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Churchill was in great danger as a war correspondent

Posted in Historical articles, History, News, War on Friday, 31 May 2013

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This edited article about Winston Churchill originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 275 published on 22 April 1967.

Winston Churchill, picture, image, illustration

During the Boer War, Winston Churchill was captured when attempting to retreat from the Boer troops

Captain Aylmer Haldane of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, threw himself on to his camp bed and stared at the canvas roof of his tent, on which the South African sun beat down relentlessly, making the air oppressive.

“It’s madness!” he said. “Why do I have to take this armoured train out?”

His friend, 24-year-old Winston Churchill, who was new to South Africa, looked up from the table at which he was writing.

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.

Haldane sat up and glared.

“Look,” he said, “We are in Estcourt. Ladysmith, 30 miles north of here, is cut off by the Boers, but the railway line is still open.”

“I know,” said Churchill. “That is why I am here.”

A war correspondent for the Morning Post, Churchill had arrived in Estcourt a few days before, hoping to get through to Ladysmith where the fighting was said to be heavy. But the war that everyone in England had thought would be so easy, was not going so well. The Boers, mobile and dangerous in the empty veldt, seemed to be everywhere.

“What you don’t know,” Haldane said, “is that we have a train. Someone has been busy putting armour-plating on it, and now the General proposes to send it north along the line to see if we can find the Boers. It does not seem to have occurred to him that they will be waiting for us. They will let us pass, and then blow up the line with a few ounces of dynamite and cut us off. All the armour-plating in the world won’t save us then.”

Haldane threw himself back on the bed.

“You have to take this train out?” Churchill asked. “When?”

“Tomorrow,” Haldane replied.

“I would like to come,” Churchill said, getting interested.

Haldane shook his head.

“I’m a war correspondent. It sounds like a good story.”

Haldane shook his head.

“You must be mad,” he said slowly.

The following morning, 15th November, 1899, the train was ready and waiting in the railway yard. It consisted of an engine and some steel-plated trucks with a small naval gun mounted at the rear. Haldane was there with some of his company of Dublin Fusiliers. On his command they unwillingly took their places in the trucks. The train was a bad joke among the troops. Then Haldane and Churchill clambered aboard together.

For an hour they clanked northwards through empty country. They had just passed through the hamlet of Chieveley, 14 miles from Estcourt, when suddenly a patch of ground 50 yards to their right, erupted in earth and stones. A shock wave slammed against the train. Then they saw another burst, and another.

“We are under fire!” Haldane shouted to Churchill, as shell splinters rattled the side of their truck.

A minute or two later they heard a dull explosion. The truck heaved, throwing them into a corner, and the train staggered to a halt.

Haldane and Churchill clambered out to survey the damage. Miraculously, the engine was still on the line, but several trucks had been derailed. Held only by their couplings, they leaned drunkenly to one side. Soldiers, many of them wounded, were crawling out of them.

Just then, another shell burst close by. Haldane gestured wildly towards the engine.

“Get up there and see what you can do,” he yelled at Churchill. “I’ll get the gun!”

While Haldane sprinted, head down, for the naval gun at the rear and brought it into action, Churchill went to the engine. It appeared to be undamaged, but the rails behind it were buckled and the trucks blocked the line. In the cab the driver lay slumped down by the fire door, blood pouring from a bullet graze on his head.

“Can you get this thing to move?” Churchill shouted at him.

The driver made no response.

Churchill climbed into the cab and examined the driver’s wound.

“You are lucky,” he said to him. “This is nothing, and no man is hit twice in the same day. Now, can you get this engine to move?”

The driver nodded his head.

Dropping from the cab and calling for help from the soldiers, the young war correspondent began to wrestle with the couplings on the ruined trucks. One by one they were disconnected and levered aside.

By this time the men were under rifle fire from the Boers and the number of wounded was growing. Churchill had them loaded on to the engine and tender. Then he signalled to the driver to start the locomotive.

Slowly, the engine began to move, its wheels grinding back over the buckled rails. Then it was free.

Just then, Captain Haldane came back from the naval gun. Ordering Churchill into the cab with the driver, he proposed that the engine and tender should move back down the track to Estcourt, while he and his men fought from behind, using the engine as cover.

When all was ready, they set off. But the driver could not keep the engine’s pace slow enough for the soldiers. Haldane and his men fell behind.

When the gap between the locomotive and the soldiers had widened to 300 yards, Churchill ordered the driver to stop in a cutting. Then he ran back to help the soldiers.

Before he had gone half-way, figures appeared on the track in front of him. They were Boers.

Churchill turned to run.

Trapped in the cutting by the Boers, Churchill scrambled to open ground and headed for a nearby river. But a horseman, armed with a rifle, galloped across and blocked his escape route.

Churchill grabbed for his pistol, but it was not there. He had taken it off while disentangling the railway trucks.

The Boer horseman stopped and raised his rifle ready to fire. Reluctantly Churchill raised his hands above his head and surrendered.

Meanwhile, the engine and tender loaded with the wounded soldiers returned to Estcourt, where the survivors told the story of the brave young war correspondent who had saved their lives.

A month later, when he successfully escaped from the Boers, the young reporter found he had become a national hero. Everyone in England knew the name of Winston Churchill who, more than 40 years later, became one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers.

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