Last week I said it sometimes appears that coincidences rule the universe.
Maybe that’s not true, but they certainly aren’t shy about changing the life of an important human being — and thereby changing history.
I told you how Winston Churchill escaped from a Boer prison in Africa. How he found himself 300 miles from neutral territory, tried to walk through the jungle by following the railroad tracks, and found it impossible because soldiers guarding the railroad forced him to take wide detours. Then, when he tried to escape by slipping aboard a train each night and jumping off before dawn, he found that no trains ran in the right direction at night.
So he decided to walk up to the first house he came across, tell them who he was, and take his chances. Then came a startling coincidence. He walked up to the only house for 20 miles in any direction with Englishmen in it instead of Boers. And so he escaped through a remarkable coincidence. But it’s nothing compared to what happened a few years earlier.
I love the way Churchill describes his arrival in India in 1895: “We sailed from Southampton ... and after a voyage of twenty-three days cast anchor in Bombay Harbour and pulled up the curtain on what might well have been a different planet.”
Eager to get ashore, Churchill and a few other officers hired a small boat to take them to a stone quay jutting out into the bay. As they approached the great stone wall in a strong swell their little cockleshell of a boat rose and fell more than five feet beside dripping-wet stone steps and large iron rings mounted along the quay for handholds.
Churchill, never fazed by anything throughout his life, says, “I put out my hand and grasped at a ring; but before I could get my feet on the steps the boat swung away. giving my shoulder a sharp and peculiar wrench.”
He had torn the rotator cuff of his right shoulder. Though it hurt very badly, he laughs, saying, “Let me counsel my younger readers to beware of dislocated shoulders. Quite an exceptional strain is required to tear the capsule that holds the shoulder joint together. Since then, at irregular intervals my shoulder has dislocated on the most unexpected pretexts: sleeping with my arm under the pillow, taking a book from a library shelf ...”
He adds, “Once it nearly went out through a too expansive gesture in the House of Commons, and I thought how astonished the members would have been to see the speaker to whom they were listening suddenly throw himself upon the floor in an instinctive effort to take the strain off the displaced arm.”
Paints quite a picture, doesn’t it, Johnny?
However, although Churchill makes light of that misstep, it crippled him at polo, tennis, cricket, or other sports, and was an embarrassment for a cavalry officer who, no longer able to swing a saber, had to arm himself with a Mauser pistol. But oddly enough, that coincidence was to save his life, not once, but five separate times on a day that fell just a few years later in 1898.
In January of 1885, fanatic forces under the Mahdi attacked and took Khartoum after a long siege, cutting down General Charles Gordon, butchering his men, and taking the Sudan. Fourteen long years lapsed before the British mounted a punitive expedition under General Kitchener. Churchill was in India at the time, and fresh from deadly hand-to-hand combat in the Northwest Territory, but — being Churchill — he wangled his way to the Sudan even though he knew Kitchener felt that the young subaltern, and son of a British peer, had seen quite enough action for the moment.
And so, at dawn on a misty morning, far up the Nile River, Churchill found himself at the head of a 25-man cavalry troop, part of 16 such troops, turning in line to charge what the commander of his cavalry squadron took to be 150 Dervishes armed with rifles and firing at them from atop a low rise. The charge began, red-coated lancers with steel tipped pig-stickers galloping behind cavalry officers with sabers flashing in the morning sun — except for Churchill who had to perform the awkward, difficult act of sheathing his saber and two-handedly cocking an automatic Mauser pistol while keeping hold of the reins and staying in the saddle over rough ground.
Then came a moment which surely must have sent chills through the charging cavalrymen. As they climbed the rise toward what looked like a small contingent of the Khalifa’s Dervishes, a second body of men appeared in the depression behind the rise.
Churchill says, “Behind them now came into view a depression like a sunken road. This was crowded and jammed with men rising up from the ground where they had lay hidden. Bright flags appeared as if by some magic. The Dervishes appeared to be a great grey mass gleaming with steel.”
Five separate times Churchill found himself in a situation where a saber would have afforded him little protection. Each time his Mauser pistol saved his life. In one case, he killed a man who, lying on the ground pretending to be dead, suddenly reared up with a sword to hamstring his horse. Churchill shot him when he was just 10 feet away, but as he straightened up in the saddle he saw, “... another figure with an uplifted sword. I raised my pistol and fired. So close were we that the pistol actually struck him.”
And three more times that day a pistol changed history.
Churchill comments on what happened to any of his fellow cavalrymen if he lost a stirrup, dropped his weapon, was wounded, or even had a rein cut.
“Brought to a standstill in the enemy’s mass, clutched at from every side, stabbed at and hacked at by spear and sword, they were dragged from their horses and cut to pieces by the infuriated foe.”
But for the grace of God, and the coincidence of a shoulder that made it impossible for him to swing a saber, Winston Spencer Churchill would most likely have died at age 21. And our world would most likely be a different place today.