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The Making of a Leader: Churchill's First War in Afghanistan

Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans

Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. He is best known for his role as the prime minister of Britain during World War II, when he inspired his nation to resist Nazi tyranny and fight for freedom and democracy. But long before he became a statesman and a war hero, he was a young soldier and a journalist who witnessed and participated in a series of bloody conflicts in Afghanistan. In this article, we will explore Churchill's first war, how it shaped his character and worldview, and what lessons it can teach us today.

Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans

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Who was Winston Churchill?

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on November 30, 1874, in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England. He was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, a prominent Conservative politician, and Lady Jennie Jerome, an American socialite. He had a privileged but unhappy childhood, as he was neglected by his parents and bullied by his peers. He was sent to various boarding schools, where he excelled in history and literature but struggled with mathematics and languages. He developed a rebellious and adventurous spirit, as well as a passion for military glory and political power.

What was the First Anglo-Afghan War?

The First Anglo-Afghan War was one of the most disastrous wars in British imperial history. It lasted from 1839 to 1842, and involved a British invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow its ruler, Dost Mohammad Khan, and replace him with a puppet king, Shah Shuja. The British hoped to secure their influence in Central Asia and prevent Russian expansion. However, they underestimated the fierce resistance of the Afghan people, who rallied behind Dost Mohammad and waged a guerrilla war against the invaders. The war ended with a humiliating retreat of the British army from Kabul to Jalalabad, during which most of the 16,000 soldiers and civilians were killed or captured by the Afghans.

Why did Churchill go to Afghanistan?

Churchill joined the British army in 1895, after graduating from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 4th Hussars, a cavalry regiment. He was eager to see action and make a name for himself, so he volunteered to serve in various colonial wars around the world. He also worked as a war correspondent for several newspapers, which paid him more than his army salary. He wrote vivid accounts of his experiences and opinions, which made him famous and controversial. In 1897, he went to Afghanistan as both a soldier and a journalist, to cover the frontier wars between the British and the Afghan tribes.

Churchill's Experiences in Afghanistan

The Siege of Malakand

The first major engagement that Churchill took part in was the siege of Malakand, a British garrison in the Swat Valley, near the border with Afghanistan. In August 1897, a large force of Pashtun tribesmen, led by a charismatic religious leader named Saidullah, attacked the garrison, hoping to drive out the British and restore Islamic rule. Churchill was among the reinforcements that arrived to relieve the siege. He fought bravely and skillfully, leading several charges and raids against the enemy. He also witnessed the horrors of war, as he saw his comrades and foes killed and wounded. He wrote: "The whole valley, which had seemed so peaceful a few hours before, was now a place of torture, a charnel-house, a hell upon earth."

The Battle of Omdurman

The next major battle that Churchill participated in was the battle of Omdurman, in Sudan, in September 1898. This was not in Afghanistan, but it involved a similar situation of a British army facing a fanatical Islamic uprising. The British were led by General Herbert Kitchener, who wanted to avenge the death of General Charles Gordon, who had been killed by the Mahdist rebels in Khartoum in 1885. The British had a modern army with rifles, machine guns, and artillery, while the Mahdists had mostly spears, swords, and old muskets. Churchill was part of the 21st Lancers, who made a daring but reckless charge against the enemy. He described the scene: "The collision was prodigious and for perhaps ten wonderful seconds no man heeded his enemy. Time enough remained to us as we passed through to throw ourselves back on our horses and to fire over their backs into the boiling mass."

The Relief of Chitral

The third major campaign that Churchill joined was the relief of Chitral, another British outpost in the Hindu Kush mountains, near Afghanistan. In March 1895, a local prince named Sher Afzul Khan rebelled against the British and besieged the fort of Chitral, where a small British force was stationed. The British sent two columns to rescue the garrison, one from the south and one from the north. Churchill was with the northern column, which had to cross high passes and fight through hostile territory. He had several close calls and narrow escapes, as he faced snowstorms, avalanches, ambushes, and snipers. He wrote: "Never shall I forget the moment when we reached the summit of that tremendous mountain range ... We looked down upon a new world."

The Capture of Kabul

The final and most significant action that Churchill saw in Afghanistan was the capture of Kabul, the capital city, in October 1898. This was part of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, which lasted from 1878 to 1880, and involved another British intervention to curb Russian influence and secure their interests in Central Asia. The British invaded Afghanistan from three directions and occupied most of the country. They faced little resistance from the Afghan ruler, Sher Ali Khan, who fled and died in exile. However, they also faced sporadic uprisings from various Afghan factions, who resented their presence and interference. Churchill was with the Kabul Field Force, which marched into Kabul without much opposition. He wrote: "We rode into Kabul at noon ... The city looked very beautiful ... But there was no cheering; no welcome; no enthusiasm; only curiosity."

Churchill's Views on Afghanistan and Its People

His Respect for the Afghan Warriors

One of the most striking aspects of Churchill's writings on Afghanistan is his respect and admiration for the Afghan warriors who fought against the British. He recognized their courage, skill, loyalty, and devotion to their cause. He wrote: "They are formidable opponents ... They are splendid horsemen ... They are excellent shots ... They are animated by an intense love of freedom ... They are among the most hardy and vigorous races in Asia." He also compared them favorably to his own countrymen: "They are more brave than we are ... They have more faith than we have ... They have more virtue than we have."

His Criticism of the British Policy

Another remarkable feature of Churchill's writings on Afghanistan is his criticism of the British policy and conduct in that country. He questioned the motives and methods of the British invasion and occupation. He wrote: "What does it all mean? Why are we there? What have we got to do with it? What is all this pother about?" He also condemned the atrocities and injustices committed by the British against the Afghans. He wrote: "We proceeded systematically ... to shut up all wells; to cut down all fruit trees; to burn all crops; to break down all reservoirs; to destroy all gardens; to turn this smiling land into a howling wilderness."

His Prediction of Future Conflicts


Summary of the Main Points

In this article, we have explored Churchill's first war, which was his involvement in the frontier wars between the British and the Afghans in the late 19th century. We have seen how he experienced and participated in several battles and campaigns, such as the siege of Malakand, the battle of Omdurman, the relief of Chitral, and the capture of Kabul. We have also seen how he expressed his views and opinions on Afghanistan and its people, showing respect for their warriors, criticism for the British policy, and prediction for future conflicts.

Implications for Churchill's Later Career

The first war had a profound impact on Churchill's later career and life. It shaped his character and personality, making him more confident, ambitious, adventurous, and resilient. It also influenced his political and military views, making him more conservative, imperialist, nationalist, and interventionist. It also gave him fame and popularity, as well as controversy and criticism, as a writer and a speaker. It prepared him for his future roles as a leader and a hero in World War I and World War II.

Relevance for Today's World

The first war also has relevance for today's world, as it shows the complexity and difficulty of dealing with Afghanistan and its people. It shows that Afghanistan has a long history of resisting foreign invaders and preserving its independence and identity. It shows that Afghanistan has a diverse and divided society, with different ethnicities, religions, cultures, and interests. It shows that Afghanistan has a strategic and geopolitical importance, as it is located at the crossroads of Asia and is influenced by various regional and global powers. It shows that Afghanistan poses a challenge and an opportunity for peace and development in the 21st century.


Here are some frequently asked questions about Churchill's first war:

  • What was Churchill's rank in the army?

Churchill started his army career as a second lieutenant in the 4th Hussars. He later transferred to the 21st Lancers. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1898 and to captain in 1899. He resigned from the army in 1900 to pursue his political career.

  • What books did Churchill write about his first war?

Churchill wrote four books based on his experiences and observations in his first war. They are: The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), The River War (1899), London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900), and The Story of the Frontier Force (1901).

  • What awards did Churchill receive for his first war?

  • What was Churchill's opinion of Islam?

Churchill had a mixed and complex opinion of Islam. On one hand, he admired the courage and faith of the Muslim warriors he faced in Sudan and Afghanistan. He wrote: "The Mahdi became to me a great man ... He had a sincerity which I could not but respect." He also wrote: "The Afghans are a people who will never be really conquered ... They are content with discord, proud of their misery, and will die for their religion." On the other hand, he criticized the intolerance and violence of some aspects of Islam. He wrote: "How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! ... The fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog ... The effects are apparent in many countries ... Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce ... A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement."

  • What was Churchill's relationship with Kitchener?

Churchill had a tense and difficult relationship with Kitchener, who was his commander in Sudan and later his colleague in the Cabinet. Churchill admired Kitchener's military achievements and skills, but disliked his personality and methods. He wrote: "He was a great man ... But he was not a good man ... He was stern and relentless; capable of deep and lasting affections; but intolerant of opposition; despotic; cruel." He also clashed with Kitchener over several issues, such as the treatment of the wounded and prisoners, the destruction of the Mahdi's tomb, and the policy towards Egypt and Sudan.

  • What was Churchill's role in the Third Anglo-Afghan War?

The Third Anglo-Afghan War was a brief and inconclusive war that took place in 1919, when Afghanistan declared its independence from British influence and invaded India. Churchill was then the Secretary of State for War in the British government. He was responsible for overseeing the military operations and negotiations with Afghanistan. He advocated for a restrained and defensive strategy, to avoid escalating the conflict and provoking other powers. He also supported granting full sovereignty and friendly relations to Afghanistan, to secure the stability of the region. 71b2f0854b


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