enthusiast on the Boer War recently commented on one of my blog articles, a
posting in which I mentioned the sheer lunacy of Kruger et al opting to attack the British Empire. His remarks basically
suggested that, by my describing these actions thus, I was guilty of dismissing
Kruger and his gaggle as ignorant back-veldt Boers who had foolishly plunged
the republics into an unwinnable war. As I have the utmost respect for the
gentleman who made this comment, I thought I’d explore this point a little more
Firstly, and while the likes of F.W. Reitz and Jan Smuts were certainly well-educated men, it is undeniable that Kruger was indeed an ignorant, back-veldt Boer. Indeed, if anything, the President wore his gold-plated ignorance as a badge of honour, and the republic he headed was essentially an Old Testament, Christian fundamentalist state. Though it is perhaps difficult for us to understand, appreciate, and accept this in the early 21st Century, Kruger believed absolutely in the Divine Right of the Afrikaners, ludicrously considering them to be God’s chosen people. One who witnessed this utter lunacy at first hand recalled:
‘The President really believes, and has always believed, that the Boers are the chosen people of the Old Testament, to whom the people of Ham should be servants, and that they are promised the annexing of the Promised Land.’[i]
Similarly, a member of the Orange Free State Volksraad wrote that Kruger:
‘…made the burghers believe that he was a prophet who, like Moses, was the means of communication between God and his chosen people. This is literally true. In the earlier days, he often vanished for long periods, and [when] he came back, he made the people believe that he had been communicating with God. It was absolutely believed by the burghers that Kruger, who was in Heidelberg at the time—100 miles from the scene—knew the result of the battle of Majuba on the very morning on which it was fought!’[ii]
Kruger’s religious fanaticism was such that the miserable old dinosaur even turned down an invitation to a ball by giving the excuse that balls were services of Baal, and God had commanded Moses of old to exterminate all services of Baal.[iii]
And as is to be expected, absolute ignorance went hand-in-hand with this religious fanaticism. Kruger proudly made it known that the only book he had ever read was the Bible and, despite having travelled to Europe on several occasions, he died firmly believing that the Earth was flat: hardly a suitable man to lead any nation into the 20th century. And Kruger was not alone in his outlook: when, prior to the war, English-speaking residents of Johannesburg fired rockets at clouds hoping to prompt a badly needed rain storm, the ruling Boer elite were furious. These devil-dodging Calvinists declared that the experiment was ‘…a defiance of God and would most likely bring down a visitation from the Almighty’.[iv]
A Meneer Wolmarans was particularly outraged at such heresy and declared to the Volksraad that if any of his children fired a revolver at a cloud, he would thrash the child for mocking the Almighty.[v]
Indeed, the Transvaal Volksraad was the crucible for this small-minded nonsense. Kruger himself led a (successful) opposition to the introduction of pillar-boxes on the truly surreal grounds that they were ‘extravagant and effeminate’,[vi] while a proposal to formalize a register for births, deaths, and marriages was comprehensively rejected for being ‘an attack on religious principles’. Other Luddite Volksraad members similarly spoke out against the introduction of railways and trams.[vii] As mentioned earlier, there were undoubtedly others with keener intellects, but over the years, wide-eyed Volksraad zealots earnestly deliberated over such matters as whether or not certain words were real if they could not be found in the Bible, the importance of defining the shape and size of neckties, establishing a monopoly to supply jam, and outlawing barmaids.[viii]
The Volksraad’s reaction to a plague of locusts that caused devastation in the Transvaal is instructive. The members generally agreed that it was the work of God and several declared it a sin to try and combat it. One country-bumpkin even announced that rinderpest and locusts were God’s way of punishing the decadence of the growing English-speaking community in Johannesburg, declaring: ‘in former years, before these people and the goldfields were known, there were no plagues.’[ix]
As the debate raged on, another sagely advised that the only way to end the plague was to repent one’s sins, while yet another announced:
‘Everybody knew that locusts were a punishment from the hand of God. They had been away from our country for a long time, and there were reasons for their return. If members read their Bibles, they would know this.’[x]
Another told a fanciful tale about a man whose farm had been spared until the day he had killed a locust. Immediately thereafter, his farm was devastated by the plague.[xi]
Equally astounding was what happened when a deputation of Johannesburg-based Jews, headed by a Dr Hertz, met with Kruger to plead for educational and religious freedoms. The President dismissed them out of hand, informing the delegation that, while the Jews were the descendants of Ishmael, the Boers were the direct descendants of Isaac[xii] and it would therefore be against scripture for both ‘tribes’ to live together in harmony.
And the notion of the Boers being God’s ‘Chosen People’ who – aided, no doubt, by thunderbolts flung from the Heavens by the Almighty – would effortlessly scythe their way through the British weaklings was widespread. One of his contemporaries described how President Steyn of the Orange Free State: ‘commenced the war with a firm trust in God, and the most gross negligence’.[xiii] Deneys Reitz, who later wrote a brilliant account of the conflict, lamented ‘…our leaders underestimated the magnitude of the task on which they were embarked’.
The Austrian traveller, Count Sternberg, who had arrived in the region to fight for the Boers described how: ‘The Transvaaler, accustomed to fight against natives, welcomed the war; for them it was more sport than anything’.
Sternberg enjoyed access to many of the most senior Boer leaders and even prior to his departure from Europe, he had met Dr Leyds in Brussels remembering him to be ‘quite confident, relying mainly on the inevitable European intervention’[xiv]—this despite his repeated warnings to Pretoria that no such help would be forthcoming. If the calm and urbane Dr Leyds was only ‘quite confident’, others were much more so. On his arrival in the Transvaal the Count met F.W. Reitz and recalled that he had ‘no doubt as to the final victory of the Boers, of which he was so convinced that he would not even allow the possibility of the fortunes of war changing’.[xv] Other, more lowly, Transvaal Boers shared this conviction and the Count remarked that the outbreak of the war had been greeted with great enthusiasm by many who had no doubt that they would ultimately be successful.[xvi] Others were so confident of an easy victory that they bragged they were not going to wash until they reached the Indian Ocean, or even Cape Town. There was a ‘feeling rampant in young Transvaal that they would sweep the British into the sea and compel the officials at Cape Town to speak Cape Dutch’.[xvii]
Maydon, in his book about French’s Cavalry Campaign, observed how:
‘The Dutch patriot had conceived the notion of stepping into an Empire readymade, which was dropping from the feeble hands of a race emasculated by wealth and an unchallenged possession of the earth’.[xviii]
and, furthermore, that:
‘Each man also was actuated by a strong contempt for his foe, in part due to the easy victory achieved in 1881; in part due to the hasty concession of freedom’.[xix]
One observer recalled that in the Transvaal: ‘…the people were not only perfectly willing to go to war, but that they absolutely wished for it… [one Boer told him] “We look on fighting the English as a picnic. In some of the Kaffir wars we had a little trouble, but in the Vryheids Oorlog [the first Boer War] we simply potted the Rooineks as they streamed across the veldt in their red jackets, without the slightest danger to ourselves.” They had the utmost contempt for Tommy Atkins and his leaders, many of them bragging that the only thing that deterred them from advocating war instanter was the thought that they would have to kill so many of the soldiers, with whom individually they said there was no quarrel.’[xx]
A resident of Bethal remembered his fellow townsmen’s similar pre-war boast:
‘One of us shall drive three score, and five a thousand drive …’[xxi]
This supreme arrogance was again in evidence when the Bethal Commando mustered and rode out to the front. After offering prayers, the Commando
‘…rode out in the early morning, in all kinds of clothes, with saddlebags slung over the front of their saddles, all full of hope and big talk of driving the Rooineks into the sea.’[xxii]
The veteran war correspondent, Bennet Burleigh, shared a train compartment with men of the Middelburg Commando as they headed excitedly to Natal to join the invasion. Burleigh described his travelling companions as ‘…an excellent yeoman type of burghers, the best among the Boers, simple good-hearted fellows, with a foolish belief that England was a wretched and cowardly country they could put down any day. They were going to invade Natal, eat fish in Durban, and then, if the English did not submit to be thrashed, sail over to London and finish the job! It is sorrowful to think that so few of them realized what they were under-taking.’[xxiii]
So no: it is not in any way unreasonable to describe Kruger, his inner-circle and many of his followers, as ‘ignorant, backveldt Boers’. Nor is it unreasonable to state that they jauntily embarked on their ‘Crusade’ absolutely certain both of victory, and in the righteousness of their cause. Indeed, to claim anything else would be simply to deny all the evidence.
Secondly, to point out that the Presidents of the Boer republics made a gross geopolitical miscalculation when they attacked the British Empire is hardly some sort of unspeakable insult, or outlandish utterance. Nor is it to suggest that they are the only leaders in history to have ever misjudged a situation, or over-confidently embarked on what, in hindsight, looks a completely unwinnable war.
Even in the modern era there are numerous examples of nations jauntily embarking on wars which were ludicrously ill-advised, with a good example being the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Quite how Saddam Hussein convinced himself that the World would simply let him get away with this brazen act of aggression will never be known, but it is abundantly obvious that he got it completely wrong. Similarly, and supremely convinced Britain had become a toothless tiger, President Galtieri thought nothing of plunging the tin-pot, basket-case which was Argentina into a war for the Falkland Islands – with all-too-predictable results.
One could also look at the example of America (and her allies) becoming embroiled in Vietnam in the 60’s, or the Soviet Union becoming similarly entangled in Afghanistan in the 80’s. Looking back, both interventions strike us as hopelessly ill-advised, and both dragged their nations into wars which proved to be, essentially, unwinnable.
Moving back a little further in history, World War 2 provides several examples of insane decisions. Germany’s lunatic attack on the Soviet Union proved to be perhaps the most ridiculous of all, and this despite Germany being one of the most advanced nations on the planet, blessed with ancient universities and a long history of scientific and academic excellence. It should also be remembered that, at the time, many (and not just in Germany) genuinely believed that the whole ‘rotten structure’ of the USSR would simply collapse against Germany’s ‘super human warriors’. Like Kruger’s invasions of British territory some 40 years previously, there seemed to be a deeply held conviction, not just of the righteousness of their ‘crusade’, but also in the inherent superiority of their men over those of the enemy.
Imperial Japan also exhibited outrageous hubris, and utter contempt for their ‘weak and decadent’ enemies. Despite being deeply committed to a war in China, and having been driven from Mongolia by the Soviet Union only a couple of years earlier, they rashly decided to pick a fight with both the United States, and the British Empire – at the same time. Again, the results of this harebrained plan were entirely predictable, and, for Japan, wholly devastating.
Further back in time, we have the examples of the Confederate States of American attacking the United States – a war they could never logically have hoped to win – and Napoleon’s nonsensical invasions of both Spain and Russia – both of which ended in utter disaster.
Most historians and commentators would agree that the examples listed above were strategic blunders of the first order. And yet, even though they were made by, in some cases, well-educated (or, at least, highly-cunning), national leaders, there seems to be a bizarre reluctance to accept that a similar such fatal miscalculation could possibly have been made by Kruger – a man so laughably naïve, and utterly pig-ignorant, that he truly believed the earth was flat.
Unfettered by this politically-correct reticence, however, I have no hesitation to sum up Kruger as an ‘ignorant backveldt Boer’ who completely misjudged the geopolitical situation. I also feel it is completely fair to state that, like many others throughout history, Kruger (blessed with unshakable arrogance and a quasi-lunatic conviction in Divine Intervention) recklessly plunged his people into an unwinnable war.
[i]Farrelly, p. 64
[ii] Botha, p. 18
[iii]Gordon, The Growth in Boer Opposition to Kruger, 1890–1895, p. 13
[iv]Wheatcroft, The Randlords, p. 5
[v] Fitzpatrick, p. 310
[vi]Ibid, p. 307
[vii] Gordon, p. 8
[viii] Fitzpatrick, pp. 305–11
[ix] Gordon, p. 13
[x]Ibid, p. 14
[xi] Fitzpatrick, p. 308
[xii]Biggar, The Boer War: Its Causes and Its Interest to Canadians, p. 28
[xiii]Botha, From Boer to Boer and Englishman, p. 27
[xiv]Sternberg & Henderson, p. 25
[xv]Ibid, p. 54
[xvi]Ibid, p. 56
[xvii]Farrelly, p. 266
[xviii]Maydon. French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 17
[xix]Maydon. French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 16
[xx]Scoble & Abercrombie, p. 246
[xxi]Currey, p. 133
[xxii]Ibid, p. 139
[xxiii]Burleigh, p. 4