Book review: Winnie's awfully big adventure in the Veldt

Churchill Wanted Dead or Alive by Celia Sandys HarperCollins pounds 19.99
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The Independent Culture
It is difficult to imagine that anything more could be said about Winston Churchill. His extraordinary personality - a mixture of Homeric over-the-top heroism and Just William cheek - made him one of the greatest leaders of the century, if not the millennium.

The stories of his life have been told and retold in countless volumes, both by himself and others. His life - 40 years of it anyway - unfurled like a Bayeux tapestry, stretching from dagger-wielding dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman to the bomb-shattered streets of London, from the bloodied soil of the South African veldt to the human tragedy on the beaches of France. Few others have single handedly changed the course of history. Few others have been so infuriating, so loved, or so rude.

So it is with some trepidation that one approaches yet another book on Churchill. The reader is made more wary still by the fact that it is written by his granddaughter, who will surely have a vested interest in portraying her illustrious family member in a good light.

In this, her second book on her grandfather (the first, From Winston With Love and Kisses: The Young Churchill, dealt with his childhood), Sandys concentrates on a 22-month period during the second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, from the time Churchill arrived at the Cape as a war correspondent to cover the conflict for the London-based Morning Post in October 1899, to his departure on 24 July 1900.

Thankfully, it is clear from the start that Sandys is not going to paper over the cracks in the young Churchill's character. The reader is left in no doubt about just how bumptious and hot-headed he could be.

She recalls how J B Atkins of the Manchester Guardian, sailing to South Africa with Churchill, described him as "slim, slightly reddish-haired, lively, frequently plunging along the deck with neck out-thrust ... I had not encountered this sort of ambition, unabashed, frankly egotistical, communicating its excitement."

On another occasion she describes the irritation of the British commander, Lt General Sir Charles Warren, when Churchill began to harangue him about his battle tactics at Spion Kop. Warren shouted: "Who is this man? Take him away. Put him under arrest." (The account, strangely enough, is at odds with Churchill's own recollections in My Early Life in which he states that the General listened to him with "great patience and attention").

It's also quite a relief that this is not merely a story about a well- trodden piece of history - an uncomfortable one at that in modern South Africa - but a cracking good yarn about a cocky young Victorian lad whose jingoistic adventures in a far-flung colony, nearly cost him his life.

These are the purposeful, if somewhat foolhardy, footsteps Sandys has retraced a century later. They go from Cape Town to Durban, thereafter to old battlefields at the foothills of the Drakensberg, to the historic towns of Ladysmith and Estcourt, gathering a wealth of new material from descendants linked to Winston's "exciting adventure".

We meet a stationmaster's great-grandson who told a story, well-aired in his family, of how Churchill sat in the Plough pub at Estcourt and regaled the drinkers with flamboyant stories about his war exploits, which few believed. "Mark my words, I shall be prime minister of England before I'm finished," the bumptious adventurer told them, probably with the beginnings of that jowly, bulldog expression. Forty years on the stationmaster looks up from his newspaper and exclaims "By Jove, he's done it!"

She takes us back to the dirt track near Colenso where the old railway line to Johannesburg once ran. With her is the grandson of the train driver, Charles Wagner, who was aboard that armoured train with Churchill when it came under Boer fire. Together they walk the now flowery route, where once "bullets ricocheted off the metal and shrapnel burst over the head of Winston", realising in the silence of the present that a bullet through the head may have changed the course of history for ever.

We meet the relatives of those who guarded him in the States Model School in Pretoria, descendants of those who protected him after his escape and descendants of those who wanted him caught "Dead or Alive". A new revelation that has a familiar ring about it is the anecdote from the son of one of the guards, placed in charge of prisoner Winston on his way to Pretoria : "He was [there] because his English was the best among the guards. Churchill offered my father pounds 5, if he could produce a bottle of brandy, but unfortunately he couldn't find one."

Sandys writes: "it is debatable who was the more unfortunate - Churchill without the brandy, or the guard without the money. Five pounds was equivalent to pounds 300 at today's prices, and there is no doubt that the Morning Post would have footed the bill."

It's doubtful, though, whether the same paper would have paid for his funeral. Even in the imaginary realms of James Bond, the Scarlet Pimpernel or the intrepid Biggles, the "recklessness" of this over-eager adventure-seeker would take some beating. Sandys tells nothing but the literal truth when she says that her grandfather, who gave up a commission in the army to become a politician and then a non-combatant reporter, "was never content to remain a spectator".

Among the many perilous escapades here given a new spin is the one involving Churchill's fall from his horse during a heated skirmish with the Boer enemy in the Free State. For the first time, the correspondence has come to light of the trooper who plucked him from almost certain death and pulled him on to his saddle. In a letter written to him after the war, Churchill said: "If you hadn't taken me up ... I should myself certainly have been killed or captured."

There are some points that historians may dispute, like the reference to the burial site of Colonel Riddle on Mount Alice, where General Sir Redvers Buller watched the battle of Spion Kop (it is a monument, not a grave), and certain spellings of Boer names. But those are small discrepancies in the greater landscape of a story about a fresh-faced rooinek who wooed the world with his acts of foolishness and courage, angered his elders, and years later would have rightfully proclaimed that he had helped to win an awfully big war.

For those who like history without the cobwebs, this is an absorbing, down-to-earth read.