Winston Churchill arrived in Estcourt in Natal in 1899 at the age of 25. He came to report on the Anglo Boer War for the London Morning Post. The British troops were waiting to march on Ladysmith. Churchill later described Ladysmith as “the poor little persecuted town famous to the uttermost ends of the earth.”
In November of that year Churchill joined an armoured train reconnaissance heading north towards Colenso, where Boer patrols had been spotted. Boers just north of Frere in Natal ambushed the train. A large stone had blocked the line. When the train hit it, it was derailed. General PJ Joubert decided that Churchill had played too active a role in the skirmish. So he was taken to Pretoria (near Johannesburg) to be imprisoned.
Churchill did not stay captive for long, however. Within two months he had escaped and stowed away on a coal train heading east in the direction of Mozambique. The following evening the train stopped at Clewer siding near Witbank (the Transvaal Highveld). Churchill decided to knock on some doors in search of food. Fortune definitely favors the brave for the door he chose to knock on was that of John Howard. He was an Englishman and manager of the Transvaal and Delagoa Bay Colliery. Churchill was fed well and later hidden in the underground stables of the mine. Later he hid behind packing cases in the office.
Although the Boer forces were searching the countryside, General Joubert was not overly concerned about Churchill’s escape. He actually offered less cash reward (27 shillings) for Churchill’s recapture that the British officers were paying for a bottle of Scotch. “He is just ‘n klein koerant-skrywertjie”, (a little newspaperman) was Joubert’s opinion of the man who would later become the British Prime Minister.
Six days after his arrival at Clewer, he was hidden on a railway truck loaded with wool bound for Mozambique. The train finally reached its destination two days later on 21 December. The British Consul was not immediately convinced of Churchill’s identity. But after two days a cable reached Howard at Witbank. It read, “Goods arrived safely”
Of the Boers, Churchill was to comment, “the individual Boer, mounted, in a suitable country, is worth four or five regular soldiers. The only way of treating them is to either get men equal in character and intelligence as riflemen, or failing that, huge masses of troops, there is plenty of work here for a quarter of a million men and South Africa is well worth the cost in blood and money. Are the gentlemen of England all out fox hunting? For the sake of our manhood, our devoted colonists and our dead soldiers, we must persevere with the war.”