Churchill, wanted dead or alive

11th December 2013 in Archives Centre, Our Collections

Another exciting new addition to the archives, this letter, 114 years old today, is a key witness to the hair-raising events in the Boer War that really began Churchill's political career.

Letter from Churchill on his escape from captivity, 1899. Reference: Churchill Additional Papers, WCHL 2/12.

Churchill had gone to war as a journalist, not as a soldier, though he had already served with the 4th Hussars in India, and seen action on the North-West Frontier with the Malakand Field Force, and in Sudan with Kitchener, where he took part in the last British regimental cavalry charge, at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. Even there, though, he had combined the roles of junior officer and war correspondent, finding journalism both profitable and, more importantly, an excellent way of making a name for himself.

After the Sudan campaign, Churchill decided that it was time to abandon the army for politics. Journalism would help to keep the wolf from the door, and luckily for Churchill, the Boer War provided the perfect opportunity. Using his experiences from the Malakand Field Force and the Sudan, as well as his family contacts, Churchill managed to secure a contract with the Morning Post that made him the highest-paid war correspondent of the day. Eager to gather as much information as possible, he joined an expedition on an armoured train, going through enemy lines, which unfortunately ran straight into a Boer ambush. Though he had no military authority, Churchill immediately took charge, and helped to get the train moving again, but then went back to help the men who had been left behind, and was captured. Luckily for him he had left his pistol in the train (even Churchill might have had some difficulty explaining how a journalist came to be armed), but due to his role in the train's escape, he was taken as a prisoner of war.

Held with other officers at the hastily converted States Model School, Churchill continued to send dispatches back to the Morning Post, while bombarding the Boer authorities with requests for his release. As it turned out, he was to be a prisoner for less than a month, as he promptly managed to escape by climbing a wall while the sentry's back was turned, then calmly walked out of the main gate and managed to jump onto a goods train, hiding among empty coal bags. Leaving the train before dawn, Churchill had the enormous luck to stumble on a friendly house, belonging to the mine manager John Howard, who hid him in a mine for a few days until he could be smuggled aboard another train bound for neutral territory, and from there reached Durban and a hero's welcome.

Before his escape, however, Churchill had left one more letter for the Boers. He had written a number of times to the Under-Secretary for War, Louis de Souza, protesting that he should be released as a non-combatant, and now wrote this last letter, which he left on his pillow for his captors to find. The envelope (which sadly has not survived, having apparently ended up down a mineshaft with some rubbish, not unlike Churchill himself) was marked "p.p.c", or pour prendre congé (taking leave). In the letter, Churchill coolly justifies his escape (while taking the opportunity to mislead the Boers into thinking that he had outside help), politely thanks de Souza for his good treatment and expresses the hope for future peace.

The letter has come to us from a descendant of de Souza, whose family had kept it as a treasured heirloom. It has had a fairly adventurous life itself, fortunately escaping the fate of its envelope, which was stored separately, but having undergone fairly extensive conservation treatment some thirty years ago, at a time when conservation techniques tended to be a lot more heavy-handed than they are now. Possibly as a result the text appears to have faded, and was then, we think, inked in, which gives it its rather odd appearance.