February 5, 2015

Polo and The River War

Early in December 1898, Churchill returned to India to play in the annual Inter-Regimental Polo Tournament. On board ship, he worked on his manuscript for the River War, writing his mother on 11 December: “I have however made good progress with the book. Three vy long chapters are now almost entirely completed. The chapter describing the fall of Khartoum Gordon’s death etc is I think quite the most lofty passage I have ever written.”

Churchill continued to be pleased with his progress on the book after he reached India. In another letter to his mother early in 1899, he told her that, while progress was slow, what he had written was “really good.” He offered as an example, one sentence about the Mahdi who had been orphaned as a child (Martin Gilbert suggests that this may have been based on Churchill’s own experience with his father):

“Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong: and a boy deprived of a father’s care often develops, if he escape the perils of youth, an independence and a vigour of thought which may restore in after life the heavy loss of early days.”

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Churchill had strong feelings about Kitchener and his destruction of the Mahdi’s Tomb, writing in The River War: “By Sir H. Kitchener’s orders, the Tomb has been profaned and razed to the ground. The corpse of the Mahdi was dug up. The head was separated from the body, and, to quote the official explanation, ‘preserved for future disposal’….If the people of the Sudan cared no more for the Mahdi, then it was an act of vandalism and folly to destroy the only fine building which might attract the traveller and interest the historian. It is a gloomy augury for the future of the Sudan that the first action of its civilised conquerors and present ruler should have been to level the one pinnacle which rose above the mud houses. If, on the other hand, the people of the Sudan still venerated the memory of the Mahdi, and more than 50,000 had fought hard only a week before to assert their respect and belief, then I shall not hesitate to declare that to destroy what was sacred and holy to them was a wicked act, of which the true Christian, no less than the philosopher, must express his abhorrence.”

On 9 February 1899, one week before the beginning of the Inter-Regimental Polo Tournament, Churchill fell down some stairs, spraining both ankles and dislocating his right shoulder. It was this dislocation, rather less prosaic than grabbing at a quayside ring on arriving in India, as stated in My Early Life, which long caused him discomfort. [See Barbara Langworth, Churchill and Polo, Finest Hour 72.] He wrote his mother: “I fear I shall not be able to play in the Tournament as my arm is weak and stiff & may come out again at any moment. It is one of the most unfortunate things that I have ever had happen to me and is a bitter disappointment. I had been playing well and my loss is a considerable blow to our chances of winning. I try to be philosophic but it is very hard. Of course it is better to have bad luck in the minor pleasures of life than in one’s bigger undertakings. But I am very low & unhappy about it.” In the event, Churchill played in the Tournament, with his right arm strapped to his side. He led his team to victory in the finals where Churchill, bound arm and all, scored three of his team’s four goals.

Churchill left India in the latter part of March, never to return. Christine Lewis, a young American girl he befriended on the voyage from India to Egypt, describes Churchill’s typically late arrival: “The gangplank was about to be raised when down the wharf ran a freckled, red-haired young man in a rumpled suit carrying an immense tin cake box. Although he had nearly missed the boat, he seemed utterly unruffled and, seating himself by the rail because there was not another spot left on deck, he carefully examined the other passengers.” Lewis writes of Churchill as a travel companion: “At lunch, or tiffan as it was called then, we found ourselves sitting directly opposite Mr. Churchill. Hardly had he been seated when he bent across the table and said, ‘You are American, aren’t you?….’I love Americans. My mother is an American.’….Mr. Churchill at once took things in hand, ordering a small table for our party, himself and Captain Sandys. We found him a most amusing fellow traveler, full of fun, with a delightful sense of humor….Every day he sat beside us on the deck, working intensely on his book. He paid no attention to the gay chatter of young people on the adjoining chairs as he wrote and rewrote in that peculiar small hand. His concentration was an example to all of us….We often played jokes on him, which he seemed to enjoy. Perhaps his one fault at this time was being a little too sure about everything, which the other young people did not always appreciate.” [See the Churchill-Lewis Correspondence for more on this topic.]

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