“ His is a picturesque career. Of any man of his few years speaking our language, probably it is today the most picturesque. And that he is half an American gives all of us an excuse to pretend we share in his successes.”
—Richard Harding Davis (1905).
" Englishman, twenty-five years old, about five feet eight inches high, indifferent build, walks a little with a bend forward, pale appearance, red- brownish hair, small moustache hardly perceptihle, talks through his nose, cannot pronounce the letter S properly, and does not know any Dutch.”
—From the Transvaal Government Poster after the escape from Pretoria.
“The field-telegraph stopped at the bridge-head and a small tent with a half-dozen military operators marked the breaking of a slender thread that connected us across thousands of miles of sea and land with London. Henceforward a line of signal stations with their flickering helios would be the only links. We were at the end of the wire.
“I have stood at the other end and watched the tape machine click off the news as it arrives; the movements of the troops; the prospects of action; the fighting; the casualties. How different are the scenes. The club on an autumn evening — its members grouped anxiously around, discussing, wondering, asserting; the noise of traffic outside; the cigarette smoke and electric lights within. And, only an hour away along the wire, the field with the bright sunlight shining on the swirling muddy waters; the black forbidding rocks; the white tents of the brigade a mile up the valley; a long streak of vivid green rice crop by the river; and in the foreground the brown-clad armed men.
“I can never doubt which is the right end to be at. It is better to be making the news than taking it; to be an actor rather than a critic.”
Thus years ago the present First Lord of the Admiralty recorded his conviction in that model piece of war reporting, “The Story of the Malakand Field Force.” He himself had begun to make the news two or three years before, and ever since he has been diligently engaged in the exciting occupations which managing editors cannot afford to neglect. In those early years of storm and stress people said he was a young man in a hurry who would come a cropper right soon; that he was a tornado, an arrogant egoist, an audacious but undeniably brilliant son of a brilliant father.
Winston Churchill is indeed the son of Randolph Churchill. He has done a lot of the things his father did and done them in the fashion which his father affected. His mannerisms were most of them strongly reminiscent of his father when he came before the public with the very evident intention of making his way to the front of the stage without serving any prolonged apprenticeship in the wings or the background. His grandmother used to refer with pride to the fact that his father had been paid £2250 for his articles in the' Daily Graphic on South African affairs. How it would have delighted the lady to know that the son of her favorite son had been sent to the Boer war by Lord Glenesk as the best man available for the service of the Morning Post, and paid what Lord Glenesk considered the best man to be worth.
Bom in 1874, Winston Churchill is half American, for his mother was Jennie Jerome of New York City. Educated for the army and seeing little chance of having a hand in a real war for England, he ran away to Cuba when he was barely twenty-one and fought for the Spaniards. Thereupon he became an international question which the House of Commons had to consider, and, his name thus early before the world, the Daily Graphic found it worth while to pay him handsome fees for articles on the Cuban revolution, and when he came home he brought with him the Spanish government’s Order of Military Merit. In another year he left for the Indian frontier and while attached to the Malakand Field Force he sent the Daily Telegraph a series of brilliant letters and won another medal and a mention in despatches. Joining the staff of Sir William Lockhart, he went through the Tirah campaign and added a clasp to his decoration.
In 1897, a prophet known as the Mad Fakir arose upon the Indian frontier, whose appeals to the fanaticism of the tribes met with remarkable responses. On July 29, all India rang with the news that the Malakand had been attacked, and the tension throughout the land became fever high when it was understood that one or two little garrisons away in the mountains were in danger of annihilation.
In his analysis of conditions at the theatre of the war Mr. Churchill relates how in those wild but wealthy valleys “a code of honour not less punctilious than that of Old Spain is supported by vendettas as implacable as those of Corsica,” and how the fighting men “to the ferocity of the Zulu added the craft of the redskin and the marksmanship of the Boer.” England held the Malakand Pass to keep open the road to Chit- ral. The younger officers of the Malakand garrison were playing polo at Khar when some neighboring tribesmen brought them warning that a wave of fanaticism was sweeping down the valley and they hurried back to make their position as secure as possible. The commander sent a telegram to Mardan ordering the Guides to reenforce the garrison, the order arriving at 8.30 in the evening, and just five hours later they began their famous march. For six days and nights the garrison was under incessant rifle fire, and each night cost them several lives.
Terrible as was the situation, the garrison was assured that relief was on the way. The tremendous exertions of the relieving columns is indicated by the fact that in one company of Sikhs twenty-one men actually died on the road from heat apoplexy. Past midnight on the night of the twenty-ninth the great attack was made and with its repulse passed the chance of capturing the Malakand. The tribesmen thereupon concentrated their assault upon Chakdara, and for days the post was encircled by the smoke of thousands of muskets. The Malakand Field Force was sent to hold the Malakand and “to operate against the neighboring tribes as might be required.” The command was put into the hands of General Sir Bindon Blood, and with him Winston Churchill “had the honor to serve in the field.”
The young adventurer says: “Having realized that if a British cavalry officer waits till he is ordered on active service he is likely to wait a considerable time, I obtained six weeks leave of absence from my regiment, and on September 2, arrived at Malakand as press correspondent of the Pioneer and Daily Telegraph, and in the hope of sooner or later being attached to the force in a military capacity.”
The march of September 6 began with the stars still shining overhead. They passed a frail bridge hung upon wire ropes and with gates at each end supported by little mud towers. Here the field telegraph ended and of the contrast between the two ends of the wire the correspondent wrote the vigorous paragraphs which have been quoted above. The horses had to be led in single file over this bridge, and at that the swinging of the structure made it hard to walk. The passage of the transport under such circumstances consumed an entire day. With Major Deane, Churchill visited the chiefs of a typical Afghan valley, with seven separate castles as strongholds of seven separate khans. He made the hard climb to the top of the pass, and stood far above “a valley upon which perhaps no white man had looked since Alexander crossed the mountains on his way to India.” Of the camp at midnight he painted an engaging picture:
“The fires have sunk to red, glowing specks. The bayonets glisten in a regular line of blue-white points. The silence of weariness is broken by the incessant and uneasy shuffling of the animals and the occasional neighing of the horses. All the valley is plunged in gloom and the mountains rise high and black around. Far up their sides, the twinkling watch-fires of the tribesmen can be seen. Overhead is the starry sky, bathed in the pale radiance of the moon. It is a spectacle that may inspire the philosopher not less than the artist. All the camp is full of subdued noises. Here is no place for reflection, for quiet or solemn thought. The day may have been an exciting one. The morrow may bring an action. Some may be killed, but in war time life is only lived in the present. It is sufficient to be tried and to have time to rest, and the camp, if all the various items that compose it can be said to have a personality, shrugs its shoulders and, regarding the past without regret, contemplates the future without alarm.”
The climax came in the action of September 16. “Sniping” had been going on all the time, especially at night, and occasionally the sharpshooters picked off a man, but the final affair, appealing strongly to the imagination of such a man as Winston Churchill, and especially at his age, would not be called a battle by any who think of great masses of troops and the thunder of batteries. Just a hillside on which a few men in brown might be made out by a careful watcher moving slowly among the rocks, and looking like the tiny figures of a child’s play-house in that great sweep of mountain and valley. The columns marched out of camp at dawn, three in all, in order to clear the whole mountain trough at once; Churchill was with the centre column. He watched the little men scurrying about on the heights and the tiny curls of smoke. Darkness came down swiftly and with it a heavy storm, the lightning flashes providing the enemy with countless chances to aim their shots. The troops worked their way back to camp, and, dinnerless and shelterless, lay down in the slush, fagged out but confident of the outcome. There had been barely a thousand men engaged, but the total casualties were one hundred and forty-nine, a greater percentage than in most actions in India. In the following days the force completed the conquest of the valley and the tribesmen were ready to sue for peace.
Meantime the correspondent had been sending his messages back by friendly tribesmen to the telegraph office at Panjkora. The way lay through twenty miles of the enemy’s country, but the despatches never miscarried and several times they were on the wire before the official despatches or any heliographed messages had come through.
His work done, he made his way back to the comforts of civilization and of peace. At each stage of. the return journey some of the “indispensable things” of modem society appeared. At Panjkora he was in touch with the great world again by means of the electric current, at Saria there were fresh potatoes, at Chakdara there was ice, at Malakand he had again a comfortable bed, and at Howshera there was the railway. One of the most picturesque of the little wars of the century was finished, and it had brought to the young newspaper man praise from Sir Bindon Blood for his “courage and resolution” in making himself “useful at a critical moment.”
His book written, and it being clear that Kitchener was about to advance upon Khartoum, Winston Churchill hurried to the War Office, as several hundred other officers had done, to ask for employment. Perseverance secured it for him and he was attached for the campaign to the Twenty-first Lancers and ordered without delay to proceed to the Nile. At Cairo he found his squadron leaving the next day. All the way up the river he was doing his stint of work with his troop and sending his letters to his paper, the Morning Post. One adventure in the desert threatened to end seriously. Every correspondent who sees service in Egypt expects to be lost in the desert once at least, and Churchill had to take his turn of wandering at night among the sandhills, with scouting parties of the enemy at no great distance.
It was no easy matter to save the cavalry horses and keep them in condition for the fighting that was ahead. Extreme precautions were taken to maintain the war order and to make the march easy for the crippled animals. Of one motley troop Churchill was made commander.
So he fared on to the great battle of Omdurman. The Lancers that day made their first charge in war, and Churchill, who rode with the rest, has written a thrilling story of that episode of the great struggle which cleared the Soudan of the rule of fanaticism. How luck followed this young man! He had his share in the charge which, with the exploit of MacDonald, was the event of the battle that ended Mahdism. There were just two minutes of slashing, spear throwing, hamstringing, rifle firing with muzzles against the bodies of the foe, and sabre cutting. And he came through as one of the few officers whose saddlery, clothes and horse were quite untouched. He wrote: “The whole scene flickered exactly like a cinematograph picture, and besides I remember no sound. The event seemed to pass in absolute silence. . . . Perhaps it is possible for the whole of a man’s faculties to be concentrated in the eye, bridle-hand and trigger-finger, and withdrawn from all other parts of the body.”
Home again, he wrote “The River War,” telling the story of the Nile campaigns from the death of Gordon to the final winning of the Soudan. Again his book made a sensation, for it was the work of a subaltern who had been in the desert but a few months and it read like the work of a veteran of many wars and a student of military history. It is the standard work upon its subject, and it got abundant attention also because of the free and easy way in which its writer criticized all the military gods from Kitchener down. Plunging into politics and failing to gain a seat in the House, he resigned from his regiment, and on October 26, 1899, left for the South African war again as correspondent for the Morning Post. Later he held a commission in the South African Light Horse and served as an aide to two or three generals.
The affair of the armored train occurred within a few days of his arrival. The train was composed of three flat cars, two armored cars, and between them the engine; thus there were three cars coupled to the cow-catcher and two to the tender. After the train had passed, the Boers rolled a big boulder on the track just where it rounded a curve. On the return trip the engineer took the curve at high speed and hit the rock, with the result that the three forward cars were thrown off the track and one was landed crosswise so that the engine and rear cars could not escape.
The Boers were firing upon them from three sides and they had some field guns in action so that any direct shell would pierce the armored cars like paper. Churchill dropped to the ground and ran forward, returning to report his conviction that the track could be cleared. It was agreed that Captain Haldane should keep the enemy engaged while Churchill tried to clear away the wreckage. By hard work and ingenuity he got the cars out of the way. Then it was found that the engine was six inches wider than the tender and that the corner of its foot-plate would not pass the corner of the truck which had just been shoved from the track. Pushing made the jam worse and the men worked at the freight car with their bare hands while the Boer fire was renewed at a distance of thirteen hundred yards. Said the correspondent:
“I have had in the last four years many strange and thrilling experiences. But nothing was so thrilling as this: to wait and struggle among these clanging, rending iron boxes, with the repeated explosions of the shells and the artillery, the noise of the projectiles striking the cars, the hiss as they passed in the air, the grunting and puffing of the engine — poor, tortured thing, hammered by at least a dozen shells, any one of which by penetrating the boiler might have made an end of all — the expectation of destruction as a matter of course, the realization of powerlessness and the alternations of hope and despair — all this for seventy minutes by the clock with only four inches of twisted iron work to make the difference between danger, captivity and shame on the one hand — safety, freedom and triumph on the other.”
At last the engine did break past the obstruction. But the couplings had parted and they dared not risk imprisoning the engine again by backing it to the rear trucks. They could not drag the trucks to the engine, however, and it was decided to try to save the engine alone. The cab, tender and cow-catcher were piled with their wounded. The woodwork of the firebox was in flames and water was spouting from the pierced tanks. As the engine moved away the soldiers straggled alongside at the double. But one private, without authority, raised his handkerchief, when the Boers ceased firing at once and a dozen horsemen came galloping from the hills.
Churchill stayed on the engine in safety for a third of a mile, when he saw an officer trying to hold his stampeding men, and, under the shelter of some houses, he dropped from the engine, and ran back to help. He soon found himself in a narrow cutting and alone, for the soldiers had surrendered. As two men appeared at the end of what was a sort of corridor he began to run. Two bullets passed within a foot of his head; he zigzagged, and two more came as near. He scrambled up the side of the cutting and a bullet hit his hand. Outside he crouched in a little depression, but a horseman was galloping towards him, and he had neither rifle nor pistol. He says: “Death stood before me, grim and sullen. Death without his light-hearted companion, Chance.” There was nothing else for it. He surrendered.
His certificate as a correspondent bore his name. It was a name not liked in the Transvaal. One Boer asked: “You are the son of Lord Randolph Churchill?”
He did not deny the fact, and immediately he was encircled by a crowd of staring Boers.
He was taken to Pretoria and imprisoned in the States Model Schools Building, which was surrounded by iron railings, and there were guards quartered in tents on the playground. There were long, dull days, lightened by the reading of Carlyle and Mill’s “Essay on Liberty.” Liberty he was bound to have, and he began to make his plans on the day of his arrival. After ten days the American consul came to see him. His friends did not know whether he was alive, wounded or dead. Mr. Bourke Cockran, an old friend of his American mother’s, cabled from New York to the consul, and in this roundabout way his situation was disclosed to his relatives and comrades.
He found it advisable to lose his campaign hat, which could not be mistaken for the headgear of any but an English officer. The burgher who bought him another very innocently but very fortunately returned with a Boer sombrero. Then he kept watch and devised schemes. The grounds were brilliantly lighted with electric lights, but there was a little period of a few minutes when the sentries as they paced their beats would have a small section of the wall in darkness, owing to some cross-shadows. Beyond was a private house with its grounds, and farther on the open street.
Just how he was to dodge patrols and find his way through three hundred miles of unknown and hostile territory he did not know. But the effort he was bound to make. He says:
“Tuesday, December 12. Anything was better than further suspense. Again night came. Again the dinner bell sounded. Choosing my opportunity, I strolled across the quadrangle and secreted myself in one of the offices. Through a chink I watched the sentries. For half an hour they remained stolid and obstructive. Then suddenly one turned and walked up to his comrade and they began to talk. Their backs were turned. I darted out of my hiding place, seized the top with my hands and drew myself up. Twice I let myself down again in sickly hesitation, and then with a third resolve scrambled up. The top was flat. Lying on it, I had one parting glimpse of the sentries, still talking, still with their backs turned, but fifteen yards away. Then I lowered myself silently down into the adjoining garden and crouched among the shrubs. I was free. The first step had been taken and was irrevocable.”
He was in the garden of a house in which a party was going on, and while he waited in the shadows guests came out and stood and chatted within a few yards of him. After a time he passed the open windows of the house, walked by within five yards of a sentry, and was at large in Pretoria. In his pocket he had four slabs of chocolate and seventy-five pounds in money. Overhead was Orion, which had guided him a year before on the Nile. He was going to give the Boers a run for their money whatever might happen.
The fugitive followed the railway track, making detours to avoid the watches at the bridges, and finally boarded a train in motion. “I hurled myself on the trucks,” he says, “clutched at something, missed, clutched again, missed again, grasped some sort of hand-hold, was swung off my feet, my toes bumping on the line, and with a struggle seated myself on the couplings of the fifth truck from the front of the train.” He did not know what was the destination of the train, but the great thing was that it was going away from Pretoria. The trucks were full of sacks of goods and he crawled up and burrowed among them. Before he left the car at dawn he saw the line was running straight toward the sunrise where lay the neutral territory of Portugal. That day he ate a slab of chocolate, drank from a pool, and stayed hidden among the hills.
The following night he walked, creeping along close to the ground, and wading bogs, drenched to the waist. The fifth day he was beyond Middleburg. From the Kaffirs he managed to beg a bit of food.
Meantime the whole world was talking about the audacious escape of the irrepressible young Englishman. The Boers were furious. The one man who should have been held at all odds was the man who got away from them. They telegraphed throughout the region the unflattering description which has been placed at the head of this chapter; they began to search every car of every train; three thousand photographs were distributed; they searched the houses of all supposed British sympathizers. Especially at the frontier of Portuguese territory was vigilant watch kept. Rumors of many sorts were flying about the country. Churchill was disguised as a woman; he was wearing the uniform of a Transvaal policeman; he was in Pretoria disguised as a waiter. The dangers of inflammatory literature were pointed out — had he not been reading “Mill on Liberty” the day before his escape? In England he at once became a popular hero; he had pluck and he had wit and he had confounded the Boers, and forthwith every Englishman cheered him. Then as day followed day without tidings of him, England became anxious. Was he lost? Had starvation caught him?
He was indeed in straits. Entirely spent, the little strength which prison fife had left him exhausted, he had to crawl to a shack in a little village and stammer out a speech thought out in advance to the first white man he had dared to approach for weeks. The man stared, and then he glared, and finally he grabbed the fugitive, pulled him inside the door, and said: “I am the only Englishman in miles and you are Winston Churchill.” How did Churchill know? He didn’t know; luck was with him. He seemed to move under the same star that so many times befriended Forbes, valiant but ever favored by chance.
His new friend smuggled him into a freight car, where, buried in sacks of merchandise, he stayed for more than two days. At the border the car was twice searched, but only the upper sacks were lifted, and after many hours of waiting the empty roar of the bridge told the young correspondent that he was entering Portuguese territory at last. He only left the car when he reached Lourenco Marques. Then he hurried to the British consul, and that night, taking no chances, he was escorted to a steamship about to leave by a dozen Englishmen with drawn revolvers.
Two days later he was landed at Durban, where a rousing welcome was his. It was the second.day before Christmas, but after only an hour of enthusiasm and turmoil which he says he “enjoyed extremely,” he was off for the front, with a months’ newspapers at his side to catch up with the news of the world. Back at Frere, he found his tent pitched by the side of the very cutting down which he had fled from the Boer marksmen.
For the rest, he stayed with Buffer as an officer and a correspondent until the relief of Ladysmith, and then he was with one of the columns of Lord Roberts until Pretoria was taken. He watched the search-light flashing the Morse code on the clouds, and saw its aerial battle with the Boer searchlight, which crossed its flashes with blinks and flickers and mixed up the dots and dashes. As the Monte Cristo ridge was captured he wired his paper that at last success was within reach. He was one of the first party that galloped into the relieved town, and how the tattered and weary men ran and cheered and cried when they heard his reply to the sentry’s challenge — “ The Ladysmith Relief Column.”
There was one lull after the relief of Ladysmith when Churchill went back to Capetown, and then an adventure befell him when he was out with a scouting party. That day again he ran for his life from Boer marksmen, and a trooper saved him by mounting him behind himself. Said the adventurer: “I had thrown double sixes again.” At a time when near Johannesburg an important action was fought, which the correspondents were not able to wire away because the enemy lay between the force and the telegraph, he conceived the idea of taking the most direct way to headquarters, which was the way through Johannesburg. He went on a bicycle with a Frenchman as comrade and got safely through. In the darkness they walked and scrambled and cycled, keeping to the side streets in the town which the army had not yet occupied. They overtook the principal special of The Times, Lionel James, who chivalrously refused to hear the tidings Churchill brought; let his rival keep his news and score as he deserved to do. They were carrying also official reports for the Commander- in-Chief, and straight to Lord Roberts they made their way. Churchill put his news on the wire and was provided with his first comfortable bed for a month.
A few months later he took his seat in the House of Commons, and by a happy coincidence he entered upon his Parliamentary career at the same age as had his father. His first speech was made in May, 1901; after some years he went over to the Liberal Party; soon he was Under-Secretary for the Colonies; and now he is in the Cabinet, sharing the tremendous responsibility of the direction of the forces of Great Britain in what seems likely to become the greatest war the world has ever known. But whatever he is and whatever he may become, it is certain that this man of versatility and industry, with his passion for being in the midst of things, will never enjoy life more than did he when he was winning the attention of the world as a newspaper special and a soldier.