A Vision of Destiny
This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London, and I shall save London and England from disaster. – WINSTON CHURCHILL, AGE 16
ON A SUMMER SUNDAY EVENING IN 1891, with the echoes of chapel evensong still resonating in their minds, sixteen-year-old Winston Churchill and his close friend and fellow Harrow student Murland de Grasse Evans sat talking in what Evans would remember years later as “one of those dreadful basement rooms in the Headmaster’s House.”
The conversation focused on destiny—more specifically, their own. Churchill thought that Evans might go into the diplomatic service, or perhaps follow his father’s footsteps into finance.
Then Evans asked Churchill, “Will you go into the army?”
“I don’t know,” young Winston replied. “It is probable; but I shall have great adventures soon after I leave here.”
“Are you going into politics? Following your father?”
“I don’t know, but it is more than likely because, you see, I am not afraid to speak in public.”
Evans was quizzical as he gazed back at his friend. “You do not seem at all clear about your intentions or desires.”
“That may be,” Winston shot back, “but I have a wonderful idea of where I shall be eventually. I have dreams about it.”
“Where is that?”
“Well, I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger—London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London,” Winston said.
“How can you talk like that?” Evans asked. “We are forever safe from invasion, since the days of Napoleon.”
“I see further ahead than you do,” Winston replied. “I see into the future.”
Murland Evans was so “stunned” by the conversation that he “recorded it with utmost clarity,” in a letter he sent to Churchill’s son, Randolph, who in the 1950s was given the responsibility of writing his father’s biography.
Churchill continued, undaunted, as he would many times throughout his career. “This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London, and I shall save London and England from disaster.”
Evans remembered Churchill as “warming to his subject” as he spoke.
“Will you be a general, then, in command of the troops?” Evans asked.
“I don’t know,” Britain’s future leader replied. “Dreams of the future are blurred, but the main objective is clear. . . . I repeat—London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.”
Need for Affirmation
Were it not for events almost fifty years later, young Winston’s prediction might be dismissed as the desperate effort of a lonely adolescent with a need for affirmation to assert his significance. That need would have been understandable, given the relationship between Churchill and his physically and emotionally removed parents. Of his mother, Churchill wrote later in life, “I loved her dearly—but at a distance.” And once, after an extended conversation with his own son, Churchill remarked, “We have this evening had a longer period of continuous conversation than the total which I ever had with my father in the whole course of his life.”
Today, social conventions are often determined by their political correctness. In Churchill’s day, especially for people of his class, it was “Victorian correctness” that set the standard. VC demanded a certain aloofness of parents towards their children. In some households, parents met with their offspring by appointment only (determined by the parent) and in the presence of a servant. If the child became too troublesome, obnoxious, or impolite, the help could quickly take charge.
As a boy, Winston romanticized his parents at times. He saw his father as a champion of “Tory democracy.” History focuses on Lord Randolph’s personal morality, but Winston saw his father as a good and loyal politician who stood on principle. He noted his father’s courageous stands as chancellor of the exchequer—and how, when Lord Randolph’s voice was ignored, he offered his resignation. Churchill admired the fact that Lord Randolph was sometimes unpopular and that he placed the nation’s needs above those of his own Conservative Party when he perceived a conflict. Winston believed his father to be a “people’s politician,” not a party hack. He concluded that Lord Randolph sincerely desired to serve the people he represented and was not in politics for himself, for power, or for accolades.
Churchill’s mother, Jennie, was an active socialite, if not a libertine, with many (some would say scandalous) involvements; but her relationship with her young son was not especially close. Still, Churchill remembered her as “a fairy princess: a radiant being possessed of limitless riches and power.”
“Emotionally abandoned by both [parents], young Winston blamed himself,” writes historian William Manchester. “Needing outlets for his own welling adoration, he created images of them as he wished they were, and the less he saw of them, the easier that transformation became.” Aristocratic families sent their boys to private boarding schools—for Winston, it was Harrow—and at a distance, Winston’s fantasized image of his parents was quite easy to maintain because he did not see them often or receive communications from them.
At one point, he tried to tell his mother how lonely he was: “It is very unkind of you not to write to me before this, I have only had one letter from you this term.” In 1884, four years before he entered Harrow, nine-year-old Winston became sick. His doctor, who had a medical office in Brighton, on the Channel coast, felt it would be good for the boy’s health if he lived for a while by the sea. Thus, Churchill started that fall as a student at a school there. But the new location made no difference in his parents’ attentiveness. In fact, when he read in the Brighton newspaper that Lord Randolph had recently been in town to make a speech, Winston penned him a note: “I cannot think why you did not come to see me, while you were in Brighton. I was very disappointed, but I suppose you were too busy to come.”
Then there were the suffocating strictures of the upper-crust educational institutions. As William Manchester observes, “Youth was an ordeal for most boys of [Churchill’s] class. Life in England’s so-called public schools—private boarding schools reserved for sons of the elite—was an excruciating rite of passage.” Added to that misery was the continuing disregard by his parents. “It is not very kind darling Mummy to forget all about me, not answer my epistles,” he wrote in one letter to his mother. On another occasion, Winston asked his father to come to Harrow for Speech Day and told him, “You have never been to see me & so everything will be new to you.”
As difficult as his parents’ seeming disinterest must have been for Churchill, it may have been a blessing in disguise. By default, his nanny, Elizabeth Everest, played a much bigger role in forming his vital foundational beliefs, and her perspective was decidedly Christian.
Winston Churchill’s school experience was pathetic by any measure, but right from the start, even as a seven-year-old, he demonstrated the tenacity and determination that would come to characterize his life. Subjected to institutional acts of brutality that might have destroyed another boy’s morale, Churchill remained resolute. Once, after a particularly severe caning at St. George’s School in Ascot, he got his revenge by defiantly stomping on the headmaster’s prized straw hat.
At the bottom of his class—and also sorted towards the end of the list at roll call because of his name, Spencer-Churchill—Winston wrote pleadingly to his father to allow him to dispense with the Spencer and simply go by Churchill. Lord Randolph ignored the letter, just as he had failed to respond to the hundreds of earlier epistles in which the homesick young Winston begged them to visit for a weekend, Sports Day, Prize Giving, or any occasion.
During those dark eleven years of Churchill’s primary schooling, he had only one visitor: his nanny, Mrs. Elizabeth Everest, whom he affectionately called Woomany. She was the one person to whom he “poured out [his] many troubles.” Churchill and Mrs. Everest remained friends and confidants until her death in 1895, five months after Lord Randolph’s and three months after his grandmother’s, Clarissa Jerome. “I shall never know such a friend again,” Churchill wrote of Everest in a letter to his mother.
During Churchill’s younger years, Mrs. Everest loved him dearly and protected him as best she could. Years later, when he wrote his only novel, Savrola, Churchill no doubt had Mrs. Everest in mind when he described the housekeeper character:
Stephen Mansfield provides further insight into Elizabeth Everest’s influence on Churchill. She was a “low church adherent,” he notes, who wanted no part of the “popish trappings” in the Anglican Church. “But she was also a passionate woman of prayer, and she taught young Winston well. She helped him memorize his first Scriptures, knelt with him daily as he recited his prayers, and explained the world to him in simple but distinctly Christian terms.” Her role in the formation of Churchill’s worldview was still evident later in his life when he often paraphrased or quoted Bible passages in his speeches. Even in seasons of doubt, he instinctively saw through eyes formed with a biblical outlook. This is why he could inspire hope, call for strength and faith, and most importantly, grasp the true meaning of Nazism and its threat to civilization.
Throughout his life, Winston Churchill was a man of principle, even though his understanding and application of those principles were sometimes skewed—as they are in all of us. The academics under whom Britain’s future wartime leader studied would have been well acquainted with the writings of Jeremy Bentham, the prominent late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British philosopher who promoted the theory of utilitarianism and the idea that outcomes determined the ethical rightness of actions and philosophies. Churchill was a practical man, but he was not a mere utilitarian. Instead, he combined a mighty visionary perspective, strategic wisdom, and tactical knowledge in ways rarely found in one person.
Early in his political career, Churchill angered his friends and won only meager approval from his former opponents when he changed political parties over policy principles. After the seeming collapse of his leadership reputation during the First World War, Churchill only dug the ditch deeper with his attempts to warn about the intentions of Adolf Hitler during the buildup to the Second World War. To regain his credibility and stature, it would have been much easier to give way to raw pragmatism and mute his message. The more comfortable course would have been to yield to Britain’s war-weariness and allow Hitler free rein in Western Europe. After all, key players in the British aristocracy didn’t think all that badly of Hitler, though his style was off-putting to some of their sensibilities. But as Winston had told his school chum in 1891, he could see “further ahead.” And what Churchill saw was the power of principle over sheer utility. In the absence of parental influence, some credit for this perspective must go to his “foster-mother,” Elizabeth Everest, who showed him that human nature is indeed superior to mere utility.
Years later, Churchill indicated a “partiality for Low Church principles” because of the impact of Elizabeth Everest. Though he respected Britain’s rich historic traditions, he had no need for pomp. After the Second World War had ended, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, asked her husband what memorial he would prefer. “Oh, nothing,” he replied. “Perhaps just a park for the children to play in.”
In 1945, after Churchill had saved civilization, King George VI wanted to induct him into the Order of the Garter, Britain’s oldest, most prestigious, and highest honor for chivalry. Churchill became perhaps the first commoner to decline the high honor. The political editor of the London Daily Mail noted that “Mr. Churchill has always insisted that he does not wish to have a title.” Besides, said Churchill (who had just been surprisingly defeated in the first postwar election), he could hardly accept the “garter” from the king when his people had just given him the “order of the boot.”
Finally, in 1953, when Churchill was once again voted in as prime minister at the age of seventy-eight, he accepted the Order of the Garter—though still dragging his feet. Young Queen Elizabeth II, with as much fortitude as Churchill had, told him that if the prime minister would not come to her to receive the honor, then Her Royal Majesty would have to come to him, bearing the accoutrements of the Order. Churchill’s regard for the monarchy wouldn’t permit such a denigrating act by the queen, so he relented and became a member of the Most Noble Order. “I only accepted because I think she is so splendid,” Churchill said, in describing his change of mind.
During the Second World War, Churchill gained the respect of the British people and their allies by personifying British pluck. His engagement with the public provided a link between average people and the aristocrats in high positions of power. This was crucial in forming the strong unity that was essential for the people to keep standing during the Battle of Britain and the years of bloody struggle after that.
Despite the void left by his parents, Churchill’s visionary outlook was awakened at Harrow. Martin Gilbert notes that Churchill’s first essay there dealt with Palestine in the age of John the Baptist. The seed of Churchill’s concept of “Christian civilization” was already present when he included in the essay the notion of “the advantages of Christianity.”
In 1940, as British cities were languishing under the Blitz, Churchill took his son, Randolph, to Harrow. The student choirs presented songs that Churchill had sung when he was there as a pupil. “Listening to those boys singing all those well-remembered songs I could see myself fifty years before singing those tales of great deeds and of great men and wondering with intensity how I could ever do something glorious for my country.”
This, then, was the milieu in which sixteen-year-old Winston Churchill made his remarkable prediction of destiny to Murland Evans. It would be easy to attribute his lofty adolescent prediction to an overwrought quest for the recognition, acceptance, affirmation, and significance that his parents had not provided, except for the fact that what he predicted came curiously and remarkably true.
The path to greatness, however, was torturous and twisted. After Harrow, Churchill had high hopes of following his father into politics, even serving in Parliament at his side. Lord Randolph, however, had other ideas. When at last he visited Harrow, he told the headmaster he wanted Winston to go into the Army Class. At one point, when Winston was a young boy, Lord Randolph had surveyed his son’s toy army of fifteen hundred soldiers and asked Winston if he would like to go into the military.
“I thought it would be splendid to command an army,” Churchill later recalled, “so I said ‘Yes’ at once: and immediately I was taken at my word.” Churchill assumed that his father “with his experience and flair had discerned in me the qualities of military genius. But I was told later that he had only come to the conclusion that I was not clever enough to go to the Bar”—that is, to pursue a career practicing law.
It was determined that Winston would be sent to Sandhurst, the military institute where infantry and cavalry officers were trained. But he failed the entrance examination—twice—and it appeared he wouldn’t qualify for Sandhurst after all. On his third try, he gained admission, but with grades insufficient for the infantry. Undaunted, he let his family know he had succeeded, with his appointment to the cavalry.
Lord Randolph was unimpressed. In fact, with his mind by then wilting under the effects of what his physicians had diagnosed as syphilis, he disparaged his son without mercy. Winston’s failure to get into the infantry, his father said, “demonstrated beyond refutation your slovenly happy-go-lucky harum scarum style of work.” The elder Churchill told his son that he was second- or third-class at best. In fact, his father wrote to him, “if you cannot prevent yourself from leading the idle useless unprofitable life you have had during your schooldays & later months, you will become a mere social wastrel, one of the hundreds of the public school failures, and you will degenerate into a shabby unhappy & futile existence.”
Churchill’s admiration for his father, however, was undiminished. Aspirations of serving with him in Parliament lingered in his mind until Lord Randolph died in 1895. Even then, the thought never quite left him. One evening in 1946, when Churchill was once again a member of Parliament and leader of the opposition, he sat with members of his family in the dining room at his home, Chartwell. His daughter Sarah glanced at an empty chair and then at her father. “If you had the power to put someone in that chair to join us now, whom would you choose?”
“Oh, my father, of course,” Churchill replied immediately.
He then told them a story that would later become the seed of his little book titled The Dream.
“It was not plain whether he was recalling a dream or elaborating on some fanciful idea that had struck him earlier,” Churchill’s son, Randolph, would later say. Churchill penned the story in 1947, when he was again feeling the disdain of the political party in power and of a sizable portion of the British public. Yet, suggests historian Richard Langworth, perhaps it was the disdain from his own father that Churchill, now at the age of seventy-three, had not overcome.
In The Dream, Churchill said he was in his art studio at Chartwell. He had been given a portrait of his father from 1886. The canvas was badly torn, and he was attempting to make a copy. As he concentrated intensely on his father’s image, his mind “freed from all other thoughts except the impressions of that loved and honoured face now on the canvas, now on the picture, now in the mirror,” he felt an “odd sensation.” He turned to find his father sitting in the red leather armchair across the studio.
“Papa!” he exclaimed.
“What are you doing, Winston?”
After Churchill explained his project, the conversation continued.
“Tell me, what year is it?” Lord Randolph asked.
Lord Randolph asked his son to tell him what had happened in the years since his death. Churchill gave him a broad outline and then spoke of the Second World War. “Seven million were murdered in cold blood, mainly by the Germans. They made human slaughter-pens like the Chicago stockyards. Europe is a ruin . . .”
“Winston,” replied Lord Randolph, “you have told me a terrible tale. . . . As I listened to you unfolding these fearful facts you seemed to know a great deal about them. . . . When I hear you talk I really wonder you didn’t go into politics. You might have done a lot to help. You might even have made a name for yourself.”
In the “dream,” Lord Randolph did not know, and his son would not tell him, that Winston had indeed gone into politics. Military service, as we will see, was part of the path that got him there.
At age twenty-one, with that storied encounter with his father still decades into the future, Churchill was only a few months from being commissioned into the Fourth Hussars cavalry regiment. It was in this moment that his life’s purpose changed, and though a tinge of youthful arrogance remained, everything he did until the day he entered Parliament was with the singular purpose he expressed in his book My Early Life: to pursue Lord Randolph’s aims and vindicate his memory.
Despite his father’s gloom at his being a mere cavalryman, Churchill looked forward with exuberance to graduating from Sandhurst and “becoming a real live cavalry officer.”
Suitably engaged, Churchill soon discovered that he “could learn quickly enough the things that mattered.” He graduated with honors from Sandhurst, finishing eighth in his class of 150, and thus was launched “into the world.”
He plunged into living and working with excitement and anticipation: “Ups and downs, risks and journeys, but always the sense of motion, and the illusion of hope,” he said.
Yet there was a disappointment: The world was at peace. A cavalry officer needed to stay in the saddle, so it seemed the best thing to do was play polo. Lord Randolph had died two months before Winston was commissioned as an officer in the Fourth Hussars, and Churchill’s income was reduced to a relatively small allowance, which he exhausted on polo ponies.
Then he heard there was war in Cuba. Rebels there were battling the Spaniards. If he could not go as a soldier, he determined to travel to the battlefield as a correspondent. He soon found that the Graphic would pay him five pounds for each report. After a lengthy voyage, which he greatly disliked, Churchill peered out at Cuba from his ship as it approached the island:
In fact, he almost did. In Cuba came the first of those seemingly miraculous survivals that would occur several times in Churchill’s life. A bullet passed a foot from his head, and another pierced the thatched hut where he slept but left him unscathed.
In the winter of 1896, when his assignment to Cuba was completed, Churchill sailed to India with the Fourth Hussars, and they were based in Bangalore. He and two of his comrades lived in what he described as “a palatial bungalow, all pink and white,” set on two acres and “wreathed in purple bougainvillea.” There they were tended to by three butlers. There was still no war in which to exercise his military craft, so he resumed playing polo. It occurred to him that there might be other, perhaps better, pursuits—namely, that of learning.
Back in England, someone had told Churchill that “Christ’s Gospel was the last word in Ethics.” This was a theme he often spoke about in later years, but in his young adulthood he scarcely understood the meaning. “This sounded good,” he wrote, “but what were Ethics? They had never been mentioned to me at Harrow or Sandhurst. . . . Then someone told me that Ethics were concerned not merely with the things you ought to do, but with why you ought to do them.” With no one in Bangalore to instruct him, Churchill ordered a wide array of books.
From Darwin to Macaulay, from Gibbon to Malthus to Plato and Aristotle, Churchill read voraciously during the long, hot subcontinental afternoons as his comrades napped. The religious ideas sown into him by Elizabeth Everest and others were greatly challenged by what he read. When he read History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe and History of European Morals by William Lecky, an Irish historian and political theorist, Lecky’s arguments induced him to briefly settle his mind on a predominantly secular view. Reflecting in later years, he said:
That “poise” would be tested sooner perhaps than Churchill had imagined. During a trip home to England in 1897, he learned there was action on the Northwest Frontier of India, and he managed to get there as a war correspondent. Out of that experience, he penned his first book, The Malakand Field Force.
As the Indian conflict was winding down, Churchill heard that war had broken out in the Sudan in North Africa. He tried to get into the battle there, but his efforts were met with resistance from none other than Sir Herbert Kitchener, the commander of the Egyptian Army fighting in the Sudan. Churchill managed to get the backing of Prime Minister Salisbury, but even that was rebuffed. Kitchener had all the officers he needed, and any vacancies would be filled by “others whom he would be bound to prefer before the young officer in question.”
Churchill later happened to hear through a friend that Sir Evelyn Wood, the adjutant general of the British Army, had expressed resentment of Kitchener’s approach to selecting officers. Sir Evelyn felt strongly that the War Office ought to be able to choose the makeup of the British Expeditionary Force. Churchill got word to Sir Evelyn that his attempts to join Kitchener’s army had been refused. “This move was instantly successful,” writes Violet Bonham Carter. “Sir Evelyn Wood became his deus ex machina.”
Within days, Churchill was en route to North Africa and another giant leap towards his destiny.
Surviving Destiny’s Perilous Paths
I raised my pistol and fired. So close were we that the pistol itself actually struck him. Man and sword disappeared below and behind me. – WINSTON CHURCHILL, MY EARLY LIFE
THE VULTURES GATHERED that September morning in 1898 as twenty thousand British troops marched across the battle-battered landscape to scout a thrice-larger force of zealous Sudanese warriors (three thousand of whom were on horseback) led by Abdullah al-Taashi. The Arab ruler was driven by his sense of destiny as the successor to Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, a messianic leader and Allah’s servant in bringing koranic order to the world in its end times.
Winston Churchill, then a twenty-four-year-old cavalryman itching for action, estimated the number of ravenous birds that day at about a hundred. The vultures had no appreciation for history or religious fervor, but they grasped the significance of carnage.
History remembers the bloody clash that followed as the Battle of Omdurman.
A Blessed Busted Shoulder
Two years before Omdurman, Churchill had landed at Bombay, India, after a long, wearying voyage from the British Isles. Eager for dry land, he scampered to get off the small tender boat that had ferried him and others from the SS Britannia to a rocky quay. Iron hand rings were embedded in the stone so that passengers could steady themselves as they jumped onto steps made slippery by the surf.
On the day of Churchill’s arrival, the tiny tender was heaving on four- to five-foot swells. Just as the young soldier gripped one of the rings, the boat was caught in a surge and jerked away. The sudden yaw of the vessel wrenched Churchill’s right shoulder—dislocating it, though he was unaware of the severity of the injury at the time. Wincing in pain, he made his way ashore, but in true Churchill style, he soon tried to put the matter from his mind.
Without proper treatment, Churchill’s busted shoulder never quite healed properly, and it would forever plague him. Through the years, he never knew when the stabbing pain would again bring him up short—reaching for a book, sleeping on his side, swimming, or even laying hold of a banister. The injury kept him from participating in some sports, and most likely from dying at Omdurman.
On September 2, 1898, at a quarter to six on a hazy North African morning, Churchill and his comrades-in-arms rode into the face of an overwhelmingly strong enemy. But rather than fearing the human tsunami hurtling towards him, Churchill felt exhilarated. Later, in a letter to his mother, he described how the “Dervishes” were fearless in the face of the pounding hooves, refused to jump out of the way, and were struck down by the galloping horses of the British. The enemy slashed at the animals’ hamstrings, tried to cut bridles and reins, brandished swords in frenetic swinging arcs, and fired rifles at close range. Yet Churchill pressed forward, unscathed and undaunted.
As Churchill explained in his letter, the key to his success and survival that day was his ten-shot Mauser pistol.
A British cavalryman traditionally engaged the enemy with a sword, not a handgun. The blade’s length enabled the rider to lean down and reach the ground with the tip, and then recoil to continue the fight. But if Churchill had been using a sword and not a pistol on this occasion, it’s unlikely he would have left the battlefield alive.
As Churchill rode into the fray, an enemy warrior hurled himself to the ground in front of him. A glint of light flashed from the blade of a scimitar as the warrior got ready to hamstring Churchill’s horse. Firm in his saddle, Churchill quickly spun his mount away from the sweeping sword and shot the enemy infantryman from a distance of three yards.
He barely had time to straighten up and regain his bearings before another warrior lunged at him with a sword.
“I raised my pistol and fired,” he wrote years later. “So close were we that the pistol itself actually struck him. Man and sword disappeared below and behind me.”
With his bum shoulder, it is doubtful whether Churchill, using his sword, would have been able to reach down and strike the first Dervish attacker. But even if he had managed that feat, it is improbable that he would have recovered his balance in time to defend against the second foe at much closer range.
That the injury to his shoulder at Bombay led to his survival at Omdurman might reinforce the idea that someone was watching over him.
After the battle, the valiant cavalryman wrote to his mother: “Bullets—to a philosopher my dear Mamma—are not worth considering. Besides I am so conceited I do not believe the gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.” If he faced the possibility of death on the battlefield, at least he’d had a “pleasant” life. It would be regrettable to give up his life so soon, but at least if he were dead, it would be a regret he wouldn’t have to experience.
It was all, of course, sheer hubris. There is no record of a reply from Lady Randolph, but any parent can imagine the thoughts that must have filled her mind.
Survival in South Africa
In October 1899, war broke out between Great Britain and the South African Republic. Churchill had by now left the army, but he was still yearning to see action. After obtaining a contract to serve as a war correspondent for the Morning Post newspaper, he set sail from Southampton on October 14 aboard the RMS Dunottar Castle.
Arriving in Cape Town on October 31, Churchill and two of his fellow correspondents took a train to East London, and from there they caught a steamer to Durban. In Durban, Churchill heard that his old friend Ian Hamilton, now a general in the army, had traveled by rail to Ladysmith. Churchill immediately followed. Though he was now a civilian, he felt certain that Hamilton would afford him the same respect as if he were still in uniform.
Churchill and J. B. Atkins, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, began their journey, only to find that Hamilton’s train was the last to get through before the Boers cut the line near Chieveley. Disappointed, and now stranded at Estcourt, Churchill and Atkins pitched their tents in the railway yard, where they proceeded to take their meals, drink wine, and entertain friends around a campfire each night.
By November 9, Churchill had become frustrated with his situation, and he let it be known around town that he was looking for a guide to take him to Ladysmith—even though he knew that a sizable army of Boers was situated between Estcourt and Ladysmith. His determination to insinuate himself into the thick of the action was clearly leading him down a very unwise path of unnecessary danger. And once again, destiny—or Providence—interceded.
Churchill discovered that an armored train was scheduled to leave that afternoon for Colenso, a small town in no-man’s-land that was about twenty miles from Ladysmith. The thought of seeing action, his first since Omdurman, was too irresistible to pass up, and when the train pulled out of the station, Churchill was aboard. When Captain Helmsley, the officer in charge of the train, stopped short of Colenso and proceeded on foot with his sergeant, Churchill disembarked as well and followed.
After reconnoitering Colenso, Churchill reported in his dispatch for the day that “[we] had learned all there was to learn—where the line was broken, that the village was deserted, that the bridge was safe, and we made haste to rejoin the train. . . . So we rattled back to Estcourt through the twilight.”
From Estcourt, Churchill continued his correspondence. While sitting around the campfire with the commanding officer of the garrison, Colonel Long, he suddenly heard shouting and metallic clanging. The colonel explained that soldiers were loading the field guns to move to a safer location in anticipation that Estcourt would be taken by the Boers. Churchill boldly suggested that the move might be seen as a sign of evacuation and could lead the cautious enemy to become daring in their advance.
Colonel Long left the campfire, and soon the noise stopped. However, a few minutes later, the scraping and banging began again, and Churchill saw the weapons being removed from the train, apparently to remain at Estcourt.
I did that, Churchill mused. Then he caught himself, and assumed a more modest attitude. “We did that,” he said.
It would not be the last time that Churchill voiced his opinion nor the last time he advised resistance rather than surrender. And though at times he may have seemed arrogant or rash, his intentions were good and his judgment usually sound. He respected the officers making the decisions, and his previous military service afforded him a credible voice.
Around that same time, in a letter to Sir Evelyn Wood, Churchill raised the question of punishment for officers who surrendered troops under their command. He hated surrender. He believed that wars should be fought until the last man is standing.
Years later, when he was pressed by high-ranking government officials in the early days of his first term as prime minister to seek a truce with Hitler, even if it meant surrender, he famously replied, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” And he meant it.
What he had seen in Africa many years earlier had no doubt taught him the importance of all-out victory. The mere thought of surrender at Omdurman had made the word sour to his palate, and occurrences such as the events at Estcourt only intensified his distaste. Once again, events in his early life prepared him for the grand assignment that still lay ahead.
Aboard “Wilson’s Death Trap”
Though Churchill was unsuccessful in securing a guide to take him to Ladysmith, he soon found another way to get himself into the action. Through a seemingly coincidental—but perhaps, in hindsight, providential—circumstance, he bumped into the temporary commander of the Dublin Fusiliers, Captain Aylmer Haldane, while wandering along the single street in town.
Churchill and Haldane had been friends from their frontier days in India, and Haldane had helped Churchill secure an appointment to Sir William Lockhart’s staff during the Tirah Expedition, a war fought between the British and the Afridi tribe in 1897–1898 for control of the Khyber Pass in mountainous northern India (now Pakistan). Now in South Africa, Haldane was preparing to take an armored train on a reconnaissance mission. Believing that Churchill would be a good companion and knowing that he had previous experience, Haldane happily invited him to join the mission.
Churchill soon stood beside the beast of a train, which had been nicknamed Wilson’s Death Trap, watching as the soldiers clambered aboard six armored railcars—three on each end, with the locomotive and the tender set in the middle. Mounted at the head of the train was a six-pound naval gun to be operated by sailors from the HMS Terrible.
As the train set off from Estcourt, neither Haldane nor Churchill knew that a Boer artillery unit with three field guns and a quick-firing Maxim gun held a position overlooking the railway about fourteen miles down the track.
The train departed on schedule and arrived at Frere Station around 6:20 in the morning. No enemy had been seen. At Frere, Churchill spoke to a party of eight Natal Mounted Police, who informed him that they comprised an advance patrol reconnoitering towards Chieveley.
The train traveled on and reached Chieveley around 7:10, at which time they received a message instructing them to remain at Frere because Chieveley was now occupied by the enemy. The message came with a specific and alarming warning: “Do not place reliance on any reports from local residents, as they may be untrustworthy.”
Upon acknowledging receipt, they were further informed that a party of about fifty Boers and three wagons had been spotted “moving south on the west side of the railway.”
About that time, Haldane spied “a number of small figures moving about and hurrying forward” about six hundred yards behind the train, back in the direction of Estcourt. With no time to lose, Haldane ordered the troops to reboard, and they began their return journey.
As Wilson’s Death Trap approached a hill along the way, Churchill, who was standing on a box in one of the troop cars with his head and shoulders rising above the steel plating, saw a cluster of Boers along the crest. “A huge white ball of smoke sprang into being,” he said, “and tore out into a cone, only as it seemed a few feet above my head. It was shrapnel—the first I had ever seen in war, and very nearly the last!”
Suddenly, an almighty crash was heard, “a tremendous shock.” Churchill, Haldane, and “all the soldiers in the truck were pitched head over heels onto its floor.” Scrambling to his feet, Churchill peered over the top of the carriage. The front three cars of the train had derailed, but it was unclear at the time what the cause had been.
Churchill and Haldane jumped from the railcar and quickly agreed that Haldane would go to the rear to man the small naval gun, attempt to draw the enemy’s fire, and keep them at bay while Churchill made his way to the front of the train to investigate the cause of the crash and see what could be done. Bullets ricocheted off the sides of the carriages as the Boers opened fire on the unfortunate British troops, who scrambled to take cover behind the armored railcars.
Upon reaching the front of the train, Churchill surveyed the scene with alarm. The Boers had apparently rolled several large stones onto the track, and because the locomotive was situated in the middle of the train, the driver hadn’t seen them. Even if he had, the sheer weight of the train and its speed would have made it impossible to stop in time to avoid the boulders.
Although two of the derailed cars were partially blocking the track, Churchill surmised that, with some help from the soldiers, they might be pushed out of the way by the locomotive. Under steady fire from the enemy—their lives in imminent danger and the outcome uncertain for more than an hour—Churchill, the engineer, and several soldiers worked to free the train and clear a path towards home.
Eventually, the locomotive and tender car were able to travel again, and a gradual retreat began towards the Blaauwkrantz River. In the process of clearing the track, they had detached all the railcars from the locomotive, and these now had to be left behind. The wounded from the battle were loaded onto the locomotive, and the rest of the soldiers ran alongside, using the engine for cover as they made their way towards safety.
As the train moved away, the Boers increased their fire. Fearing that the locomotive would be crippled by the artillery fire, the engineer increased his speed, and Churchill watched helplessly as the troops on foot, unable to keep up with the train, scrambled furiously to avoid being exposed to enemy fire.
“At last I forced the engine-driver to stop altogether,” Churchill later wrote, “but before I could get the engine stopped, we were already three hundred yards away from our infantry.” Churchill jumped from the cab and ordered the engineer to continue on, across the Blaauwkrantz River, and to wait on the other side of the bridge. Churchill then turned and ran back up the line to aid the stranded soldiers and inform Haldane of the revised plan.
Just then, he noticed two figures in plainclothes hurriedly approaching him at a distance of about one hundred yards. His first thought was that they were plate layers from the railroad, but he soon realized they were Boer soldiers.
Once again under fire, Churchill ran back towards the engine as two bullets narrowly missed him on either side. After unsuccessfully attempting to take cover in a narrow ditch, he quickly concluded that continuing to move was his only chance of escape. Two more bullets whistled past his ears as he looked for an opportunity to get to higher ground.
Scrambling up the left side of the ditch, Churchill scaled the embankment and slipped through a hole in a wire fence. On the other side, he crouched down in a tiny depression and tried to catch his breath. From his new position, he could see a small cabin fifty yards away—the perfect cover. Two hundred yards further along was the rocky gorge of the Blaauwkrantz River.
Accepting the Repugnant
Determined to make a dash for the river, Churchill stood and took a quick glance back towards his enemy. To his dismay, the two Boers on foot had been joined by a third man on horseback, who was now galloping towards him at full speed.
Although officially a noncombatant, Churchill had decided that morning to carry his Mauser pistol with him on patrol. From a distance of forty yards, Churchill was confident he could shoot the mounted soldier.
When he put his hand to his belt, his heart sank as he discovered the gun was missing. While working on clearing the track, he had removed the pistol and left it in the cab of the train. He was now standing forty yards from a man mounted on a horse and pointing a rifle directly at him with every intention of killing him. Churchill looked towards the river and then back at the plate-layer’s cabin, quickly realizing there was no chance for escape and that the horseman thundering down upon him had a perfect shot.
“I held up my hands and surrendered myself a prisoner of war,” he later said.
Though Churchill found surrender most repugnant, “in the poignant minutes that followed” he thought of Napoleon’s axiom: “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”
The Boer lowered his weapon and beckoned Churchill towards him. Vanquished, he obeyed, and the two made their way back to where Churchill had left Haldane and his company. But there was no one there: They had already been taken prisoner.
The weather, like Churchill’s mood, turned grim as he was compelled to join the other captives. From the start, he contended that he was not a combatant but merely a war correspondent. However, he knew too well that by accompanying a military company and taking part in the fight, he had undermined his claim to civilian status—especially given that he was half dressed in uniform. The Boers would have been within their rights to shoot him on the spot as a possible spy. No doubt Churchill saw the irony of his situation, as years later he would define a prisoner of war as “a man who has tried to kill you and, having failed to kill you, asks you not to kill him.”
While deciding the fate of their prisoners, the Boers separated Churchill from the others. As he stood in the rain, alone, he half expected a “drumhead court martial” and summary judgment. Finally, a field cornet approached him with the verdict.
“We are not going to let you go, old chappie, although you are a correspondent. We don’t catch the son of a lord every day.”
With mixed feelings, Churchill rejoined the others, now officially a prisoner of war. Naturally relieved that he would not be shot, he was nevertheless discouraged by his circumstances. His outlook did not improve when the men were ordered to begin a sixty-mile march to the railhead at Elandslaagte, where they would board a train to Pretoria.
With every step during the three-day journey, Churchill regretted his decision to surrender, replaying the moment over in his head while looking for a chance to escape. Sadly, no opportunity presented itself, and along with the officers at whose side he had fought, he entered confinement at the State Model Schools in Pretoria, which had been converted to an officers’ prison.
Unbeknownst to him, Churchill was already a hero. The Natal Witness ran a most enthusiastic report from Captain Wylie, an officer wounded in the battle, who said that Churchill’s actions had enabled a safe escape. Wylie described Churchill’s conduct as “that of as brave a man as could be found.” Inspector Campbell of the Natal government railways, on behalf of the civilian trainmen accompanying Churchill, wrote to the General Messenger of the Railways Department:
The letter was duly published in newspapers as far away as New Zealand. Many of the reports suggested that Churchill should be awarded the Victoria Cross, “the highest award for gallantry that a British and Commonwealth serviceman can achieve.” Though perhaps deserved, the award was never given.
In the first volume of his biography of his father, Winston’s son, Randolph, includes a most moving report, sent to Churchill’s mother by his manservant, Thomas Walden, and later published in the Morning Post:
Numerous other reports, all similar in their compliments, were sent, each one drawing particular attention to Churchill’s bravery and the sadness the writers felt at his subsequent capture. However, the adventure for Winston Churchill, special war correspondent to the Morning Post, was just beginning.
Though he referred to his capture as “a melancholy state,” Churchill recognized that being held as a prisoner of war was “the least unfortunate kind of prisoner to be,” especially when compared to being “confined for years in a modern convict prison . . . each day exactly like the one before, with the barren ashes of wasted life behind, and all the long years of bondage stretching out ahead.”
“Hours crawl like paralytic centipedes. Nothing amuses you. Reading is difficult; writing, impossible.” In assessing the boredom of prison life, Churchill allowed that “dark moods come easily across the mind of a prisoner. . . . But when you are young, well fed, high spirited, loosely guarded, able to conspire with others, those moods carry thought nearer to resolve, and resolve nearer to action.”
Thus, from within the converted-schoolhouse jail, Churchill began to protest his captivity. He first wrote directly to Transvaal Secretary of State for War Louis de Souza, hoping to gain his release. Perhaps the South African officials would recognize him as a noncombatant and let him go.
On the other hand, if they ignored his requests—as they likely would—his correspondence would at the very least occupy their minds and divert them from considering him a flight risk. It was an ingenious strategy, but it sadly had the reverse effect. General Piet Joubert, the senior Boer commander, wrote to F. W. Reitz, the Transvaal State Secretary, advising against Churchill’s release—and, in fact, suggesting that he be more closely guarded. “Otherwise he can still do us a lot of harm.”
Though Churchill was something of a prize possession to the Boers, they allowed him to receive many high-ranking visitors at the prison. He entertained them with conversations about the progress of the war, and they provided him with their own views.
By now, he was determined to lull the enemy into a false hope that he had given up on the possibility of release and had resigned himself to incarceration for the duration of the war. However, quite the contrary was true. Along with Haldane and a South African colonist named Brockie, who had passed himself off as a sergeant-major in order to be sent to the officers’ prison rather than the camp for regular soldiers, Churchill was hatching a plan to escape.
On December 7, days before the planned escape, two other prisoners jumped the fence of the State Model Schools and were captured on the outskirts of Pretoria. Though this incident raised Haldane’s confidence in their escape plan, it also added urgency, as the threat of tighter prison security or restrictions on movement would surely scupper any future attempts. It was quickly decided that they would proceed as soon as possible.
On the evening of December 11, Churchill and Haldane strolled separately to the latrine building, which was to be their “leg up” for climbing over the fence to escape. Brockie had agreed to meet them once they were in place, and he would bring the maps and a compass.
The plan failed to get off the ground that night because the sentry refused to budge from his assigned position. Disappointed, the three men decided to postpone for twenty-four hours and returned to their dormitories. Churchill was very fortunate not to have been discovered. Unwisely, he had left on his pillow a note for Louis de Souza, which he now urgently retrieved. The note read, in part:
Though laced with foolhardy arrogance, the note’s purpose was not only to be humorous but also to lead de Souza to believe that Churchill had received help from the outside, which he hoped would keep the Boers busy looking for phantom accomplices and investigating anyone who had come remotely near the school. Strategically, it was a masterstroke.
Irony has its moments. Unbeknownst to Churchill, on December 12, the day planned for the second escape attempt, General Joubert telegraphed Reitz, withdrawing his objections to Churchill’s release. The telegraph had yet to be delivered to the authorities in Pretoria when Churchill and Haldane once again made their way towards the latrine.
With the sentry once again standing firm, the prospects once again looked bleak. If they made a run for it and were seen, they knew that a shot at such close range would most definitely hit them.
Churchill and Haldane returned to the verandah and informed Brockie. Not satisfied with their review, Brockie went over to observe for himself. Churchill and Haldane waited for some time, and then Churchill made his way back to see what Brockie was doing. Moments later, Brockie returned to Haldane, while Churchill remained in position, waiting for the guard to move, determined that yet another night not be wasted.
When the sentry at last turned from his position, Churchill took the opportunity to scale the fence. On the way over, his waistcoat snagged on the wire, and the ripping noise almost gave him away. But when he looked back towards the sentry, he saw the man cup his hands and light a cigarette. Relieved, Churchill lowered himself into the garden below, where he hid among the shrubs and waited for Haldane and Brockie to follow him over the fence so they could escape together.
After an hour had passed with no sign of his companions, Churchill finally saw the two men through the fence. He risked signaling with a cough, and they noticed him; but it soon became apparent that they would not be able to escape that night. Because Churchill was already over the fence and unable to return easily, he decided to proceed alone.
Churchill describes what happened next:
Long Journey to Freedom
Churchill now faced a three-hundred-mile trek to Delagoa Bay and freedom. Unable to speak Dutch or Kaffir, not knowing anyone to whom he could turn for help, and without either a map or a compass, he had little money, no water, and only four slabs of chocolate—nothing that would sustain him for very long.
Sentries were stationed throughout the towns, and the countryside was routinely patrolled. Knowing that all trains were searched and the lines guarded, Churchill could proceed only on foot. Urgently aware that by morning his absence would be noticed, he proceeded with determination, avoiding the beams of streetlights by walking in the middle of the road.
He began to form a plan for his uncharted journey. His challenge in getting to Delagoa Bay Railway with no map or compass would be solved by following the rail line from a safe distance. Knowing he would be unable to walk the full three hundred miles, he determined to board a moving train and hide himself somewhere out of the way.
After two hours of walking, he saw the signal lights of a station and hid in a ditch about two hundred yards beyond it. He reasoned that any train stopping at the station would still be moving slowly enough for him to board when it passed his position.
After another hour, a train pulled into the depot and stopped. Churchill readied himself. When the train resumed its journey, he waited for the engine to pass his hiding place and then began running alongside the rails, looking for a way to clamber aboard. He quickly realized that he had underestimated the acceleration of the locomotive, and it took him several tries to successfully board the train. When he climbed into one of the cars, he discovered it was filled with sacks of empty coal bags, which proved a warm and comfortable bed. Uncertain of the train’s destination or whether he was even going in the right direction, he decided that anything was better than being trapped in the enemy’s capital. At peace with his decision, he soon fell asleep.
“I woke suddenly with all feelings of exhilaration gone, and only the consciousness of oppressive difficulties heavy on me.” He knew he had to leave the train before dawn or risk detection. Quickly scrambling over the top of the railcar, he took hold of the iron handle at the back and jumped clear at the first opportunity.
“The train was running at a fair speed,” he later said, “but I felt it was time to leave it. . . . My feet struck the ground in two gigantic strides, and the next instant I was sprawling in the ditch, considerably shaken but unhurt. The train, my faithful ally of the night, hurried on its journey.”
By now he was desperately thirsty, and he immediately began to search for water. Finding a clear pool in the waning moonlight, he gulped down as much as he could hold and then made his way up into the surrounding hills to hide in a grove of trees. As he watched the sun rise over the railroad, he was relieved to see that he had chosen the right rail line to follow.
The day was soon sweltering, and Churchill was hungry. He ate one of his chocolate bars, which took the edge off his hunger but greatly increased his thirst. He waited for an opportunity to run back to the pool for another drink but watched with dismay as several Boers happened by throughout the day. He finally resigned himself to wait until dark before hazarding his next move. As he later recalled, “My sole companion was a gigantic vulture, who manifested an extravagant interest in my condition, and made hideous and ominous gurglings from time to time.”
But as at Omdurman, the voracious bird would not make a meal of Winston Churchill that day.
When night fell on Churchill’s second day at large, he quickly made his way to the pool and drank. Knowing he would be unable to board a train moving at the speed it had been traveling when he jumped off the night before, he made his way to where the line sloped upward, and he waited. Six hours passed, and no train appeared. As another hour lapsed, Churchill began to lose hope. He decided to proceed on foot, determined to walk at least ten miles before dawn. Because of the heavily guarded bridges and huts placed in frequent intervals along the rail line, he made little progress. Still, “there was nothing for it but to plod on—but in an increasingly purposeless and hopeless manner. I felt very miserable.”
Meanwhile, the Boers were determined to recapture Churchill as quickly as possible. A notice was copied, delivered, and posted, offering a £25 reward for his recapture, dead or alive. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Churchill now had not only a price on his head but a death sentence as well.
Churchill now saw a row of lights on the horizon, which he assumed came from another station along the railway. Off to the left, he saw the gleam of fires, and he was encouraged by the possibility that they came from a kraal, a cluster of huts inhabited by tribal Africans. Though he didn’t speak a word of the local language, he hoped that, by offering the British bank notes he had in his pocket, he might be given food, water, and shelter for the night and would not be turned over to his enemies.
As Churchill walked towards the lights in the distance, he began to lose confidence. He stopped, looked back, and began to retrace his steps. He made it halfway back to the rail line before he again halted, this time slumping to the ground in desperate depression. He was, he said, “completely baffled, destitute of any idea what to do or where to turn.”
Churchill’s thoughts and actions at that moment provide a clear view of his personal spirituality:
“Suddenly,” Churchill recalled, “without the slightest reason all my doubts disappeared. It was certainly by no process of logic that they were dispelled. I just felt quite clear that I would go to the Kaffir kraal.”
Towards the Flames
The fires he had thought were only a few miles away were in fact much farther. Still, with determination and his never-surrender attitude, Churchill continued towards the flames that had become a beacon of hope.
After walking for more than an hour, he drew close enough to realize that the fires were not from a kraal. “I saw that I was approaching a group of houses around the mouth of a coal-mine . . . and I could see that the fires which had led me so far were from the furnaces of the engines.”
Churchill now had to make a decision: If he turned back, he would wander in the wilderness until “hunger, fever, discovery, or surrender” ended his journey. Before his escape, he had heard that “in the mining district of Witbank and Middleburg there were a certain number of English residents who had been suffered to remain in the country in order to keep the mines working. Had I been led to one of these?”
With some hesitation, Churchill knocked on one of the doors. When there was no answer, he tapped again. This time, a light went on and a man’s voice came from a window.
“Wer ist da?”
Churchill replied in English, telling the man he needed help. Within moments, the door opened and a tall man peered out, pale-faced and sporting a black mustache.
“What do you want?” the man said, this time in English.
Knowing that he needed to be invited inside in order to negotiate, Churchill made up a tale, claiming to have fallen off a train in an accident. He claimed he had been unconscious for hours and had dislocated his shoulder. The story, he said, “leapt out as if I had learnt it by heart. Yet I had not the slightest idea what I was going to say or what the next sentence would be.”
The stranger invited him into a dark room. When the lamps were lit, Churchill noticed a revolver lying on the table. He wondered if this room would now become his prison.
“I think I’d like to know a little more about this railway accident of yours,” the man said.
“I think I had better tell you the truth,” Churchill replied.
“I think you had.”
When Churchill identified himself as a British war correspondent and told of his escape from Pretoria, the man stepped forward and offered his hand.
“Thank God you have come here!” he said. “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.”
As it turned out, John Howard, Churchill’s “good Samaritan,” was a British subject who had been forced to remain in South Africa during the conflict. He ran the coal mine and was happy to hide Churchill in the mine until he could be safely loaded onto a freight train and taken across the border to safety.
After three “anxious and uncomfortable” days on the train, Churchill crossed into Portuguese territory (present-day Mozambique) and made his way to the British Consulate in Louranço Marques (today called Maputo). From there, he caught a steamboat down the coast to Durban.
Churchill arrived in Durban to much acclaim, finding himself “a popular hero . . . as if I had won a great victory.” Flags festooned the harbor, bands played, crowds cheered. Churchill said he was “nearly torn to pieces by enthusiastic kindness” as he was swept up onto the shoulders of the crowd and carried to the town hall steps, “where nothing would content them but a speech, which after a becoming reluctance I was induced to deliver.”
A “Solitary Tree” in Parliament
For the first time in his life, Churchill was an international hero. Upon his return to England in 1900 after a second stint in South Africa with a cavalry regiment, he stood for election to the House of Commons from Oldham, where he had lost a bid prior to his experience in the Boer War. This time, however, he “received the warmest of welcomes” as Oldham “almost without distinction of party accorded me a triumph.”
The catalytic voice that would one day move a nation—and much of the world—was heard for the first time in Parliament on February 18, 1901. Churchill quickly found his own voice and purpose, securing his father’s legacy in his maiden speech to a packed House.
Like his father before him, the youthful politician fearlessly rose to challenge his own political party and government on policies that he believed were not in Britain’s best interests. “I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy. ‘Trust the people’—that was his message.”
Winston Churchill was a moderate who firmly disagreed with Joseph Chamberlain, secretary of state for the colonies and father of the same Neville Chamberlain whom Churchill would one day succeed as prime minister.
Joseph Chamberlain’s “Party before Country” belief was evident in 1902, when he asked Churchill: “What is the use of supporting your own Government only when it is right? It is just when it is in this sort of pickle that you ought to come to our aid.”
Churchill paid the price for his moral stands several times: losing Parliamentary seats; being overlooked for appointments; and finding himself cooling his heels on the glum backbenches of the House of Commons, staring at the heads of younger, less experienced members who advanced because they made no waves in the party.
Within a few years of entering Parliament, Churchill, in conflict with the Conservative government over free trade, crossed the floor of the House of Commons, leaving the Conservatives and taking a seat on the Liberal benches. He would return to the Tory side twenty years later, but his decision to switch sides branded him for many as traitorous and untrustworthy. This characterization was further exacerbated by his stance against Indian independence and, later, by his alarm over Germany’s rearmament program and Adolf Hitler’s rise.
On the latter issues, Churchill correctly predicted bloodshed. Tragedy might well have been avoided had the government listened to his early warnings.
During these barren years, Churchill studied the life of Moses and reflected on what went into building such a strong leader.
Churchill would not have believed he was describing his own route to “psychic dynamite,” and he may not have been a prophet in the Old Testament sense; but he had remarkable intuition. Many of his contemporaries recognized it, including Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and a close Churchill friend. She wrote that her father was “deeply impressed” by Churchill’s forecast of the beginning of the First World War. Churchill, then in his thirties, provided a prediction “uncanny in its exactitude.” Three years later, the sequences and timing he listed in his analysis “were almost literally verified,” Carter writes. “Once again Winston’s daemon was ‘telling him things.’”
That “daemon” also gave Churchill a strong intuitive understanding of military strategy. As he moved through the ranks of government in the years ahead, his tactical understanding would be sharpened on the biting edge of failure as well as success.
From the Admiralty to the Trenches
What vile & wicked folly & barbarism it all is. – WINSTON CHURCHILL, IN A LETTER TO HIS WIFE, CLEMENTINE, SEPTEMBER 15, 1909
“AFTER HIS ADVENTURES in the Boer War, Winston Churchill was the most petted young man in England,” writes René Kraus. But Churchill had little time to rest in the caress of glory. He was moving inexorably towards headlines that would blare his humiliation and downfall. He would soon be reminded that public acclaim is fickle and that no one should trust his heart to the fleeting siren of fame.
Churchill learned this truth with wrenching painfulness slightly more than a decade after his return from South Africa as a conquering hero. Through the ensuing years, he rose through the governmental ranks to his initial major wartime leadership role as first lord of the Admiralty during the First World War.
The run-up to that conflict included rising tensions in the Balkans, saber rattling among the European powers in North Africa, and a naval armaments race between Britain and Germany. In August 1911, at the ebb of one of the many crises that had brought the world to the brink of war, Churchill—now thirty-seven and bearing the stresses of his role as home secretary—went to Somersetshire, the site of Prime Minister Asquith’s manor house, for a much-needed rest. It was “a place of magical beauty, stillness and peace,” writes Violet Bonham Carter. But during those tense days, three years before the outbreak of war, Churchill was restless even looking out on the soft countryside with the lines of a poem by A. E. Housman:
On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the sound of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.
Housman’s verse was so evocative to Churchill’s soul because, as he wrote later, “I could not think of anything else but the peril of war.” Churchill went about his duties, but the looming conflict was the “only . . . field of interest fiercely illuminated in my mind.”
Seated on a hilltop, Churchill surveyed “the smiling country which stretches around Mells” as Housman’s words roamed through his mind. Viewed against the backdrop of Churchill’s concerns about war, Housman’s lines become specters.
In 1920, two years after the end of the First World War, Churchill would return to Mells and would paint a portrait there of an archway leading to a pergola washed in subtle violets. But in 1911 there was no settling tone—only “anxieties,” as Churchill himself put it.
Meanwhile, Asquith was wrestling with conflicts within the Committee of Imperial Defence, where some believed that the Admiralty was failing to work cooperatively with the Imperial General Staff. Lord Haldane, leader of the War Office and one of Asquith’s dearest friends, told the prime minister he would no longer bear responsibility if the clash between his staff and the Admiralty could not be quieted. In September, Asquith went to Scotland, hoping to find a measure of calm on the golf course. However, “his mind was preoccupied with the change at the Admiralty.”
Churchill joined Asquith in Scotland on September 27, and they golfed in “golden autumn sunshine with sea gulls circling overhead.” Asquith’s mood began to lift, and laughter rang over the links. However, tension returned with a visit from Haldane.
Churchill was called away for an evening on Home Office business, but he returned by the next afternoon and again went golfing with Prime Minister Asquith.
When the men came in from the links, Violet Bonham Carter writes, “I saw in Winston’s face a radiance like the sun.”
“Will you come out for a walk with me—at once?” he asked.
“You don’t want tea?”
“No, I don’t want tea. I don’t want anything—anything in the world. Your father has just offered me the Admiralty.”
Never had Carter seen such happiness and fulfillment in her friend.
“This is the big thing,” Churchill said. “The biggest thing that has ever come my way—the chance I should have chosen before all others. I shall pour into it everything I’ve got.”
As Churchill walked back to his guest quarters, he looked out at the Firth of Forth, the vast waterway opening Scotland to the North Sea. In the distance, he saw two British battleships, moving under plumes of steam. “They seemed invested with a new significance to me,” he later recalled.
As Churchill entered his room, his head still spinning from his appointment as first lord of the Admiralty, his first thought was of the danger facing his nation. “Peace-loving, unthinking, little-prepared” Britain, he had always felt, was characterized by “power and virtue” and a mission among the nations “of good sense and fair-play.” Then his mind shifted to Germany and how he had been enthralled in 1907 when he had watched fifty thousand soldiers march in a thundering military display. Churchill contemplated Germany’s “cold, patient, ruthless calculations.” He recalled “the army corps I had watched tramp past, wave after wave of valiant manhood.” He remembered another time when he had observed maneuvers at Würzburg consisting “of the thousands of strong horses dragging cannon and great howitzers up the ridges and along the roads.”
With these thoughts racing through his mind, Churchill’s eye landed on a large Bible on his bed table. Opening at random to Deuteronomy 9, he read these words:
Churchill later said that “it seemed a message full of reassurance.”
Having observed the German military maneuvers firsthand in the company of Kaiser Wilhelm, Churchill may well have focused on the description of the Anakim as “a people great and tall.” He had been impressed by the Teutonic soldiers and had noted their prowess with their powerful weapons. Now as he contemplated the possibility of having to stand against such a formidable power, he may have been tempted to adapt the words of Moses—“Who can stand before the children of Anak?”—and ask himself, “Who can stand before the children of Germany?” Whereas Moses had anchored his hope in the “consuming fire” of an almighty God, Prime Minister Asquith apparently laid his hopes on the Royal Navy and had now set the Royal Navy squarely on the shoulders of Winston Churchill.
Reading in Deuteronomy, Churchill may have found his reassurance in the overwhelming power of God, who had promised Moses that God himself would be the Great Displacer, going before the armies of his covenant people, Israel, and dislodging the enemy from the ground it occupied.
What Churchill could not have foreseen in that moment was the German leader who would arise in years to come and who would turn his back on God, try to eradicate the Jews, and impose his own kingdom (Reich) in the place of God’s. He would try to use the church to advance his goals, and when the faithful church refused, he would try to destroy it.
As Churchill read this portion of Deuteronomy 9, he would have noted God’s warning about taking pride in victory. As human conquerors, men were not to take credit for victory or to declare that it was because of their “righteousness” that God had favored them over their enemy. Indeed, the divinely wrought victory would come not because of the superior worthiness of the victorious nation but because of the God-defying wickedness of the conquered.
Churchill was a prideful man, but not in the style of Lucifer, who sought to ascend to the very throne of God to displace the rightful Ruler. Beneath Churchill’s hubris was a heart of humility, sown perhaps through rejection by his father and further wrought by seasons of setbacks that were soon to follow.
Hitler, on the other hand, would one day try to present himself as a new messiah, and that same impulse was already in the heart of his spiritual predecessor, Kaiser Wilhelm, in 1911. Of course, as René Kraus aptly notes, “What mortal man would not become a megalomaniac if he were deified day in and day out as ‘the world’s most glorious prince,’” as Wilhelm had been? Ultimately, the Kaiser’s armies would not prevail, but only after the European continent had been drenched with the blood of its rising generations.
There was much puffery associated with being first lord of the Admiralty—plumed hats, cannon salutes, and acclamation as the leader of the world’s greatest navy. But as Churchill would soon learn, the higher the position, the greater the potential for humiliation.
The Dardanelles Disaster
The winter of 1914 would inscribe the most painful of memories on Churchill’s mind, as an icy grip throttled the combatants in the First World War. “Russia, mighty steam-roller, hope of suffering France and prostrate Belgium—Russia is falling,” he wrote. The wintery blast had frozen Russia, cutting her off from her allies, including Britain, and rendering her unable to receive their aid. Ice covered the seas, and where there was open water, there lay the Germans. Turkey, as one of Germany’s allies, had slammed shut the other access route to Russia: the Straits of the Dardanelles. Something had to be done.
Three months into the First World War, Britain and her allies had already lost about a million men, and Churchill was gravely concerned about the terrible human toll in the trenches along the western front. Meanwhile, in the east, the Turks were pressuring the Russians in the Caucasus. Churchill believed that freeing the Russian military to open a new front in the east by attacking Berlin would prevent more soldiers in the west from being sent to “chew barbed wire.”
Lord Hankey, who held the dual position of secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence and secretary to the War Council, shared Churchill’s concern. Independently, they wrote to Prime Minister Asquith about the necessity of breaking the trench-warfare stalemate.
Meanwhile, the Russian Grand Duke Nicolas wrote an urgent appeal to Lord Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, asking for immediate action to pull away the Turkish armies that were closing in on Russian forces in the Caucasus. Kitchener wrote to Churchill, suggesting that “the only place that a demonstration might have some effect in stopping reinforcements going east would be the Dardanelles,” the narrow strait connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara in northwestern Turkey. Such a maneuver also would open the way to the Turkish capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Black Sea.
Kitchener committed Britain to action by telegraphing the grand duke that “steps will be taken to make a demonstration against the Turks.” Though Kitchener had no troops available to support an operation in the Dardanelles, he embraced a plan proposed by Hankey for a naval expedition “to bombard and take the Gallipoli Peninsula, with Constantinople as its objective.” The optimistic hope was that “the mere threat of naval bombardment would force the Ottoman Empire out of the war.” The British battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth had recently been equipped with fifteen-inch guns, and it was proposed that they be tested by using Turkish military installations for target practice. However, as Lord Hankey noted in his War Council minutes, Kitchener stipulated that “we could leave off the bombardment if it did not prove effective.” Thus, the War Council voted unanimously in favor of the operation.
The conclusion seemed logical and clear: Remove Turkey from the war, and the Dardanelles would be open all the way to the Marmara Sea, through the Bosporus, into the Black Sea, and onward to the doorstep of Russia.
Churchill conceived a bold plan that found great support from the War Cabinet. He proposed using a combined navy and army attack to break through the Straits and march on Constantinople. If it worked, Churchill was confident it could force Turkey to surrender, tipping the balance of power in favor of the Allies and bringing the First World War to an early end. On paper, the strategy seemed inventive and the best shortcut to victory.
In the auspicious Admiralty buildings, the “possibilities seemed limitless.” In the Dardanelles, the initial bombardment seemed successful. Constantinople braced for an almost certain assault. The Turkish sultan readied to move himself and his entourage away from the city.
On March 18, 1915, fourteen British and four French battleships sailed into the Narrows and furiously pounded the Turkish positions. Following a line of minesweepers, the fleet eased its way up the Straits. Not all the mines were destroyed, however, and three battleships went down. Two others were disabled.
The sudden turn in the battle stunned the British fleet commander, Admiral John de Robeck, who suspended the attack until ground troops could be deployed and given an opportunity to capture the high ground along the Gallipoli peninsula. This unexpected pause ultimately led to the defeat of the British in the Dardanelles.
Commander Roger Keyes, chief of staff for the Dardanelles expedition, believed that the Turks were already beaten and that a “sweeping force” to “reap the fruits of our efforts” was what was needed. In his 1934 memoirs, Keyes says he believed that “from the 4th April, 1915, onwards, the Fleet could have forced the Straits, and, with losses trifling in comparison with those the Army suffered, could have entered the [Marmara Sea] with sufficient force to destroy the Turko-German Fleet.”
Enver Pasha, the Turkish minister of war at the time of the Dardanelles operation, agreed:
Despite the failed naval attack, the Allies went ahead with troop landings on April 25, 1915. The British and French, along with troops from Australia and New Zealand, established two beachheads, but were unable to advance inland. Indecision on the part of the Allied command gave the Turks time to bring reinforcements and deepen the stalemate. Finally, on December 7, 1915, the British began evacuating their positions.
Before it was over, more than half a million casualties had been suffered on the battlefield—about 250,000 on each side. Of the 480,000 Allied soldiers sent to Gallipoli, 46,000 died there. With the failure of the British and French warships to advance through the Dardanelles Strait, and the resulting evacuation of the ground troops, Gallipoli was regarded as a massive defeat for the British. Churchill, as first lord of the Admiralty, was made the principal scapegoat, largely because of the loss of the battleships at the beginning of the campaign.
Unable to call upon exculpatory evidence from Cabinet meetings and correspondence that would have shown his true role in the operation, Churchill honorably resigned the Admiralty, though he later said, “The archives of the Admiralty will show in utmost detail the part I have played in all the great transactions that have taken place. It is to them that I look for my defence.”
With one hundred years of hindsight, the evidence today shows that the failure of the Gallipoli campaign was due to mismanagement and division within the War Cabinet. Churchill had asked for ground troops to be deployed along with the naval bombardment, but his request was initially refused. Then, just days before the planned attack, the troop support was granted, but with only half the number Churchill said he needed. Even after the ships were sunk, he wanted to advance the naval attack, but he was instructed to delay until the army arrived. By the time the ground forces were in position, too much time had passed, and the Turks had prepared their defenses for the attack.
“Time will vindicate my administration of the Admiralty,” Churchill said at the time, “and assign me my due share in the vast series of preparations and operations which have secured us the command of the seas.”
In a 2013 Discovery Channel documentary on the Gallipoli campaign, Peter Doyle—a military historian, geologist, and battlefield specialist—suggested that the campaign never would have succeeded even with the best leadership because the Turkish forces held advantages of terrain over the beachheads on which the Allies landed. Still, the debate about Gallipoli continues.
Whatever history decides, the 1915 campaign and its heavy British casualties will always be considered among the greatest failures in military history. And rightly or wrongly, Winston Churchill’s legacy will always be colored to some degree by those events.
“I have a clear conscience which enables me to bear any responsibility for past events with composure,” Churchill said in his letter of resignation to Prime Minister Asquith. Asquith subsequently appointed Churchill to an inconsequential post, the chancellery of the Duchy of Lancaster. Perhaps he meant well by allowing Churchill to continue as a member of the War Cabinet, but it was pure torture for Churchill. Though in his new role he could attend the meetings and hear reports from the battlefield and discussion of plans, he could neither enter the talks nor vote. “He was condemned to passivity while the storm raged over England, and all hands were feverishly occupied on deck,” writes René Kraus. As Churchill himself described it:
Once the dynamo of the world’s greatest navy, Churchill now took up, among other things, oil painting. Though it would prove a delight for the rest of his life, it was not enough to assuage the frustration of being pushed aside while his nation was at war. When Prime Minister Asquith reduced his War Cabinet to a committee of five, excluding Churchill from the inner circle, Churchill wrote to him, “I am an officer, and I place myself unreservedly at the disposal of the military authorities, observing that my regiment is in France.”
Within days, he requested a posting to the western front in France, and he served there until March 1916 alongside troops who no doubt blamed him for the disaster at Gallipoli that had cost so many Allied lives.
Before Churchill left for the front, he went to the House of Commons to explain his resignation. The members were cordial but skeptical as he rose. What followed was one of the signature speeches of his political career, as he rallied Parliament in the face of the recent military reversals.
When Churchill finished his remarks, thunderous applause erupted from members who only moments earlier had been reluctant to even welcome him to the House.
On November 18, 1915, Churchill crossed over to France to take up a posting in the Oxfordshire Hussars. En route, he was intercepted by Sir John French, the commander-in-chief at St. Omer, who offered him a brigade to command. Churchill jumped at the chance.
Upon hearing that Churchill was to serve on the French front, his friend Violet Bonham Carter wrote to him: “For one who knows as you do what he has to offer the world, it is a very great thing to risk it all as you are doing. So fine a risk to take that I can’t help rejoicing proudly that you should have done it.”
Field Marshal French kept his promise to arrange Churchill’s command, and it was agreed that he would train with the Grenadier Guards. Churchill met with the senior divisional officers, who encouraged him greatly. “They highly approved of my course of action & thought it vy right & proper,” he wrote to Clementine from St. Omer, adding that “the Army is willing to receive me back as ‘the prodigal son.’”
On November 20, Churchill was attached to the second battalion of the Grenadier Guards, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Jeffreys. The battalion was destined for Neuve Chapelle, and Churchill later recalled that first day:
Jeffreys was not pleased to have had Churchill foisted upon him.
“I think I ought to tell you that we were not at all consulted in the matter of your coming to join us,” he said.
Churchill replied respectfully, saying that he’d also had no idea which battalion he would be assigned, “but that I dared say it would be all right. Anyhow we must make the best of it.”
Upon his arrival at battalion headquarters, a ruin called Ebenezer Farm, Churchill received an icy reception from the troops. Undaunted, he pressed ahead with making the proper introductions, and soon his personality and wit won the day. Before long, he commanded the respect and good wishes of everyone under his leadership—a remarkable feat considering the untenable nature of his situation: an international disgrace, stepping down from the Admiralty under a cloud, and now serving among troops who neither liked nor trusted him. However, on reflection, the years Churchill had spent in Parliament, and the times he had been cast aside by those he once considered friends had prepared him for this great challenge.
On November 26, 1915, Churchill’s career and life once again nearly came to an abrupt end. While serving three miles behind the front lines, he received an unusual but urgent summons from Lieutenant General Richard Haking to meet at Merville. Churchill set off on a dangerous walk “across sopping fields on which stray bullets are always falling, along tracks periodically shelled.”
A driver was supposed to meet him at the Rouge Croix crossroads, but when Churchill arrived, he found no car and no driver. Finally, hours later, the escort arrived, but without a motor car. Heavy shelling had forced the vehicle off the road, making it late to fetch Churchill. As it turned out, the meeting with the corps commander had been canceled.
Annoyed that his time had been wasted, Churchill returned to his previous location behind the lines. He was frustrated that the officer’s order and subsequent cancellation had resulted in “dragging me about in rain & wind for nothing.” He “reached the trenches without mishap,” only to discover that, a mere fifteen minutes after he had left, a German shell had exploded just a few feet from where he had been sitting. The shack-like structure built into the trench was demolished, and one of the three men inside had been killed. “When I saw the ruin I was not so angry with the general after all,” he wrote.
The Unseen Hand
In contemplating his brush with death in the trenches of the First World War, Churchill wrote to Clementine:
Churchill could not have known at the time how all of these events, high adventures, miraculous unscathings, and even the most dire setbacks and failures were preparing him for the day when his number would be called to step up and lead the free world against the incursions of tyranny. Yet without his even realizing it, it seems he had adopted a very biblical perspective: “Don’t worry about anything” (Philippians 4:6).