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No end of a lesson
on 17 March 2009
I purchased this book to take with me on a recent visit to South Africa to provide me with a basic knowledge of the Boer War and, in particular, to give me a little insight into the Boers and their history.
Like other books in the Essential Histories series the book provides the reader with a concise summary of the conflict from the political, strategic, tactical, cultural and individual perspective. These books are ideal travelling companions for those interested in how warfare has shaped the world around them.
The book starts with a comprehensive Introduction that outlines the roots of the conflict - a conflict which, according to Rudyard Kipling, gave the British Empire "no end of a lesson." As they would in the First World War, the British expected the war [which started in October 1899] to be over by Christmas. However, they had underestimated their opponents. The Boers, or Afrikaners, were a tough and fiercely individualistic people who mostly lived on isolated farmsteads and lead hard, frugal lives based on Dutch Calvinism. They were deeply religious and believed that the land they lived on was theirs by the grace of God. Following the discovery of diamonds and gold the Boers feared the growing British influence in South Africa and felt that their way of life was threatened by the influx of foreign mining companies and their workers [who the Boers referred to as 'uitlanders'] who brought with them alien ideas on religion and education and what the Boers saw as moral depravity [in the form of the gambling, prostitution and violence that followed in their wake]. They were seen as a threat to the deeply conservative Afrikaner way of life. Conflict became inevitable.
The book goes on to detail the various battles of the war and makes extensive use of maps to outline the positions of the opposing forces. We read that, at first, the war went well for the Boers. They made excellent use of the terrain to conceal themselves and used trench systems to defend their positions - inflicting considerable losses on the British who still attacked in formation. These Boer victories were a source of great consternation in Britain as incredulity gave way to the realisation that a small number of farmers could inflict telling blows on the army of the world's greatest empire. After one particularly ferocious battle at Spion Kop, a young Boer commando, Deneys Reitz, wrote that "the soldiers lay dead in swathes, and in places they were piled three deep...there cannot have been many battlefields where there was such an accumulation of horrors within so small a compass. However, as the book explains, the Boers never seemed to seize the opportunities these victories offered them and go on the offensive and, for the most part, squandered their initial advantages.
As British reinforcements began to pour into Southern Africa the tide began to turn against the Boers. The lifting of the sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking were turning points although, as the book explains, the war merely evolved into a guerrilla conflict. It was at this point that the British tactics became more ruthless. In "The Guerrilla Phase" and "Kitchener's Offensive - the final phase" the book explains how the British waged a war of attrition against the Boers. Homesteads close to railway lines or stations that had been attacked by the Boers were torched as were those of Boers thought to be on commando. A brutal scorched earth policy rendered entire towns uninhabitable and swathes of farmland were destroyed. Women, children and old people were herded into concentration camps. An eye-witness account of these camps is provided in the chapter "Portrait of a Civilian" about Emily Hobhouse who worked tirelessly to bring the plight of the captive Boers to the attention of the British public. In "Portrait of a Soldier" we are introduced to Deneys Reitz whose book "Commando - A Boer Journal of the Boer War" became, we are told, a minor military classic. Reitz fought hard for the Boer cause and, as we learn in another chapter "How the War Ended" he, along with his father, refused to put his name to the peace undertaking which each man was required to sign and went into exile in Madagascar. Yet, after the war, in a spirit of reconciliation he served in the British Army as commander of 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers and he became a much loved High Commissioner for South Africa in London.
Finally, in "Conclusion and consequences" the book discusses the legacy of the war. It would seem it was a case of Britain `winning the war but losing the peace.' Following the ending of hostilities the British government's hoped for mass influx of British immigrants never materialised. Meanwhile, the Boers, it seems, experienced a cultural revival as a result of their defeat. The war may have denied them the independence they craved but only temporarily. They had fought for their ideal of independence, produced great leaders and defied one of the greatest powers on earth in defence of their divine cause. Afrikaner culture and their sense of identity were strengthened and within 10 years of the end of the war the Afrikaner dominated Union of South Africa had come into being - with full independence following in 1961. The final chapter makes the points that the real losers from the conflict were actually the black South Africans. Britain's failure to secure enfranchisement for them in the peace settlement encouraged Boer attitudes about racial inequality which would characterise South African politics until the end of the 20th century.
The Boer War straddled two centuries both chronologically and in the way it was fought. What started as a `gentleman's war' with chivalrous conduct, derring-do and tally-ho ended with searchlights, field telephones, barbed wire, trench warfare, blockhouses and concentration camps - and in that sense it was a foretaste of the future of warfare.