Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape

Contributed by David Buckerfield

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Churchill, the reporter, was on an armoured train, loaded with British soldiers, performing a reconnoitre between Frere and Chieveley in the British Natal Colony in November 1899. A Boer kommando force had placed a big boulder on the track and the steam train crashed in to it. It would not have been travelling fast but it was still a mighty impact. The Boers then opened up with field guns and rifle fire from a vantage position.

The British soldiers who were uninjured returned fire, whilst others on the train did there best to get their injured and wounded colleagues out of harm's way. They then tried to uncouple the locomotive so that it could back off down the line to safety, all the while under fire. After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside. A number of men were taken prisoner, but the loco, loaded with men, had escaped. Churchill found himself alone in a gully near the track. It was summer and therefore hot. He was covered in sweat, oil, dust and his comrades' blood and was no doubt exhausted. A Boer got off his horse, got down on one knee and raised his Mauser rifle to bear at a range of 40 yards. Churchill went for the pistol in his belt but it wasn't there- it was on the train. He was defenceless so he surrendered.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
General Botha
The two men stared at each other. It was just a surrender on a battlefield like countless others, was it not? For them it was at the time, but in reality it was anything but- for both these men were destined to become prime ministers of their respective countries! Moreover, their countries would end up fighting together on the same side some years later. The man with the rifle was Boer commander General Louis Botha- more of him later.

Churchill himself was a fairly insignificant 25 year old at the time but he came from an elite family. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had been an eminent politician and the family bloodline goes back to beyond the First Duke of Marlborough (Battle of Blenheim, 1704). The Boers knew they had a valuable bargaining chip, especially useful if things turned out pear shaped for them in their war against the British army and its colonial allies. The Boers, for many reasons, decided to treat Winston as an officer POW, despite the fact he was a civilian at the time.

Journey in to Captivity
Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Majuba Hill
The prisoners did some route marching before being put on a train for transport to Pretoria, the then capital of the Boer Transvaal Republic. Along the way they passed an imposing mountain.
Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Laing's Nek

This is Majuba Hill where, in February 1881, the Boers gave the British army a real hiding, mastering their hit and run guerrilla warfare tactics. The summit is 2,146 m/7,080 ft asl. Soon after that mauling the British negotiated a ceasefire because they weren't prepared to endure any more, thus ending the first Anglo-Boer War. We're talking about Britain in the late 19th century, a world superpower! This act of obtaining a ceasefire was described by the young Churchill as "a disgraceful, cowardly peace", which was merely echoing the British public's sentiments on the matter. After the Battle of Majuba the British army never again wore their famous red tunics in to battle- they adopted khaki combat uniforms thereafter.
Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Boer Camp

The top of the mountain pass ends at Laingsnek, next to the base of Majuba Hill, itself the site of another humiliating British defeat only a month earlier.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Volksrust Memorial
When the train transporting the prisoners passed by Majuba it was early evening and the light was fading. Churchill described the sight as "a great dark mountain with memories as sad and gloomy as its appearance". It's a standout symbol of abject British failure. The railroad runs right by it.

The prisoners' train then continued on its journey to Pretoria. Churchill's train stopped at the nearby town of Volksrust that has its own Anglo-Boer war memorial outside the town hall.
Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Johannesburg skyline

I rode on home from Volksrust across the monotonous veld. Eventually the oh-so-familiar sight of Johannesburg's skyline about 15 miles away came in to view, silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, signalling the end of another trip.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Staat's Model School

Meanwhile, Churchill and his colleagues were imprisoned in a converted school in the middle of Pretoria. It was a POW camp for captured British officers. I did the short run to Pretoria to visit it.

The prisoners were marched through the streets of Pretoria to it. Churchill's observations on first sight of the State Model Schools building were "We turned a corner; on the other side of the road stood a long, low, red brick building with a slated veranda and a row of iron railings before it".

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
The School Building
Pretoria today still has many 19th century buildings such as this. I knew the address and thought that it was still a government building, but that was all. I simply pitched up, saw that it is nowadays a Dept. of Education library and walked in. The chief librarian, a lady, was called and I explained that I was writing a story about Churchill and could she help.

It was just one of those special meetings in life! She allowed me to photograph freely and gave me loads of information, gave me a tour and provided me with lots of anecdotes about the building's use as a POW prison! This place is a library not a museum, but I instantly realised that in terms of the story I was following that I'd stumbled upon the mother lode!

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Churchill's Quarters
All things Churchillian; the display cabinets contain photos of him taken as a reporter and as an officer in 1899 and 1900, books written on him and by him and a copy of the wanted notice.

Churchill describes how he and the imprisoned British army officers had drawn large maps and how they updated them with any and all information they received about battles, troop movements etc., much of the information reaching them via unconventional sympathetic sources The maps are huge, about 10 foot square. The librarian unlocked a seldom used room to show me them. They were drawn on the walls and are now covered in glass to protect them, but this made them hard to photograph.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Churchill's Maps
The maps were hand drawn in pen, crayon and pencil. The red markers indicate British troop positions and the blue for the Boers. They were cut from red and blue book covers! Churchill says in his book that the markers were red and green. Perhaps after his escape they ran short of green covered books and changed to blue- I don't know.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Churchill escaped alone. Others, like Captain Haldane, found that there were huge voids under the floorboards in the school like this one.

He and two other prisoners hid under the floor and made a dash for it when the coast was clear, i.e. whilst their captors were out scouring the streets! This happened when the prisoners were being in the process of being transferred to another, more secure, prison in Pretoria.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Churchill's Wanted Poster
Churchill had only been in captivity about four weeks when he escaped on the evening of 12th December 1899. He vaulted over the wall to the neighbouring property and he was off!

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
He walked through the city streets at night looking for the railway line that headed east. With a mix of hiding by day, walking at night, stealing food, drinking out of streams and hitching rides on goods trains (all steam trains), waiting for them to move past slowly on inclines and leaping aboard at night, he made his way eastwards until he reached Mozambique and safety. Young Winston displayed a good deal of pluck and courage and needed a lot of luck to succeed!

It's possible to follow his route closely by taking the N4 highway from Pretoria all the way to the Mozambique border at Komatipoort. The road then continues a short way to Maputo (formerly known as Lourenco Marques), the capital of Mozambique, on the Indian Ocean coast.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Veld Fire
The N4 superslab travels through the dry featureless savannah that we call the veld.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
The Railway Line
As far as I'm aware the current railroad track follows the same route it did more than 100 years ago. I rode along wondering what was going through Churchill's mind as he made his bolt to freedom. I also wondered how much different the 20th century would have turned out had he not survived his capture, imprisonment or escape. I found this to be an intriguing exercise!

My journey along the N4 ended at Machadodorp, about half way to Maputo, because I was on a RAT run and we then turned south, heading for Swaziland. We'd covered this distance from Pretoria in just over two hours. It took Churchill 9 days to do the whole 480 km/300 miles to Lourenco Marques.

What followed
Churchill contacted the local British consul in Lourenco Marques, establishing his identity, and then travelled on a steam ship down the coast to Durban, the main port of Natal. News of his escape had made both the British and local newspapers and a sizeable crowd greeted him as a hero on his arrival in Durban. This undoubtedly appealed to his considerable ego. In the new year, 1900, he travelled by train back to the Colenso area to resume his reporter duties. On arrival at the army camp he was shown his tent and it was just 50 yards, yes 50 yards, from the exact spot where he had been captured 6 weeks previously.

Soon after that he enrolled in a cavalry regiment, not a British but a South African outfit. I get the impression that he didn't ever want to come up against an armed Boer again without a rifle in his hand. He took part in the operation to relieve the siege of Ladysmith, but left for England well before the end of the year to pursue his well-known political career.

The Anglo-Boer War drew to a close in 1902 when Gen Botha and other Boer leaders signed the Treaty of Vereeniging. Botha then travelled to London and bumped in to Churchill. The latter didn't recognise his former captor- both men were now politicians and wore suits! They had a short private luncheon. I'd loved to have been a fly on the wall- it must have been an incredible conversation. After that these two men held each other in high esteem.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Louis Botha
A few years later Botha, now Prime Minister of the Transvaal, gave the Cullinan Diamond to King Edward VII, surely one of the greatest presents ever given. Britain gave him a 5 million loan in return to help rebuild the Transvaal that had suffered so much in the war.

He tried as hard as he could to unite Afrikaners and English speakers, no easy task, and worked closely with Britain. This angered a lot of his followers who wanted nothing to do with Britain, particularly because of all the series of awful atrocities committed by the British army during the Anglo-Boer War. The thing he'd worked hardest to achieve, the Union of South Africa, came about in 1910, whereby the former Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Free State and the former British Colonies of the Cape and Natal all came together to form an integrated country. It would take more than eighty more years before South Africa would taste democracy for the first time in its history, but the formation of the Union was a big step in pulling together a country that had been torn in two. Louis Botha became South Africa's Prime Minister in 1910.

His real allegiances were put to the absolute test when the world descended in to global war in 1914. Once again he decided that his country had to stand by Britain and her allies. This caused a revolt here because many South Africans sided with the German cause. He managed to prevail. He was thought of so highly by Britain and its allies that he was invited to the Treaty of Versailles process in 1919. He returned here after that, fell ill and died shortly afterwards.

Throughout all the enormous political shifts and changes that this country has undergone in the last 110 years, Louis Botha is still remembered most of all as a great military commander and the driving force behind the Union of SA, the precursor to our current republic.

His statue, this magnificent statue, still proudly stands outside the houses of parliament in our capital, Pretoria.

Yes, this was the man that captured Churchill. It would have been oh so easy for him to have pulled the trigger that day.

But he didn't.

Churchill's Capture, Imprisonment and Escape
Route to Freedom
Cape Colony Colony Profile
Transvaal Colony Profile
South Africa Colony Profile
Also by David Buckerfield
Anglo-Zulu War

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV and Film

by Stephen