The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Winston Churchill, hungry for recognition at any cost

Winston Churchill, right, was captured in an ambush during the Boer War and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. He found prison intolerable because it kept him from winning glory on the battlefield. (Historical Papers Research Archive/University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Barnett Collection)

Lynne Olson’s latest book, “Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War,” will be published in April.

In her first two books, “The River of Doubt” and “Destiny of the Republic,” Candice Millard won widespread acclaim for providing fresh, perceptive ways of looking at her respective protagonists, former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and James Garfield. For her third, “Hero of the Empire,” Millard focuses on Winston Churchill, one of the most written-about men in modern history, and the event that catapulted him into international prominence — his daring escape from a prison camp during the Boer War.

This is well-trodden territory, and, unlike in her earlier works, Millard offers few new facts or insights about Churchill and his South African adventure. Yet, thanks to her formidable storytelling skills, she has succeeded in infusing this familiar narrative with color, excitement and life. Particularly effective is her clear-eyed view of the young Churchill as a bumptious self-promoter whose exploits in Africa were as farcical as they were courageous.

When Britain declared war against the Boers in October 1899, Churchill, then 24, saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity. Although he had served in several previous military campaigns as a cavalry officer and a war correspondent, none had brought him the fame and fortune he so ardently sought. Just a few months before the war began, he failed in his first attempt to win a seat in Parliament. Churchill “had no money, no occupation and, it appeared, no one who believed in him quite as much as he believed in himself,” Millard writes. What he needed, he thought, was another war.

His countrymen shared his war fever. For decades, the British had been vying with the Boers, descendants of early Dutch settlers in South Africa, for control of the region. When huge deposits of gold and diamonds were discovered in the Boer republic of the Transvaal, armed conflict became inevitable.

As most Britons saw it, their empire, the mightiest in the world, would crush the upstart Boers in a matter of weeks, if not days. Desperate to get to Africa before that happened, Churchill persuaded a London newspaper, the Morning Post, to make him its war correspondent. Laden with an enormous cache of provisions that included 18 bottles of 10-year-old Scotch, he arrived in Cape Town at the end of October.

Two weeks later, Churchill accompanied an armored British train on a reconnaissance mission. When a large Boer force ambushed it, he took control of the chaotic situation, helping to clear derailed cars from the tracks and loading injured soldiers onto the engine, which managed to escape. He was captured, along with some 60 British troops.

Much to Churchill’s surprise, the Boers treated him and the other prisoners with civility and respect. He was sent to a British officers’ camp housed in a former teacher training college in the Boer capital, Pretoria. There, he and his fellow prisoners were allowed to receive visitors, buy cigarettes and extra food, and even hire a barber for weekly shaves. As lenient as his confinement was, however, Churchill considered it intolerable because, as Millard notes, it denied “him the glory of battle and an opportunity for recognition and advancement.”

Determined to escape, he learned that two other prisoners had already come up with a plan. When he pressured them to include him, they initially resisted, arguing that he was physically unfit and, more important, couldn’t keep a secret. After his relentless demands wore them down, he immediately proved the validity of their fears by informing other inmates that he was about to leave.

He also disregarded his co-conspirators’ order that, no matter what happened, he could not go it alone. On Dec. 12, the night chosen for the escape, the two chief plotters decided to postpone it because of the vigilance of the Boer sentries guarding the camp’s perimeter fence. But when the sentries turned their backs for a moment, Churchill couldn’t resist. He rushed to the fence and clambered over it.

Hiding in bushes on the other side, he suddenly realized the implications of his rash decision. His fellow plotters had acquired the provisions needed for a successful escape, including a compass, a map and food. Churchill had nothing — not even the remotest idea about the direction in which he should initially head.

For more than a day, he followed railroad tracks that he hoped would lead east — across 300 miles of Boer territory to Portuguese East Africa and freedom. His resourcefulness in evading the Boers’ massive manhunt for him was matched by extraordinary luck, including a chance encounter with John Howard, the manager of a coal mine in the Transvaal and one of the few Englishmen whom the Boers had allowed to remain in their territory. For several days, Howard hid Churchill in his mine, then, with the help of several friends, smuggled him onto a freight train to Lourenço Marques, the capital of Portuguese East Africa.

Less than two months after his arrival in Africa, Churchill found himself the celebrity he had always wanted to be. Newspapers in Britain and elsewhere had avidly covered his exploits on the ambushed train, his imprisonment and escape, and the Boers’ relentless search for him. It didn’t matter that the ambush had been an insignificant skirmish rather than a major battle. As it happened, all the major battles thus far had been won not by the vaunted British army but by the supposedly inferior Boers. Stunned by their country’s string of defeats and huge list of casualties, the British public needed a hero as much as Churchill wanted to be one.

It took 2 1/2 more years for the British to finally vanquish the Boers. Little more than a decade later, the staggering human cost of that conflict would be eclipsed by the bloodbath of World War I. Churchill, meanwhile, returned to Britain in the summer of 1900 and was elected to Parliament soon thereafter. “It is clear to me from the figures,” he wrote, “that nothing but personal popularity arising out of the late South African War, carried me in.”

Forty years later, he would win lasting fame in World War II when, as British prime minister, he rallied his countrymen to stand alone against Nazi Germany. In those dark days of 1940, Churchill finally achieved the greatness he had always sought.

Hero of the Empire

The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill

By Candice Millard

Doubleday. 400 pp. $30