On 30 November 1874 Winston Spencer Churchill was born in his family’s seat of Blenheim Palace. Widely regarded as one of the greatest statesmen in history, Churchill’s career was long, varied and extraordinary. Few men in history can claim to have lead a cavalry charge against mail-clad warriors and held the codes for a nuclear-age power.
In between he had his finest hour as Prime Minister in 1940, when Britain stood up to the might of Nazi Germany alone and refused to surrender.
The young Winston was a stocky red-haired boy, who had a very distant relationship with his aristocratic parents and preferred playing with his toy soldiers to any sort of education. As a result, he never excelled at school and didn’t even go to university, instead educating himself by spending much of his time as a soldier in India reading.
But that would come later, after a hated spell at Harrow, then a successful application to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
Churchill would later claim that his lifelong interest in warfare came from watching the soldiers march past when he had lived briefly in Dublin as a small child, and a romantic love of adventure and soldiering would never leave him. His academic performance was not good enough initially to guarantee a place at Sandhurst, but eventually he got in at the third attempt in 1893.
Travelling the Empire
After a few years he was initiated as a cavalry officer in the Queen’s Hussars, but aware of the crippling expense of the officer’s mess at this time and largely ignored by his family, he searched for other sources of income. Eventually an idea struck him, and he decided to travel to Cuba, where a war was being fought against locals rebels by the Spanish, as a War Correspondent.
Later looking back on that time with fondness, he would remark that the first (but far from the last) time that he came under fire was on the day of his 21st birthday, and that he had developed a love for Cuban cigars on the island.
In 1897 a transfer to India, then a British possession, followed, and alongside his education the precocious officer took a deep interest in politics back home. Later that year, upon hearing of a campaign to fight a tribe on the north-western frontier, Churchill asked permission to join the expedition.
In the mountains he wrote up his adventures again as a correspondent and took part in vicious hand-to-hand fighting, despite his small stature and a shoulder injury sustained earlier in his career. His first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, described this campaign. A year later, he was transferred to another of the British Empire‘s prized possessions – Egypt.
From there, ever eager to fight, he joined Lord Kitchener’s force fighting Islamist rebels in the Sudan, and at the battle of Omdurman took part in the last successful and battle-winning cavalry charge in British history, killing several men from his horse.
With that his career in the army came to a satisfying end, as he returned to England and resigned his commission in 1899. Already a minor celebrity back home after his front-line dispatches, he was persuaded to stand as an MP in Oldham that year, though he was unsuccessful.
A career in politics could wait, for there was a new war brewing which presented an opportunity for the young man to earn yet more fame.
The Boer War
In October the South African Boers had declared war on the empire, and were now attacking British possessions in the region. Having secured another stint as a correspondent with The Morning Post, Churchill set sail on the same ship as the newly appointed commander Sir Redvers Buller.
After weeks of reporting from the front line he accompanied an armoured train on a scouting expedition north, but it was waylaid and the supposed journalist had to take up arms again. It was to no avail, and after the incident he found himself behind the bars of a Boer Prisoner of War camp.
Incredibly, after enlisting the help of a local mine manager he escaped over the fences and walked 300 miles to neutral territory in Portuguese East Africa – an escapade that briefly made him a national hero. He was not done yet, however, and rejoined Buller’s army as it marched to relieve Ladysmith and take the enemy capital of Pretoria.
Completely ditching the pretense of being a civilian journalist, he re-enlisted as an officer in the African Light Horse, and personally received the surrender of 52 prison camp guards in Pretoria. Having done everything he had set out to achieve and more, the young hero returned home in 1900 in a blaze of glory.
Ascending the political ladder
With his celebrity at its zenith, Churchill decided that 1900 would be his year, and stood again for Oldham as a Tory MP – this time successfully.
However, despite being just 26 and regarded as a bright new hope by the party, the young man’s stance on free trade, and his friendship with the Liberal MP David Lloyd-George, meant that he took the almost unprecedented step of “crossing the floor” and joining the Liberals in 1904. Unsurprisingly, this made him a hated figure in Conservative circles.
That same year, incidentally, he met Clementine Hozier, who he would marry four years later, starting one of the happiest partnerships of equals in British history.
Despite it’s controversy, the decision to join the Liberals appeared to be vindicated in 1905 when they swept into office, and new Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman granted the young Winston the position of Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies – an important position given the fragile nature of the Empire after the Boer War.
After impressing in this job Churchill joined the cabinet at the still tender age of 34, and as President of the Board of Trade introduced some remarkably Liberal policies for one often seen as a giant of Conservatism – including National Insurance and the first minimum wage in the UK.
Churchill’s meteoric rise then continued, as he was made Home Secretary in 1910. His lifelong love of controversy, however, would haunt him here too. He made himself hated in Welsh and Socialist circles quickly with a gung-ho military approach to a miner’s riot, and then invited the ridicule of more experienced politicians after what is known as the Siege of Sidney Street.
A pair of murderous Latvian anarchists were being besieged in a London house in 1911 when the Home Secretary arrived on the scene. Despite Churchill later denying this, the official history of the London Metropolitan Police states that the civilian politician gave operational orders, and even prevented the fire brigade from rescuing the anarchists from the burning building, telling them that no good British lives should be put at risk for the sake of violent foreign killers.
These actions were seen as hugely irresponsible and faintly ludicrous by senior political figures, and Churchill’s prestige was badly damaged. Perhaps in response to the affair, he was moved to become First Lord of the Admiralty later that year.
Despite such failures, his early career had established him by the outbreak of World War One as one of the most dashing and famous politicians in the country, and given him valuable experience as well as a lifelong passion for warfare, foreign lands and high politics.