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This edited article about Winston Churchill originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 148 published on 14 November 1964.
The prisoner laid down his book with a sigh of boredom. Lecky’s History of the Eighteenth Century was not ideal reading for an impatient man, obsessed with the idea of escape.
He gazed moodily out of the window at the high fence surrounding the school which had been turned into a prisoner of war camp. A guard went by, a big, bearded man, and armed, a formidable obstacle to get past. With ill luck he would have to face a man like that, and if that happened, he could land up with a bullet in him. The best he could hope for was to be knocked unconscious by a rifle butt.
The year was 1900, and the prisoner was Winston Churchill, a young war correspondent who had been covering the Boer War for The Morning Post, until he had been captured on a train while travelling in the direction of the besieged town of Ladysmith.
Winston Churchill had already thought of trying to lead a mass escape, but he had finally decided that the idea was impractical. He was now toying with the idea of mounting an escape with two brother officers. As it involved a walk of about three hundred miles to Portuguese East Africa with only a handful of rations, that idea did not seem very practical either.
But the only other alternative was months, perhaps years, of imprisonment. He looked around the room at his fellow officers. Some of them were playing cards, some talking idly, others merely sitting listlessly. There was no doubt about it. Life in a prisoner of war camp sapped a man’s will and energy. It was obviously time for him to depart before he was also affected by the demoralizing air of defeat that pervaded the camp.
He sat down later that day and wrote a formal letter to the Ministry of War, informing them that he had decided to escape. Then he went off to seek out the two brother officers who had already agreed to accompany him.
The escape took place on a Tuesday evening, and it went wrong almost from the very beginning.
Choosing a moment when the guards’ backs were to him, Churchill raced silently forward and quickly scaled the fence. He dropped on the other side, congratulating himself on an easy escape. Then he settled down in the shrubbery and waited for his two fellow officers to join him. They did not come.
Endless minutes ticked by. At last one of his officer friends was able to call out to him that the guards had become suspicious and that escape was impossible for them. Ruefully, Churchill reviewed the situation. His comrades had the map, compass and half the rations. All he had was a little chocolate. The conditions for the escape had never been favourable. Now they seemed hopeless.
Even so, he did not even consider going tamely back to the camp to suffer whatever indignities the Boers might inflict on him as a punishment. Instead, he rose to his feet and began walking through the dark and empty streets of Pretoria. Suddenly coming across a railway track, it occurred to him that three hundred miles was a very long way indeed to walk. A comfortable railway journey, he decided, was much more to his liking.
A train came along in due course, and Churchill boarded it, clambering from the buffers into one of the trucks where he immediately made himself comfortable on some empty coal sacks. It was then that he found that he had an unwanted companion on his journey – a large vulture, who seemed to be taking a keen and unhealthy interest in his physical condition.
Hunger and thirst finally drove him from the train. The vulture seemed sorry to see him go.
For hours he made his way carefully through long grass, skirting treacherous swamps that could suck a man out of sight. At last, like a tiny beacon of hope, he saw a distant light. It turned out to be a lighted window in a cottage, and driven forward by his hunger and thirst, he approached it, wondering how he was going to get food and water without being shot on sight by some Boer farmer, who was not inclined to take chances with a prowler.
As he approached the cottage, there was a sudden movement inside. Winston Churchill froze in his tracks. There was an unearthly silence for a few seconds, and then a voice called out in English: “Who’s there?”
Walking forward boldly, Winston Churchill pushed the door open and stepped inside. Some minutes later he was seated at the table with food and drink in front of him, and talking to his host, a mining engineer from Oldham in Lancashire who had been employed by the Boers before the war to run a nearby colliery.
The Englishman from Oldham was more than helpful. That night Winston Churchill found himself being dropped by cage into the bowels of the mine run by his new found friend. Fortified by an ample supply of food, refreshments and cigars, he settled himself down for some solid reading by candlelight.
Several days passed. Occasionally his friend brought him a newspaper, and Churchill was interested to learn that the Boers were offering ¬£25 for his capture, either dead or alive. His thoughts on this are not on record, but there is little doubt that he must have thought it a niggardly sum.
He moved from there eventually, and made himself at home in one of the offices at the pit head. He was absorbed in reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, when he learned that plans were afoot to bring him nearer to freedom. The mining engineer, it seemed, had a farmer friend who was shipping some wool by freight train over the border. Perhaps something could be arranged?
When the time came for the bales of wool to be loaded, Winston Churchill was loitering nearby. The train began to get up a head of steam; the links were tested, the truck doors closed. By then Winston Churchill was inside one of the trucks, happily settling himself down in a space that had been left for him between some of the bales. All he had to do now was to sit it out for the two and a half day journey to Delagoa Bay, on the Portuguese East Africa frontier.
It seemed at first as if the journey was going to be uneventful. But on the third day the train was unexpectedly stopped. Men began to search the trucks. It was a bitter moment for Winston Churchill. He had come so far, and now, at the last moment, he was going to be caught.
He leaned back in his hiding place, resigning himself to the inevitable uproar that would occur when he was discovered. He tensed himself as he heard the voices coming nearer to his hiding place. He could hear them quite plainly now and to his astonishment and joy he realized they were talking Portuguese. He was safe at last!
There is a small footnote to the story of Winston Churchill’s escape from the Boers. Towards the end of the war he rode with the troops into Pretoria, and then on to the camp where he had been held prisoner. There, with his hat held high in the air, he announced to his cheering former fellow prisoners that they were now free. It was a fitting end to his Boer war adventures.