Story Stream
recent articles

At some point in the late 1990s a friend sent me a copy of William Manchester’s The Last Lion. A biography of Winston Churchill, it read like a fiction novel so remarkable was the man. Detail after detail of extraordinary wit, bravery, and memory. The last part sounds strange, or out of place, but this real person whose actual life read like a Steven Spielberg film could commit to verbatim memory pages and pages of writing by the greats.

Manchester’s book was unputdownable, I quickly purchased Part II of The Last Lion not long after beginning Part I, and it too was an amazing read. Its subtitle was Alone, and it chronicled Churchill’s time in the proverbial political wilderness. As some may or may not know, Churchill’s deeply held view that Adolf Hitler represented a threat of the existential kind was in no way the consensus in the 1930s. Hopefully this explains the subtitle. The main thing is that both books were spectacular reads. I came away from them eager to read more about Churchill, and have.

There’s a reason for this bit of throat-clearing ahead of writing about Candice Millard’s excellent, and physically beautiful 2016 book Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill. Churchill for so long fascinated me, and still does. Anyone who knows me is bored at this point with my repetitive quips about how much Churchill would enjoy social media were he alive. A lover of words, and conversation, and verbal jousting, and attention, imagine the quality of his replies to his critics on Twitter. Churchill was a great man, and most would agree an essential man. For the longest time I bought into, and repeated the wildly held view within the right-of-center commentariat that Churchill would be on any Mt. Rushmore of the 20th century’s foremost heroes. But… And there’s always a but.

The heroic side I don’t believe as deeply anymore. I say this sheepishly. Ironically, Millard’s book (see the title again: Hero of the Empire) is a major reason for my changed beliefs. Where it perhaps becomes stranger is that had I read Hero of the Empire in 2003 versus 2023, I’d likely have concluded that Millard’s title was perfectly apt. What’s changed is me. If Edmund Wilson’s observation that no one reads the same book is true, and it is, it’s similarly true that no individual reads the same book at different times in life. In my case, reading about Churchill through Millard’s skillful eyes in 2023 elicits a very different reaction to Churchill. More on this in a bit.

For now, it’s important to stress what an interesting, and at times gripping read that Hero of the Empire is. Millard’s history reminds readers yet again of how amazing Churchill was. Movie amazing.

Consider that by the age of 25, Churchill “had already taken part in four wars on three different continents, and had come close to death in each one.” Stop and think about that. In particular, think about it with 25-year olds you know today top of mind. This is said free of the disdain for “these kids today” that informs so much overdone commentary. Rest assured that “these kids today” will eventually be part of the richest generation in the history of the richest nation in the history of the world, but for now they’re just kids. Importantly, they can be kids. Abundant prosperity elongates youth. Reason, including reason that includes avoiding war, similarly elongates youth. Yet Churchill had already seen serious combat in four wars at 25. Again, amazing.

At which point it’s useful to point out that Churchill’s origins reject the popular view that to have fire and drive within oneself, this person must come up from nothing. Not so Churchill. He was born at Blenheim Palace, and was a direct descendant of John Churchill, the 1st duke of Marlborough, and who was a hero of England’s 18th century wars with France. Churchill’s father was Lord Randolph Churchill, who rose to Chancellor of the Exchequer: think Treasury secretary. Churchill’s mother was the great American beauty Jennie Jerome. Well born and very well to do, Jerome captivated Churchill’s father ahead of combining her money and looks with one of the grandest, and most aristocratic of British names.

Jerome looms large, at least to me. To say she was “American” is to plainly miss the point. Most of us Americans descend from people who came from somewhere not America. Which is the point. And it’s one that perhaps explains Winston Churchill? When he looked in the mirror he unquestionably saw hero. From Millard we learn that Churchill didn’t just want war, but that war was part of his heroic plan: “There is no ambition I cherish so keenly as to gain a reputation for personal courage.” In Millard’s words, Churchill “wanted not simply to fight but to be noticed while fighting.” She goes on to write that “Churchill was widely criticized for being the most offensive of creatures, the medal hunter.” How very American. And it’s American because we’re a mix of the world’s hypomanics and oddballs, people so eager for freedom and the ability to thrive once free that they risked it all (including their lives) to get to what eventually became the U.S., or what was or is already the U.S. What makes Americans different is surely a journey that makes them American, but more notably the courageous leap that led to the journey in the first place. Which is a long way of arguing that what made Winston Churchill the brash, history-making Winston Churchill was his mother. That wild, attention seeking, medal-seeking American blood that she brought with her. Churchill was an American-style show-off. Let’s be blunt, while not necessarily thinking of show-off pejoratively.

The world needs doers who thrive on being seen while doing something, and Churchill was just that. The world also needs the courageous. Consider this with the horrors Churchill saw up close, and at such a young age. One of his wars before the age of 25 took place in Afghanistan, including fighting against the legendary Pashtun. Millard writes that they were “unflinching in the face of their own suffering,” and “merciless when it came to the enemy’s.” Which means a very young Churchill watched them (Millard’s description) “slicing men’s bodies to ribbons with their long, curved swords.” In his own words, battling with the Pashtun was “’Death by inches and hideous mutilation.’”

Despite seeing such horrors, Churchill persisted. And he persisted because greatness awaited him. Even though war nearly always took his life, Churchill was clear that “I have faith in my star,” that “I am intended to do something in the world,” and most importantly with death well in mind, that “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.” So, while Churchill watched “horses spouting blood” and “men gasping, crying, collapsing” amid fighting in the Sudan, he courageously entered battle knowing that he would emerge intact. Call it a Russian belief in fate. And a grandiose fate at that.

The Russian pivot is apt mainly because Churchill appeared to yearn for danger. He didn’t just need it with his grand political future well in mind, but he just needed it. Or did he? In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy is clear that “you never get used to danger.” Surely Churchill read Tolstoy, and in reading about Churchill’s need for battle and the danger that it entails, I found myself wondering what he thought of Tolstoy’s much more skeptical analysis of war. I also found myself thinking about Millard.

To me, the most difficult to follow passages in War and Peace were the ones involving battle. How to describe what is so tragic and horrible? You could also argue through Tolstoy that his descriptions were indecipherable by design given his strong belief that war is horrifyingly random in terms of what takes place. Tolstoy despised historical accounts of battle with this reason top of mind: how again to describe what is taking place? Historians ascribe genius to battle plans as though the planners could orchestrate actual battle plans amid chaos, to which Tolstoy scoffed. To him, historical accounts of battle have “the least possible connection with events themselves.” All of this had me thinking about Millard because she, like Tolstoy in War and Peace, was at times describing actual fighting between British forces and the Boers. What did Millard think? Better yet, was it difficult trying to describe what is indescribably awful?

About this, none of it is a criticism. With Millard and Tolstoy I found the battle descriptions most difficult to follow, which makes sense. See above. At the same time, whom to believe? In the fighting that led to Churchill’s capture in the Boer War (this is what the book is about, more on this in a bit), Millard among other historical accounts cites Churchill himself. Which had me thinking of Tolstoy yet again. While the implications of Churchill’s unexpected role in actual fighting (and subsequent capture) in the Boer War are soon to be discussed, in the aftermath of Churchill’s capture in southern Africa the headlines about him in England were grand, and political-career making. They included “MR. CHURCHILL’S HEROISM” on the front page of the Yorkshire Evening Post. Yet Tolstoy found the reporting on battle to be rather second rate, plus he crucially contended that “everybody lies” about what happened in the chaos. Did Churchill in his subsequent accounts? Some will view all the Tolstoy mentions as pretentious, and fair enough. But the reality is that he thought battle descriptions farcical, the “great men” theory of history a bigger load of nonsense, plus he felt “everybody lies.” How, if at all, does all this inform what we know about the Boer War?

Which brings us to the Boer War. As readers are to varying degrees aware, it look place in the southern parts of Africa where there existed at the close of the 19th century three Boer Republics. The Boers were South Africans of Dutch, German or Huguenot descent. Nowadays they’re known as Afrikaners. At the time the Boer Republics were the Orange Free State, Natal, and the Transvaal.

In the 1870s gold, diamonds and other precious commodities were discovered in the Republics. Millard writes that “Ten years after the discovery of diamonds, Britain had annexed the Transvaal,” and it led to war. The Boers could see this coming. The tragedy of physical wealth (think oil, gold, and yes, diamonds) is that it can be taken with force. Metaphysical wealth (that of mind) cannot be. Millard cites Paul Kruger, a future president of the Transvaal, as saying the gold “will cause our country to be soaked in blood.” He was so tragically correct. Where it gets interesting is that in the “First Boer War” the “British Empire did not win.” It all brings us back to Churchill.

He clearly had a sense about himself. No ordinary person, he knew he would matter historically. Even though he was just six at the time of the first war, Churchill later wrote that “I longed for the day on which we should ‘avenge Majuba.’” Later on, and two years before the actual fighting began, Churchill wrote that “It is not yet too late to recover our vanished prestige in South Africa.” The 2003 me would have read this and admired Churchill’s boldness. In 2023, my reaction is why?

It’s not just that war is hell, though that would be an obvious and highly worthy reason to avoid it. It’s that war runs so counter to all reason. Consider free trade, the alternative to war. And a real alternative. Without a hint of hyperbole, free trade is the greatest foreign policy strategy the world has ever known. If war is about the getting, and getting was clearly the aim of Great Britain’s annexation of the Transvaal followed by the First Boer War, then free trade is the only answer. With the latter, it’s as though all the genius that exists in the coveted land is headquartered right in your country. What’s true about genius is also true about physical wealth like diamonds and gold. If the coveted country is rich in both, open lanes of trade mean the commodity rich will soon be goods rich care of importing from your country. Meaning, in a free trade scenario the gains of the commodity discovered are felt arguably even more brilliantly in the open country than they are in the country where they’re discovered. Think about it.

The British chose war. Tragically. And while Churchill himself didn’t lead Great Britain to a second war in southern Africa, he certainly needed the war, which is unfortunate. But Churchill had a career to tend to. And he’d recently lost a race for a parliament seat in Oldham.

As fighting in southern Africa became a fait accompli, England’s Morning Post offered Churchill the modern equivalent of $150,000 for four months of reporting on the war. Which likely has readers scratching their heads. Though Churchill was notoriously extravagant throughout his whole life, he required heroism to burnish his reputation. Why the reporter’s route? Why given his expressed belief that “it is better to be making the news than taking it.” Why especially in consideration of how much Churchill loathed being a POW (he hated it “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life.”), and he despised the latter for it in the words of Millard “denying him the glory of battle and the opportunity for recognition and advancement.” This need for battle is recurring theme in Hero of the Empire, which routinely raises the question why Churchill went the reporter’s route? I took copious notes while reading the book, but wrote down nothing that answers this question.

The question why continues with regard to the 2nd Boer War simply because in the words of Millard, “the Boers wanted, above all else, to be left alone.” Were they angels? Certainly not. Readers who know the subsequent South Africa story much better than I can tell it much better than I. Still, they weren’t planning to invade England for example, yet Churchill possessed this need to “avenge” what….? It was and is all so mindless. Worse, it proved foolhardy.

Much like with the First Boer War, the second was no piece of cake. Millard writes that there had never been a time when the Boers “had not been ready to fight.” And they gave the 160,000 British troops all that they could handle, and more. While the British entered battle “in a highly visible battlefield formation,” the Boers introduced their opponents to the word “sniper” whereby they would attack from out of sight. Millard writes that the Boers “had been sharpshooters all of their lives,” and they combined their invisibility with generations worth of knowledge about where they were fighting. Their fighting style proved challenging to the British who preferred to fight in the open, and while “facing death like a man.” Died the British did in droves, and very much to the excitement of other European powers.

Churchill arrived as a reporter to fighting that was decidedly not going the way of his own country. Naturally he saw himself as much more than war reporter, and proceeded to tell higher-ups in the British command what to do. General Redvers Bullers told Churchill “not to be a young ass.” Churchill also told Colonel Charles Long to essentially stay put, and keep his troops in Estcourt. If only he’d listened.

Instead, and in an act of “inconceivable stupidity” (Bullers), Long sent troops in an armored train to a location thick with Boer snipers, albeit snipers not out in the open. Churchill being Churchill, and always wanting to be where the action was, rode unarmed on the armored train. It was disastrous. As Millard describes it, those on the train were surrounded by “screaming shell and deafening explosions, dead and dismembered men, desperation and almost certain failure,” only for Churchill to become Churchill. He exchanged his reporter’s hat for that of a leader, and “eyes flashing, cheeks flushed, began shouting orders.”

Led by Churchill, the still-intact armored train occupants eventually got the untracked train back on the track, and away. The wounded soldiers who made it back alive “had told everyone who would listen of the heroism of Winston Churchill.” His courageous actions meant lives were saved. Even as the writer of the stories Churchill was able to make himself the story, and his political future was in a sense made. The problem was that not all who survived Colonel Long’s stupidity had a safe place to go. They knew capture awaited them. This included Churchill.

He was in a difficult spot. He tried to achieve release as a reporter, but his captors didn’t take the latter very seriously. See above. As for his high social status, Millard writes that the Boer attitude was that “we know and care nothing for your lords and ladies here.” Despite this, and arguably related to Lord Randolph Churchill’s disdainful commentary from the past about the general savagery of the Boers, the treatment of Churchill et al while in captivity was quite good. It was as though they wanted to correct what they deemed a false characterization.

As a result, Churchill had Transvaal’s Secretary of State for War (Louis De Souza) looking after him, giving him news of the war (none of it very good), offering him access to high officials to whom he could petition for release (not successful), fruit baskets, and even the occasional bottle of whiskey. Readers might wonder why Churchill would have wanted to risk his life escaping the Staats Model School (where the POWs were housed) given the treatment described, and the only answer that can be offered here is that’s why you’re not Churchill. He needed to be doing things. He had a plan. Sitting out history was agony of the kind presumably experienced by fish out of water.

Which means Churchill acted. Better yet, he attached himself to two other POWs who had come up with what Churchill described as “a scheme of desperate and magnificent audacity” in pursuit of freedom. And it worked. At least for Churchill. While his escape partners viewed him as the weak link in their plan, Churchill was the one who escaped. His partners (Brockie and Haldane) did not, only for their escape to eventually prove exponentially more challenging and awful.

This isn’t to say it was easy for Churchill, and it wasn’t. Once out of Staats, Millard reports that Churchill “didn’t have a weapon, a map, a compass, or, aside from a few bars of chocolate in his pocket, any food.” Yet he somehow had to transport himself hundreds of miles away to Lourenco Marques (now Maputo, the capital of Mozambique) in a country that would soon be teeming with Boers looking to capture and kill him.

On its face, what Churchill had ahead of him had impossible qualities. Yet it grew worse. As he put it, every sighting of humans or industry “meant only danger to me.” Imagine being unarmed with no water and food, and no direction in a country you don’t know, and all the while lacking the ability to ask anyone for help. This meant Churchill had to hide himself during very hot days, while moving at night. But where?

Oh well, this is Churchill we’re talking about. And this is where some readers might find themselves either starry-eyed or skeptical? Indeed, seemingly out of desperation Churchill ultimately knocked on a door. John Howard answered it, Howard ran a colliery in which he could hide Churchill, but the more crucial punchline to all this is that Howard’s house was the only one “for twenty miles where you [Churchill] would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

As readers of Millard’s book will see, even then Churchill was hardly in the clear. But as evidenced by his large imprint on history that extended well beyond the dawn of the 20th century, Churchill ultimately made it to Lourenco Marques, and a hero’s welcome.

He then returned to battle. It remained bloody. It was awful for both sides. In the battle of Spion Kop, Millard writes that “So great was the carnage that both sides were stunned as they called a temporary truce so that they could collect their dead.” In a letter to his first love, but also unrequited love Pamela Plowden, Churchill wrote that “The scenes on Spion Kop were among the strangest and most terrible I have ever witnessed.” Again, for what? To avenge a short war from 20 years before as a way of saving face? Or as a way of enhancing Churchill’s desire for legacy required to achieve high public office? This once again is not to say that a still very junior Churchill got Great Britain into this most ill-starred of wars. He plainly did not. But Churchill wanted this horrid war. He needed to be a hero. That he did leaves a bad taste. Don’t worry, it gets worse.

Great Britain ultimately “won” this tragic war, but only by destroying Transvaal. Millard writes that “some thirty thousand Boer farms would be left in black, smoldering ruins.” And in response to the countless families left homeless, “mostly women and children,” the British came up with “concentration camps” as the solution. Millard reports that by the end of the war in 1902 “twenty-six thousand Boer civilians would die in British concentration camps.” Again, for what?

Bringing it all to a conclusion, a third of the way through Hero of the Empire, Millard quotes Sir George White as saying about Churchill that “I don’t like the fellow, but he’ll be prime minister of England one day.” And he was. Churchill was again amazing, but at what cost to the world did he achieve greatness? As conservative hero William F. Buckley put it in his obituary for Churchill, “Winston Churchill will be written about” for “as long as heroes are written about.” At the same time, Buckley lamented Churchill’s lack of the “final ounce of strength to deliver Europe from the mess in which he left it after the great war to which he, as much as anyone else, committed the entire world.”

As for his lack of action toward the end of WWII, Buckley regretted that “During those days he [Churchill] stood still for such disastrous fatuities as Franklin Roosevelt’s impetuous call for unconditional surrender, a rhetorical fillip which in the analysis of some military experts may have cost us the unnecessary death of several hundred thousand men, and which was most certainly responsible for the supine condition of much of Europe at the moment when Stalin’s legions took the nations over.”

Concluding about Churchill, Buckley wrote, “May he sleep more peacefully than some of those who depended on him.” It’s hard to write negatively about someone whom I’ve venerated for so long, but oh my was Winston Churchill’s greatness costly? Buckley was no radical, so consider what he wrote. Yet leaving WWII and beyond aside, see the Boer War. See what Candice Millard so impressively wrote. While Winston Churchill’s actions in South Africa were surely heroic, it’s increasingly difficult to make a case that his desire for war, vengeance, medals and glory made him particularly heroic. About my stance, I would sincerely love to be corrected.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His latest book is The Money Confusion: How Illiteracy About Currencies and Inflation Sets the Stage For the Crypto Revolution.

Show comments Hide Comments