John Bird’s reconstruction of Churchill’s route at Witbank
Finest Hour 180, Spring 2018
By John Bird
John Bird lives in Witbank, South Africa
On 12 December 1899, Winston Churchill escaped from the State Model School in Pretoria, where he had been held prisoner by the Boers since his capture the previous month. After brazenly walking out of town, he found a railway line, which he hoped led on to his goal: the Portuguese colony at Delagoa Bay. In the evening, he scrambled onto a freight train and caught some sleep. But he knew he could not continue on the train after dawn, since he might be spotted on board and he would need to find water.
In the early hours of the 13th, Churchill jumped from the train and began to make his way on foot until he miraculously happened upon help at the Transvaal & Delagoa Bay Colliery near Witbank. While he subsequently recorded what he could of this journey, the precise route he then took has hitherto remained a complete mystery. It took many years of research, but I have now been able to put together a plausible itinerary. To do this, I found two keys were necessary to trace Churchill’s journey from the time he sprawled off the train at a quarter to four on the morning of 13 December until he was taken down a mineshaft at the colliery at a quarter to five the following morning. Read More >
Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, Doubleday, 2016, 400 pages, $30. 978–0385535731
Review by Con Coughlin
Con Coughlin is the author of Churchill’s First War (2013).
When the young Winston Churchill set off to cover the Boer War as a newspaper correspondent in 1899, his overriding ambition was to make a name for himself. Aged just twenty-four, Churchill had already risked life and limb on two previous occasions in his bid to win public acclaim serving as an officer with the British Army in India and Sudan. But it was not until he travelled to South Africa as a war correspondent for London’s Morning Post that his heroic exploits succeeded in making him a household name. And it was as a direct result of this experience that his was able to fulfil his ultimate ambition—to win election as a Member of Parliament.
The three-year conflict between Britain and the Boers was brutal and bloody, with heavy casualties suffered on both sides. But, as Candice Millard explains in her well-researched and highly-readable account of Churchill’s exploits in South Africa, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, young Winston could not wait to get to the centre of the action.
But Churchill’s high hopes for his assignment were thwarted soon after he arrived in South Africa when he suffered the indignity of being captured and taken into captivity. This major setback occurred when the armoured train Churchill was travelling on suddenly came under attack by a well-organised group of Boer guerrillas. After the train was brought to a shuddering halt, Churchill displayed enormous bravery in his efforts to rally the British force to defend their positions.
As the armoured train inched along the low, rolling hills and flat, open spaces of the South African veldt on the morning of 15 November 1899, every man on board knew that the enemy was watching. Where exactly they were, however, and whether they would attack, remained a dark, seemingly impenetrable mystery. Although the Boer War had begun just a month earlier, the British had already learned a painful lesson: the harder it was to find the Boers, the more dangerous they were likely to be.
Of Dutch descent, the deeply religious Boers had not wanted war. On the contrary, they wanted nothing more than to be left alone. War, however, like wealth, had found them. The trouble had begun more than thirty years earlier, when diamonds and, later, gold were discovered in the Transvaal, one of two Boer republics. “This gold,” said Paul Kruger, who served as president of the Transvaal during the war, “will cause our country to be soaked in blood.”1
Kruger’s prediction had come true just a few years later. In 1880, Britain annexed the Transvaal, leading to what became known as the First Boer War, a war that, to the shock and horror of the British people, ended in Britain’s defeat. Although, as a condition of the peace agreement, Britain agreed to respect the independence of the Boer republics, before long it was once again pressing in on the Transvaal, amassing troops at its borders and claiming large swaths of new territory that effectively cut it off from the sea. Having had enough, the Boers issued an ultimatum in October 1899 that the British disdainfully ignored. Read More >
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