Blood, Sweat, and Tears in South Africa

Review: Candice Millard, 'Hero of the Empire'

British prisoners of the Second Boer War, with a defiant Winston Churchill at right / Imperial War Museum

Hero of the Empire tells the story of Winston Churchill during the Second Boer War in South Africa. We begin with the author’s introduction to Churchill’s service as a British army officer fighting tribal warriors in the North-West Frontier of British India. Churchill, then in his early 20s, was determined to earn a reputation for heroism and acted courageously in that pursuit. He was nearly killed on a number of occasions, but felt that fate was on his side. "I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending," he wrote after one hairy battle. Churchill would eventually be vindicated in that belief, but his exploits in British India were insufficient to vaunt him to public attention. He needed to find another fray to fight in.

After being defeated in an 1899 British parliamentary election, Churchill decided on a different route to purpose and power. When the Second Boer War began in October 1899, Churchill sensed it was his moment to strike. Relying on connections and a just reputation for fine writing, Churchill accepted a highly paid assignment as a war correspondent. After purchasing a vast array of spirits and wines for his travels, Churchill joined a ship carrying the British army’s campaign commander and steamed for South Africa. One of the strengths of Hero of the Empire is that it provides historical context and amazing anecdotes. For an example of the latter, during his voyage to Africa we learn that Churchill regularly—and aggressively—criticized the plans of the British generals onboard.

Churchill set out for the front immediately after stepping ashore in South Africa. Gambling against the skill and terrain knowledge of the Boer forces, Churchill’s luck seemingly ran out when they ambushed the British train carrying him. Struggling to free one carriage of the train from the ambush, Churchill attempted escape but was captured and taken prisoner. He was treated well in captivity because the Boers viewed him as a valuable political bargaining chip (Churchill’s father was a former, senior British government minister). Yet prison was something Churchill could not accept. It denied him the autonomy and self-mastery that he valued most. As Millard explains, "He was no longer master of his fate, in command of his own future. Robbed of his ability to make even the most basic decisions.’’ Escape from his Pretoria prison, in this sense, was not simply a wartime duty but a need. As he planned his escape, Churchill concocted "an elaborate multistep strategy … as bold as it was complicated,’’ or what he himself called "a scheme of desperate and magnificent audacity.’’ However, overruled by the British officers at his prison, it was a simple plan that carried the day. In a stroke of fortune, Churchill was the only participant out of three who was able to get away. So it was that he, alone, set out on a journey hundreds of miles east to the safety of Portuguese East Africa.

Waltzing audaciously through Pretoria on his first night of escape—so as to appear as one of the town’s gentlemen—Churchill then entered the countryside. Fortune smiling on him once again, Churchill stumbled across the rural home of a very rare pro-British farmer, John Howard. Supported by Howard and others allied with him, Churchill hid day and night in a rat-infested cave, supplied with a supply of his staple crop, tobacco.

In concert with his confederates, Churchill eventually smuggled himself in a bundle of wool being transported via rail to the border of Portuguese East Africa. After close calls with Boer inspectors at various checkpoints, Churchill crossed the border and demanded sanctuary from the British consulate. But his story did not end there. Desiring revenge against the Boers, Churchill sought and received another commission in the British army. He returned home to England only after an active period of service, which he carried out—very much against the rules—in tandem with his war reporting.

Barely a year after his first political defeat, Churchill won election to the House of Commons, in large part because his Africa victory was the talk of England. His political career and path to Downing Street had begun. Things were less pleasant for those left behind in South Africa. As the author notes, "By the end of the war, more than twenty-six thousand Boer civilians would die in British concentration camps, twenty-two thousand of whom were children. Those statistics, however, do not even take into account the roughly twenty thousand Africans who, having been forced to fight in a war that was not their own, subsequently died in separate black concentration camps.’’

Hero of the Empire is an enjoyable and informative read. While Millard relies too heavily on Churchill’s self-serving writings as primary source material, her book provides insight into the formative years of one of history’s greatest leaders. This is a story well suited to the present day because it speaks to something timeless: the utility of courage.