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.
Churchill was interested in toy soldiers and had a collection of some fifteen hundred Napoleonic era troops, which he marshalled in mock battle. A similar collection is now on display at Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace and the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough. Young boys and girls who collect them now may see Churchill’s career mirrored in todays toy soldiers.
Churchill entered Harrow School on April 17th, 1888, and it was here his military career began. He joined the Harrow Rifle Corps in May, within weeks of his arrival. The Rifle Corps was formed in 1859 and was affiliated with the Middlesex Regiment. Its badge was the crossed arrows and garland which is now the school’s official badge. The uniforms were grey with blue facings.
Picture young Winston in place of the boy in the old Harrow song, “Left, Right”:
Young Brown he was a little boy
and barely four foot four
But his manly bosom yearned to join
the Harrow Rifle Corps.
So he went to see the Sergeant
and he made a grand salute.
And he said says he, “I want to be
a volunteer recruit.”
The Corps participated in mock battles, called “field days,” once or twice a term and gave Churchill practice in riding, firing a rifle, and fencing at which he excelled, winning the Public Schools championship in 1892.
In the Summer of 1889, a year after starting at Harrow, Churchill’s interest in toy soldiers led his father to make his career choice for him. As depicted in the Columbia Pictures film, “Young Winston,” Lord Randolph came to Winston’s room at home and proposed that Churchill should go into the army. Winston readily accepted. Perhaps it was to please his father, perhaps to pursue his own interests, but the die was cast. Churchill was just fourteen and one-half years old. Thereafter, all his educational efforts were directed toward gaining entrance to Sandhurst, the Royal Military College. The very next term in September 1889, Churchill was enrolled in the army class at Harrow, an academic program designed to help students preparing for the Sandhurst exams.
Although headed for the army, it is doubtful Churchill ever intended to make a career of it. Even as a boy he intended to be a politician—a statesman like his father. In 1891, still at Harrow, he told his friend Murland Evans that he had dreams about the future: “I tell you I shall be in command of the defenses of London….In the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.” On several occasions before he was ever elected to Parliament he predicted he would one day be Prime Minister.
At Harrow, Churchill passed the first part of the Sandhurst exam, the preliminary, but failed the second part, called the “further,” twice. He left Harrow in December, 1892 to study for a third attempt in London with Captain Walter James, late of the Royal Engineers, whose profession it was to prepare young men for the Sandhurst exam. James, who was inelegantly referred to as a “crammer,” did his duty. Churchill passed the “further” in June 1893, 95th out of 389.
CHURCHILL entered Sandhurst on September 1st, 1893 at the age of eighteen years, ten months. He stood 5’ 6″ tall. The Royal Military is located at Camberley, southwest of London. Founded in 1741, it served the purpose of training officers for the infantry and cavalry. Sometimes referred to as Britain’s West Point, it was not in fact a four-year college, and granted no degree. Churchill took the standard course: three terms of instruction and training over an eighteen-month period. The old school is still there today, looking just as it did in the 1890s.
The subjects were few and practical: tactics, fortification, topography (map making), military law and military administration. He also trained in drill, marksmanship, riding, gymnastics, and fencing. Sandhurst uniforms were those of the regular army, including the red dress coat and the dress blue spike helmet.
Churchill did well at Sandhurst, graduating twentieth out of a class of 130 in December 1894. As he later wrote, “It shows that I could learn quickly the things that matter.” For the first time in his life his personal interests and his work were the same and he excelled. A distinguished career had begun.
Churchill received his commission from Queen Victoria with an effective date of February 20th, 1895. He was twenty years old. A newly minted second Lieutenant, his pay was £120 a year. He calculated the cost of necessary equipment to be £653, not including the £200 charger his grandparents gave him. In other words, it cost more to buy his uniforms, horses and equipment than he earned in his five years as an army officer.
Lieutenant Churchill joined the 4th Hussars in January 1895. The regiment was formed in 1685 and its battle honors included the Peninsular War against Napoleon in 1808-14, the First Afghan War of 1839-42 and the Crimean War of 1854-55. The uniform was blue with gold trim and a brown fur hat called a busby. The Hussars and artillerymen wore the same type hat which, as Lady Soames will tell you, any self respecting Guardsmen would call a “bearskin.” Hussar regiments wore similar uniforms; the colorful derails help us tell them apart. The distinctive plume fin the 4th was red; the flap, called a “busby bag,” was yellow. The sabertache, or message pouch, was red with gold trim. When Churchill later said he could “beat my sword into a papercutter and my sabertache into an election address,” this is what he was talking about.
In those days, regimental life for officers was divided between a seven-month summer season of training and maneuvers and a five month period during which extended leaves could be taken. Knowing his regiment would be sent to India for an extended period in the coming year, and not having the money to pursue the pleasures of aristocratic society Churchill endeavored in 1895 to find a suitable adventure and cast his eyes on Cuba. His reason for going to Cuba was not merely adventure. He wanted to prove his courage to himself. He later wrote, “I thought it might be as well to have a private rehearsal, a secluded trial trip in order to make sure that the ordeal was not unsuited to my temperament. Churchill’ s traveling companion was Lieutenant Reggie Barnes, later General Sir Reginald Bames, KCB, DSO. When Churchill became honorary colonel of the regiment in 1941, he succeeded Reggie Barnes.
In 1895, Cuba was a colony of Spain in the midst of insurrection. Spain had 200,000 troops on the island trying to quell the rebellion. The two lieutenants arrived in Havana November 20th, and joined a fighting column under Spanish General Valdez as observers on the 28th, staying with it for eight days. They soon saw action. Churchill later wrote: “The 30th November was my 21st birthday and on that day for the first time I heard shots fired in anger and heard bullets strike flesh or whistle through the air.”
The column was in contact with the rebels and under fire on and off far three days. Before leaving Cuba in the first week of December, Barnes and Churchill were recommended far the Cross of the Order of Military Merit. Later, in 1914, a second award, the Cuban Campaign Medal, was also given to Churchill. His time in Cuba had totalled sixteen days.
In the spring of 1896, Churchill and his regiment were in training at Hounslow, west of London. He was promoted to Lieutenant on May 20th. On September 11th, the regiment sailed far India on the troop ship Britanni4 The unit strength was twenty-two officers, two warrant officers, 448 NCOs and men. They arrived in India on October 2nd and traveled by train to their duty station at Bangalore. This would be Churchill’s permanent station until March 1899, although, as will be seen, he was elsewhere a good deal.
It was during this time that Churchill attended his “private university,” about which James Muller has spoken and written so well. But aside from this, Churchill found Bangalore a “third rate watering place” and garrison life “stupid, dull and uninteresting.”
Eager for active service and to make a name for himself, Churchill joined the Malakand Field Force on the Northwest Frontier of India in September, 1897. He went out as a correspondent but later joined the commanding general’s staff. The area of action was more than 2,000 miles from Bangalore. As he wrote his family, “I am bound for many reasons to risk something….I mean to play this game out and if I lose, it is obvious that I could never have won any other….I am more ambitious for a reputation for personal courage than anything else in the world. A young man should worship a young man’s ideals.”
With the Field Force, Churchill saw action on September 16th, 1897. Covering a company withdrawal from a village during a punitive expedition in the Mahmound Valley, the unit came under strong attack and Churchill was under fire for thirteen hours. He made a good showing, assisting another officer in carrying a wounded soldier to safety while under fire. It was an action which Churchill said “might perhaps, had there been any gallery, have received some notice.” After all, Lieutenant Lord Fincastle had won the Victoria Cross just a month before for a similar rescue of a wounded man.
This was among the most intense days of Churchill’s life and he acted bravely and capably. He later wrote, “Bullets are not worth considering… I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.” Churchill saw action again later in the month at Agrah in what he described as the hardest fighting on the Northwest Frontier for forty years. It was difficult country to fight in. During the five-hour battle at Agrah the unit Churchill was with suffered fifty wounded and seventeen killed, including the regimental commander.
At the risk of making light of the dangers these men faced, the battles were not unlike those depicted in popular movies like “Gunga Din,” “Lives of A Bengal Lancer” or “Four Feathers.” There were very confused and violent clashes. Overall, Churchill did very well. He was mentioned in the despatches of the Malakand Field Force which stated in part: “Brigadier Jeffries has praised the courage and resolution of Lieutenant W L. S. Churchill 4th Hussars, the correspondent of the Pioneer Newspaper with the Force, who made himself useful at a critical moment.” He certainly had proved to himself and to others his indomitable physical courage and perseverance. He once told a tent mate in the Malakand, Colonel McVean of 45th Sikhs, the only thing he was frightened of was getting wounded in the mouth so he couldn’t talk
As General Bindon Blood, Commander of the Force, wrote to Churchill’s former commander, “He has been mentioned in despatches already and if he gets the chance he will have the MC. or a D.S.O.” The Victoria Cross, and Distinguished Service Order are the two highest awards for heroism in the British military. Although Churchill did not win a decoration, he did receive the India Medal (1895). It was not enough to be in India to win this medal: one had to have been in combat or “on active service” as they called it, which Churchill was for about six weeks. The clasp he won was “Punjab Frontier, 1897-98.”
Another important aspect of his service on the Northwest Frontier was the writing and publication of his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. Churchill was indeed beginning to make a name for himself.
In late 1897 and early 1898 Churchill lobbied hard, first to join an expedition to the Tirah, which proved stillborn; later to join General Kitchener’s campaign to reconquer the Sudan from the Dervishes. He enlisted the not inconsiderable help of his mother, writing to her: “Oh, how I wish I could work you up over Egypt! I know you could do it with all your influence—and all the people you know It is a pushing age and we must shove with the best. After Tirah and Egypt—then I think I shall turn from war to peace and politics. That is— [if] I get through it all right.”
Although he had close and influential friends, Churchill was not universally liked in the army. He was criticized by some as a medal hunter and glory seeker, which was true. He was trying to make a name for himself by battlefield exploits which he reported to the newspapers himself. Some of his peers called him “bumptious”—a quality not admired in the officer class of the British Army, where the preferred style was a studied nonchalance.
IN THIS modern, selfish age it is remarkable to note that Churchill was always trying to get into battle, not to avoid it. Of course, war was relatively safe in those days. He later wrote, “This kind of war was full of fascinating thrills. It was not like the Great War. No one expected to be killed. The chance of being killed was only a sporting element in a splendid game.”
His efforts to get to the Sudan succeeded and he was notified by the War Office, “You have been attached as a supernumerary Lieutenant to the 2lst Lancers for the Sudan campaign. It is understood that you will proceed at your own expense and that in the event of your being killed or wounded in the impending operation or for any other reason no charge of any kind will fall on British Army Funds.”
The 21st Lancers were raised in 1759 but had no battle honors before this campaign, for which they received the title, “Empress of India’s.” They later served in World War I in India before being amalgamated with the 17th Lancers and are now known as “the death or glory boys.” The uniform was the standard khaki field uniform of the day, with sun helmet. An example is on display at Blenheim. Of interest are the chain mail epaulettes or shoulder boards, designed to protect from sword cuts. (With this uniform Churchill also wore the red and white ribbon of the Spanish Order of Military Merit.)
Arriving in Cairo August 2nd, 1898, Churchill was with the 21st Lancers for their famous cavalry charge on September 2nd, which we may safely describe as “one of the last several cavalry charges in the history of the British Army” On that day, the 2lst were on a reconnaissance between the main batle and the City of Khartoum. Spotting a row of 150 spearmen, they charged in line of squadrons. It was the most dangerous two minutes of Winston Churchill’s life.
The 21st Lancers came close upon the enemy, only to find that they had ridden into a trap—for behind the original force of Dervishes the enemy was arrayed twelve men deep in a shallow ravine. There followed hand-to-hand combat of the fiercest and most deadly kind. In 1955 Churchill recalled for Anthony Montague Browne: “…it was most exhilarating. But I did reflect, ‘suppose there is some spoil sport in a hole with a machine gun?”’ Churchill was lucky in that he was on the far right of the line where the enemy was not so thick. He owed his survival to his position, and the fact that he was armed not with a sword but with a Mauser automatic pistol, “a ripper,” which saved his life. He used a pistol instead of a sword because of an old shoulder injury.
Of the 310 officers and men in the charge, twenty-one were killed and fifty wounded. One hundred nineteen of the horses were wounded as well, all in 120 seconds. Of the twenty-eight British soldiers killed in the battle of Omdurman, twenty-one were from this charge. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded for the engagement.
Afterwards, there was no exhilaration far Churchill. He wrote of “The shoddiness of war. You cannot gild it. The raw comes through.”
Omdurman was indeed a triumph of technology over manpower. This was a new kind of warfare where spearmen faced machine guns. It reminds one of the old British saying, “When all is said we have got the maxim gun and they have not.” It was a very violent battle. The British suferred 175 casualties, their Egyptian allies 307; but the Dervish force had 9,700 killed, between 10,000 and 16,000 wounded and 5,000 taken prisoner.
For his service in the Sudan, amounting to six or eight weeks, Churchill received the Queen’s Sudan Medal and the Khedive’s Sudan Medal with clasp for “Khartoum.” He later published The River War, a history of the campaign, his most ambitious book to date, and still today one of his greatest books.
FOLLOWING the conquest of Omdurman, Churchill went on extended leave to England and by December 1898, had decided to leave the army in the coming year. It was dearly not big enough to hold him. He even had time to write a novel, Savro4 which was published in 1900. He returned to India that month, chiefly to participate in the all-India polo tournament as a member of the 4th Hussars’ team. They won the championship trophy. There is a fascinating anecdote from another famous cavalryman, Robert Baden-Powell, later founder of the Boy Scouts, about the celebration after the competition.
There suddenly sprang to his feet one of the members of the 4th Hussars’ ream, who said: “Now, gentleman, you would probably like to hear me address you on the subject of polo!” It was Mr. Winston Churchill. Naturally there were airs of “No, we don’t! Sit down!” and so on, but disregarding all their objections, with a genial smile he proceeded to discourse on the subject, and before long all opposition dropped as his honeyed words flowed upon their ears, and in a short time he was hard at it, expounding the beauties and the possibilities of this wonderful game….When the cheering and applause had died down one in authority arose and gave voice to the feelings of all when he said: “Well, that is enough of Winston for this evening,” and the orator was taken in hand by some lusty subalterns and placed underneath an overturned sofa upon which two of the heaviest were then seated, with orders not to allow him out for the rest of the evening. But very soon afterwards he appeared emerging from beneath the angle of the arm of the sofa, explaining: “It is no use sitting upon me, for I’m india-rubber.”
This sounds rather characteristic.
Churchill’s resignation from the Army was effective May 5th, 1899. By that time he was back in England, where he stood for Parliament but lost. In October 1899, the Second Anglo-Boer War erupted when Britain sought to enforce its interests and the rights and claims of British immigrants in the independent Boer Republics of Natal and Cape Colony. Churchill went out as a correspondent for the Morning Post arriving in Capetown October 31st, 1899. Two weeks later he accepted the invitation of Captain Alymer Haldane to accompany troops on an armored train reconnaissance near Ladysmith at Estcourt. It was a fateful decision and a turning point in Churchill’s life.
The train was attacked and derailed by Boer rebels. Churchill reacted with calm courage under fire, reportedly rallying the soldiers with the cry, “Keep cool, men. This will be interesting for my paper.” Although he was instrumental in clearing the line and allowing the locomotive and tender to escape with the wounded, Churchill declined to leave and was captured while returning to help Haldane.
It is interesting to note that in the armored train fight Churchill’s Mauser pistol saved his life again—this time because he left it in the locomotive cab and was unarmed when confronted by his captors. By all accounts he acquitted himself well. Haldane’s after-action report stated, “I cannot speak too highly of his gallant conduct.” Captain ~rlie was quoted as stating, “Mr. Winston Churchill’s conduct was that of as brave a man as could be found.” Contemporary reports by fellow correspondents suggested that Churchill’s conduct might win him the Victoria Cross, but this was not to be.
Taken to a temporary prison at Pretoria, Churchill spent his 25th birthday in captivity. A month later he escaped, an action that made him a world-famous celebrity. The story has great drama. He climbed over the prison wall, hopped a freight train, hid in a coal mine and, with the help of friendly Englishmen, eventually rode another train to freedom over the border to Portuguese East Africa. His arrival in Durban on December 23rd was the one bright bit of news for Britain in the dark early days of that war. Churchill had set out to become a hero in January, 1895 as a soldier, and had finally done it—as a war correspondent.
Rather than simply returning home, Churchill obtained a commission in the South African Light Horse, an irregular cavalry regiment commanded by Julienne Byng. The uniform of the South African Light Horse was of khaki with a broad brim hat pinned up on the left side with Sakabulu bird tail feathers attached. In it Churchill, “lived from day to day in perfect happiness.” The badge of the South African Light Horse was a Maltese cross with the regiment’s initials and the date 1899 upon it. During the next six months Churchill seemed to be everywhere, and even revisited the scene of the armored train incident. He participated in the battles at Acton Holmes, Potgietter’s Drift, Spion Kop (where Britain lost 1,000 casualties), Tugela River and the Reliefs of Ladysmith and Pretoria. At Dewetsdorp an unhorsed Churchill was rescued under fire by trooper Clement Roberts, who won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his feat.
Churchill arranged a commission for his brother Jack, who came out to South Africa in early 1900. On February 12th Jack was wounded by a Boer bullet while next to Winston. Churchill, who was miraculously never wounded in battle himself, reportedly said, “Jack, you silly ass. You’ve only been here five minutes and you’ve got yourself shot.” Jack was nursed back to health by none other than his mother, who had come out as a volunteer on a hospital ship.
In his final battle of the war, as General Ian Hamilton later wrote, “Winston gave the embattled hosts of Diamond Hill an exhibition of conspicuous gallantry (the phrase often used in recommendations for the VC) for which he never received full credit.” Despite Hamilton’s efforts, Churchill never received the VC or the DSO. As he later told Anthony Montague Browne, “I have many medals for adventure, but none for bravery.”
Churchill learned from Frank Rhodes, correspondent of The Times, that he was much out of favor with General Kitchener. One reason was that Churchill’s early books had been critical of the high command. The other reason was Kitchener’s view that Churchill was merely using the army as a convenience for his own ambitions, and that active service assignments should be reserved for officers whose careers were at stake. This may account for the fact that Churchill was never decorated for his actions in combat.
Churchill did receive the Queen’s South Africa Medal with six clasps, having spent six months as a soldier there after his escape. (See The Orders, Decorations and Medals of Winston Churchill by the author, published by ICS and available from Churchill Stores. -Ed.)
Churchill was to write two books about his South Africa adventures: London to Ladysmith, featuring the armored train incident, with the train depicted on its cover, and Ian Hamilton’s March, based on his newspaper articles. He left Africa in July, 1900 and stood for Parliament again. He won the election and at the age of 25 years, 10 months realized his ambition of becoming Winston S. Churchill, M.P
HIS exploits as a war correspondent and as a solider had really made it all possible. He had demonstrated his mettle and gained his reputation for courage and resourcefulness. He made possible his political career by his own efforts and accomplishments during this five-year period.
Forty years later, Churchill achieved his life’s ambition and became Prime Minister. As he prophesied as a teenage boy at Harrow, he played a heroic role in the Defense of London, the Nation and the British Empire—which he had served so well as Lieutenant Churchill, 4th Hussars.
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