REVIEW: Young Winston Churchill's Wild Adventures During the Boer War

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill By Candice Millard

Doubleday400 pp.  

By Jim Swearingen

Long before growling defiance at Adolph Hitler and leading England into battle against the German Wehrmacht, Winston Churchill cut a swashbuckling figure through a very different kind of military conflict. In Hero of the Empire, her third, irresistible historical biography, Candice Millard chronicles young Winston’s exploits in South Africa as a war correspondent in the Boer War.

In an era when young men from wealthy and prominent families felt a duty to do national service, Churchill eagerly threw himself into every major British colonial engagements of his time.  In his mid-20s, he had already fought with the Bengal Lancers in India and with Lord Kitchener in the Sudan. It will come as no surprise to those who followed his later career that young Churchill was wildly courageous and had an unflagging faith in his own destiny.

After resigning his army commission to make a run for Parliament in 1899—and losing—Churchill raced to South Africa to cover Britain’s latest colonial conflict.  For years the white Afrikaner, or Boer, farmers of South Africa had been resisting British territorial annexations. Fearing their own eventual eradication as a sovereign people, the Boers had demanded the withdrawal of all British troops from their territory. The British had predictably refused.

The Boer War bears more than a passing resemblance to the American Revolution: white farmers of European descent taking a country away from the native population, then fighting the British Empire for their own liberty. The Boers had captured extensive Zulu and Xhosa territories in bloody tribal wars only to watch the British absorb them as part of their own imperial holdings. As Millard points out, neither the Boers nor the British ever considered that the land they were contesting didn’t belong to either one of them.

Hero of the Empire begins with Churchill interned in a Boer prisoner of war camp — and escaping. It then flashes back to how he wheedled his way into politics, into war journalism, and, in compelling fashion, the risky overseas assignment that led to his imprisonment.
Accompanying a doomed locomotive patrol of occupied territory, Churchill courageously attempted to flee from a Boer ambush and ended up captured as a combatant. Millard describes his abject misery during his incarceration. More than perhaps any other man among the military prisoners, Churchill chafed at being subject to other men’s whims and direction, a quality the reader can recognize later in the defiant Prime Minister who held fast during the Battle of Britain.

A delicious slice of the book is devoted to the harrowing account of Churchill’s escape, flight, subterranean concealment, and eventual smuggling into Portuguese territory. Throughout the tales of his valor and recklessness, after every disappointment, military or political, Millard reveals his supreme confidence in his own fate. As readers we know with hindsight that Churchill is destined for greatness. He, on the other hand, knew it from his earliest days in the army. And even those politicians, soldiers, and journalists who detested his brashness seemed to know it, too.

We also watch Churchill learning lessons that would serve him—and his country—well in the years to come: that a young soldier’s tremendous courage in battle does not necessarily equip that same man in maturity to command capably; that harsh imprisonment uncivilizes the inmates; that magnanimity toward a defeated enemy rehabilitates relations among nations; and that nothing is more excruciating than losing one’s freedom and autonomy to the whims of external forces.

Perhaps most surprising to modern readers will be Churchill’s indiscretion, impetuosity, and voracious ambition — all on ample display in his early years. Long after many historical lions have entered the realm of legend, we forget the rapacious drive that almost invariably accompanied their storied exploits.

In Millard’s telling, Churchill was never loathe to lecture an elder or superior officer on how he should do his job. And, he frequently comes across as a dangerously indiscreet loudmouth, one whom his fellow prison-break conspirators literally could not trust with details for fear he would blurt them out at a disastrous moment.

In all of her books, Millard captures the suspenseful serendipity of history and recounts factual coincidences more astonishing than fiction. Her stories are populated with the prominent names of the epoch she is covering. She outdoes herself in Hero of the Empire, deftly weavesing a web of historical contemporaries that include Arthur Conan Doyle, Shaka Zulu, Rudyard Kipling, Alfred Nobel, and Mahatma Gandhi.   The book also provides glimpses of the harsh racial politics of South Africa that would follow over the next century. Much of the tension between the Boers and the British stemmed from the Empire’s abolition of slavery in all of its territories. Millard traces the origins of apartheid in the Boers’ entrenched resistance to accepting native South Africans as equals.

We may be heading toward in era in which the histories of great white men pass completely out of vogue — and understandably so.  Their daring exploits so often came at the expense of one indigenous population or another, of many people who are likely still paying the price of that problematic heroism.

But their moral ambiguity does not dampen the raw excitement of these stories. And we are still a people moved by good stories, especially of men and women who bestrode the world like colossuses — and changed history in the process.  Millard tells these stories as well as anyone — and in Hero of the Empire, she recounts an episode in a great man’s life that is dramatic and illuminating in its own right, and that foreshadows the epic heroism yet to come.

Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.