The Boer War 1899-1902 by Thomas Pakenham (1979)

16 July 2012

The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham seems to be the best one-volume history of the war, even though it was published in 1979. Pakenham taped interviews with Boer War veterans as long ago as 1970. Has nothing in Boer War studies changed since then, I wonder. (You can read the first half dozen chapters online.)

At nearly 600 pages of text ‘The Boer War’ is a long and thorough and absorbing read. From among the jungles of detail a few themes emerge:

1. The British caused the war Gladstone guaranteed the two Boer republics – the Transvaal and the Orange Free State – their independence in 1881, after the first Boer War. Let them farm their miles of featureless veld far in the interior.  But two things happened a) the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold at Witwatersrand led tens of thousands of Brits and other foreigners to flock to both places to get rich so that the so-called uitlanders soon far outnumbered native Boers. Understandably the Boers refused to give these fly-by-night diggers and prospectors political rights ie the vote since, at a stroke, they’d effectively take over the countries. b) The 1890s saw a rising tide of New Imperialism across Europe and the US but particularly in Britain. These New Imperialists had a vision of the white Anglo-Saxon races joining hands to bring civilisation to the entire world. Kipling’s A Song of the English gives a powerful vision of the farflung vastness of the British Empire, with colonies or coaling stations in every part of the world. His poem The White Man’s Burden (1899) is a request to the rising power of the USA (engaged in its own New Imperial war against Spain which would net it Cuba and the Philippines) to join hands with Britain in bringing peace and civilisation to the world. Like Churchill, Kipling could see the Americans had a growing role to play in spreading white man’s values.

2. Sir Alfred Milner Against this background it seemed absurd that two tiny republics of backwards farmers, notorious for their ill-treatment of the native Africans, should stand in the Empire’s way. The (first) villain of Pakenham’s book is Sir Alfred Milner, appointed governor of the Cape Colony in 1897, who saw that the Boers must be defeated and their republics brought into the Empire sooner or later – and so he conspired with the gold and diamond millionaires (Beit, Rhodes) to make it sooner. A conference was held with the Boers’ ageing leader, Paul Kruger, at which Milner insisted on the uitlanders getting voting rights much sooner than the 14 years settlement the Boers were insisting on. It was on this rock that negotiations foundered and the war, ultimately, was fought, much to Milner’s joy.

The Boers sent the Brits an ultimatum demanding we stop shipping troops out, on 9 October 1899. The British government rejected it. On 11 October the Boer republics declared war.

3. New technology Having recently read about World Wars 1 and 2, the Boer War rings a familiar theme – the generals didn’t understand the implications of new weapons technology, namely, smokeless magazine-fed rifles. a) Firing without smoke meant the firer was invisible. For most of the war the British couldn’t figure out where the Boers were even when they were firing at us. b) Magazines meant the rifles could lay down dense fields of fire, almost like machine guns. In encounter after encounter the British soldiers are mown down like hay. Fast-loading smokeless rifles and the Boers’ readiness to build trenches shifted the whole axis of war from Offence to Defence. Cavalry, the classic offensive arm for centuries, became redundant. Only heavy artillery bombarding co-ordinated with infantry attacks could shift defensive positions. The model for the Great War was established though nobody realised it at the time.

4. Incompetent British generals. Dear oh dear.  The foolishness of White who insisted on garrisoning Ladysmith against orders. The disaster at Colenso when Long took his field guns out too far and was decimated and Hart took his men into the completely the wrong place and got them all killed. (“Colenso is a remarkable battle; the British middle ranking command showing an incompetence that is hard to comprehend.”) Spion Kop where General Warren was criminally slow to attack and allowed the Brits to be pinned down and slaughtered on the plateau.

“The mistake constantly repeated by the British in the war was to launch frontal attacks against Boer riflemen in prepared entrenchments armed with modern Mauser magazine rifles.”

Major-General Sir Redvers Buller was head of the army for the first year and ended up carrying the can for the early setbacks, being sacked after his return to England in October 1901. Pakenham goes out of his way to reinstate Buller’s reputation and emphasises that the stupidity and incompetence stretched from the War Office down through acres of upper class nincompoops.

Spion Kop where 243 dead soldiers in the British trench – too shallow and built in the wrong place

5. Concentration camps Eventually the besieged outposts of Ladysmith (February 1900), Kimberley (February 1900) and Mafeking (May 1900) were relieved – in each case the relieving armies suffering significant losses trying to overcome the well-fortified Boer defences. Whereupon the Boers quickly melted away, falling back on impressive prepared positions though not really defending them and eventually abandoning their capitals, Blomfoentein (Orange free State) and Pretoria (Transvaal). The British generals thought the war was over – but it wasn’t. The Boers now concentrated on what they did best, dividing into small commando units and engaging in guerilla war, attacking the Brits wherever and whenever it suited them. To everyone’s amazement the war went on for 2 years after the relief of Mafeking, and a lot more people died.

Redvers Buller had been replaced as British commander-in-chef by Field Marshall Roberts in January 1900; in December 1900 General Kitchener (of Khartoum fame) replaced Roberts and intensified his policy of rounding up Boer women and children from their scattered farms, then burning the farms and killing the livestock, in a bid to force their menfolk to surrender. Pakenham emphasises that Kitchener wasn’t interested in detail with lamentable results – previously he had maladministered the troop hospital at Bloemfontein so badly that wounded soldiers died like flies.

Photo of Lizzie Van Zyl benefiting from her new membership of the British Empire in Bloemfontein concentration camp

Now he applied the same lack of interest to the 30 or so concentration camps which were set up near railheads across the veld. Conditions were dire, no hygiene and poor rations. Some 4,000 Boer women and 24,000 children died of preventable disease or malnutrition.

Information took a long time to leak out, but a heroic English woman called Emily Hobhouse raised the alarm, forcing a reluctant British government to institute a full enquiry, the Fawcett Commission, as a result of which reforms were eventually made ie improving rations, providing doctors and nurses, new camp superintendants charged with improving hygiene. Finally, the death rates fell. Typical British blundering.

6. Surrender In 1902 Kitchener, still plagued by the Boer guerillas, implemented a new policy of marking out the entire veld in barbed wire linked by blockhouses, and then systematically sweeping entire sections with overwhelming numbers of troops. Though the commando leaders remained at liberty, growing numbers of their followers were engaged, killed or captured. In addition, the policy of burning farmsteads had laid waste the Boer heartland. Boer women and children left on the devastated veld were in many ways worse off than those in the concentration camps. Reluctantly, in April, the Boer leaders sued for peace which, after some negotiation, was signed on 31 May 1902.

Aftermath

1. Military tactics The British had got used to fighting small and easy colonial wars against natives armed with spears (Zulus, Afghans, Sudanese) who were overwhelmed by our technology (rifles, artillery) and tactics (form squares, advance in close order, mop up with cavalry charges). All of this failed in South Africa. The Boers were highly intelligent, flexible soldiers who used defensive trenches and new smokeless fast-shooting Mauser rifles to decimate the British who advanced in nice, orderly, easy-to-destroy rows. On only a few occasions did British officers experiment with more flexible approaches and it was all forgotten and had to be learned again, the very hard way, on the fields of Flanders 12 years later.

2. The alliance system Most international opinion had been against Britain and, at moments, there’d been concern that other powers might either intervene or take advantage and attack elsewhere (Russia into Afghanistan). The Victorian policy of Splendid Isolation came to be seen as out of date. Britain began to engage in strategic alliances, with the Japanese, Russians, then the French. This new web of alliances determined the sides in the Great War.

3. The failure of Milnerism The Machiavellian Milner was as involved in the 1902 peace negotiations as he’d been in scuppering a compromise and triggering the war in 1899. He wanted unconditional surrender of the Boers, and a massive immigration of British colonists leading to complete British control over the diamond and gold mines. He tried to strike out the clause saying the republics would eventually revert to self-governing status, as per Canada or Australia, banking on immigrants swamping the Boers into insignificance. However, the immigration didn’t happen, and British policy tended to drive formerly patriotic Afrikaners into the arms of a revitalised Boer party. When a Liberal British government gave the two colonies (Cape, Natal) self-government in 1906 the election revealed the Nationalist (Boer) party in the majority and that’s how it stayed. The Nationalists consolidated power through the 1930s and 40s until they left the Commonwealth altogether in 1961 and instituded the apartheid policy. This was the exact opposite of the outcome for which Milner had stalled the 1899 negotiations and prompted the war.

4. The blacks Blacks, natives, Africans. Part of the reason for the Boers’ Great Trek north from the Cape back in the 1840s had been the British insistence on ending slavery. The Boers maintained a fiercely racist attitude to the Africans. There’s plenty of evidence that they simply murdered all the Africans they found supporting the British. One of the official British motives for the war was to get a better deal for the tens of thousands of Africans slaving away in the diamond and gold mines. As the war developed Africans were co-opted into both armies as drivers, porters etc and, in the British army, played an important role as scouts, and were eventually armed and ordered to police the vast network of blockhouses. And yet, when it came to the peace, Milner, backed up by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, deleted the clauses from the peace treaty which called for basic civil rights for Africans. The pass laws which gave the Africans helot or serf status were confirmed, and went onto become enshrined in subsequent South African law, leading to the policy of apartheid enacted by the Nationalist governments after World War Two. And in the short term, the wages of blacks slaving away on the Rand were forced down by the capitalists the war had put in charge of the mines. Hard not to see British policy to the South African blacks as a colossal betrayal.

5. Tommy Atkins The ordinary soldiers Pakenham interviewed for his book thought the war was a bloody waste of life, fought solely so the Empire could get its hands on the Boer gold and diamonds. Pakenham must be sitting on a treasure trove of interview material – I wonder if it was ever used eg in a radio documentary?

Writers in the Boer War

Rudyard Kipling (35 in 1900) offered his services to work on a pro-British newspaper set up by Kitchener, The Friend. Dr Arthur Conan Doyle (41 in 1900) volunteered to work in the field hospital at Blomfoentein and was knighted for his services; he also found time to write his history, The Great Boer War. The future thriller writer John Buchan (25 in 1900) served as assistant to Lord Milner. Winston Churchill (26 in 1900) worked as war correspondent for the Morning Post and was a witness to various historic events, as well as being captured and escaping from the Boers, all described in his memoir My Early Life.

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