Review of ‘Kruger’s War’
Royal United Services Institute Journal, 15th April 2018
Dr Damian O’Connor
Get into conversation with an Afrikaner in South Africa and the subject of the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) will come up, and with it the assertions. The story rarely changes: the great British imperial bully picked a fight with two peaceable, harmless, happy Boer republics to grab the Johannesburg gold mines; thousands of innocent women and children murdered in concentration camps; blundering British soldiers and bone-headed generals outclassed at every turn by the courageous Boer. But just about everything about this narrative is either misleading or wrong.
Chris Ash takes on these myths one by one and does a very good job of eviscerating them. Deploying a wide variety of contemporary sources and having the benefit of living in South Africa for 20 years, he brings a fresh pair of eyes and a lot of clear thought to the subject.
The roots of the myths are, for him, fourfold: Apartheid-era propaganda; a left-wing, anti-imperialist academic consensus; Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War; and some particularly hopeless battlefield guides. He takes them all on in a style that is at times polemic, sometimes splenetic, but packed full of good humour and common sense.
Dismissing Pakenham’s notion of ‘Milner’s War’, Ash ascribes the outbreak of war to an aggressive pan-Afrikaner nationalism determined on a republican South Africa stretching from the Zambezi to the Cape, and driven by a fundamentalist, corrupt clique of unpleasant racists led by then president of the South African Republic, Paul Kruger. He argues that British High Commissioner Alfred Milner pursued the ‘policy of firmness’ that brought on the clash only because Kruger had procrastinated and taken advantage of any other policy so he could expand the Transvaal’s borders (at the expense of Swazis, Zulus, Tswana and a host of other smaller tribes) – and pursue the ports of Natal and the Cape Colony that would finally allow him total independence from imperial restraint.
When he realised that Milner was serious and not about to give in, Kruger used the newfound gold wealth to buy in masses of weaponry, foment rebellion amongst the Cape and Natal Afrikaners, and launch an invasion of British territory in the hope of grabbing Durban and Cape Town and presenting Britain with a fait accompli. This was not, however, the view propagated by Afrikaner nationalists; look at the Afrikaans Language Monument opened in 1975 outside Paarl for an indication of how much effort went into the creation of a national myth of victimhood. Ash does not specifically claim that Pakenham was given to invention, but where many of the Apartheid-era historians are concerned, he does. The evidence in the archives that this reviewer has seen tends to back Ash’s version over Pakenham’s.
The coverage of the military aspects of the war is particularly good at restoring a sense of balance. British failings are not hushed up, but then neither are successes ignored or watered down, a feature common in many histories of the war. For example, Julian Symons spends 120 pages describing the British defeats of Black Week (when Britain suffered a series of defeats in 1899), but only fifteen going through Redvers Buller’s destruction of the Boers during the sixteen-day Battle of the Tugela Heights in 1900. Indeed, Ash contrasts the famous Black Week with the somewhat less well-known Black Month, when between mid-February and mid-March 1900, British forces comprehensively destroyed the Boer field armies. The idea that the British Army was ‘hidebound by tradition’ is also vigorously attacked, and it would take only a brief perusal of RUSI’s own history to see that Ash is on the right side of the debate here, too.
The issue of the concentration camps is tackled head on. Ash argues that they were refugee camps full of Boer families who were forced into them as much by Afrikaner Bittereinder guerrillas burning the farms of surrendered Boers as by Herbert Kitchener’s scorched earth policy. He also challenges the notion that Britain did little to address issues of neglect with some surprising testimony from the incarcerated Afrikaners themselves.
Similarly, he takes issue with Pakenham’s assertion that the only decent generals were Boer generals and points out that Piet Joubert bungled the invasion of Natal, and was roundly defeated at Talana and Elandslaagte by inferior British forces. He then threw away any chance of seizing Durban by halting outside Ladysmith, thus losing the initiative and with it the war. It was the same story in the west, where the investment of Kimberley and Mafeking were given priority over a full-blooded thrust into the Cape to bring about the popular uprising that they were planning and hoping for. In the centre, John French threw the Boer invaders back on Colesberg with half the numbers of his opponents in an area perfectly suited to the defence. Ash has a very good point here; this reviewer has driven up those Karoo roads several times and it is a miracle that French was able to maintain himself in such a hostile natural environment. For him, French is the one stand-out general of the war, alongside a whole host of regimental officers who proved themselves far superior to their rather chaotic, if equally brave, counterparts.
To the younger Boer generals, Koos de la Rey, Christiaan de Wet and Jan Smuts, Ash gives full credit, but he also points out that they were beaten more often than they won. For every supply train they pounced on, they were repulsed from several more. For every group of hapless Yeomen adrift on the veldt they captured, the British captured more Boers – 1,500 a month on average. Chapter 11 is particularly good at describing the mechanics of the counterinsurgency campaign and the regular beatings that de la Rey, de Wet and Smuts took at the hands of the not-so-hapless British soldiers in battles that Pakenham either ignored or skated over. For this reviewer, this chapter is worth the price of the book alone.
All in all, this is an important contribution and a very necessary correction to the established narrative of the Anglo-Boer War. Perhaps this is the beginning of a proper reappraisal of Britain’s imperial past. It is long overdue.