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Review: Millard's 'Hero of the Empire' a thrilling tale of Churchill's youth

Hear the name Winston Churchill and it is likely you conjure up an image of an elderly, portly, balding, cigar-chomping former prime minister of Great Britain. And that's fair. By any measure Churchill was one of the 20th century's greatest statesmen, who led his nation through the darkest days of World War II with undaunted courage, stirring oratory and a single-minded passion to defeat the Nazi menace looming across the English Channel.

What you may not know is that Winston Churchill could also be an insufferable bore, a man who, it seems, came out of the womb lecturing his betters on foreign policy, military strategy and the infallibility of his singular brilliance. This is not entirely hyperbole. But there's that old line: It ain't bragging if it's true.

And that is the prevailing theme of Hero of the Empire, Candice Millard's fascinating account of the younger Churchill's incredible adventures during the Boer War, when the man was young and handsome and obsessed with establishing a reputation for gallantry — to the point of foolhardiness — in the line of fire. Then again, it ain't so stupid if everything works out.

Or perhaps, to put it another way, you might want to think of Hero of the Empire as sort of a Victorian version of a Jason Bourne plot. There are moments reading Millard's heart-pounding tale of war, imprisonment and escape when you have to stop and remind yourself this is actually a work of historical nonfiction.

Winston Churchill was born into a life of privilege. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His American-born mother, Jennie, captivated British society with her beauty and her (ahem) wayward ways.

By the age of 24, Churchill had served with distinction as an officer with the British army in India. He had written a successful book, The River War, and became a respected foreign correspondent covering the Spanish-American War and other conflicts around the world. After suffering a political defeat when he ran for the House of Commons, with the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 Churchill could not get to South Africa soon enough.

While he was embedded with a British troop train, the soldiers on board came under withering fire from a Boer ambush. Springing into action, Churchill, by then a civilian, literally assumed command of the situation, directing soldiers and working to get the locomotive moving again under a hail of bullets. His actions that day saved the lives of British soldiers as they managed to escape capture.

Churchill was not so lucky. As a Boer officer on horseback approached him with gun drawn, the future prime minister instinctively reached for his pistol, realizing too late he had left it on board the train. It was a fortuitous decision, for Churchill most certainly would have been killed by the enemy had he been armed, recalling a prescient observation made years earlier when he mused, "I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a human being as myself for so prosaic an ending."

Millard details Churchill's ceaseless efforts to escape captivity after he was taken prisoner. It was no easy task, made more difficult by the fact that not only did the Boers know they had snatched a preeminent member of the English aristocracy, but that he was the son of Lord Churchill, who only years earlier on a trip to South Africa had sent dispatches home denigrating the Boers as half-witted rubes.

Millard's retelling of Churchill's escape is the tale of an impatient young man who scales a prison wall before his co-conspirators are ready to make the break with him. Only after finding himself on the other side of the wall does Churchill realize he has no Plan B. No money. No compass. No weapon. No food. Winston Churchill is in the middle of Pretoria, 300 miles from Portuguese East Africa and freedom. Neither does he speak Afrikaans, nor Dutch. And the Boer army has virtually ceased hostilities against the British to devote its energies to hunting him down.

In South Africa his escape has caused great embarrassment. Back in England, amid increasing reports of British battlefield defeats, Churchill on the run has become a hero. But where is he?

Hero of the Empire is a thrilling, fun adventure yarn, well worthy of eventually making it to a screen somewhere. It is also a compelling story of the mysteries of fate and a young future world figure who simply would not be denied his call to greatness.

And this is also a story of a little-known chapter in a man's life that would inform his worldview and his steadfastness 40 years later when confronted with overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. "Never give up" was more than a mantra to Winston Churchill. It was an article of faith that would save his country.

Contact Daniel Ruth at druth@tampabay.com.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

By Candice Millard

Doubleday, 400 pages, $30

Review: Millard's 'Hero of the Empire' a thrilling tale of Churchill's youth 11/23/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 22, 2016 4:35pm]
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