Later in life Churchill reflected on his years in the 4th Hussars. He recalled that the young officers envied the decorations and experiences of their senior colleagues and wondered whether their own chance to win glory would ever come.
The ever pro-active young Winston created his own opportunities by procuring permission to go to Cuba during his five months’ leave from the army. He also contracted I with the Daily Graphic for occasional reports.
He travelled to Cuba via New York. Although his mother warned he would find that city boring, his experience was quite the opposite. In America he first encountered a paper dollar, which he called “the most disreputable coin the world has ever seen.” Nor was he impressed by American newspapers:
(“… the essence of American journalism is vulgarity divested of truth”) but he found “that vulgarity is a sign of strength. A great, crude, strong, young people are the Americans—like a boisterous healthy boy among enervated but well-bred ladies and gentleman.”
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Winston rushes to the bedside of his beloved Mrs Everest
While at Aldershot, serving with the 4th Hussars, Winston learned of the final illness of Mrs Everest, his beloved “Woom.” He rushed to London and engaged a nurse to tend to her. He could not save her but he was sure that his presence eased her final pain.
The Regiment was his home and he was grateful that he was readily accepted: “I have a great many friends and I know my ground — I don’t think anybody realizes who does not know — how important a day in one’s life is the day one first joins a regiment. If you aren’t liked you have to go and that means going through life with a very unpleasant stigma.”
He loved the cavalry, particularly what he later called “that greatest of all cavalry events—the Charge.” He lamented its loss to war waged by “chemists in spectacles and chauffeurs pulling the levers of aeroplanes or machine guns.” But when he was at Aldershot “The Dragoon, the Lancer and above all, as we believed, the Hussar still claimed their time-honoured place upon the battlefield. War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid. In fact it has been completely spoilt. It is all the fault of Democracy and Science.”
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Churchill remembered his years at Sandhurst, from which he “retired” with a commission in the 4th Hussars, as “hard but happy.” He felt that he had demonstrated that he “could learn quickly enough the things that mattered.”
Thirty years later he made a poignant reflection on the fate of young soldiers of his generation. “In contrast with my school days, I had made many friends, three or four of whom still survive. As for the rest, they are gone. The South African War accounted for a large proportion not only of my friends but my company; and the Great War killed almost all the others.”
“On the whole Great Fun!”
Nevertheless, he continued, his world opened like Aladdin’s Cave, ‘From the beginning of 1895 down to the present time of writing I have never had time to turn around. I could count almost on my fingers the days when I have nothing to do. An endless moving picture in which one was an actor. On the whole Great Fun! But the years 1895 to 1900 which are the staple of this story exceed in vividness, variety and exertion anything I have known — except of course the opening months of the Great War.”
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Young Winston makes his first political speech
In his final term at Sandhurst Winston became involved in a major social protest in London inspired, as he tells the story in My Early Life, by the Purity Campaign of Mrs. Ormiston Chant. Mrs. Chant, a member of the London County Council, attempted to inhibit communication between the promenade of the Empire Theatre and the bars around it. Her cause was championed by the Daily Telegraph.
Winston responded to a newspaper notice from The Entertainments Protection League and was invited to their founding meeting in a London hotel. He spent considerable fame and energy composing his first public address focusing on the protection of constitutional liberties, the inherent rights of British subjects, and the dangers of State interference in the social habits of its citizens. He even asked for tolerance for their misguided opponents. ‘Was there not always more error than malice in human affairs?’ Upon arriving at the somewhat shabby hotel, almost penniless because he had spent his entire allowance getting there, he discovered that he and the founder were the only people in attendance.
Notwithstanding that inglorious beginning, with other students he participated in a demonstration against the placement of partitions between the promenade and the bars. This occasion afforded him an opportunity to make his first public speech and he drew a parallel between tearing down the barricades and pulling down the politicians responsible for their construction. He recalled later how he had thought of “the death of Julius Caesar when the conspirators rushed forth into the street waving the bloody daggers with which they had stain the tyrant. I thought also of the taking of the Bastille…” The end result was quite different than those history-making events. In this case Winston’s opponents won the County Council elections, the barricades were permanently reconstructed in brick and plaster and all his efforts were for nought.
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Lord Randolph becomes gravely ill
Winston Churchill later wrote, “in the spring of 1894 it became clear to us all that my father was gravely ill,” but when he said farewell as his parents embarked upon a world tour in June he was still unaware of just how grave it was. During the summer he began a stream of correspondence which totalled thirty letters before they returned.
While Lord Randolph rested in Bar Harbor, Maine, he wrote to his son to remind him that he was committed to enter the 60th Rifles infantry regiment and that he should forget about his wish for the 4th Hussars. Winston’s heart and goal, however, remained on the cavalry regiment.
Lord and Lady Randolph headed west across Canada after a dispute with the President of the Canadian Pacific Railway over the costs of a private railway car. ‘A Canadian is not a generous American, wrote Lady Randolph.’
Because of Lord Randolph’s deteriorating health, they stopped at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta. Sitting on the terrace Lady Randolph wrote her sister that “…it is the finest scenery in the Rockies and is certainly beautiful. I am surrounded by enormous mountains – and a cascade just below me falling into a pale green river winding away as far as the eyes can reach.”
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Lord and Lady Randolph embark on an ill-advised world tour
Although Winston was almost twenty years old he still received letters of admonition from his father who thought that he wasted too much time and travelled to London too frequently. Lord Randolph wrote his wife that he had written Winston that “in all qualities of steadiness taking care of things and of not doing stupid things Jack is vastly his superior.”
Unknown to his father Churchill was making plans for his future career. He was accompanied by Sir Julian Byng, who later commanded the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge and served as Governor-General of Canada, on a visit to the 4th Hussars, a cavalry regiment.
“I never saw him again, except as a swiftly-fading shadow.”
From his mother he received the following: ‘A bird whispered to me that you did not sleep in yr own bed last night. Write to me all about it. I am not sure if Papa wld approve.” Winston replied that his father only expressed disapproval about visiting London. Once again he expressed his career desire. “How I wish I were going into the 4th instead of those old Rifles. It would not cost a penny more and the regiment goes to India in 3 years which is just right for me. I hate the Infantry – in which physical weaknesses will render me nearly useless in service and the only thing I am showing an aptitude for athletically – riding – will be no good to me.” The ambitious young man pointed out that “of all regiments in the army the Rifles is slowest for promotion.” He knew that only when he did well at Sandhurst would it be the time to tackle his father on his career path.
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Calvary and Horses: It was intended that Winston would join the 60th Rifles Infantry Regiment upon graduation from Sandhurst but his fervent desire to join the cavalry was expressed in a letter to his mother: ‘Promotions much quicker in Cavalry; Obtain your commission in Cav much sooner, 4th Hussars are going to India shortly. Cavalry regiments are always given good stations in India and generally taken care of by the Government; If you want to keep a horse you can do it much cheaper in the Cavalry. Sentimental advantages: uniform, increased interest of “life among horses”, advantages of riding over walk, advantages of joining a regiment some of whose officers you know. i.e. 4 Hussars.’
The love of horses remained with him throughout his life. In My Early Life he wrote: ‘And here I say to parents, especially to wealthy parents, “Don’t give your son money, give him horses.” No one ever came to grief – except honourable grief – through riding horses. No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined through owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them; unless of course they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good death to die.’
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Sandhurst Victories: Winston entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst as a cavalry cadet because he had not qualified for the infantry, a circumstance of great disappointment to his father. He would soon be granted an opening in the infantry, but shortly after he entered school he was invited to attend a mess of the Fourth Queen’s Own Hussars, a light cavalry regiment. That experience and his love of horses convinced him that a successful military career would most likely be with a cavalry regiment. Eventually he would serve in nine British regiments – the Fourth Hussars, Thirty- first Punjab Infantry, Twenty-first Lancers, South African Light Horse, Oxfordshire Hussars, Oxfordshire Yeomanry, Grenadier Guards, Royal Scots Fusiliers, and Oxfordshire Artillery,
The Churchill family financial fortunes were depressed, as were their political experiences. This resulted in the dismissal of Mrs Everest, Winston’s beloved ‘Woom.’ In October he wrote Lady Randolph, “… if I allowed Everest to be cut adrift without protest in the manner which is proposed I should be extremely ungrateful—besides I should be very sorry not to have her at Grosvenor Square, because she is in my mind associated more than anything else with home. She is an old woman – who has been your devoted servant for nearly 20 years – she is more fond of Jack and I than of any other people in the world and to be packed off in the way the Duchess [of Marlborough] suggests would possibly, if not probably, break her down altogether.” Although Lord Randolph gave Mrs. Everest periodic “presents,” she had to depend on her sisters for support. Nevertheless, she never forgot Jack and Winston on their birthdays and at Christmas.
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Success and failure at school: Winston was jubilant that, after three attempts, he had passed into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. Although he had achieved a standard which admitted him to the cavalry and not to his father’s desired infantry regiment, he wrote what his own son later called ‘a somewhat insouciant letter to Lord Randolph.’ He received ‘one of the most formidable rebukes of Lord Randolph that survive.’ He was told that his failure to meet infantry standards, ‘demonstrated beyond refutation your slovenly happy-go-lucky harum scarum style of work for which you have always been distinguished.’ His father predicted that if Winston could not prevent himself ‘from leading the idle useless unprofitable life you had during your schooldays and later months, you will become a mere social wastrel, one of the hundreds of the public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby unhappy and futile existence.’ He told his son not to reply because ‘I no longer attach the slightest weight to anything you say about your own acquirements and exploits.’
A crushed Winston replied, ‘I am very sorry indeed that you are displeased with me…’ and promised he would ‘try to modify your opinion of me.’
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Winston spent the term with Captain James preparing for his third attempt to get into Sandhurst. As always, mathematics was a struggle for him. ‘I am assured [that mathematical skills] are most helpful in engineering, astronomy and things like that,’ he wrote, ‘…and I am glad there are quite a number of people born with a gift and a liking for all this.’ He was not one of those people.
Calling for single-minded devotion to studies, Captain James was worried that Winston was distracted by his father’s political fortunes. However, by May he noted progress and in June he predicted success. He had forecast correctly. Winston came 95th out of 389, four places too low to get into the infantry, but enough to qualify for a cavalry cadet. Appropriately, he would not receive a charger promised by Aunt Lily, Lord Blandford’s widow.
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While playing hare and hounds, Winston experienced another miracle in his life: he survived an attempt to leap from a bridge to the top of a fir tree, but the twenty-nine foot fall ruptured his kidney. The Times grossly understated the extent of the injury when it reported that “he was very much shaken and bruised.” His parents spared no expense in providing the best medical care but he was six weeks in recovery and should have been longer.
In My Early Life, Churchill related a joke told around the Carlton Club at the time: “I hear Randolph’s son met with a serious accident.” “Yes?” “Playing a game of ‘Follow my Leader…. Well, Randolph is not likely to come to grief in that way!”
On 20 January Winston heard that he had once again failed the examination for entrance into Sandhurst. Lord Randolph considered apprenticing his son with Rothschild or Cassel, but was convinced by Rev. Weldon that the boy would pass the next attempt. He was sent to the “Blue Ribbon of Crammers,” Captain Walter H James, who, Churchill later wrote, could predict “with almost Papal infallibility the sort of question which that sort of person would be bound on the average to ask on any of the selected subjects.” Winston was a challenge even for Captain James. On 7 March James wrote Lord Randolph: “I think the boy means well but he is distinctly inclined to be inattentive and to think too much of his abilities … and … he has been rather too much inclined up to the present to teach his instructors instead of endeavouring to learn from them.” Captain James was not amused when Winston told him that he knew enough history and did not want any more teaching in it!
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