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South Africa’s White War

The Great Anglo-Boer War

by Byron Farwell
Harper & Row, 593 pp., $16.95

The sand of the northern Transvaal is red. It makes easy mining for the ants in the cemetery at Nylstroom, who have sunk hundreds of little crumbringed shafts down between the graves. Their commando columns trot across the veld and descend the shafts to visit the bones of 544 women and children “who as war victims (wat as slagoffers) lost their lives in the Concentration Camp in the period between 1899 and 1902.” Most of the graves are mere cairns, marked with metal name tags. A few are small slabs of slate, laboriously engraved: “Anna Sofia Venter: died 24 August 1902, aged two. Dit is de Weg die ons allen is op gelegt” (this is the path that lies before us all). The names are the names of Boer history: Pretorius, Bezuidenhout, Potgieter. The cemetery’s black marble monument was unveiled in 1942, when South African troops were fighting the Germans on the distant north shore of the continent. Some of those who now rule South Africa were then detained or under surveillance, as declared admirers of the more perfect “Konsentrasiekamp” system of the Third Reich.

The memory of the Boer War of 1899-1902 (or the Second Anglo-Boer War, or the Second Independence War, as the Afrikaners call it) has become a sustaining myth. South Africans who have recently begun to go sedentary, prosperous, and bureaucratic like to fancy that they can spring out of the Datsun into the saddle, lose thirty pounds of fat overnight, and become the terror of the plains as their fathers were. If some American urban whites can still see themselves as latent Indian fighters and pioneers, it seems less absurd that the Afrikaner should tell himself that he too could ride with a commando, shoot from the saddle like de la Rey, punish the cheeky Kaffirs like Pretorius.

Vietnam helped to demonstrate that the Americans have become “the British”; that in any rough-country war they are the trudging, puffing ranks in red around whom the wily embattled farmers circle and snipe. The Afrikaners have yet to learn this about themselves. The Boer War myth was undermined in Angola, when an unwieldy and badly commanded South African expeditionary force was outmaneuvered by the Cubans and pushed back to the Namibian frontier. But South African whites do not wish to know this. Television viewers in the Republic have been enjoying instead an amazing film called Bridge Fourteen, in which a South African officer in Angola darts about with his little pistol and disposes of a dozen evil Cuban |storm troopers single-handed.

Prosperity is still something fragile to Afrikaners. It is true that there is now a flourishing Afrikaner capitalism, even great finance conglomerates which begin to challenge the established mining giants on the Rand. It is also true that the Afrikaners continue to flow into the cities, and true that they preponderantly staff the slothful monster of repressive bureaucracy which is the expanding state apparatus of South Africa. All the same, most Afrikaners know what being a poor, small farmer in a dry continent is like. The miseries they suffered during the Depression were as great as those of the dustbowl farmers, and rural poverty is still common. They also know what it is like to be abashed, to be humiliated in schools by Anglo-Saxon children who are taught to jeer at them, mock their thick accents, treat them as the uncomprehending oaf of the van der Merwe jokes. There is no successful Afrikaner, be his suit Savile Row and his gold wristwatch chunky and his command of foreign languages, menus, and venalities easy, who has not registered those jeers.

The Briton continues to misunderstand the Afrikaner, even when the Afrikaner is becoming as established and urbanized as he. The British defeats in the Boer War have never been understood in Britain, except as the result of culpable incompetence by the War Office and the generals. Byron Farwell suggests that an American reader should find it easier to comprehend the resilience of Boer resistance by drawing the Vietnam parallel: “a highly industrialised nation’s attempt to subdue a small, agricultural country” in which the weaker side resorted to guerrilla warfare. This is true, but the most spectacular events of the war, in its first phase, were the pitched battles in which smaller Boer forces met the British Army head-on and defeated it.

This was not guerrilla fighting, nor was it the sort of contest familiar to Roman and Byzantine armies in the Near East: massed legions slowly worn down by clouds of mobile enemies sniping along the route of march. They were conventional, old-fashioned encounters in which the British artillery fired and was answered by the Boer state artillery, in which both sides charged each other on horseback or on foot. It was only after this initial phase, in which the men of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State either won such set-piece battles or inflicted crippling losses on the British before retiring, that the weight of British numbers began to tell and the Boer defense disintegrated into fast-moving commando columns harassing an enemy now effectively in occupation of their country.

Defense” is not really the right word. This was “resistance” in a pure form. Once Lord Roberts had entered the Transvaal capital, Pretoria, in June 1900, there could be no military victory over the British. Neither, in spite of ill-informed hopes for German or American support, was this the sort of resistance which tries to keep the national spirit alive until some powerful ally arrives to clear the enemy out (Western Europe, in the Second World War). This struggle of the commandos in the veld, with all its brilliance and occasional victories, was just the struggle of men who could not bear to give in, the “bitter-enders,” as the phrase was, as opposed to the “hand-uppers.”

Mr. Farwell hasn’t tried to write a political history of the war, to approach it from any novel angle, or to base his book on original research. (There are unpublished documents, recollections, and letters used here to good effect, but The Great Anglo-Boer War is mostly written from printed sources.) Much like the glaring, whiskered generals whose idea about the war was to start at Cape Town and march on foot all the way to Pretoria, he is simply concerned to tell the chronicle of the war from its start to its finish with all the human detail he can muster. This is an enterprise which has already been well performed on the military events of the war by Rayne Kruger, in Goodbye, Dolly Gray (Cassell, London, 1959). Mr. Farwell has accumulated more detail, makes greater use of some very familiar Boer sources (Deneys Reitz’s recollections, Commando, were on almost every British bookshelf during the Second World War, and Mr. Farwell leans heavily on them), and adds three well-researched chapters on the fate of prisoners of war and on the concentration camps. As a book, it is not remarkable or new. As a story which bears retelling, it is well worth reading.

There is an expressive phrase for deeply stupid men in the British Army. They say, “The little bone has grown right down over his eyes….” What a parade of little bones Mr. Farwell has mustered! Take for instance General Sir Garnet Wolseley, on the whole one of the brighter soldiers commenting on the feelings of the Transvaal Afrikaners whose republic had been unilaterally annexed into the British Empire overnight: “Ignorant men led by a few designing fellows are talking nonsense on the High Veld.” Nothing had changed here since ignorant men led by a few designing fellows were allowed to get away with rebellion in the thirteen colonies. Take Lord Methuen, who fought battles by delivering a frontal attack of massed infantry against entrenched positions: the lads simply marched on and trusted that some of them might get there. Take General Sir Redvers Buller, who disapproved of men who took cover as “jacks-in-the-box.” Or the War Office administrators who provided field artillery without shields for the gunners.

This manner of conducting war was not even the normal practice of the day, any more than the Boers, combining deadly rifle fire with such great mobility, were an entirely new and unknown type of soldier. Even by contemporary standards the British were totally out of date in their tactics and assumptions. It was thirty years since the Franco-Prussian War, and the American Civil War just before it, had demonstrated that a new quality of fire power existed which could only be countered by movement and accurate intelligence. Yet Methuen fought a battle like Rooilaagte, for instance, as if it were a parade.

By Jove, what sport!” cried the midshipmen of the Naval Brigade when they heard that they were to have the honor of assaulting the Boer positions. Off they went in neat ranks, officers marching out in front of each detachment with drawn swords and a fox terrier romping cheerfully at the heels of a major of marines, into the rifle fire of an enemy lying in prepared positions and behind cover. By the time they reached the foot of the Boer-held kopjes, only half the brigade was left.

So it was at Talana and Colenso, Magersfontein and the Modder River. Queen Victoria sent tins of chocolate and scarves crocheted by herself to the bravest of the brave. The wounded rotted in their own excrement or perished of avoidable infections in tent-hospitals on the veld.

As Mr. Farwell makes clear, the British could not comprehend how a force so casually organized and lightly disciplined as the Boer commandos could make such problems for them. Everything was voluntary. Each district had its landdrost (magistrate), its commandant to lead the district commando in time of trouble, and its fieldcornet to execute the orders of landdrost and commandant. The burgher rode to war—if he felt like war—in civilian clothes with slouch hat, bandolier, corduroy trousers. If he felt like taking home leave or joining another commando, there was nothing to stop him but the personal appeal of his commandant and comrades. Even the commandant’s authority was not absolute, and the krygsraad (war council) of all his assembled men could decide to disregard his plans and orders.

On many occasions, Boers who had successfully defended a position would then abandon it in total disorder: old President Kruger himself was unable to stop such retreats, however wildly he brandished his walking stick. Mr. Farwell rightly points out that this was a sound instinct. It was better for the Boers to save men, their smallest resource, than to save a few acres of their vast ground at the price of heavy casualties. It was the war style of frontiersmen, with its typical combination of the culturally primitive and the technically advanced. Kruger seems never to have read a book other than the Bible, but his Mauser rifles and German artillery far outclassed the obsolescent weapons of Buller and Roberts.

For the British, who had not fought against irregular white troops in living memory, the conflict was morally as well as tactically baffling. “They were dressed in black frock-coats,” wrote a bewildered lancer after British cavalry had charged Boer fugitives at Elandslaagte, “and looked like a lot of rather seedy businessmen. It seemed like murder to kill them.” There was endless, often hysterical, controversy about the rules of war. The Boers seemed not to know the rules: they might hoist the white flag, and then run away or start shooting again if either seemed practical. The press of both sides seethed on about the use of dum-dum (expanding) bullets, supposedly banned but frequently slipped into the breech by men of either army. Much modern atrocity propaganda dates from the Boer War, the first time that the British made an official, organized effort to represent fighting men on the other side of a war as subhuman sadists. Mr. Farwell has collected scores of anecdotes which show how nonsensical this was, and how humane—on the whole—was the after-battle behavior of one side to the wounded and captured of the other.

It was in the second phase of the war, when Pretoria had fallen and the commandos were cruising the veld or raiding deep into the Cape on what could be no more than harassing expeditions, that the conflict became dirty. Not only the concentration camp (a misnomer) but all the other horrors of counterguerrilla operations made their appearance. The British laid a grille of fortlets and barbed wire across the veld, attempting to drive the commandos like grouse on a Scottish moor into the guns waiting for them at the end of each square. They killed off the livestock and burned down the farms. They raised a force of “loyal” Afrikaners to help them, thus creating a terrible betrayal trauma in the consciousness of Afrikanerdom which endures to this day. They treated Cape Boers who joined the commandos as traitors, and on a very few—but of course unforgotten—occasions went so far as to shoot them by firing squad. They took the women and children off the farms, before burning the buildings, and in order to prevent them from supplying the commandos they interned them.

This is what the concentration camps were, in reality. There was no question here of retribution against women and children, and none whatever of genocide. As Mr. Farwell shows, a contributory motive for setting up the camps was to spare the noncombatants the desperate hunger and suffering which the scorched-earth policy was spreading across the veld. Mainly, however, this was a policy of getting civilians into small, guarded localities in order to drain off the “sea” in which guerrilla fish were swimming. The “resettlement village” in British Malaya and the fortified hamlet in Vietnam were versions of this obvious tactic, whose corollary is of course the burning and wrecking of all agriculture outside the wire, and then the free-fire zone.

British incompetence, not malice, brought about the catastrophe. The scandal of the field hospitals round Bloemfontein should have warned the commanders that a fairly high degree of organization and sanitary technique is necessary if thousands of weakened and demoralized human beings crowded together in a hot country are to be kept alive. They did not take the warning. Into fifty camps went some 120,000 Afrikaners during the year 1901-1902. Some camps were better than others. All, to varying extents, were hit by one epidemic after another. Camps with no lavatories and no beds suffered worst. About 20,000 Afrikaner children died.

Something was saved by Emily Hobhouse. She smelled a coverup, went out to South Africa, and raised such hell about what she found in the camps that the military eventually put her on a ship back to England. Her outcry led to great improvements in the camps, and she preserved the lives of thousands of women and children by forcing the camp administrations to look after them properly. She also preserved some British self-respect, which can be said to matter less, and perhaps is more than her countrymen deserved. She certainly did not preserve what Boer respect for the British might have lingered on until then. Outsiders may see that there is no comparison between what happened at Nylstroom and what happened at Treblinka. Afrikaners do not, on the whole, any more than they see that a genuine comparison does exist between Nylstroom and the fearful dumpingcamps for unwanted Bantu in the so-called “Homelands” today, where comparable infant death rates have frequently been reached and surpassed.

The war petered out in 1902. Mr. Farwell takes the story on a little further, and describes the period of constructive autocracy under Lord Milner which followed. Six years later the Union of South Africa was formed and men like Louis Botha, Smuts, and Herzog, who had fought the British to defend the independence of the two Boer republics, found themselves running the government not only of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State but of the “British” Cape and Natal as well. In a sense, the guerrilla war did last long enough for a relieving power to intervene from outside, but that power was Great Britain. The Boers lost the war, and were then conceded the peace.

It was a “white man’s war,” as both sides insisted. The blacks were the real losers, even though they did not take part. Kitchener, in the first peace contacts with the Boers, said that they need have no fear of a black franchise: matters would be arranged “to secure the just predominance of the white race.” The black population at first supposed that the British victory might be theirs. After all, the central issue of all the Anglo-Boer conflicts in the previous century had been British interference with the Boer practice of slavery. They were soon enlightened. Mr. Farwell quotes The Times History: “…the natives had in many instances become insolent, owing to unduly high wages and to the familiarity with which the soldiers had treated them. They expected the Boers to be treated as a conquered race…. But they soon discovered that the British conquest…involved no essential alteration in the superior status of the white man, be he Briton or Boer.”

For many years, the British population of South Africa has enjoyed the privilege of loudly condemning the methods Afrikaner Nationalism uses to ensure white supremacy, while much enjoying the style of life which Mr. Vorster’s police guarantee them. Now, at last, more and more of them are voting directly for Mr. Vorster. The Boer War is finally over. The war for South Africa has only just begun.

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