How Winston Churchill
Became Winston Churchill
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2021 -- I've become a great admirer of Candice Millard, the highly talented and perhaps underrated author of several of my favorite presidential biographies, including River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic.

Every bit as skillful and engaging a storyteller as the better-known David McCullough, she's struck gold again with Hero of the Empire. Its revealing subtitle: The Boer War, A Daring Escape and The Making of Winston Churchill.

Originally published in 2016, Hero of the Empire is an absolutely mesmerizing introduction to someone we barely know--the very young Winston Churchill.

Many know Churchill as the aging British Prime Minister during the Second World War. But how many are familiar with the foundation of his career--his prowess in multiple wars four decades earlier, and, most notably, the Second Boer War? Millard reveals more-than-a-little astonishing details of the 24-year-old Churchill's exploits, which began two days after the war was declared in 1899 and Winston, then a correspondent for London's Morning Post, set out for South Africa.

Churchill not only loved, but welcomed, war. He believed it was the key to achieving his ambitions. However, his prior efforts--four wars on three continents before the Boer War--did not bring him the fame and recognition he sought. Millard writes that Churchill believed the Boer War represented his best chance to turn his fortunes.

To say that Churchill was as prescient as he was lucky--a lot of bullets missed him during dangerous skirmishes--is to put it mildly. His actions and escape from a Pretoria prison fueled his popularity and directly contributed to his rise in the British Parliament. Six months after his escape, he was elected to Parliament in his second run.

The British had greatly underestimated the Boers and what some colonialists thought would be a sort of "walk in the park" undertaking turned into a brutal conflict that lasted almost three years. The tough, determined Dutch fighters were well-prepared and possessed extraordinary fighting skills. And they would not give up what they claimed as their land without a stout defense.

Churchill distinguished himself in war no matter which "hat" he wore. As a war correspondent, he was along on a British armored reconnaissance train and that turned out to be one of the most quixotic rail journeys of all time. The day, November 15, 1899, was only one month after Churchill arrived in South Africa.

An armored train may seem "formidable and impressive," Churchill wrote, but it was, in fact, "more vulnerable and helpless." The occupants, in open cars, were easy targets. When the train was attacked by the Boers, it was Winston, not British officers onboard, who directed the response. In a prophetic demonstration of Churchill's ability to inspire others to act and embrace his own confidence, they responded to him.

Still, the Boers won the day and imprisoned the survivors. Churchill's reputation as the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and his celebrity as a war correspondent was well-known to the Boers. But they suspected he was a British spy who, in contemporary parlance, was embedded with the military.

A highlight of Millard's book is Churchill's hair-raising escape from the Boer prison. From the day of his capture, angered by the Boers' control over him, the only thing on his mind was freedom. Although he formulated multiple--and some elaborate and highly unlikely--escape plans, his actual exit was thanks to a scheme hatched by two other prisoners.

So cocky and arrogant was Churchill that he left a cheeky note for Louis de Souza, the Transvaal Secretary of War. Though friendly with Churchill, de Souza had declined to free him, so Churchill wrote: "Regretting that circumstances have not permitted me to bid a personal farewell ..."

In a bold, even reckless, move, he fled into the unknown Boer hinterland. He traversed hundreds of miles without the benefit of companions, a map, directions or weapons. His only food: a few bars of chocolate. Even more incredible? He managed to stumble into the home of John Howard, one of the few Englishmen permitted to stay in the area. After he was freed, Churchill fought elsewhere, but he eventually returned to Pretoria to liberate his fellow prisoners.

I admit to a degree of skepticism and incredulity. Parts of Hero read like fantasy exploits from Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. For example, I'm not sure that I believe only Churchill, unlike others also attempting to escape, could have made his way over a fence with a guard standing nearby. How was he neither seen nor heard--especially as he was talking to his co-conspirators stuck on the other side of the fence with guards nearby? The combination of opportunity and luck in his roles as a soldier and as a journalist--sometimes acting as a soldier when he wasn't actually one--is well-documented, however.

Was he merely a super-lucky megalomaniac? Or was his conviction of positive outcomes fueled by his absolute certainty that, as the Blenheim Palace-born son of a famed British statesman, he was destined for fame, glory and success? Even as a seven-year-old, Millard notes, he exhibited "an air of haughty self-confidence." Given his privileged birth and upbringing, his exploits and extraordinary confidence are perhaps less surprising.

It took only several evenings before I had, regrettably, finished the 416-page Hero of the Empire. The style and substance of Millard's enthralling storytelling make this a compelling read. I predict that you'll find this brilliant and beautifully written narrative as hard to put down as I did.