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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions