October 15, 2015
(+++) DOING DERRING-DO
Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent. By Simon Read. Da Capo. $26.99.
Those who simply cannot get enough of all things Churchillian will find themselves entertained by Simon Read’s exploration of the courageous (and foolhardy) adventures (and antics) of a headstrong and supremely self-confident Winston Churchill in his 20s, when he reported on – and participated in – a number of the regional conflicts plaguing the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Saving others’ lives, often risking his own, being imprisoned and escaping, and always writing and drinking and smoking cigars, young Churchill, as portrayed by Read, may well remind some readers of Ernest Hemingway – or, more accurately, the later-born Hemingway’s exploits may remind some readers of Churchill’s.
The wars of this time period were conflicts of empire, with the British Empire at its greatest extent and stretched to (but not beyond) the breaking point by regional eruptions in South Africa, the Sudan, India and elsewhere. “Peace was not conducive to young Churchill’s longing for adventure,” Read says at the outset, and then embarks on an extended recounting of Churchill’s activities on and about multiple battlefields, using Churchill’s own letters and reports from the front as major sources. Certainly Churchill showed himself brave, even gallant, time and again; and he was also given to grand gestures and some surprising actions. Imprisoned by the Boers, he escaped and left behind a letter beginning, “I have the honor to inform you that as I do not consider that your Government have any right to detain me as a military prisoner, I have decided to escape from your custody,” and concluding, “Regretting that I am unable to bid you a more ceremonious or personal farewell.” This would seem outlandish, even laughable, were it not so obviously sincere and so indicative of Churchill’s outsize personality as it was much later to manifest itself in his greatest role, as Great Britain’s prime minister during World War II.
However, Churchill’s activities – some might consider them shenanigans – did not win him universal praise. That escape from the Boers, for example, was supposed to include two other men, but they could not follow him immediately and urged him to return until a better time. Instead, he left on his own and later wrote about the details of his escape – leading some prisoners to state angrily that he had thus prevented others from using the same means of escape and had, indeed, abandoned his fellows.
Churchill was nothing if not controversial – in later years as well as the earlier ones chronicled in Read’s book. Read, however, is primarily interested in presenting an adventure story, and he does this by repeatedly writing as if he was present at the events: “With blood on his mind, Churchill reached for his Mauser pistol, only to discover he had left it in the engine. He cursed and briefly contemplated running.” “Churchill sat up, his body aching.” “His lungs burning, he pressed himself against the side of the embankment.” “Churchill, cursing his luck and his blasted horse, turned and ran for his life.” This type of you-are-there writing is undeniably exciting, but whether it offers readers the truth or only verisimilitude is an open question. It is, however, worth noting that this time period was one of grand gestures in war: Read quotes one British officer who, upon seeing some men of his command offering to give up their position, stormed up to the place where a white flag had been raised and shouted, “I’m in command here. Take your men back to hell, sir. I allow no surrender.”
Read describes Churchill as “a social animal who thrived on being the center of attention,” and certainly his activities and his reporting from war zones support this. “We soon had a capital loud noise,” Churchill wrote in describing one artillery battle, “which I think is a most invigorating element in an attack.” Self-aggrandizement aside, though, Churchill was certainly brave in the face of significant personal danger – and he used his dispatches from war zones to hone a writing style that would serve him well when, decades later, he wrote his own superb six-volume account of World War II. Indeed, it could be argued that young Churchill’s experiences in war helped prepare him for leadership of his nation in wartime, and Read, writing in his Epilogue about Churchill’s later life, makes this point: “Certainly in his long career Churchill was wrong about many things, but not when it came to German rearmament. He spoke from experience, knowing full well the horrors of war from his years spent as a correspondent and his brief time on the Western Front.” Read spends little time on this later, better-known material, which has been written about so frequently by so many others (and perhaps this is just as well, since this section is a bit slipshod, to the point that Hitler’s first name is misspelled “Adolph”). Instead, Read offers a focus on the earlier, less-known elements of Churchill’s life, presenting them with an eye to excitement rather than in any attempt at psychological analysis or placement of Churchill’s war experiences within their historical context. The result is that Winston Churchill Reporting is a fast-paced, novelistic book that provides few insights into Churchill’s inner life but a great deal of intriguingly detailed material on where he went and what he did in his youth that would, in the main, serve him and his nation extraordinarily well in the years to come.