Sir Winston Churchill famously stated his outlook as being: ‘In War, Resolution; In Defeat, Defiance; In Victory, Magnanimity; and in Peace, Good Will’. It is interesting to note the lasting impact that these very British values of ‘magnanimity in victory’ and ‘good will in peace’ have had in the way that the Boer War is viewed.
Major-General Maurice[i] was one of the most highly respected military historians of his time. Having written the official history of the 1882 Egyptian campaign, he was brought out of retirement in 1904 to oversee the writing of the History of the War in South Africa. Maurice would assemble a team of some 21 officers to assist in the mammoth, multi-year undertaking, and produced a four-volume work, together with supporting maps, which is widely regarded as the most factual and accurate account of the conflict. Indeed, this magisterial work is pretty much the ‘Bible’ for those of us who are genuinely interested in the Boer War (as opposed to those who just like to make things up).
Here is how Maurice, in a draft of the History submitted for review at the War Office, described the origins of the conflict:
The war, which these volumes record, was in nothing more remarkable than in this, that it was a contest most unwillingly waged by a great peace-loving empire against small states which, at the time when the war began, had come under the dominion of an autocracy based on an oligarchy. For many years the one purpose of the autocrat and his agents had been to organise the whole people for war. That preparation had only one object, the expulsion of British authority and the substitution for it of the autocracy as supreme throughout South Africa.[ii]
Though undoubtedly a fair, reasonable and accurate assessment of what had transpired in southern Africa in the late 1890s, this was deemed by the War Office to be insufficiently diplomatic. Fresh from commanding the British forces in South Africa after the end of the war, the newly-appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Neville Lyttleton[iii], said that by stating ‘officially to the Boers that they fought and died not for their Republic but for the personal autocracy of Mr Kruger’, Maurice was highly likely ‘to give offence to our new fellow subjects in South Africa’[iv].
Lyttleton, who had strived for good relations with the Boers after their surrender, instructed that magnanimity and political expediency should take precedence in such matters:
The political history contained in the official history of the war should be made as concise as possible and should be limited to a colourless narrative of events and conditions and that all expressions that might be regarded as of His Majesty’s Government on controversial points should be omitted. He is particularly moved to make this suggestion by his desire that nothing, which can be avoided, should be done to impede the reconciliation of races in South Africa.[v]
It is worth noting that no one at the War Office appears to have disagreed with Maurice’s summation, it is only that they thought it was something which would be best left unsaid. And so it was that the blatant culpability of Kruger’s clique – and their long-held, and widely-known, dreams of domination in southern Africa – was gently air-brushed from the Official History… and all for the sake of nation building, burying the hatchet, moving forwards, and a sense of noblesse oblige. That some modern-day historians continue this charade is rather more embarrassing and inexplicable.
Released at much the same time as Maurice’s work, the Times History of the War in South Africa, by Leo Amery[vi], had a rather different agenda, as it was partially written to help support Amery’s determination to push for reform of the army. In so doing, Amery – a journalist, not a soldier – hit a brazenly populist note, blaming any and all defeats on incompetent officers and ill-prepared troops: claims which, for whatever reason, still seem to go down well with the buying public today. As well as suiting Amery’s cause, the loss-making[vii] Times was, of course, keen to boost sales, and controversy helps. Maurice himself totally disagreed with Amery’s stance, stating in Vol.2 of the Official History: ‘It was much more popular to ignore all this [ie. historical reality] and throw the whole blame on our “ignorant generals” and our “stupid soldiers”’.[viii]
Alas, on military matters, it is largely the journalist Amery’s (biased and self-serving) version which passed into popular perception, rather than that of the professional soldier, Maurice.
Amery’s attempts to portray the British army as a gaggle of blundering buffoons, lurching from one defeat to another, is easily dispelled, and today is only believed by the most pig-headed of True Believers. But much more damage has been done with regard to the subject of culpability, however, thanks to Maurice’s comments being omitted for reasons of diplomacy and nation building. This, alas, rather left the field open for latter-day propagandists and apologists to spew out their nonsense, giving Kruger a pass and instead disingenuously blaming everything on nasty old Britain’s desire to steal gold and diamonds, and murder babies.
[i] Major-General Sir John Frederick Maurice KCB (1841–1912)
[ii] Donaldson, Remembering the South African War, p.147
[iii] General The Honourable Sir Neville Gerald Lyttelton, GCB, GCVO, PC (Ire) (1845–1931). Lyttelton had seen extensive service during the Boer War, including commanding the 4th (Rifle or Light) Brigade at Colenso, Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz, before going on to higher commands
[iv] Donaldson, Remembering the South African War, p.147
[v] Donaldson, Remembering the South African War, p.148
[vi] Leopold Charles Maurice Stennett Amery, CH (1873–1955). Amery would later serve as a Conservative MP, with appointments as First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State of the Colonies, and Secretary of State for India
[vii] The Times had made of loss of £18,498 in 1900, compared to a profit of £29,955 in 1896
[viii] Maurice, History of the War in South Africa, Vol. II, p.206