Total belief in might and right
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