Book review: The Great Boer War


It is interesting and entertaining when a great novelist turns to telling great history. Dr Arthur Conan Doyle served as a volunteer medical officer with the British Army during the South African War (1899-1902) and was particularly distressed by the poor state of hygiene in the forces.

At the time Conan Doyle was already known as the author of Sherlock Holmes and his skill as wordsmith is readily apparent here. He opens his 740-page treatise so: “Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots who gave up home and fortune and left their country for ever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon earth.
“Take this formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances under which no weakling could survive, place them so that they acquire exceptional skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman, and the rider. Then, finally, put a finer temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual, and you have the modern Boer-the most formidable antagonist who ever crossed the path of Imperial Britain. Our military history has largely consisted in our conflicts with France, but Napoleon and all his veterans have never treated us so roughly as these hard-bitten farmers with their ancient theology and their inconveniently modern rifles.”
Conan Doyle started the “The Great Boer War” in England and continued writing it aboard a steamer while headed for the seat of war, but, as the preface to the first edition noted “the greater part was written in a hospital tent in the intervals during the [enteric aka typhoid] epidemic at Bloemfontein.” This Galago edition is a facsimile of the 19th edition of the book, published in 1903. Writing as an Englishman for Englishmen at the height of Empire, his text is unashamedly Imperial and in some observations and language, dated.
But this should not distract the reader from the lessons to be learned here about insurgency an counterinsurgency, guerilla war and mobile warfare. And lessons there are aplenty: Conan Doyle decries the lack of attention paid to musketry after the First Boer War of 1881 as well as the tendency of the professional soldier to underestimate an irregular opponent. “Whether it arose from our defective intelligence, or from that caste feeling which makes it hard for the professional soldier to recognise (in spite of deplorable past experiences) a serious adversary in the mounted farmer, it is certain that even while our papers were proclaiming that this time, at least, we would not underrate our enemy, we were most seriously underrating him,” he writes at the time that the British force n Natal was under immense pressure from the colonial authorities to deploy troops forward to protect the Dundee collieries. The result was the disaster – for Britain – at Talana. That this mistake is still made can be seen in Afghanistan today.
“Prince Kraft has said, ‘Both strategy and tactics may have to yield to politics,’ but the political necessity should be very grave and very clear when it is the blood of soldiers which has to pay for it.” Words to remember.
Another “fact [that] will need much explaining”, avers Conan Doyle was why many of the Boer artillery were more modern and powerful than the British could bring against them. Then there was the preference for infantry over mounted infantry, the shambolic provision of horses and medical services and poor hygiene. Writing as a doctor at Bloemfontein in March 1900, Conan Doyle says it was “heart-rending for the medical man who has just emerged from a hospital full of water-borne pestilence to see a regimental water-cart being filled, without protest, at some polluted wayside pool.”
Another very useful feature of this book is the attention Conan Doyle paid to identifying units down to the battalion level – more so than in any other single-volume history. It is thus possible to build up a detailed British order of battle, a most useful aide to understanding this precursor conflict to World War One. The Boers introduced trenches and barbed wire at Magersfontein in 1900. The British learned from that experience – and Spanish counterinsurgency techniques in Spain – to criss-cross the veld with blockhouse lines, linked with barbed wire, covered in many instances with machine gun and searchlight, protected by trenches and tin cans with pebbles. Another innovation, by Jan Smuts’ commando at O’Kiep was the use of dynamite as “hand bombs” (now hand grenades) to attack these blockhouses (in essence, bunkers). It is intriguing that the “pom-pom”, essentially a 25mm (1-inch) Maxim machine gun, now called an automatic grenade launcher, made such an impact on the Imperial troops when deployed against them that they rushed to acquire the British-designed weapon too. Yet, it did not feature in the land campaigns of World War One. Is that because it was generally assigned to the artillery? “Pom-poms” were still in use with the Royal Navy as anti-aircraft guns (generally in an eight-barrel mount) as late as World War Two, so it is not as if the technology had been forgotten.
Written from a British perspective, the Boers – and anyone else – appear only to the extent necessary for the plot, alternatively dastardly and heroic. De Wet is the wily man with the “tinted glasses”, a reference to his specticles. Delarey [sic] is a chivalrous leader. But of only one does he peak in the future tense: Smuts. “Throughout the war he had played a manly and honourable part. It may be hoped that with youth and remarkable experience, both of diplomacy and of war, he may now find a long and brilliant career awaiting him in a wider arena than that for which he strove.”
There are interesting asides as well. It is well known that Britain annexed the Cape in 1806. What escaped the reviewer during his education is that the Dutch crown was paid six million pounds for the Cape and some South American land. Hen there was the 300 pounds Paul Kruger was paid as a coffee allowance – a large sum, but then Mrs Kruger had to make many a cuppa for the many daily visitors.
The Great Boer War
Arthur Conan Doyle