May 19, 2007

Young Churchill

Filed under: Anecdote — duncan @ 7:47 pm

So I’ve just started reading the Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill. Highly recommended: it’s a hoot. I had no idea how adventurous his early life was. It turns out the young Churchill was determined to fight in as many conflicts as he could. He rushed to India as soon as possible, to oppress the populace. But apparently you needed to be independently wealthy to be an even medium-ranking military figure – at least you did if you lived as extravagant a life as Churchill. So he supported his escapades by working as a journalist. Churchill’s mum back in London was a famously promiscuous society beauty. She would pull strings so her son could do more or less what he wanted. As soon as some new conflict erupted, Churchill would abandon whatever post he held, and get the nearest train or ocean liner, often travelling for weeks in appalling conditions. He spent the time in transit writing: letters, articles, non-fiction books, a novel. On his occasional trips back to London he would hand in his latest manuscript, get a bidding war started, then dash off to further adventures. He would blag his way to the front line and, with tremendous physical courage, participate in whatever brutality was being perpetrated.

In 1899 he was in South Africa; the armoured train he was travelling in was derailed by the Boers. Churchill “established a fine morale-boosting ascendancy over the lightly wounded and anxious-to-flee engine-driver, persuading him to resume the controls”. Helping the wounded escape, Churchill remained with the derailed trucks and was captured. (“I thought I could kill this man, and after the treatment I had received I earnestly desired to do so. I put my hand to my belt, the pistol was not there.”) Anxious to be released, Churchill claimed, ridiculously, to be a non-combatant. (“I have consistently adhered to my character as a press representative, taking no part in the defence of the armoured train and being quite unarmed.”) Simultaneously, he lobbied the British military to be sure to count him as a full soldier, in case there was an exchange of prisoners. And while pursuing these avenues, he also cooked up an escape plan. Churchill and two fellow prisoners “would overpower the thirty rather dozy police guards, seize their arms, hurry to the race-course, do the same thing there, release the 2,000 other-rank British prisoners and with this sizeable force take over the whole capital city, incarcerate the Kruger government, and hold out for weeks or months, maybe long enough to bring the war to an end.” (Churchill devotes five pages to the plan in his autobiography). Churchill’s killjoy friends talked him out of the plan. Instead they formulated a more modest scheme for the three of them to escape by climbing over the fence. But this was postponed; the time was not ripe. Churchill was not a patient man. He abandoned his fellow plotters, earning their undying bitterness, and escaped on his own. Speaking neither Afrikaans nor Kaffir, he managed to travel the several hundred miles to Lourenco Marques. “He wore a brown suit and a slouch hat, and hoped that if he walked with confidence he would be unchallenged. His audacity paid.” Hiding out in a goods-train, Churchill made it to “a colliery with substantial outbuildings.” Needing food and shelter, he decided to ask for help. This was extraordinarily risky. “He knocked at a door… The man who sleepily answered was an English mine manager named John Howard.” Howard took him in, fed him, supplied him with “whisky and cigars”, then hid him down a mine shaft, “where he remained, accompanied by a troop of rats but well provendered, for several days until the excitement… appeared to be abating.” Then Howard hid him in another train, which carried him to safety. “He… immediately found himself a figure of world fame.”

And these are just the highlights. He’s only just turned 26! Surely nothing else this dramatic can happen in his life. (What’s he famous for, this ‘Churchill’, anyway?)


  1. When I was a nipper, I had a lovely big hardback book, with a thrillingly garish cover illustration, called “Adventure Stories For Boys” (just look at the contents!) One of these adventure stories was nothing less than Churchill’s account of that very escape.

    It took me a while to connect the Churchill who wrote that to the chubby Prime Minister dude. I do, however, recall forming the opinion that the author of this piece was either the most stupendous Indiana Jones figure ever to have actually existed, or a fantasist and bullshitter of the highest order…

    Comment by Tom — May 20, 2007 @ 3:34 pm

  2. According to Jenkins it’s at least largely true. Churchill may have… embroidered things a little. But various other protagonists confirm the gist of his account (even the ones who nursed their grievances to the grave). This doesn’t, of course, undermine Churchill’s cast-iron credentials as a fantasist and bullshitter.

    Also, nice link. The chapter I most want to read is ‘Assignment with an octopus’.

    Comment by praxisblog — May 20, 2007 @ 5:35 pm

  3. I can confirm that Assignment With An Octopus is an awesome bit of writing, and oddly fetishistic (as I recall it) in a tentacle-focused sort of way.

    Anyhow, we’ll know how good my memory of formative Boy Adventure cultural reference points is soon enough, because I’m totally ordering this from one of the many second hand book dealers offering it cheaply on Amazon. Adventure, here we come…

    Comment by Tom — May 20, 2007 @ 8:15 pm

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