Book Review: Winston Churchill Reporting
by Simon Read
Da Capo, 2015
The adventurous soldiering career of Winston Churchill in his twenties happened right alongside his burgeoning career as an intrepid journalist, and that combination of record and record-keeper has proven irresistible to historians for a century. Supplementing Churchill’s own books about campaigning and reporting in such far-flung Imperial outposts as Cuba, India, and the Sudan, there’s been an unpenned stream of enthusiastic recountings by others, telling and re-telling the stories of young Winston’s fastidious upper-class habits in even the dreariest locations, of his gambling and carousing, of his daring charges and escapes, and of his courage under fire. Journalist and popular historian Simon Read lists dozens of these recountings in the bibliography to his latest book, Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent, and his own book adds to the pile.
Unlike the events of the rest of Churchill’s long life, the stories of his youth as a fairly typical example of the late Victorian gallant tend not to appall: there’s an earnest appetite to the 20-year-old we first meet in Read’s opening chapters. It’s as prone to romanticizing as any later stage of Churchill’s life, but there are half a dozen ways in which it also actually was romantic, something that can never be honestly said about the alcoholic war-monger of later decades. This is a Churchill still in the process of acquiring the four addictions that would come to rule his daily life: alcohol, tobacco, bombast, and power. This is still a sometimes-unguarded Churchill – still monstrously self-absorbed, but also capable of appealingly adolescent desperation and wonder. When he rides with his fellow Lancers in 1898 against a wide horizon of enemies, saber held forward, bullets whizzing past him, we can allow ourselves the moment of it all.
Read certainly does. In this and all other scenes, he portrays his young subject with an almost Dickensian relish:
Few people would ever hope to serve on a battlefront, but there was nothing typical about Churchill. Battle was a worthy alternative to boredom, which to Churchill was the greatest sin. With his eye on a political future, the young soldier had the spotlight very much in mind. With any luck he would enjoy his fair share of adventure and finally establish a name for himself. He left the club in high spirits and caught his train with only minutes to spare.
The Morning Post paid Churchill decently for his dispatches from the distant theaters of an empire at war, and the public read him with an eagerness that opened the door for collections of his columns, books about his experiences, and speaking tours. It didn’t take Churchill long to realize that this source of income, generated in bed, inexhaustible, and naturally in his gift, was infinitely preferable to grunting away for comparatively miserable Army wages. Writing for pay – something Churchill would do assiduously for the rest of his life – became a mainstay of his daily existence; making deals with editors, chasing favorable rates, paying close attention to book-deals and serialization rights … all the customary duties of a hack-for-hire, although, alas, Read stints most such details (this book is not the cadet-equivalent of Jonathan Rose’s magnificent The Literary Churchill, nor has any book on this subject ever been) in favor of platitudes, whether they be from Churchill himself:
In one dispatch he could not help but ponder war’s random selection. How strange that one man should be struck down his first time in battle, yet another could pass through one maelstrom after another and come out safe on the other side. Fate was a fickle thing.
Or merely about him:
The Battle of La Reforma [during the Cuban expedition] – as it would become known – was hardly a resounding Spanish victory, for they allowed the rebels to get away. “It seems a strange and unaccountable thing that a force, after making such vigorous marches, showing such energy in finding the enemy, and displaying such steadiness in attacking him, should deliberately sacrifice all that these efforts had gained,” Churchill reported. Here was a glimpse of the aggressive nature that would define Churchill as war leader, always pushing his generals to be on the offensive and show the enemy no quarter.
Winston Churchill Reporting is an engaging story, engagingly told. It breaks no new ground, offers no new insights, puts forward no revisions, and provides no details that won’t be familiar to readers of the “early life and times” sections of every enormous Churchill biography written in the last 50 years (or, indeed, those familiar with Churchill’s own book My Early Life, which chronicles all these events with a tone hardly less adulatory than Read’s). Its energy and unapologetic admiration for its subject’s bulldog (bulldog puppy?) tenacity, and its very attractive design by the good folks at Da Capo Press, are clearly intended for newcomers to the tale.