Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
Do we really need another biography of Winston Churchill? Well, yes, when it is written by talented Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic.
In Hero of the Empire, Millard tells the tale of Churchill’s daring escape from a POW camp during the Boer War.
As a member of a prominent titled family and the son of the infamous Lord Randolph Churchill and his American wife, Jennie, Winston was not an unknown, even as a young man. But after the Boer War, he became a celebrity in his own right and never looked back.
But in late 1899, the unapologetically ambitious and military mad Churchill was still trying to make a name for himself. By the time he reached Africa, he had already thrown himself into several colonial skirmishes without making much of a splash. In his mind, the Boer War was last chance to prove his heroism.
For Americans, other than devoted readers of 19th C British novels, the Boer War is a mere historical footnote, but it looms large in the annals of the British Empire. The Boer War was the first highly visible crack in the Empire, which at the time covered more than a fifth of the world’s surface and 450 million people.
The conflict was also just one of many in the Europeans’ ongoing Scramble for Africa. (Also, the title of an excellent book about the colonization of the African continent.) As a vital link to India, the British had colonized numerous African port cities, most notably Cape Town. But in the mid 19thC, diamonds and gold were discovered in the interior and suddenly, Africa was more than just a convenient spot to dock a boat.
However, the glittering stones were not found in British territory, but rather in the territory of the Boers with whom the British already had a fractious relationship.
Tough, proud, and deeply religious, the Boers are descendants of Dutch, German and Huguenot immigrants who settled Africa in the early 17th C. For a period of time, the Boers and British peacefully occupied Cape Colony and environs, but chaffing under British domination, eventually the Boers took off for the interior. There they spent the next decades fighting the native tribes, notably the Zulu and the Xhosa (Nelson Mandela), and the British who followed them there.
Churchill arrived in Africa not long after the commencement of the Boer War. (Technically this was the Second Boer War, but the British don’t like to think about the first one in which the Boers trounced them.) You wouldn’t know it from his subsequent actions, but Churchill was not a member of the military, but a highly paid correspondent for the Morning Post. By the time he arrived, the British had already suffered massive defeats.
The British, who thought the war would be over in a few months, were woefully unprepared for an African war. Having only recently given up their famous red coats for more discrete khaki uniforms, they still marched into battle in straight lines only to be picked off with ease by concealed Boer sharpshooters. The British subscribed to the traditional European fighting style of two opposing forces facing each other on the field of battle. As such, they found the Boers skulking behavior frightfully ungentlemanly. But having earned their battle stripes fighting the fierce Zulu, the Boers were less concerned with gentlemanly behavior than winning. It took months for the British to adapt to what is now known as gorilla warfare.
Churchill was captured in an especially stupid military engagement almost as soon as he arrived. Naturally he was crushed. How on earth was he to be a hero (and earn his pay check from the Morning Post) from a POW camp in Pretoria? Churchill started plotting his escape immediately upon arrival at the camp. Unfortunately, due to a glitch in his plans, Churchill escaped without food, water, compass, or compatriots.
And because of his name, he was the subject of a huge man hunt. Every Boer in the Transvaal was on the lookout for the aristocratic son of Lord Randolph Churchill.
His dramatic journey from Pretoria to Lourenco Marques in neutral Portuguese East Africa is a testament to Churchill’s single-minded determination. And it did indeed make him a hero.