In late November, 1899, a British military unit which included an embedded reporter was ambushed by an Afrikaner unit in what is now Natal Province, South Africa. This was during the Anglo-Boer war, which was to be the largest military adventure to date in the history of the United Kingdom. The British had been traveling in an armored battle train, a kind of tank-train hybrid that was being used in that war mostly with poor results. The train was partly derailed, and the British were under fire, their only hope to make a break for it, or to hunker down and wait for reinforcements which may or may not come. Suddenly and without warning one of the British soldiers threw up a white flag and surrendered. This moment of initiative caused confusion among both the Boer and British which in turn resulted in several Boer and British soldiers exposing themselves to each other’s direct fire. It is one thing to volley bullets back and forth and occasionally hit someone, but standing uncovered several feet apart and heavily armed, the soldiers on both sides collectively decided that taking what was now realized by some to have been a false signal as a valid appeal to surrender was a better choice than a massacre. The British Soldiers and the reporter were all taken prisoner. Over the subsequent month, the reporter was (against the standing rules of the time) mixed in with the soldiers, and they were processed and incarcerated in a facility in Pretoria.
On December 22, the reporter effected an escape which is one of the more remarkable stories I’ve ever read. It forms a chapter in his later writing, which I’ve cut down considerably for you to get the gist of the story. Below I’ll provide a link to the complete manuscript.
Lourenco Marques: December 22, 1890…No degree of material comfort, no consciousness of correct behaviour, can balance the hateful degradation of imprisonment. Before I had been an hour in captivity…I resolved to escape. … I do not pretend that impatience at being locked up was not the foundation of my determination; but I should never have screwed up my courage to make the attempt without the earnest desire to do something, however small, to help the British cause. Of course, I am a man of peace. I did not then contemplate becoming an officer of Irregular Horse. But swords are not the only weapons in the world. Something may be done with a pen. So I determined to take all hazards; and, indeed, the affair was one of very
great danger and difficulty.
The States Model Schools stand in the midst of a quadrangle, and are surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated iron fence about 10 ft. high. These boundaries offered little obstacle to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier. No walls are so hard to pierce as living walls. I thought of the penetrating power of gold, and the sentries were sounded. They were incorruptible. I seek not to deprive them of the credit, but the truth is that the bribery market in the Transvaal has been spoiled by the millionaires…So nothing remained but to break out in spite of them. With another officer who may for the present–since he is still a prisoner–remain nameless, I formed a scheme.
… it was discovered that when the sentries near the offices walked about on their beats they were at certain moments unable to see the top of a few yards of the wall. The electric lights in the middle of the quadrangle brilliantly lighted the whole place but cut off the sentries beyond them from looking at the eastern wall, for from behind the lights all seemed darkness by contrast. The first thing was therefore to pass the two sentries near the offices. It was necessary to hit off the exact moment when both their backs should be turned together. After the wall was scaled we should be in the garden of the villa next door. There our plan came to an end. Everything after this was vague and uncertain. How to get out of the garden, how to pass unnoticed through the streets, how to evade the patrols that surrounded the town, and above all how to cover the two hundred and eighty miles to the Portuguese frontiers, were questions which would arise at a later stage. All attempts to communicate with friends outside had failed. We cherished the hope that with chocolate, a little … knowledge, and a great deal of luck, we might march the distance in a fortnight, buying mealies at the native kraals and lying hidden by day. But it did not look a very promising prospect. …
Choosing my opportunity I strolled across the quadrangle and secreted myself in one of the
offices. Through a chink I watched the sentries. For half an hour they remained stolid and obstructive. Then all of a sudden one turned and walked up to his comrade and they began to talk. Their backs were turned. Now or never. I darted out of my hiding place and ran to the wall, seized the top with my hands and drew myself up. Twice I let myself down again in sickly hesitation, and then with a third resolve scrambled up. The top was flat. Lying on it I had one parting glimpse of the sentries, still talking, … Then I lowered myself silently down into the adjoining garden and crouched among the shrubs. I was free. The first step had been taken, and it was irrevocable.
… Twenty yards away was the house, and I had not been five minutes in hiding before I perceived that it was full of people; the windows revealed brightly lighted rooms, and within I could see figures moving about. This was a fresh complication. We had always thought the house unoccupied. Presently…a man came out of the door and walked across the garden in my direction. Scarcely ten yards away he stopped and stood still, looking steadily towards me. I cannot describe the surge of panic which nearly overwhelmed me. I must be discovered. I dared not stir an inch. My heart beat so violently that I felt sick. But amid a tumult of emotion, reason, seated firmly on her throne, whispered, ‘Trust to the dark background.’ I remained absolutely motionless. For a long time the man and I remained opposite each other, and every instant I expected him to spring forward. A vague idea crossed my mind that I might silence him. ‘Hush, I am a detective. We expect that an officer will break out here to-night. I am waiting to catch him.’ Reason–scornful this time–replied: ‘Surely a Transvaal detective would speak Dutch. Trust to the shadow.’ So I trusted, and after a spell another man came out of the house, lighted a cigar, and both he and the other walked off together. No sooner had they turned than a cat pursued by a dog rushed into the bushes and collided with me. The startled animal uttered a ‘miaul’ of alarm and darted back again, making a horrible rustling. Both men stopped at once. But it was only the cat, as they doubtless observed, and they passed out of the garden gate into the town.
[the path] which led into the road was only a few yards from another sentry. I said to myself, ‘Toujours de l’audace:’ put my hat on my head, strode into the middle of the garden, walked past the windows of the house without any attempt at concealment, and so went through the gate and turned to the left. I passed the sentry at less than five yards. Most of them knew me by sight. Whether he looked at me or not I do not know, for I never turned my head. But after walking a hundred yards and hearing no challenge, I knew that the second obstacle had been surmounted. I was at large in Pretoria.
I walked on leisurely through the night humming a tune and choosing the middle of the road. The streets were full of Burghers, but they paid no attention to me. Gradually I reached the suburbs, and on a little bridge I sat down to reflect and consider. I was in the heart of the enemy’s country. I knew no one to whom I could apply for succour. Nearly three hundred miles stretched between me and Delagoa Bay. My escape must be known at dawn. Pursuit would be immediate. Yet all exits were barred. The town was picketed, the country was patrolled, the trains were searched, the line was guarded. …
But when hope had departed, fear had gone as well. I formed a plan. I would find the Delagoa Bay Railway. Without map or compass I must follow that in spite of the pickets. I looked at the stars. Orion shone brightly. Scarcely a year ago he had guided me when lost in the desert to the banks of the Nile. He had given me water. Now he should lead to freedom. I could not endure the want of either.
The rest of the story is just as interesting but it is long. The escaped prisoner does eventually make it to safety, hopping a train and making his way to British territory.
That reporter was Winston Churchill.
I’m reminded of this because I just saw a very well done mini-documentary by Tom Brokaw about the Battle of London, which he did in connection with the Olympics. Much of it was about Churchill and it was all the usual stuff about the early days of World War II. I wondered if Brokaw knew about this very interesting story from Churchill’s early days, and wondered why, if he did, he would not mention it, given that Churchill was a reporter, one of the original Scud Studs. I’m thinking that maybe this little story is lost to our current repertoire of historical touchstones.
Churchill tells the story in From London to Ladysmith via Pretoria. It is one hell of a war story.
Photo of Ladysmith from H. W. Wilson, With the Flag to Pretoria, 1902.