The American political scientist Bernard Brodie once remarked that the “phrase ‘history teaches’ when encountered in an argument usually portends bad history and worse logic.”
US law Professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds added to this that the “trouble with lessons from history is that they often involve little actual history. Sometimes, the history was never there to begin with. Other times, lessons from history are wrong because nobody has bothered to look at the facts”.
I was reminded of these quotes while researching what is often popularly called the two battles of Doornkop; the first, on 2 January 1896, 113 years and a week ago; and the second, on 29 May 1900.
“First Doornkop”, if one can call it that, was a surrender: that of Dr Leander Starr Jameson and about 600 cohorts after the “Wonga Coup” of its day. Jameson was part of a conspiracy involving Cape Prime Minister and gold magnate Cecil John Rhodes and his fellow Randlords. The idea was to stage an insurrection in Johannesburg as a private venture and overthrow the government of President Paul Kruger. The Transvaal would then be incorporated into the British Empire to be ruled as Rhodes saw fit. Unfortunately for these men of fortune the Johannesburg conspirators were a hotbed of cold feet and the venture failed to London`s great embarrassment.
The aftermath saw a breakdown in relations between Britain and the Boers that led to ultimatum and war in October 1899. “Second Doornkop”, if one should choose to call it that, was part of the subsequent Imperial endeavour to incorporate the Witwatersrand goldfields into the fold.
The trouble is that historically not much happened at Doornkop. Jameson, strictly speaking, only made it to the foot of the kop, before finding himself trapped by terrain and Commando; while the May 1900 was fought everywhere but at Doornkop.
The thing is that none of that is apparent from many of the descriptions – even most of the maps – of the events concerned. If Napoleon did say history was that set of lies the victors had agreed to, then Doornkop is not history. The accounts, many of them by eyewitnesses, and recorded at the time, do not match.
Clearly the early writers took some liberties – shall we say some poetic licence – with their descriptions. Indeed, it is known that Winston Spencer Churchill, present at “Doornkop II”, had earlier written a glowing first-hand eyewitness account of the entry of the relief force into Ladysmith. By that account he was among the first to gallop into that town when the siege was lifted in early 1900. Problem is other witnesses place him some miles away at the time! It certainly brings a smile to the face.
The clanger is the maps. Arguably the most at variance is that of the Canadian War Museum, which seemingly depicts an east-west battle. Most of the others show an action running generally north-south. But where? Some maps show Doornkop. Some show west of the Klip River, others east, one on both sides.
What does this mean? Perhaps nothing more than that you can look forward to a lengthy – but well illustrated – feature article on the matter. On the other hand it is a graphically illustrates Brodie and Reynolds` point: It is dangerous to rely on books for an understanding of our craft and of battles past. When General George S Patton Jr flew over a Palestinian battlefield he remarked of a salient feature: “It is a much less formidable obstacle than I had gathered from the books.” Indeed.