When I was in high school, my English teacher told me a story I will never forget. He told me the tale of King Arthur, legendary knight of the Round Table and wielder of the blade, Excalibur. My class was silent and in awe, straining to hear the teacher’s low and passionate voice. Arthur would go on to create Camelot, a city of light, diversity, and hope in an age that had none. As the story went, this mythical warrior helped drive back Saxon invaders and was there to defend England in its darkest hour. He eventually fell and passed away, but his life has been the core of English mythology ever since.
Yet my teacher pointed out that there was more to this story that Americans don’t hear about. He brought up how, in some circles, the English people of today believe that King Arthur now lies in wait, in an infinite slumber. He has become eternal guardian of the British Isle, ready to rise again and stand for her when she is in dire need. Some claim that this was proven in World War II, when the spirit of King Arthur became embodied in the form of Winston Churchill. This was the man who, seemingly out of nowhere, found himself inspiring the nation. He roamed the streets of London, shook his cane at the Nazis and declaring that the English people would never be defeated. Perhaps there’s something to this link to Arthur because, despite the incredibly dark odds, the British stood strong and threw back their foe, time and time again.
I adore this story, as unusual as it is. Though it is one of many national myths, it is one that is as powerful as it is reassuring. And it speaks to the reputation of Churchill himself. Winston Churchill has been viewed so positively by history that people can believe him the reincarnation of a legendary hero and, even though we know the story to be pure fancy, it has a ring of truth and comfort to have such a figure watching over us when we need him most. Though he was undoubtedly a man of many faults just like the best of us, Churchill’s story still inspires people of the world to this day. Hopefully, he always will.
But Winston Churchill was not always the irascible spitfire. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill details the story of his earlier years before all the fame, when he was just a young kid trying to live up to his father’s name and put his mark upon the world.
Knowing what I know about the adult Churchill, this book was filled both with surprises and the utterly familiar. Armed with the enormous ego and thirst for glory that he would keep into his winter years, the story begins with Churchill hearing of the latest enterprise of the British Empire: the Boer War. Though he knew rather little of the Boers or what they stood for, an enemy of Britain was an enemy of Churchill’s, so he immediately ventured out as a war correspondent so that he could get in on the action before his side inevitably won.
In fact, though the British ended up winning the Boer War, it was only after many setbacks. The author points out that the Boers fought in a way very alien to what the British were used to. The British method of the time was to form a line of battle, have your artillery in place, and then have a rather civilized tit-for-tat until the more disciplined force won. The Boers, however, wanted none of it. Instead, they functioned much like Native American braves: they were skilled on horseback, would raid unprotected areas, snipe from treelines, and fade into the South African veldt like ghosts once the British showed up in force.
Because this style was so different from British habits, the British forces suffered a constant string of defeats. It was during one of these that Churchill was captured, though he put up an incredible fight before finally waving the white flag. The bulk of the book then becomes a picture of Churchill dealing with captivity, finding a way to escape, and then single-handedly crossing miles of hostile land to get back to British territory.
The Man and the Myth
During the capture and his clever escape (which I did not know about prior to reading this book), Churchill’s personality becomes the star of the show. But it is in this lesser known episode of his life that I gained a stronger sense of the type of man he really was. On the one hand, it was entertaining to see the pluck and grit that would come to define him later in life. On the other hand, it was eye-opening to see how opportunistic Churchill could be in everything he did.
You see, before departing for Africa, it is worth noting that Churchill had run for office and failed. From this, he leaped at the idea of redeeming his political career by posing as a warrior in the first conflict that popped up. Now, to be fair, Churchill was quite capable in battle and was clearly tenacious enough to escape a hostile enemy despite all their efforts. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see how little he seemed to care about the conflict itself, and he seemed indifferent as to whether the war against the Boers was a just one (spoiler: it wasn’t). To him, the killing of other men on the battlefield was simply a means to an end.
It is hard to judge him too harshly for this given the standards of the time, his achievements in the war, and in the context of what would he would accomplish later. But I have always found it constructive to make sure we view our heroes as they truly are, warts and all. Does this diminish Churchill’s standing in my eyes and in history? Not at all. Saving the civilized world from the depredations of Adolf Hitler was such an incredible feat that it can’t be challenged. Yet I can also read about young Churchill’s superior attitude and see how it led to him ruthlessly clashing with Mahatma Gandhi decades later in India.
Altogether, I finished Hero of the Empire entertained and wanting more. It was a rousing story on a narrow subject, which ended up being both a good and bad thing. The author would occasionally touch on what else was happening during the Boer War, but I would not be able to recommend it as a history of that conflict. Instead what I got was a slice of life tale, a snapshot of a young war hero on the run, and an opportunity to see how the adventurous personality of Winston Churchill would eventually shape him into that next King Arthur and future savior of the British Isle. That was enough for me, and more. I recommend it so it might be that for you too.