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Book Summary: Hero of the Empire by Candice Miller

My Personal Summary

This book is about the Boer War and Winston Churchill’s involvement in it as a 24-year-old.

Churchill was born into wealth but he desired to make a name for himself as a soldier in battle, which he planned on using to propel himself into the British Parliament and eventually become prime minister one day.

The Boer War began in South Africa in 1899. The English newspaper, The Morning Post, hired Churchill as a war correspondent, offering to pay him $150k in today’s money for four months of work.

During a train ride, British troops were ambushed by Boer forces and Churchill was taken as a prisoner of war. He would spend several weeks in a prisoner camp in Pretoria before making an escape by scaling one of the walls in the night. 

Churchill was able to walk through Pretoria by confidently walking through the streets as if he were an ordinary citizen and didn’t arouse any suspicion from any civilians. He then hitched a ride on a train 70 miles east, then jumped off.

He then approached a small coal mining village, desperate for food and shelter. He was fortunate to knock on the door of a house that belong to a British man, who was able to feed him and help him hide in one of the mine shafts until eventually Churchill was able to be smuggled onto a truck shipping bales of wool to the east coast of South Africa, which was considered a neutral area during war.

Upon arriving on the east coast and finally making his way to the British consulate, Churchill’s dramatic story of escape was published all over England. Churchill would immediately return to the front lines, fighting in several crucial battles and would eventually return to England before the war ended.

When Churchill arrived back in England, he ran for a seat in Parliament and easily won due to his popularity gained from the war.

Churchill despised his time as a prisoner of war, but for the rest of his life, after every war in which England fought, Churchill would exhort his country to offer “the hand of friendship to the vanquished” since the Boers treated Churchill with so much dignity and respect while he was in prison.

Book Notes

  • Churchill was born in 1874 in England. He was the direct descendant of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough who is said to be the greatest general in England’s history.
  • More than just the source of his family status, Marlborough was Churchill’s inspiration for success on a grand scale. “He never rode off any field except as a victor,” Churchill wrote of his famous forebear.
  • Churchill graduated from the Royal Military College in 1894 and was eager to prove himself in battle.
  • “What he wanted most from his life as a soldier was not adventure or even battlefield experience but a chance to prove himself. He wanted not simply to fight but to be noticed while fighting.”
  • In the late 1800’s, the British Empire ruled over a quarter of the human race. The greatest threat to the empire turned out to be the ever-expanding burden of ruling its own colonies.
  • Churchill was imprisoned with about a hundred British officers in the Staats Model School. Used as a teachers college before the war, the building was now surrounded by a corrugated-iron paling and heavily armed Boers. Churchill hated his imprisonment, he later wrote, “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life.”
  • Churchill saw his first action in battle in Cuba in 1895 before the Spanish-American War officially kicked off. He was only an observer, though, and craved more involvement.
  • In 1896, Churchill traveled to modern day Pakistan to help fight an uprising being made by the Pashtun, one of Britain’s colonies.
  • Shortly after arriving in Pakistan, Churchill told a fellow officer that he expected to be prime minister one day. He was 22 years old at the time.
  • Churchill saw several of his fellow soldiers die in a skirmish in Pakistan, but he survived. 
  • “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”
  • In 1898, Churchill published his first book recounting his time in battle in Pakistan. This is similar to Teddy Roosevelt, who also published several books at a young age. These two men seem similar in their drive and ambition.
  • Although Churchill didn’t have a close relationship with his father growing up, he admired him for his political power. This is another similarity to Teddy Roosevelt – both came from wealthy backgrounds and both admired their fathers.
  • He would never forget walking down the street as a child and watching as men doffed their hats in respect as his father passed by.”
  • In 1899, Churchill ran for a seat in Parliament and lost. Churchill was only 23 years old but his father became a member of Parliament at just 25, which instilled in Churchill the belief that age was merely a number. After losing the election, Churchill decided that he needed to participate in another war and gain more recognition before he could make a successful political run.
  • The British Empire colonized South Africa because it proved to be a critical point in the trade routes to India. In the 1860’s – 1880’s, both diamonds and gold were found in the mountains in South Africa, which attracted tens of thousands of prospectors to the region, the majority of whom were British. The problem was that the diamonds and gold had been found in the South African Republic, a territory that belong to the Dutch, German and Huguenot descendants known as the Boers.
  • In 1880, the first Boer War took place in which the British Empire attempted to annex land in South Africa. The Boers won.
  • The second Boer War began in 1899. The English newspaper, The Morning Post, hired Churchill as a war correspondent, offering to pay him $150k in today’s money for four months of work.
  • It was a 2 week trip by sea from Southampton, England to South Africa. Although Churchill famously hated traveling on ships, this didn’t deter him from being involved in the war.
  • Even the British had to begrudgingly admit that when it came to marksmanship, it was impossible to compete with the Boers. Whether they were hunting lions, which raided their herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and posed a threat to their families, or fighting the native Africans whose land they now occupied, their lives depended every day on the speed and accuracy of their shooting.
  • They were “the finest mass of rifle-armed horsemen ever seen,” Churchill wrote, “and the most capable mounted warriors since the Mongols. They were also determined to win. They felt that they had no other choice. Although southern Africa had been populated for millions of years before the Boers arrived, they believed that this land was their birthright, no less than a gift from God.
  • The Boers were a mixture of Huguenots (people who left France in the 1600’s to practice their own religion), Dutch and Germans who immigrated to South Africa.
  • The Boers even developed their own language, Afrikaans, which mixes Dutch with everything from French and Portuguese to KhoiKhoi. The word boer itself, which means “farmer,” is Dutch, but the Boers quickly developed new words as they needed them, from kopje (hill) and veld (grassland) to Voortrekker.
  • Interesting: Because much of the terrain in South Africa is open fields and because of frequent thunderstorms during the summer, a total of 86 British soldiers would be struck by lightning during the war and most would die.
  • Unlike the Boers, who had been sharpshooters nearly all their lives, this was an entirely new world to the British. So alien was the concept of a man who shot from a distance and in hiding, rather than in a highly visible battlefield formation, that even the word “sniper” was new to them. It had originated in India, where riflemen skilled enough to shoot a snipe, a small bird with a notoriously erratic flight pattern, were referred to as snipers.
  • For the British, war was about romance and gallantry. They liked nothing more than a carefully pressed uniform, a parade ground and a razor-sharp fighting line. At most, British soldiers spent two months of the year actually training to fight. The other ten were devoted to parading, attending to their uniforms and waiting on their officers, for whom they were expected to serve as cook, valet, porter and gardener.
  • Churchill traveled to Estcourt, a region in northeast South Africa, to cover the fighting there. He then traveled north by armored train to Ladysmith. On the way, the train was ambushed by Boer troops and Churchill was taken prisoner. A total of five men were killed and sixty were taken prisoner. During the ambush, Churchill acted gallantly and instantly jumped to action to get the train back on the tracks, proving his leadership during intense moments of warfare.
  • Although Churchill had been called many things—opportunist, braggart, blowhard—no one had ever questioned his bravery. “Winston is like a strong wire that, stretched, always springs back. He prospers under attack, enmity and disparagement,” Atkins would later write of him. “He lives on excitement…. The more he scents frustration the more he has to fight for; the greater the obstacles, the greater the triumph.”
  • Churchill’s father had traveled to South Africa in 1891 and had encountered the Boers, writing that they were uneducated and lazy. When Winston was captured in 1899, the Boers recognized his last name because of his father’s writings.
  • Churchill was taken to Pretoria as a prisoner. He was held captive with other officers in a school house that had been converted into a prison.
  • The prison was warm, dry, safe and clean, with plenty of food and even little luxuries, but Churchill would have traded it in a heartbeat for the heat, rain, filth and death of the battlefield. “The war is going on,” he wrote angrily, restlessly, “great events are in progress, fine opportunities for action and adventure are slipping away.”
  • So much did Churchill loathe his imprisonment that the experience would stay with him for the rest of his life. “Looking back on those days I have always felt the keenest pity for prisoners and captives,” he would write years later. “What it must mean for any man, especially an educated man, to be confined for years in a modern convict prison strains my imagination. Each day exactly like the one before, with the barren ashes of wasted life behind, and all the long years of bondage stretching out ahead.”
  • When, just ten years after his own imprisonment, he was made home secretary and put in charge of the British prison system, Churchill would be exceptionally compassionate to prisoners, especially those with life sentences, which he believed to be a far worse fate than a sentence of death. He made sure they had access to books, exercise and even occasional entertainment, “to mitigate as far as is reasonable,” he wrote, “the hard lot which, if they have deserved, they must none the less endure.”
  • Unlike “the criminal who knows to the day and hour the length of his imprisonment and can tick off each day,” Vischer wrote, “the prisoner of war remains in complete uncertainty.”
  • After weeks of being in prison, Churchill and two other officers made a plan to escape. On the night of the escape, Churchill hid in the bathroom when it was dinner time and waited until the guard on duty outside of the bathroom left his post. When he did, Churchill ran out and scaled a section of the prison wall that was cloaked in darkness outside of the prison lights. The guard returned to his post shortly after so the other two officers were unable to escape with Churchill. He would be all alone.
  • “I said to myself, ‘Toujours de l’audace,’ ” he wrote, quoting the famous words of Georges Danton, a leader of the French Revolution who was eventually guillotined. “Always more audacity.”
  • “As Churchill made his way through the town, wearing the brown flannel suit he had ordered from the prison, his hat slouching low over his eyes, no one paid any attention to him. He sauntered down the middle of the road and, because he hated whistling, hummed a carefree tune. Looking the picture of comfort and ease, he kept walking east on Skinner Street until everything in Pretoria that he most feared and hated, and that represented his loathed imprisonment, slowly disappeared behind him—President Kruger’s house, the train station where he had first arrived nearly a month earlier and, above all, the Staats Model School.”
  • Upon walking out of the town of Pretoria, Churchill hitched a ride on a train traveling east and jumped off after traveling about 70 miles before the train reached the next station.
  • Interesting: Ghandi worked as a field medic and often risked his life tending to wounded British soldiers during several battles of the Boer War.
  • Churchill eventually came across a coal mining village and, desperately needing food and rest, risked his life by knocking on the door of a house near a mine. The owner happened to be British and fed Churchill then hid him at the bottom of a mine shaft for several days. Churchill slept among rats in total darkness. Then the man who helped him was able to convince a friend who owned a wool shipping business to let Churchill hide between bales of wool on a shipment to the east coast of South Africa where Churchill could finally be free.
  • Churchill eventually made it all the way to the British consulate, which meant he was free. He then boarded a steamship to the British colony of Natal where he was welcomed by large crowds who had heard of his successful escape.
  • As soon as Churchill was reunited with British officers, he asked to be commissioned as a lieutenant and he immediately went to join the forces on the front line. All along he had wanted to be both a journalist and a soldier.
  • “It was certainly no accident that, for the remainder of his time in South Africa, wherever there was an opportunity for an epic battle, a heroic triumph or a great story, there was Churchill.”
  • The Boers had the advantage of being familiar with the terrain where the war was fought and they used guerrilla war tactics, constantly hiding in trenches and being sneaky. This meant the war was drawn out, which frustrated the British. The British resorted to a scorched earth policy, destroying farms of civilians and then placing them in concentration camps where they died by the thousands.
  • By the end of the war, more than twenty-six thousand Boer civilians would die in British concentration camps, some twenty-two thousand of whom were children. Those statistics, however, do not even take into account the roughly twenty thousand Africans who, having been forced to fight in a war that was not their own, subsequently died in separate black concentration camps.
  • As reprehensible as Kitchener’s methods were, they took a heavy toll on the fiercely defiant Boers. Even Botha had to admit that the scorched-earth strategy was working. As fast, invisible and skilled as they were at fighting in the open veld, even the self-reliant burghers could not survive without the farms that had fed and sheltered them. Their inability to protect their wives and children from such tactics led even the toughest Boer fighters to despair. “Fight to the bitter end?” one Boer general asked. “But has the bitter end not come?”
  • Finally, in the fall of 1902, two and a half years after the war had begun, a delegation of ten men, including Louis Botha, met Kitchener in Pretoria to sign the Treaty of Vereeniging. Among the concessions the Boers were forced to make was that both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State would be annexed by the British. In return, the British pledged to give the Boers £ 3 million to compensate for the thousands of farms lost during Kitchener’s raids. They also promised that eventually the Boers would be allowed to once again govern their own people.
  • It wasn’t until 1931, when the empire reluctantly became a commonwealth, that South Africa could shake off the last vestiges of British control. Even then, Queen Victoria’s silk-gloved hand still rested on the dusty backs of the Boers for another thirty years. Her great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II would continue to hold the title of queen of South Africa until 1961, when the Union of South Africa officially became the Republic of South Africa.
  • Upon returning to England, Churchill easily won a seat in parliament due to his popularity gained from the war.
  • For the rest of his life, after every war in which England fought, Churchill would exhort his country to offer “the hand of friendship to the vanquished.” For the Boers, he argued, “the wise and right course is to beat down all who resist, even to the last man, but not to withhold forgiveness and even friendship from any who wish to surrender…. Therein lies the shortest road to ‘peace with honour.’ “

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