February 5, 2015

“Politics, Pamela, finances and books all need my attention…”

Spring 1900 found Churchill very much engaged in the war against the Boers, heedlessly taking chances with his life on occasions where only his death would have afforded him any publicity. On one occasion, in April, 1900, Churchill, as a correspondent, joined a cavalry attempt to capture a small hill, racing a group of Boer horsemen to the summit. The Boers won and Churchill and the others were in danger of being cut off. They had just dismounted when the Boers arrived and started firing. Churchill’s horse was spooked and bolted, leaving him behind and on foot. Dodging bullets, he ran towards his own men and was saved by a trooper who picked him up but whose horse was killed in the process. His son Randolph recounts that the trooper was unawed: “Oh my poor horse,” moaned the trooper. “Never mind,” said Churchill, “you’ve saved my life.” “Ah,” rejoined the scout, “but it’s the horse I’m thinking about.”

On another occasion in late May, WSC risked being shot as a spy when, based on a report from a Frenchman he had just interviewed for an article, he rode a bicycle through the middle of Boer-occupied Johannesburg, dressed in civilian clothes, carrying a British military report from General Hamilton to Lord Roberts. Manchester critically wrote: “Even the debonair Frenchman—if indeed he was what he said he was; Winston, with his own atrocious French, was no judge of that, and no one else here had ever laid eyes on the man before—conceded that armed Boers were thick in the streets. A simple search by any one of them and Winston would be shoved against the nearest wall and executed by an ad hoc firing squad.”

As a reward for his daring in Johannesburg, however, Lord Roberts let Churchill and his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, ride at the head of the column which entered Pretoria a few days later. Churchill and his cousin made a beeline towards the POW camp he had escaped six months earlier where, in poetic justice, they liberated the camp. As one of the freed prisoners wrote in his diary:

“…suddenly Winston Churchill came galloping over the hill and tore down the Boer flag, and hoisted ours amidst cheers and our people some of which had been in for six months or more were free and at once the Boer guards were put inside and our prisoners guard over them! It was roarable and splendid.”

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On 11 June, Churchill’s initiative under fire enabled the British to win the Battle of Diamond Hill. General Hamilton wrote in his memoirs: “…Winston gave the embattled hosts at Diamond Hill an exhibition of conspicuous gallantry [the phrase often used in recommendations for the Victoria Cross] for which he has never received full credit….The capture of Diamond Hill meant the winning of the battle, ending as it did with a general retirement by the Boers; also it meant that it was the turning point of the war. The capture of Pretoria had not been the true turning point but rather this battle of Diamond Hill which proved that, humanly speaking, Pretoria would not be retaken.” Hamilton recommended Churchill for the V.C. but Roberts and Kitchener refused because Churchill “had been only a Press Correspondent.”

Two days before Diamond Hill, Churchill had written to his mother, “…I need not say how anxious I am to come back to England. Politics, Pamela, finances and books all need my attention….” Such a ranking of Churchill’s priorities probably explains as well as anything why Pamela Plowden faded from the picture, to be replaced a few years later by a life mate, Clementine, who understood perfectly well and agreed that this was how their lives together would be ordered.

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