Monday, January 14, 2019

DAY 8: Polo--A Very Good Death to Die

 Courtesy, Newport Polo Club/Rodrigo Fernandez Photo

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. 
-- Winston Churchill, My Early Life, 1930
Winston Churchill entered Sandhurst in 1893 as a cavalry officer--his entrance exam marks too low for the more prestigious infantry--and his father, Lord Randolph, was furious. He wrote and sent to Winston the most scathing, contemptible and bitter letter I have ever read from a father to a son, and had Winston committed suicide on receipt of it, history would not have condemned him.

But Winston, used to his father's invective after a lifetime of disappointing him, rallied. He pursued his dream. He had no intention of joining the infantry, even when his marks at Sandhurst improved so dramatically that he qualified for the higher level of assignment.

Why was Randolph furious?

Cavalry meant horses. And horses meant huge expense. Not only the cost of buying them, but of maintaining them. Cavalry officers required a string of mounts, all eating their heads off and requiring stabling, because horses were shot or bayoneted under cavalry officers in the field of battle and had to be replaced on the spur of the moment. And a string of horses meant an additional servant--a competent military groom. All British officers had something called a "batman" beneath them, an enlisted man who served as domestic servant-cum-valet. Managing the horses on top of the officer's camp luggage, wine stores, book trunk and wardrobe was the outside of enough.

Winston adored horses and the cavalry, which allowed him to use his champion fencing skills to paramount advantage. But the cavalry boys at Sandhurst admitted him to another of his lifelong passions: Polo.
Winston Churchill, left, on the polo field

The cadets were officially forbidden to play polo at Sandhurst for reasons of inequality: the game required men to pay for their mounts, and cadets less financially endowed would be barred from the game. This proved irrelevant in Winston's day. The cadets simply hired horses in the neighboring town and played unsanctioned matches on a field outside the academy's walls.

By the time Winston graduated second in his class in horsemanship and eighth in his class of 150 overall, he was already writing excitedly to Jennie of his polo prospects. His words fell on delighted ears. Jennie's father, Leonard Jerome, was one of the people responsible for introducing polo to the United States--Jerome Park was the site of the first polo match in America in 1876, and Leonard also supported polo in Newport. Both lawn tennis and polo grew in popularity in Newport during the Gilded Age, direct imports from Britain. Winston clearly sprang from Leonard and Jennie's horse-loving genes. He adored steeplechasing, flat racing, and hunting, competing in all three sports. At Sandhurst he intended--despite his father's wishes and direct orders--to join the 4th Hussars, one of the most ancient and prestigious cavalry regiments in Britain. And he was determined to earn a spot on their polo team.
Winston, standing right.  Meerut, India, February 1898: The Fourth Hussars team triumphed over the 5th Dragoon Guards, but were beaten by the Durham Light Infantry. L-R: Albert Savory, Reggie Barnes (who had accompanied WSC to Cuba in 1895), Churchill and Reginald Hoare. (Winston S. Churchill, MP)

Which meant, naturally, he needed polo ponies.

In 1895 when Winston began training for the 4th Hussars' team in earnest, polo ponies were not yet being distinctly bred for their sport. Rather, a mount capable of the nimble action necessary in the field had to be selected and trained by a good judge of horseflesh. The most common way of acquiring a good polo pony was when a seasoned military player was forced to sell his string--either because he'd been posted to a place where polo was unknown, or because he'd broken his neck in the field.

Winston appealed to Jennie, who sent him what funds she could--Lord Randolph was dead by this time, his estate had been consumed by his debts, and all the Churchills were living under straitened circumstances. By the time Winston was deployed with the 4th Hussars in India, however, he had a string of five polo ponies and an additional string of cavalry mounts for the field, all of which deployed with him.
Winston Churchill with one of his poly ponies, Hyderabad, 1896

I know nothing about polo. I've read that a game usually lasts an hour, and is divided in periods of seven minutes each--called a chukka. (Why seven minutes?! Because a horse is blown in eight?) Apparently Winston was avid enough he tried to play in ten or twelve chukkas per game. 

While he was in India, Winston's polo performance won the interest of the Aga Khan, who wrote: "It was at Poona in the late summer of 1896 that our paths first crossed...A group of officers of the Fourth Hussars, then stationed at Bangalore, called on me. I was ill at the time, but my cousin showed them my horses. He later told me that among them none had a keener, more discriminating eye, 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, irresponsible, and already an enthusiastic, courageous, and promising polo player." (The Aga Khan, “A Promising Polo Player,” quoted in Henry Anatole Grunwald, ed. Churchill: The Life Triumphant (New York: American Heritage Press, 1965), 130.) That description could be a summary of Winston's entire life.

Winston would continue to play polo for decades after his deployment in India. When he dislocated his left shoulder, and the joint proved weak enough to challenge his performance, he took to playing polo with a tight black brace that bound his left arm immovably to his left side. 

Leonard, and Jennie, would have been thrilled.
Winston on the polo field

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.   


  1. Thank you for this. I had no idea that Churchill played polo. He would have had a great deal in common with Prince Philip who was a keen polo player.

    1. The sport marks both of them, I think, as being from a certain age--when the military were more familiar with and dependent upon horses. My father in law is a few years younger than Prince Philip, 91, and a 1949 graduate of West Point--during his time there, the cavalry still trained on horses and polo was part of the curriculum. That ended not long after. Winston, of course, helped cause the transition from horse cavalry to tanks in WWI. He was the strongest proponent of tank development and deployment in the Government during that time.