Book review: The Boer War

The Boer War is a relatively wellknown title on what is a wellknown-of conflict. Wellknown-of because most Learning Curve readers would have heard of this vicious war that raged from October 11, 1899 to the conclusion of the Peace of Vereeniging on May 31, 1902, a conflict that consumed all of South Africa’s people and most of the British empire for three bloody years.

Wellknown-of because most have little detailed knowledge of the traumatic event that cost the British UK200 million and at least 22,000 lives, the Boers their independence, livelihood, property and 25,000 lives and Africans a minimum of 12,000 lives and ensured for them another 90 years of repression – despite them fighting bravely for Boer and Brit for a better deal.     

The book`s publishers credit Pakenham with being the first author to write a full-scale documentary history on the war “since 1910.” His narrative is based on first-hand and largely unpublished sources, including previously unpublished archival material and private papers.
In his introduction, Pakenham, himself of aristocratic English origin, wrote that, as Kipling put it, the war gave the British “no end of a lesson.” However, it seems they were loathe to learn as both General Maurice`s official History of the War in South Africa, prepared between 1906 and 1910 as well as the Times History of the War in South Africa, edited by Leo Amery between 1900 and 1909, were, in Pakenham`s view, deficient. His work seeks to correct what he saw as errors, such as that few Boer sources were consulted for a view from the other side. Pakenham believed the Times History said “too much” and the official History said “too little.”
He explains: “An eloquent narrative of the war, Amery`s volumes also represents what he calls an ‘argument` – many sided but always partisan. Amery was a disciple of Milner, the man chiefly responsible for making the war. Amery was also caught up in the movement for Army Reform, and committed to one side in the struggle between the two factions in the British Army (the Roberts Ring and the Wolseley Ring) which fought the Boers in the intervals between fighting each other.” Turning to Maurice`s effort, he wrote: “The official History says too little. All its political chapters were eliminated in draft by the Colonial Secretary, Alfred Lyttelton, for fear of offending the ex-enemy, the Boers – that is, for fear of ‘impeding the process of reconciliation,` as he recorded in a confidential minute. And for fear of offending their friends, the War Office staff found it equally impossible to write frankly about many of the ‘regrettable incidents` which occurred in the war.”                        
To what extent he succeeded is for the reader to decide. It is, however, recommended reading. 
The Boer War
Thomas Pakenham
Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited
London, 1979.
Reprinted by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Jeppestown, Johannesburg, 1998