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

Churchill Wanted Dead or Alive by Celia Sandys HarperCollins pounds 19.99

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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?