Winston Churchill and the Second Boer War: A celeb journalist becomes a hero

February 5, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Voting, writers.

When the Second Boer War between the British Empire and the Boer states in southern-most Africa broke out in the fall of 1899, the British newspaper reading public could be sure of one thing: the newspapers in London would spare no expense in their efforts to cover the war and to bring home exciting stories that would boost both sales and advertising.

It was an age when newspapers were ascendant; they had become money-making behemoths.

It was also the age of celebrity journalists. The crowded field of scribblers was led by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, whose name was well known to the British for his patriotic poetry and The Jungle Book, which has been published five years before. Another was Edgar Wallace, who would eventually achieve fame as a novelist, short story writer, and playwright. There was also Arthur Conon Doyle, who had created Sherlock Holmes 12 years earlier and whose byline would be a magnet for readers. Doyle, a physician by training, planned to volunteer as a doctor for the British army but would also be available for journalistic purposes. Doyle ended up writing one of the war’s best history, The Great Boer War.

Despite these famous names, the byline that every publisher wanted for his newspaper was that of 24-year-old Winston Churchill.

In September, before the war had even begun, Churchill received a telegram from Sir Alfred Harmsworth, publisher of two of Britain’s most popular newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, that made the young man a lucrative offer if he would be the newspapers’ correspondent. Churchill, however, believed he could do better, so he contacted Oliver Borthwick, editor of the Morning Post, a newspaper that prided itself in its coverage of foreign affairs.

Borthwick did not have to be persuaded. He responded immediately with an offer of 1,000 pounds (more than $150,000 in modern dollars) for four months’ work and another 200 pounds per month after that.

Why so much effort and money to land Churchill, who would not reach his 25th birthday until November.

Simply put, Churchill had proven himself on the battlefield not only as a soldier but also as a writer. Churchill had been with British troops in earlier conflicts in India, Egypt, and the Sudan. He had not only fought bravely, but he had also written vividly about it.

Churchill biographer William Manchester (The Last Lion trilogy; Visions of Glory, volume 1) noted that the greatest achievement of Churchill’s young life was his mastery of the language. His command of English set him apart from most other writers. His wide range of reading gave his writing depth. His lively and original descriptions and his vivid imagery put readers on the field beside him, allowing them to experience the exhilaration and horror of war. Churchill’s dispatches and his books — he had already written one and was about to publish another by the fall of 1899 — were read from Buckingham Palace to the small villages in the countryside.

Borthwick got more than his money’s worth in hiring Churchill. The young correspondent put himself in the middle of the action soon after arriving in South Africa and was captured and held in a POW camp in Pretoria by the Boers. After several weeks of internment, Churchill escaped and spent many harrowing days making his way east to Portuguese East Africa, where he was free. Churchill’s internment and escape — which the Boers announced by offering a reward for his capture — made him even more of a celebrity than ever. Afterwards, Churchill returned to the war and continued writing dispatches for The Morning Post.

Churchill’s adventure during the Second Boer War is the subject of Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, the Daring Escape, and The Making of Winston Churchill — a tale well-told.


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