The Making of a Hero in the South African War
Author: Eric Bolsman
268 pp; size 242 X 168mm
16 pages black and white and colour pics
eight in-text maps, illustrations and pics
ISBN and bar code: 978-1-919854-22-3
One of the greatest talents that Winston Churchill was blessed with was his extraordinary command of the English language. He would go on to write a prodigious 65 books in his lifetime. He was rewarded for this in 1953 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet in
his abilities as a writer were already widely recognised by the end of the 19th century. Yet oddly enough he had not excelled academically at school and it was only on his third attempt that he passed the entrance examination to the Britain Royal Military Academyat Sandhurst.
Before entering politics he went on to combine his military career with journalism and shortly after the outbreak of the South African War in 1899, he was contracted as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. He made his way to the
front where he was destined to become one of the highest-paid newspaper reporters in the world. Natal
Much has been made of Churchill’s heroism. The exceptional courage he displayed when defending the derailed armoured train at Chieveley in
made his reputation. Yet strictly speaking as a journalist he was a non-combatant, but on his capture, the Boers treated him as a combatant because of his actions at the armoured train. Natal
This was not an isolated incident of bravery for on other occasions, in
Cuba, Indiaand in Africa, his sometimes almost reckless courage had drawn widespread comment. On three different occasions during the Malakand campaign in , he rode his pony along the skirmish line while everyone else was ducking for cover. He admitted that his actions were foolish, but playing for high stakes was a calculated risk. ‘Given an audience there is no act too daring or too noble’, he wrote to his mother, and concluded his letter by saying: ‘... without the gallery things are different.’ India
Scaling the wall surrounding the prison yard in
Pretoriaand making his way through enemy territory to Portuguese East Africawas not considered a particularly great feat by the British military. Yet his escape — he was largely unknown to the British people until then — was hailed by many as one of the greatest military escapes ever.
His instant fame, to a large degree, came about because the war was going badly for the British Army at the time. A depressed British people needed a hero to bolster their sagging enthusiasm for the war, so Winston Churchill was their man.
He had the need to stay in the limelight to fuel his political ambitions and the best way to achieve that was by returning to the front as a journalist and part-time soldier after his escape where he continued to captivate the readers of the Morning Post with his dispatches, writing convincingly about his own and other’s front-line experiences.
His stories of how he miraculously escaped the bullets that whistled around him in Natal and the Orange Free State and how he rode a bicycle through enemy-held Johannesburg, ending with his triumphant returned to Pretoria where he helped to liberate his former fellow POWs from captivity, earned his newspaper a fortune.
The fact that the adventures he described sometimes did not happen exactly the way he related them didn’t seem to bother anyone. William Manchester wrote: ‘Virtually every event he [Churchill] described in
South Africa, as in Cuba, on the North-West Frontier, and at , was witnessed by others with whom recollections were consistent. The difference, of course, lay in the interpretation.’ Omdurman
I set out to discover the real Churchill in those early years of his life. During this process I discovered many facets to this complex and controversial man. At times I felt like a certain painter described by Cervantes. This sage artist was asked, as he was starting on a new canvas, what his picture was to be. ‘That’, he replied, ‘is as it may turn out.’
So this, my account of how the young and extraordinary Winston Churchill became a hero during the South African War, is how it turned out.
By Eric Bolsmann’s telling, the young Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was a shrewd operator who from an early age had one objective: to be Prime Minister of Great Britain. Indeed, Bolsmann’s portrayal of the young man in his Winston Churchill: The making of a hero in the South African War is that of a youth obsessed with his destiny and prepared to take risks to get there.
As Andrew Lloyd Webber said of Eva Peron, Churchill too had every disadvantage he needed to succeed. Fellow war correspondent John Black Atkins sailed to South africa with General Redvers Buller and Churchill, recording about the latter: “…when the prospects of a career like that of his father, Lord Randolph, excited him, then such a gleam shot from him that he was almost transfigured. I had not encountered this sort of ambition, unabashed, frankly egotistical, communicating its excitement, and extorting sympathy.”
Winston was born into the Churchill line, in the shadow of Sir John, later created the Duke of Marlborough for defeating with Prinz Eugen of Savoy the forces of Louis XIV at Blindheim (corrupted to Blenheim by the English) in 1704. His father was the second son of the seventh Duke, ensuring Winston would have no title. Once a promising politician, who it was expected would ascend to the premiership, Lord Randolph, fell short by dint of personality defect and the ravages of syphilis. This left our young-man-in-a-hurry with little by way of inheritance in an age where, as was the case with the elite military regiments, a Member of Parliament had to be of independent means.
To enter politics Churchill now needed two things: fame and fortune. The surest way to both seemed the military: boldness on the battlefield was highly regarded in Victorian times. But heroism by itself would not get one elected, adulation was required. Churchill later reportedly said he expected history to be kind to him, as he intended to right it. He would eventually publish 65, including a history of his great ancestor, another on the English speaking peoples and others on the two World Wars, gaining a Nobel Prize for literature along the way.
From the outset of his military career he intended getting to the front and writing about it. When the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars was posted to India for nine years of garrison duty, Churchill obtained leave and a secret commission from Intelligence to cover the Cuban Insurrection of 1895. He took with him a more overt commission from the Daily Graphic to witness and report on the fighting from the Spanish side. His reporting won some kudos but also criticism. “Mr Churchill was supposed to have gone to the West Indies for a holiday … spending a holiday fighting other people’s battles is rather an extraordinary procedure even for a Churchill”, the Newcastle Leader complained.
Once in India, Churchill was keen to get to the action, and when he could not secure a commission with the Malakand Field Force, he took leave and went as correspondent instead; regulations at that stage not preventing an officer from serving as a journalist.
Again he distinguished himself, this time engaging in combat, Bolsmann noting “Churchill made no secret that his purpose in joining the Field Force was to exploit the glory earned in the cause of politics.” This was “not conducive to his reputation” and along with his Cuban jaunt had led his brother officers to brand him a “medal hunter” and “self-advertiser”.
His criticism of his superiors did not endear him in that quarter either and would place obstacles in his way. It appears his journalism was also not well rewarded. Instead of the £15 - £20 a column he was expecting, he was paid £5 under the byline “From a young officer”. His mother, Jennie, by now a widow, “did her best to ensure that everyone who mattered was made aware of the fact that the columns were penned by her son, but ambitious Winston would not leave at that.” He decided to expand the columns into a book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, his first.
Over Christmas Churchill endeavoured to join another punitive expedition, the Tirah Field Force and succeeded in being appointed assistant to Aylmer Haldane, aide-de-camp to force commander Sir William Lockhart. In the event, the expedition was cancelled.
France provided Churchill his next stage. French designs on the Nile, prompted British intervention in Sudan. There was also the matter of avenging Sir “Chinese” Gordon, killed by the forces of the Mahdi in 1885. A campaign was in the offing.
But the Sirdar, the British commander-in-chief in Egypt, General Horatio Kitchener, would not have him. “Kitchener knew all about Churchill. He disliked the 23-year-old lieutenant intensely for having dared to criticise his superiors…” That he had done so himself as a young officer, Bolsmann records “was not something he cared to remember.”
But the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, liked Churchill’s Malakand account and after a personal interview with the author at 10 Downing Street, arranged for the young officer to join the Sudan expedition. He was assigned to the 21st Lancers and was fated to take part in the “last classic cavalry charge in the history of British warfare.” He killed “several – three for certain – two doubtful” with a Mauser C96 pistol he had bought specially.
“Churchill’s dispatches from the Sudan appeared in the Morning Post. Critics were at his heels. Even the Prince of Wales [a flame of Jennie Churchill’s] was upset. He did not approve of an officer writing for a newspaper, and said he now realised why Kitchener was set against him joining his force.” This did not stop Churchill packaging his reports into The River War and following up with his only novel Savrola. He also resigned from the Army and stood for the Oldham seat as a Conservative.
Following his defeat Churchill accompanied the 1st Army Corps to South Africa, beating Buller to the Natal front by inventive use of trains and a coastal steamer. If his exploits in the Swat Valley and at Omdurman were insufficient to win him a seat, would the Boers give him what he needed? It is clear he had high hopes this would be so.
By the time he arrived, Ladysmith was already under siege. Keen to get a sense of that, he offered £200 to anyone who could get him across the Boer lines.
This is where Bolsmann’s account gets even more interesting. A constant feature of Winston Churchill: The making of a hero in the South African War is the author juxtaposing the writings of Churchill and further contrasting it with other eyewitness and literary accounts. He notes that Churchill’s offer “is not generally known” and only came to light in correspondence in 1963. It was first published as late as June 1987.
As with all depressives, Churchill tended to hyperactivity and cooling heels at Estcourt appealed to him not. On November 15, 1899 (not December 15 as recorded by Bolsmann), he accompanied Haldane (of Indian acquaintance) on an armoured train to Colenso. As they forayed north along the railway – without cavalry or mounted infantry escort – a Boer force came south.
The Boers saw the train head north and deployed to attack the train on its way back south. At Chieveley the train duly came to grief and Churchill excelled himself, helping the locomotive and about 50 wounded men get away. He was duly observed by eyewitnesses on both sides and glowing accounts would appear in the Natal press. Then Churchill was captured.
From the start he protested that as a civilian he was exempt from being made prisoner but his quasi-military uniform and the fact that he had been seen taking a hand in directing the defence caused the Boers to hold on to him and post him to Pretoria, where he was accorded officer status. Churchill admitted that he was fortunate not to be caught in possession of his Mauser – he had left it on the locomotive, as by the rules of the recent Franco-Prussian War he would immediately have been subject to summary execution at the pleasure of his captors for being “engaged in unlawful warfare.”
Once at the Staatsmodelskool (Model State School, now part of the Department of Education’s national head office at the corner of Skinner and Andries streets), he kept up his protests, until Transvaal commandant general Piet Joubert relented. But by the time the order to release young Winston arrived, he had escaped, making his way to Durban via Lourenço Marques – and a hero’s welcome.
It is not the reviewer’s task to retell the story, particularly when Bolsmann has already done as thorough a job. Back in Durban, Churchill quickly headed inland, witnessing the Battle of Spioenkop and the relief of Ladysmith, both as a journalist, and by Buller’s special permission, as assistant adjutant to Colonel Julian Byng in the South African Light Horse, an “Uitlander” unit.
After Ladysmith he headed west and joined Colonel (temporary Lieutenant General) Ian Hamilton, who had been trapped in the town but had now been summoned west by Buller’s replacement, Lord Roberts, to command an ad hoc mounted infantry division on the march to Pretoria. Noteworthy highlights were Churchill’s observation of the Battle of Johannesburg, a far more sizeable affair than most people now realise, involving seven British battalions seizing a ridge in what is now Soweto from about 3000 Boers under Louis Botha and Koos de la Rey. Next Winston cycled through Johannesburg – roughly from Florida to Germiston via Langlaagte – while the city was still held by the Boers and lastly was on hand for the release of British prisoners from the “birdcage” prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria.
Churchill wrote hundreds of column inches on these events as he perceived them and several books including From London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, Ian Hamilton’s March and, much later, My Early Life 1878-1908. It was time to go home and enter Parliament. His newspaper and book earnings along with the takings of lecture tours made Winton independently wealthy and public acclaim ensured Oldham would he his. “When Parliament reassembled in February , Churchill took his father’s old seat on the backbenches. Every one of the goals he had set himself had been achieved. He was famous, an established writer and comfortably off. Crowning it all, he was in the House of Commons to make his mark on world politics.
“He proudly mentioned to his mother that there was not one person in a million who had earned £10 000 at the age of 25 without any capital in less than two years.” Indeed!
Bolsmann notes that Churchill’s career was not unique at the time, and in fact was broadly similar to that of the Sirdar who had ruthlessly played the War Office against the Foreign Office in addition to exploiting political friendships. A possible difference was that Churchill was “even less scrupulous.”
This becomes clear when one, like Bolsmann, compares From London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, published in 1900 and My Early Life 1878-1908 written in 1959. A number of “terminological inexactitudes”, to use Churchill’s memorable 1907 synonym for inaccuracy – or worse – readily emerge. This is amplified when the accounts of others are considered. Get this book and see what Bolsmann finds…
Leon Engelbrecht - DefenceWeb
I took up Eric Bolsmann’s book on Churchill with some reluctance because I feared it might be just another rewriting of Churchill’s own account of his early life. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the author’s independence of spirit as he freely interrogates Churchill’s claims. Despite this scholarly approach the author’s modest tone ensures that his book does not forfeit its readability.
Winston Churchill: The Making of Hero in the South African War is agreeably written, appropriately illustrated and attractively produced at a modest cost.
John Boje -
News, 17 November 2008 Pretoria
Can there be anything new to say about Winston Churchill? Well, yes: local artist and author Eric Bolsmann brings a fresh eye to the story pof a brash young man determined to make a name for himself.
Churchill’s role as a press correspondent during the Second South African War is well contextualised with a description of the earlier, crass behaviour of his father Randolph during his 1891 visit.
Overt ambition attracts criticism, of which Churchill got his fair share at the time.
I enjoyed Bolsmann’s account of the part played by Aylmer Haldane, before, during and after the frames escape from a Pretoria prison camp, and the way Churchill later sought to have Haldane corroborate his version of the story, while the latter was fastidious in sticking to the facts.
James Mitchell — Diamond Fields Advertiser
I recently finished reading the abovenamed book and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is an interesting and well paced narrative and provides considerable insight into the character of Sir Winston Churchill, who many would regard as the 20th Century's leading statesman, despite his apparent lack of social graces.
I also thought the book appeared well researched and the considerable detail regarding Churchill's escapades, the circumstances thereof and the various characters with whom he came into contact was informative and entertaining without becoming tedious.
Chris Saxby - South Africa - firstname.lastname@example.org