On 12 October 1899, when the Boer War broke out, Winston Spencer Churchill obtained a commission to act as war correspondent for The Morning Post.
After some weeks in exposed areas, he was on an armoured train which was ambushed, leading to his capture and imprisonment in a POW camp in Pretoria. His actions during the ambush led to speculation that he would be awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy, but this was not possible as he was technically a civilian.
He escaped from the prison camp and, with the assistance of an English mine manager, travelled almost 300 miles (480 km) to safety. His escape made him a minor national hero for a time.
Instead of returning home, he re-joined General Buller’s army on its march to relieve the British at the Siege of Ladysmith and to take Pretoria. Although continuing as a war correspondent, he gained a commission in the South African Light Horse.
He was among the first British troops into Ladysmith and Pretoria. In 1900, Churchill returned to England and later published London to Ladysmith via Pretoria and a second volume of Boer War experiences, Ian Hamilton’s March.
Churchill was arguably the greatest Briton of the 20th century. Something of a maverick and free thinker, as Prime Minister, he would lead the country in the fight against Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In this position he championed numerous secret intelligence collection agencies and ‘private armies’ such as the Long Range Desert Group, the SAS and SOE amongst others.