Every once in awhile, I stumble across a historical writer whose originality, talent as a wordsmith, and whose meticulous scholarship are all quite exceptional. By exceptional, I mean someone who could legitimately be included in the company of such truly gifted authors as Douglas Southall Freeman, David Chandler, and John Keegan, just to name three of my personal favorites. Thomas Pakenham, although utterly unknown to me until I read his Cheltenham Prize winning work, "The Boer War", is, I believe, just such a writer. That being said, I apologize in advance for what is, even for me, a very long book review (I have included a bit more historical detail than usual). In my own defense, it is a testament to Pakenham's skill as a writer, I think, that he has been able to make the chronicle of this oft-neglected and sordid "little" colonial war into a truly engrossing read.
Among military historiographers, there are, depending on the criteria being considered, really only a few 19th century conflicts that tend to be picked over and over again as the first "modern" war. Some historical writers assign this somewhat dubious title to the Crimean War (1854-56), others point to the American Civil War (1861-65), and still other historians look to either the Austro-Prussian War (1866), or the Franco-Prussian War (1870) as the first conflicts truly representative of the modern era. All of these selections, to some degree or other, make sense; however, in the view of a number of both amateur and professional students of military affairs (myself included), the war that most perfectly matches most of the main criteria associated with "modern" warfare is actually none of those cited above; instead, it is a conflict that, leading right up to its outbreak, was never actually expected to occur at all: the Second Boer War. Each of the other conflicts on the preceding list — whether short in duration or protracted — display at least some of the features of the industrialized mass slaughter that would be unleashed on Europe in 1914. However, it is the Second Boer War that most fully utilized almost all of the weapons and tactics (excepting only aircraft, tanks, and poison gas) of the First World War; that is: the widespread use of elaborate entrenchments; breech-loading rifled artillery; barbed wire barriers; the forced dislocation of massive numbers of civilian refuges (mainly foreigners expelled from the Boer republics); "scorched earth" reprisals against civilians and their property, in this case by the British against the Boers; concentration camps for the internment of enemy non-combatants (mainly Boer women and children) as well as for displaced Blacks, again by the British; the use by both sides of magazine-fed rifles (which used smokeless ammunition), accurate to 1,000 yards and beyond; and finally, of course, machine guns. Because of these factors, it can reasonably be argued that it was the Second Boer War, more than any other conflict of its era, that offered military observers the clearest preview of the wars to come. In retrospect, it is possible that the final tragic outcome of the Boer War was that no one, military or civilian, actually understood the implications of the events they witnessed unfold in southern Africa.
|Boer siege of Ladysmith, 1900|
|General Redvers Henry Buller|
|British artillery, Second Boer War|
|Christiaan de Wet |
Boer guerrilla leader
|General Jacobus Herculaas "Koos" de la Rey, |
"Lion of the West"
Pakenham's indictment of Sir Alfred (later Lord) Milner is undoubtedly the most controversial claim made in the whole of "The Boer War"; and, because it flies in the face of many other accounts of the conflict, the author first presents an extensive compendium of old and new supporting evidence and then proceeds to methodically construct his case against the British colonial officer with extraordinary care. Milner's life is almost the stuff of fiction; moreover, the brilliant, complex, and utterly ruthless man that Pakenham places in the metaphorical dock is, by virtue of his unusual early background (he was born and began his education in Germany) and his subsequent rise in government, the perfect example of both the best and the worst characteristics of Victorian England.
|Lord Alfred Milner|
|Battle of Spion Kop|
|Grenadier Guards, photo Life Magazine|
|Indian Ambulance Corps, |
Mohandas Gandi, middle row 5th from left
|Field Marshal Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts |
portrait by John Singer Sargent
|Field Marshal Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener,|
|General Louis Botha, later first |
Prime Minister of South Africa
|Emily Hobhouse, 1902|
|Boer farmers' house being burned at Verskroeide Aarde|
|African in internment camp|
Regular readers of my book reviews know that there are very few historical works that I view with enough enthusiasm to unreservedly recommend as MUST READS. "The Boer War", however, I consider to be one of those very rare books that, because of its clarity, even-handedness, readability, and meticulous scholarship, I can confidently recommend both to serious students of military affairs and to those casual readers who have a more general interest in historical writings. For my own part, I have, over the years, read a number of other works dealing the Boer War, but none of them can match this truly superb work by Thomas Pakenham; that being said, if you intend to read only one historical treatment of this tragic conflict, this, I firmly believe, is the book that you should choose.
|British cavalry, Second Boer War|