Churchill and the Afghans

Review: Churchill’s First War by Con Coughlin

• March 15, 2014 5:00 am


On the second of July, 1897, the Duchess of Devonshire threw a fancy dress ball at her Piccadilly house in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The costumed elite in attendance would control Britain—and, indeed, much of the globe—for just a few decades longer. Among them was Jennie Churchill, dressed as a Byzantine courtesan-turned-empress, still attractive in her early forties and a recent widow. Her late husband, Lord Randolph Churchill, had briefly been Chancellor of the Exchequer before falling victim first to political machinations and, shortly thereafter, to syphilis. Jennie was widely rumored to be rotating through a repertory company of lovers numbering in the low three-figures: impressive even by our own standards.

Male children born in England that summer would, seventeen years later, begin dying by the thousands in France, but Jennie’s sons—Jack and Winston—were already grown and with her at the ball. Winston, the man who would preside over the loss of the British Empire, but also over the salvation of Britain itself, was twenty-two years old, stood only five foot, six inches tall, and had a thirty-one inch chest. He was home on leave from his cavalry regiment in Bangalore. History does not appear to have recorded his costume.

Winston, we may learn in Con Coughlin’s enjoyable Churchill’s First War, liked to make good use of his leave. When only 20 years old, fresh from Sandhurst and new to his regiment, Winston had taken the time to travel to Cuba and cover the rebellion against the Spanish there for the Daily Graphic, a sort of Victorian BuzzFeed. He had first come under fire there on his 21st birthday, and provided good copy at a low rate to his editor. Editors were in favor of having young, aristocratic Queen’s officers freelance for them. Such young men had access to interesting places and didn’t have to be paid very much.

Other military officers were less approving, and Coughlin documents how Winston was well on his way to securing a reputation for pomposity and unseemly self-promotion. According to a contemporaneous report, he was given to informing other young officers (again, while in his early twenties) that he "had no intention of serving indefinitely in the army and that he proposed eventually to go into Parliament and added that one day he would be Prime Minister." It was said of him that he "could not pass a mirror without inspecting himself, or practicing some speech or another." He insisted, sometimes unsuccessfully, that his submissions to the newspapers appear signed—unsigned features were a common practice at the time—for as he wrote to his mother, "It may help me politically to come before the public in this way." He once wrote his mother that, while he was willing to risk his life on the battlefield, "Still I would like to come back and wear my medals at some big dinner or some other function."

Churchill was too self-aware and sensitive to others’ opinions of him to miss the gathering tide of negative opinion, and he was aware that resisting it was going to require substantial accomplishments on his own part, preferably while at war.

"I know myself pretty well and am not blind to the tawdry and dismal side of my character, but if there is one situation in which I do not feel ashamed of myself it is in the field," he noted in a letter to his mother. Thus when news broke shortly after the Jubilee Ball that Pashtun tribes had cut the telegraph wires on the Indian-Afghan frontier and besieged the forts at Chakdara and Malakand, Churchill hastily boarded a ship back to India and made his way to the battlefield, still on leave, this time with a commission to write for the Daily Telegraph.

Gore Vidal, in a lucid moment, once suggested that Abraham Lincoln ought to be considered more than a great statesman: he was, just as critically, an "essential American writer." Something similar could be said of Churchill; one of the great pleasures of Coughlin’s book is its reminder of Winston’s skills as a writer, long before a team of research assistants and a Nobel Prize (in Literature, most forget) came his way. Consider this, describing a funeral for those killed in an action on 16 September, 1897, at Shahi-Tang in the Mohmand Valley:

There were no Union Jacks to cover the bodies, nor were volleys fired over the graves, lest the wounded should be disturbed … looking at these shapeless forms, coffined in a regulation blanket, the price of race, the pomp of empire, the glory of war appeared as the faint insubstantial fabric of a dream, and I could not help realizing with Burke: "What shadows we are and what shadows we pursue."

Here you have young Lieutenant Churchill distilled: a little bit pompous, blessed with an ear for euphony and an instinct for the apt metaphor, in love with a racialist vision of Empire and with his own capacity for singing its songs. Both his prose and his politics seem to be in imitation—perhaps conscious—of Kipling. It must also be said, for a twenty-two year old writer on his second freelance assignment, filing words like the above in a timely fashion, and in conditions for which the word ‘austere’ can hardly do justice: this is the Real Thing.

Not coffined in one of those blankets was a young comrade of Churchill’s named Victor Hughes. Churchill had watched him chopped to death by a Pashtun tribesman at Shahi-Tang:

I forgot everything else at this moment except a desire to kill this man. I wore my long cavalry sword well-sharpened. After all, I had won the Public Schools fencing medal. I resolved on personal combat a l’arme blanche. The savage saw me coming. I was not more than twenty yards away. He picked up a big stone and hurled it at me with his left hand, and then awaited me, brandishing his sword. There were others waiting not far behind him. I changed my mind about the cold steel. I pulled out my revolver, took, as I thought, most careful aim, and fired. No result. I fired again. Whether I hit him or not, I cannot tell. At any rate he ran back two or three yards and plumped down behind a rock. The fusillade was continuous. I looked around. I was alone with the enemy. Not a friend was to be seen. I ran as fast as I could. There were bullets everywhere.

Moving past the obvious point that journalists didn’t go in much for the pretense of objectivity in those days, we can observe in this account both Churchill’s extraordinary desire for self-promotion and his desire to become a man worth promoting. Moreover, the passage has an honest ring to it, not only because of verification of Winston’s courage on the battlefield from other sources, but also because of his openness here regarding the critical point: He failed to recover Hughes’ body—which was never recovered, in fact—and he failed to do so because he was alone, he was under heavy fire, and he did not want to die.

Totally settled on the necessity and justice of the Empire, Churchill’s opinions about the Frontier itself could vary. Arriving in early September, Churchill has missed the summer uprising but come just in time to join a punitive expedition led by the deathlessly named Brigadier Sir Bindon Blood. Blood’s task was to march on the home territories of the tribes that had rebelled in the summer and compel them to submission. Should a tribe continue to resist, their villages would be burned; sometimes the villages were just burned on spec, apparently on the assumption that they might yet resist at some later point.

Such actions would land today’s officers in prison. At times, Churchill was all for it. After describing in the Telegraph how the tribesmen had disinterred the bodies of Muslims killed fighting alongside the British, he wrote that "I find it impossible to come to any other conclusion than that, in proportion as these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated."

Other moments found him more sanguine, confident that in the long run the rule of law—British law—would take root among the hill Pashtuns who, from their own point of view, simply had the bad luck of being stuck between the British and the Russians. On the specific policy matter of whether or not annexation of Afghan territory was preferable to leaving the tribes to their own devices and intervening only when necessary, by the time he revised his dispatches into what became his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Churchill favored the more aggressive policy, but pursued gradually. Under Curzon, British India ultimately committed to the more restrained course.

Coughlin takes great pains to point out the parallels between Churchill’s time and our own—indeed, phrases like "comparisons can certainly be drawn" get as good a workout in these pages as did Churchill’s ponies back on the polo fields in Bangalore. For the most part the exercise is useful, though Coughlin confusingly suggests that, in its combination of military action and civil outreach, the British Malakand campaign resembled the American commitment to counterinsurgency in the later years of the most recent Afghan war.

If so, this is true only in the most superficial way: that is, that NATO efforts also had both a military and a civil component. But—as Coughlin quotes General Petraeus noting—our military campaigns were not nearly as ruthless as those conducted by the British. As regards the other half of the effort, our civil outreach seemed committed to a belief that, deep down, the Pashtun tribes were misunderstood liberals desperately awaiting freedom from their own oppression. The British approach was simultaneously more brutal and, insofar as the British never confused Afghan interests with their own nor, indeed, the Afghans for themselves, more respectful.

The Story of the Malakand Field Force was favorably received in London, though senior Army officers did not take very kindly to having their strategic wisdom reviewed in the press by a lieutenant. The charge of self-promotion never left Churchill alone, throughout his occasional triumphs and many disasters, even or especially in the 1930s when he seemed to suggest, before it was fashionable, that an empire retained at the cost of Hitlerism was not worth retaining at all. That this position staked out favorable populist ground for him as the decade advanced gave new energy to the criticism.

Cary Grant once remarked on his transformation from Archibald Leach to the archetype of cool that, "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me." There is something of the young Churchill in that, though he seems disarmingly committed to earning honest grounds for the reputation he was so desperate to build. One strand that runs throughout Churchill’s First War—and it is not clear to me if Coughlin realizes how funny it is—is the tale of Churchill’s rivalry with the twenty-six year old Viscount Fincastle. Churchill takes leave to cover the Frontier campaign; so does Fincastle. Churchill wants to write for the Times; Fincastle gets the commission instead, leaving Winston with the Telegraph. Churchill badly wants a medal; Fincastle gets the Victoria Cross (our Medal of Honor). Churchill has to settle for a Mention in the Dispatches (roughly, our Bronze Star).

Both men write books about the ’97 campaign; both men go into politics. Of course Churchill ends up Churchill and Fincastle ends up the government whip in the House of Lords. One can conclude that, for better or for worse, Winston’s ambition simply went the distance, but it is interesting to note that, then and now, it is widely acknowledged that the definitive edge Churchill had over his rival was his writing: Fincastle’s Frontier book just wasn’t nearly as good. Perhaps the twenty-two year old Winston already suspected that it was only in the ephemeral, insubstantial world of rhetoric, of words on the air and ink on the page, that he would ever, definitively and incontrovertibly, be the Real Thing.

Published under: Book reviews