A book review of Hero of the Empire
2017 seems to have been the year we became reacquainted with Winston
There were two movies in 2017 about Churchill, namely Churchill, starring Brian Cox, and The Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman, who won the Best Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards for his portrayal of Churchill.
In addition, the current Netflix series The Crown about Queen Elizabeth II, beginning just before her coronation in 1953, also featured Churchill during its first season with John Lithgow as Churchill.
Because of this renewed interest in Churchill, I have chosen Hero of the Empire as the book for this review. It is a 2016 book by Candice Millard, and it is available in hard cover (318 pages), paperback, and electronic formats.
While most of us remember Churchill more as prime minister of England from 1940 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955, we do not know much about his early adult life.
The author gives us a brief early family history of Winston, who was born in 1874. The history also presents Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a very outspoken critic of the Boers in South Africa. Winston’s mother was Jennie Jerome, a wealthy American from Brooklyn.
Winston graduated from the Royal Military College in 1894. However, his biggest ambition was to go into politics and ultimately become prime minister. He felt that the best way to accomplish that was to display bravery in military battles. While Winston did participate in several “lesser” military campaigns, he, as a civilian, lost an early election to become a member of Parliament.
Winston also saw some action in Cuba as a military advisor during its uprising against Spain in 1895, where he fell in love with Cuban cigars.
This book features Churchill at age 24 serving in the second Boer War in South Africa during the latter part of 1899 as a newspaper correspondent. It describes the Boers as very religious Calvinists. They are also described as very independent people, who could trace their South African heritage back to the Dutch East India Company expedition, which sailed to the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The Boers grudgingly submitted to British rule when Cape Colony became a British possession in 1806.
When slavery was established in Cape Colony in 1833, the Boers, who were then a combination of Dutch, German, and Huguenot descendants, left Cape Colony and moved north into what became known as the Transvaal. They also developed their own language known as “Afrikaans.” Later, gold and diamonds were discovered in the Transvaal, and the British annexed it to Cape Colony.
Obviously, this did not sit well with the Boer population in the Transvaal, and it led to the first Boer War in late 1880, which the British lost in early 1881.
Then, when the English, to avenge their defeat in the first Boer War, ignored an ultimatum from the Boers about England’s aggression in the Transvaal, the second Boer War started in 1899.
Shortly after this second Boer War commenced, Winston decided the quickest way to get into it before it ended was to resign his military commission and start work as a foreign correspondent for an English newspaper wanting to cover this war. Two of his fellow correspondents were Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Winston, along with his personal valet and several cases of vintage wine, arrived in South Africa shortly after the war started as a news correspondent. He quickly proved his bravery. While riding in an open armored troop train which was attacked by the Boers, Winston’s quick thinking and physical efforts prevented many of the soldiers on the train from being killed. Unfortunately, Winston, together with about 100 officers and troops on the train, were captured by the Boers. Accounts of Winston’s bravery quickly spread throughout England, and there was renewed talk about supporting him in politics after the war ended.
The English, according to the author, considered the Boers to be barbaric and undisciplined because they refused to fight up close in military formations, wore no uniforms, hid and shot from a distance, and used smokeless bullets invented by Alfred Nobel so that their location was difficult to ascertain. They were called “snipers”, comparing them to riflemen in India who were skilled enough to shoot an erratically flying bird known as a snipe.
However, the book points out that the Boers treated their English prisoners with civility and compassion. They also allowed the prisoners to buy newspapers and extra food while imprisoned. They permitted English officers to have their personal military valets, who had also been captured, to attend to them. The Boers, under the command of Paul Krueger, were given orders not to shoot or pursue retreating English soldiers.
The prisoners were held in Pretoria, and from the first minutes of his capture, Winston thought of nothing else but escape, even though that meant death if he were captured. He and two other captives planned an escape to take place on December 13, 1899. However, when the time came, only Winston made it over the fence. Knowing that he would be immediately shot if recaptured, and not wanting to climb back over the fence into the prison, he decided to continue his escape alone with no map or compass, and with nothing more than a few English pounds, a crumpled biscuit and some chocolate.
Pretoria was hundreds of miles north of the English Cape Colony. Therefore, Winston determined that the best route for him was to travel east to Portuguese East Africa on the Indian Ocean and several hundred miles from Pretoria, yet closer than Cape Colony. He followed train tracks he discovered and, using Orion as his guide, he hopped onto several trains heading east. Strictly by chance, he found one of the few Englishmen the Boers permitted to remain in their territory. With this Englishman’s help and Winston’s determination, while enduring many hardships and discomforts, and some luck, Winston managed to arrive in Portuguese East Africa ten days after his escape.
Winston’s exploits were followed daily in England where his political career was being revived in his absence. Almost overnight, he became a national hero and was greeted as such upon his return to England.
Immediately upon returning to England, Winston rejoined the military and went again to South Africa, but this time as a soldier. He continued to fight the Boers and assisted in the liberation of many of his fellow prisoners in Pretoria.
Upon his return to civilian life after this war ended in 1902, Churchill was finally elected to Parliament as a representative of Oldham. And, of course, eventually became England’s Prime Minister some 38 years later.