October 6, 2016
by Jennifer Senior
Candice Millard’s third book, “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” would make a fine movie, though Richard Attenborough did, in a sense, get there first. In 1972, he made “Young Winston,” drawn from Churchill’s own account of his early life, and it includes the same material Ms. Millard recounts so thrillingly: the future prime minister’s brash heroics in the South African Republic in 1899, which culminated in a prison break and nine days on the lam.
“I’m free! I’m free! I’m Winston bloody Churchill, and I’m free!” he shouts in the film, just as he crosses the border to safety — a moment, we later realize, that could just as easily have referred to Churchill’s psychological relief as his physical freedom: He had finally shaken off the legacy of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, whose formidable early accomplishments and later humiliations stalked him like the moon.
As her subtitle suggests, Ms. Millard similarly believes that the conflict in the Boer Republics profoundly influenced Churchill. But her book is much shorter on the anxiety of influence and far longer on the blustery impatience of youth. In Ms. Millard’s retelling, young Churchill was entitled, precocious, supernaturally confident — one of those fellows whose neon self-regard is downright unseemly until the very moment it is earned.
“Churchill seemed far less Victorian than Rooseveltian,” she writes. (Well, his mother was American.) Or, as his first biographer wrote: “Winston advertises himself as simply and unconsciously as he breathes.”
On its face, Churchill’s role in the Second Boer War may not seem like a substantial enough subject for a book. Don’t be fooled. Over the years, Ms. Millard has made a stylish niche for herself, zooming in on a brief, pivotal chapter in the life of a historical figure and turning it into a legitimate feature-length production. In “The River of Doubt,” she focused on Theodore Roosevelt’s adventures in the Amazon basin to recover from his defeat in 1912. (These excursions seemed to be the political equivalent of rebound girlfriends for him.) In “Destiny of the Republic,” she focused on the assassination of James A. Garfield, particularly the doctors who serially bungled their attempts to save his life.
The story Ms. Millard tells here is no less cinematic or dramatic. Churchill covered the Second Boer War as a correspondent for The Morning Post, but he was hardly an ordinary reporter: He insisted on traveling with his valet; he took along roughly $4,000 of fine wines and spirits, including 18 bottles of St.-Émilion and another 18 of 10-year-old Scotch.
Most critically, though, he brought with him a great thirst for redemption. Churchill, 24, had just stood for Parliament and lost, having made the dire mistake of running “on the strength of his father’s name rather than his own.” Though he’d already fought in two wars — one in Sudan, the other on the northwest frontier of British India — and witnessed another as a reporter in Cuba, he “returned home every time without the medals that mattered, no more distinguished or famous than he had been when he set out.”
It was not for lack of trying. He charged the Pashtun while riding a bright gray pony. He stuck out like a bride.
Churchill hoped that the Second Boer War would finally do the trick. It did, and how. While on a scouting expedition on an armored train, he and scores of British soldiers were shelled by pom-poms, vicious weapons with a deceptively quaint nickname. His army instincts took over, and it was in large part because of his courageous efforts — and a dash of MacGyver ingenuity — that anyone on the train came back.
The bad news: Churchill was captured. The good news: Everyone in England knew about his bravery. The headlines were the stuff of his dreams. “MR. CHURCHILL’S HEROISM” screamed The Yorkshire Evening Post.
This part of the book — where the train derails — is the only part where the narrative derails, too. (The logistics of this particular skirmish? A bit of a bore. Or rather, too minutely conveyed. They’re hard to follow.)
Soldier through. The rest of Ms. Millard’s book — about Churchill’s time as a prisoner of war, his audacious escape, the outcome of the conflict — are as involving as a popcorn thriller. Ms. Millard does an excellent job conveying the drama of confinement, both inside the prison and out. Being on the run meant hiding in many dark, dank, undignified spaces. It meant tolerating uncertainty, which Churchill hated. It meant being powerless, utterly dependent on the mercy of strangers, and he hated that, too. “It had been hard enough,” she writes, “to take orders from his superiors while he was in the army.”
Ms. Millard also shows, as she has in her previous work, that she has a great ear for quotes — an underrated virtue in writers of history. (Favorite example: The British Ambassador to Berlin wrote that Churchill’s mother had “more of the panther than of the woman in her look.”) Her eye for detail is equally good. With just a few key images, she conveys how the most formidable empire on the planet could be so discomfited by an unpolished, seemingly ragtag army of Boers: “At most, British soldiers spent two months of the year actually training to fight,” she writes. “The other 10 were devoted to parading, attending to their uniforms and waiting on their officers.”
It didn’t help matters that the British soldiers brought heaps of amenities into the field, which required many mules and oxen to lug. They were the hopeless dowager aunt who brings way too much luggage on holiday.
But the real example of profligacy in this story may be young Churchill’s ego. It’s not a surprise, exactly. What’s striking is the high volume of evidence Ms. Millard has compiled to show how unswervingly he believed in his own majestic destiny more than 40 years before he fulfilled it, and how early this belief began to appear, like the first visible outlines on a Polaroid.
“I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending,” Churchill wrote to his mother from Bangalore, trying to reassure her he wouldn’t be killed in India.
The powerful really are different from you and me. They have more confidence. It requires outsize stamina and self-assurance to save a nation. “The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults,” his first love, Pamela Plowden, once said. “And the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.”
Hero of the Empire
The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill
By Candice Millard
Illustrated. 381 pages. Doubleday. $30.
A version of this review appears in print on September 22, 2016, on page C6 of the New York edition with the headline: That War Where Churchill First Earned His Spurs. Today’s Paper|Subscribe