Book Review: Goodbye Dolly Gray

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Rayne Kruger’s Goodbye Dolly Gray is a remarkably prescient and erudite single-volume account of the South African War, aka the Second Boer War. First published in 1959, the book concludes that the Boer War “was fought because each half of the white community in the Transvaal wanted to dominate. Hostilities broke out upon expiry of a Boer ultimatum which narrowly preceded one already prepared by the British.

“The Boers said the war was for liberty. The British said it was for equality. The majority of the inhabitants, who were not white at all, gained neither liberty nor equality.” Even though published in London, these were remarkably bold words for a South African named Kruger in the second year of Verwoerdian Apartheid. This may well explain why this excellent work is not that well known in South Africa where Kruger was born, educated and trained as an attorney. (He served in the British merchant navy during World War Two – a most deadly occupation during that conflict – and afterwards settled in the UK were he entered business and wrote fiction and history.)
“For a decade Afrikaner nationalism has ruled South Africa with little challenge,” writes Kruger in a postscript, “drawing its strength from its desire for race-preservation. The ultimate victor of the Boer War would therefore seem to be Krugerism. But Africa is astir with a contrary idea, a impassioned as Kruger’s, and the real struggle still lies ahead unless averted by majestic statesmanship.” Profound words indeed, especially in a popular history.

Darryl Accone, book editor at the Mail & Guardian newspaper has criticised some South African writing for being “merely comprehensive” at the cost of being compelling. This is not a vice this account suffers, and other than being wholly educational, Goodbye Dolly Gray is also thoroughly entertaining. Kruger, perhaps because of his fiction writing, has a wonderful turn of phrase, often raising a good laugh as well as a profound insight.

His pensketches of key participants are often particularly amusing. Commenting on General Redvers Buller, the initial British expeditionary force commander, Kruger notes that period descriptions had him as big-boned and square-jawed. He adds: “at the risk of marring this typical contemporary description … it should be mentioned that his big bones were particularly well covered, especially in the region of the stomach, and that his square jaw was not especially apparent over a double chin. …he was very wealthy, which was fortunate in view of his preference for a diet of ample good food and champagne.”

Of cavalry General John French he writes: “French left Ladysmith with his chief of staff [Major] Douglas Haig on the last train to get out, and the two future commanders of the British Army in World War I only escaped with their lives by lying flat on the carriage floor while bullets laced the woodwork around them.”

Comparing the pre-war British and Boer armies, Kruger observes that while the Transvaal was spending ?90 000 a year on (unspecified) intelligence, the British, who at the time had no General Staff (the Boers didn’t either), was spending ?11 000 on the same for the whole globe. Just two officers were responsible for the entire colonial empire – including the Transvaal.

Technology and progress played a role both on and off the battlefield: the modern rifle with smokeless ammunition, quick-firing artillery, machine guns and grenade launchers; the telephone, heliograph and telegraph. With the latter, Victorian mass education and the repeal the Stamp Act for newspapers, came the modern mass media: the Boer War was the first conflict to be cinemagraphed and photography was common too. Yet for the British December 1899 produced a “crop of failures unknown since the American War of Independence” over a century before.

In the end there was a victory of sorts – both the final British commander, General Horatio Kitchener and the Transvaal commandant general, Louis Botha, realised as the winter of 1902 set in that it was time to end the war. As General Koos de la Rey put it at Vereeniging: “It was not a question of fighting to the bitter end: the bitter end had come.”

In the end it is a remarkably balanced book: there is sympathy for the hound as well as the hare, unlike perhaps Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Great Boer War that is clearly pro-British and Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War that is pro-Buller and otherwise biased towards the Boers as well as the conventional war (October 1899-June 1900) to the detriment of the guerilla war that Kruger covers in great detail. It seems to me that if one wants a single, comprehensive and balanced account of the war, this may be it.

Rayne Kruger

Goodbye Dolly Gray – The Story of the Boer War

Galago



Alberton
2008
(First published by Cassel & Company, London, 1959)