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 >
In giving up his government post to go out to the horrific battlefields of Flanders and ‘take some active part in beating the Germans’, Churchill demonstrated again the courage he’d displayed in those battlefields of the North West Frontier and Sudan. And he certainly experienced the horrors and dangers of the trenches first hand.
He wrote to Clemmie of ‘[f]ilth and rubbish everywhere, graves built into the defences & scattered about promiscuously, feet & clothing breaking through the soil, water and muck on all sides; & about this scene in the dazzling moonlight troops of enormous rats creep & glide, to the unceasing accompaniment of rifle & machine guns & the venomous whining & whirring of the bullets which pass overhead’ (Churchill to Clementine, 23 November 1915).
More action was to beckon. A serious colonial war had begun in South Africa and Churchill managed to secure another lucrative assignment to report on the war for the Morning Post. In this last youthful military adventure, Churchill set off and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899. He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers, when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. The following month, having spent his twenty-fifth birthday imprisoned, Churchill made a dramatic escape by climbing over a wall, riding a freight train, hiding in a coal mine and eventually boarding a train into Portuguese East Africa. He made his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. His brother Jack was wounded and became one of the first patients to be treated by their mother, Lady Randolph, on the hospital ship she had organised. But Churchill’s luck held. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was hailed a hero.
‘Here life itself, life at its best and healthiest, awaits the caprice of the bullet … Existence is never so sweet as when it is at hazard.’
Churchill, 4 February 1900 (cited in Langworth, Churchill: In His Own Words)
The onset of the WWI in August 1914 thrust Churchill into the limelight again, but this time at centre stage in an international crisis. For a ‘man of action’, this was the place to be. Eager to emulate the deeds of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill felt anticipation and excitement – and the promise of glories to come – as the prospect of war became unavoidable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill issued the order to the Navy to act – to ‘commence hostilities’. WWI was to be a time of great personal challenge for Churchill; it was to demand personal bravery and resilience in the face of both physical danger and intense mental battles. He did indeed ‘put his head into the lion’s mouth’.
‘I’m finished … I’m done. What I want above all things is to take some active part in beating the Germans … I’d go out to the Front at once.’
Churchill to Violet Asquith, in Champion Redoubtable: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1914–1945 (ed. Pottle)
On his return to London from India, Churchill – keen to get into politics – made a speech at a political meeting in Bradford. But he also desperately wanted to join Kitchener’s army in the Sudan: he saw action in the field – and writing about it – as a way to gain further attention. Persistent as ever, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post. In August 1898 he set off on his next adventure – travelling up the Nile with the expeditionary force under General Kitchener.
‘There is no doubt the charge was an awful gamble and that no normal precautions were possible. The issue as far as I was concerned had to be left to Fortune or to God – or to whatever may decide these things. I am content and shall not complain.’
Churchill in a letter to his mother, Lady Randolph, 17 September 1898
In February 1895, Churchill joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant, as a way of gaining some experience before working his way into politics. While at Sandhurst, Churchill had learnt to play polo. Now that he was an officer with the Queen’s Own Hussars, he played regularly at the Hurlingham and Ranelagh Clubs in London. It was here that he demonstrated his talent with horse and polo stick and he soon became a skilled player. Churchill continued to play polo until his fifties, despite having a weak right shoulder (injured in a fall when disembarking from the ship in India) and having to wear it strapped to prevent it ‘going out’. (He could never play tennis because of this, even though Clementine was a very good player and they had a hard court installed at Chartwell; it was later turned into a croquet lawn.) Click here to see the draft constitution of the ‘Fourth Hussars Polo Club’ (Churchill’s name appears sixth under ‘Members’).
‘For men like Churchill, polo was war; it was like a miniature battlefield. Bloodshed and injury to horse and rider was common and the faint of heart need not apply … Courage and audacity on the polo field translate into savvy and audacity on the battlefield.’
Carlo D’Este, Churchill and Polo
Churchill later claimed, in that embarking on a military career ‘was entirely due to my collection of soldiers’, although the influence of Blenheim and his ancestor’s glories on the battlefield, as well as Churchill’s determination to follow his father into politics (for which he regarded the army as a great training ground), probably also played key roles. His toy soldier collection, based on the toy army he played with at Blenheim, was set up as an infantry division and he and his brother Jack, even in their teens, played out famous battles, with Jack’s soldiers playing the enemy.
On his arrival in Durban in December 1899, Churchill was hailed a war hero after his daring escape from the Boer POW camp. His new fame allowed him to override the objections of the War Office and he continued to assume the dual role of officer – with a local volunteer unit, the South African Light Horse – and war correspondent.
For the next six months, he encountered fire, took part in the bloody and unsuccessful battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 and, as the war turned in Britain’s favour, was present at the relief of Ladysmith and the occupation of Pretoria. Returning to England in July 1900, Churchill was feted on the streets of Oldham.
Old College, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Wikimedia Commons/Albert Sydney
Churchill left Harrow School in 1892 and went to a ‘crammer’ to help him pass the entrance exam into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, which he eventually did on the third attempt in 1893. He found life at Sandhurst much more suited to his temperament and talents than school life. Military topics such as tactics and fortifications were far more appealing to him than mathematics and he was a skilled horseman. The practical nature of the course appealed to him and he passed with credit in December 1894, twentieth out of a class of one hundred and thirty.
In February 1895, Churchill joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, a fashionable cavalry regiment, as a 2nd Lieutenant, as a way of gaining some experience before working his way into politics. Churchill’s regiment, the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, amalgamated with the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars in 1958 to form the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars. After further cuts in 1993, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars amalgamated with the Queen’s Own Hussars (formerly the 3rd King’s Own Hussars and 7th Queen’s Hussars) to form the Queen’s Royal Hussars.
It is a fine game to play – the game of politics – and it is well worth a good hand – before really plunging.
Churchill, in a letter to his mother, 16 August 1895
In his last youthful military adventure, Churchill joined British forces in the Boer War. Churchill set off, armed with the important things in life – sixty bottles of spirits, twelve bottles of Rose’s Lime Juice and a supply of claret – and arrived in Cape Town late on 30 October 1899.
He was famously captured only two weeks later by the Boers when the armoured train on which he was travelling in Boer-occupied territory was ambushed and derailed. He made a dramatic escape the following month, making his way to Durban, with the Boers offering a reward of £25 for the recapture of their well-known prisoner, ‘dead or alive’. His dispatches from the Boer War were republished as two books, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) and Ian Hamilton’s March (1900).
Desperate to join the army reconquering the Sudan, lost following the death of General Gordon in 1885, Churchill managed to obtain a temporary commission as a Lieutenant with the 21st Lancers while again also serving as a war correspondent, this time for the Morning Post.
In August 1898 he travelled up the Nile with the expeditionary force under General Kitchener.
With all his writing and journalism gaining the attention of the political authorities (due in no small part to a promotion of his activities by his mother Lady Randolph), he resigned from the army in April 1899. Politics beckoned.
He had already spoken at a few political meetings in the Autumn of 1898 and attempted to enter Parliament as a Conservative, but failed – by a small margin – at the by-election in Oldham in 1899. But more action was to beckon. A serious colonial war had begun in South Africa and Churchill managed to secure another lucrative assignment to report on the war for the Morning Post. The contract he negotiated with the newspaper, a salary of £250 a month and all expenses paid, made him the highest-paid war correspondent of the day.
Back home in Britain, in 1896, Churchill did all he could to get posted to Egypt or Matabeleland in South Africa, where he could see some action and get noticed – to no avail. He eventually sailed to India with his regiment in the Autumn of 1896.
Confined to a life of polo and military routine in Bangalore, he eventually took matters into his own hands and, armed with a contract as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, travelled to the North West frontier to join the Malakand Field Force. Here he did find himself in danger. Although the fighting on the north-west frontier against the Afghan tribes in 1897 couldn’t really be called battles, there was a real risk of being killed and Churchill had several narrow escapes.
Churchill had a period of leave and managed to obtain his first assignment as a war correspondent for the newspaper. He was reporting on the rebellion against Spanish rule by guerilla rebels in Cuba when he first came under fire. It was also in Cuba that he first refined his well-known taste for fine Cuban cigars. He was attached to the Spanish forces as an observer but his writings reveal considerable sympathies for the Cuban rebels.
Andrew Stewart is Reader in Conflict and Diplomacy in the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London and the Director of Academic Studies (KCL) at the Royal College of Defence Studies. The views, analysis, and opinions expressed here are his own.
For Britain and its Empire, a period of intense reflection and debate followed the conclusion of the bloodbath that had been the First World War. One of the main themes discussed was how in the event of another war, military resources and forces that were scattered around the world could be better prepared, co-ordinated, managed, and led. This was not new. Similar discussions had taken place since at least 1890, when the Hartington Commission had proposed the establishment of a naval and military council. In 1904 Arthur Balfour took over the chairmanship of a Cabinet Defence Committee, and, with the prime minister in the chair, it was renamed the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) and seen “as an attempt to create an Imperial General Staff on a temporary basis.”1 It had its own dedicated secretariat, but, with no executive powers, its ability to function effectively was seriously hampered. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, the CID ceased to meet. It was more than four years later, in November 1919, before it re-convened, by which point it was clear that there had been significant changes not just to the international system but also to the imperial network which held such an important role within it.
Questions were now raised about whether the CID was the most effective means for the co-ordination of imperial defence. Aside from the tremendous loss of life suffered by all of the territories that had fought for King George V, the conflict had left Britain’s finances in a parlous state. In the summer of 1921 David Lloyd George had established a special committee to review expenditure chaired by Sir Eric Geddes, a businessman who had played a prominent wartime role in helping organise military transportation. The interim report was presented to the prime minister in December and within its recommendations were proposals for major cuts to the military. Although he no longer had any direct involvement in the War Office or Air Ministry, having moved in November 1921 to take control of the Colonial Office, amongst the report’s most vocal critics was Winston Churchill.
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