To­tal be­lief in might and right

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THESE are tales of em­pire, ex­pressed in the lush and evoca­tive lan­guage of an­other century yet con­veyed with the clar­ity and cer­tainty one would ex­pect from the nar­ra­tive skills of Win­ston Spencer Churchill, the only world leader to re­ceive the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture.

The Story of the Malakand Field Force, first pub­lished in 1898, was Churchill’s de­but ef­fort at writ­ing mil­i­tary his­tory. First, tak­ing leave as a cav­alry of­fi­cer, he was a war cor­re­spon­dent. Then his letters to Lon­don’s Daily Tele­graph were pub­lished as a book that continues to in­flu­ence mil­i­tary think­ing about the war in Afghanistan to­day.

On the north­west fron­tier of In­dia, Churchill fumes that the Pathan tribes­men are in re­ceipt of covert sup­port from the king of Afghanistan in Kabul. It’s an in­ter­est­ing re­verse on the Afghan Tal­iban of the 21st century re­ceiv­ing covert sup­port from Is­lam­abad.

The north­west fron­tier in the year of the Raj of 1897 was a dan­ger­ous place. It was an edge of the Bri­tish Em­pire and Churchill de­lib­er­ately chose to travel with the Malakand Field Force on a pun­ish­ment ex­pe­di­tion in the Ma­mund Val­ley, in pur­suit of the Pathan tribes who had re­belled against im­pe­rial rule.

To say that Churchill was coura­geous is not open to chal­lenge. To say that he was fool­hardy to the point of be­ing reck­less is also be­yond doubt. This is in even greater ev­i­dence in his 1899 ef­fort The Boer War (which com­bines two books, Lon­don to Lady­smith via Pre­to­ria and Ian Hamil­ton’s March, writ­ten as a cor­re­spon­dent for The Morn­ing Post). Churchill was cap­tured by the Bo­ers, off a de­railed ar­moured train. It was sim­ply luck, in which he ap­pears to have had an abun­dance most of his life, that the cor­re­spon­dent was not killed. ‘‘Banjo’’ Pater­son, an Aus­tralian war cor­re­spon­dent, de­scribed Churchill as ‘‘cu­ri­ous com­bi­na­tion of abil­ity and swag­ger’’.

There are three cen­tral char­ac­ters in both The Malakand Field Force and The Boer War.

First is the Bri­tish Em­pire at its zenith, push­ing the bound­aries of im­pe­rial rule in In­dia and South Africa. Sec­ond is the army, which holds the em­pire to­gether and is viewed with re­spect and af­fec­tion by Churchill. He cam­paigns in South Africa with his cousin, the duke of Marl­bor­ough, be­gin­ning each day with a bot­tle of beer. Fi­nally, there is Churchill him­self. The young Churchill is an ad­ven­turer, to be sure. But he is driven not only by the most in­tense per­sonal con­vic­tions about hon­our but also by a rev­er­ence for em­pire that per­mits no self doubt.

Churchill’s view of the Bri­tish Em­pire is al­most Ro­man in its per­spec­tive. Be­yond the em­pire there are bar­bar­ians, whether it is Om­dur­man in the Sudan or Nawa­gai on the north­west fron­tier. The tribes­men may be ac­knowl­edged for their courage but are per­ceived to be lit­tle more than sav­age in­trud­ers on the civil­is­ing mis­sion of the Bri­tish, which ex­tends to bat­tle­field death and de­struc­tion.

For the im­pe­rial polemi­cists, in the Sudan there was the mad Mahdi, on the fron­tier there was the mad fakir. For Churchill, there is no re­flect­ing on the colo­nial im­per­a­tive, as is read­ily found in Ge­orge Or­well’s Burmese Days. Nor is there an ac­knowl­edg­ment that the Raj had al­ready met its match in Afghanistan in the first Afghan war of 1839-1842. In this mil­i­tary de­ba­cle, the im­pe­rial force had been slaugh­tered al­most to the last man by re­bel­lious lords There was a sin­gle sur­vivor per­mit­ted to es­cape as a warn­ing. The idea that the em­pire may have over­reached might­ily does not seem to en­ter Churchill’s youth­ful mind.

It is note­wor­thy in both The Story of the Malakand Field Force and The Boer War that Churchill is per­plexed as to how op­po­nents could ever think they might win. On the north­west fron­tier, the tribes­men have mis­taken the lo­cal, iso­lated gar­risons for the Bri­tish army in its en­tirety. Quite wrong, of course, as the Raj sends re­in­force­ments to com­prise the puni­tive ex­pe­di­tion.

In South Africa, it is a sim­i­lar equa­tion. But it is in one of the ex­changes with the Bo­ers that Churchill demon­strates a keen ear for the roots of that con­flict.

A Boer sol­dier ex­plains, “We know how to treat Kaf­firs.’’ Churchill writes: “Prob­ing at ran­dom I had touched a very sen­si­tive nerve. We had got down from un­der­neath the po­lit­i­cal and reached the so­cial. What is the true and orig­i­nal root of Dutch aver­sion to Bri­tish rule? … It is the abid­ing fear and ha­tred of the move­ment that seeks to place the na­tive on a level with the white man.”

How­ever, Churchill’s in­sight deserts him when he con­sid­ers the im­pact of the colo­nial bat­tles on Bri­tish mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity: “From a mil­i­tary point of view, the per­pet­ual fron­tier wars in one cor­ner or other of the em­pire are of the great­est value. This fact may one day be proved, should our soldiers ever be brought into con­tact with some peace-trained, con­script army, in any­thing like equal num­bers.”

The non­sense of this was to be demon­strated in Bel­gium in 1914 when Bri­tish cav­alry charges into Ger­man Maxim guns led only to slaugh­ter.

De­spite Churchill’s brusque ex­te­rior, there is a com­pas­sion­ate side to him. He feels for the in­valid Bri­tish sol­dier fac­ing a life of poverty at home. The fu­ture Lib­eral politi­cian is to be found in these seeds. In­deed, Churchill made his name as a par­lia­men­tary can­di­date through his war cor­re­spon­dent sta­tus. And hu­mour emerges when he dreams in Boer cap­tiv­ity of hav­ing break­fast with pres­i­dent Paul Kruger, de­mand­ing marmalade for his toast.

Both these books are ex­cel­lent read­ing. It is the lan­guage of the Vic­to­rian age, com­manded by a mas­ter sto­ry­teller, undi­min­ished in im­pact by the pas­sage of the years. Stephen Loosley is chair­man of the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute in Can­berra. Next week he will re­view new edi­tions of Churchill’s The Sec­ond World War and Never Give In!

Young Win­ston Churchill in 1901, fresh from the Boer War and a stint in prison camp

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