Churchill, Sir Winston

Captured once

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was the eldest son of the aristocrat Lord Randolph Churchill, born on 30 November 1874. As a young journalist he was captured very early in the Anglo-Boer War.

The author of The man who captured Churchill, Isak Heath, submits all the documentary proof indicating exactly how and where Winston Churchill was captured during the Anglo-Boer War. The author read widely about the Boer War and his interest was further stimulated by a small inheritance that came his way in May 1984. It consisted of three telegramme books and other documents given to his wife by an aunt, Agatha Oosthuizen, the youngest daughter of General S F Oosthuizen.

Isak Heath was a career diplomat who later served as both Ambassador and High Commissioner and retired due to medical reasons in 1996. He completed his book in the year 2000. The English version “The Man who Captured Churchill” was completed as part of the centenary commemorations in South Africa up to 31 May 2001.

From the book The Man who captured Churchill The following:

On 13 November, Botha’s task force slept under heavy clouds next to the railway line and demolished bridge at Hermansspruit. The next day they had breakfast on the banks of the Tugela River, north of Colenso. From here they crossed the river via the Bulwer bridge, and slept near Chieveley.

Early the next morning (06:00) Colonel CJ Long sent 160 men under the command of Captain J A L Haldane on an armoured train from Estcourt to Chieveley. The purpose of this was to monitor the southward movement of the Boers. General Louis Botha immediately saw the opportunity of capturing the train, and left the burghers of Krugersdorp and Wakkerstroom next to the line on a bend near Frere, with instructions to disrupt the rails as soon as the train passed.

The train returned from Chieveley when the British troops found no sign of the Boers. The train was however attacked by General Botha before it reached Frere Station, and when the driver tried to increase speed so as to escape the attack, it was derailed by rocks having been placed on the rail by the Boers when it had completed the run to Chieveley. The young Winston Churchill who acted as war correspondent for the British daily, MORNING POST, was on this train He tried to escape in that section of the train that had not been derailed. This did not amount to much, as the derailed section blocked the escape route. The enemy eventually succeeded in escaping in the locomotive, after bumping it to and fro until the way was cleared.

The Boers attacked the train with, inter alia, a pom-pom (quick-firing Vickers-Maxim). This piece of artillery was so unpopular, that the main buyers were the Boers and the Chinese.

After the locomotive’s escape from the ambush, the Boers captured Captain Haldane, a non-commissioned officer of the Dublin Fusiliers, along with 53 more non-commissioned officers and troops. It was here that Field-Cornet Sarel Oosthuizen succeeded in capturing Winston Churchill. Captain Danie Theron, the master scout of South Africa who had taken part in this ambush, sent a report (telegram 434) to the Secretary of State in Pretoria on 28 November 1899 (State Archives 1899 Tape 8286), which reads as follows:

“Beleefd wensch ik te melden dat in de Natal Witness en Natal Mercury van 17 dezer volledige rapporten van de actieve en prominente aandeel genomen door den courant rapporteur Winston Churchill in het gevecht met gepantzerde trein te Frere Station. Churchill riep vrijwilligers uit en was hun aanvoerder toen de officieren in de war waren. Synopsis: Humbly wish to inform that the reports in Natal Witness and Natal Mercury on 17th regarding correspondent Winston Churchill that he actually took command and played an active and prominent role when the commanding officer and other officers were confused).

Volgens Volksstem en Standard en Diggers News geef hij nu voor dat hij geen deel nam in gevecht dat is alles leugens. Hij wilde ook niet stilstaan toen veldcornet Oosthuizen hem waarschuwde zich over te geven eerst toen deze zijn geweer op hem aanlegde gaf hij zich over mijns inziens is Churchill een der gevaarlijkste gevangenen die in onze handen is. De Natalsche couranten maken van hem een groote held” (Stempel van perstelegram se ontvangs te Pretoria is 28 November 1899.) Synopsis: According to Volksstem and Diggers News he tried to create the impression that he did not partake in the fight – it is all lies. (Then followed Danie Theron’s statement of importance) He did not want to stand still even when Field-Cornet Oosthuizen warned him to give over. Only when he pointed his rifle he gave up. From my point of view Churchill is one of the most dangerous prisoners in our hands and the newspapers of Natal creates of him the image of a hero. (Stamp of the press telegram’s reception in Pretoria indicates 28 November 1899).

And further confirmation:
“A famous young Boer hero named Danie Theron put the hat on it for Winston’s hopes of an easy release: T.D. ZAR 28.11.1899 From Captain Theron, i/c Dispatch-riders, Colenso To Secretary of State, Pretoria, begins: I beg to inform you that on the 17th inst. full reports have appeared in the Natal Witness and Natal Mercury of the active and prominent part played by the press correspondent Winston Churchill in the fight with the armoured train at Frere station. When the officers were in difficulties Churchill called for volunteers and was their leader. According to the Volksstem and Standard and Diggers News he now declares he took no part in the fight. This is a pack of lies; nor would he stand still when warned by Field-Cornet Oosthuizen to surrender or do so till covered by the latter’s rifle. In my opinion he is one of the most dangerous prisoners in our hands. The Natal papers make a great hero of him – ends.” (p.134. Thank God We Kept the Flag Flying. Kenneth Griffith).

This Field-Cornet with his red hair full beard and ruddy complexion indeed deserves the acknowledgement for Churchill’s capture. (Genl. Louis Botha op die Natalse Front)

It took the Boers until nightfall to bury the dead. When General Buller came to hear about the train incident, he described it as inconceivable stupidity. Once more the Boers had the opportunity here to seize a small cannon. This incident brought Winston Churchill under the public eye and he later declared:

“I should not have been caught. But if I had not been caught, I could not have escaped and my imprisonment and escape provided me with materials for lectures and a book which brought me in enough money to get into Parliament in 1900.