Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham

Pakenham’s very thorough history of The Boer War (1899-1902) reads like a novel and I could hardly put it down.  In my mind that puts him in a class with Barbara Tuckman and other reviewers have made the same comment.

The book was written over 30 years ago (published in 1979), so the author was able to interview a great many survivors from both sides, as well as access a mass of documents that were not available when the original histories had been written, just after the war. Pakenham regretted that there was not as much material available from the Boer side as from the British.  That is understandable as their army was purely volunteer irregulars, without the massive bureaucracy of the British military machine. There were also only 50,000 Boers vs 250,000 British.

Wars are not fought in abstract but fought by people.  The book is filled with dozens if not hundreds of characters all skillfully drawn, (though sometimes hard to keep track of, without a war room of maps and pins). While it is the politicians and officers whose names we remember from history…Asquith, Balfour, Chamberlain, Lloyd George, John Buchan, Roberts, Kitchener, French, Haig, Allenby, White, Buller, Baden-Powell, Wolseley, Churchill, Rhodes …Kruger, De Wet, Cronje, de la Rey, Botha, Smuts…Pakenham writes a great deal of his narrative from the perspective of the men on the ground, both Boer and British, as well. Their view of the war was one of deprivation, boredom, sudden death and frustration with both the enemy and their own commanding officers.

There are many conflicts within a war, not just between the side dubbed “us” and the side dubbed “the enemy” or even with the weather and the terrain.  Pakenham weaves them all into the larger struggle.  In England there were The Imperialists vs. the “Pro-Boers” as they are labeled; Colonial Office vs. War Office vs. Treasury; the “African Ring" under Wolseley vs. the “Indian Ring" under Roberts. In Africa, there were too many personal conflicts to mention here.  Initially it was Milner vs. Kruger which set the stage for the war. Then it was Buller and the other field Generals vs. Roberts/Kitchener; Rhodes vs. Milner and on it went.  Plots within plots.

It was a new kind of war Pakenham described.  Perhaps rightly called “the first modern war”.  The British, used to fighting poorly armed and organized natives in Africa and India, as usual underestimated their opponents.  (Was there ever a war that was not going to “over by Christmas”?).  The British had shed their red uniforms for khaki. It was the first war fought with smokeless powder.  Soldiers and artillery were now invisible to the enemy.  High velocity, small bore, magazine loading rifles, Lee-Enfields and Mausers, had replaced the old single shot breech-loaders. A soldier could aim and fire a clip of shots in the time it used to take to fire once.  Concentration camps, used by the Spanish against the Cubans, were used by the British who rounded up women and children as part of their scorched earth tactics against the Boer guerrillas.

The British were taught “no end of lessons” as Kipling put it, but they failed to learn the crucial one – modern weaponry combined with trenches put the advantage on the side of the defenders.  That lesson was brought home at great cost in France and Belgium during The Great War.  Buller had learned how to deal with this new way of war through the series of defeats he suffered in attempting to relieve the siege of Ladysmith.  No more one-day set-piece battles.  The new war required creeping artillery barrages, more individual initiative, better use of cover, and day after day of constant pressure.  But the pro-Kitchener crowd made Buller the scapegoat for initial British reverses and he was fired at the end of the war.  Histories are written by not only the victorious side but the victorious cliques.

Pakenham redeems Buller and illustrates that his replacements as Commander in Chief, Roberts and then Kitchener made as many if not more blunders under far easier conditions. A soldier in the field must have wondered (as I expect all soldiers do) who the real enemy was, the men facing him trying to kill him or the men behind him sabotaging his ability to do his job with endless wranglings for political position and endless blunders in supplying necessary provisions.

Without even trying, Pakenham has written an anti-war, anti-imperialism book.  Not by preaching or pointing out the obvious but by simply telling it like it was.  Another useless war.  For all that it was to be a “White Man’s” war; the Africans paid the greater price in loss of life, property and rights.  For all his Machiavellian plotting, Milner’s dream of a white non-Africaner British-only South Africa came to nothing.  The Liberals won the next election, restored self government to the four colonies and the Boer/Afrikaner parties won majorities. And in the end, Africa got her revenge on Milner who was bitten by a tstse fly and died of sleeping sickness. 

For a better and shorter review,  I suggest reading Jeff Cordell's review on Amazon at the link above. This was totally a learning experience for me, as previous knowledge was based on Canadian highschool history which was sketchy at best.  

Source for map here


  1. You're miles ahead of me in your high school learning. We never covered much beyond the American Civil War and even the it was limited information. Thank goodness for the history channel.

  2. I learned very little history in highschool but it was my favourite subject. I have been reading history ever since. The Boer War was important to Canada as it was the first time we sent troops to a foreign war as an independent country.

    The Boer War would never have made it into American history books as you were busy fighting the Spanish American War at roughly the same time. Another manufactured imperialistic war.

  3. Our Grandmother Hingston's uncle, George Walter (Arthur) Ross was an established businessman in the Orange Free State, South Africa when the war started. He was required to provide certain supplies for the Boer army and served as guard for a time. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Sannaspos, March 31, 1900.

  4. I'm ordering the book right now. I teach at a school outside Dachau and expected to deal with the Nazis when I arrived; I was dismayed that I'd have to cover South Africa. I guess Nazis are too close to the bone...

    1. Keir, you won't regret it.
      I went to your websites and will read up on them when I have more time. My current history binge is learning about the Eastern front - the Stalin-Hitler battle. I would love to exchange emails with you but could find no contact information on your websites.

  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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