Winston Churchill wanted to be a war hero; the kid’s political prospects depended on it.
The twenty-four-year-old correspondent for the Morning Post in London hooked a leg over the armoured side of “the deathtrap” — a brown, rattling serpent of a train, with open-air carriages for daily reconnaissance and bristling rifle tips protruding from its dripping sides. When Winston’s other leg was over, he hung down using his strong arm and dropped with a small plod onto the muddy tracks.
Winston wiped his wet face, turned to face the simple station platform, and plodded towards it. Inspecting a doused campfire near the telegraph post was the commanding officer in charge of that morning’s expedition — Captain Aylmer Haldane, an old accquaintance of Winston’s from their tenure on the Sudan front. Haldane’s expression was that of concern as he nudged a balanced log with the tip of his boot, letting it crumble into wet cinders.
“Captain Haldane!” called their own telegraphist, who jogged past Winston to the officer. “Colonel Long’s sent an update from Estcourt!”
“Good news, I hope?” asked Haldane. “Paul Kruger’s signed terms of surrender? No — this war’s still ongoing? Very well, let’s see what he says. Churchill, come over here!”
Winston reached Haldane and tucked his hands into his damp pockets. Haldane took the note from the telegraphist, sheltered it from the drizzle, and read out the message.
“Remain at Frere in observation, guarding your safe retreat,” announced Haldane before he swallowed and frowned at Winston. “A bit late for that now.”
“Carry on,” Winston implored.
Haldane stretched his neck in a small circle and focussed on the page.
“Remember that Chieveley station was last night occupied by the Boers. Do not approach.”
Haldane folded the note and passed it back to the telegraphist.
“Remember?” he glowered. “When did he tell me this? Look at this place — it’s filthy; cups over here, trousers over there! Of course they’ve been here! Churchill, did you see them on the hillside as we approached?”
“They must have numbered in their thousands,” replied Winston. “Hard to miss.”
“We were hard to miss in this bloody deathtrap! How many of us — two hundred on this reconnaissance mission? Less? And the Boers are well behind us now! How are we going to get back without being shot?”
“If a fight’s in order,” nodded Winston before he cleared his throat, “we must be ready.”
Haldane sighed and wiped the droplets from his face.
“Fine… Morrison, send a message back to Long. Inform him of our position and say we’re on our way back to Estcourt immediately. Definite signs of hostile visitation at Chieveley station. The Boers are inching over the Tugela River. Tell him I patiently await that army Buller’s bringing from India. Quickly, Morrison… Come now, Churchill.”
Winston followed Haldane back to the armoured train and Morrison, their telegraphist, jogged to the front. The commanding officer hoisted himself up and over the side of the carriage — initially at the front when heading north, but now at the rear for their southbound return. Haldane hung a hand over the metal side and Winston gripped it, allowing the captain to heave him up. Winston pressed his chest over the edge and toppled in; the other officers lowered him down safely.
“Let’s see how fast this piece of junk moves,” muttered Haldane as he clicked a button repetitively to signal for the driver to move.
Close to a minute after Winston climbed in, a tall column of steam puffed from the central locomotive carriage. Steadily, the armoured train chugged back across the rainy landscape and between the grassy hills in the British colony of Natal — southeast Africa.
Shortly before the deathtrap reached Frere, Haldane grew anxious and clicked his button several times to call for the driver to stop.
“What are you doing?” asked Winston.
Haldane pointed at the downward curve in the tracks ahead and the prominent ridges overlooking it. He peered through his set of binoculars.
“If I was a Boer,” he said, “I would lay a trap right in front of us.”
As they spoke, the armoured train slowed and gradually hissed to a halt.
“So, we’re just going to wait?” Winston asked.
“Not quite,” said Haldane.
The commanding officer lowered his binoculars and passed the set to the correspondent.
“Go scout for us at the top of this hill here, won’t you?”
“Why me, Haldane?”
“It’s my knee, Churchill; you know that. You were with me in Sudan when — ”
“Have you forgotten about my shoulder?” Winston growled as he lifted his Mauser C-96 pistol. “That’s why I have this damn thing!”
“No trouble getting over the edge with an injured shoulder, my friend,” sighed Haldane.
He patted Winston’s right shoulder and the young correspondent winced.
“I am the commanding officer on this train,” Haldane affirmed, “and I am ordering you to take my binoculars and scout for Boers at the top of this hill. Now.”
Winston glared up at the drizzling sky, then down to Haldane. He bit his bottom lip, took the binoculars and shuffled past khaki-dressed soldiers to the edge of the carriage. Two men helped hoist Winston up, and he clambered over the top again and plodded down into the mud. He ambled away from the train and scaled the hill beside the tracks.
At the top, Winston brushed his fingers through his damp hair and lifted the binoculars. He scanned the ridges for any sign of the enemy. Unable to spot moved, and with the lenses getting blurred from the rain, Winston sighed and wiped them with his coat.
A piercing whistle screeched from the train. Winston turned and saw Haldane standing on the box into the carriage to be seen. He waved ferociously and blew his whistle again.
“Churchill!” he bellowed. “Churchill, they’re here! We need to leave!”
Winston raised the binoculars and scanned the ridges again.
“I can’t see them from here!” he cried back.
“Churchill, listen to me!” Haldane screamed. “Get back into the train and let’s go!”
A column of steam hissed up from the locomotive carriage and the deathtrap chugged southwards. Winston lowered the binoculars and darted down the hill.
“Haldane!” he shouted. “Haldane, wait for me!”
“Hurry, Churchill!” the captain replied. “Run faster!”
Winston slipped on the wet grass but quickly regained balance. He stumbled down the slope towards the moving train — clutching the binoculars tightly. At the bottom, Winston raced down the tracks in pursuit of the fleeing reconnaissance company.
“Haldane, you bastard!” shouted Winston. “Slow down!”
“We can’t! Keep running, Winston!”
Haldane pulled his body higher and hung over the backside of the snail-paced armoured train. He stretched a hand down to Winston as he caught up. The correspondent scaled the metal side and raised his strong arm. The captain gripped it and tugged.
“Almost there!” shouted Haldane.
The officer pulled Winston with both arms until he could grip the edge. Haldane continued to pull Winston up the back of the moving train until his stomach slipped over and he fell. Three soldiers caught Winston, and they lowered him.
With his gaze up at the sky for less than a second, Winston saw a projectile zoom overhead. Immediately afterwards, a bright yellow light ripped past from the same direction — blinding before the backdrop of the deep blue clouds.
Winston’s feet impacted into the floor of the carriage with a clang, and he glanced skyward again. Streaks of yellow filled the sky — welcoming a dozen small white flashes followed by two larger ones. The bright lights then ushered in a giant ball of white smoke that blasted into cone — or a comet — with an echoing bang. Shrapnel showered the surrounding hills.
As shrapnel blasts echo overhead, Boer snipers joined in a resounding chorus. Winston gripped his pistol and glanced at Haldane’s rifle. Both men listened to the bullets ping against the slow moving train.
“It’s a trick…” Winston mumbled.
“Say that again!” Haldane shouted.
“It’s a trick!” he repeated. “We’re moving too fast!”
“We’re not moving fast enough!” rebuffed Haldane.
“We need to slow down!” urged Winston. “Press the button; warn the driver! We’re moving downhill at full speed — if we get around this bend and they’ve — ”
A tremendous jolt knocked Winston and the soldiers off-balance. It threw every man in the rear carriage of the nicknamed deathtrap off their feet. Winston’s head smacked against the metal floor and felt the vibrating carriage grind to a deafening halt.