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It was 1899, and a dashing young Winston Churchill was roaming South Africa as a war correspondent, covering the Boer War. British forces were fighting the Boers (descendants of Dutch settlers) for control over two large territories.
One day in November, just before his 25th birthday, Churchill was accompanying a British reconnaissance mission when Boer commandos ambushed the unit’s armored train. Many were killed. Some escaped. Others—including Churchill, who stayed behind “to make a stand” —eventually surrendered, and were thrown into a prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria.
There he remained, with nary a hope of release. “I therefore resolved to escape,” Churchill would write later. On December 12th, after twenty-seven days in captivity, he got a lucky break, when the sentries turned their backs. Churchill leapt over the prison walls and ran into the night.
The 300-mile journey to safety, at the Portuguese East African city of Lourenço Marques, was a perilous one, and Churchill had only four bars of chocolate as nourishment. First, he jumped aboard a moving train and hid beneath some cloth sacks. Later, he walked at night to evade his pursuers. He crawled through bogs and swamps, and, at one point, spent three days in a mineshaft.
Meanwhile, Boer authorities were circulating a warrant, which offered £25 “to anyone who brings the escaped prisoner of war, CHURCHILL, dead or alive to this office.”
When he finally reached British lines, some ten days later, Churchill sent a telegram to London, with a report of his journey. “I am weak, but I am free,” he wrote. “I have lost many pounds weight, but I am lighter in heart.”
Tales of Churchill’s escapades made him a hero back in Britain. In 1900, Churchill ran for Parliament. He won.
Thanks to The Churchill Archives Centre and The Churchill Archive.