Most of us know of the indomitable Winston Churchill, who led Britain during World War II.

But Candice Millard’s new book, Hero Of The Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, And The Making Of Winston Churchill (Random House), shows how the young Churchill’s military adventures in South Africa, at the impressionable age of 24, prepared him for the later challenge of leading a nation at war while serving as Britain’s PM.

Sent by London’s Morning Post newspaper to cover the Boer War in South Africa, which began in 1899, Churchill demonstrated bravery in a train attack.

Then he escaped from a prison with some cash, a biscuit and four chocolate bars. He lacked a plan, a map, a compass or a weapon. Thirsty, hungry and sweating in the blistering heat, the young war correspondent crossed hundreds of miles of South African terrain, a place where luck and destiny seem to have been his constant companions.

“This is what launched his political career. This is where he developed so many of the leadership qualities we associate him with – agility, ingenuity, determination and grit. You can see all of these very clearly on the South African veld,” Millard says during a telephone interview from the United States.

A voracious reader, Churchill was a gifted writer and also possessed a genius for leadership, the historian says.

“He had this innate confidence that he was able to project to others. He believed he could do extraordinary things, and he believed you could do extraordinary things,” Millard adds.

Excellent, exhaustive histories of Churchill’s life were written by Sir Martin Gilbert and William Manchester, but Millard hones in on her subject’s youthful arrogance and boundless ambition.

str2_tnscandice_ma_2_MUSTUSEBUTUSESMALL“He rubbed people wrong all the time in the British military. You don’t self advertise. You don’t say, ‘Hey, by the way, I want to win these medals.’”

Later, Churchill thanked the men who helped him flee South Africa.

“He did owe a great debt of gratitude (to those men),” Millard says. “He bought gold watches for each, and had them engraved with his thanks.”

In her first book, The River Of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (2005, Doubleday), Millard examined the former American president’s harrowing journey through South America’s Brazilian rainforest, a trip on which he nearly died.

The author likes to take one story about a famous person that she believes illuminates his or her character and the era in which that person lived and dig deep into it.

As for Churchill, Millard says, “He reminds me so much of Roosevelt. They were so ambitious and both voracious readers and incredibly skilled writers and incredibly brave. They were very arrogant and got on everybody’s nerves.”

Churchill’s desire for achievement, the author says, appears to have come from his American mother, the New York City-born Jeanette (Jennie) Jerome, who became Lady Randolph Churchill when she married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874.

Lady Churchill’s social connections and political advice mattered enormously to her son.

“She was hugely important to him as an up-and-comer. She had all of these incredible relationships, possibly affairs she had had with high-ranking men. She used that. He asked her to use it again and again.”

Millard adds that young Churchill told his mother, “This is a pushing age, and we must push with the best.” – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Tribune News Service/Marylynne Pitz