Sunday, January 1, 2017

Book Review: Hero of the Emipre

Last month, I was browsing in a bookstore and stumbled across the book Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill.  As its title implies, this non-fiction book by Candice Millard covers what was an early adventure* in the life of young Winston Churchill.  I had previously read and enjoyed Millard's River of Doubt regarding a journey of exploration which Theodore Roosevelt helped lead in Brazil, after his presidency, so the book seemed promising.  Alas, life was rather hectic and I did not finally get to read it until Christmastime.

It was almost as good as I had hoped.  It first summarizes the events of Churchill's life prior to the outbreak of the Boer War, then the geopolitical circumstances leading up to the Boer War.  It only covers in detail up through the end of the titular "daring escape"; Churchill's subsequent participation in the Boer War is merely summarized.  So is his subsequent success in the election held shortly after the war's conclusion, an electoral success made possible only through the events presented in the book.  The post-war formation of the Union of South Africa from Britain's Cape Colony and the conquered Boer states is also briefly mentioned.

In between the summaries are the real meat of the book.  Early in the Boer War, the forces of the British Army in what is now South Africa were largely overwhelmed and forced to retreat, with a large part of the British force besieged at Ladysmith.  When Churchill arrived as a war correspondent with the British reinforcements, he traveled to Estcourt, the British position nearest Ladysmith in the hopes of reporting upon the situation.  The small British force at was helplessly outnumbered by the Boers besieging, but was attempting a reconnaissance of the rail line to Ladysmith by means of a hastily-constructed armored train.

With Churchill aboard, one such foray by the train was met by a daring Boer raid.  In the ensuing action, Churchill helped in attempting to fight off the Boer, and was captured.  In many cases, a war correspondent would simply have been released, but many had witnessed Churchill's participation in the battle, and he was treated as a prisoner of war instead.  He was imprisoned in Pretoria alongside the British officers.

His subsequent escape almost involved too much luck and coincidence to be believable if it were fiction.  It involved travel of hundreds of miles across a hot, sun-baked, arid African landscape, by foot and by surreptitious travel aboard freight trains.  Across this landscape, there were few who wished him well, and many who wished him ill - yet he stumbled across the one place in hundreds of miles where he might find a sympathetic reception.  When he was finally safe and able to write of his capture, captivity, and escape, he was lauded throughout the empire.  And then he volunteered, practically begged, to go back with the British Army as an officer once more.

I found the tale to be completely gripping.  If I hadn't been reading it in the midst of travel, I likely would have read it in one sitting.  I had to force myself to put it down and go to sleep one night, then force myself to stop reading it after I finished breakfast the next morning and got back on the road.   The language is not fancy but is smoothly constructed to present the tale in question.  The drama is skillfully accentuated in parts, but the situation lends itself naturally to that, so it doesn't feel forced. There were few typos or other distractions, although I seem to recall the term "knots per hour" used at one point.

I would recommend this book to anybody interested in military or adventure tales, as well as to lovers of history.  The story, while factual and historical, is fundamentally a great adventure tale.

* Churchill's first great adventure, as an officer and war correspondent covering a campaign by the British and Indian armies along the North West Frontier of what was then British India.  It is detailed in Con Coughlin's Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans, which I read a couple years back.  That's also good book.  Churchill himself wrote The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War about that experience.

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