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Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

by Candice Millard

Narrated by Simon Vance

Unabridged — 10 hours, 14 minutes

Candice Millard
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

by Candice Millard

Narrated by Simon Vance

Unabridged — 10 hours, 14 minutes

Candice Millard

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From New York Times bestselling author of Destiny of the Republic and The River of Doubt, a thrilling narrative of Winston Churchill's extraordinary and little-known exploits during the Boer War
At age twenty-four, Winston Churchill was utterly convinced it was his destiny to become prime minister of England one day, despite the fact he had just lost his first election campaign for Parliament.  He believed that to achieve his goal he must do something spectacular on the battlefield.  Despite deliberately putting himself in extreme danger as a British Army officer in colonial wars in India and Sudan, and as a journalist covering a Cuban uprising against the Spanish, glory and fame had eluded him.
Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, there to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. But just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner.  Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape--but then had to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him.
The story of his escape is incredible enough, but then Churchill enlisted, returned to South Africa, fought in several battles, and ultimately liberated the men with whom he had been imprisoned.
Churchill would later remark that this period, "could I have seen my future, was to lay the foundations of my later life." Millard spins an epic story of bravery, savagery, and chance encounters with a cast of historical characters-including Rudyard Kipling, Lord Kitchener, and Mohandas Gandhi-with whom he would later share the world stage. But Hero of the Empire is more than an adventure story, for the lessons Churchill took from the Boer War would profoundly affect 20th century history.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Barnes & Noble Review

Candice Millard is already the author of two superb dramatic works of nonfiction: River of Doubt, which tells the tale of Theodore Roosevelt's expedition to explore Rio da Dúvida deep in the Amazon jungle, and Destiny of the Republic, which takes up the shooting of President James Garfield and his subsequent death at the hands of the medical profession. Both were stirring, revelatory studies in the interaction of character and extreme circumstance, well stocked with lively side stories and material detail. Now Millard trains her inquisitive eye on young Winston Churchill in Hero of the Empire: Boer War, A Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, a study in ambition, bravery, luck, recklessness, self-confidence, and swagger.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, European colonization of Africa had become a frantic and bloody scramble. With the discovery of diamonds in southern Africa in 1867 and large deposits of gold in the Witwatersrand mountain ridge in 1886, British imperial lust for Transvaal territory, then controlled by the Boers — a group of colonists who were chiefly Dutch with Huguenot and German elements — became uncontainable. (Needless to say, the genuine claim on the land by native peoples was not even considered.) Britain annexed the Transvaal in 1877, but that came to naught when, outmatched by the Boers' "ungallant and cowardly" guerrilla tactics, superior marksmanship, and battle cunning, the British were defeated with great loss of life in the First Boer War. Waged from December 1880 to March 1881, it was a short, mortifying affair that ended with the Battle of Majuba and "the shocking, sickening sight of British soldiers fleeing in humiliating retreat."

The British, however, were not to be thwarted: "Imperial troops must curb the insolence of the Boers. There must be no half measures," wrote Churchill a few years after the disaster. The result was the Second Boer War (1899–1902), the first four months of which brought further misfortune, casualty, and defeat. Finally, at the end of February 1900, British troops managed to win a couple of costly battles and relieved their comrades besieged at Ladysmith. Over the next two years, imperial forces — taking "no half measures" — prevailed by virtue of Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener's scorched-earth policy, which resulted in the destruction of some 30,000 Boer farms and the incarceration of Boer women, children, and noncombatant men in brutal concentration camps. These disease-ridden, food-deprived, inadequately sheltered enclosures were themselves the cause of tens of thousands of deaths, the great majority of them children. The entire conflict was ugly in every possible way, but it was the making of Winston Churchill's political career.

The Winston Churchill who arrived in Cape Town in October 1899 as a war correspondent was not yet twenty-five, but he had already served as an observer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, as a soldier and correspondent in India during the Pashtun revolt of 1897 and in the Sudan in 1898. Earlier in the year, he had lost a by-election in his first attempt to become a member of Parliament, the initial and necessary step toward his goal of becoming prime minister. Churchill, who made no real distinction between civilian correspondent and soldier, came to southern Africa not only to teach the Boers ("a very small and miserable people") a lesson but, most crucially, to perform heroic deeds. Properly publicized, these would, he was certain, ensure his election to Parliament and propel him onward to his glorious destiny. He had already acted with reckless courage, even foolhardiness, in combat in India, and there was no possibility in his mind that he would die on the battlefield. ("I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.")

Three weeks after the outbreak of war, Churchill — equipped with a servant and a large supply of fine wine and liqueur, plus eighteen bottles of scotch — had made it to Estcourt, some forty miles from besieged Ladysmith, where, under the command of Colonel Charles Long, troops were awaiting the arrival of the main British force. Long, a man of indecision and blunder, sent an armored reconnaissance train bearing soldiers, civilian railway workers, and Winston Churchill right into the teeth of a Boer ambush. In the midst of devastating enemy gunfire, Churchill, notionally a civilian, led a near-suicidal attempt to free the engine, an act of resourcefulness and monstrous bravery. ("Surrounded by screaming shells and deafening explosions, dead and dismembered men, desperation and almost certain failure, Churchill, eyes flashing, cheeks flushed, began shouting orders.") Eventually, after truly appalling difficulties and setbacks wonderfully described by Millard, the engine was freed and, packed with men, many wounded and dead, managed to make its way back to a British camp. Still, to his infinite disgust, Churchill was captured with many others and marched off to Pretoria to be locked up as a POW. Nonetheless, the main goal was met: News of his valor, leadership, and determination in freeing the train filled the British newspapers.

From the moment of his capture, Churchill thought of little but getting free. He eventually inserted himself into the escape plan hatched by two other men, neither of whom wanted him along. They had good reason: He was out of shape, his now famous person would be quickly missed, and he couldn't keep his trap shut. The last was immediately borne out as Churchill at once began boasting to his follow prisoners of his intended escape. And he did get away, completely fouling up the original plan and leaving its two originators behind. By what means this impetuous hero made it over more than 300 hundred miles from Pretoria to the British consulate in Portuguese East Africa is for you to discover, as I do not wish to take one excruciating pang of suspense away from you. I will say only that the ordeal involved jumping on and off moving trains, trekking across arid lands surrounded by enemies on high alert, living with rats down a mineshaft, and being smuggled across a border buried in wool. It was an enterprise in which Churchill's remarkable courage, audacity, and luck played equal parts along with the bravery and willingness of others to put their own lives on the line to aid him.

Millard has enriched this tale of adventure with details of the quiddities and tribulations of late-nineteenth-century British warfare: the change in battle dress from the glorious red tunic to despised khaki; the use of bicycles and hydrogen-filled balloons; the danger of being hit by lightning on the veldt; and the deplorable rations that included Johnston's Fluid Beef, an unpalatable substance processed into such incorruptibility that the leftovers were served to the troops in World War I.

The book also includes a fine selection of photographs, including one of Churchill at age seven, wearing such a look of haughty disdain that it not only made me laugh but summed up the man as I have always conceived him. And, indeed, until now, a very little of the imperialist, racist, anti-Hibernian snob, money scrounger, and spendthrift Winston Churchill has gone a very long way for me, but I read this book with real pleasure (and pounding heart). It is, quite simply, a thumping good read.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

The New York Times Book Review - Alex von Tunzelmann

…gripping…[Hero of the Empire] is a tremendously readable and enjoyable book. The material may feel well rehearsed to Churchill buffs, but breaking new research ground is not Millard's goal: She aims to retell the story in a thrilling, contemporary style for a new generation of readers, and in this she succeeds. Most historians will have cause to envy her narrative ability. Her prose gallops along; her short, action-packed chapters often screech to a halt on a cliffhanger. A picture develops of Churchill as an extraordinary young man: deeply flawed yet indomitable.

The New York Times - Jennifer Senior

On its face, Churchill's role in the Second Boer War may not seem like a substantial enough subject for a book. Don't be fooled. Over the years, Ms. Millard has made a stylish niche for herself, zooming in on a brief, pivotal chapter in the life of a historical figure and turning it into a legitimate feature-length production. In The River of Doubt, she focused on Theodore Roosevelt's adventures in the Amazon basin to recover from his defeat in 1912…In Destiny of the Republic, she focused on the assassination of James A. Garfield, particularly the doctors who serially bungled their attempts to save his life. The story Ms. Millard tells here is no less cinematic or dramatic…Ms. Millard…has a great ear for quotes—an underrated virtue in writers of history…Her eye for detail is equally good. With just a few key images, she conveys how the most formidable empire on the planet could be so discomfited by an unpolished, seemingly ragtag army of Boers…

Publishers Weekly

Millard (Destiny of the Republic) takes a relatively minor episode in the life of Winston Churchill—his escape from prison during the Boer War—and makes hay with it, painting young Churchill as a brilliant soldier, talented raconteur, and politician in waiting. Churchill’s escape from a jail cell in Pretoria and subsequent trek through enemy territory are presented as the first signs of the grit and determination he would later show as prime minister. Apart from some enjoyable biographical detail (Millard has a weakness for hair “shining like a dark jewel” and interiors of “rich yellow silk”), the book contains little of interest for readers who are not already die-hard Churchill buffs. Churchill’s racism is consistently underplayed, the politics of the Boer War are ignored, and figures such as Leo Amery are reduced to drawing-room caricatures. By dwelling on Churchill’s privileged upbringing, Millard effectively extinguishes any sympathy the reader might feel for a pompous young man who once wrote, in typically overblown fashion, that if his plans for political office fell through, “It will break my heart for I have nothing else but ambition to cling to.” Not even some late attention to the wider world beyond Churchill can save the book from its hagiographic bent. (Sept.)

From the Publisher


Chosen as a Washington Post and New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2016

"A thrilling account...This book is an awesome nail-biter and top-notch character study rolled into one...Could someone be persuaded to make a movie about this episode of his life? I’d watch."
New York Times Critic Jennifer Senior's Top Ten Books of 2016

“Gripping…tremendously readable and enjoyable…”
Alex von Tunzelmann, The New York Times Book Review

"[A] truly fascinating book."
Financial Times

"A gripping story...It's a thrilling journey and Millard tells it with gusto."
The Guardian

“Millard’s tome is a slam-bang study of Churchill’s wit and wile as he navigates the Boer War like [a] proto-James Bond.” 
USA Today

Library Journal

★ 06/01/2016
In the best-selling The River of Doubt, Millard chronicled Theodore Roosevelt's dangerous exploration of an uncharted river in the Amazon. Here the author documents the equally risky adventures of Winston Churchill (1874–1965) during the Second Boer War, in which Churchill and his fellow soldiers were captured upon arriving in South Africa. Churchill managed an escape, eventually returning to South Africa to free the men with whom he was imprisoned. The details of these exploits describe endless walking, narrow getaways from captors, and Churchill toting nothing but a squashed bit of foreign currency and some chocolate. Even more incredible is Churchill crossing paths with future historical greats such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rudyard Kipling. Millard shows how the hard lessons learned during this period influenced Churchill's character, decision-making, and personality. Riveting, bizarre, heroic, and sometimes humorous, this thrilling history will cause readers to shake their heads in disbelief throughout. VERDICT Enjoyable for all readers, especially fans of Churchill, military and world history, narrative nonfiction, and survival stories. [See Prepub Alert, 3/28/16.]—Benjamin Brudner, Curry Coll. Lib., Milton, MA

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2016-06-08
A history of the danger-seeking young Winston Churchill during the Boer War, which "had turned out to be far more difficult and more devastating than the amusing colonial war the British had expected."Although Churchill's life has been amply documented by himself and many others, Millard (Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, 2011, etc.) ably weaves a seamless and gripping narrative of the future statesman's early career and involvement in the Boer War (1899-1902). It is the story of a man unfailingly convinced of his destiny to lead, undaunted by setbacks, and supremely confident of success. "I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending," Churchill wrote to his mother from the bloody battlefield of Malakand. As the author demonstrates, even as a child, Churchill shared his countrymen's idea that war "was about romance and gallantry." "There is no ambition I cherish so keenly," he said, "as to gain a reputation for personal courage." At 24, he passionately urged Joseph Chamberlain to recover Britain's prestige in South Africa by avenging a humiliating defeat; in an electrifying speech, he whipped up fervor for war. In October 1899, Churchill's wish was realized: Britain was at war, and he was off to battle, this time as a journalist. He meant to travel in comfort: along with his personal valet, he brought wine, spirits, liqueur, and luxurious accessories from London's finest shops. Although he became dramatically involved in the army's travails, he, along with around 60 officers and soldiers, was taken prisoner. For Churchill, it was a fate almost worse than death. "With the loss of his freedom," Millard writes, "he had, for the first time, also lost his ferocious grip on life." In vivid, entertaining detail, the author chronicles Churchill's audacious escape, which was reported in British newspapers with pride and glee. As Millard concludes, he had proved himself exemplary: "resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled." A fresh, captivating history of the enduringly colorful Churchill.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940169324204
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 09/20/2016
Edition description: Unabridged
Sales rank: 1,109,487

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