Winston Churchill and Polo, Part 1, by Barbara Langworth

Winston Churchill and Polo, Part 1, by Barbara Langworth

“Win­ston Churchill and Polo” was first pub­lished in 1991. It is now updat­ed and amend­ed, thanks to the rich store of mate­r­i­al avail­able in The Churchill Doc­u­ments pub­lished by Hills­dale Col­lege Press. This arti­cle is abridged with­out foot­notes from the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the com­plete text and foot­notes, click here.

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Churchill loved polo, which he called “The Emper­or of Games.” A con­tem­po­rary writer’s descrip­tion of his polo tac­tics is remind­ful of much else in the statesmen’s approach to life and pol­i­tics:

He rides in the game like heavy cav­al­ry get­ting into posi­tion for the assault. He trots about, keen­ly watch­ful, bid­ing his time, a mat­ter of tac­tics and strat­e­gy. Abrupt­ly he sees his chance, and he gath­ers his pony and charges in, nei­ther deft nor grace­ful, but full of tear­ing phys­i­cal energy—and skill­ful with it too. He bears down oppo­si­tion by the weight of his dash, and strikes the ball. Did I say strike? He slash­es the ball.

Sandhurst

Churchill first men­tions polo in a let­ter to his father, seek­ing per­mis­sion to ride in Sep­tem­ber 1893. He had just arrived at the Roy­al Mil­i­tary Col­lege at Sand­hurst. In the entrance exam, his final test score was too low for him to be accept­ed in the infantry and qual­i­fied him only for the Cav­al­ry. This was a dis­ap­point­ment to his father Lord Ran­dolph, who was trou­bled by the expense: “In the infantry one has to keep a man; in the cav­al­ry a man and a horse as well.” His son recalled lat­er: “Lit­tle did he fore­see not only one horse, but two offi­cial charg­ers and one or two hunters besides, to say noth­ing of the string of polo ponies!”

In the spring of 1894, Colonel J.P. Brabazon expressed inter­est in hav­ing Win­ston join a cav­al­ry reg­i­ment. He wrote his moth­er, Lady Ran­dolph: “How I wish I were going into the 4th [Hus­sars] instead of those old [60th] Rifles. It would not cost a pen­ny more & the reg­i­ment goes to India in 3 years which is just right for me.” Fol­low­ing Lord Randolph’s death in Jan­u­ary 1895, Win­ston duly joined the 4th Hus­sars. On 12 Feb­ru­ary 1895 he received his com­mis­sion as a sec­ond lieu­tenant.

Polo at Aldershot

At Alder­shot the same month, Churchill began inten­sive train­ing as a cav­al­ry offi­cer. As his father had feared, finances were a prob­lem. It was a stretch for their moth­er to main­tain Jack, Win­ston and her­self in the way they would all like. And by now young Win­ston had dis­cov­ered polo. In April 1895 he wrote his moth­er,

Every­one here is begin­ning to play as the sea­son is just com­menc­ing. I have prac­tised on oth­er people’s ponies for 10 days and am improv­ing very fast. If there­fore, as I imagine—you have some ready mon­ey do lend me a hun­dred pounds…. I can­not go on with­out any for more than a few days unless I give up the game, which would be dread­ful.

Churchill played reg­u­lar­ly dur­ing his eigh­teen months at Alder­shot. By May 1896 he was hop­ing to make the reg­i­men­tal team. “I am mak­ing extra­or­di­nary progress at Polo,” he wrote his moth­er, “but I want very much to buy anoth­er pony, I wish you would lend me £200 as I could then buy a real­ly first class ani­mal which would always fetch his price.”

It bears men­tion­ing, in those far off days, that £200 had the pur­chas­ing pow­er of £20,000 today. It is like your son ask­ing for a loan to buy a car…

For six months he lived in Lon­don and played polo at Hurling­ham in Essex and Ranelagh. As sum­mer end­ed the 4th Hus­sars gave up their cav­al­ry charg­ers to a return­ing reg­i­ment, and sailed for India.

India

polo
Meerut, India, Feb­ru­ary 1898: The Fourth Hus­sars team. L-R: Albert Savory, Reg­gie Barnes (who had accom­pa­nied WSC to Cuba in 1895 and would remain a life­long friend), Churchill and Regi­nald Hoare. (Win­ston S. Churchill, MP)

In Bom­bay a native reg­i­ment, the Poona Light Horse, was thought to have the best ponies. In what Churchill called an “auda­cious and colos­sal under­tak­ing,” the 4th Hus­sars bought a com­plete polo stud of twen­ty-five hors­es. This gave them a huge advan­tage of well-trained ponies imme­di­ate­ly upon arrival at their duty sta­tion, Ban­ga­lore in the south of India.

The Hus­sars were out to win, and Winston’s let­ters home were full of the sport. “I get up here at 5 o’clock every morning…ride off to parade at 6. At 8 o’clock break­fast and bath and such papers as there are: 9.15 to 10.45 Stables—and no oth­er engage­ment till Polo at 4.15.″

A polo game lasts an hour and is divid­ed into peri­ods or chukkas of sev­en min­utes each. Churchill played in every chuk­ka he could get into. His prodi­gious efforts soon came to the notice of the Aga Khan. “It was at Poona in the late sum­mer of 1896 that our paths first crossed,” the Khan wrote lat­er:

A group of offi­cers of the 4th Hus­sars, then sta­tioned at Ban­ga­lore, called on me…. none was a bet­ter judge of a horse, than a young sub­al­tern by the name of Win­ston Spencer Churchill. He was a lit­tle over twen­ty, eager, irre­press­ible, and already an enthu­si­as­tic, coura­geous, and promis­ing polo play­er.

“Give your son horses”

In Novem­ber 1896 Churchill’s team won a tour­na­ment at Hyder­abad, a 24-hour, 700-mile train jour­ney. Win­ston told his moth­er that the entire pop­u­la­tion turned out to watch, not infre­quent­ly bet­ting thou­sands of rupees:

This per­for­mance is a record: no Eng­lish reg­i­ment ever hav­ing won a first-class tour­na­ment with­in a month of their arrival in India. The Indi­an papers express sur­prise and admi­ra­tion. I will send you by the next mail some inter­est­ing instan­ta­neous pho­tographs of the match — in which you will remark me—fiercely strug­gling with tur­baned war­riors….

Churchill was fond of oth­er horse sports; he par­tic­i­pat­ed in steeple­chas­es, point-to-points and plea­sure rid­ing. In a let­ter to Jack in Novem­ber 1896, he proud­ly not­ed that their father’s rac­ing col­ors, choco­late and pink, would appear on Indi­an soil for the first time at a pony race meet­ing. In his 1930 auto­bi­og­ra­phy Churchill would advise par­ents:

Don’t give your son mon­ey. As far as you can afford it give him hors­es. No one ever came to grief— except hon­ourable grief—through rid­ing hors­es. No hour of life is lost that is spent in the sad­dle. Young men have often been ruined through own­ing hors­es, or through back­ing hors­es, but nev­er through rid­ing them; unless of course they break their necks, which, tak­en at a gal­lop, is a very good death to die.

Expanding horizons

polo
“Our Impe­r­i­al No. 1,” Punch, 15 June 1921. Churchill was a not­ed polo play­er well into his fifties. By this date he was Colo­nial Sec­re­tary, pro­nounc­ing on the future of the Mid­dle East, offi­ci­at­ing at the open­ing of an Impe­r­i­al Con­fer­ence in London—and still play­ing polo.

Dur­ing leave in 1897, Churchill trav­eled in Europe and then went home to Eng­land. By Sep­tem­ber he was back in India, chas­ing fame and noto­ri­ety as a war cor­re­spon­dent with Sir Bindon Blood and the Malakand Field Force. From Now­shera he wrote polo team-mate Regi­nald Barnes, “Best luck at Poona. It is bloody hot.”

Lt. Churchill returned to Bangalore—“to polo and my friends”—in Octo­ber 1897. But the suc­cess of his writ­ing, and the real­iza­tion that it could be a seri­ous source of income, had tak­en the edge off his con­sump­tion with polo. “I am off to Hyder­abad on Sat for a polo tour­na­ment,” he wrote his moth­er. “It is a nui­sance hav­ing to go when I am so busy.” He referred to the writ­ing of his first book, The Sto­ry of the Malakand Field Force. Hop­ing for more action in the Sudan, where Gen­er­al Kitch­en­er had been appoint­ed to recon­quer that ter­ri­to­ry on behalf of Britain and Egypt, was lat­er attached to the 21st Lancers. This adven­ture pro­vid­ed mate­r­i­al for his sec­ond book, The Riv­er War.

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Before he left India he got “rid of every polo pony I pos­sess…. I hope to get rid of them all soon. They eat.” Churchill would not return to India again, and would soon leave the army. The Malakand Field Force “earned me in a few months two years’ pay as a sub­al­tern.” He was about to pub­lish his nov­el Savro­la and had offers to write biogra­phies of his father and his ances­tor the First Duke of Marl­bor­ough. Above all, how­ev­er, Churchill hun­gered for a seat in Par­lia­ment.

Con­clud­ed in Part 2.

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Bar­bara Lang­worth is a bac­te­ri­ol­o­gist, edi­tor and pub­lish­er in New Hamp­shire. Mul­ti-tal­ent­ed, she runs every­thing.

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