Review: Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire, Candice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: The history of Winston Churchill’s involvement in the Boer War as a correspondent, his capture, imprisonment and dangerous escape–events that brought Churchill to national attention.

“Crouching in darkness outside the prison fence in wartime southern Africa, Winston Churchill could still hear the voices of the guards on the other side. Seizing his chance an hour earlier, the twenty-five-year-old had scaled the high, corrugated-iron paling that enclosed the prison yard. But now he was trapped in a new dilemma. He could not remain where he was. At any moment, he could be discov­ered and shot by the guards or by the soldiers who patrolled the dark, surrounding streets of Pretoria, the capital of the enemy Boer repub­lic. Yet neither could he run. His hopes for survival depended on two other prisoners, who were still inside the wall. In the long minutes since he had dropped down into the darkness, they had not appeared” (p. 1).

Candice Millard opens her narrative of Churchill’s Boer War experience with this vivid account of Churchill’s escape from the Boer prison at the Staats Model School. The two other prisoners were unable to follow. With nothing more than a biscuit and a few pieces of chocolate and unarmed, Churchill had to elude capture on a nearly 300 mile journey to Lourenco Marques, Portuguese territory.

Even today, Churchill is known as the Prime Minister who led Britain resolutely through World War 2. We know him as a prolific writer, a gifted amateur painter, and for his sobering speech in Fulton, Missouri about the iron curtain that had descended across Europe. Lesser known were the early events in the life of an ambitious Churchill that propelled him into national awareness and a seat as a member of the House of Commons, setting him on a long, winding course, with many setbacks, to his pivotal role in World War 2.

Millard traces the life of this young man, son of Randolph Churchill, who was a meteor across the political firmament that burned out quickly. He was also the son of Jennie Jerome, a “panther” who would remarry to a man Churchill’s age, but also able to exercise formidable influence to advance her son’s cause, though not formidable enough in his first run for office. He concludes only war experience, with honors, could do that. Previous tours in India and the Sudan resulted only in a memoir, The River War, that served to infuriate some members of the militarily establishment. Conveniently the Boers had declared their independence from their British overlords, and the mighty empire set about to put down this rebellion. Churchill, unable to get a military appointment, goes as a highly compensated member of the press.

Arriving in South Africa, he learns that the war will be no cakewalk. The Boers, eventually led by Louis Botha, are formidable fighters who could strike swiftly, ruthlessly, and then vanish into thin air. Churchill, always willing to risk himself to get the story finds himself on an armored train that was part of efforts to relieve the British defenders of Ladysmith. Instead, the train is attacked. On his own initiative, Churchill led the effort to rescue the train, including directing efforts to move derailed cars so the engine was able to make it back to friendly lines. Churchill was left behind and taken prisoner.

The remainder of the work recounts Churchill’s seizure and imprisonment, and subsequent escape. Plotting with several officers, he is first over the iron paling, impatient to launch the escape. Incredibly, a combination of hopping a train and hiking on foot and hiding in the veld brings him at last to the one man in that whole area who could help, unbeknownst to him when he approached the house of mine manager John Howard, one of the few British allowed to remain because of his indispensable role of running the mine at Delago Bay. After hiding him for a time in the mine, and in a secret part of his office, he secrets him into a shipment of wool to Lourenco Marques, Portuguese territory with a British embassy. Despite searches combing the country, Churchill makes it, becomes a hero, and then gains a military appointment and is among the troops liberating his former fellow prisoners.

Any who follow my reviews know I’m a fan of Churchill, and also the work of Candice Millard, whose previous works Destiny of the Republic (review) and The River of Doubt (review), I thoroughly loved. Millard has a way of ferreting out lesser known events in the lives of great personages, whether it was the medical malpractice and the crazed assassin behind the death of James A. Garfield, or Teddy Roosevelt’s perilous journey down an unexplored South American river, from which he nearly died. Those focused on events toward the end of her subject’s lives. This book reveals the rise of a young man, through an improbable escape and subsequent military exploits, and his reports of them that set him on the path of greatness.

This was a book that made me wonder about a word Millard has used elsewhere — destiny. Yes, we have Churchill himself, never in doubt that he was destined for great things but merely impatient to get there. But the other side of destiny is that he survived at all. In one battle, he rides into the middle of the fray on a white horse, men dying all around him, as well as the horse under him. Again and again, in the train attack, and subsequently in battle, he emerged unscathed, and not for the last time. That Churchill made it to freedom, even that he sought help in the one place that would give it to him makes one wonder at the Providence that watched over this man and brought him to prominence in Britain’s darkest hour.

Review: The River of Doubt

river-of-doubt

The River of DoubtCandice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

Summary: Narrates Roosevelt’s exploratory expedition to South America, the decision to navigate “The River of Doubt”, and the harrowing journey that nearly cost Roosevelt his life.

What does one do with oneself after you’ve been President of the United States? What, especially does one do when still relatively young? This was the dilemma of Theodore Roosevelt, known to most of us for his adventures with the Rough Riders, his ascent to the presidency following McKinley’s assassination, and for his own reform-minded presidency and a foreign policy shaped by the dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some even are aware of his failed run for the presidency as a third-party candidate in 2012. Fewer of us are aware of his journey down a never-before explored river in Brazil that nearly cost him his life, and irreversibly damaged his health.

It is this journey that Candice Millard brilliantly narrates in this work. I first discovered Millard in her later exploration of the assassination of James Garfield (Destiny of the Republic, reviewed here), in which she helps us understand what we lost in Garfield, the crazed personality of his assassin, and the botched medical care that resulted in his death. So I was delighted to return to this author’s earlier work, which did not disappoint.

I had previously read about this journey in Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt (reviewed here). Where it seemed that Morris focused mostly on Roosevelt’s battle with the infection that nearly killed him, and the urgent race to get him back to civilization, Millard gives us much more of the whole story behind the exploration, and much more about the journey both before and after Roosevelt sustained the injury that threatened his life. She sets the context of the invitation to go on an exploratory journey over a relatively safe portion of the Amazon with Catholic Father Zahm, and the decision, influenced by explorer Rondon, to explore a previously unexplored and unmapped river, known as the River of Doubt. We meet other key figures in the expedition from the failed Arctic explorer Fiala, who was responsible for poorly provisioning the expedition, Cherrie, the skilled naturalist who played an indispensable role in the expedition, the cameradas, some remarkably able and on whom the expedition’s success largely rested, and some dissolute, like Julio, who kills another expedition member, and ultimately is left to his fate in the rain forest. Finally, Millard sketches the intense personality of son Kermit, dedicated to his father’s survival, newly engaged, and trying to carve out his own identity in the shadow of his father.

She also narrates a journey that seems to go wrong from the start as overburdened animals shed needed supplies and die on the land journey to the river’s headwaters. And then there is the harrowing journey itself, running through the territory of a fierce tribe of Indians, involving repeated overland diversions because of rapids that might have been negotiated in the lightweight boats, but impossible to traverse in the heavy, unwieldy dugouts. It was during the effort to retrieve one of these that broke loose in a rapid that Roosevelt re-injured a leg injury that rapidly became infected. Between a serious infection, and malaria, Roosevelt’s life hangs in the balance, as does the survival of the expedition, short on food, all suffering the effects of disease and malnutrition.

We relive the struggle between the courageous resolve of the explorers, the dangers of attack at any moment, and the ravage of illness and infection as they struggle toward the junction with the Amazon. We learn the price Roosevelt paid for the glory of accomplishing this exploration. Millard also recounts the afterlife of the other explorers, including the sad trajectory of Kermit’s life, much like that of Roosevelt’s brother Elliot.

Along the way, we see the indomitable spirit of Roosevelt, the disregard for his own safety and life in the pursuit of great aims, and the survival of others, and the humility of being willing, as a former president, to do anything from do the laundry of other expedition members to rescue a stranded canoe, all the while pursuing habits of reading and writing for which he was famously known. We also see the driven character of a man who even in his sixth decade as a former president, still needed to test himself physically against rigors that had killed many younger men.

If you enjoy biography, narratives of exploration, or anything concerning Roosevelt, I would highly commend this riveting narrative of the exploration of the River of Doubt, and Roosevelt’s “darkest journey.