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Santiago Stewart
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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

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