- - Sunday, February 23, 2014

By Con Coughlin
Thomas Dunne, $26.99, 320 pages

With the possible exception of his archenemy Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill saw more front-line combat than any leader of the 20th century as a young man. Con Coughlin’s excellent new book chronicles young Winston’s first real taste of battle and its formative influence on one of the great leaders of the British Empire.

Churchill had mapped out his life at an early age, and with his legendary sense of purpose, he achieved and exceeded his early ambitions.

But he did not do so without overcoming many challenges and frustrations. His first challenge was parental neglect. Randolph and Jennie Jerome Churchill would never be nominated parents of the year by anyone’s measure. Both were serial philanderers, and the elder Churchill squandered away the family fortune on gambling and other earthly pleasures.

Winston and his brother were brought up by their beloved nanny. By the time Randolph died of syphilis, his promising political future and the family fortune were in ruins.

Nonetheless, young Winston adored both of his parents and remained devoted to his mother until she died. Winston’s father encouraged the boy’s desire to become a soldier, but not for the reasons Winston would have wished.

Randolph thought that his son was rather dull and would not survive in a profession outside of military endeavors. Indeed, the young Churchill was an indifferent student until he reached Sandhurst, the British West Point. It was there that he applied himself in an aspiration to become a cavalry officer against his father’s wishes.

As usual, the elder Churchill was not thinking of his son’s well-being, but of the cost of buying the cavalry mounts that young cavalry officers had to provide at their own expense or those of their families. Once his father died, Winston would fret over money for himself and his mother to support their lavish lifestyles well into his adulthood.

Churchill eventually joined one of the empire’s finest cavalry regiments, the 4th Hussars, and proved to be an excellent junior officer. He applied himself to his duties and was aggressive to the point of recklessness in polo.

However, the army was only a means to an end for young Churchill. Beneath his gregarious and outgoing exterior was one of the coldest and most calculating minds that the British Empire ever produced. For a young Victorian male who wanted a career in politics, military glory was a necessary rung on the ladder, and Churchill was a born political animal.

He needed war and glory to climb the next rung. In Afghanistan, he found his war.

Churchill’s regiment was posted to a quiet sector of colonial India, which the ambitious young man saw as a dead end. He lobbied desperately to get into one of Queen Victoria’s small wars, of which the world-spanning empire had many.

In those days it was acceptable for junior officers to take paid leave to act as war correspondents on campaigns, and Churchill earlier was able to cover the Cuban revolt against Spain. He spent his time in India productively.

When not on duty or playing polo, he read prodigiously in history and the classics. His big break came when his mother helped arrange for him to accompany a punitive expedition against the Afghan Pashtun tribes on the border between what is now Pakistan and India.

Acting as a soldier-journalist, he got his chance for combat, in a brief and brutal campaign with the Malakand Field Force’s punitive expedition against Pashtun insurgents on the northwest frontier with Afghanistan.

The climax of the book is the battle of Shahi-Tangi, where Churchill came very close to being killed in close combat, but he was “mentioned in dispatches” for heroism. It was the next best thing to getting a medal. Although he would become much better known for his adventures in the South African Boer War, Churchill had begun the reputation as a soldier-journalist that would be the springboard to his political career.

Con Coughlin is himself a distinguished reporter, author and Mideast expert. He had a challenge in turning a very short period of Churchill’s life into a book, but he has given us a fascinating portrait of a young man who knew what he wanted in life, and set out to achieve it with the relentlessness and determination that would later make him a legend.

The book will be of particular interest to those who have fought in the most recent Afghan War. The Talib (students) that Churchill fought are the forerunners of today’s Taliban.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who has served as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs.

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