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Winston Churchill Reporting: Adventures of a Young War Correspondent
By Simon Read
Da Capo Press / Perseus Books Group
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Most of us know Winston Churchill as the rotund, elderly leader of Great Britain during the tumultuous years of World War Two; but this remarkable man had a long and varied career before that, including being a war correspondent at the end of the Victorian Age who reported from such far-flung battlefields as Cuba, India, Egypt, Afghanistan and South Africa. As historian Simon Read points out in his new book Winston Churchill Reporting, there's never been a full-length book this entire time that's been devoted just to this part of Churchill's life alone; and that's too bad, because as Read's lively, action-packed account shows, the twenty-something Churchill led a life in the late 1800s worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure, getting into the kinds of scrapes and charging through the middle of the kinds of massive battles that would be scarcely believable if it all wasn't so heavily documented by multiple sources.
The son of an aristocrat, the young Churchill was actually in the British army himself in those years, although assigned to one of those largely ceremonial divisions like so many other members of the aristocracy were back then (his regiment was mostly only known for being international polo champions); but seeking fame, glory and adventure, he essentially (with the aid of his blue-blood mother) begged anyone who would listen to send him out where the actual action was, eventually realizing that he could put his writing skills from school to good use and become a free-floating war correspondent, able to be assigned willy-nilly to whatever British Empire hotspots happened to be seeing the most fighting on any given year, and happily joining in the fighting while there himself. This led Churchill through a whole series of adventures, not least of which was getting captured as a prisoner during the Second Boer War in South Africa, then actually escaping his POW camp by trekking across enemy territory for three days and eventually hiding in a mine, and somehow managing to telegraph updates on his own escape to the British newspapers in real time through the help of British sympathizers (a fact that blew me away when reading about it here), turning him instantly into a national celebrity back home and providing the kick that let him finally win his first election to public office, an event that he built and built upon until eventually becoming Prime Minister forty years later.
Read conveys it all through the unusual style of an action novel instead of the usual academic history book, a gutsy move that could've badly backfired on him; but in this case it works perfectly, in that there is just such an overwhelming amount of recorded evidence still around about Churchill's very personal thoughts and opinions about this period of his life, allowing Read to portray him like a swashbuckling hero with conflicted inner thoughts about warfare precisely because Churchill actually was a swashbuckling hero with conflicted inner thoughts about warfare. A lively and incredibly fast-paced book, this will be a revelation to people like me who only knew Churchill as the balding, stogie-chewing curmudgeon of 1940s fame, and it comes strongly recommended to the general public.
Out of 10: 9.5