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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

Eventually Churchill’s small volunteer force succeeded in clearing the track of the debris, so that the locomotive just managed to push a derailed car aside and slide past the crash site. The cars behind the engine came loose and only the engine and its tender were left. Standing in the kill zone motionless like a stranded whale, the locomotive nevertheless somehow managed to remain unscathed by artillery fire, thanks to the abysmal aim of the Boer gunners. The task of clearing the tracks completed, Churchill turned next to supervising the loading of some forty wounded aboard the engine, “the greater part of whom,” he later wrote, were packed like sardines inside the tight confines cab of the locomotive, many of them seriously hurt, with blood everywhere. As the train began accelerating, its firebox aflame and water spewing from holes made by Boer rounds, Haldane and those still able bodied enough ran alongside, using the train as cover from the fire above, their objective a group of houses ahead that offered a place of defense. However, the Boers refused to cooperate and when the fire became too heavy, engineer Wagner – as the saying goes – “put the pedal to the metal” in order to save the wounded. The train shot forward at a speed too fast for Haldane’s men to keep pace with and it soon left them behind and obliged to fend for themselves. The infantry became scattered and soon Boer horseman rode among them, taking prisoners, while others died or were wounded attempting to escape. The situation was chaotic. Concerned for their safety and determined to help organize a last stand at the houses, Churchill dropped off the locomotive into a shallow cutting alongside the track. What he did not know until it was too late was that the men he was determined to save had already been captured. His last words to Wagner were, “I can’t leave those poor beggars to their fate.”

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Instead of encountering friendly troops he found himself alone. As he moved toward the exit from the cutting, Churchill saw what he thought were two of the train’s civilians some one hundred yards ahead. “’Platelayers,’ I said to myself, and then, with a surge of realisation, ‘Boers.’” This was no time for heroics. One man with a pistol against two Boer marksmen with rifles was an uneven match, and Churchill turned and ran in the other direction, intending to escape from “that damnable corridor.” He never made it. A Boer horseman drew near and waved at him to halt. For a brief moment he debated attempting to fire on the man but in his haste Churchill had left his Mauser pistol in the cab of the locomotive and was unarmed – which avoided any temptation on his part that more than likely would have cost him his life. “There was a wire fence between me and the horseman. Should I continue to fly? The idea of another shot at such a close range decided me. Death stood before me, grim sudden Death . . . So I held up my hand.” Discretion triumphed over what would have been improvident valor. Churchill quietly surrendered. “Then I was herded with the other prisoners in a miserable group, and about the same time I noticed that my hand was bleeding, and it began to pour with rain.”

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Churchill and the other British soldiers captured by the Boers on November 15, 1899 underwent a long, arduous forced march of many miles through muddy bogs that eventually ended in captivity in the Boer capital of Pretoria. A short time later Churchill escaped from the officers’ POW compound in Pretoria where he was confined. Already hailed for his exploits in saving the armored train, his escape from Pretoria would further enhance his reputation for heroics during the Boer War.

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