Winston Churchill's Military Career

An Officer and a Gentleman

"For years I thought my father, with his experience and flair, had discerned in me the qualities of military genius. But I was told later that he had only come to the conclusion that I was not clever enough to go to the Bar."

For young gentlemen of Winston's social class only certain professions were considered suitable. The university was the gatekeeper to all but the military, and Winston's poor performance at school closed the university's doors to him.

Winston's lack of attention to studies nearly ended his military career before it began. He took three attempts to pass the entrance exams for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, scoring just enough points to be admitted to the Cavalry, but not the Infantry.

Lord Randolph had hoped for at least an infantry career for his son, and was deeply disappointed.

The Cavalry became a source of both joy and tension for Winston. Riding became a passion and he proved exceptionally good at it. However, since the British Officer had to pay for his own uniforms and horses, Cavalry service taxed his family's financial resources.

But, at Sandhurst Winston finally hit his stride, applying himself to subjects that interested him and earning good marks. "I was no longer handicapped by past neglect of Latin, French or Mathematics. We had now to learn fresh things and we all started equal. Tactics, Fortification, Topography [mapmaking], Military Law and Military Fortification, formed the whole curriculum. In addition were Drill, Gymnastics and Riding." Churchill found his work at Sandhurst exciting. He drew contoured maps of the hills in the area, designed paper plans for the advanced guards and rear guards, and even thought up simple tactical schemes. He learned how to blow up masonry bridges and make substitute bridges out of wood.

Sandhurst's eighteen months of practical studies concluded Winston's formal education, and he graduated 20th out of 130.

Sword and Pen

Churchill craved action. With his mother's help, he worked every family connection to get posted, officially or unofficially, to any battlefront. "In my interest she left no wire unpulled, no stone unturned, no cutlet uncooked."

Churchill displayed conspicuous physical courage on the battlefield, and his vivid articles for British newspapers received wide notice.

His overriding purpose in both seeking combat and writing articles was to establish his reputation for a political career. As he wrote to his mother: "It is a pushing age and we must shove with the rest."

From 1895 to 1900, Churchill supplemented his Army pay by reporting on military campaigns. Winston's articles were well received and advanced both his literary and political career.

Winston was adept at wrangling his way to the front. In India, he appeared at the Northwest frontier command post without assignment and was attached as a correspondent.

In the Sudan, his reputation as a war correspondent nearly cut him out of the action. The commanding officer, General Sir Herbert Kitchener, was unenthusiastic about having Churchill along. Churchill's excellent political and personal connections, however, eventually prevailed and he duly joined the British expedition and was present at the battle of Omdurman.

In 1899 Churchill left the army to pursue a career as a writer and politician. Failing to win election, he traveled to South Africa as a correspondent - the highest paid at that time. He wrote to his mother, "I am very proud of the fact that there is not one person in a million who at my age [25] could have earned [£] 10,000 without any capital in less than two years."

Churchill turned his newspaper accounts into bestselling books - several of which are still in print. His reports from India became The Story of the Malakand Field Force while the accounts from Sudan appeared as The River War. His South African adventures were published as London to Ladysmith and Ian Hamilton's March. He also wrote a novel, Savrola.

The Great Escape

"Prisoner of War! ... Life is one long boredom from dawn till slumber... I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life."

In 1899, Churchill took a job with the Morning Post reporting on the Boer War in South Africa. On his first assignment, the armoured train he was accompanying was ambushed and Winston organized a defensive withdraw. Captured, he claimed correspondent status, but his actions landed him in Pretoria as a prisoner of war.

Two weeks later, Churchill scaled a wall and evaded recapture by traveling at night, receiving help from local British supporters, and stowing away on supply trains. With a "dead or alive" price on his head, he traveled 300 miles in nine days to reach Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).

Returning to South Africa, Churchill received a hero's welcome in Durban. His vivid accounts of his capture and escape were dramatized in the British press and secured his notoriety at home.
The fame launched his political career, and his career as a public lecturer.

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