The Boer War; by Thomas Pakenham; Folio Society, First Edition edition (1999) ASIN: B000J2J17W

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.

In "The Boer War", Thomas Pakenham recounts, in scrupulously-researched and highly readable prose, both the critical events and the key players that, together, helped to transform what had begun as a relatively trivial, if festering disagreement between the British Colonial Office and the Afrikaaner government in Pretoria (The Transvaal Republic's capital) into the second war between the two countries in less than a generation: a war that came to pit not only the Republic of South Africa against the British Empire, but that also brought the Transvaal's independent Afrikaaner neighbor, the Orange Free State, into the conflict against England as well. Because Pakenham sticks pretty close (with only a few minor detours) to the actual chronology of events, the organization of his book is both logical and compelling. As might be expected, the author begins with a short historical analysis of the reasons for the differences, cultural and otherwise, that roiled relations between the Boers and the British in the period leading up to the war. To this end, Pakenham presents the various reasons why, by 1899, war between the British and the Boers had become almost inevitable. True, two-party diplomacy was attempted; in fact, delegations from the two countries would repeatedly meet and talk as the crisis grew, but their efforts to avoid a conflict would fail. And once these doomed negotiations between London and Pretoria at last collapsed in an exchange of mutually unacceptable ultimatums, the war that no one in England or the Transvaal had ever really wanted was no longer a possibility, but a fact.

Boer siege of Ladysmith, 1900
At the point in "The Boer War" that peace gives way to war, the pace of events noticeably accelerates and Pakenham's narrative perfectly reflects this change in tempo with a carefully-detailed, but surprisingly gripping description of the three main phases of the conflict: the initial surprise Boer invasions of British Natal and the Cape Colony and their encirclements and sieges (complete with heavy artillery) of thousands of British troops; the bloody counteroffensive by General Redvers Buller and Field Marshal Lord Roberts to relieve the surrounded British garrisons at Kimberly, Mafeking, and Ladysmith, followed by the successful British drives to capture the two Boer capitals, Pretoria and Bloemfontien; and finally, the protracted (two year long) guerrilla war by the Boers against their British occupiers, led by an increasingly desperate and ruthless General Lord Kitchener. Pakenham concludes his account with an unflinching, but even-handed look at the conduct of the two sides during the conflict, and at both the short-term and long-term devastation that their actions brought to much of South Africa. Finally, the author examines the tremendous toll in human suffering, levied against both belligerents and non-belligerents alike by this completely unnecessary conflict.

General Redvers Henry Buller
"The Boer War", I should hasten to note before proceeding any farther, is, based on my own previous reading on the subject, a very original assessment of the three year clash between the British Empire and the Afrikaaners of the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State. This is not to say that there is not a lot in this work that those who are knowledgeable about the conflict will recognize; however, along with the familiar events and characters that one usually associates with the Second Boer War, the author also presents new facts — gleaned from hitherto untapped sources — and raises intriguing questions that, for one reason or another, have largely been ignored by previous writers. Thus, Pakenham puts forward new evidence which seems to — in large measure, at least — rehabilitate the reputation of British General Redvers Buller, while, at the same time, also demolishing that of General George Stuart White (VC), the so-called hero of Ladysmith. In addition, the author shows, in painstaking detail, how a relatively minor dispute over the political rights of foreigners in the Transvaal was manipulated by a small group of conspirators, led by Britain's senior colonial officer in the Cape Colony, to bring about — through a propaganda campaign in the English press, and false, misleading, and overly-optimistic reports to the British Colonial Office — a war that (for those at the center of the conspiracy) had only two goals: the seizure — by British force of arms, if necessary — of the territory of the independent Boer republics, and, equally important, the complete destruction of the Boer culture. And Pakenham doesn't stop there. In addition to reevaluating the roles of the major players in this tragedy, the author also reexamines a number of other widely-held assumptions about the Second Boer War and, in more than a few instances, comes to very different conclusions than those of previous writers on the conflict.

British artillery, Second Boer War
One of the most interesting (and controversial) points raised in Pakenham's book surfaces fairly early on when he addresses the influence of the Transvaal's astonishing mineral wealth (and those Englishmen who controlled it) on relations between the British government and Pretoria. This is hardly a trivial consideration and, not surprisingly, in the eyes of many historians, it tends to both cast a shadow over other important political factors and to place British actions (and motives) in the immediate lead-up to the war in a particularly unfortunate light. The basic facts surrounding the persistently uneasy relations between the Boers and the English, as anyone who is even vaguely aware of the history of southern Africa will know, are fairly straight forward. Nonetheless, a bit of background is still, I think, probably useful.

Christiaan  de Wet
Boer guerrilla leader
As a reasonable starting point, it should be noted that the Transvaal Republic of 1899 was still a relatively new country: it had been carved out of southern Africa a few generations before by a band of independent-minded descendants of 17th century Dutch, French, and German colonists (mainly Calvinists) who had trekked north away from the British Cape Colony, starting in the 1830's, in order to escape what they viewed as the increasingly onerous burden of British colonial rule; once these Vortrekers had found suitable land — first along the northeastern coast, and later in the interior west of the Tugela River — they settled, and after a series of bloody clashes with the Africans who were (inconveniently) already living in the areas they sought to claim, the Vortrekers succeeded in driving off or subjugating the region's native inhabitants (mainly Zulus) and then proceeded to establish farms and small settlements in their newly-appropriated homeland. As time passed, the Afrikaaner burghers (farmers) who had survived the "Great" Trek prospered, and, within a generation of their arrival, the countryside around their widely-scattered family farms had became home to herds of cattle, horses, and sheep. However, by 1899, the Transvaal was no longer just a nation of independent burghers, it was also the site of something that was of enormous interest to the rest of the world: a staggeringly large deposit of gold ore. Ironically, this vast mineral wealth was a relatively recent complication when it came to relations between the Boers and the British government: only a few years before the political crisis between England and the South African Republic finally came to a head, the world's largest gold discovery had been found in 1886 at a site known as the Witwatersrand (the "white water ridge"; called the "Rand gold reef", for short) located a mere sixty miles from Pretoria. The discovery of this huge gold deposit was both a blessing and a curse to the Boers of the Transvaal: a blessing because it suddenly made the Republic of South Africa the richest territory in the entire region; a curse because the native Boers — who, it should be remembered, were mainly involved with tending to their homesteads — had neither the technological know-how nor the financial where-with-all required to conduct the modern capital-intensive, industrialized mining operations that the Rand gold deposit required. Faced with this dilemma, the government in Pretoria had little choice but to open up the borders of the Transvaal to large-scale foreign immigration; the result of this influx of mainly British uitlanders (Afrikaaner for foreigners) was that, by 1899, male uitlanders of voting age had already come to outnumber their Boer counterparts by almost two-to-one. For the government in Pretoria — and also for the fiercely-nationalistic Transvaal burghers in the countryside who, it should be remembered, traced their African roots back almost two hundred and fifty years and who also, for ethnic and religious reasons, considered themselves to be a "chosen" people — the possibility that these newly-arriving interlopers, purely on the basis of their numbers, might gain a dominant voice in Transvaal political affairs was totally unacceptable. The solution to this problem, at least from the standpoint of the Boers, was obvious: the uitlanders could live and work in the Transvaal, but they would not be permitted to participate, either by voting or by standing for office, in the political life of the country until they had lived in the South African Republic for a set number of years. The burghers of the Transvaal had already fought one war with England to preserve their independence, they were not about to surrender their country and their sovereignty because of the ballot box. Unbeknownst to Pretoria, however, this uitlander residency requirement would provide the perfect opening for the determined and clever Sir Alfred Milner to set about the secret machinations that, in the end, he hoped would finally and permanently bring the Boer republics under British control. And in spite of the many obstacles that lay before him, Sir Alfred was convinced that, in the end, he would succeed where, only a little more than a decade and a half before, his predecessors had failed.

General Jacobus Herculaas "Koos" de la Rey,
"Lion of the West"
To be fair, British plans to annex the Boer republics did not originate with the politically-devious Sir Alfred Milner. Relations between the Boers and the British had been troubled ever since the Napoleonic Wars when English colonial ambitions in southern Africa first began to encroach on Boer territory and interests. In 1877, England had made its first serious attempt to force the Transvaal — and, as it turned out, its stubbornly uncooperative inhabitants — to submit to British Colonial rule; at the time, the presence of large numbers of British immigrants within the borders of the South African Republic had not been a problem because, for all intents and purposes, there were none. Hence, in the lead-up to this, the first real clash between the citizens of the recently-established Transvaal and the English, the Afrikaaners of the South African Republic faced only an external threat. And this external threat the Boers met with all the hubris one might expect from a race of "chosen" people: they went to war — in spite of the enormous disparity between the military and economic power of the two sides — with the British Empire. Much to the surprise of the English, the result of this initial British "land grab" was the First Boer War (1880-81) which abruptly ended when the fast-moving militia forces of the Transvaal Republic (the men of the Boer commandos, it should be noted, were almost always "mounted" like light cavalry units, but, with very few exceptions, dismounted to fight from cover as infantrymen) inflicted a decisive defeat on regular British army troops in the Battle Majuba Hill. When word of this humiliating setback reached White Hall, the then British prime minister, Gladstone, decided it was time to end the war. To his credit, Gladstone refused — against the advice of some in his cabinet — to invest more British lives and treasure in a conflict that seemingly had no other aim than to annex a tract of African territory that was of no real strategic importance to England, and that was considered — even by its inhabitants — to be suitable only for farming, and as grazing land for livestock. In the peace treaty that followed the end of hostilities, the Boers allowed the British a few minor face-saving concessions, but the end result of the conflict was that England was forced to recognize the independence and sovereignty of both the Transvaal and its sister Boer republic, the Orange Free State.

Paul Kruger
Eighteen years later, things had become a lot more complicated for all concerned: the enormous wealth that was now being extracted daily from the Rand mines — whether a major influence on British colonial policy or not — could certainly be pointed to, by those hostile to English interests, as having had the power, in 1899, to significantly alter the "peace-versus-war" calculus confronting the British government in London, both in the person of the head of the British Colonial Office, Joseph Chamberlain, and in that of the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury. This deeply cynical view of British motives — particularly prevalent among several of Britain's continental rivals — was in no way ameliorated by the obvious intransigence of the president of the South African Republic, Paul Kruger, who, when it came to accommodating renewed British efforts to meddle in the internal affairs of the Transvaal, was prickly, undiplomatic, and unyielding. This time around, however, the British Colonial Office labored to give the appearance, at least, of representing the interests of the British citizens who were presently living under Boer rule. Thus, the official excuse for Britain's newest quarrel with the Boers had to do with the already alluded to second-rate political status of the tens of thousands of mainly British uitlanders who now lived and worked in and around the rapidly-growing mining town of Johannesburg. As is often the case in these matters, both sides had a certain amount of justification for their contrary positions.

Afrikanneer commandos
Originally, the Boers had stipulated that foreigners who resided (without interruption) in the Transvaal republic for seven years would be granted full voting rights; however, as more and more uitlanders continued to flood into the Transvaal, Pretoria — quite understandably, given the large number of foreigners now living and working within the borders of the republic — increased the residency requirement to fifteen years. Given that this change in requirements, in retrospect, seems a rather flimsy reason for the Boer republics and England to go to war, and because of the clumsy and largely ineffectual political intrigues of the foreign mine owners (known at the time as the "Gold Bugs"), and the bombastic and reckless statements of the gold and diamond magnate, Cecil Rhodes, the purely economics-based desire to gain physical possession of the Rand gold fields has been cited by any number of post-war historians as, at the very least, an important consideration in England's push to gain control of the Transvaal. [One reason, it should be noted, for Boer skepticism regarding British intentions — and for Kruger's stubbornness in his dealings with the Colonial Office, as well — was the disastrously-botched Jameson Raid of 1895 by 600 British irregulars — mainly colonial policemen — which apparently had been intended by its supporters (undoubtedly the gold bugs, Rhodes, and a few British colonial officials in the Cape Colony) to trigger a large-scale revolt against the Transvaal government by the uitlanders in Johannesburg; instead of an uprising in Johannesburg, however, the raid ended with the anticlimactic and largely bloodless capture of the entire British column and their humiliating parade into captivity by the triumphant burghers who had rounded-up and disarmed them. Needless-to-say, this embarrassing debacle did nothing to improve relations between the justifiably suspicious Boers and the British colonial authorities who seemingly were again bent on seizing control of Boer lands.] This conclusion, although both enticingly plausible and popular, is, according to Pakenham, really overblown; instead, he convincingly argues that, while it is easy to make a superficial case that Transvaal gold was a major contributing factor in the lead-up to the war, the British-owned mines actually had very little to do with pushing England and the Boers into an armed clash with each other. The real blame for the Second Boer War, according to the author, can largely be laid at the feet of one man: Sir Alfred Milner, who, in 1899, was the High Commissioner of South Africa and the Lieutenant-Governor of the Cape Colony. And besides working tirelessly, if surreptitiously, to draw the two countries into war with each other, Milner was also a man with an unshakable faith in his own judgment, and an unwavering view of what the future of the British Empire should one day look like.

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
Alfred Milner's life is, as Pakenham describes it, a story that could be taken from a Horatio Alger novel. Although born a commoner whose middleclass family (his English father was a physcian and university lecturer, and his mother was the daughter of a British army officer) had neither money nor important connections, Milner, by virtue of his academic brilliance, his capacity for hard work, and his personal charm managed to gain entrance into Oxford, where, besides continuing to excel as a scholar, he was also able to establish lasting friendships with a number of other rising stars who, unlike their middleclass but charming fellow Oxfordian, all did have both money and useful connections. The relationships that Milner carefully cultivated at Oxford with many of the "best and brightest" of British society — among his friends he would be able to count several future prime ministers, Joseph Chamberlain, who would one day be head of the British Colonial Office, and a number of other future senior ministers and government officials — led him, although he was qualified to practice law, to try several different professions when he finally left the halls of academe. After bumping around in one position after another — including a brief stint as a journalist during which he made valuable contacts that would serve him well later — and an unsuccessful try for a seat in Parliament, the young Oxfordian finally entered government service where, as might be expected given his abilities, he prospered. After serving successfully under various ministers, Milner finally moved from the Inland Revenue to the Colonial Office; and here, at last, he found his true calling. A committed imperialist (if not a "jingoist") right down to his bones, Milner saw, as he moved from one government posting to another, what he believed to be clear signs of a British Empire in decline; an empire, in fact, desperately in need of cultural renewal and political reinvigoration. It is unclear, according to Pakenham, exactly when Milner decided that it was his private, if grandiose mission to rescue the British Empire (he was, after all, nothing if not supremely self confident), but his time in Egypt seems to have been when he settled on the final outlines of his personal plan to retrieve the fortunes of the British Empire from the depredations of domestic politics and the waning enthusiasm for global empire of the British public.

Battle of Spion Kop
Milner's plan to save the British Empire from itself, and to guarantee its lasting place in the world, rested on his belief that Britain's colonial holdings should really be divided, administratively and politically, into two very different parts; these were: the "colored" British territories mainly in Africa, the Middle East, India, and the Orient; and the "white" colonies which included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, with a little bit of pruning, the Cape Colony and the territories occupied by the Boer republics. The "colored" territories because of racial, religious, and cultural factors, Milner believed, could never be incorporated into a "Greater" England; the "white" colonies, on the other hand, might, with careful tending, be brought into a political and economic collaboration with Britain as close as that which linked Wales and Cornwall to English national life. The problem that Milner perceived, according to Pakenham, was the deep-rooted and fiercely-nationalistic cultural identity of the Boers. Although white, the Boers were, in Milner's view, in every other way as foreign to British political culture and national proclivities as the 17th century Dutch, French, and German settlers from whom they were descended. The key to his plan for a "Greater England", therefore, was the total destruction of Boer culture and its replacement by that of Britain. Thus, argues Pakenham, when Sir Alfred Milner finally arrived to take up his post in the Cape Colony, he was a man with a mission; and that mission did not auger well for peace between the Boer republics and England.

Boer cavalryman
In spite of the carefully orchestrated machinations of Milner and his loyal confederates in England, virtually nothing came off as expected. Quite the contrary: instead of the Boers either capitulating to London's demands when faced with the certainty of war or, alternatively, conducting a few half-hearted skirmishes against British forces and then abandoning the fight to return to their farms, the Second Boer War opened with a very different, and for Milner in the Cape and the leaders of the government watching events unfold from their distant vantage point in England, completely unexpected set of major British reverses. For starters, instead of passively sitting on the defensive waiting for the British army to get around to invading their territory, the burghers of the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State, as soon it had become obvious that war with the British Empire could no longer be avoided, mobilized their volunteer militia forces and struck first — before the British troops in Natal and the Cape Colony could be further reinforced — by invading, with columns of horsemen, British Natal and the Cape Colony in October, 1899. And, although certainly taken by surprise, England's political and military leaders — again thanks, at least partly, to the comforting assurances of Sir Alfred — were initially unworried by these early incursions by Boer commandos (volunteer cavalry units with elected officers) into British territory. Instead, both the prime minister and his cabinet in England, and the British War Office confidently expected the war to be brought to a successful conclusion before Christmas of 1899. On its face, with or without Milner's misleading and overly-optimistic communiques to his friend, Joe Chamberlain, the head of the Colonial Office, this was probably a reasonable assumption. Given the limited resources available to the Boers — an enemy with virtually no standing army — both Whitehall and the British high command were confident that this would be a "small" inexpensive war, and that it would end in a quick, relatively bloodless victory: after all, the mighty British Empire with its millions of subjects faced an enemy population composed mainly of widely-dispersed farmers and their families who (counting all of the Boers living in both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, as well as those living under British rule in Natal and the Cape Colony) probably numbered fewer than 200,000 souls, in total.

Grenadier Guards, photo Life Magazine
Of course, what was forgotten by both Britain's political and military leaders was that the British army had fought only one European-style military force since the Napoleonic Wars (Russia during the Crimean War); moreover, the army had, for reasons of economy, been allowed to deteriorate, both in terms of its total manpower, and in terms of its overall combat effectiveness. [Famously, and only a few years before the outbreak of the Boer War, Lord Woolsey, then head of the British army, is said to have been asked by Queen Victoria as to the condition of her army; Woolsey, somewhat embarrassed by the Queen's unexpected query, is said to have replied that the British Army's situation was not good, and that, were it to be called upon to fight on the continent, he doubted very much that the Queen's troops could presently prevail against those of even a second-rate European power. Queen Victoria's reaction to this shockingly unexpected news, although unrecorded, can probably be guessed.] In any case, the enemy that England now faced was very different from the militarily backward combatants it had confronted in the previous century. Quite the contrary, in October of 1899, the British army found itself opposed by a large Boer civilian-based militia force which initially numbered as many as 54,000 men (but which, by the war's end, would enlist a total of 87,000 men thanks to an influx of foreign volunteers and Afrikaaners from British Natal and Cape Colony). Moreover, virtually all the Boer volunteers were well-mounted on their own horses, while the British forces actually in South Africa when hostilities began were predominantly made up of infantry. Even worse, unlike the poorly-armed natives that the British army was accustomed to fighting, the Boers were well-equipped with magazine-fed Mauser rifles, millions of rounds of ammunition, and modern artillery; moreover, and perhaps most important of all, the Boers — inspired both by their religious faith and their history — were prepared to suffer heavy casualties and to endure extreme hardship in order to preserve their independence and their way of life in the face of what they perceived as naked British aggression.

Indian Ambulance Corps,
Mohandas Gandi, middle row 5th from left
Any story about war, in the end, is a story about people. And the cast of characters that emerges from Pakenham's narrative is both fascinating and, on occasion, even surprising. The central character in this narrative, Sir Alfred Milner, has already been discussed. But there are other important characters in this story as well — some of these individuals were important; some were merely famous (Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Winston Churchill, and even Mohandas Gandhi all played their own, often unusual, parts in the conflict); some, whether intending to or not, played the role of villains; and some, in spite of everything, became heroes — but Pakenham succeeds in bringing them all to life in the course of his chronicle. And since "The Boer War" is mainly a military history, a good place to start is with the commanders and the soldiers of the two opposing armies.

Field Marshal Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts
portrait by John Singer Sargent
In the case of the British army, virtually no general — except, perhaps, for Redvers Buller and the cavalry division's commander, General French — escapes blistering and, based on the evidence presented, well-deserved criticism from the author. The senior British commanders in southern Africa who ran the war, initially Lord Roberts, and then his successor, the "Hero of Khartoum", Lord Kitchener, both come across as callous and surprisingly unsympathetic individuals. Moreover, and somewhat unexpectedly, neither man was content with his military lot. Thus, although the Second Boer War was the only truly large-scale European-style conflict in which either career soldier ever commanded troops, both generals hated the war in South Africa and couldn't wait to exit the scene. Lord Roberts, eager to leave the problems of the war behind him, considered his duty in Africa done before the end of the first year of fighting and turned over command of the army, in the spring of 1900, to an unhappy (and deeply frustrated) Kitchener pretty much as soon as both Boer capitals and the Rand mines had been placed under British control, and the Boer army — at least, as a conventional fighting force — had abandoned the field. [In his eagerness to depart for England, Lord Roberts seemed to have borrowed a page from the Roman Emperor Claudius who, after landing in "Britannia" with his army and winning a minor skirmish against a band of naked, paint-covered natives almost two millennia earlier, turned to his senior general and informed him: "Now that that's done, I must return to Rome; you can conquer the rest."]

Field Marshal Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener,
Lord Kitchener's unhappy fate, it turned out, was to command British forces in South Africa after conventional military operations had ended. However, rather than overseeing the uneventful mopping-up of a few small bands of isolated Boer dead-enders, the "Hero of Khartoum" instead found himself embroiled in a new kind of fight with an enemy who, besides still numbering in the tens of thousands, had chosen to abandon conventional battlefield tactics in favor of a campaign of protracted "guerrilla" war. What all this actually meant in military terms was that, instead of continuing to fight for fixed geographical objectives as they had in the past, the highly mobile Boer commandos switched their operations to raiding British supply depots and convoys in the occcupied territories, to destroying rear area telegraph communications and raillines, to capturing isolated work parties and garrisons, and even to attacking the very British mounted patrols that were attempting to root them out. This difficult and complicated new phase in the conflict would, in the eyes of many observers, forever tarnish Kitchener's military reputation because of the measures — some of which had actually first been inaugurated by his predecessor — he ultimately adopted in his desperate attempt to quickly quash Boer resistance. Thus, to hasten the end the war, Kitchener ordered the wholesale burning of Boer farms, the mass slaughter of their livestock (and occasionally, that of nearby native villagers), the poisoning of wells, ponds, and streams with dead animal carcasses, and — perhaps most troubling of all — the establishment of a system of squalid, unsanitary concentration camps (ultimately 34 in all) in which Afrikaneer women and children and displaced blacks were interned. [Interestingly, Milner opposed the creation of the camps on the grounds that the Boer civilians, having been rendered homeless and destitute, should either be forced to join the guerillas for protection or, alternatively, should be left to make their own way without any assistance from the British.]Sadly, but not unexpectedly, some "Tommys" (British soldiers) and even some of their officers threw themselves into this ghastly and destructive work with relish; others, however, were both repulsed and ashamed of the actions that their superiors demanded from them, and would carry intense feelings of personal guilt with them long after the war had ended.

General Louis Botha, later first
Prime Minister of South Africa
Pakenham's narrative, while unflinching in its look at the actions of the British army, is no less so when it comes to its appraisal of the Afrikaaners. Hence, in the author's view, Boer military leaders such as Christiaan de Wet, Koos de la Ray, and Louis Botha, although personally courageous, audacious, and even creative in their conduct of military operations — especially during the long and bitterly-fought guerrilla phase of the war — were, like some of their British counterparts, also guilty of indefensible moral lapses, particularly when it came to their dealings with native Blacks. Virulently racist in their cultural views and mistrustful of their fellow Africans (particularly the Zulus) because of the long history of conflict between the two peoples, the Boer commanders and the burghers who rode and fought under them repeatedly seized whole herds of cattle (the natives' main source of livelihood) from noncombatant black villagers and killed anyone who attempted to resist. In addition, any unarmed Black laborers or wagon drivers who were perceived to be assisting the British were summarily shot if captured; although the Boers claimed, throughout the war, that only armed Blacks would be executed in this fashion (as if that made it all right), and that those who were unarmed would not be harmed. Nor were the depredations of the guerrilla commandos restricted exclusively to Blacks: those Boers, for example, who assisted the British, even indirectly, or who openly declared their support for an end to the war were also often the targets of violent reprisals.

Emily Hobhouse, 1902
Of course, along with the descriptions of misery, squalor, suffering, and human frailty that inevitably accompany the chronicle of any protracted and hard-fought war, the author also recounts occasional examples of compassion, steadfastness, chivalry, and even heroism. The soldiers of both sides, for instance, repeatedly demonstrated great personal courage and even gallantry in small skirmishes, at the sieges of Kimberly, Mafeking, and Ladysmith, and in major engagements such as those at the Modder River, Spion Kop, and the Tugela River. However, in Pakenham's eyes, the true heroes of the Second Boer War were not the men who actually fought the war, however brave their actions or great their sacrifices may have been, but two extraordinary, yet very different women — Emily Hobhouse (an "anti-war" Victorian version of a modern feminist who acted on her own) and Millicent Fawcett (the sufferagist head of the government's own all-women Fawcett Commission) — who, each in her own way, were instrumental in ameliorating virtually all of the worst excesses of Kitchener's policies towards the Boer civilians interned in his infamous camps. The courageous and determined actions of these two women, through their unrelenting — although initially unwelcome — efforts to awaken public opinion and the popular press to the "holocaust" that was occuring half way around the world, would, at long last, leave the British government no choice but to acknowledge the humanitarian catastrophe that was taking place in South Africa. [The death rate among inmates in many of Kitchener's "refugee" settlements, during this period, was so high — sometimes approaching 20% per month — that many of those forced to live in the camps believed that the British were mixing ground glass into their meager rations.] Moreover, the efforts of Hobhouse and Fawcett not only obliged the government to acknowledge the gross mistreatment of Boer civilians at British hands, but just as importantly, the actions of these women also brought pressure to bear against the Colonial Office and the War Office to take immediate and strong measures — over the protests of both Milner and Lord Kitchener — to improve the rations, sanitation, and health services provided in the camps. Thus it was that, with Emily Hobhouse and Millicent Fawcett on one side, and an increasingly outraged British public on the other, the government at last moved decisively: both the commander of British forces in South Africa and the resident Colonial service were ordered to immediately improve the rations, sanitation, and health services of the camps; in addition, scores of doctors and nurses were dispatched from England with no other mission than to bring an end to the rampant disease that was decimating the already starving residents of Kitchener's camps. Within weeks, these various measures — along with a halt, it should be noted, in the army's transport of new internees to the camps — began to yield their first promising results and, in only a few short months, the number of deaths in the camps started to plummet; a trend that continued to accelerate until, by the war's end, the mortality rate among Boer internees had dropped so much that it was actually lower than that of the outside population.

Millicent Fawcett
The Second Boer War would ultimately drag on for thirty-three months, and would require 365,693 Imperial and 82,742 Colonial troops to finally defeat the greatly-outnumbered Boers. Moreover, besides being the most expensive war waged by England since its protracted campaign to topple Napoleon almost a century before, the Second Boer war would also cost the lives of at least 22,000 men (from battlefield injuries, disease, and the near-criminal neglect and malpractice of the British army's appalling inept medical services), inflict untold suffering and casualties (at least, but probably far more than the 12,000 deaths of official records) on the native Black populations living in the Boer Republics and British Natal, and, for those of us for whom such things matter, pointlessly waste (that is: cause the unnecessary deaths of) over 400,000 military horses, mules, and donkeys, due to the incompetence and callous stupidity of Britain's senior military commanders in South Africa. [As an especially melancholy postscript to this episode, virtually every cavalryman and artilleryman, whether an officer, an NCO, or an ordinary trooper was mortified, and many were deeply affected for years to come, by this obscene waste of well-trained and, in the main, irreplaceable cavalry mounts and artillery horses. In fact, General French, the commander of the single British Cavalry Division operating in southern Africa, personally petitioned the supreme commander of British forces, Lord Roberts, in the hopes that his newly-arriving horses and mules might be allowed time to become accustomed to the African climate, and that they might also be allowed time for reconditioning after their long sea voyages. Lord Roberts, unfortunately, was utterly unmoved by French's heartfelt and militarily sensible appeal; but then, given Roberts' seeming total disinterest in the welfare of the soldiers under his command, this was probably to be expected.]

Boer farmers' house being burned at Verskroeide Aarde
The devastation brought by the war to both the native African and the Boer farming cultures (mainly, but not exclusively, at the hands of the British), particularly in the Transvaal, was truly horrific. Both Boer and Zulu societies were largely based on livestock (mainly cattle), and, by war's end, as many as two million head of cattle, horses, and sheep had perished as a direct result of the war. In addition, Roberts' and then Kitchener's "scorched earth" policy towards the widely-separated Boer homesteads left most of these farms as burned-out ruins; many never to be reoccupied, even years after the war. As part of a post-war settlement of civilian claims against the Army for damages, hundreds of thousands of pounds were ultimately paid out by the British government to Boer claimants; even in this instance, however, the non-combatant Black victims of the war who came forward to file for restitution were shabbily treated and typically paid only a fraction of the sums that went to their white counterparts. In one sense, it could even be said that, instead of the British colonial administration in southern Africa liberalizing and improving the lives of the Queen's new Black and colored subjects, it actually ended up adopting and then institutionalized many of the worst racial practices of the Boers. This is, perhaps, the saddest and most ironic political outcome of a war that should never have been fought in the first place.

African in internment camp
Since "The Boer War" is first and foremost a military history — along with its graceful prose, its wonderfully-detailed research, and its sheer originality — it also contains a modest collection of useful, if not overly-detailed maps, provided so that the reader can easily visualize the geographical settings of the major military actions described by the author in the book. A few more maps might have been helpful, but those included seem adequate to their task. In addition, Pakenham's work is illustrated with a large number of nicely-rendered photographic plates, many of which, although I have read other works on this subject, I had never encountered before.

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
As a biographical post script: Pakenham's personal background — which I did not learn about until after I had finished reading his book on the Second Boer War — is interesting in its own right. As a graduate of Oxford, Pakenham's educational background is actually quite similar to that of any number of other British writers, historical and otherwise; and the fact that he spent his early post-university years as a reporter is also fairly commonplace among successful authors on both sides of the Atlantic; however, his upbringing and ancestry are, even for an upper-class English author, a bit unusual. For starters, Pakenham — although he never uses the title —is the 8th Earl of Longford (a combined English and Irish peerage) and does most of his writing ensconced in the family seat, a centuries old castle in Ireland. [Besides being a prize-winning historical writer, Pakenham is, somewhat surprisingly, also a passionate "arborist" and is currently the chairman of the Irish Tree Society.] Given this background, it is, perhaps, not uncharitable to acknowledge that Thomas Pakenham has been blessed in several different ways. Certainly, when it comes to writing, talent is helpful and Pakenham clearly has that, but talent accompanied by a bit of money is even better; especially when it comes to historical scholarship. In the case of "The Boer War", Pakenham spent eight years researching and writing his study of this little-understood conflict; part of that time was spent in South Africa checking primary sources. In addition, to make sure that he could make proper use of the extensive non-English language materials that his research turned up, Pakenham hired tutors to help him attain fluency in both written Dutch and Afrikaans. As a final somewhat interesting note, the author is not the only member of his aristocratic family with a literary bent: most of his siblings are also recognized writers, either of prose or of poetry, including the well-known historian, Lady Antonia Fraser.


  • I got this book when it was first published through the old and much better History Book Club.
    I thought it the best of the Boar War books that I own and one I still go back and read every once and awhile

  • Forgot to mention that when I said I got the book when first published that was copy righted in 1979 and by Random House( not the 1999 Folio Society edition)

    LoL-And mine might be a collector's item(or just a sloppy made book).The Hardbound is upside down from what's printed inside. So everytime I read the book I have to remember to turn the book upside down so the inside is rightside up.

    I did by another copy soon after I got this first copy but it's the one I seem to grab everytime ;)

  • Greetings Kim:

    Yes, pakenham's work is truly a superb bit of historical writing which I rank right up there with the best work of John Keegan and David Chandler.

    By the way, the edition that I actually used for this review was the 1979 edition, like yours.

    Best Regards, Joe

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