Winston Churchill wasn’t born with a Cuban cigar in his mouth or a glass of Scotch whisky in his left hand, but most of the rest of the defining characteristics of this larger-than-life world leader seem to have been fixed in his DNA.
Always totally self-assured and never at a loss for words, already as a 20-year-old junior officer, Churchill was certain he knew more about the armies of Great Britain than Queen Victoria’s countless generals. The man destined to inspire a nation in its finest hour more than four decades later already was a zealous believer in the British Empire and in his own indubitable ability to lead it.
Never one to back away from danger, young cavalry lieutenant Churchill wielded his family’s considerable political and social influence not to keep himself out of harm’s way, as was the custom of the wealthy, but to have himself thrust into the middle of Britain’s never-ending colonial wars.
By his own account, he escaped death by mortar, rifle or bayonet by mere inches more times than Captain Marvel. Yet he was steadfast in his contention that the gods would not “create such a potent being for so prosaic an ending.”
This is the cocky young aristocratic descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, the soldier-journalist of Simon Read’s latest history thriller, “Winston Churchill Reporting,” the saga of Churchill’s five years as war correspondent for various and sundry London publications.
It is no exaggeration that Churchill faced death up close. He walked and rode the horrific killing fields of four wars in five years in his strange dual roles as an armed cavalry officer praised by infantrymen for his courage and leadership, and as a war correspondent criticized by senior officers as a mere scribe.
He could have played out his military career with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars in the comfort and style of West London. In fact, several commanding officers would have been more comfortable had Lord Randolph’s kid stayed at home.
It was on his father’s reputation and his mother Lady Randolph’s incessant pestering of high-placed friends that the raw 20-year-old was allowed to travel to Cuba as a British observer of the insurgent uprising against Spain. It was here that he first tasted both death and what would become his trademark – Cuban cigars.
This was followed in quick succession by assignments to India’s northwest frontier to fight the fierce ancestors of today’s Taliban, to the Sudan where the empire was quelling a Muslim uprising, and finally to South Africa and the Second Boer War. This deadly struggle between nearly 100,000 troops of the United Kingdom and the rebel Dutch settlers of a gold-rich portion of South Africa is where young Churchill’s reputation was made.
It is a fact Churchill was captured and imprisoned by the Boer rebels, and that he engineered a daring escape through enemy lines back to British held territory. His capture and escape, scaling walls, hiding in a coal car, being aided by loyalist miners, and finally spirited away between bales of cotton, is what transformed this future leader into a celebrity back in London.
But it is curious that while held in prison the young correspondent was allowed to file reports which somehow made their way back to his newspaper. It was a different time. And just as curious that much of what we know about his close encounters with death, his capture and his harrowing escape were written by Churchill himself.
By 20th century American journalistic standards of objectivity and veracity, Churchill’s reporting wouldn’t even cut it as a network anchorman. (On second thought, his blunderbuss and exaggeration might fit right in with today’s 24/7 cable network analysts, hired by entertainment moguls to boost sagging ratings at the expense of the American political system.)
In any event, Churchill’s copy from the war zone electrified London and author Read makes the most of it to spin an exciting tale. Read also makes good use of Winston’s letters to his mother, his aunts, his cousins and his school chums. One wonders when the lieutenant found time for war.
This is a gripping story, easy to read in the style of a mystery thriller. It should not be confused with serious history. Read, a self-described journalist and native of London who currently lives in California, has written more than a half dozen books which are loosely defined as “nonfiction narrative” or “faction.”
The current book is thoroughly researched and fully annotated with endnotes. But Read slips into the historically murky waters of what his hero dreams, thinks and feels, the Neverland of serious historians.
If you read young Churchill’s reporting closely, you come away with a clear picture of how a privileged Londoner at the turn of the 20th century, living in the greatest superpower since the Roman Empire, viewed the rest of the world.
The Egyptians along the Nile were lazy. The Sudanese ate food unfit for human consumption while British officers had tablecloths set by servants on their battlefield tables. The Pashtuns of Afghanistan were barbaric and “pernicious vermin” who lived in “a land of fanatics [where] common sense does not exist.” It was here with fellow officers that he acquired his taste for scotch whiskey. There was no champagne.
And in Cuba, he writes: “The most remarkable fact seems to be that the armies [Spanish and insurgents, not Brits] shoot at each other for hours and no one will get hit.” He estimates “it took 2000 bullets to miss each individual combatant.” Churchill was witty even at 20.
At a stopover in America, he complained the food was “barely edible” and the populace rambunctious and uncouth, even though his trip from New York to Key West would be by private railroad car. A cousin of his, it turns out, had just married a Vanderbilt.
One wag at the time wrote in a competing journal that Churchill “has turned war correspondence into a gigantic advertisement of his modest personality.” He would ride the celebrity status he gained in South Africa to his first seat in Parliament.
Winston Churchill truly was a man of two ages. As a young officer, he was a man of the glitter of Victorian London, the impregnable financial and cultural center of the universe. Constant war in the far-flung corners of the empire was merely the cost of maintaining the flow of unrivaled riches into the capital. Much later as an elder statesman, he trudged the burned out skeleton of his beloved city, still proud, still victorious, but now nearly bankrupt, the empire remaining in name only.
If there ever is a lesson in history, it is in that contrast: All the spoils and all the sorrows of world leadership as seen in a single man’s lifetime. Churchill’s two Londons might comprise the first chapter of History 101 on the inevitable decline of great nations.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.
Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent
By Simon Read
Da Capo Press
309 pages, $26.99