Originally published on September 29, 2016.
Winston Churchill sure didn’t make it easy to become a seminal figure in world history.
Before becoming Great Britain’s prime minister and leading his empire through World War II, Churchill was an extremely ambitious youngster who saw military glory as a pathway to political power. But this type of thinking almost got him killed in the Second Boer War, a late 1890s military conflict in what’s now South Africa.
After writing two successful books on Theodore Roosevelt and James Garfield, Kansas City area native Candice Millard detailed Churchill’s youthful military exploits in Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill . The book is a captivating account of how Churchill made a daring escape from imprisonment – and how his time at war shaped the rest of his life.
Millard's book provides history buffs like this reporter with an eerie what if scenario: Had Churchill not survived, the course of some weighty world events may have transpired much differently. But it was Churchill’s decision to purposefully risk his life for political fame that propelled him into a position to make history. It perhaps shows that while ambition can make someone look pretty ugly, it's the type of character trait that, later in life, can be helpful in saving the world from unimaginable tyranny.
Before speaking at the St. Louis County Library headquarters on Thursday, Millard spoke with me about her new book – and how Churchill continues to be such an alluring historical figure. Questions and answers were edited for clarity and length.
ROSENBAUM: Why Winston Churchill?
MILLARD: Why not Winston Churchill? How can you resist him, right?
It’s a very daunting subject, obviously. They say there have been more books written about him than anyone but Napoleon and Jesus, which I believe. But what interested me about Churchill is how he came to be: How he came to be one of the most famous people on the planet, one of the most powerful and effective leaders? Where did he come from? And the answer is … the very beginnings of it took place in South Africa.
Obviously Churchill has a lot of resonance in Missouri. He made a very famous speech here. And he kind of partnered with an everyman character in Harry Truman. But from reading the first part of your book, he’s anything but an everyman.
Did you feel some cognitive dissonance between how Churchill is perceived in a place like Missouri and what he was really like as a young man?
It surprised me. And I think it would surprise a lot of Americans, for one thing, to see where he was born – which is Blenheim Palace. Some people may have been there, but it’s this extraordinary, enormous and opulent palace where he was born. He’s a direct descendent of the first Duke of Marlborough. He was born into the highest ranks of the British aristocracy. And obviously that affected him. And he was born at the height of the British Empire and was an unabashed imperialist – but became a voice of the people.
And again, you see that very, very early in his life. Although he was born into this elite circle, he was incredibly ambitious. And he wasn’t sitting around waiting for things to happen to him. He made them happen for himself.
When you thought about writing about Winston Churchill, did you know you were going to write about the chapter in his life where he fought in the Boer War?
I did. I had heard the story about 25 years ago. So it was always in the back of my mind. All I knew was the basic outlines: He had been taken as a prisoner of war and he escaped. And it just stunned me. Because I had not heard that story before. And you think ‘Winston Churchill? This happened to Winston Churchill?’
After I turned in the manuscript for my second book, I was thinking about it some more. And I did some more research. And you know, the Boer War is really the beginning of modern warfare. This is really the launching pad for Winston Churchill’s career. And it was just a fascinating story in itself.
I actually saw a lot of similarities between Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt was obviously born into great wealth, but was incredibly and inherently ambitious. He was very arrogant. He drove everybody crazy. They were both incredibly well read, as is true with James Garfield as you know.
All of them were extraordinarily talented writers. They understood the power of words, and were able to use it. And what I think they all have in common is they were natural born leaders. The reason I think that is not only were they confident themselves, but they could transfer that confidence to another person. It was contagious. So, Winston Churchill, he believed in himself. He believed that he was extraordinary. He believed that he was destined for greatness. He used to say he had faith in his star. But he could look at someone else and say ‘You know what? You are also extraordinary. You are also brave and resourceful. And you can do incredible things.’
And you believe it. And as a result, look at World War II. I think this was true for Theodore Roosevelt and for James Garfield as well.
Did you think when you were writing this book: ‘Winston Churchill risked so much to be a part of history. And if he would have died in what is now South Africa, the world may have been so much different?’
I do think that. And I think that he could have died again and again and again.
By the time he goes to South Africa, he’s only 24 years old. But this is his fourth war on three different continents. He had killed men. He had nearly been killed himself many times. He had watched many of his friends not just killed, but slaughtered. And it’s just mind-blowing to imagine if Winston Churchill had died at any of these points as a very young man, always launching himself into not just a battle but the most brutal he could find.
He rode a white pony in the battlefield in British India to everybody’s astonishment and horror. I can’t imagine anybody who could have taken his place and played that particular role in World War II with the same effect.
One of the things I was kind of amazed about was not only how ambitious Winston Churchill was when he was a young man, but also how sure he was that he was going to be this great leader of his country.
Some people would say that’s very arrogant for somebody to believe when they’re that young. Where do you think that came from – and how did he prevent himself from veering into being super arrogant?
He was super arrogant. I mean, he himself would admit it.
He’s a direct descendant of the first Duke of Marlborough – and he feels that legacy very much. John Churchill, the first duke, was considered to be one of, if not the, greatest general in British history. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had been chancellor of the exchequer, leader of the House of Commons at a very young age. And Churchill himself felt he would do all of these great things. In fact, one of my favorite quotes he writes to his mother when he’s fighting in the Battle of Malakand is ‘I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.’
What’s interesting is everybody else saw it too. And again and again and again when I was doing research, I just had to laugh. Because people would say ‘You know, I cannot stand that kid Winston Churchill. He’s going to be prime minister one day. But I can’t stand him.’ He got on everyone’s last nerve.
I think the other thing that stuck out was the types of wars in which he was getting involved. It was Britain trying to control a lot of colonies where the populations were not white, especially in India and Africa. And I guess the Boer War was basically this one Caucasian-driven empire versus settlers of another Caucasian empire trying to rule a largely non-white geographic area.
Especially when you were researching this book, did that dynamic come into your mind? And how did this sentiment work its way into the book?
It was really important to me to the extent that I could tell the story from the point of view of native Africans.
As you say, you have the British Empire. And then you have the Boers, who are largely Dutch, German and Huguenot settlers. They’ve been there for centuries. But this is Africa. People have been living there not for hundreds or thousands of years, but for millions of years. So you have this white man’s war over land that doesn’t belong to either them. And it was really important for me to make that point. And I did make it very strongly several times in the book.
And in particular, it was really exciting for me: I found this man named Solomon Plaatje, who was a native African. He was one of these extraordinary people you find every once in a while in history. He somehow was largely self-taught. He knew about eight European languages, as well as many different African languages. He would serve as a translator for native Africans who were accused of crime, hauled in Boer courts and had no idea what was being said. He started newspapers. And he wrote a diary during the Boer War observing the British and the Boers. And it’s incredibly beautiful – and I quote from in the book.
I wanted you to talk about the process for writing this book. I’ve been told that you went to South Africa. Did you also go to England and look through Churchill’s personal writings?
I spent a lot of time researching. For each of my books, to me it’s the best part of the process. I really love it. I spend as much time as I can until it becomes ridiculous and I need to move forward.
I spent a lot of time in Cambridge, where the Churchill archives are. I went to Blenheim Palace. They have archives there as well. I went to National Army Museum… I met with Churchill’s granddaughter.
And then I went to South Africa. I spent several weeks there. And everywhere you look, there’s something about the Boer War. There are markers for battlefields. There are museums. There are libraries. But specifically to this story, I went to where Churchill was captured.
I went to where he was kept as a POW in Pretoria. And it’s incredible: The building is now a public library, but there’s a drawing of the map of South Africa on the wall that these officer prisoners drew. There’s a trap door in the floor where Churchill was kept, where they were thinking about tunneling their way out. I went to where he hid in a coal mine shaft for three days with white rats. I went into what’s now Mozambique, which was then Portuguese East Africa. And that’s where he made his way to freedom. And the British consulate he went to? Same building.
It was so much fun.
How do you think Churchill is perceived in a place like South Africa? Not only among descendants of white settlers, but also of the non-white residents?
Obviously, South Africa’s changed a lot for the better. The British Empire, they promised native Africans that things would get a lot better for them after the Boer War. And of course, that didn’t happen for a long, long time. It took a long time until we got to Nelson Mandela.
And South Africa’s still going through growing pains – and it’s changing. And so, obviously there’s not a lot of respect for Winston Churchill or certainly not for any of the Boers that were precursors to the Afrikaners.
So the changes are definitely for the best.
There’s probably a massively different perception to how Churchill is perceived here in America or Europe compared to former colonies all over the world. I don’t think he’s seen so magnanimously, because I don’t know if the British Empire as a whole is perceived magnanimously.
Of course, yes. And let’s be honest. As much as there is to admire about Winston Churchill, he was far from a perfect man. He was unabashed imperialist. He was an elitist. He was a product of the time in which he was born and the station in which he was born. You know, he was born in the highest ranks of the British aristocracy during the Victorian ages and the height of the British Empire.
You kind of have to take him as he was and look at him cleared eyed.
The most visually striking aspect of the book is the fact he made such a dramatic escape in wartime environment. It’s hard to imagine someone like Winston Churchill, who has a popular image of being a roly-poly man who smokes cigars, being almost an action hero. How did you reconcile those perceptions into this book?
And that was important to me, because most of us when we think of Winston Churchill, we think of this old man sending young men into war. But the truth is that no one understood better, and few understood as well as he did, the real cost and tragedy of war. Because he had seen it himself up close again and again and again as a very young man.
He escapes from prison and makes it across almost 300 miles of enemy territory by himself without a map, without a gun, without food, without a compass. He doesn’t speak the language. It’s just really this extraordinary escape, this extraordinary adventure. And it makes him a national hero.
Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum