On this day in 1899…

Though obviously much more associated with the Second World War, the young Winston Churchill also played an active and adventurous role in the early phases of the Boer War. After active service on the Frontier and in the Sudan, and having proven himself an excellent reporter while attached as to Spanish forces in Cuba, Churchill gained a very lucrative gig as the Morning Post’s man to cover the war in South Africa. The 24-year old Churchill arrived in Cape Town on the 30th of October – a few weeks after the republican invasions – complete with his valet, and stocks of booze including 18 bottles of Scotch. He quickly made his way to Natal, and headed to Estcourt – or ‘the Front’ as it was called. Even by the time Churchill arrived there were only two British battalions (the Dublin Fusiliers and the Border Regiment) and some local forces manning ‘the front line’, and the invading Boers had annexed (and comprehensively looted) much of northern Natal, and – despite winning the battles of Talana Hill and Elandslaagte – the original outnumbered Imperial garrison had been bottled-up and besieged in Ladysmith.

“I have faith in my star that I am intended to do something in the world,”
Churchill to his mother – rather prophetically

Though imperial troops had just about managed to contain the republican invasion, and, indeed, forced them to retreat back to the Tugela, General Buller was still awaiting reinforcements to be able to take the fight to the Boers, kick them back out of Natal and relieve Ladysmith. The resultant relative lull in action was perhaps a little less thrilling than Churchill (and his readers back in Blighty) had hoped for. Either way, and always keen for a scoop, he jauntily hopped aboard an armoured train on the morning of the 9th of November, and joined it on a reconnaissance up the railway line towards Colenso – ie. the area of ‘no man’s land’ between the two opposing forces – recounting his experience, and the improvised armoured train, in his trademark style:

This armoured train is a very puny specimen, having neither gun nor Maxims, with no roof to its trucks and no shutters to its loopholes, and being in every way inferior to the powerful machines I saw working along the southern frontier. Nevertheless it is a useful means of reconnaissance, nor is a journey in it devoid of interest. An armoured train! The very name sounds strange; a locomotive disguised as a knight-errant; the agent of civilisation in the habiliments of chivalry. Mr. Morley attired as Sir Lancelot would seem scarcely more incongruous. The possibilities of attack added to the keenness of the experience. We started at one o’clock. A company of the Dublin Fusiliers formed the garrison. Half were in the car in front of the engine, half in that behind. Three empty trucks, with a platelaying gang and spare rails to mend the line, followed. The country between Estcourt and Colenso is open, undulating, and grassy. The stations, which occur every four or five miles, are hamlets consisting of half a dozen corrugated iron houses, and perhaps a score of blue gum trees. These little specks of habitation are almost the only marked feature of the landscape, which on all sides spreads in pleasant but monotonous slopes of green. The train maintained a good speed; and, though it stopped repeatedly to question Kaffirs or country folk, and to communicate with the cyclists and other patrols who were scouring the country on the flanks, reached Chieveley, five miles from Colenso, by about three o’clock; and from here the Ladysmith balloon, a brown speck floating above and beyond the distant hills, was plainly visible.

Beyond Chieveley it was necessary to observe more caution. The speed was reduced—the engine walked warily. The railway officials scanned the track, and often before a culvert or bridge was traversed we disembarked and examined it from the ground. At other times long halts were made while the officers swept the horizon and the distant hills with field glasses and telescopes. But the country was clear and the line undamaged, and we continued our slow advance. Presently Colenso came into view—a hundred tin-pot houses under the high hills to the northward. We inspected it deliberately. On a mound beyond the village rose the outline of the sandbag fort constructed by the Naval Brigade. The flagstaff, without the flag, still stood up boldly. But, so far as we could tell, the whole place was deserted.

Other, rather more seasoned, war correspondents had declined to join the reconnaissance efforts by the improvised armoured train, with one (understandably) declaring it a very foolhardy exercise: “You will either see too little, or too much”, he warned Churchill. But Churchill was equally alive to the vulnerability of the exercise – it’s just he didn’t really seem to care:  

A week ago I described to you a reconnoitring expedition in the Estcourt armoured train, and I pointed out the many defects in the construction and the great dangers in the employment of that forlorn military machine. So patent were these to all who concerned themselves in the matter that the train was nicknamed in the camp ‘Wilson’s death trap.’

Young Winston, cutting something of a dash on an unhappy horse

“There is no ambition I cherish so keenly as to gain a reputation for personal courage,”
Churchill to his brother, Jack

Churchill was to chance his luck a few days later, joining the train (this time, carrying an antiquated 7-pdr) on another recce up the line. He related the tale to his readers thus:

On Tuesday, the 14th, the mounted infantry patrols reported that the Boers in small parties were approaching Estcourt from the directions of Weenen and Colenso, and Colonel Long made a reconnaissance in force to ascertain what strength lay behind the advanced scouts. The reconnaissance, which was marked only by an exchange of shots between the patrols, revealed little, but it was generally believed that a considerable portion of the army investing Ladysmith was moving, or was about to move, southwards to attack Estcourt, and endeavour to strike Pietermaritzburg. The movement that we had awaited for ten days impended. Accordingly certain military preparations, which I need not now specify, were made to guard against all contingencies, and at daylight on Wednesday morning another spray of patrols was flung out towards the north and north-west, and the Estcourt armoured train was ordered to reconnoitre towards Chieveley. The train was composed as follows: an ordinary truck, in which was a 7-pounder muzzle-loading gun, served by four sailors from the ‘Tartar;’ an armoured car fitted with loopholes and held by three sections of a company of the Dublin Fusiliers; the engine and tender, two more armoured cars containing the fourth section of the Fusilier company, one company of the Durban Light Infantry (volunteers), and a small civilian breakdown gang; lastly, another ordinary truck with the tools and materials for repairing the road; in all five wagons, the locomotive, one small gun, and 120 men. Captain Haldane, D.S.O., whom I had formerly known on Sir William Lockhart’s staff in the Tirah Expedition, and who was lately recovered from his wound at Elandslaagte, commanded.
We started at half-past five and, observing all the usual precautions, reached Frere Station in about an hour. Here a small patrol of the Natal police reported that there were no enemy within the next few miles, and that all seemed quiet in the neighbourhood. It was the silence before the storm. Captain Haldane decided to push on cautiously as far as Chieveley, near which place an extensive view of the country could be obtained. Not a sign of the Boers could be seen. The rolling grassy country looked as peaceful and deserted as on former occasions, and we little thought that behind the green undulations scarcely three miles away the leading commandos of a powerful force were riding swiftly forward on their invading path.

Numerous Boers were seen in the vicinity, both on horseback, and manning a ridge to the north of Chieveley. These were reported by telegraph back to Estcourt and Colonel Long (who would later gain infamy at the Battle of Colenso) ordered that the train retire back down the line. Things did not quite going according to plan, however:

We proceeded to obey, and were about a mile and three-quarters from Frere when on rounding a corner we saw that a hill which commanded the line at a distance of 600 yards was occupied by the enemy. So after all there would be a fight, for we could not pass this point without coming under fire. The four sailors loaded their gun—an antiquated toy—the soldiers charged their magazines, and the train, which was now in the reverse of the order in which it had started moved, slowly towards the hill.

The moment approached: but no one was much concerned, for the cars were proof against rifle fire, and this ridge could at the worst be occupied only by some daring patrol of perhaps a score of men. ‘Besides,’ we said to ourselves, ‘they little think we have a gun on board. That will be a nice surprise.’

The Boers held their fire until the train reached that part of the track nearest to their position. Standing on a box in the rear armoured truck I had an excellent view-through my glasses. The long brown rattling serpent with the rifles bristling from its spotted sides crawled closer to the rocky hillock on which the scattered black figures of the enemy showed clearly. Suddenly three wheeled things appeared on the crest, and within a second a bright flash of light—like a heliograph, but much yellower—opened and shut ten or twelve times. Then two much larger flashes; no smoke nor yet any sound, and a bustle and stir among the little figures. So much for the hill. Immediately over the rear truck of the train a huge white ball of smoke sprang into being and tore out into a cone like a comet. Then came, the explosions of the near guns and the nearer shell. The iron sides of the truck tanged with a patter of bullets. There was a crash from the front of the train and half a dozen sharp reports. The Boers had opened fire on us at 600 yards with two large field guns, a Maxim firing small shells in a stream, and from riflemen lying on the ridge. I got down from my box into the cover of the armoured sides of the car without forming any clear thought. Equally involuntarily, it seems that the driver put on full steam, as the enemy had intended. The train leapt forward, ran the gauntlet of the guns, which now filled the air with explosions, swung round the curve of the hill, ran down a steep gradient, and dashed into a huge stone which awaited it on the line at a convenient spot.

With the train thus derailed, the Boers opened up on it with both rifles and artillery. Churchill, who even at that tender age, was no stranger to battle, acted with great coolness and bravery, taking command of the situation and being instrumental in extricating the train – and most of the men – out of the kill zone and back down the line to safety. Alas, Churchill himself was one of those left behind as it escaped, and fell – rather sulkily – into Boer hands. Many have claimed that, as he was not strictly speaking a soldier but was carrying a weapon, he was lucky not to have been shot on being captured… this may be true, but could equally apply to any of the tens of thousands of un-uniformed Boers who were captured by Imperial forces during the war.

“I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending,”
Churchill to his mother, on surviving a hard-fought battle in India

Either way, the young Churchill proved a difficult man to contain, and within a few weeks managed to escape from republican captivity and make his way back to British territory, via Portuguese East Africa, becoming something of a household name on the way due to his exploits. He would go on to serve in the South African Light Horse, seeing action at Spion Kop and being one of the first men to ride into Ladysmith to lift the siege.

1 Comment

  • Chris Posted November 29, 2019 10:08 am

    A right jolly Boys-Own story — IF you believe all that stuff at face value
    How many other “great-leaders” careers have been built on early — “daring-do”

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