Top critical review
A WELL WRITTEN TALE, BUT ONE PLAGUED BY ERRORS, CONTRADICTIONS AND STRANGE OMISSIONS.
Reviewed in the United States on January 13, 2017
Churchill's Boer War experiences have been the subject of multiple Churchill memoirs, a book, a feature length film & a PBS documentary. Many Churchill biographies devote lengthy sections to the topic, most recently Simon Read's 2015 Winston Churchill Reporting (96 pp.)
What does Candice Millard have to add to the oft told tale? Well, a little bit. A positive of this work is that it includes additional detail not usually found in the story, though strictly with regard to peripheral matters: Boer leaders, those who aided Churchill's escape, etc. The best addition is an explanation of the mental state of prisoners of war.
Millard also shows an excellent narrative writing capability. She tells the story of the armored train incident and Churchill's capture and escape very well.
Despite these positives, the book deserves only 2 stars (at best). Its inaccuracies and contradictions are numerous, central to the "Hero" (Churchill) and undermine the primary tenets of the author's thesis.
Churchill was a complex man continually involved in complex affairs. He also operated within a complex political system which varied considerably from the American system. It is no surprise that the author struggles in her effort to master both the facts of Churchill's personal story & the British parliamentary system of the late 1890's. She was trained as a journalist, rather than as a historian, and this is only her third book. The first two dealt with American political figures.
The author's thesis is three pronged:
(1) Despite his high risk efforts to win medals in combat in order to make a name for himself in order to launch his political career, Churchill had "failed to win the medals that mattered," had returned from each war "no more distinguished or famous than when he left," and was just another inconsequential son of an aristocratic family. He was, thus, "desperate" to find another war and "a serious battle" in which he could distinguish himself.
(2) Churchill's electoral failure in the 1898 Oldham bye-election was due to his impatience. He had run for Parliament before he was "ready."
(3) The Boer War transformed Churchill in a way that prepared him to win on his next try in the 1899 general election and become the man he became.
The author fails to substantiate the first two and does not even try on the third. There is no question that Churchill became a "Hero of the Empire" due to this episode. It did not, however, make him a different man than he had been. It was critically important, turning a 1.6% electoral loss in 1898 into a narrow 1899 win of less than one half of 1%. (A 23.6% losing share in 1898 turned into a 25.30% winning share in 1899--a razor thin 222 vote win.) The author tries hard to embellish the story beyond that and severely damages the credibility of the book in the process.
The book's credibility is also badly damaged by irrelevant material, glaring contradictions, myriad errors and puzzling gaps in the story. The latter three are all serious problems, dealing, as they do, with Churchill himself. Specifics follow:
The author appears to lack confidence in both her grasp of the details of Churchill's life and her ability to support her thesis. Her response appears to be to fill space with "background" on matters peripheral and even irrelevant to the central story. For example, there are multi page digressions into Shaka Zulu and Gandhi, neither of whom have anything to do with Churchill. Shaka was long dead by this time and even the Zulu generally did not figure into Churchill's story. It is worth noting that Gandhi was a leader of stretcher bearers in the Boer War, but he had nothing to do with Churchill's Boer War either.
Major gaps in the relevant material:
Following Churchill's escape & return to action, he had multiple adventures which are overlooked. He was at the bloody battle of Spion Kop. This is mentioned only in passing without any of the interesting details.
Later, Churchill had a miraculous escape when his horse bolted leaving him trapped in open ground at the mercy of the Boers. He was saved when a lone British scout came around a hill & gave him a leg up as they rode for dear life under Boer fire.
An egregious omission is the story of Churchill's heroics at the Battle of Diamond Hill. His general, Ian Hamilton, tried to have Churchill awarded the Victoria Cross for valor only to be rebuffed by Lord Roberts and Kitchener, both of whom disliked the brash youngster.
Perhaps the most astonishing omission is the tale of the multi year dispute between Churchill and Haldane regarding Churchill's solo escape from the prison camp after all three would be escapees had tried and failed. That is the major controversy of the entire story.
Why would multi page digressions into figures irrelevant to Churchill's story be included while a major controversy, Victoria Cross worthy heroics and a miraculous escape, all be omitted?
If Churchill was so "desperate" for a battle in which to win military glory, then why did he resign his Army commission? How was he to win a medal as a civilian? No answer is provided.
(The reason was twofold. 1) Churchill's finances were in urgent need of repair. A cavalry officer's financial obligations were significant and resigning would substantially reduce Churchill's living expenses. Also, his writing career earned him a multiple of his army pay and being a full time correspondent & writer would allow him to devote even more time to this more lucrative pursuit.
Further, contrary to the author's contention, Churchill was no longer a nobody "desperate" for the right medal by the time of his resignation. He had already made quite a name for himself with his combat service, war reporting, and his books. This fact, plus his performance in public speaking, marked him as a "comer" and were, in addition to his family name, the reasons the Tory party elders chose him as the party nominee for a seat.)
If Churchill was as "unknown" as the author claims, why does she tell us just the opposite later in the text? For example:
A. Page 99--(Churchill) was "...well known, and widely believed to be on his way to Parliament, if not 10 Downing Street..."
B. Pages 59-60--The reader is told that Churchill had become the most sought after and highly paid war correspondent in Britain by the eve of the Boer War, having catapulted past the likes of Kipling and Conan Doyle.
Which is it? Was he unknown or well known? Unknown or the most in demand war correspondent in the land thought to be on his to Parliament and even Downing Street?
Errors (a partial list):
1) Pg 9--Churchill "began smoking cigars" in Cuba in 1895. While his taste for cigars, especially Cubans, was likely enhanced, this was neither his first time to smoke either cigars in general or cubanos in particular. See Hal Klepak's Churchill Comes of Age: Cuba 1895, pages 168-170.
2). Pg 20--The author leads the reader to believe that Churchill had secured assignment to the Sudan Campaign through "no less than the prime minister." Not so. He was attached to the 21st Lancers, not by the PM, Lord Salisbury, whose attempt was rebuffed by General Kitchener, but by the Adjutant General, Sir Evelyn Wood. Kitchener had the final say on additions to his campaign but Wood had authority to fill vacancies in British army units such as the 21st Lancers. When a vacancy occurred in the Lancers, Wood filled it with Churchill. The 21st Lancers were already part of the campaign as a unit. Hence, Churchill was off to join both the 21st Lancers and the campaign.
3) Page 20--The author states that the Sudan campaign was aimed at "Al-Mahdi" and his followers. That is incorrect. "The Mahdi" was Muhammad Ahmad, who led the siege of Khartoum which felled General Gordon in 1885. Ahmad died later in 1885 and was succeeded by his lieutenant, Abdullah bin Muhammad, known as "The Khalifa" or "Caliph." He was the target of the Kitchener campaign, not "Al-Mahdi."
4) Page 32--Churchill had a "uniquely powerful mother." That is rank hyperbole and misleading. Jennie held no position of authority or "power." She KNEW powerful people and could often get their ear. That was worth a lot, but it was far from having power.
5) Page 97--Churchill was "particularly furious" when he arrived in Egypt bound for the Sudan upon finding that "the position that had been promised to him had already been given to another man." How misleading! Churchill neither "lost his place" nor was he "furious." Both are fabrications.
The 21st Lancers had three squadrons--A,B & C. Churchill was to be assigned to B. There was also a vacancy in A. B & C pulled out of Cairo for the Sudan before Churchill arrived. Since LT Robert Grenfell, who was to take the A vacancy, was already on site, the assignments were swapped and Churchill wound up with A and Grenfell with B. Churchill and A Squadron caught up with the others before the Battle of Omdurman. All three squadrons fought alongside each other in the famous cavalry charge. The swap cost Churchill nothing.
The author cites Churchill's My Early Life for the statement that he was "furious," but it says nothing of the sort. Churchill simply notes that B & C had pulled out of Cairo by the time of his arrival, so he switched squadrons with Grenfell. Saying he was "furious" appears to be pure embellishment and is disturbing.
6) The author claims that, from the armored train, Churchill and Haldane saw Boers with wagons pulling what had to be field guns. The cited source is Churchill's London to Ladysmith and his My Early Life. Both tell of seeing Boers in the distance but neither mentions wagons or field guns. Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War, cited elsewhere by the author, points out that no evidence of guns was seen and that Haldane pushed further north in the mistaken belief that there were no Boer field guns nearby.
7) The author completely misunderstands the nature of Churchill's first Oldham political race in 1898, claiming that he lost because he was not yet "ready." That was just not the case.
The British system is controlled by the parties to a much greater extent and voters vote the party, rather than the individual candidate, to a much higher degree than in the US. Churchill lost the 1898 race for two reasons: 1) Oldham was a working class district and, as such, Liberal party leaning; 2) The national Tory party was pushing a "clerical tithes bill" which was very unpopular in the district. These are the reasons Churchill suffered a close loss, not his lack of "readiness." He actually ran ahead of the other Tory party candidate in the two seat race, coming in third to the two Liberal candidates by only 1,293 votes (about 2.5%.)
The British inclination to vote the party accounts for why Churchill, despite his new "Hero" status, moved the needle only slightly in the 1899 general election. Critically, it was enough to eke out a narrow win. The author embellishes again here at page 313, saying "They all did vote for Churchill the next time, or at least enough (to win)." She emphasizes the fact that Churchill came in second only 16 votes behind the first place Liberal. True, but he also came in second only 222 votes ahead of the third place Liberal-a margin of less than .5 percent.
The author appears to want to leave the impression that his new "hero" status and alleged personal transformation after the Boer War propelled Churchill to a substantial victory in 1899. That appears to be yet another instance of embellishment in pursuit of a more exciting story. The real story is adequately exciting on its own. The author and the reader would have been much better served by a proper explanation of the realities of the British electoral system which pointed out how difficult it was for an individual candidate to run ahead of his party. That would have given proper context to Churchill's narrow victory--a story just as dramatic.
With her writing ability the author could have produced a very fine addition to the voluminous Churchill library. Instead, she has produced a well told story, but one which fails as history due to numerous inaccuracies and omissions and startling contradictions. Of most concern is that she appears more than ready to embellish the story in multiple spots to make her tale more dramatic.
I enjoy reading this author. I hope she keeps at it, but with a renewed commitment to telling history both accurately and completely.