Hussars uniform, the war correspondent “Who Displayed Such Heroism in the Armoured Train Adventure,” while the Golden Penny described his capture in its series, “Heroes of the War: Stories of Personal Bravery.”
In the frenzy of media speculation, the Pall Mall Gazette reported that he had been shot twice, while the Saturday Herald published a cartoon entitled “Not Cowards—Only Demoralised,” stating, “Young Churchill, a newspaper correspondent, at the battle of the armoured train, was obliged to seize a rifle and give the demoralised English soldiers a brave example. ‘Can’t ye stand like men’ was his scornful cry.”
After his escape was reported, coverage went into overdrive, The Illustrated Police News producing a full-page cartoon strip, “The Escape of Brave Winston Churchill from Pretoria….Sixty Hours of Terrible Anxiety and Daring Adventures.”
Once Churchill was free to add his own voice to the story, he shaped it through telegrams and press interviews. Widely quoted, he again showed a great ability to capture the mood of the moment with the right words:
“I am very weak but I am free. I have lost many pounds in weight, but I am lighter in heart.”
This was the moment he had waited for. The beginning of his account is a great piece of Churchillian writing, evocative and stressing something he would feel all his life, especially over the plight of prisoners when he was Home Secretary in 1910-11:
How unhappy is that poor man who loses his liberty! What can the wide world give him in exchange? No degree of material comfort, no consciousness of correct behaviour can balance the hateful degradation of imprisonment. Before I had been an hour in captivity I resolved to escape.
That first article would be syndicated and quoted around the world. In a strategy more associated with modern prime ministers and presidents than those of Victorian times, it would lead to a book and a lecture tour of Britain and North America. More than that, his words were also the opening shots in his bid to try again to enter Parliament for Oldham.
This time he was guaranteed success, a triumph he owed to the strategy he had adopted and refined since 1895. Through his own writing, and through his understanding and massaging of the press, young Winston had placed himself firmly in control of his own narrative. It was a system that would continue to serve him well.
On 17 February 1908 Churchill, now the established MP and Cabinet member, spoke to the Author’s Club of London on the freedom of the writer:
He is dependent for his occupation upon no-one but himself, and nothing outside him that matters. He is the sovereign of an Empire, self-supporting, self contained. No-one can sequestrate his estates. No-one can deprive him of his stock in trade; no-one can force him to exercise his faculty against his will; no-one can prevent him exercising it as he chooses. The pen is the great liberator of men and nations.
Churchill cannot have spoken a truer word about himself. For him, writing was the great liberator. It allowed him to make the most of his military experience and to launch his political career. Moreover, it gave him a voice and a platform. This was something he carried into the next phase of his life. Throughout his fifty years in politics, he continued to use his articles and books to support and to reinforce his public persona and political goals—financially, but also more importantly, intellectually. Put simply, it allowed Churchill to continue to set the agenda and make the news.
1. Broadwater Collection Press Albums, BRDW I Press I “The Insurrection in Cuba, Letters from the Front I”: cutting from Daily Graphic, 13 December 1895.
2. The standard work on the subject is Douglas Russell, Winston Churchill: Soldier (FH 129:36). See also Carlo D’Este, Warlord (FH 142:51); Michael Paterson, Winston Churchill: His Military Life (FH 129:37); and Richard Holmes, In the Footsteps of Churchill (FH 128:37).
3. National Archives Historic Currency Converter.
4. See Anne Sebba, “Anglo-Saxon Review,” FH 145:46.
5. See Robert Pilpel, “What Churchill Owed the Great Republic,” FH 125:34.
6. Major James B. Pond to Mrs. Cornwallis-West, 2 November 1900. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/66/80.
7. Winston S Churchill, My Early Life (London: Reprint Society, 1944), 30-31.
8. WSC to the Head Master of Harrow, circa Novem- ber 1891. Churchill Papers, CHAR 1/3/4.
9. WSC to Lady Randolph, 4 August 1896. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/21/96-99.
11. Lady Randolph to WSC, 5 March 1897, in Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. 1, Youth 1874-1900 (London: Heinemann, 1966), 330-31.
12. WSC to Lady Randolph, 6 April 1897. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/32.
13. WSC to Lady Randolph, 26 May 1897. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/41(a).
14. WSC to Lady Randolph, 17 August 1897. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/44-45, 47.
15. WSC to Lady Randolph, 5 and 19 September 1897. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/52, 57.
16. WSC to Lady Randolph, 5 September 1897. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/52.
17. WSC to Lady Randolph, 25 October 1897. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/67.
18. Broadwater Collection Press Albums, BRDW I Press 1: press cuttings, 1895
20. WSC to Lady Randolph, 25 October 1897. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/23/67.
21. WSC to Jack Churchill,  November 1895. Churchill Papers, CHAR 28/21/85-89. The World, 15 December 1895. Broadwater Collection Press albums, BRDW I Press 1.
22. Ibid., Broadwater Collection Press albums.
23. Churchill Additional Papers, WCHL 2/2, Telegrams sent from Lourenço Marques, December 1899.
24. WSC, “With Headquarters IX—I Escape from Pretoria.” Churchill Additional Papers, WCHL 2/7.
25. Broadwater Collection Press Albums, BRDW I Press 2A: cuttings, 1899.
26. Churchill Additional Papers, WCHL 2/7.
27. Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), I 903-05.
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