Friday, February 13, 2009

The Churchill Series - Feb.12, 2009

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

Reader’s Note:
Previous posts dealing with John (Jack) Strange Spencer Churchill (1880-1947) and his relationship with his only brother and sibling, Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965), are here, here and here.

On January 28, 1900, Jack Churchill arrived in Durban, South Africa, aboard a hospital ship, Maine, which his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, had helped raise funds to equip. Recently commissioned in the Territorials, Jack had volunteered to serve in the Boer War.

Within a week of his arrival Jack observed his twentieth birthday and was serving alongside his brother Winston, five years his senior and, by then, an experienced combat officer who’d seen action along what is now the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in Sudan, and South Africa.

The brothers’ first combat action together occurred on Feb. 12 when they were part of a mounted scouting patrol which encountered a much larger Boer force. The British patrol retreated under fire and appeared to have ridden clear of the Boers. Winston tells us what happened next:

I looked back over my shoulder from time to time at Hussar Hill or surveyed the large brown masses of our rearmost squadrons riding so placidly home across the rolling veldt. I remarked to my companion, “We are still much too near those fellows.”

The words were hardly out of my mouth when a shot rang out, followed by the rattle of magazine fire from two or three hundred Mauser rifles. A hail of bullets whistled among our squadrons, emptying a few saddles and bringing down a few horses.

Instinctively our whole cavalcade spread out into open order and scampered over the crest now nearly two hundreds yards away. Here we leapt off our horses, which were hurried into cover, threw ourselves on the grass and returned the fire. …

Jack was lying by my side. All of a sudden he jumped and wriggled back a yard or two from the line. He had been shot in the calf, in this his very first skirmish. …

I helped him from the firing-line and saw (that he received medical attention).
After treatment at a field hospital, Jack was evacuated to the Maine to complete his recovery. His mother had come out with the hospital ship and Winston soon joined them on board for a period of some days.

Jack later returned to the fighting. He was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Queen’s Medal with five clasps.

For some years before WW I , Jack and Winston served together in the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, at the time a reserve unit whose members pursued civilian careers while training periodically.

Jack was on active duty throughout WWI. He served first near Dunkirk where the British fought to stop the German’s initial advance along the channel coast. Afterwards he served on the Western front, later at Gallipoli and, finally, back again on the Western front after British forces were withdrawn from Gallipoli.

As in the Boer War, Jack served with distinction. He was mentioned in dispatches; and in 1918 was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Most historians say the quality Churchill most admired in a man was physical bravery. Jack, he knew, was such a man.

In tomorrow’s post the brothers marry within a month of each other; their wives become close friends; and the two couples move through life sharing good times and bad until death parts them.
For this post I’ve drawn from
Speaking for Themselves: The personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill (Mary Soames, Editor), Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life, Richard Hough’s Winston and Clementine: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Churchills,and John Keegan’s Winston Churchill.