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Posted on Jan 31, 2008 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Churchill and Polo

By Carlo D'Este

Polo matches in colonial India were more than sporting events; they were magnificent spectacles, possessed of pomp worthy of the best of the British Empire. The day began with a formal military parade with every soldier attired in gleaming dress uniforms, followed by a march past the official dignitaries that included teams of elephants pulling cannons, all trained to raise their trunks in unison in salute. The romantic Churchill later lamented the abolishment of this ritual. “Now we have clattering tractors drawing far larger and more destructive guns. Thus civilization advances. But I mourn the elephants and their salutations.”

The laughter and snickering that greeted the underdog visitors at the start of the afternoon polo match quickly subsided when they scored a record number of goals and routed the 19th Hussars. Churchill does not tell us how many goals he scored but suffice to note that he played a noteworthy part in his regiment’s stunning victory. His team might not have been taken so lightly had it been realized that the 4th Hussars had taken the unusual step of purchasing the entire polo stud of the Poona Light Infantry regiment. Thus fortified with a stable of experienced polo ponies, Churchill’s team undertook intense preparations that led to this triumphal day.


A contemporary of Churchill has said that “to get at Churchill’s angle in life,” one had only to see him play polo. The sheer intensity with which he played left an indelible impression. “He rides in the game like heavy cavalry getting into position for the assault. He trots about, keenly watchful, biding his time, a master of tactics and strategy. Abruptly he sees his chance, and he gathers his pony and charges in, neither deft nor graceful, but full of tearing physical energy . . . He bears down opposition by the weight of his dash and strikes the ball. Did I say ‘strikes’? He slashes the ball.”

For men like Churchill, polo was war; it was like a miniature battlefield. Bloodshed and injury to horse and rider was common and the faint of heart need not apply. Indeed, during Churchill’s time polo was perhaps the closest thing to a real battlefield without actually killing one another, though this too sometimes occurred to both rider and animal. Banging, slashing and spills are an integral part of the sport. Polo ponies give their all and sometimes die on the field from heart attacks and broken legs. Polo is the toughest physical training a cavalryman can engage in to keep in top physical shape. Courage and audacity on the polo field translate into savvy and audacity on the battlefield. Many famous soldiers, among them Gen. George S. Patton, forged their skills and tested themselves daily on the polo field. They believed the training and initiative they learned were vital tools for the demands of fighting. Lasting friendships were also cemented and have been known to influence the choice of battlefield generals.

The youthful Churchill was more than a mere player; he was a combatant. Looking ahead, it was clear that he played polo with the same aggressive attitude he would demand his generals exhibit during World War II, a standard that was to produce considerable frustration when most failed to live up to his expectations.

An example of Churchill’s combativeness on the sporting field occurred when he and Hugh Trenchard, the future father of the Royal Air Force, met under rather bad-tempered circumstances on a polo field in India during a match against the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The two young men butted heads after Churchill smacked his opposite number’s neck with his mallet, which, in polo, is a flagrant foul usually calling for a penalty shot. The irate fusilier shouted: “Play to the rules and take that stick out of my eye.” Churchill, who, even at this early age was not accustomed to being challenged without responding in kind, even when he was the initiator, challenged back: “Who the devil were you talking to? If you’ve a complaint, speak to the umpire.” Instead, an indignant Trenchard retaliated by knocking Churchill’s mallet from his hand before galloping away. Although Churchill would later become an avid supporter of Trenchard and the RAF, the incident was typical of the severity with which the sport of polo was taken by the men who played it.

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1 Comment

  1. Well done! I first learned about Churchill reading “Polo the Emperor of Games” . The last account was all that was printed-the author was noting the great players through history. I’ve often wondered how it would be to see a movie of Winston in his polo years!? The nostalgia could be as good as the movie “The Sting” but much more powerful!
    I’ve been playing polo for 5 years now. When Winston played, you could ride at players head on and use the mallet in either hand-very dangerous!

    You may want to send some of this article to Dr. Arnn at Hilsdale college. He’s featuring a course on Winston Churchill. What you want to bet that he’ll not get the polo to leadership connection like you have!