My Early Life was Winston Churchill’s first best seller, and deservedly so. Written in 1930 about events from his birth in 1874 to 1902, it recounts his not-so-successful school days, his time at Sandhurst, and campaigning on the North-West Frontier against the Pashtuns and in the Sudan against the Islamic forces of the Mahdi. It also covers his capture by the Boers in the war of the same name and his escape from captivity.
He recounts how the thirst for knowledge grew in him from the age of 22 onward. Stationed in India with the his regiment, the 4th Hussars, he spent his time from noon to 5pm, the siesta hours, reading Gibbon, Macaulay, and other great historians, as well as Darwin, Plato, Schopenhauer, Aristotle, and authors now lost to time.
His observations on religion versus science, the fighting qualities of the Pashtuns, the futility of trying to educate young boys in schools, and the pageantry of life in the cavalry, are bathed in wit and good humour, and not a little tongue in cheek.
Having discussed the beauty of cavalry manoeuvres, in assembled masses of plumed and be-ribboned regiments, he writes:
“It is a shame that War should have flung all this aside in its greedy, base, opportunist march, and should turn instead to chemists in spectacles, and chauffeurs pulling the levers of aeroplanes or machine guns. …War which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid. In fact it has been completely spoilt. It is all the fault of Democracy and Science. From the moment that either of these meddlers and muddlers was allowed to take part in actual fighting, the doom of War was sealed. Instead of a small number of well-trained professionals championing their country’s cause with ancient weapons and a beautiful intricacy of archaic manoeuvre, sustained at every moment by the applause of their nation, we now have entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination, and only a set of blear-eyed clerks left to add up the butcher’s bill. From the moment democracy was admitted to, or rather forced itself upon the battlefield, War ceased to be a gentleman’s game”.
“I wonder often whether any generation has seen such astounding revolutions of data and values as those through which we have lived. Scarcely anything materialor established which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure or taught to be sure was impossible, has happened”.
I know the feeling, brother Churchill.
Do yourself a favour and read it. It is short, witty, suitably self-mocking, and a window on a world gone forever by a man who knew it had.