Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard

Winston Churchill fascinates us. The statesman who said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” wrote volumes about his own life as did many others. Most of us think of him as the Prime Minister who rallied the British during World War II and refused to surrender to Nazi Germany. We may recall how he modernized the British Navy and warned of the threat of the Iron Curtain, but Candice Millard tells a new story – one of Churchill in South Africa in the Boer War in 1899. Then 24 years old, Churchill had just lost his first campaign for parliament. His father, who died at the age of 45, had many accomplishments and the young Churchill didn’t want to lose time making himself known. He wanted to fight in a war and to be noticed while fighting. He’d served as an officer in India and Sudan and as a journalist in Cuba, but none of those exploits had gained him glory. 

Millard notes that in 1899 the British Empire covered more than a fifth of the world’s land surface and ruled about a quarter of the human race – “more than 450 million people on every continent and on the islands of every ocean.” It was the largest empire ever known. “The greatest threat was from the burden of ruling its own colonies.” After a century of conflict with the Boers (Dutch settlers) and new concerns about control of gold mines, the war began when the British rejected an ultimatum to withdraw troops from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Churchill set off as a journalist with his valet and crates of vintage wine to cover the brutal war, but just two weeks after his arrival, he was taken prisoner along with the soldiers he was following and aiding. He later managed a harrowing escape only to find himself alone in enemy territory with almost no resources to aid in traveling the hundreds of miles to safety. Telling of his capture, escape, and journey to freedom would make quite a story, but that’s just the beginning as Churchill returned to London, enlisted, and set off again for South Africa to liberate the men with whom he’d been captured and who were still imprisoned.

Millard shows Churchill just as he was, an aristocrat of the times, in an era when he said of South Africa: “The temperate sun warms the life within the soil. The cooling breeze refreshes the inhabitant. The delicious climate stimulates the vigour of the European. . . All Nature smiles, and here at last is a land where white men may rule and prosper.”

This is a stirring adventure story filled with remarkable characters including Rudyard Kipling, Gandhi, Botha, and Paul Kruger, but it also affords a view of the experiences that molded Churchill into the man who was one of the twentieth century's most influential persons. Candice Millard offers a swashbuckling tale of young Churchill that should appeal to those who rarely read history. 

Summing it Up: Read The Hero of the Empire for a rip-roaring exploration of the early years of Winston Churchill. Quickly turn the pages as Candice Millard illuminates the Boer War in full Technicolor and shows young Churchill in his “Indiana Jones” years.

Rating: 5 stars
Category: Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 20, 2016

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