The death of Lord Randolph Churchill on 24 January 1895, aged just forty-five, and before Churchill had been able to prove himself to his father, clearly had a profound effect. Churchill became a cavalry officer in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars only a month later but almost from the beginning his mind was set on following his father into politics. To do this he needed fame and fortune.
In the five years between 1895 and 1900, he sought them both by getting himself transferred to as many dangerous places as possible and then writing up his experiences as newspaper articles and books. He was shot at in Cuba, fought in what is now Pakistan, on the Afghan border, survived a cavalry charge in the Sudan, and made the headlines by escaping from Boer captivity in South Africa.
This section tells you how the young Churchill launched himself on the world.
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.
The British army in the 1890s numbered 225,000, arranged in 140 battalions, 55 percent of which were stationed overseas. There were 17,000 cavalrymen in twenty-eight calvary regiments, six to nine of which were in India at a given time. The great glories of Waterloo and the Zulu War were history, and Britain was generally at peace. There had been no war with a European power since the 1850s. As Churchill later wrote, he grew up during “the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian Era”
Churchill was interested in things military from an early age. His earliest surviving letter is about toy soldiers, flags and castles, written when he was seven years old. Although accident-prone and often ill, the boy enjoyed the manly pursuits of riding, swimming, shooting, fort-building and catapulting vegetables at passersby. He read history but he also read boy’s adventure tales like King Solomon’s Mines, Treasure Island and of course Every Boy’s Annual which was filled with stories of Victoria Cross winners. He may well have read the popular stories of GA. Henty. The subtitle of Churchill’s autobiography, A Roving Commission; is said to have come from a Henty title. Many others could have served: By Sheer Pluck, In Freedom’s Cause, Held Fast For England, When London Burned, No Surrender, or my own favorite for Lieutenant Churchill, The Golden Cannon.
I bade him a restrained but decisive farewell and walked out into the street with a magnificent oration seething within my bosom and only half a crown in my pocket…I thought of dinner and was pallidly confronted with the half-crown! No, that would not do! A journey to London on a beautiful half holiday, keyed up to the last point of expectation on a speech that might have shaped the national destinies undelivered and to go back to Sandhurst upon a bun and a cup of tea was more than fortitude could endure.
In order to console himself in a more satisfactory manner, Winston resorted to the pawnbroker’s shop where, he related, “I received one of those tickets which hitherto I had only heard of in music-hall songs and a five-pound note.
This is not the first time I have spoken in public but it is the first time I have spoken on this subject. What I have to say will have no effect on any national destiny and far from being confronted with an empty hall followed by a bun and a cup of tea, I am faced with a room full of people and a sumptuous dinner. I do not have to seek consolation. Just brace myself and get on with the job!
Portions of this article are excerpted (omitting technical details and appraisals) from the author’s book, A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill.
I often wish modern writers who say Churchill was a racist would read his conversation with his Boer captors in London to Ladysmith. This was–remember–1899, when every Englishman alive supposedly believed in the utter supremacy of the white race, English branch. Read More >
Excerpt from The Orders, Decorations and Medals of Sir Winston Churchill by Douglas S. Russell
As a young man, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill set out to become a hero. In the event, he exceeded everyone’s expectations, save perhaps his own. Churchill was the recipient of a remarkable variety of honors and awards. Few statesmen have received so many honorary degrees, freedoms of cities, honorary citizenships and memberships. Few have been named honorary citizens of the United States. Although several received the Nobel Peace Prize, none save Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Among Churchill’s honors are 37 orders, decorations and medals received between 1885 and 1963. Readers have surely noticed photographs of him at various stages of his career in military uniform or court dress wearing rows of colorful ribbon bars or a long row of medals. Reading and research over the past 12 years has brought to light much information and detail concerning these awards about which little was published before.
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Churchill was delighted when a little girl surprised him with flowers one day in Italy. Gratefully moving his cane aside, he gave her a kiss on the cheek. Missing his own family, and beset with troubles, he truly loved this moment. I guess we’ll never know the little chap behind the bouquet. … See MoreSee Less
The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.