Every once in a while it seems that coincidences rule the universe, for the good or for the bad. I’ve already mentioned one that saved the life of Paul Revere, and another that allowed Adolf Hitler to survive an incident where he surely should have died. Thus Revere lived to tell of his ride through the countryside and Hitler lived to cause the death of more than 30 million people.
There are a couple of coincidences I have promised to tell you about. Not are they very unlikely, but they happened to one of the most interesting people who ever lived — Winston Churchill.
The first of them happened when Churchill was captured during the Boer War.
The Boers derailed a British train and took several prisoners, including Churchill, who was unfairly imprisoned. He was a war correspondent at the time, not a combatant. So when the Boers refused to let him go, most likely because he was the son of a distinguished British statesman, he made up his mind to escape.
What’s especially interesting is that I first read the story of Churchill’s escape in his book “Frontiers and Wars,” taken from dispatches he sent in 1899 to the London Morning Post. In them, Churchill said nothing of the amazing coincidence that had aided his escape. He couldn’t. It would have placed lives in danger.
Churchill managed a daring climb over the wall of a prison in the Boer capital, Pretoria. He then made a nerve-wracking walk through town. Traveling through the jungle, he covering a small portion of the 300 miles to Portuguese Delgoa Bay, but he could get no farther. It looked hopeless, but all he said in his dispatches is: “On the sixth day the chance I had patiently waited for came. I found a convenient train duly labeled to Lourenco Marques standing in a siding.” And so he escaped, he said.
It didn’t happen that way.
Far from it.
Years later, however, I read another of his books, “My Early Life,” published 62 years after the Boer War, when there was no danger in telling the truth. It was a revelation.
Oh, he made the daring climb over that prison wall all right, right under the noses of two armed guards standing just 40 feet away. And he made it through Pretoria, wisely choosing not to hide in the shadows, but “... walking on leisurely through the night, humming a tune and choosing the middle of the road. The streets were full of Boers, but they paid no attention to me.”
Then, being the wise young man he was at the age of 25, he “Gradually reached the suburbs, and on a little bridge sat down to reflect and consider. I was in the heart of the enemy’s country. I knew no one to whom I could apply for succour. Nearly 300 miles stretched between me and Delgoa Bay. My escape must be known at dawn. Pursuit would be immediate. Yet all exits were barred. The town was picketed, the country was patrolled, the trains were searched. I had seventy-five pounds in my pocket and four slabs of chocolate, but the compass and map which might have guided me, the opium tablets and meat lozenges which might have sustained me, were in [the pockets of the two officers who had not made it over the wall], and I could not speak a word of Dutch or Kaffir.”
He decided to find a railway line leading in the correct direction and follow its tracks. He knew, however, that he would have to leave the tracks at every bridge crossing, village, farm, native corral, city, and station because soldiers were stationed everywhere along the railroad tracks.
And so, he slipped through the outskirts of the capital city, found the tracks, and began a 300-mile trek to freedom. But he soon found that he had to deal with so many creek and river crossings, each one requiring a long jungle detour, that there was no chance of traveling 300 miles on foot.
So as he walked along that night he changed his plan. He would walk through the jungle each night and find some place where the terrain caused a train to slow down along a curve which would hide his approach from the engineer up front and the brakeman back in the caboose. He would board a train each night, drop off before dawn, hide in the jungle each day, and eventually make his way to neutral territory. In his own words, he would, “... hide under the seats, on the roof, on the couplings — anywhere.”
It was a desperate plan, but desperate circumstances call for desperate solutions. True to his plan, that very first night he found himself crouching by the side of the tracks outside a small station as a train took on freight.
However, the train gained speed much faster than he expected, and when it came time to jump aboard, he says, a “dark [fast moving] mass hung above me.”
“I hurled myself at the [freight train],” he says, “clutched at something, missed, clutched again, missed again, grasped some sort of hand-hold, was swung off my feet — my toes bumping on the line, and with a struggle seated myself on the couplings ...”
Soon came dawn. Covered with soot, he grabbed an iron handle of some sort, sprang off, found a pool of water, drank, hid in the jungle, and slept on and off. Three trains went by during the day, but to his dismay none came at night, and so he began walking again, making long, weary detours around every bridge, crossing, and station, with its group of armed soldiers. The track split. He found the correct line. Still no trains came by.
Sorry, Johnny! No night traffic allowed on the section of track running into neutral Portuguese territory.
And so, dirty, tired, black with soot, hungry, and certain he could not walk to freedom, he made up his mind go to the nearest house, tell them who he was, and trust to luck. But when he knocked on a door the chilling response — in Afrikaans! — was “Wer ist da?”
Ten minutes later, however, he heard these words, “Thank God you have come here. It is the only house for 20 miles around where you would not have been handed over. We are British here.”
And so he escaped with their help. What a coincidence!
Next week, an accident in India saves his life in Egypt.