‘Reckless Statistiek’

In a recent Quora answer, someone bizarrely announced that total Boer forces during the war were just 43,000. As this is utter rubbish, I responded, informing this person that the real figure was actually about double that. He then replied to me, stating:

‘I have also had figures like 88 000 bandied about, but I am certain sure there were not that many men at arms (16 -60) on the combined muster rolls of The ZAR & the OVS. There is a lot of reckless statistiek tossed around about the Second Anglo-Boer War, as if numbers matter’.

His blasé certainty that there ‘were not that many men at arms’ in the republics is entertaining (as it is based on absolutely nothing), but more amusing still was the throwaway remark ‘as if numbers matter’.

For someone who claims to think that numbers don’t matter, he got increasingly upset when I pointed out that the numbers he claimed were all completely wrong. Perhaps what he meant is that ‘realistic numbers’ or ‘historically accurate numbers’ don’t matter, as, when it comes to the Boer War, there is a certain type of fellow who loves to throw out make-belief numbers, all for the sole purpose of perpetuating the myth of Boer martial brilliance and British military incompetence.

Thus, when this chap was caught out making up that the total Boer forces were only 43,000, and was shown that it was actually over 87,000, he didn’t miss a beat. Instead, he shifted this argument to (essentially) state that ’43,000 is still sort of accurate, because someone in his family said that the British outnumbered us 10:1, and the British ended up with more than 450,000 troops in the field, and, and, and….’

Of course, ‘something someone in his family once said’ is hardly a cast-iron reference, and the whole thrust of his (newly adopted) position can quickly be shown up for the rubbish it is in any case. The simple reality, which I pointed out to him, is that, not only is his made-up figure of ’43,000’ irrelevant, but the British did NOT end up with ‘more than 450,000 troops in the field’.

This is the figure which is always thrown about – actually, one often hears ‘half a million’ – but it is totally disingenuous. The reality is that 448,435 Imperial troops (including regulars, yeomanry, town guards, DMTs, mounted police etc) served in South Africa at some point during the war… but – and this is the point that is so often willfully ignored – not all at the same time. For much of the guerrilla war, Kitchener had less than 200,000 men in theatre, of whom only about 20,000 were available for offensive ops.

Pretending that the (allegedly) gallant bitter-einders faced ‘more than 450,000’ British troops is rather like saying that the IRA faced ‘more than 300,000’ British troops during The Troubles in Ulster. Sure, over 300,000 soldiers deployed to Northern Ireland during the course of the 30-year long counter-insurgency, but the peak deployment (as in, the most that were ever there at any one time) was only around 20,000.

But this is, alas, how discourse works when it comes to the Boer War: Defenders of the Myth™ simply make up a figure, then twist and turn when it is challenged and proven to be wrong. Then they pretend that 448,435 is ‘more than 450,000’ (hint – it isn’t: this is pretty basic arithmetic), and then they try to pretend that this many troops were all there at the same time. Indeed, they just keep saying anything at all that pops into their brain, so long as it makes the Boers look like invincible, superhuman warriors, and the British (who, let us never forget, won a guerrilla war 6000 miles from home) look like bumbling morons.

And if all that fails, one can always sweepingly declare that, when it comes to the Boer War, ‘numbers don’t matter’, and then accuse everyone else of using ‘reckless statistiek’.

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