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Posted on Sep 26, 2007 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Winston Churchill’s Great Escapade

By Carlo D'Este

While the naval gun went into action and the infantry crouched inside the railcars began returning fire, the train’s engineer, Charles Wagner, put on a burst of speed to outrun the ambush – which was precisely what the Boers wanted him to do. As the train steamed at full speed around the curve it rammed into a pile of stones that had been wrestled onto the track since its earlier passage. The last car carrying the breakdown crew (now the lead car) crashed into the pile. The impact immediately derailed several cars of the train, one of which carried the Durban Light Infantry. This car overturned on its side, violently flinging its occupants to the ground.

The naval gun was quickly hit and disabled as a hail of fire descended upon the train and its shocked passengers. In all, the first three cars of the train were either derailed completely or on their sides, blocking the track. Churchill described the attack as “pitiless, continuous, and distracting.” Wagner emerged from the engine cab dazed, slightly wounded from a cut on his head and angry that he, a civilian, was suddenly in the midst of a raging battle. He intended to flee but for Churchill’s power of persuasion that if he stayed, “he would be mentioned for distinguished gallantry in action.” Wagner apparently accepted Churchill’s absurd assurance that, “No man is hit twice on the same day.”

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The only way out of a well-laid ambush is to instantly return fire and attempt to get clear of the kill zone by any means. Churchill ran to the rear of the train to find Haldane who, by his own admission was dazed and briefly confused by the crash, and for a brief time appeared unsure of what to do. Happy to have Churchill’s assistance, the two men quickly agreed the only way out of the Boer ambush was to somehow clear the tracks, then for the locomotive to use the tender car as a battering ram to shove the derailed cars out of the way and dash to Frere. Their hastily contrived plan was for the infantry inside the armored railcars to pin down the Boers with rifle fire while the track was being cleared.

Haldane would later suggest that he not only deputized Churchill but that his friend took complete charge of events. True leaders act in a time of crisis and never for an instant did it occur to Churchill that he was a mere civilian with no authority whatsoever. To the contrary, it was always in his nature to be in control of his life and the events surrounding it, and at this moment of grave danger he unhesitatingly made it his own, using persuasion and the power of his personality. He began to organize the perilous task by asking for twenty volunteers from the Durban Light Infantry. Only nine men volunteered for what now became Churchill’s personal war. Where others would be rightfully terrified, he relished the chance to shine, to be heroic, to be in his element doing the unthinkable. Acting calm and very much in control, he has been described by one of the volunteers, a captain of the Durbans, as “a very brave man but a damned fool.”

It was an apt description of young Winston Churchill who, riveted by the exhilaration and challenge of a perilous situation, seemed oblivious to the danger he faced. And face it he did – with relish. For Churchill the ambush was a heady brew indeed. “I have had, in the last four years, the advantage, if it can be an advantage, of many strange and varied experiences, from which the student of realities might draw profit and instruction. But nothing was so thrilling as this: to wait and struggle among these clanging, rending iron boxes, with the repeated explosion of the shells and the artillery, the noise of the projectiles striking the cars, the hiss as they passed in the air, the grunting and puffing of the engine – poor tortured thing . . . the realization of powerlessness, and the alternations of hope and despair – all this for seventy minutes by the clock with only four inches of twisted iron work to make the difference between danger, captivity, and shame on the one hand – safety, freedom, and triumph on the other.”

From the dramatic moments of the next hours would come numerous tales of Churchill’s actions that day, many of them of dubious authenticity; and while the exact details may never quite be known, what is clear is that during this period of extreme danger, he performed heroically. When the alarm was raised in Estcourt, war correspondents J.B. Atkins and Leo Amery began riding their horses toward Frere, saw for themselves the engine and its tender returning to Estcourt, and began encountering and interviewing survivors of the ambush from the Durbans. “We heard how Churchill had walked round and round the wreckage while the bullets were spitting against the iron walls, and had called for volunteers to free the engine; how he had said, ‘Keep cool, men!’ and ‘This will be interesting for my paper!’” What is certain is that several of those present that morning attested to Churchill’s bravery, including a private of the Durbans who later wrote that: “Churchill is a splendid fellow. He walked about in it all as coolly as if nothing was going on & called for volunteers to give him a hand . . . His presence and way of going on were as much good as fifty men would have been.” Similar words of praise came from the crew of the train for his “coolness and pluck.”

His actions were much clearer. Churchill and his band of intrepid volunteers spent about seventy minutes (an eternity of time in war) under relentless, frightening but largely (and thankfully) ineffective fire from above. He would later pen a lengthy account of his action that day to the Prince of Wales, describing how “the pounding we had and what an astonishing din the great projectiles exploding and crashing among the iron trucks made. My only wonder is that our losses were not greater than what they were.”

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