“Churchill at the Gallop: Winston’s Life in the Saddle,” by Brough Scott

“Churchill at the Gallop: Winston’s Life in the Saddle,” by Brough Scott

Brough Scott, Churchill at the Gal­lop. New­bury, Berk­shire: Rac­ing Post Books, 2018, 230 pages, $34.95, Ama­zon $25.77, Kin­dle $9.99. Reprint­ed from a review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For Hills­dale reviews of the hun­dred Churchill works pub­lished since 2014, click here. For a list and descrip­tion of books about Churchill since 1905, vis­it Hillsdale’s anno­tat­ed bibliography.

This book is both delight­ful and edu­ca­tion­al, a lux­u­ri­ous pro­duc­tion for a mod­est price. Print­ed on thick, coat­ed paper with many illus­tra­tions, it weighs over two pounds. The only tech­ni­cal com­plaint is that, with lots of white space avail­able, the type could be larger.

Brough Scott, a horse rac­ing jour­nal­ist and for­mer jock­ey, is ide­al­ly qual­i­fied to write. He is the grand­son and biog­ra­ph­er of Churchill’s life­long friend Jack Seely, lat­er Lord Mot­ti­s­tone (1868-1947). “Gal­lop­ing Jack” led Cana­di­ans in one of the last great cav­al­ry charges, at Moreuil Wood in March 1918. (That was two decades after Omdur­man, which is usu­al­ly and wrong­ly cit­ed as the finale.)

Scott on Omdurman

Of the charge at Omdur­man we are force­ful­ly remind­ed on page 1. Scott makes the first of many pen­e­trat­ing obser­va­tions. “Think about it,” he asks:

It is actu­al­ly pret­ty dif­fi­cult to do, and that’s if the horse is stand­ing still. With­out tak­ing your left hand off the reins, you have to raise your cav­al­ry sword in your right hand across in front of you, and resheath it in the scab­bard attached to the near side of the sad­dle. At 8.40 on a steamy hot morn­ing in the Sudan on 2 Sep­tem­ber 1898, Win­ston Churchill did it at a gal­lop…. To keep his seat as he and his horse crashed into, down and through the seething, hack­ing throng in that dried riv­er bed where the main body of the ene­my were con­cealed, took rid­ing skills and dex­ter­i­ty with a pis­tol almost off the scale.

Before the autocar…

Such feats encour­aged Scott to learn more about Churchill’s remark­able expe­ri­ences with hors­es: “He rode more exten­sive­ly than any British Prime Min­is­ter before or since. Maybe we shouldn’t be sur­prised. Win­ston Churchill was born a full twen­ty years before the first car was dri­ven on a British highway…”

He goes on that way for 230 pages, with fresh obser­va­tions that cause grad­u­ate Churchillians to won­der: “why didn’t I think of that?” Take Scott’s analy­sis of young Winston’s let­ters to his moth­er to fund his polo (“the great­est of my plea­sures”) at Sand­hurst. One let­ter “may have includ­ed the pro­gramme for [a race meeting]…but it did not start with sad­dle talk. It began with acute obser­va­tions abut the Sino-Japan­ese war over Korea…. ‘I take the great­est inter­est in the fleets and armies,’ he wrote.” Even as a skin­ny Sand­hurst cadet, his inter­ests were global.

Comprehensive and thorough

The pho­tos of Churchill him­self are most­ly old chest­nuts, but not all: there are charm­ing post-World War II rid­ing scenes with his daugh­ter Mary. Scott’s “sup­port­ing” images include col­or prints of peo­ple and events, and the occa­sion­al sur­prise. (Did you ever see a car­riage pulled a team of zebras?) Scott choos­es well. A pho­to of Haden­doa tribes­men, who fought for the Mah­di at Omdur­man, dra­mat­i­cal­ly con­veys the val­or that won Churchill’s respect in his book, The Riv­er War.

Most of the six­teen chap­ters begin with arrest­ing illus­tra­tions. A col­or car­toon depicts the star­tled young Win­ston in Ire­land on his don­key, con­fronting what he thought were Feni­ans. A chap­ter on Cuba begins with sketch­es of the Span­ish col­umn Churchill joined. The result­ing images illus­trat­ed his despatch­es for The Dai­ly Graph­ic. Thus we pro­ceed through Churchill’s life, Scott draw­ing out horse ref­er­ences from his writ­ings and those of spe­cial­ist his­to­ri­ans, like Hal Klepak on the Cuban adven­ture.

Churchill’s cam­paigns in India, the Sudan and South Africa are nice­ly laid out with con­tem­po­rary pho­tos, maps and plans. Before and after the Great War, his pur­suit of polo is ade­quate­ly doc­u­ment­ed. The empha­sis is always eques­tri­an, but these are as good accounts as you can read any­where. Thus the book deliv­ers much more than its cov­er promises.

Skillful observation

Churchill was in his fifties before he played his last polo game, and was rid­ing to hounds in his sev­en­ties. Of course, as he aged, his time in the sad­dle dimin­ished. Scott cov­ers his lat­er years in fifty pages, not omit­ting his expe­ri­ences as a thor­ough­bred race horse own­er. The author has a facil­i­ty for draw­ing out thought­ful con­clu­sions. Dis­cussing hors­es and rac­ing in The Dream (WSC’s fic­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion with his deceased father, 1947), Scott writes:

Winston’s par­ent­ing may have been unortho­dox, not to say dys­func­tion­al, by today’s stan­dard, but there is no doubt that Jen­nie and Ran­dolph left the deep­est of impres­sions, and who is to say that he wasn’t reach­ing towards them in his diver­sions? He had long found pre­cious solace in the paint­ing at which his moth­er had so excelled, and now, in old age, he was about to re-reg­is­ter the choco­late-and-pink rac­ing silks in which L’Abbesse De Jouarre [his father’s thor­ough­bred] had won the Oaks all those years ago.

* * *

Dear Mar­tin Gilbert warned us all nev­er to say “per­haps.” He would always retort, “Per­haps not!” Scott avoids that, but puts this con­jec­ture in a way Sir Mar­tin might let pass. Who indeed is to say the thought doesn’t fit? It seems to fit very well.

One wouldn’t expect it in a horse book, but Scott even man­ages to answer one of our most fre­quent ques­tions, about WSC’s weight, at least in 1954. His wife had tried to put him on a diet, and Sir Win­ston was resist­ing. His scale read 14 1/2 stone (204 pounds), he wrote her, com­pared to 15 stone (212) on hers. “…if your machine is proved to be wrong you will have to review your con­clu­sions, and I hope to aban­don your regime. I have no griev­ances against a toma­to, but I think one should eat oth­er things as well.”

Scott adds: “That weedy 31-inch-chest Sand­hurst cadet belonged to anoth­er age.”

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