Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013
By Hal Klepak
An exciting new research project, pursued jointly by a Canadian and a Cuban historian, will shed new light on Churchill’s first foreign adventure—which was far more significant in his development than has thus far been generally believed.
“We can never know for certain how a person would have developed if one or another aspect of his life had been different. But what is clear with regard to Churchill—as his letters at the time and his writings in later years attest—is that a life which before 1895 seemed destined to yield a narrow range of skimpy achievements became from 1895 onwards a life of glorious epitomes and stunning vindications.”
—Robert Pilpel, “What Churchill Owed the Great Republic,” Finest Hour 125, Winter 2004-05
In young Winston Churchill’s three weeks in Cuba, during the 1895 Spanish counter-insurgency campaign, he was already showing characteristics of the figure he would become: writer, soldier, political and military analyst, war correspondent, adventurer, thinker, and even artist.
Lourdes Méndez Vargas, the village historian of Arroyo Blanco, in central Cuba’s Sancti Spiritus Province, is an amateur only in the sense of not holding a full-time teaching position at a Cuban university. Her devotion to the history of Arroyo Blanco is such that she has already carved out a place among historians of her province as it prepares to celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2014. She comes from a family of influential Arroyo Blanqueros, who trace their roots deep into the region’s colonial past.
Lourdes Méndez began studying the role of her village as a pivotal spot in the Spanish defensive system, which had restricted the rebellion to relatively poor eastern Cuba during the previous rebellion (1868-78). The more prosperous west had remained in royalist hands for the whole of that conflict. When we met at a conference last year, she proposed an unusual project.
She had noticed the relatively scant research done on Churchill in Arroyo Blanco during his 1895 sojourn with the Spanish—despite his being considered the village’s most important visitor ever. (A nearby cigar factory makes the famous “Churchills.”) Disappointed that there was so little known of Churchill’s sojourn, in English or Spanish, she consulted the Cuban military archives. Here she discovered much that was new.
It seemed possible that, given access to Spanish and Cuban diplomatic and military archives, we could connect the dots, piecing together Churchill’s movements in more detail than before. We could discover exactly whom he had faced in the actions he described, and much more on the series of events which marked his life, and Cuban history, in important ways nearly 120 years ago.
Being something of a Churchillian, the possibility of fleshing out this project in the Anglophone world seemed to me a wonderful opportunity. Knowing how much British archives could add to the story, I proposed expanding the project, both of us working on Cuban and Spanish sources while I explored the British record, since I speak English and can more often be in the UK. The result so far is an exceptional series of “firsts” in the life of Winston Churchill.
Working virtually full-time, Lourdes Méndez concentrated on Churchill in Arroyo Blanco while I began to study the larger theme of Churchill in Cuba. Of course he had returned to the island for a brief visit in 1946, but our current interest is the experience he had there in 1895. Not fully understood at the time, his Cuban trip was the first international adventure of one of the greatest adventurers of our time. He had been to France and Switzerland as a boy, but he had never before been outside western Europe, nor in any part of the overseas British Empire.
In the eventful year of 1895, Churchill lost his father, his grandmother Clara and his beloved nurse Mrs. Elizabeth Everest, while graduating from Sandhurst and joining a cavalry regiment, the 4th Hussars. Bored with peacetime routine and with a long stint in peaceful India in prospect, Churchill yearned for adventure. Cuba, he decided, offered the action he craved.
After the death of their father in January 1895, Lady Randolph became more attentive to her sons, and Winston in particular knew how to take advantage of this. Informing her of his plans only after his mind was made up, he unabashedly asked her to intercede with everyone from the British ambassador in Madrid, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, to the commander-in-chief of the Army, Lord Wolseley. As an army officer he needed Wolseley’s permission to travel to Cuba in order to report on the rebellion as a war correspondent. He was also able to get a small official assignment: to report on a new Spanish rifle round of interest to the War Office.
Cuba proved the first example of that love of adventure which marked Churchill all his life. While other correspondents might sit comfortably in Havana hotels, listening only to rumours from the front, young Winston arranged through contacts actually to join the Spanish on campaign—to see for himself what was happening. To imagine the nerve (one press report called it “cheek”) of such a young officer, a mere second-lieutenant straight out of Sandhurst, requesting leave to undertake such a job, one must understand that we are dealing with a singular character. This was the Churchill style: daring, oblivious of bureaucracy or authority, unashamed to pull strings, personally courageous. All this was emerging just as he was turning twenty-one, showing us how soon those traits developed.
Churchill had arranged to write for the Daily Graphic, for which his father had written He was not well paid, but with money his mother put up, he was able to book his trip in comfort. His companion was young Reginald Barnes, later to command a division in France and like Churchill a future colonel of the 4th Hussars—a highly distinguished position as a kind of father figure and defender of a regiment’s ethos. They traveled first to New York, where Winston had an impressionable visit with Bourke Cockran (See “Churchill’s American Mentor,” FH 115, Summer 2002; and “What Churchill Owed the Great Republic,” FH 125, Winter 2004-05.)
Barnes and Churchill entrained for Tampa, where they sailed to Havana, arriving on 20 November. Having been received by the second-in-command of the island, they took a train to the central city of Santa Clara, headquarters of the Spanish Army. Neither spoke Spanish, neither was with his regiment. They had joined the army of a country not even a British ally, whose suppression of the Cuban rebellion was rejected by most Britons, and especially by the press. This would later prove problematic.
As arranged by the Spanish Foreign Ministry, Churchill and Barnes were received in Santa Clara by no less a figure than General Arsenio Martínez Campos, captain-general of Cuba. They were advised to go to Sancti Spiritus to join a mobile column, but could get there safely only by a circuitous route. Thus they continued by train to the south coast, by ship farther east to the tiny port of Tunas de Zaza, and again by rail to Sancti Spiritus, arriving on the 23rd. Here they met the commander of the column, General Álvaro Suárez Valdéz. The next day the column headed out towards the defended village of Arroyo Blanco, where it arrived on the 27th without incident.
Preparing to move forward, the column divided into two. One part headed northeast to victual Spanish posts supporting the “Trocha,” a 200-yard-wide fortified barrier from Morón in the north to Júcaro in the south, created to contain the rebellion. The other group, including Churchill and Barnes, headed off to engage any rebels they could find. Soon this column learned of the arrival of the forces under the two greatest rebel generals: Máximo Gómez, a Dominican who for his qualities and experience was generalissimo in the 1868 insurrection; and Antonio Maceo, a mulatto of enormous courage and military skill. The two were in effect on their way west, the invasion route which had failed so badly in the previous war, without which no hope of victory could be had.
The Spanish were not sure of the size of the mambí (Cuban rebel) column, but knew it would be heavy in cavalry, highly mobile and dangerous. In fact its strength was in the range of 4000, of which 3000 were cavalry and 1000 infantry. Suárez Valdéz had 1800 men, but only 200 were the vital cavalry that offered mobility, speed and the chance of surprise in the Cuban landscape. Since the rebels had many times that many horsemen, it can only be assumed that Suárez Valdéz’s orders from Martinez Campos were to engage, evaluate, but not attempt a major battle.
Churchill’s judgments on the actions that followed suggested that he did not have full knowledge of the Spanish view of where they stood. Still, he was taken one night to a nearby high point, where a heliograph was used to keep contact with the Trocha, and nearly came to grief. Late in the day, without a proper escort, he and his Spanish hosts were soon in the dark in rebel-held territory. With the luck that was soon to be famous, Churchill and the Spanish made it back to safety. With the help of local peasants, rebels were crossing the relatively lightly defended Trocha at will, and those Churchill would encounter were already west of that line.
On November 29th, the eve of his 21st birthday, Winston wrote his second “letter” to the Daily Graphic, this time from Arroyo Blanco. He was still aching for action, but had not long to wait. The next day, his coming of age, he first sighted the enemy; he had his baptism of fire the following day when rebels fired twice on the column. That night as well, the camp was fired upon, part of the rebel tactic of exhausting the Spanish by harassment; casualties were taken, one right outside Churchill’s tent. His sense of humour was in evidence when he wrote his mother of this adventure, later recalled in his autobiography:
I fortified myself by dwelling on the fact that the Spanish officer whose hammock was slung between me and the enemy’s fire was a man of substantial physique; indeed one might almost have called him fat. I have never been prejudiced against fat men. At any rate I did not grudge this one his meals. Gradually I dropped asleep.
Such pieces of subtle humour sparkled through his correspondent’s reports at the time, another sign of things to come in his remarkable life. In his second despatch of 23 November, Churchill wrote:
It was explained to me that when challenged by any sentry or outpost it was necessary to answer very sharply. If, by a process of deduction which Sherlock Holmes himself might envy, you arrive at the conclusion that the outpost is Spanish, you answer “Spain”; if, on the other hand, you think it a rebel post, you reply “Free Cuba”; but if you make a mistake it is likely to be very awkward.
The next day the column proceeded eastward and again came under fire. Churchill and some other officers chose to bathe in an attractive river and soon were the object of sniping and then serious fire. In what must have been a humorous scene, they tried as best they could to dress, until the Spanish main force drove the rebels back. For a second time Winston had a “near run thing.” It was just what he was looking for—a precursor of escapades in India, Sudan, South Africa, and even Europe.
That day saw the “battle” of La Reforma. This was a small action because the rebels did not want a major engagement, being anxious to get on west, while the Spanish were probably not numerous enough to do more than harass them. Churchill was in the thick of it, not from choice but because the Spanish general, a man of great courage, wanted his young guests to see the action fully, and kept them right next to him under the fire of 100-200 rebel soldiers, who barred the way and forced the column to deploy. This produced the rather wonderful sketch by Churchill (probably touched up professionally for publication) showing the Spanish artillery deploying to fire—a scene only a few metres from where he himself sat on horseback, under significant fire in a real military action.
The general and Churchill continued to the town of Ciego de Ávila to the east, lynch pin of the whole 68-kilometre Trocha defensive line. From there Winston returned to the coast, still travelling with Suárez Valdéz, and then to Havana.
On December 10th he and Barnes sailed back to Tampa, where Churchill was met with his first hostile press. As in Britain, public opinion in the United States was distinctly pro-rebel. The rumour, in fact true, that the Spanish were planning to decorate Churchill and Barnes for bravery under fire, had led to speculation that the two officers had fought alongside the Spanish, instead of merely observing.
Given the importance Havana and Madrid attached to the slightest suggestion of British support, they were in no hurry to dispel such notions. Churchill tried hard to convince the Florida press and public otherwise, saying he was authorized to use his pistol only in self-defence. Press hostility, the first he faced but far from the last, would be repeated in Britain as word spread of his activities.
As Robert Pilpel wrote, the watershed year of 1895 saw Winston Churchill emerge from a life of “skimpy achievements” to a life of “glorious epitomes and stunning vindications.” His Cuban adventure had seen some extraordinary firsts for the young man who was to become “Person of the Century” and to be voted the “Greatest Briton.” Cuba marked his baptism of fire, his coming of age, his first work for the War Office, his recognition as a skilful and insightful journalist. Leaving Britain on a highly risky adventure, he had received his first taste of war.
His writings analysed significant political and military events with care and acumen. He had shown great personal courage and had his first brush with a hostile press. Cuba, in short, had paid off.
For all these reasons, the ongoing project to extend our knowledge of his Cuban adventures is exciting. As readers know, often the great problem for Churchill historians today is finding something new to say. The Cuban sojourn offers room for new thought and an appreciation for all he accomplished at such a young age. Clearly he was showing marked signs of who he would become: the remarkable personality and skills he would later provide to King, country and civilization.
Dr. Klepak, who resides in Ottawa, is a military and diplomatic historian specializing in Latin America. We thank Allen Packwood for bringing his work to our attention. Churchill’s Cuban despatches in The Daily Graphic may be read in the first document volume of Winston S. Churchill, published by Hillsdale College Press.