HERO OF THE EMPIRE:THE BOER WAR, A DARING ESCAPE AND THE MAKING OF WINSTON CHURCHILL by Candice Millard

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(Winston Churchill as a war correspondent)

Author Candice Millard’s recent successes include RIVER OF DOUBT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S DARKEST JOURNEY which chronicles the former president’s exploration of the Amazon River, and DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC: A TALE OF MADNESS, MEDICINE AND THE MURDER OF A PRESIDENT that categorizes the life and assassination of President James A. Garfield.  She has followed these works with her latest book, HERO OF THE EMPIRE: THE BOER WAR, A DARING ESCAPE AND THE MAKING OF WINSTON CHURCHILL that introduces the reader to Churchill’s early career exploits during the Boer War, a war which brought Churchill to the attention of a British public that was shocked by the difficulties that Her Majesty’s soldiers experienced in fighting the Boers.  Churchill found himself in South Africa hoping to achieve the military fame that had eluded him previously in Cuba, India, and the Sudan.  He was driven by an insecure ego that hoped to make a name for himself so he would not only be known as the scion of a rich of an aristocratic family.  Early on, Churchill would inform others that soon he would soon earn a seat in Parliament, and eventually would become Prime Minister.  In England at the time he was considered a “self-promoter par excellence.”

Image result for photos of Winston Churchill and the Boer War

Churchill’s sense of his own destiny is well known and was reinforced by his experiences in witnessing British troops fighting the Pashtuns in what today is Pakistan, and Madhists in the Sudan.  Churchill used family connections to be placed in whatever colonial war England was engaged in at the time, and was able to build a resume as an important figure in British politics as he felt the weight of his ancestor, John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough who throughout the last 17th and early 18th century never left a battlefield unless he was victorious.  After being defeated in his run for a seat in Parliament at the age of twenty-five, Churchill realized he needed a “good war” to propel his career and events in South Africa presented a unique opportunity with its reserves of gold and diamonds.  Storm clouds in the region gathered throughout the second half of the 19th century and by October, 1899 the Boer (a combination of Dutch, German, and British people who had migrated to the area since the 17th century) had enough of London’s encroachment into what they deemed to be their “republics” and war became official on October, 11, 1899.

Millard is a wonderful stylist who provides enough detail that the reader gains a true understanding of the makeup of Boer society and politics, along with an accurate portrayal of local topography, Boer villages, and culture.  The author captures British military arrogance from the outset of the first Boer attack in Dundee, an attack that was designed by Boer commander, Louis Botha to shake British confidence. For the British the goal of defeating the Boer by Christmas was no longer a forgone conclusion.  Millard’s comparison of Boer and British fighters is priceless as she described the British as moving at a “glacial pace,” and the Boer being “astonishingly mobile.”

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Millard explains the background history of the region before Churchill’s arrival from the Dutch extermination and removal of local tribes, the British settlement of the Cape Colony, and the Boer “trek” to the Transvaal, and wars against the Xhosa and Zulu.  The importance of the war against the Zulu cannot be underestimated because it provided the Boer with military lessons and strategy which allowed them to fight like no Europeans had previously and gave the British such difficulties.  Once Churchill zeroed in on South Africa he had to use family connections to gain an appointment as a journalist to enter the war zone since he was no longer a member of the military.  It is interesting that the future First Lord of the Admiralty hated to travel by sea which was how he reached Cape Town!

The author provides a number of mini-biographies of the major players in her narrative.  Aside from Churchill and his coterie of friends like Adam Brockie and Aylmer Haldane, she explores the lives of important Boer figures like Louis Botha, the Boer commander, and Boer President Paul Kruger.  Her discussion of Boer leadership is especially important because her discussion of their leadership and strategic skills takes the reader inside their movement and when she compares it to the British approach it explains the poor showing of Her Majesty’s forces.  Further, if one projects into future Boer methodology, it is useful to imagine the decline of the “Empire” beginning between 1899 and 1902 in South Africa.

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(Two Boer soldiers)

The narrative recounts Churchill’s experiences and exploits during the Boer War and its implications for Churchill’s future career and the effect on Britain’s political and military history.  Millard explores Churchill’s captivity and treatment and how he was able to acquire the many amenities that he had been used to as a member of the aristocracy.  Churchill’s argument with the Boers rested on his “status” as a journalist for the Morning Mail, demanding that he be released immediately.  When the Boers realized the type of prisoner they possessed there was no way they would restore his freedom.  The Boer reaction to his escape was one of obsession and the need to recapture him, and humiliate him to the point that for a period his recapture was more important than the war itself.  We witness the planning that went into his escape, his life as a fugitive, and his final arrival in Portuguese East Africa, a trek of over 300 miles to freedom.

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(Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener)

Millard lists the advantages that Boers had at the outset of combat and the desperate measures the British employed, (i.e.; concentration camps that resulted in the death of 22,000 women and children out of a total of 26,000 total death) to finally bring about an end to the war in 1902.  The Boers had felt no shame in conducting a war based on staying hidden, not pursuing personal glory, fighting to the death, applying superior knowledge of the veld, and their ability as sharpshooters.  For the British, war was about romance and gallantry as they viewed guerilla tactics as cowardly, and believed they were engaging in an adventure until they realized their approach was a failure.  Their arrogance had been self-defeating and proved very detrimental to their cause until Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener introduced an unprecedented level of savagery to the conflict.

In the end Churchill achieved the level of heroism he sought and gained election to Parliament soon after the war.  A war that taught him many important lessons that he would employ during his marvelous career that followed.  Millard has written a stirring narrative that should interest the general reader and students of Winston Churchill equally.  This is her third straight successful literary venture, and I look forward to the fourth no matter what subject she chooses to tackle.

Image result for photos of Winston Churchill and the Boer War

(Winston Churchill as a war correspondent)

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