Winston Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’ from Boer captivity during the ‘South African War’ (1899 to 1902) – is the stuff of a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure book. Boy’s Own was a Victorian period magazine featuring great fictional adventures and deeds of Empire.
Because Churchill’s exploits in the South African War were marketed as a grand adventure, it vaulted this failing politician into the annuals of British heroism and resuscitated his career in a manner that can only be described as ‘stellar’.
It was this escape from a POW holding pen in Pretoria during the South African War that set up and ultimately forged Churchill into the juggernaut politician and statesman he was to become, without it Great Britain may never have had its great wartime leader and ‘saviour’ during World War 2 and by the same token the disaster at Gallipoli during World War 1 may even have never taken place.
So, let’s have a look at why South Africa is the epicentre of Churchill’s revived career and why by association this country gave the world a man who in 2002 was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton of all time’ placing him at the top of the most influential people in British history.
Let’s also examine why a lot of people would frankly have been very happy if the Boers had shot and killed him on the fateful day he was caught in Natal (an outcome which very nearly happened). On the way we’ll also unravel some truths and myths.
Churchill’s South African ‘Adventure’
Known as ‘Copperknob’ a colourised young Churchill at Harrow
To say Winston Churchill was an ambitious young man would be a classic example of English understatement. By the age of 25, the freckled-faced redhead had already written three books, run unsuccessfully for Parliament and participated in four wars on three continents. He was even nicknamed “Pushful, the Younger” because of his ambition, Churchill hungered for fame and glory unwavering in his belief that he would one day become Prime Minister. “I have faith in my star that I am intended to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother. Unknown to him at this stage his ‘star’ was to align and bring him fame in South Africa.
Winston Churchill initially took part in the South African War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post. Some war correspondents (like Churchill) tended to be retired commissioned officers with military experience attached to British Regiments or Formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.
Churchill as a war correspondent was generally disliked by the British upper officer class, they found him highly critical of their strategy, tactics and actions, they also found him impertinent, arrogant and nothing more than a meddling glory monger. His ‘upper class elite’ and ‘political class’ heritage presented him as a double-edged sword to any Regiment or Division’s officer elite and they had no choice, simply put they had to just put up with him.
True to form, Churchill’s activities in South Africa literally read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel. Within two days of the Boer Republics declaring war on Great Britain on 11th October 1899, Britain started to mobilise their forces at home, in the Cape Colony and Natal their forces were relatively small frontier garrison forces supplemented by citizen force members (which they began to muster anticipating the coming hostilities), and they were hopelessly under-strength.
It a ‘myth’ that Britain had built up large forces to invade the Boer Republics before the start of the war. The ‘truth’ is they were relatively unprepared and much weaker than the well equipped Boer forces – ‘Black November’ illustrates this perfectly. The Boers had banked on a swift victory whilst Britain was weak, hence their ultimatum was followed immediately with a surprise Boer invasion of the British colonies – Natal and the Cape Colony.
The British decided to initially send General Sir Redvers Henry Buller and a small contingent of officers, a detachment of troops and a gaggle of journalists off to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to gauge troop strength ahead of sending any major expeditionary force requirements, they left on the Dunottar Castle on 14th October 1899.
Churchill had planned to publish his magnum opus in October 1899, “but when the middle of October came, we all had other things to think about”. He said, “the Boer ultimatum had not ticked out on the tape machines for an hour” and he was on his way to the Cape Colony, appointed as the principal War Correspondent of the Morning Post. He was to be paid £250 per month for four months (£ 1000 was a small fortune at the time), all expenses paid and he retained the copyright on his articles.
Churchill was first in with Buller’s fact-finding mission anticipating his big ‘scoop’. Sailing with great haste and at high-speed, Churchill called the voyage with Buller as “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” The passage aside, in typical form Churchill even took his valet with him and a vast liquor cabinet that included 18 bottles of Scotch Whiskey also went in tow.
Illustration of General Sir Redvers Buller on the Dunottar Castle, steaming at haste to Cape Town departing Britain on 14 Oct 1899
In those days before radio, they were completely cut off from the world while at sea. Approaching the Cape, a passing ship held up a blackboard on which was written: BOERS DEFEATED, THREE BATTLES, PENN SYMONS KILLED. A staff officer ventured to address Buller. “It looks as if it will all be over, sir.” Buller only said,“I dare say there will be enough left to give us a fight outside Pretoria.”
Churchill arrived with Buller in Cape Town on 31 Oct 1899, by this stage the siege of the British frontier town of Ladysmith was well underway, and the initial message of Boer ‘defeat’ was very incorrect. Churchill could not believe his good fortune and endeavoured to be become the first British journalist to get to Ladysmith – against all odds – ahead of Buller’s fact-finding mission and way ahead of any sizeable expeditionary force (which only was to start landing in Cape Town from 10 November 1899). In effect he was going to be the first to ‘ascertain’ the situation for the very apprehensive Britons back home, not Buller.
Churchill immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so.
They took a 700-mile undefended train ride up north to the Cape Colony’s frontier near Port Elizabeth, then they boarded a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of a violent Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days in very high seas, the pair arrived at Durban. This ‘adventure’ had started to play out in an extraordinary way.
Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of any advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range of the artillery fire from the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armoured train.
The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899 using field artillery and heavy rifle fire, whilst trying to manoeuvre out of fire, the front truck hit an obstruction which was placed by the Boers on the track and it was tossed from the tracks. The Boers then opened up on the stalled train with field guns and rifle fire from a vantage position. With the front truck overturned, the engine and rear trucks remained on the tracks, still coupled to them.
The wrecked part of the armoured train Churchill was travelling in
As shells roared around him and bullets pinged the sides of the armoured train, Churchill’s instincts as a trained military officer took over from his ‘journalist’ side, possibly even more in self-preservation. Acting like a decorated commander, Churchill braved the line of fire for more than an hour as he directed the soldiers to free the train. He also instructed the train driver, a civilian, who was injured and hiding to return to his post (he lied and convinced him that odds are it was not possible to get wounded twice in one day). He became involved in un-coupling the section of the train which was not completely de-railed, the idea was to use this part of the train still on the tracks as a shield for the soldiers as they retreated to safety.
Colourised image of Churchill next to the ambushed train – taken later in the war. Colourised by Tinus Le Roux
After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside, Churchill by this time had become separated from the part of the train on the tracks as it retreated. A number of men were taken prisoner, but a large section of the train, now loaded with men, had escaped.
Churchill made for cover to try to escape and found himself alone in a gully near the track. A Boer rode up and seated on his horse raised his rifle to bear at a range of 40 yards. Churchill went for a Mauser pistol he was carrying in his belt but it wasn’t there, whilst clearing the train he had taken it off and left it on the train, it was now safely making its way back without him and Churchill was unarmed. So, as myths go Churchill was not simply an ‘unarmed’ journalist and as other myths go he also did not fire the pistol during the attack, but he certainly had every intension of shooting the Boer horseman (at his own admission).
In a flat dilemma, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.” So he obeyed the Boer to surrender and walked out. Whilst walking into captivity next to the Boer horseman Churchill suddenly realised he had two magazine clips on his person for the Mauser Pistol, which were loaded with ‘soft-nosed’ ammunition. Figuring this may get him into a lot of trouble (soft-nose ammunition makes a bigger striking wound than hard-nosed ammunition and was generally not thought of Kindly by soldiers – it still isn’t), he realised he had to get rid of them fast.
Churchill silently got rid of one magazine, whilst trying to dispose of the second the Boer caught him in the act and said in English, ‘What have you got there?’. Quick thinking, Churchill gave a whopping lie and replied, “What is it?’ I picked it up”. The Boer took the pistol magazine and threw it away.
With that Churchill went into captivity, protesting that he was just a civilian war correspondent and therefore not subject to a Prisoner of War status and should be released immediately. The Boers would have none of it, they had captured a ‘great prize’ who had not behaved under fire in characteristically ‘civilian’ manner.
Whilst his POW train passed Majuba hill on its way to Pretoria Churchill had time to think. Majuba was the site of the British defeat in the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) twenty years earlier, to understand the deep causes of The South African War (2nd Anglo-Boer War), we need to understand the 1st Anglo-Boer War (like the 2nd World War is World War 1 Part 2, so too the case with the two Anglo-Boer Wars).
As inconvenient truths go the Transvaal was annexed by the British in 1881 at the invitation of the Boers to save them from an African revolt, the Boers did not take to British administration, especially as to how they dealt with the Black African’s claims and taxes and so kicked them out, this cumulated in the Battle at Majuba – and all this happened long before Gold was discovered in the Transvaal – think about that.
Graffiti scrawled by both sides in a house recaptured by the British in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. British graffiti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. Imperial War Museum image
This act of defeat and subsequent ceasefire agreement from the battle at Majuba was described by Churchill as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” as he pondered it whilst passing Majuba hill in his POW train going into captivity. The general sentiment at the time amongst the British was that the South African War i.e. 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) was going to settle the disgrace and tentative ‘ceasefire’ of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) once and for all.
How history twists
In one of the most ironic twists in history, after The South African War (1899 to 1902), when Boer Generals visited England to ask for some loan or assistance on behalf of their devastated country, Churchill was introduced at a private luncheon to their leader, General Louis Botha. Churchill began with his story of his capture, Botha replied ‘Don’t you recognise me? I was that man. It was I who took you prisoner. I, myself,’
Churchill highly respected and valued Louis Botha after the war, he found the Union of South Africa’s first Prime Minister as “an acquaintance formed in strange circumstances and upon an almost unbelievable introduction ripened into a friendship which I greatly valued. I saw in this grand, rugged figure, the Father of his country, the wise and profound statesman, the farmer-warrior, the crafty hunter of the wilderness, the deep, sure man of solitude”.
In another strange twist of history, Kmdt Dolf De la Rey was in command of forces attacking the train is also credited with capturing Churchill (amongst others), much later on De la Rey in 1950’s, as an ageing Boer veteran of The South African War, joined Sailor Malan in his Torch protests against the National Party, such is the rich tapestry of Afrikaners against Apartheid.
Prisoner of War
Although the Boers allowed prisoners-of-war to purchase newspapers, cigarettes and beer, the future British Prime Minister despised his imprisonment “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life”. What frustrated Churchill even more than the loss of control was the possibility that he was missing out on further opportunities for glory. “I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement,” he lamented.
Group of British Prisoners of War, with Churchill on the right. Imperial War Museum image
So, he decided to do something about it and escape, and the ramification of doing so would have massive historical consequence. Here Winston Churchill himself sums up the randomness and sheer ‘luck’ this would all bring him.
“I was to escape, and by escaping was to gain a public reputation or notoriety which made me well-known henceforward among my countrymen, and made me acceptable as a candidate in a great many constituencies. I was also put in the position to earn the money which for many years assured my independence and the means of entering Parliament. Whereas if I had gone back on the engine, though I should perhaps have been praised and petted, I might well have been knocked on the head at Colenso a month later, as were several of my associates on Sir Redvers Buller’s Staff”.
Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’
In December 1899 Churchill’s plan to escape took shape. He was held in a prison dedicated to British officers, it was a State Model school in central Pretoria converted to hold Prisoners of War.
He wrote.“The State Model Schools stood in the midst of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated-iron fence about ten feet high, these boundaries offered little obstacle to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier” he then adds “No walls are so hard to pierce as living walls”.
In cohorts with two officers, Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Brockie (who was in fact a Sergeant Major who passed himself off as a Lieutenant in order to get better quarters). They had noticed a ‘blank spot’ in the movements of Boer guards behind the latrines. After a first attempt at escape was aborted, they had another go the next day. Churchill was to go first followed by the other two.
Churchill’s departing note
On the night of his escape, December 12, 1899 Churchill even had the gumption and cheek to leave a ‘Dear John’ departing note on his pillow thanking the Boer Republic for its hospitality, it read in part:
“… I wish in leaving you thus hastily and unceremoniously to once more place on record my appreciation of the kindness which has been shown me and the other prisoners by you, the Commandant and Dr Gunning and my admiration of the chivalrous and humane character of the Republican forces.”
‘Churchill entered the small circular lavatory, waited some time monitoring the guards from the lavatory, he waited until the guards had turned their backs and this was his moment, he hesitated twice and then went for it, he scaled the wall and jumped, initially snagging himself on the ornamental metal spikes on top of the wall.
Once free he hid himself in a nearby shrub in the adjacent garden and waited for his partners, who did not arrive, he lay here for an hour with great impatience. He overheard them speaking in Latin gibberish and mentioning his name, he risked a cough and they told him the game was up on the guard movements and they were not able to join him.
So, there he was, he considered going back and instead undertook to press on with his escape. The escape was very poorly planned, he had only figured out how to get out of the prison, no real further thought had been given other than to head east. Churchill the ‘fugitive’ had no map, no compass, no intimate local knowledge, no ability to speak the local languages and just “four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit” in his pocket for food. The compass and food had been with his colleagues, but he still possessed a seemingly superhuman level of self-belief that he could safely navigate the 300-mile journey through enemy territory.
On the ‘run’
Contrary to many myths, Churchill did not scarper out of Pretoria as a running fugitive only to ‘forge the mighty Apies’ river to freedom (that was all media hype). In fact, he casually walked out of Pretoria. He figured so as not to draw attention to himself he would just amble along in the middle of the road, in full view, humming a tune, pretending to be just a regular ‘Burgher’ on his way home. He would later joke with Jan Smuts that there was a good chance he just walked straight past him.
Without ‘forging’ any river, he eventually found himself strolling along looking for a railway line, he figured he would follow the easterly tracks, the idea was to get to neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). When he reached the eastern suburbs of Pretoria he sat down on a small bridge and for a little while contemplated as to how his ‘adventure’ was now panning out.
He resolved to turn South and eventually he struck a railway heading in an easterly direction, following it, all the while reasoning with himself that he would jump aboard a train and hide. A coal train passed and he jumped aboard hiding amongst the sacks, and promptly went to sleep. He awoke hungry and thirsty and needed sustenance, and to get a bearing (he was not sure the coal train had in fact run east) so he disembarked by jumping off.
His next effort to find another train proved entire futile, hungry, tired and thirsty he marched on with increasing hopelessness. By now he was desperate, that night he spotted a fire, thought it a Black African hamlet and hoped to fall on their tender mercy. On approaching the fire, it turned out to be a railway siding and he overheard Dutch-Afrikaans been spoken. But desperate and miserable he then resolved to ‘give up the game’ and approach a nearby house. Chuck it all in, whatever comes, he hoped against hope there would be a sympathetic owner to his plight.
Churchill’s ‘Wanted’ Poster
Meanwhile back in Pretoria and in the United Kingdom, news of his escape broke. The British public and media shifted into a mode that can only be described as ecstatic, news stories broke on the ‘bravery’ of Winston Churchill giving the Boers the old ‘Agincourt salute’!
Good old stiff upper lip resistance stuff – in a sea of negative news on the heavy British battle losses over November and December this made for the only media ‘great news’ and positive propaganda for a public desperately keen on anything good coming from the war to date – and all thanks to only one man – Winston Churchill. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (The South African Republic) , also known as the ‘Transvaal’ Republic (abbreviated ‘ZAR’), went on the man-hunt and immediately put a bounty on Churchill’s head – £25 for the return of Churchill ‘Dead or Alive’.
The Transvaal Police (ZARP) circulated a telegram after Churchill escaped from prison and it gives a very accurate description of Churchill demeanour, it is also very telling of the saga unfolding for Churchill. It read:
“Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.”
Throwing the dice
Churchill, now in sheer desperation, cautiously approached the house and knocked on the door. His odds were really 50/50 and he knew it, to dispel another myth, The South African War was not a clean-cut affair between the British and Afrikaners facing each other.
The South African Republic (ZAR) was rammed full of tens of thousands of mainly British mine workers and managers, who also worked the mining support infrastructure – like rail (they were the cause Britain cited as the Casus Belli for war in the first place), there were more Britons living along the Transvaal gold reef’s towns in the Republic than Boers. Equally there were more Afrikaners with British Cape Colony citizenship in the Cape Colony than Britons.
At the beginning of the war, English and Afrikaners with citizenships on either side of the fence, if caught siding with one or other cause were generally executed for treason by either the British or Boers – this kept most of them at bay and non-hostile one way or the other. Also, there were many Afrikaners living in the two Boer Republics and most in the Cape Colony who were in fact sympathetic to the British cause, as there were also many English ZAR citizens sympathetic with the Boer cause. The next phase of Churchill’s ‘adventure’ illustrates this perfectly.
On knocking on the door, a light came on and a man asked in Dutch-Afrikaans “Wie is daar (Whose there)”. Winston went into shock, the game was up, so he immediately lied and said; “I want help; I have had an accident”. The door opened, and the man said in English this time “What do you want?” Not sure of the status of things Winston carried on lying and said; “I am a burgher, I have had an accident. I was going to join my commando at Komati Poort. I have fallen off the train. We were skylarking. I have been unconscious for hours. I think I have dislocated my shoulder”. He had in all honestly no clue what to say next.
The stranger regarded Winston intently and ushered him in pointing to a room with one hand whilst holding a revolver in the other. Winston Churchill half expected to be shot in the back of the head there and then. He chose to come clean and said; “I am Winston Churchill, War Correspondent of the Morning Post. I escaped last night from Pretoria. I am making my way to the frontier. I have plenty of money. Will you help me?”
Now here’s where Winston just got lucky, his host responded; ‘Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”
Brave words from the host, and here’s why, it turns out that Churchill’s new host was John Howard, an Englishman managing Transvaal Collieries. He had become a naturalised citizen of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and he had bribed the local Boer Field Cornet, so he would not be called up to his Commando and fight the British. His team was all of British heritage and had been allowed to stay if they remained ‘neutral’.
‘Verraaiers’ (traitors) everywhere!
John Howard and some of his compatriots resolved to hide Churchill under-ground in a nearby coal mine whilst they figured out the next move. They ran a tremendous risk, had they been caught they would have been shot as traitors and collaborators, especially John Howard who would have been shot outright.
Churchill sat it out in a mine shaft with food provisions given to him, his only company the many rats. On the fifth day of his escape, John Howard hatched an escape plan for Churchill. In the neighbourhood of the mine there lived an Afrikaner named Burgener, who was sending a consignment of wool by rail to Delagoa Bay on the 19th December. Burgener was an Afrikaner ZAR citizen sympathetic to the British cause.
Howard had secretly met with Burgener, told him of Churchill and they agreed to smuggle Churchill into a specially adapted wool bale on the train and take him to safety. Phew, supreme treason this, had this Boer ‘turncoat’ been caught he would surly have faced a ZAR firing squad or noose. Burgener was also to accompany Churchill all the way to Portuguese East Arica and safely see him through – now not many people know this part of the narrative, it’s inconvenient to highlight a ‘Afrikaner’ collaborator in all of this.
What all this skullduggery means, the idea of broad partisan loyalty to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’s cause is simply a myth – thousands of ZAR citizens, English and even some Afrikaans were not behind Kruger’s politics or his cabal.
Do you know who I am?
In the middle of the night on the 19th December, Churchill was taken the train loaded with wool bales, Howard pointed the spot made available for Churchill to hide and Winston snuck away into the centre of the specially modified wool bale (with enough space to sit up in), he was given a revolver and food (chicken, meat and bottles of cold tea) – a small space enabled him to see out. Off the train trekked, final stop, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).
Once safely over the border into neutral Portuguese territory, he emerged from his wool bale sang and shouted in jubilation whilst firing his revolver into the air.
Once in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), he carefully disembarked the train and saw Mr Burgener (the Afrikaner who had helped him), Burgener then pointed him to the British Consulate. He marched in expecting a rousing reception – he got none of it. Instead a terse British civil servant told him to ‘Be off,‘ the Consulate was closed, he added; ‘The Consul cannot see you to-day. Come to his office at nine tomorrow, if you want anything.’
At this point Churchill spat his dummy in the reception area, in a typical ‘do you know who I am’ rant he demanded to see the Consular who was duly called, happily the weekly streamer to Durban was leaving that night, he embarked immediately and arrived in Durban to the jubilant reception he was expecting.
Churchill addresses the crowd at Durban following his escape from Pretoria and return via Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)
Becoming a ‘Caesar’
In Durban, Sir Redvers Buller was preparing his next push to relieve the siege at Ladysmith, Winston decided he wanted to re-engage his military commission and get into the fight properly as a British Army officer. His problem, his contract with the Morning Post,which did not allow him as a correspondent to take part in soldiering, and Buller who had a strict military only doctrine. So, he struck a unique agreement with Buller, he would do both jobs, the Morning Post would pay him and the British Army would not. In another first, Churchill became the world’s first ’embedded’ journalist.
Colourised portrait of Winston Churchill as part of the South African Light Horse
With that he eagerly found himself back in uniform and off to war, with a lieutenant’s commission in the South African Light Horse. In his words; “I stitched my badges of rank to my khaki coat and stuck the long plume of feathers from the tail of the sakabulu bird in my hat, and lived from day-to-day in perfect happiness”.
Churchill took part in the famous battle of Spionkop outside Ladysmith from 23-24 January 1900, he acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spionkop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene:“Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”
He fought a number of skirmishes and battles to relieve Ladysmith, watching the final attack on the Boer position by the Irish Brigade, a desperate affair and out of twelve hundred Irish who assaulted, both colonels, three majors, twenty officers and six hundred soldiers had fallen killed or wounded. The path to Ladysmith was clear, and Churchill was front and forward riding into Ladysmith in triumph, he said; “We all rode together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out, Ladysmith. It was a thrilling moment”.
This highlights another inconveniently overlooked fact of The South African War (especially in context of Boer and Black concentration camps later in the war), British civilians, women and children included, suffered heavily under Boer siege tactics, they were forced to live in nearby caves and bunkers (in Ladysmith) and in mine shafts (Kimberley) to avoid the indiscriminate shelling of their cities, many died of shrapnel and disease brought about from the ravages of war. At near starvation they were emancipated. They were described by their liberators as ‘ghosts’. Churchill’s account of entering Ladysmith recalls; “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome”.
Besides his harrowing images at Ladysmith, in Churchill’s writings during the campaign, he chastised British hatred for the Boer, calling for them to be treated with “generosity and tolerance” and urging a “speedy peace”. His call was to fall on deaf ears, especially Kitchener’s who only got he ‘speedy peace’ part.
British dead in their tench on top of Spionkop, colourised by Tinus Le Roux
Fighting on into the Orange Free State Republic, he was nearly captured again when he found himself well forward and isolated observing Boer movements, they attacked his position and his horse bolted under fire, Winston ran for his life under heavy fire with bullets whizzing around him, his savour came when another officer rode up to him, gave him a stirrup, hoisted him up, the horse was wounded but they still rode with Winston in tandem out of immediate danger.
He was front and forward again when the British eventually marched on Pretoria in June 1900. He watched the last Boer fighting forces leaving Pretoria on a train and he and his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, took the opportunity to get ahead of the rest of the troops and he rode into Pretoria like a conquering Caesar. He immediately found his way to the State Model School POW prison, the very prison he had escaped from at the beginning of the war, here he demanded and received the surrender of 52 Boer prison camp guards. The relieved British officers in the prison produced a British Union Jack (flag), they took down the Transvaal ‘Vierkleur’ and hosted the British Union flag – the first time a British flag re-appeared flying over Pretoria since Pretoria was annexed by Britain as a colony at the invitation of the Boers (see 1st Anglo-Boer War) in 1880, twenty years earlier.
After the victory in Pretoria, Winston returned to Cape Town and sailed for Britain in July 1900, on the very same ship he had arrived on, the Dunottar Castle. While he had still been in South Africa, his Morning Post despatches had been published as London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and they sold like wildfire. He arrived a national hero, nearly god-like, adored by millions.
A future fan base
Portrait of a young Winston Churchill during his MP days, 1904
There’s a lot not to like about Churchill, his warmongering nature and ability to lie at will, dithering between politician, journalist and army officer all for personal advancement for starters. But there’s a lot to like in addition when you consider this.
What a Victorian Boy’s Own adventure! Think about it; the story starts with bang! The hero heads off to war on an urgent sea passage to the Cape Colony, braving high seas and a tropical storm to get to Durban. In Natal he then single-handedly saves an entire British armoured train and its troop from certain death.
Captured by a skilful and determined enemy, he then escapes a POW prison in Pretoria with a ‘dead or alive’ bounty on his head, the subject of an extensive man-hunt for 300 miles and eventually – intrigue, he’s smuggled out the country to freedom by a group of traitors.
He promptly then re-joins the fight and takes part in the epic Battle of Spoinkop, then he’s on to relieve the starved and besieged British folk in Ladysmith riding in triumph. He then fights his way up Africa to take the enemies ‘prize,’ the capital city of Pretoria.
In a perfect ending to the adventure our hero races in to relieve imprisoned British comrades from the same prison he escaped from, and it all ends with the raising the first British Union Flag of the war flying high above the conquered capital.
In all the hero risks being shot in the head on more than five separate occasions, bravery on an almost unsurpassed level – all for Queen and Empire.
You could not make this stuff up! How Churchill did not earn a Victoria Cross is a matter of conjecture (and a topic of many discussions). To the average Victorian prepubescent boy this was an epic ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure, the difference with fiction, it was all true – and a generation of Churchill fans was born.
A fall from Grace
With a stellar career in front of him, as World War 1 churned on Churchill found himself as the 1st Lord of Admiralty, he asked the Prime Minister “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Churchill, believed he had the solution for breaking the impasse—a second front.
Churchill fancied himself a military strategist, he said. “I have it in me to be a successful soldier. I can visualize great movements and combinations,” He proposed attacking the Dardanelles in Turkey and opening a second front. This was Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ theory – and ironically he made the same mistake with the Italy Campaign of the Second World War, and like Italy later, Turkey proved a ‘tough old gut’ in World War One.
The Gallipoli campaign was an outright failure, the Battle of Gallipoli became a slaughter and quickly morphed into a stalemate just as bloody, just as pointless as that on the Western Front.
In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post. “I am the victim of a political intrigue,” he cried to a close friend. “I am finished!”
Churchill (right), back from the trenches in WW1 wearing a French Adrian helmet; the officer to his left is Maj. Archibald Sinclair
Displaying his typical dogmatic determination, he resigned to make good his character, and he did this is a most remarkable way, he joined the Army again and chose to spend his time in his ‘political wilderness’ fighting in front line trenches in France, slogging in the blood and mud as a Lt. Colonel with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. After several brushes with death, he returned to politics in 1917 as the Munitions Minister, from his experiences in the front lines he wrote of the urgent need for the armoured ‘tracked caterpillars’ to traverse the mud and ‘no-mans land’ – his involvement with a group of innovators to resolve the problem led to the development of the battle tank and warfare was forever changed.
Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon re-joining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germany’s re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged, and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.
It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s Nazi forces at the on-set of the Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern European democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact), and here’s another obscure fact – South Africa had a big role in shaping Churchill, his ‘adventure’ in South Africa took him from a minor politician to a political giant with a near demigod status, even failures like Gallipoli could not unseat his destiny – South Africa both directly and indirectly shaped this future.
Winston Churchill (Colorised by Mads Madsen)
Related Works and Links
Winston Churchill and Louis Botha: The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi
The 1st Boer War; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.
Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942
Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.
Winston Churchill and Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk
Winston Churchill and Smuts; Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts
The Transvaal; Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
References and extracts
My Early Life. A Roving Commission. Author: Churchill, Winston S, published October 1930. The Daring Escape That Forged Winston Churchill by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel, November 2016. Winston Churchill’s World War Disaster by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel. Churchill’s capture and escape – November-December 1899, blog by Robin Smith. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.