I like to print out the transcripts from Hugh Hewitt's radio show to read while working out, especially once a week when he has Hillsdale College president Dr. Larry Arnn on the show to talk history and how it relates to our time. The past few weeks they've been looking at former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and I admit that I've been surprised just how awesome Churchill was before he was awesome in his leadership during WWII.
In the Sept. 23 show they looked at Churchill's early days and a story that deserves to be known. Here's how Dr. Arnn put it:
LA: Well, so I’ll just tell you a story. By the time he was 25 years old, Winston Churchill distinguished himself in three wars and wrote three bestselling books about the wars, by the end of his 25th year. And he was a heck of a soldier, and he was a force of nature. And so once there was in South Africa an armored train, and Winston Churchill was a journalist at the time. And the reason he was a journalist was they kept passing rules. They got tired of this second lieutenant, in American terms, being the foremost expositor of these three wars. And he would be critical of generals, and he was the one everybody was reading, and more than anybody else. And so they got tired of it, and they passed a rule that you couldn’t be writing for the press if you were a serving officer. And so he would resign his commission and go be a journalist for a while, and write a bunch of articles, and then he’d go back and serve for a while. And he was unstoppable. And he’s on this armored train as a journalist, and an armored train is a very stupid idea, because you can make them feel very strong, but the tracks are vulnerable. And the Boers in South Africa piled a bunch of rocks on the track, and they derailed it, and then they started artillery fire going through a valley with rocks on either side. And they opened artillery and small arms fire, and the train’s going backwards at the time. And the railway engineer, the engineer, hit these rocks and derailed the train. And so now they’re all stuck there, and they’re under fire. And eventually, more than a dozen of them were killed. And the fire was heavy. And Churchill went to the captain, Haldane was his name, and volunteered to help. And Haldane knew him, and said he’s the one who persuaded him to come along anyway. And he said oh, yeah. And so Churchill gets out of the train, and walks a semicircle with bullets coming all around him, and walks back and opens the door, and says I need volunteers, we can get this thing moving. And then for an hour, exposed to gunfire, he led an effort, and they got it free. And people were agape. They couldn’t believe what they had seen. And people put him up for the Victorian Cross, and he wasn’t an officer. He couldn’t win it. It’s like the Congressional Medal of Honor for them. So then the train gets going, they put the wounded on it. At one point, the engineer, did I tell you this story already to your listeners?
LA: Because it’s a fantastic story. It’s one of the great stories about Churchill. And the engineer said at one point, he said, you know, he got wounded. He got hit a little bit. And he was bleeding. And he was going to run. And Churchill said buck up, man, nobody’s ever wounded twice in the battle. You’re safe. And then he said anyway, you’re going to win a medal. He stayed. Churchill eventually is home secretary years later. He couldn’t get him a medal. He tried. So Churchill gave him a medal, years later. So then the thing gets going. Churchill’s on the locomotive, and the wounded are on, and the engineer is on, and the idea is the men are going to run along the side and be shielded and get away, but he can’t keep the train going slow enough. And it leaves them behind, and Churchill sees them all being captured. And so he jumps off and goes to help them, and he gets captured, almost gets shot in the time that he’s captured. And then he surrenders. He hated that. Then he’s under guard on a train for several hours, no, sorry, first, they walk. It starts raining. And they walk for hours in the rain. And then they get on a train, and he’s got a gun pointed at him all the way, and he goes to Pretoria, that’s the capital of this rebel part of South Africa, rebel, I guess they call them, the Boer part. And along the way, he has a great talk with his guards, and he finds out a bunch of stuff. They get out of the train, and somebody takes a photograph, and it’s, if you email me, I’ll send you a link to the photograph, it’s one of the most telling documents in the whole Churchill story, because everybody is standing, and the townspeople of Pretoria, they’re right in the center of town, the train is behind them, and everybody’s gaping at them. And all of the soldiers, British soldiers, are in ranks. And they’re looking bedraggled and down. Nobody’s looking up except one other guy. Off to the side, Winston Churchill is standing with his weight on one leg, and cocked a little bit to the right, his hands are behind him, and he’s staring directly at the crowd. And it looks to me like he’s holding them in contempt.
HH: I’m looking at the photo as you speak. He is holding them in contempt, isn’t he?
LA: It’s just wonderful, right?
LA: And then he gets to the, so, he gets, and by the way, he wrote several newspaper articles on the train, sent them off, got them published, and we have copies of them now. Also, he fires off a bunch of letters protesting that he’d been arrested. He’s a non-combatant. He gets to the prison for the officers. It’s a place called the State Model Schools in Pretoria, and he’s learned that the men, the enlisted men, are being held in the stadium. And so he arrives with a plan that he put to the British commanders of the captured men. He says we can overpower our guards, take their weapons, go to the stadium, free the enlisted men, seize the capital, and end the war. And he’s just devastated and angry that they won’t do it. And so instead, he escapes. When he escapes, he gets to, at one point, he’s desperate. He stumbles into a village, a mining village, and there’s a whole bunch of houses there. Only one of the houses is occupied by a British person. That’s the door he happens to knock on. The guy hides him, gets him on a train, gets him out of the country. He becomes a national hero, and is elected to Parliament.
HH: And his book, London To Ladysmith Via Pretoria?
LA: Yeah, well, that’s right. The book, but My Early Life is a later book, he wrote that in the 30s, is the book that really tells that story. But he doesn’t tell it as well as I just told it, and the reason is, here’s another thing about Churchill. He wrote fifty books, and he wrote his own speeches, and they are brilliant. And they are not generally about himself. And they are not in a bragging tone, though they’re fun to read.
HH: And how old was he, how old was he when this adventure in the Boer war occurred?
LA: Well, this adventure was in 1898, ’99, sorry, I’m forgetting. He was born in 1874, so he was 24 or 25. He was 25, I think, by this time.