On this day in 1874, Sir Winston Churchill is born. This adopted American is best known, of course, for serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II.
Churchill was the son of an American mother and an English father. His father was extremely tough on him, and his mother at times seemed more concerned with social events than her own son. A young boy of his social station was expected to go to boarding school early, and he did—at age seven! Winston did not especially enjoy school, and his performance reflected that fact.
He later wrote that he “hardly ever been asked to learn anything which seemed of the slightest use or interest, or allowed to play any game which was amusing. In retrospect these [school] years form not only the least agreeable, but the only barren and unhappy period of my life.”
Churchill enjoyed the military far better and did well there. He also enjoyed and earned extra money as a journalist by writing about military campaigns. His writings—including an account of a time in which he was a prisoner of war—would eventually earn him fame and would launch his political career.
Did you know that Churchill was a prisoner of war when he celebrated his 25th birthday?
He had been serving as a war correspondent for The Morning Post during the Boer War in South Africa. Unfortunately, he was captured during a train ambush and held in a Pretoria prison. He demanded release as a member of the press, but his captors refused, noting that Churchill had helped British soldiers escape the ambushed train.
After three weeks of captivity, Churchill scaled a wall and made his escape.
“[I]t was discovered by several of the prisoners,” he later wrote, “that when the sentries along the eastern side walked about on their beats they were at certain moments unable to see the top of a few yards of the wall . . . The electric lights in the middle of the quadrangle brilliantly lighted the whole place, but the eastern wall was in shadow.”
Churchill made his escape and walked to the train tracks where he hitched a ride on a passing train. He still had a long, dangerous journey to the border, but (amazingly) he’d basically walked away from his prison.
As the son of a British Lord, his capture had been much publicized. When he escaped, that made news, too. People were worried! Where had he gone to? Had he really made it out? He still hadn’t reappeared safely. Where was he? Churchill finally made his way across the border and found a British consulate.
“The news of my arrival had spread like wildfire through the town,” he later wrote, “and while we were at dinner the Consul was at first disturbed to see a group of strange figures in the garden. These, however, turned out to be Englishmen fully armed who had hurried up to the Consulate determined to resist any attempt at my recapture.”
Churchill was soon on a steamship, headed to safety.
“I reached Durban to find myself a popular hero. I was received as if I had won a great victory. The harbour was decorated with flags. Bands and crowds thronged the quays. The Admiral, the General, the Mayor pressed on board to grasp my hand. I was nearly torn to pieces by enthusiastic kindness. Whirled along on the shoulders of the crowd, I was carried to the steps of the town hall, where nothing would content them but a speech . . . .”
With such an entry into public life, perhaps it is unsurprising that Churchill became such a successful politician? Indeed, his political career would span decades. Most famously, of course, his leadership in later years would help bring about the defeat of Adolf Hitler.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (2016)
Winston S. Churchill, A Roving Commission: My Early Life (1930)
Winston Churchill Museum website: Early Life
Winston Churchill Museum website: Sword and Pen