Although eloquence underpinned Churchill’s success as Prime Minister, there was a time when silence saved his life.
I came across this fascinating story in Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard. Churchill was born to a line of Dukes of Marlborough. His father, Lord Randolph, was Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister). By age 24, Churchill knew he’d someday become Prime Minister. The challenge was to gain public attention. He decided to distinguish himself at war. Millard writes of a formative experience in Churchill’s young life.
Background: Britain annexed South Africa soon after diamonds were discovered there. This was opposed by the Boers, farmers of mostly Dutch descent who’d settled in the area then called the Transvaal, especially because Britain had abolished slavery. In the late 1800s, skirmishes often occurred between the Boers and the British army.
Churchill was the highest paid war correspondent in South Africa—impressive considering colleagues included Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle. Determined to cover the action, Churchill thrust himself into dangerous situations.
One battle in South Africa was particularly harrowing. Churchill had befriended Captain Aylmer Haldane of the Dublin Fusiliers. Haldane had the impossible assignment to move a small train of armored cars bearing soldiers toward Estcourt in Natal (southeast South Africa). Boers piled rocks on the track. When the train derailed, Boer sharpshooters on horseback attacked.
Haldane was too injured to command. With bullets flying and shells exploding, Churchill took over, shouting orders, convincing the fleeing engine driver to stay. He rallied surviving soldiers to uncouple destroyed cars and push a derailed car out of the way. His efforts got the engine moving again. A heroic feat.
After, the Boers arrested Churchill. Incarceration as a P.O.W. proved tortuous. He determined to escape. His friend Haldane and Irish sergeant major Adam Brockie had a plan. Brockie was fluent in Dutch and Zulu, languages they’d need. Churchill asked to join them. Brockie declined, objecting that Churchill’s tendency to talk would tip off the guards and that Churchill was out of shape. Haldane insisted on including him. The plan involved jumping a fence at the right moment, then making their way east through hundreds of miles of Boer-occupied territory to Portugese East Africa (now Mozambique).
A moment arose and Churchill impulsively jumped the fence. He crouched behind a bush, waiting for his co-conspirators. They were unable to get away. Churchill, at 24, found himself on his own in hostile country, without a map, unable to speak the language.
This brash young man who loved nothing better than an audience was forced to endure silence and stealth. With only his wallet and a couple of chocolate bars, he walked all night and jumped trains. He was alone and terrified.
Churchill attended church regularly as a child, but no longer did so. Millard writes: “Now, with no new ideas, no clever plans, no strutting confidence in the strength of his mind… Churchill was forced to admit to himself that he needed help. …He was, by all measures but one, alone, and so did the only thing he could think to do. He prayed, ‘long and earnestly.’” Churchill later wrote, “Without the assistance of that High Power which interferes in the eternal sequence of causes and effects more often than we are always prone to admit, I could never succeed.”
The next night, surrounded by enemies, slipping in strength, Churchill spotted a coal mine and, nearby, a “dark, forbidding” house. Later, he wrote, “Suddenly without the slightest reason all my doubts disappeared. It was certainly by no process of logic that they were dispelled.” He knocked on the door of the house. When he revealed his identity, the homeowner said, “Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”
The homeowner, John Howard, managed the mine. He rallied friends who concocted a scheme to spirit Churchill out of the Transvaal. To learn how, read the book. Suffice it to say the ruse involved more absolute silence on the part of the great orator.
The inimitable Sir Winston Churchill would go on to use language to inspire a nation and ultimately save the free world. Your reward for reading this far: a couple of my favorite lines:
- “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
- “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
- “I could not live without Champagne. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.”
Thank you, Sir Winston.