Monday, September 29, 2008

The Churchill Series – Sept. 29, 2008

(One of a series of weekday posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

A recent post included my thoughts regarding awarding POW and Geneva Convention rights to terrorists. I noted that by what has been until recently the accepted interpretation of the Convention, soldiers out of uniform caught on the battlefield or within enemy lines were denied the Convention’s protections and almost always treated as spies subject to summary court martial and execution.

That post brought to mind an episode in Churchill’s life when he was in South Africa serving in Boer War. In his autobiographical My Early Life, Churchill recounts the day he was carrying intelligence dispatches from the General commanding one British force to the Commander-in-Chief of a second force seeking to coordinate with the other force.

No means of communication existed between the two forces. Johannesburg was still in the hands of the enemy, and to go back southward by the way we had come meant a detour of nearly eighty miles round rough hill ranges.

A more speedy means of communication with the Commander-in-Chief was at that juncture extremely important. Civilians who came out of the city and entered our lines gave conflicting accounts of the conditions inside. The Boers were clearing out, but they were still three.

A young Frenchman who seemed extremely well-informed assured me that it would be quite easy to bicycle through the city in plains clothes. The chances against being stopped and questioned in the closing hours of an evacuation were remote. He offered to land me a bicycle and guide me himself. I decided to make the attempt. …

We started in the afternoon and bicycled straight down the main road into the city.
As we passed our furthest outpost lines I experienced a distinct sensation of adventure.

We were soon in the streets of Johannesburg. Darkness was already falling. But numbers of people were about, and at once I saw among them armed and mounted Boers. They were still in possession of the city, and we were inside their lines.

According to all the laws of war my situation, if arrested, would have been disagreeable. I was an officer holding a commission in the South African Light Horse, disguised in plain clothes and secretly within the enemy’s lines. No court martial that ever sat in Europe would have had much difficulty in disposing of such a case. …

The excerpt above can be found on pg. 347 of Churchill’s My Early Life. (Touchstone republication with Manchester Introduction, 1996)