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

Churchill and Polo

By Carlo D'Este

In early 1898, the 4th Hussars participated in the Inter-Regimental polo matches at Meerut, near Dehli. Although his team lost in the second round, Churchill distinguished himself. At the conclusion of the matches, a great dinner was held in the host regiment’s mess. When the interminable toasts and speeches by the winners and losers finally ended, there was a sigh of relief. The assembled officers were ready for the usual (often silly) games that were a part of such festivities. Suddenly a member of the 4th Hussars’ team bounded to his feet. It was Churchill, who announced that the assembled officers would no doubt “like to hear me address you on the subject of polo.” In his memoir of India, Sir Robert Baden-Powell wrote, “there were cries of: ‘No, we don’t! Sit down!’” Churchill, of course, ignored the collective cries and pontificated about the laws of polo to the point of sheer exasperation with “a honeyed flow” of words. “He proceeded to show how it was not merely the finest game in the world but the most noble and soul-inspiring contest in the whole universe, and having made that his point he wound up with a peroration which brought us all cheering to our feet.” Finally, one of the officers arose and said: “Well, that is enough of Winston for this evening,” and they decided to teach him a lesson. Whereupon Churchill was unceremoniously shoved under a large divan, and the two heaviest subalterns sat down on it, trapping him underneath “with orders not to allow him out for the rest of the evening.” A somewhat disheveled Churchill soon managed to break free and defiantly declare: “You can’t keep me down like that.”


During his tour of duty in India, Churchill continued to be accident-prone. In April 1897, he was supervising the marking of targets in the pits of the practice rifle range when a bullet hit the frame of a nearby target and splintered in all directions. One deeply penetrated his left thumb but “to the mercy of God” missed his eyes. His hand was badly wounded by the errant splinter and had to be cleansed and re-bandaged daily; the wound was severe enough that he could barely lift his arm to comb his hair or brush his teeth, but it did not stop him from playing polo with the reins fastened to his wrist. Such a maneuver was daring and highly dangerous, and could easily have resulted in him being dragged by his arm by the pony in the event of a fall – a fairly common occurrence in the rough and tumble sport of polo.

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Churchill’s love of adventure took him to the North-West Frontier wars in 1897, and to Egypt in time to join a cavalry regiment that participated in Kitchener’s slaughter of the Mahdi army at Omdurman in September 1898. Although he had decided to resign from the army, Churchill returned to India in November for duty with the 4th Hussars solely for the purpose of participating in the Regimental Cup competition at Meerut in February 1899.

For a week before the tournament they trained at Jodhpore, where they were royally hosted by the Regent, Sir Pertab Singh. The team practiced with a group of noblemen under the watchful eye of Sir Pertab, who, noted Churchill, “loved polo next to war more than anything in the world, [and] used to stop the game repeatedly and point out faults or possible improvements in our play.” The field where they played consisted of thick red dust that billowed from the horses hooves and became a dangerous place, particularly when “Turbanned figures emerged at full gallop from the dust-cloud, or the ball whistled out of it unexpectedly . . . often one had to play to avoid the dust-cloud.”

The night before departing for Meerut, Churchill fell on the stone stairs of the regent’s home, spraining both ankles and re-injuring his chronic right shoulder, leaving his arm virtually useless. He attempted to take himself out of the match, arguing that his presence on the field of play would be detrimental and they must use a fifth (reserve) player. The team met and decided that despite his inability to hit the ball he was too important not to play. The day of the first of the round robin matches Churchill took the field with his elbow strapped to his side and contributed to a victory by his teamwork and horsemanship both in defending and riding off his opposite number while his team scored goals. His team reached the championship match in which Churchill, despite his handicap, managed to score two goals in a hard-fought contest that was not decided until the final seconds of the last chukka, when the 4th Hussars survived a furious onslaught to emerge as the champions of all India.

It was a remarkable achievement that, it can be argued, would not have occurred had Churchill not participated. Years later he took note of the fact that of the four members of the 1899 championship team, “few of that merry throng were destined to see old age. One was killed in the Transvaal during the Boer War; Churchill’s close friend, Reginald Barnes, was grievously wounded in Natal “and I became a sedentary politician increasingly crippled by my wrenched shoulder.” Churchill continued to play polo until 1927 when he retired from the sport at the age of fifty-two. He called it “the emperor of games.”

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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!