Ever had the feeling that you were shoveling you-know-what against the tide? I’ve had that feeling a few times, but whenever I run into a situation where I begin to wonder if there’s any justice in this crazy world I think back to a story told by one of my favorite people — Winston Churchill.
Everyone knows Churchill as the aging prime minister of Great Britain during World War II. Everyone has seen him making his famous V-for-victory sign, and everyone has heard the stirring words he spoke on June 18, 1940 after the French surrender, when he warned his people and the world that if Britain fell “... the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for may be lost.”
That speech ended with these never-to-be-forgotten words:
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and the Commonwealth last a thousand years, men will say ‘This was their finest hour.’”
There’s whole lot more to Winston Churchill than World War II, though. In fact, had he died long before WWII began, he would have gone down in history as one of the finest men who ever lived, not to mention one of the most interesting.
And one of the wittiest and most humorous writers too.
I tell you if you haven’t read his book, “My Early Years,” you have missed out on one of the greatest reading experiences of a lifetime. To begin with, it is impossible to keep a straight face as Churchill discusses Latin and Greek, neither of which he was exactly in love with. And his comments on things like the English equivalent of the SAT are nothing less than knee slappers. If there were nothing else in his book except that, it would be well worth reading. But there’s a whole lot more.
Boy, is there ever!
Churchill went to Sandhurst and became a cavalry officer. And not satisfied to merely serve “the regiment” at home in some quiet military station, he finagled his way into every war Great Britain fought before World War I.
He fought the Afghans in Northwest India, and he fought the whirling dervishes in the Sudan, when Kitchener and the British Army finally wreaked vengeance upon the Islamic fanatics who had taken Khartoum and slayed General Gordon 14 years before. In the action against the dervishes he took part in the very last full-fledged cavalry charge ever seen on this planet.
Churchill writes in a way which makes it impossible to put down one of his books once you begin reading. Best of all, to me at least, is the tale of his days in South Africa during the Boer War. By then he was no longer just a cavalry officer. Somehow or other he managed to achieve dual status as cavalry officer and war correspondent. I’ve read how he managed it, not once but several times, and I still don’t quite get how he pulled it off.
A cavalry officer and war correspondent? At one and the same time? How do you do that?
I don’t know, but he did it. And more than once too.
And get this: At the beginning of the Boer War, while still just a war correspondent, Churchill was on an armored train which came under cannon fire from the heights above the tracks. It was hit and was put out of service as several train cars turned over.
Now Churchill was a civilian at that moment, but nevertheless took charge of the situation under a hail of rifle and machine gun fire from the heights above, and a constant barrage from three very accurately firing cannons.
Having convinced the engineer, who was running away, to return to his engine, he managed to get two wrecked cars out of the way, get the train moving, and get a large portion of the soldiers and civilians on the train safely away.
Then, safe on the now moving train, he jumped off, went back to some overturned cars to rescue some soldiers separated from the group, and was taken prisoner by a Boer horse soldier armed with a rifle — but only because in all the excitement he had left his broom-handled semiautomatic Mauser pistol on the plates of the engine while he supervised work on the derailed cars. Had he had that pistol, which had once before saved his life when his troop was cut off during fighting on the Nile River in the Sudan, either he or that horseman would not have lived to tell the tale.
Now would you believe this? The horse-mounted private who captured Churchill was none other than Louis Botha, a man destined to become prime minister of the Transvaal? Had that pistol been in its holster it is likely that one, or both, of two famous prime ministers of future years would have died on the spot.
So Winston Churchill was taken prisoner by soon-to-be General Louis Botha, a man destined to become one of his best friends.
And — it just keeps getting better! — he then escaped from the closely guarded military prison in Pretoria, the Boer capital, and made his way back to British territory, the only man to ever do it. Oh, how I wish there were time here to tell you about how he escaped, but there isn’t. You’ll just have to read it yourself.
It was this exploit, piled atop his reporting from three wars and his books about the fighting, which got him into politics. He became quite famous as a result of his exploits, and after the Boer War he returned to England and ran for office.
Here comes the part where Churchill’s sense of humor and the question of whether there is any justice in the world cross paths. Having saved train, soldiers and civilians by taking over at a time when all was confusion, and having gone on to escape from the Boer capital city, traveling over 250 miles through enemy territory to do it, Churchill was acclaimed a hero back home.
But being Winston Churchill, while he mentions the acclaim, he also whimsically quotes a telegram a wee bit different from the hundreds of other letters and telegrams praising his courage.
“London, December 30th. Best friends here hope you won’t go on making further ass of yourself. McNeil.”
As I said, sometimes you just can’t win.