As a young man Winston Churchill sought to make a name for himself with which he could fulfill his great ambition of being elected to the House of Commons. At the risk of being considered a medal hunter, string puller, and self-promoter by his critics, he sought out every opportunity to see action on the battlefield and serve as a war correspondent. Churchill traveled to Cuba to report on the island’s rebellion against Spanish rule, served in the unique dual role of soldier and war correspondent on the North-West Frontier of India as well as in Sudan, where he participated in one of the last cavalry charges by the British army, and went to South Africa to report on the Boer War where he won international headlines with his daring escape from a Boer prisoner-of-war camp. Churchill further capitalized on his adventures by quickly reworking and expanding his dispatches into four books (The Story of the Malakand Field Force, The River War, From London to Ladysmith, and Ian Hamilton’s March) that all sold rather well.
Churchill’s career as a soldier, correspondent, and historian from Cuba in 1895 to his return to England from South Africa in July 1900 is recounted in Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent by Simon Read. A former reporter and the author of War of Words, The Case That Failed Fabian, and Human Game, Read tells the story of Churchill’s adventures in an engaging, entertaining, and brisk manner with detailed descriptions that were gleaned from his research in Churchill’s articles and correspondence. It is a satisfying and worth-while book.
As the author asserts Churchill saw his exploits, beyond an opportunity for much needed financial gain, as the means to establish his “credentials and character” for a political career as “reporting from a war zone would certainly get his name out there.”
Read also recounts the minor controversy that Churchill’s activities generated and includes letters that appeared in the Army and Navy Gazette after the Sudan Campaign in 1898 in which “umbrage” was expressed “with a certain young lieutenant.” The letter writers asked, “What special privilege allowed Lieutenant Winston Churchill to trot all over the globe reporting, at leisure, on wars of his choosing?” Churchill, however, outlasted the criticism and was elected to parliament in 1900.
Although not recounted in Winston Churchill Reporting, Churchill’s Cuban adventure had, more than half a century after he had accompanied the Spanish army, a strange epilogue. In March 1949 during a senate debate on the Marshall Plan Senator William Langton of North Dakota asked his colleagues if they were aware that “the same Winston Churchill who brags that he is half American took up arms for Spain and fought against the United States and did all he could to defeat us?” Churchill replied a few days later with a telegram in which he patiently explained his Cuban exploit was more than two years before the Spanish-American War and that Langton’s statement was “entirely devoid of truth.”