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Posted on Oct 25, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Churchill’s Early Escapades as a Soldier

By Carlo D'Este

By the spring of 1900 Churchill’s brushes with death had only just begun. During the British campaign in the Orange Free State, Churchill accompanied a brigade of the Imperial Yeomanry commanded by his friend and former regimental commander, Brigadier John Brabazon. In a spur of the moment decision, he elected to accompany a fifty-man mounted force of the Montmorency Scouts (a native unit of volunteers) that was sent to seize a nearby key kopje (hill) before a force of some two hundred like-minded Boers could do the same. When the scout commander, Maj. Angus McNeill, a former schoolmate declared, “Come with us, we’ll give you a show now – first-class,” Churchill promptly accepted for reasons he later cited as “in the interests of [his newspaper] the Morning Post,” and galloped off in a mad-dash to beat the Boers. When they arrived on the kopje McNeill’s scouts encountered a dozen “grim, hairy and terrible” looking Boers that had arrived first and now occupied the protective rocks at the crest and were aiming their rifles at the exposed scouts. Suddenly under fire, Maj. McNeill ordered a hasty retreat but as Churchill attempted to spring onto his horse the saddle loosened and slipped under the animal’s belly and it galloped off in terror. “Most of the scouts were already two hundred yards off. I was alone, dismounted, within the closest range, and a mile at least from cover of any kind. Churchill “ran for my life on foot from the Boer marksmen,” all the while thinking to himself, “here at last I take it.”

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Once again Lady Luck prevailed and he was saved from death or certain capture by the sudden appearance of one of the scouts, “a tall man, with skull and crossbones, on a pale horse. Death in Revelations, but life to me,” he later wrote. Churchill yelled at him to “give me a stirrup” and the scout stopped while “I ran up to him, did not bungle the business of mounting, and in a moment found myself behind him on the saddle,” hanging on for dear life. As “the fierce crackle of musketry” whipped bullets wildly around them, the two men rode for their lives out of harm’s way, but not before the gallant horse was hit by a dum-dum bullet (a lead projectile deliberately mutilated to make it expand when it struck a target, causing maximum damage). Once out of range of the Boer guns Churchill thought to himself that, “I had thrown double sixes again.” Churchill’s savior, Trooper Clement Roberts, was distraught: “My poor horse, oh, my poor horse; shot with an explosive bullet. The devils! But their hour will come.” Churchill frivolously rejoined, “Never mind, you’ve saved my life,” to which Trooper Roberts retorted, “but it’s the horse I’m thinking about.” Churchill later described this incident as “a most exciting adventure.” To his mother, he was more candid: “I had another disagreeable adventure near Dewetsdorp: indeed I do not think I have ever been so near destruction.”

Churchill thought Roberts should have received the Victoria Cross for his bravery, and though it is not known if he was ever recommended for the coveted Victoria Cross, Roberts did receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) in 1907, partly due to the intervention of Churchill, then the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. Churchill also sent Roberts a token £10 reward. At the time the DCM was the highest decoration for bravery an enlisted man could receive other than the Victoria Cross. It is also the rough equivalent of the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest decoration for bravery awarded by the United States.

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Churchill’s African adventure ended soon afterward, but not before one more adventurous, near-death incident, at Diamond Hill, one of the anchors of the Boer defenses east of Pretoria. It was not in Churchill’s nature to merely report a battle when he could also participate in it. The Boers held the high ground and to capture Diamond Hill, Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton’s troops would have to advance upslope under heavy fire, a scenario that had led to many earlier catastrophic losses. While a furious battle ensued, Hamilton recorded that: “Winston who had been attached to my column . . . somehow managed to give me the slip and climb this mountain, most of it being dead ground to the Boers lining the crest-line as they had to keep their heads down owing to our heavy gunfire. He climbed this mountain as our scouts were trained to climb on the Indian frontier and ensconced himself in a niche not much more than a pistol shot directly below the Boer commandos . . . Had even half a dozen of the Burghers run twenty yards over the brow they could have knocked him off his perch with a volley of stones. Thus, it was from his lofty perch Winston had the nerve to signal me . . . with his handkerchief on a stick, that if I could only manage to gallop up at the head of my mounted infantry we ought to be able to rush this summit,” which Hamilton proceeded to do and in the process won the battle of Diamond Hill, thus insuring the Boers would be unable to mount an offensive to recapture Pretoria. Hamilton called it the turning point of the war and noted, “Winston gave the embattled hosts at Diamond Hill an exhibition of conspicuous gallantry (the phrase often used in recommendations for the V.C.) for which he has never received full credit.” Churchill’s heroics at Diamond Hill remained unknown until Hamilton published his account in 1944. Churchill himself failed to even mention his own action, either in his memoir, My Early Life, or his newspaper dispatch describing the battle. Churchill’s heroics notwithstanding, of equal importance was “how he had grasped the whole layout of the battlefield” and acted accordingly. Yet why he chose to undertake such a dangerous venture can only be explained by his penchant to undertake acts that others would never dare. The recognition Churchill desperately wanted from the Boer War was the coveted Victoria Cross. Although Ian Hamilton thought he deserved the medal for his action at Diamond Hill, his recommendation was disapproved on the grounds that Churchill was a war correspondent and therefore ineligible.

After the battle for Diamond Hill Churchill decided there was little left for him to accomplish in Africa; the Boer War was entering a new guerrilla phase and might soon be over, and he was anxious to exploit his new found fame in a bid for a seat in Parliament. It was time to go home to England. Yet the story did not quite end there. Churchill was en route to Cape Town aboard a large troop train when it suddenly halted. The line ahead had been methodically destroyed and a bridge over a deep gorge blown up. A Boer force had ambushed an earlier train, cut the tracks, and a fierce battle was underway. As Churchill stepped from the train, “at the same moment there arrived almost at our feet a shell from a small Boer gun. It burst with a startling bang, throwing up clods from the embankment. Confusion reigned – except for Churchill who, from his earlier experience understood the train needed to get away from the threat – without delay. “I therefore ran along the railway line to the engine, climbed into the cab, and ordered the engine-driver to blow his whistle to make the men re-entrain, and steam back instantly to [nearby] Kopjes Station. He obeyed,” as most men did when Winston Churchill issued an order. As the train steamed backwards Churchill took one last opportunity to wage his own personal war by taking his Mauser pistol, fitting it with a wooden stock and shooting six or so rounds at a group of Boers near a burning bridge ahead. As far as Churchill was concerned he (quite wrongly) believed he had just experienced the last shots he would ever see fired in anger at him. Several days later he boarded the SS Dunnotar Castle at Cape Town for the return journey to England, where he arrived on July 20, 1900, his African adventure at an end — but not his experience of war or his brushes with death.


© Copyright pending. Although it is too early to establish a precise date, interested readers should look for the publication of Warlord circa the summer of 2008 by HarperCollins in the USA & Canada, and Penguin in the UK. Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and other Internet sources will always have advance information.

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