My Early Life, 1874-1904 by Sir Winston S. Churchill, narrated by Frederick Davidson
Sir Winston S. Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, according to the Nobel Prize website for “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” This is a link to his speech if anyone is interested. He wrote 42 books in 72 volumes, and all but 5 were published by 1953.
I’ve been interested in learning about Churchill for awhile now, but was a bit hesitant to try and tackle his massive 6 volume history on World War II or 4 book volume on The History of the English-Speaking People, which are supposed to be excellent but exceedingly long (from over 1700 – 4700 pages). So when I found this autobiography on Audible, I jumped at the chance to get to know more about this great man.
Whenever I think of Winston Churchill, I always think of the much older WWII Prime Minister version of the man, the bulldog-looking man with a cigar in one hand, getting down to business (as the image above attests). But of course that is how he is remembered from the end of his life, so it was intriguing to get a glimpse of his early life. In fact, when my son was a baby we used to call him Winston Churchill in the gruff voice one associates with the man because he looked like the grumpy old man.
Jennie and Randolph (Winston’s parents)
Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born prematurely at his family’s ancestral home of Blenheim Palace (I have been there and it’s gorgeous especially in the English springtime) in Oxford, England to Lady Jennie Jerome (one of the many American heiresses who came over in the late 19th century looking for rich English husbands, one of the “Dollar Princesses”) and Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill on Nov 30, 1874. Winston is the oldest of two boys. He thought of his mother as a “fairy princess,” and she was a great beauty in her youth. Winston spent his early years, until age four, in Ireland before coming back to England to attend a boarding school in Ascot, and later Harrow School and Sandhurst Military Academy. It is interesting to note that it took him four tries to get into Sandhurst and he taught himself advanced mathematics in four months to accomplish this. At Sandhurst, Winston trained to be in the cavalry, contrary to his father wishes for him to join the infantry, and enlisted in the 4th Hussars in February 1895 as a 2nd Lieutenant. His father passes away a few months later, probably of a brain tumor.
Churchill in his new 4th Hussars uniform, 1895
Winston is first stationed with the cavalry in India from late 1896-1899 and it was here that he really started playing polo in earnest. Unfortunately, he had to stop playing after injuring his shoulder (an injury that plagued him for the rest of his life), but not before he led his team to a championship against the all-India team. But like all young men, he was anxious to see some military action and decided to go to Cuba as a war correspondent during the 1898 Cuban War of Independence from Spain. He is there for a grand total of sixteen days, as a guest of the Spanish military. It is interesting to note here that despite his grandfather being the 7th Duke of Marlborough, his immediate family was pretty broke by the time he joined the cavalry, which is why he supplemented his income by writing books and becoming a war correspondent for the newspaper the Morning Post for many years. I assumed (apparently wrongly) that he would’ve attended Oxford or Cambridge like other members of the upper class. But aside from attending Harrow and Sandhurst, he was entirely self-taught.Winston actually called this period, “the university of his life,” and he became extremely well-read. Consequently, he was well-known for his cleverness. His mother sent him scores of books and he educated himself in his spare time. History was Winston’s favorite subject, which became apparent later in life when he won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to authority on the subject. He published his first book The Story of the Malakand Field Force in 1898, which was about his experiences in the cavalry in India in 1896, for which he won the India Medal.
With the help of his mother’s social connections, he was allowed to go the Sudan in Omdurman/Khartoum under the leadership of General Herbert Kitchener (who made his name famous with the victory at this battle). Apparently Kitchener really didn’t want him to go and expressly forbade him to do so, and so therefore Jennie Churchill was a real worker of miracles in knowing everyone important and getting her eldest son where he wanted to go. Winston’s life was saved by his Mauser pistol, which he had to use instead of a sword, because of his previous polo shoulder injury. According to the Churchill Centre, “It was a very violent battle. The British suffered 175 casualties, their Egyptian allies 307; but the Dervish force had 9,700 killed, between 10,000 and 16,000 wounded and 5,000 taken prisoner. For Churchill’s service in the Sudan, amounting to six or eight weeks, he received the Queen’s Sudan Medal and the Khedive’s Sudan Medal with clasp for “Khartoum.” He later in Nov 1899 published The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan, a history of the campaign, his most ambitious book to date, and still today one of his greatest books.”
Afterwards, he returned to India for about six months. Churchill resigned from the army in April 1899 to start his political career. He promptly lost his first election and decided to again become a war correspondent for the Morning Post newspaper, this time in South Africa during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Now this is a war that I have never truly understood until I was listening to this autobiography and learnt that the whole fight with the Dutch in the Transvaal was over gold mining. This, to me at least, seems rather typical of the late British Empire (especially if you think of all the trouble they had in India, the rest of Africa and Asia because they couldn’t give up control of the colonies to the natives and their determination to hold onto the colonies to “protect” them from other European superpowers).
Churchill as war correspondent in South Africa, 1899
Winston was captured by the Boers, aka the Afrikaners or the descendants of the original Dutch settlers in South Africa, on an armored train and taken to a POW camp in Pretoria (the Boer capital city) in Nov 1899. About a month later he makes a daring escape, as explained again by the Churchill Centre, “He climbed over the prison wall, hopped a freight train, hid in a coal mine and, with the help of friendly Englishmen, eventually rode another train to freedom over the border to Portuguese East Africa.” You would think he would decide to just return home after that ordeal, but instead he decided to obtain a cavalry commission in the South African Light Horse. He also obtained a commission for his younger brother Jack, who was promptly wounded. Churchill publishes his first and only fictionalized novel, Savrola, in February 1900. “He was to write two books about his South African adventures: London to Ladysmith Via Pretoria (published May 1900), featuring the armored train incident for which he first became famous, with the train depicted on its cover, and Ian Hamilton’s March (the sequel to Ladysmith, published later the same year in Oct) was based on his newspaper articles.” He left Africa in July 1900, famous worldwide because of his adventures in South Africa, and won his first seat in the House of Commons at age 25.
Churchill’s Wanted Poster (in Dutch and English) after he escaped the POW Camp in Pretoria, South Africa
Soon after becoming a member of the House of Commons, in December 1900, Winston goes on a lecture tour of the United States, Canada, and England for a year. He meets one of his idols, Mark Twain in Boston, Massachusetts. He is earning more than any other journalist and rakes in $10,000 in one year, a princely sum at the time, and promptly invests it. His first speech in the House of Commons is on Feb 18, 1901 and was very successful. Winston published another book, Mr. Brodrick’s Army in April 1903, which was a collection of his speeches on Army reform. He meets his future wife Clementine in March 1904 and according to the Churchill Centre, “is transfixed and tongue-tied; Clementine however is unimpressed.” And that’s pretty much where this first part of his autobiography ends. For more basic info on the great man and all that he achieved, I would recommend the Churchill Centre’s timeline.
Winston with his fiancee Clementine Hozier, 1908
Overall, I really enjoyed the book and listening to Winston’s story, which was alternatively gripping and a bit tedious, especially when describing all the army skirmishes in India and South Africa. It’s kind of amazing that this man accomplished so much so young and did all of it before he was 25, not to mention the fact that he was completely self-educated past secondary school. I’m curious to know more about him and read some of his actual works, perhaps the novel or some poetry. 4 stars.