by Giles Foden
Knopf, 291 pp., $25.00
A hundred years ago, on February 28, 1900, the South African town of Ladysmith was relieved from being under siege. The half-starved British garrison, which had held out against the Boers and their Prussian-made artillery for 118 days, watched in disbelief as the enemy’s ox wagons set out on their long retreat over the mountains toward the Transvaal. That evening, the first cavalry patrol from the relief army commanded by General Redfers Buller splashed through the Klip River shallows and into Ladysmith.
The young Winston Churchill (the sort of brat correspondent who tells generals in the middle of a battle that their plan is all wrong)wrote an eyewitness description of this liberation moment: “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome….” This was all invented. Churchill only reached Ladysmith many hours afterward, when night had fallen. In much the same way, Buller staged a victorious entry into Ladysmith two days later, although he had in fact already ridden into town forty-eight hours before and had met the garrison commander, shaky old General Richard White, almost accidentally on the street. From the military point of view, this was the supreme moment of the entire Boer War. The two Englishmen glowered at one another in soldierly embarrassment. “Well, how have you been getting on?” Buller is supposed to have asked. “All right, thanks,” replied White. After that, they couldn’t think of anything else to say.
There were three famous sieges in that war: Kimberley, where Cecil Rhodes in person spooned out soup to the citizens, Mafeking, and Ladysmith. For a long time, Mafeking was much the best remembered in British folk memory. It had little military importance, but its relief by the British army touched off an orgy of patriotic street celebration (“mafficking”) in the cities of Britain. Ladysmith mattered more, all the same. This was in part because its defense was decisive for the outcome of the war. The Boers, to the astonishment of the world, had defeated the mighty British army in a string of battles at the outset of the conflict, and the fall of Ladysmith might well have persuaded Britain to seek a negotiated peace. As it was, the focus of the war in 1899 had narrowed down to the success or failure of Buller’s drive to relieve the town.
But Ladysmith was important in other ways. The siege of this little Natal railway town and the long, bloody campaign to rescue it involved tens of thousands of men in the fighting and tens of thousands of noncombatants, mostly women and children, in the misery, displacement, and destruction which took place around it. The suffering of Afrikaner Boer families and the mass murder by disease and hunger inflicted on them in the British “concentration camps” are well known. The equal or greater suffering of African people in the region, the first to be conscripted as wartime beasts of burden and the last to be considered for food or relief supplies …