Churchill highlights this very document in his book
His escape from this imprisonment catapulted him to fame and made his career
In 1880, Britain annexed the Transvaal in Southern Africa, a land populated mainly by descendants of Dutch immigrants known as Boers. This led to the First Boer War, a war that, to the shock and horror of the British...
His escape from this imprisonment catapulted him to fame and made his career
In 1880, Britain annexed the Transvaal in Southern Africa, a land populated mainly by descendants of Dutch immigrants known as Boers. This led to the First Boer War, a war that, to the shock and horror of the British people, ended in Britain’s defeat. Although, as a condition of the peace agreement, Britain agreed to respect the independence of the Boer republics, the discovery of gold and diamond deposits on Boer lands resulted in Britain again pressing in on the Transvaal, amassing troops at its borders, and claiming large swaths of new territory that effectively cut the Boer republics off from the sea. Having had enough, the Boers issued an ultimatum in October 1899 that the British disdainfully ignored. The Second Boer War was on. Unlike the British, the Boers knew the South African terrain inside and out, and chose to adopt guerrilla warfare rather than use standard military tactics like the British. Over seemingly impossible terrain, Boer soldiers could strike and then vanish without a trace. Even when under attack, the British could rarely find the enemy.
24-year old Winston Churchill was a correspondent for the Morning Post newspaper, and he immediately set out for the war zone to cover the conflict. He did everything in his power to reach the front, striking out on his own, taking the last train out of Cape Town to make it through enemy territory, then catching a ride aboard a mail train out of Durban. When he finally reached the British colony of Natal, he learned that Ladysmith, a garrison town that was the front for the war, was already under siege. No one could get out or in. The only way he could even get close to the front was by boarding an armored train sent out for reconnaissance every day.
The trains were designed with heavy armor and carriages in front to protect the engines, but as Churchill later wrote, “Nothing looks more formidable and impressive than an armoured train, but nothing is in fact more vulnerable and helpless.” The trains were fixed and irresistible targets, and the Boers had to do little more than sit and wait for their prey to come to them. Already they had successfully attacked two British trains. Yet on the morning of November 15, 1899, Churchill took one of these trains, thinking it was better than watching the war play out from a distance. He cared little about personal danger, and was never one to sit on the sidelines. But not only had the Boers been closely watching the train as it made its way along the tracks that morning, but it was a regiment led by the youngest, most charismatic general in the Boer army—Louis Botha (who would become the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa). As soon as the train had passed them, moving slowly north, Botha and his men began piling large stones onto the tracks at the foot of the slope. Then, pushing their guns up the hills that flanked the rail line, they waited for the train to return.
On its return, the train crashed into the boulders with a mighty impact, and the Boers opened up with field guns and rifle fire. The British soldiers who were uninjured returned fire, while others on the train, notably Churchill, did their 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. After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside. A number of men were taken prisoner, but the locomotive, loaded with men, managed to escape. However, Churchill was not on the engine, instead finding himself alone in a gully near the track. Botha got off his horse, got down on one knee and raised his 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 defenseless so he surrendered. Churchill himself was a fairly insignificant young man at the time but he came from an elite family. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had been an eminent politician, and the family bloodline went back to the Duke of Marlborough who won the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. The Boers knew that in him they had a valuable bargaining chip, so decided to treat Churchill as an officer POW, despite the fact he was a civilian at the time.
The prisoners of war, including the soldiers and Churchill, were marched to Elandslaagte and sent on by train. Hendrik Spaarwater was ordered by Boer General Piet Joubert to escort the prisoners to Volksrust and to hand them over to the local police, who would escort them further to the prisoner of war camp in Pretoria. In Volksrust the prisoners were put on a train destined for the Boer’s capital of Pretoria, and upon arriving were marched through the streets to the prison. But a fascinating incident occurred while they were in the custody of Spaarwater, and Churchill himself related the story in his book, London to Ladysmith Via Pretoria.
“As we travelled on” wrote Churchill, “I gradually fell into conversation with this man. His name, he told me, was Spaarwater, which he pronounced Spare-water. He was a farmer from the Ermolo district…He lay under the obligation to serve without pay in war-time, providing horse, forage, and provisions. He was a polite, meek-mannered little man, very anxious in all the discussion to say nothing that could hurt the feelings of his prisoners, and I took a great liking to him…It was quite dark when the train reached Volksrust, and we knew ourselves actually in the enemy’s country. The platform was densely crowded with armed Boers…The windows were soon blocked with the bearded faces of men who gazed stolidly and commented freely to each other on our appearance. It was like being a wild beast in a cage…Spaarwater, who was much concerned, said that they meant no harm, and that if we were annoyed he would have everyone cleared away. But I said: ‘Certainly not; let them feast their eyes’…Before the train left Volksrust we changed our guards. The honest burghers who had captured us had to return to the front, and we were to be handed over to the police. The leader of the escort…approached and explained through Spaarwater that it was he who had placed the stone and so caused our misfortunes. He said he hoped we bore no malice. We replied by no means, and that we would do the same for him with pleasure any day.” So Spaarwater had shown real consideration for the British prisoners, and Churchill would not forget that for one second.
Again taking up Churchill’s narrative: “Then we said ‘good-bye,’ and I gave [a guard] and Spaarwater, a little slip of paper setting forth that they had shown kindness and courtesy to British prisoners of war, and personally requesting anyone into whose hands the papers might come to treat them well, should they themselves be taken by the Imperial forces.”
This is that very “slip of paper” to which Churchill refers in his book.
Autograph letter signed, Volksrust, November 17, 1899. “The bearer, Mr HG Spaarwater, has been very kind to me and the British officers captured in the Escort armoured train. I shall be personally grateful to anyone who may be able to do him any service should he himself be taken prisoner. Winston S Churchill.” The Spaarwater family retained this memento for many decades, finally transferring ownership to a museum that was forming in Volksrust. We just obtained it from that museum via deaccession, the director trekking 230 miles to the nearest Fedex office to get it to us. A search of public sale records going back 40 years shows that the last time something of this nature relating to Churchill’s imprisonment in the Boer War came up was over 30 years ago.
Churchill had only been in captivity for weeks when he escaped on the evening of December 12, 1899. He vaulted over the prison wall to the neighboring property and he was off. He made it from Pretoria all the way to the Mozambique. News of his dramatic escape made headlines in Britain, and he was instantly famous – a hero, the first of the war. He returned home to England on July 20, 1900, and to welcome him over 10,000 people turned out in the streets, with flags and drums beating, and shouting themselves hoarse for two hours. Three months later Churchill was elected to Parliament, starting his brilliant political career.
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