Monday 24 October 2016

Gripping account of a formative year in life of Churchill

It's undoubtedly compelling in parts - but this overly-reverential account of the British wartime PM's time in South Africa draws too heavily on Churchill's own account or those of his hagiographers

Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30

Life in uniform: Winston Churchill was an army officer in the 4th Hussars from 1895-99
Life in uniform: Winston Churchill was an army officer in the 4th Hussars from 1895-99
Hero Of The Empire - The Making Of Winston Churchill, by Candice Millard

Are there no end to the books on Winston Churchill - soldier, world leader, writer, and stubborn defender of colonialism and then of democracy? The shelves heave with the tomes and volumes about (and by) this indomitable man, and I even picked up another myself recently in a second-hand shop in Belfast - a slim guide to the furnishings and ornaments in Chartwell, the great man's country retreat, compiled by his devoted housekeeper.

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The reverential listing of the house's objects illustrates the cult of personality around this singular figure, the removal of whose own bust from the White House, indeed, can still cause a row in American politics.

Candice Millard is also in the devoted category and is clearly impressed by Churchill's brave and often reckless sense of adventure and his extraordinary will power. Her book takes an unusual and original angle, describing in vivid detail just one year and event in Churchill's life - 1900, and his famous escape from Boer rebels - and describes how these events moulded him into a warrior and survivor.

1900 is an apt year to pick. Britain is at its height as a world power and empire, but it has been dented by the South African war, where the white Boers have launched a war against British occupation and expansion. It was a war with a strong Irish involvement, acting indeed as an inspiration for Irish republicans and Arthur Griffith, Michael Davitt and John McBride were all active on the ground.

But there was also a major Crown involvement by Irish troops, such as the Dublin Fusiliers who were active at the siege of Ladysmith and in whose honour a large arch adorns the Grafton Street end of Dublin's St Stephen's Green. Dubbed 'Traitors Arch' by Republicans, it was paint-bombed by Yeats's muse, Maud Gonne.

Churchill's experience in the South African war zone is well documented, not least by himself. He went there with the British army, but as a journalist keen for a scoop or exclusive. However, this ambiguous status brought him trouble and he was captured by the Boers, who could easily have shot him, given the fate that awaits civilians in such twilight zones who are (apparently) carrying weapons.

Hating captivity, Churchill made a daring escape and, after a two-day trek, turned up on the doorstep of, mercifully, a sympathetic settler. He is ferried home, where he publishes an account and becomes a hero, with more military adventures beckoning and a long political career.

Drawing from accounts and much research, Millard expertly sets the scene and tells the story like a thriller, with a concise and compelling description of the warm South African veldt and the ability of the primitive but lithe and determined Boers to move quickly across their intimate terrain. And inflict losses on the cumbersome and often arrogant British soldiery.

Millard's central point is that Churchill felt he had to prove himself in the field so as to prosper in politics back home, but she has taken this general notion and turned it into an overly schematic framework. Indeed, at times this is deterministic history at its most old fashioned, with a sense that destiny is shaping the path of Winston, no matter what the challenges, any of which the bold pretender could easily handle. In fairness, it is a colonial chutzpah that conquered the world, and in a post-Brexit world, still exists. But such heroics do become tiresome.

Thus, even in the midst of carnage and death, Churchill remains unflappable, and appears more concerned with the shame of possible surrender. "Although he could hear the gasps and moans of the dying men, a fate that he had only narrowly escaped himself," writes Millard diligently, "Churchill was filled not with gratitude but with frustration - because he'd been caught." But, really? And would he have traded places with the dying if given the option? Hardly.

The problem is that Millard draws too heavily on Churchill's own account or those of his hagiographers and so she compounds the mythification rather than interrogating it, as one might have hoped.

Granted, after a long period of overly hostile revisionism of such large figures by various debunkers and cultural Marxists, we are probably back to history as sheer drama and personality - and even costume drama and period detail - and this is a good thing, even if we have to read, for example here, that Churchill's mother was "blindingly beautiful"!

For example, it is surely one of the ironies of Churchill that those very qualities of modesty and stiff upper lip that characterise the classic British solider and adventurer are abandoned by this boastful man - a fact which the author, in fairness, acknowledges. Basically, Churchill is marked out as the Special One from early on - even if he would actually suffer more ups and downs than most political careers.

However, it is probably also the very quality that saved Europe. Although it took the addition of the US and USSR to defeat Hitler, there is no doubt that it was the sheer personal stubbornness and bravery of Churchill in refusing to accept the Nazi domination of Europe in 1940 that kept the lights on for freedom everywhere. And this is the same spirit, reckless but forceful, which Candice Millard has explored, in its early form, in this compelling account.

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