My Early Life, by Winston Churchill (1930)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Times review of Churchill’s autobiography, My Early Life, mentioned “the charm and briskness of this book” as well as its “humour, headlong excitement, quiet irony, melancholy regret for vanished customs and glories, love of sport [and] the pleasures of friendship,” although it also made the slightly snide point that “The material is, of course, splendid, as Mr. Churchill will agree.” That material is an adventure story that would defy belief if it were in a novel, yet in fact it did all happen to one man. In the space of one year alone, for example, Churchill took part in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman, an attempt to save an ambushed train in the Boer War, and a daring escape from a prisoner of war camp in Pretoria, all of which are described with the verve of the war correspondent he had once been. “We had the very strong spirit of the ‘diehards’ and the ‘young bloods’ of the enemy,” he recalls of his time in the Malakand Field Force, fighting on India’s North-West Frontier in the late 1890s. “They wanted to shoot at us and we wanted to shoot at them. … So a lot of people were killed and others were badly wounded and hopped around for the rest of their lives, and it was all very exciting and, for those who did not get killed or hurt, very jolly.” On one punitive expedition among the mud villages of the Mamund Valley (on today’s Afghan-Pakistan border), Lieutenant Churchill found himself with five British officers and eighty-five Sikh soldiers when, in an area that had seemed totally quiet, “Suddenly the mountainside sprang to life. Swords flashed from behind rocks, bright flags waved here and there.” In no time, “The British officer was spinning round just behind me, his face a mass of blood, his right eye cut out. Yes, it was certainly an adventure. It is a point of honour not to leave wounded men behind. Death by inches and hideous mutilation are the invariable measure meted out to all who fall in battle into the hands of the Pathan tribesmen.” The modern parallels are obvious.