At 21 Even The Greatest Among Us May Not Be Done Growing Up – Part 3

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In 1895, arriving from New York City, Winston Churchill landed on the sweltering island of Cuba where a revolution had dragged on for more than 30 years. Churchill’s goal in going to Cuba was twofold: He was a soldier and wanted to see what war looked like, but a second problem nagged at him. His military salary after Sandhurst was a thin 300 pounds a year. He thought he might perhaps wear two hats as he rode into combat — the ornate helmet of a British cavalry officer, and that of a journalist reporting the action to the people back home. It seems a far-fetched idea, but one look at what Churchill did with it says he was right. His list of books, written exactly as he thought he might write them, shows incredible foresight and ingenuity.

Cuba? Not much accomplished. He managed to be shot at on his 22nd birthday, of which he wrote to a small newspaper that had agreed to buy his letters; he saw a few men get shot (none killed); and he was awarded a medal for just being there, which he was not allowed to wear because the British government insisted on distancing itself from the Cuban mess.

But then followed what may be the most remarkable five years any young man has ever lived, and when he emerged from them he was not only no longer a callow youth, he was essentially the same Winston Churchill who led his people to victory 45 years later. How does a 21-year-old morph from a callow youth into one of the greatest men of all time?

It’s not easy.

In the fall of 1896, he sailed with the 4th Hussars to India, and though his unit did not participate in the fierce fighting that broke out among the always hostile tribes of the Northwest Frontier, Churchill did. He took leave from his unit to join the savage fighting, and on a fateful day of that campaign he changed, never again to be quite the same man.

During a fierce battle, promised that a larger unit was coming up to support them, Churchill’s unit moved up a narrow spur with a mere 85 Sikh soldiers against hundreds of wild-eyed Afghan tribesmen. Suddenly, the whole mountainside erupted in white puffs of smoke as tribesmen swarmed downward. With just eight of the Sikhs, Churchill and another officer were ordered to hold as the rest fell back.

Churchill, a crack shot, used a Martini-Henry rifle as a soldier fed him cartridges for the single-shot weapon. The other officer, seeing that the main unit was now under cover, called for a hasty retreat. Churchill and his Sikh soldier stopped to pick up unfired cartridges, which were not to be left for the enemy. As he started to rise with one hand filled with ammunition, Churchill was amazed to see that the other men, including the officer, were back down again. Then, in shock, he realized that they had been cut down in a hail of lead. At that moment the line of howling tribesmen reached his position. One of them, whirling a gleaming sword in the air, struck at the face and chest of his defenseless fellow officer three times, killing him.

Churchill, writing about it later, says, “I forgot everything else at that moment except a desire to kill this man.” He fired at the Afghan twice, but did not know if he hit him because by then he was dragging a wounded soldier downhill to safety.

Three survivors managed to make their way to the main force, which managed a fighting retreat. From that moment the voice of Winston Churchill in his writings is never quite the same. Whatever it is that makes a man a man had forever changed him.

From there, Churchill — again a volunteer — fought in the Sudan in the British war of retribution against Mahdist rebels who had killed more than a million innocents and had devastated a land almost the size of Europe. There, he took part in what has been described as “the last meaningful British cavalry charge” even though his shoulder, unknown to anyone other than him, was so damaged in an accident leaving a ship during rough seas that he could no longer hold a cavalry saber and was forced to carry a pistol.

Next, officially only a war correspondent, Churchill went to South Africa, where his heroic work in saving an ambushed trainload of soldiers, getting them safely away at the cost of his own capture by the Boers, would have won him the Victoria Cross had he been in uniform. And then he did the impossible, escaping from a Boer prison camp, making his way through 300 miles of jungle to freedom, and returning to fight with the South African Light Horse, where he was one of the first to enter Ladysmith after its 118-day siege.

All between 1895 and 1900!

Not a bad five years, eh Johnny?


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