February 5, 2015

“World-Famous Overnight”

Autumn 1899 began with Churchill the war correspondent traveling by ship to South Africa to report on the Anglo-Boer War. It ended with Churchill the escaped prisoner traveling by train surreptitiously out of South Africa into Portuguese East Africa. In between these two journeys, Churchill became famous throughout the world.

As a special correspondent for The Morning Post, Churchill sailed to South Africa on 14 October, two days after hostilities began. It was not a pleasant voyage. Churchill called it “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” He arrived on 31 October at Cape Town and quickly made his way to Durban. Two weeks later he was a prisoner of the Boers.

Winston Churchill: £25 reward “dead or alive

Churchill had accompanied an armored train which was ambushed by the Boers on its way to Ladysmith. While technically a non-combatant, he had been armed with his Mauser pistol and had volunteered his services to the train’s commander, Captain Aylmer Haldane, after the train came under fire. Several rail cars had been derailed by Boer artillery, preventing the engine from retreating to safety. Under constant machine gun and artillery fire from the Boers, Churchill directed the clearing of the line, helped load wounded onto the engine’s tender and then accompanied the engine to safety at Frere Station. After doing so, he returned on foot to the action to assist the remaining wounded and was captured. The driver of the train was quoted in contemporary accounts as saying of Churchill that “there is not a braver gentleman in the army.” One of the wounded officers who Churchill helped lead to safety called him “as brave a man as could be found.”

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Brave, but forgetful. In returning to help the wounded, Churchill had left his Mauser on the engine, so that he was unarmed when confronted by a Boer rifleman on a horse. Churchill described the moment of his capture in My Early Life:

“I thought there was absolutely no chance of escape, if he fired he would surely hit me, so I held up my hands and surrendered myself a prisoner of war. ‘When one is alone and unarmed,’ said the great Napoleon, in words which flowed into my mind in the poignant minutes that followed, ‘a surrender may be pardoned.'”

Unfortunately for Churchill, his daring exploits in rescuing the train were widely reported in the press by his fellow correspondents. These news reports undermined his efforts to persuade the Boers to release him on the grounds that he was a noncombatant. Churchill claimed in a letter to the Boer Secretary of State for War that he had taken “no part in the defence of the armoured train” and was “quite unarmed.” The Boers weren’t fooled. They read the newspapers too. Contemporary correspondence from South African government officials gave Winston complete credit for the train’s escape:

“…but for [Churchill’s] presence on the train, not a single Englishman or solider would have escaped. After the train was forced to a standstill the officers and men would definitely have fallen into enemy hands had he not directed proceedings in such a clever and thorough way, whilst walking alongside the engine, that the train together with its load escaped capture.”

Having failed in his efforts to secure his release voluntarily, Churchill determined to escape. He joined a plot conceived by Captain Haldane and a British sergeant who spoke Afrikaans and a native language. The plan was to escape through the window of a latrine. Churchill was the first out the window and over the wall. He was also the only one to make it, because patrolling sentries made it impossible for the other two. After waiting an hour and a half and conversing with Haldane through the latrine window, Churchill determined to go it alone and, as he later described it, “got up without any attempt at concealment and walked straight out at the gate” into the streets of Pretoria.

Churchill’s escape made headlines around the world and one Boer official posted a £25 reward for him “dead or alive.” He had walked through Pretoria unrecognized until he came to the railway leading to Portuguese East Africa and hopped aboard the train, concealing himself beneath empty coal bags. Churchill was lucky to make it as far as Witbank, 75 miles from Pretoria and still 200 miles from the frontier. He was luckier still to happen upon the house of John Howard, British manager of coal mines in Witbank, who hid him in one of the mines and engaged the local storekeeper, Charles Burnham, to smuggle him out of the country by train concealed in a consignment of cotton bales Burnham was shipping to Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa. Having made it across the border 21 December to Durban by the 23rd, his son wrote in the Official Biography, “Churchill arrived to find that he had become world-famous overnight….”

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