Jan Smuts and Winston Churchill. Pciture: GETTY
Jan Smuts and Winston Churchill. Pciture: GETTY

CHURCHILL & SMUTS — The FriendshipRichard SteynRichard Steyn Jonathan Ball Publishers

To the reading public, the appearance of the name "Churchill" in yet another new title may elicit a passing yawn. In his acknowledgements, author Richard Steyn notes that Winston Churchill has been the subject of more than 1,500 biographies.

He is clear that he had no intention of rehashing what has already been accomplished by acclaimed historians such as Martin Gilbert, William Manchester’s trilogy, Roy Jenkins’s biography, master historian Max Hastings’s books on the First World War and many more.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s recent biography on Churchill doesn’t once mention Jan Smuts.

This long-forgotten South African legend’s name was deeply intertwined with that of Churchill, who bestrode the first half of the 20th century like a colossus. And yet, Steyn reveals in his prologue that prominently displayed on Churchill’s old writing desk at his country estate, Chartwell, in Kent is a photograph of Smuts.

And so begins an absorbing, riveting narrative of two titans of their age — one doted on by successive generations of authors, historians, politicians and citizens, the other a forgotten figure in his beloved country and on the world stage.

 Churchill idolised Smuts — as did many leaders of countries across the world during the two world wars. And Smuts adored Churchill. The two could not have had more contrasting backgrounds: the Afrikaner born on a farm near Riebeek West in the then Cape Colony; the Englishman at Blenheim Palace, the largest private home in Britain, in Oxfordshire.

Steyn does not attempt to re-hash ground that has been covered so thoroughly by so many before him. The narrative is focused on a relationship that unfolded over about 50 years.

He has crafted a magnificent, highly readable and engrossing story of The Friendship. There is no verbosity in the 300-odd pages. Like his earlier book, Jan Smuts — Unafraid of Greatness, Friendship is meticulously annotated and indexed.

Even those who have read extensively on Churchill will find this a fresh and absorbing read. Many will be familiar with the earlier narratives of the outrageously precocious young Churchill in the South African War and other theatres of conflict in the empire that he unashamedly pursued in his single-minded quest for glory and fame.

Far less well-known, are Smuts’s extraordinary academic achievements (his tutor at Christ’s College, Cambridge, described him as the best student he had ever taught).

Today Smuts is a prophet without honour in his home country, and Churchill is a global icon

His rise to prominence in SA began with the South African War, and was witness to his astonishingly brave guerrilla warfare against Kitchener’s forces and subsequent rise to high office alongside General Louis Botha.

Smuts arrived in England in March 1917 during the First World War, where he was hailed as the "hero of the hour". Lloyd George introduced him to members of the Imperial War Cabinet, where he served until the end of the war.

Neither Churchill nor the successive war cabinets of Britain could do without the sheer brilliance and incisiveness of this extraordinary man. So began an intimate working relationship and friendship between the two that was to endure and flourish through two catastrophic conflagrations.

Steyn has done us all a huge favour. A new generation of South Africans can learn about this truly remarkable individual.

Introducing him by correspondence to General Dwight Eisenhower of the US, Churchill described Smuts as a "magnificent man and one of my most cherished friends".

Today Smuts is a prophet without honour in his home country, and Churchill is a global icon. They are two flickering lamps in the gloom as humankind meanders towards the abyss.

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