Lord Robert Baden-Powell by Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries, London, 1938
Perhaps the finest testimony to the life and work of Robert Baden-Powell was written by
Sir Winston Churchill. In his book, Great Contemporaries, Churchill collected a series of
newspaper and magazine articles he had written from 1928 to 1937 on the lives of "the
Great Men of our Age." He wrote in the preface: "Although each (article) is
self-contained, they throw, from various angles, a light upon the main course of the
events through which we have lived."
Winston Churchill is best remembered for his courageous leadership of the British
people during the Second World War. His early career began on the same path as
Baden-Powell's. He attended an English public school and the Royal Military Academy at
Sandhurst. He was posted to the cavalry, and served in both India and Africa. He moved on
from the military to his own "second life," first as a war correspondent and
writer, and finally, into a long career in politics and public service. He was one of the
most significant statesman of the Twentieth Century.
Churchill served in many important Cabinet positions, and was twice Prime Minister of
Great Britain (1940-1945 and 1951-1955). He remained an active and prolific author. Among
his major works are:
The History of the English Speaking People, The Second World War, The World Crisis (a
history of the First World War), and the Life of Marlborough. Churchill was awarded the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
Baden-Powell, or B.-P., was one of Churchill's "Great Men of our Age." His
portrait, as painted by Sir Winston Churchill follows.
"B. - P. "
THE THREE most famous generals I have known in my life won no great battles over the
foreign foe. Yet their names, which all begin with a B, are household words. They are
General Booth, General Botha and General Baden-Powell To General Booth we owe the
Salvation Army; to General Botha, United South Africa; and to General Baden-Powell, the
Boy Scout Movement.
In this uncertain world one cannot be sure of much. But it seems probable that one or
two hundred years hence, or it may be more, these three monuments that we have seen set up
in our lifetime will still proclaim the fame of their founders, not in the silent
testimony of bronze or stone, but as institutions guiding and shaping the lives and
thoughts of men. I remember well the first time I saw the hero of this article, now Lord
Baden-Powell. I had gone with my regimental team to play in the Cavalry Cup at Meerut.
There was a great gathering of the sporting and social circles of the British Army in
India. In the evening an amateur vaudeville entertainment was given to a large company.
The feature of this was a sprightly song and dance by an officer of the garrison, attired
in the brilliant uniform of an Austrian Hussar, and an attractive lady. Sitting as a young
lieutenant in the stalls, I was struck by the quality of the performance, which certainly
would have held its own on the boards of any of our music-halls. I was told:
"That's B.-P. An amazing man! He won the Kader Cup, has seen lots of active
service. They think no end of him as a rising soldier; but fancy a senior officer kicking
his legs up like that before a lot of subalterns !"
I was fortunate in making the acquaintance of this versatile celebrity before the polo
tournament was over. Three years passed before I met him again. The scene and the occasion
were very different. Lord Roberts' army had just entered Pretoria, and General
Baden-Powell, who had been relieved in Mafeking after a siege of 217 days, was riding in
two or three hundred miles from the Western Transvaal to report to the Commander-in-Chief.
I thought I would interview him on behalf of the Morning Post and get a first-hand account
of his famous defense.
We rode together for at least an hour, and once he got talking he was magnificent. I
was thrilled by the tale, and he enjoyed the telling of it. I cannot remember the details
but my telegram must have filled the best part of a column. Before dispatching it I
submitted to him. He read it with concentrated attention and some signs of embarrassment,
but when he had finished he handed it back to me, saying with a smile, "Talking to
you is like talking to a phonograph." I was rather pleased with it, too. In those
days B.-P.'s fame as a soldier eclipsed almost all popular reputations. The other B.P, the
British Public, looked upon him as the outstanding hero of the War. Even those who
disapproved of the War, and derided the triumphs of large, organized armies over the Boer
farmers, could not forbear to cheer the long, spirited, tenacious defense of Mafeking by
barely eight hundred men against a beleaguering force ten or twelve times their numbers.
No one had ever believed Mafeking could hold out half as long. A dozen times, as the
siege dragged on, the watching nation had emerged from apprehension and despondency into
renewed hope, and had been again cast down. Millions who could not follow closely or
accurately the main events of the War looked day after day in the papers for the fortunes
of Mafeking, and when finally the news of its relief was flashed throughout the world, the
streets of London became impassable, and the floods of sterling cockney patriotism were
released in such a deluge of unbridled, delirious, childish joy as was never witnessed
again until Armistice Night, 1918. Nay, perhaps the famous Mafeking night holds the
record. Then the crowds were untouched by the ravages of war. They rejoiced with the
light-hearted frenzy of the spectators of a great sporting event. In 1918 thankfulness and
a sense of deliverance overpowered exultation. All bore in their hearts the marks of what
they had gone through. There were too many ghosts about the streets after Armageddon.
One wondered why B.-P. seemed to drop out of the military hierarchy after the South
African War was over. He held distinguished minor appointments; but all the substantial
and key positions were parceled out among men whose achievements were unknown outside
military circles, and whose names had never received the meed of popular applause.
There is no doubt that Whitehall resented the disproportionate acclamation which the
masses had bestowed upon a single figure. Was there not something "theatrical",
"unprofessional" in a personality which evoked the uninstructed enthusiasms of
the man-in-the-street? Versatility is always distrusted in the Services. The voice of
detraction and professional jealousy spoke of him as Harley Street would speak of the
undoubted cures wrought by a quack. At any rate, the bright fruition of fortune and
success was soon obscured by a chilly fog through which indeed the sun still shone, but
with a dim and baffled ray.
The caprices of fortune are incalculable, her methods inscrutable. Sometimes when she
scowls most spitefully, she is preparing her most dazzling gifts. How lucky for B.-P. that
he was not in the early years of the century taken into the central swim of military
affairs, and absorbed in all those arduous and secret preparations which ultimately
enabled the British Expeditionary Army to deploy for battle at Mons!
How lucky for him, and how lucky for us all! To this he owes his perennially
revivifying fame, his opportunity for high personal service of the most enduring
character; and to this we owe an institution and an inspiration, characteristic of the
essence of British genius, and uniting in a bond of comradeship the youth not only of the
English-speaking world, but of almost every land and people under the sun.
It was in 1907 that B.-P. held his first camp for boys to learn the lore of the
backwoods and the discipline of Scout life. Twenty-one boys of every class from the East
End of London, from Eton and Harrow, pitched their little tents on Brownsea Island in
Dorsetshire. From this modest beginning sprang the world-wide movement of Boy Scouts and
girl guides, constantly renewing itself as the years pass, and now well over two million
In 1908 the Chief Scout, as he called himself, published his book, Scouting for Boys.
It appealed to all the sense of adventure and love of open-air life which is so strong in
youth. But beyond this it stirred those sentiments of knightly chivalry, of playing the
game - any game - earnest or fun - hard and fairly, which constitute the most important
part of the British system of education. Success was immediate and far-reaching. The
simple uniform, khaki shorts and a shirt - within the range of the poorest - was founded
upon that of General Baden-Powell's old corps, the South African Constabulary. The hat was
the famous hat with the flat brim and pinched top which he had worn at Mafeking. The motto
"Be Prepared" was founded on his initials. Almost immediately we saw at holiday
times on the roads of Britain little troops and patrols of Boy Scouts, big and small,
staff in hand, trudging forward hopefully, pushing their little handcart with their kit
and camping gear towards the woodlands and parklands which their exemplary conduct
speedily threw open to them. Forthwith there twinkled the camp fires of a vast new army
whose ranks will never be empty, and whose march will never be ended while red blood
courses in the veins of youth. It is difficult to exaggerate the moral and mental health
which our nation has derived from this profound and simple conception. In whose bygone
days the motto "Be Prepared" had a special meaning for our country. Those who
looked to the coming of a great war welcomed the awakening of British boyhood. But no one,
even the most resolute pacifist, could be offended; for the movement was not militaristic
in character, and even the sourest, crabbiest critic saw in it a way of letting off
The success of the Scout movement led to its imitation in many countries, notably in
Germany. There, too, the little troops began to march along the roads already trampled by
the legions. The Great War swept across the world. Boy Scouts played their part. Their
keen eyes were added to the watchers along the coasts; and in the air raids we saw the
spectacle of children of twelve and fourteen performing with perfect coolness and
composure the useful functions assigned to them in the streets and public offices. Many
venerable, famous institutions and systems long honored by men perished in the storm; but
the Boy Scout Movement survived. It survived not only the War, but the numbing reactions
of the aftermath. While so many elements in the life and spirit of the victorious nations
seemed to be lost in stupor, it flourished and grew increasingly. Its motto gathers new
national significance as the years unfold upon our island. It speaks to every heart its
message of duty and honor: "Be Prepared" to stand up faithfully for Right and
Truth, however the winds may blow.
Copyright (c) Lewis P. Orans, 1997