Musings on Military History by Robin Smith

My visits to battlefields these days are somewhat circumscribed for a number of reasons. Each year I debated with myself whether I should write another annual edition. My activities are principally writing articles and doing one-hour talks on various topics to any audience that will listen – some to a live audience and some by Zoom (not that the audience for the Zoom is dead!) I now have a number of published books and 18 articles in the SA Military History Journal. At this time of life I am able to read a lot more which I find particularly rewarding. Hoping that someone will read and enjoy my ramblings, here goes.

Reading the London Spectator magazine I saw an article by Michael Palin who is an occasional contributor: “I was 80 in May and am still getting used to it. I like to think nothing much has changed. It’s just another number. But on my way to buy some bananas the other day I bumped into Sylvester McCoy, the ex-Doctor from Doctor Who. He’s just become an octogenarian and said very wisely that being 80 means that at last you are old. He’s right of course. You can be a fit 70, or even a skittish 70, but no one speaks of a ‘young 80’”. That’s true in certain respects but not in all. Speaking for myself, the 80-milestone went by a few years ago. Really, there was no bump as it passed.

My military history and indeed history life has been a long journey and still continues. My first interest was Napoleon while still a schoolboy. At that time the school history syllabus was South African history, several years of the Great Trek, and world history, mostly European. The high school history syllabus is nothing like that anymore! Once out of high school there were studies to think about, earning a living and other diversions. The Anglo Boer war and its battle sites became the main interest with the Zulu war sites added later. Many evocative places to visit – Magersfontein, Spionkop, Isandlwana. But then my travels took me much further afield, to Gettysburg, Balaklava, the Somme, Normandy, Waterloo (not a complete list).

The particular aspect that came to be a passion was putting feet on the ground in places where conflict had happened. Walking the ground gives a feel for what really happened there. This hugely complements the written account of the clash, even one written by someone who was there. Some battlefield actions covered a huge expanse of ground, others took place on quite a small patch. Most of them seem to have occurred in quite scenic areas too. Key to all this is research and reading before and after the site visit. A collection of books on each campaign has been the result. It was a lot easier to bring home a box of books from foreign parts before the airlines brought in restricted luggage allowances!

I am not a specialist, I am a salesman, not a professor (if you know the old description of those two extremes). I delve quite deeply into each of the campaigns whose sites I have explored but not so deeply to have spent a lifetime on any one. I have gone backwards only as far as Napoleon and forwards to Vietnam. The 20th century was the most violent in history – the 21st has at least not seen war between the major powers. However, waging war still seems to be a constant in human behaviour.

My year began with a talk by Zoom to the South African Military History Society. The subject was The removal of General Douglas MacArthur from command in Korea 1951. The Korean War is known to many as the forgotten war and to others as the endless war. Forgotten because it dragged on for several years after the United Nations and the North Koreans began negotiations at Pamunjom to end the fighting. Endless because there was only a truce and armistice to end the fighting, no formal peace treaty between the combatants exists to this day.

General Douglas MacArthur was removed from command of the United Nations Forces in Korea on

10 April 1951. He was a five-star general and a war hero although his leadership during the Second World War was controversial. He became the de facto leader of Japan under the American occupation, responsible for reform of Japan’s political system and constitution, promotion of civil liberties, institute democratic government, and chart a new course that ultimately made Japan one of the world’s leading industrial powers. Being on the spot when war began as North Korea invaded the South on 25 June 1950, MacArthur was appointed commander of the United Nations forces that opposed the invaders. American soldiers, soft and untrained from occupation duties in Japan, performed poorly until reinforcements arrived from the U.S. and a number of other national contingents from nations supporting the U.N. resolution to resist communist aggression.

The Americans were forced back into a restricted perimeter around South Korea’s principal port, Pusan, where they held out with some difficulty. MacArthur devised what was seen by almost all of his colleagues as an extremely risky venture, an amphibious landing on the west coast at Inchon near the capital, Seoul. That it succeeded only amplified MacArthur’s already giant ego.

MacArthur had reluctantly obeyed a summons from President Harry Truman (after all, his constitutionally-designated Commander-in Chief) to meet at Wake Island in mid-Pacific. There he had told the President and his staff that the war would be over by Thanksgiving and the troops would be home for Xmas. But by year-end 1950 the Chinese Communist Peoples’ Liberation Army were in action and their highly-motivated hordes sent the U.N.’s men stumbling back down the peninsula such that it seemed to some that they would have to be evacuated to Japan. Perhaps fortuitously, the death of the field commander ‘Bulldog’ Walton required a replacement. Thus Lieutenant-General Matthew Ridgway appeared on the scene, in many people’s view, the most effective commander of the Second World War. Taking over command of the demoralised Eighth Army it was said that ‘the transformation of the army after the coming of its new commander astonished and profoundly impressed all those who witnessed it.’ The Eighth Army soon regained the ground that they had lost and the North Koreans agreed to negotiate an armistice.

While this was happening MacArthur was doing his best to disparage whatever his army and its new commander were achieving. A field visit by Generals Joe Collins, Vandenburg and Bedell Smith told a different story. Washington now hoped to exert sufficient military leadership to cause Peking and Pyongyang to negotiate on the basis of a return to the pre-war division. With their positions anchored on the Imjin River and the Hwachon reservoir, the line from coast to coast had shortened to just 180 kms. ‘We now had a tested, tough and highly-confident army, experienced in this kind of fighting and inured to the weather, possessed of firepower far exceeding anything we had been able to use on the enemy before. The only development that could possibly cause us to withdraw from the peninsula was massive intervention by the Soviets’ wrote Ridgway.

In December 1950 General MacArthur’s aim seemed to be to persuade Washington that absolute defeat was imminent and that the war should be extended into China. This became an obsession with a long series of letters and cables to the JCS. Truman issued a presidential order that all field commanders should clear all public pronouncements with Defence/State departments. MacArthur simply ignored this, bitterly protesting about real danger if he was forced to continue the war under the present restrictions imposed by Washington. The next move came from Washington where patience had expired with the dangerous military majesty in Tokyo.

It was a courageous act for the very unpopular President to dismiss the very popular general which surely resulted in his own demise in the next presidential election, losing in a 1952 landslide to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Wars are fought for political reasons and generals are ordered to get on with winning it. MacArthur was insubordinate and seemed to be attempting to go against his own government’s policies which seriously alarmed America’s allies. MacArthur indicated that he wanted to bomb China with nuclear weapons which would certainly have ignited a Third World War. He had to go! Generals frequently disagree with their political masters, but not since George B. McClellan in the U.S. Civil War in 1862 had such a senior military commander been relieved from his post by his civilian commander-in-chief.

MacArthur returned to America with ticker-tape parades in New York and San Francisco in his honour. He addressed Congress and addressed lectures to audiences all around the country. Truman lost his job in the next presidential election to Eisenhower, who held the same opinion of MacArthur that Truman did. In the longer term though, history has been kinder to Truman than MacArthur.

Korea was the first war that I could remember clearly, as a 12-year old listening to radio reports of communist tanks crossing the border into South Korea; wondering at the heroic fighting retreat of the U.S. Marines along the Chosin reservoir, their commander Oliver P. Smith telling reporters; ‘Retreat hell! We’re advancing in a different direction!’ Gregory Peck in the movie ‘Pork Chop Hill’. South Africa’s pilots, the ‘Flying Cheetahs’ in action – no less than 34 of them killed in action!

Musings on military history

Musings on military history

This war spawned a number of excellent books, really excellent! David Halberstam, who had been a war correspondent in Vietnam got to write a book on that conflict titled The Best and the Brightest (which I will get to in a minute). One of his sources was a man who had been in Korea some years before. He had so much data on that war that Halberstam decided to write a book about Korea too. In many respects The Coldest Winter is the best military history book that I have ever read. A sweeping statement but read it and see if you disagree. He covers all aspects of the war – the politicians in Washington and elsewhere, the battles and the generals and, of course, the sad demise of MacArthur. Max Hastings wrote a weighty tome The Korean War which naturally has quite a bit about the Commonwealth brigade, the ‘Glorious Glosters’ and their gallantry at the Imjin River. Matthew Ridgway’s book The Korean War is a real general’s book and then there is This Kind of War by T.R. Fehrenbach, a regimental commander in Korea. His book is filled with the most remarkable anecdotes and personal reminiscences.

Vietnam suffered a thirty-year war. It began in 1945 when the French tried to repossess their colonies. They needed to be assisted by the Americans to fight off the Vietminh of North Vietnam. Nine years later came Dien Bien Phu when, after a salutary defeat, the French had to withdraw. Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos were split away as independent entities. Totally underestimating their communist enemy and misunderstanding and ignoring, for the most part, the wishes of the Vietnamese people, the Americans won all the battles and still managed to lose the war. Vietnam nowadays seems to be reasonably prosperous but there is still no democracy or human rights. At least they’ve stopped fighting.

Musings on military history

David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest is required reading about the Vietnam War. The title refers to the people that newly-inaugurated President John F. Kennedy gathered around him when America was starting to get deeply involved in Vietnam. What a mess they made of it all! The book concludes with the end of the L.B.J. era. Quite hard going at times but very rewarding for all that. The book is widely considered in America to be a masterpiece. Max Hastings was at it again with his big book The Vietnam War but really there are hundreds if not thousands of books on this tragic, long-running saga.


Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald is on my ‘to read’ list, not so much about the war as about the

Vietnamese and the Americans. Another is Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the making of America’s Vietnam by Fred Logervall. These two are historical background to the conflict, their narratives ending about 1959. Something a lot shorter is (General) Harold C. Moore We were young once and soldiers. His account of the battle of Ia Trang. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes is a novel but a work that took years in the writing by a Vietnam veteran – also on my ‘to read’ list.

Moving on, I mentioned one day to my friend Professor Phil Everitt, Chairman of the KZN Branch of the SA Military History Society, that I have visited Malta good many times – my wife’s sister lives there on Gozo, the smaller island. Phil said that there must be a history talk in there so I set to work on two talks. Malta, three small islands in the centre of the Mediterranean, is equidistant from Gibraltar and Alexandria and not very far from the African coast of Tunisia. Sicily is itself is not much more than 90 kilometres away. To the west is the Sicilian Narrows, the gap between Sicily and Tunisia, only about 200 kilometres wide,

Malta was besieged in 1941-42, when the Maltese were nearly starved out but steadfast in their resolve not to capitulate. Their reward was the award of the George Cross to the island, the highest civilian decoration for valour. Nearly four hundred years before, in 1565, the custodians of the island, the Knights of St John, were assailed by the army and navy of the Ottoman Empire. They held off their Muslim enemies in what was seen as a triumph for the Cross over the Crescent.

Malta’s islands are barren and featureless with no rivers, streams or lakes. A few springs supply fresh water and there is sufficient topsoil for small-scale farming. The attraction for the Turks was the two large natural deep-water harbours, Grand Harbour with the adjacent Marsamxxet, which are largely sheltered from the weather and Marsamxlokk to the south. In 1565 the Turkish fleet of 200 ships and an army of, it is said, 40,000 strong landed and set about investing and overwhelming the forts guarding the entrance to Grand Harbour. The siege lasted for nearly six months until the Spanish, then in control of Sicily, sent a relief force.

The Grand Master of the Knights, Jean Parisot de la Valette, who directed the defence is immortalised in the name of Malta’s capital, the city of Valetta. The siege was one of the major events in Mediterranean history and its sheer magnitude caught the imagination of most of Europe. Indeed, had the Turks been able to prevail and consolidate their hold on Malta, there is little doubt that Italy and much of Europe might well have been conquered. The implications for Europe from the Great Siege were immense. Not a great deal has been written about the siege in English but there is an extensive biography in Spanish, Italian and French. An eye-witness account by Balbi de Correggio was published in Spain in 1568 and can now be read for free, page by page, on the internet. You need to know Spanish. A book by Ernle Bradford Siege:Malta 1940-1943 and Malta Convoys 1940 -1943 by Richard Woodman have rather been surpassed of late by James Holland’s Fortress Malta and Max Hastings’s Operation Pedestal.

During the Second World War, Malta became of vital strategic importance. Aircraft, submarines and surface ships based on Malta and sheltered by its natural deep-water harbours caused Rommel’s Afrika Corps and his Italian allies to be put on short commons. Italian supply ships were regularly sunk and fuel shortages were a major difficulty for the German general’s operations. The Germans should have occupied Malta, and certainly could have but for Hitler’s preparations for war in Russia. For the British, keeping Malta supplied with food, ammunition and replacing the losses of airplanes and ships in the islands was a major difficulty. Malta is 1500 kilometres distant from Alexandria and

1600 kilometres from Gibraltar but Churchill was adamant that Malta remain in Allied hands. The Maltese nearly starved as merchant shipping was regularly sunk by the Italians operating from airfields in Sicily and the Germans from Libya. In desperation a major supply convoy was assembled together with a naval escort including battleships and aircraft carriers. Operation Pedestal it was called and out of 14 merchant ships that set out from Gibraltar, only five made it to Malta to unload their vital cargoes. In addition, the British lost an aircraft carrier and two cruisers sunk. This in

September 1942 but by November, after Montgomery’s success at el Alamein, merchant ships were able to make the voyage from Alexandria in safety and the crisis was over.

Musings on military history

The award of the George Cross was certainly merited. Valetta was well-nigh flattened by German and Italian bombers in early 1942. A higher tonnage was dropped on Malta than London. General Alan Brooke wrote that ‘the destruction is inconceivable’ reminding him of ‘Ypres and Arras in the last war’. Reinforcements of Spitfires to replace the original Hurricanes finally ended the German raids as well as the transfer of Luftwaffe units to Russia. I have done two talks to a number of audiences with a couple still to come in 2024.

Last word on Malta is when I mislaid a wonderful book that I bought, would you believe, at the Sunday Flea Market in Marselforn, Gozo, Churchill in Malta by Douglas Austin. The author was born in Malta but became a London banker and has written several books on Malta. It was a used soft cover complete and in good condition. I can’t remember how much it cost me but not more than a few Euros. A useful data source on what happened in the Second World War in Malta. Wanting a replacement, I e-mailed my darling little sister-in-law in Gozo with the author and title. She has a tame bookseller where she buys books in English and said to him that her brother in law wanted ‘a book about Churchill and Malta’. When the book arrived it was Churchill: Malta and Gibraltar by Victor Aquilina. Not what I had requested but I was highly delighted to have this magnificent recent publication by a distinguished Maltese journalist. Only available on Malta it seems, as I cannot see any copies on ABE Books!

Max Hastings dedicated his Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy to Rick Atkinson: For my dear friend Rick

Atkinson, who chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of American armies with an elegance, penetration and human sympathy that his fellow historians strive to match. Rick Atkinson’s major work is a Second World War trilogy, each volume easily exceeding my dictum that a book on a historical subject of less than 400 pages is usually not worth reading! Atkinson is concerned with the American contribution to the war in Europe. The first volume appeared in 2003 An Army at Dawn dealing with the invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch; the second arrived in 2007 The Day of Battle about Sicily and Italy; the third The Guns at Last Light takes it to the end of the war. While strictly about the American Army it gives fair mention of the British when necessary. He deals fairly, in my opinion, with the squabbles of the two high commands. He documents Montgomery’s and

Brooke’s differences with Eisenhower and Marshall but then also has some hard things to say about Eisenhower too. Very rewarding reading and the graceful note that Montgomery wrote to Eisenhower after it was all over is also reproduced:

‘I owe much to your wise guidance and kindly forbearance. I know my own faults very well and I do not suppose I am an easy subordinate. I like to go my own way. But you have kept me on the rails in difficult and stormy times.’

Musings on military history

Another series that I accumulated over a few years is Ian Toll’s Pacific War Trilogy. A monumental work, the first volume appearing in 2012. Ian Toll is a naval historian and cut his teeth on Six

Frigates: The Epic Founding of the US Navy in 2008. His three books are essentially about the U.S.

Navy and Marines in the western Pacific. The last volume appeared only in 2021, so it is fairly recent. Like Atkinson, the books are filled with anecdotes and personal accounts but not neglecting strategy, tactics and generalship. Both Atkinson and Toll have excellent maps, something that so many military histories neglect very seriously. In a preface to the final volume, Ian Toll explains how in 2011 he approached his publisher saying that he was getting to the deadline and had the agreed 800 pages of copy ready. The deal and the advance had been for that number of pages for a history of the whole war, but the 800 pages only brought the narrative to the Battle of Midway just seven months after Pearl Harbour. The publisher was very good about it and agreed to fund a trilogy with a further advance. However, says Ian Toll ruefully, not three times the original advance.

You will have observed that the writing and production of each of these three-volume trilogies took more than ten years to write. The detail that they both have uncovered is evidence of their diligent search for relevant detail. Reading books like these takes a good deal of time even for a fairly fast reader like me. Getting to the end is very satisfying.

Musings on military history

I see that a certain popular history writer has written 59 books on a huge variety of subjects as diverse as the Anglo Zulu war, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Entebbe Raid and on and on. They are all well written and amusing to read but not meeting near my view that proper history books need to be at least 300 pages long – well, 400 is even better. This particular author came to stay at Fugitive’s Drift Lodge in Zululand for two weeks. He was asked if he had studied the Anglo Zulu War – not at all was the reply, but I hope to know all about it by the end of my stay. Saul David, of course.

Andrew Roberts is a widely-admired British popular historian, with biographies of Churchill and

Napoleon winning numerous awards and praise. In 2006 A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 sought to complete Churchill’s four volume work and bring it up to date. It received wide approval from some sections of the media except for a scathing review from one which said it was merely a political pamphlet that reflected Roberts’s prejudices. Masters and Commanders is one of his books that I have found particularly rewarding, his subjects being Churchill and Roosevelt, Brooke and Marshall. Since 1990, Roberts has addressed hundreds of institutional and academic audiences in many countries, including a lecture to former US president George W. Bush at the White House. He has been for some years a familiar figure on television and featured in Boris Johnson’s 2022 Honours List. Thus he is now Baron Roberts of Belgravia with a seat in the House of Lords.

This appeared recently in the London Spectator magazine written by one of their regular columnists and member of the House of Lords, Charles Moore:

At a time when almost everything gets worse, it is nice to recount that this State Opening of Parliament was better than the last one. Last year, there was a wintry sense of fin de régime, as the Prince of Wales stood in for his ailing mother. Now that Prince is King, everyone wanted it to go well for him, so it did. There was a feeling of excitement, and perhaps relief that the chilly hand of rationalisation has not used the new reign to tighten its grip. The ceremony was, in a way, grander than under Elizabeth II, because we now have both a King and a Queen. For the first time since 1950 (King George VI was too ill to deliver the speech in 1951) two trains were required and so – to avoid a train-crash – more pages.

In case the whole thing gets Starmerised, I feel it worth recording for posterity the atmosphere of such occasions. They are both impressively stately and oddly intimate. The Chamber of the House of Lords looks splendid but is actually quite small. It has a huggermugger feeling. Except for the dramatis personae, peers must find a seat where they can, some stuck on benches supported by no backs for more than two hours. There is a curious box in the far corner in which the eldest sons or daughters of peers (including, this time, our daughter), are penned standing throughout, like guillotine candidates in a tumbril. In addition to the two principals, many of those present looked splendid too: a bewigged Scottish judge with red crosses all over his robes; the bishops, shepherds of their flocks, with their ovine-looking collars; the Lord High Chancellor, Alex Chalk, is high in physical stature and walked backwards with aplomb; the Duchess of Wellington was perfectly lovely in her tiara. And, near me, a new entrant, Lord (Andrew) Roberts of Belgravia, wrapped copiously in what he tells me were the oldest robes in the chamber, lent to him by Lord Willoughby de Broke, whose ancestor received his writ of summons in 1491, when Christopher Columbus was trying to raise money for a certain voyage west.

Among Andrew Roberts’s books is Salisbury: Victorian Titan a biography of Lord Salisbury (Robert Cecil), certainly the greatest of all the Conservative Prime Ministers. Published in 1999 this book to a great extent established Roberts’s reputation. It’s a substantial volume, more than doubling my requirement for a worthwhile book of at least 400 pages. Roberts was commissioned by the 6th Marquess of Salisbury to write the life of his great-grandfather the 3rd Marquess, who served as British Prime Minister three times for a total of thirteen years. Roberts therefore had the run of the archive at Hatfield House, Salisbury’s Hertfordshire estate, as well as access to many private papers and documents made available by the family.

Reading the whole book from cover to cover is not an option for me. Unless your interest is Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century then selective reading is more sensible. What is particularly interesting are several chapters about Lord Salisbury and the Boer War, the first of these being entitled The Outbreak of the Boer War and there are five more chapters that relate directly to the Boer War. Anyone with a serious interest in the Boer War is well-advised to read what is here. It certainly puts the lie to much of the mythical war created so ably by the Afrikaner Nationalists when they came to power in 1948. Going further back there is comment on the Jameson Raid, the Kaiser’s telegram and Britain’s isolation as the century drew to a close. Much of this is apposite to what follows about the war. The decade of the 1890’s was a most interesting time for southern Africa before it became South Africa.

Lord Salisbury announced in the House of Lords on 3rd June 1902 that the peace had been signed and made a speech praising the army three days later. A number of observers noted that in a speech congratulating the army, he had to pick his words carefully. This was uncharitably put down to his age. It is more likely to have been due to his belief that incompetent soldiering had been responsible for the early string of unnecessary defeats. When soon afterwards a family conversation got around to the judicial execution of Admiral Byng during the Seven Years’ War, Salisbury told Lady Rayleigh (his niece) he wished Buller had lived in those days. (Admiral Byng was executed for his lack of zeal in attacking the enemy – pour encourager les autres – in order to encourage the others). Much of this paragraph is directly quoted from Roberts’s Salisbury.

Musings on military history

Books on the Anglo Boer War are many and varied. The first single-volume chronological account of the war appeared in 1979, from the pen of an anti-establishment Irishman, Thomas Pakenham. He does not use his title, the 8th Earl of Longford. The Boer War has been a huge success and has been translated into Afrikaans. It is more a political than a military history and is the product of some prodigious research. There are quite a number of chronologies appearing after this one and Professor FransJohan Pretorius’s list that follows has several names. Pakenham tried his best to be unbiased but in many people’s opinions, failed quite miserably. Just how is it possible to write a book on such a controversial subject without any bias? Read the book for yourself and make up your own mind. You might like to read Peter Dickens’s ‘unpacking of Pakenham’ as well, just ask Mr Google.

Two books that appeared five years ago by Chris Ash were written with the express aim of documenting the war from the aspect of the British. The revised and enlarged second book is much the better of the two, entitled Kruger’s War. The political leaders of the Boer Republics and the way they went to war, the issue of a declaration of war and the Boer invasion of two British colonies are the starting points. This book is another that comfortably meets my criterion of 400 pages. It takes some reading and on publication it met with savage criticism much of it from people who, on principle, refused to read it. There were press reviews from journalists who clearly had not bothered to sit down and study it. He received some really vile e-mails and even death threats. That is not called for, disagree by all means but every statement in the book is covered by a reference. Some of his references just might be unreliable, surely not every single one.

In retrospect, Chris Ash was the first to dare write such a book, such is the sacred status of the narrative of the Boer War under the auspices of the Nationalist party. From 1948 onwards they rewrote the history from an Afrikaner nationalist perspective. Their version has been resilient and cannot be questioned. Funny though, Lord Andrew Roberts reviewed Kruger’s War and said ‘This is revisionist history at its absolute best’.

Musings on military history

The following is in my archive, a very useful historiography of Anglo Boer War books by Prof FransJohan Pretorius. He delivered a paper at a Boer War Conference held at the Anglo Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein. I was there and his illustrated address was somewhat shorter than this. His paper gives a great deal more than just the book titles – additionally there is an explanation to the political and social conditions that caused certain books to be written in a certain gendre. They had a message to put over and an axe to grind in many cases. It emphasises yet again that all books unavoidably present some kind of bias.

A historiography of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902: 120 years of fruitful labour

By Fransjohan Pretorius

FransJohan Pretorius is Professor Emeritus of history at the University of Pretoria. He has published extensively on the Anglo-Boer War. He has received a number of awards for his work, amongst others the Stals Prize for History, the Recht Malan Prize for his book Kommandolewe tydens die Anglo-Boereoorlog, and the runner-up prize for the Sunday

Times Alan Paton Award for the English edition. Recently he was awarded the Jan H Marais Prize for his outstanding contribution to Afrikaans as an academic language. He is chairperson of the History Commission of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.

Abstract: In this paper a quick glance is taken at some of the more important themes and works on the Anglo-Boer War that have been published between 1899 and 2019. More or less a thematic approach is followed. Reference is made to published reminiscences, diaries and letters of the war. British literature and Afrikaner nationalist historiography before the 1970s are investigated, followed by a discussion of more objective tendencies. Other themes are topics on military history; biographies and the role of military commanders; politics, particularly on the origins of the war; social history, notably the role and position of Africans, the concentration camps, gender studies, British society, and life of the ordinary combatant; the British colonies in the war; Boer prisoners of war; medical histories; the Peace of Vereeniging; and the aftermath of war. It is concluded that the historiography of the Anglo-Boer War has indeed seen 120 years of fruitful labour. And yet more is

to come. My most sincere thanks to the Director and the War Museum of the Boer Republics for inviting me to give this key-note address

Paper/notes: The historiography of the Anglo-Boer War is a huge topic, because the Anglo-Boer War is one of the themes in South African history that has attracted the most attention. From the outset a deluge of books written from a British perspective appeared on the Anglo-Boer War. By 1903 the United Service Magazine had already reviewed almost 100 volumes on the conflict. Within five years of the end of the war there was already a large enough number for the American Historical Review to give a general assessment of the value of British literature on the topic. By 1909 Volume 7 of The Times History of the War in South Africa was able to include a bibliography of 31 pages of published material on the war, most of it in English. However, the significance of the war was soon overtaken by the prominence of both World Wars, with the result that much less was published in Britain in subsequent years. Most of the English literature in the first half of the 20th century was emphatically subjective and pro-British. The second half of the century saw a much more sober approach, culminating in some important publications with the commemoration of the war between 1999 and 2002. British historians have made a fine contribution to our knowledge of the war. Significantly, a number of these are indicative of the cooperation of British historians with South African English, Afrikaans and black colleagues.

Now, some observations on Afrikaner historiography on the war. The first Boer publication was State Attorney Jan Smuts’ pamphlet published in English as A Century of Wrong, in October 1899. Between 1900 and 1905 Boer (or Afrikaner) literature on the war initially saw about 24 diaries or war reminiscences, excluding those written by foreign volunteers who had fought with the Boers. The most well-known was General De Wet’s memoirs published in 1902 in English as Three Years War. However, in the period between 1906 and 1931 only about ten Boer diaries or reminiscences were published, mainly because Afrikaners were struggling to express themselves succinctly in either Dutch or Afrikaans. By 1925 this situation had improved with the recognition of Afrikaans as an official language (together with English). With the emergence of a wave of Afrikaner nationalism in the 1930s and the Afrikaner’s seizure of political power in 1948, a host of subjective reminiscences and diaries appeared in Afrikaans, mainly on the disaster of the white concentration camps and on Boer heroism on the battlefield. The books by Neethling, Mag Ons vergeet? and Steenkamp, Helkampe, come to mind.

These publications were used to great effect by Afrikaner leaders to promote Afrikaner nationalism. They were soon joined on the bookshelves by the work of public and academic historians, who saw the war as a struggle for freedom. This included Gustav Preller’s, Jack Hindon, Ons Parool, and Talana, and Scheepers Strydom’s Kaapland en die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog. Afrikaners felt that what they had lost in 1902 they had regained in 1948 with the National Party victory at the polls, to be followed in 1961 by the establishment of a republic outside the British Commonwealth. Rewriting the history of the war from an Afrikaner nationalist perspective was “to set the record straight” and to celebrate the final political victory over the British Empire. However, with the republic achieved in 1961, the ideological function of the war as a historical driving force began to fade and the war lost its grip on the Afrikaner historical consciousness.

Afrikaners experienced social mobility on a large scale as a growing Afrikaner middle class emerged, aided by an economic boom. On the one hand this led to the waning of Afrikaner nationalism, but on the other it fed into a more objective approach by Afrikaner historians to the war. This new direction was headed by Albert Grundlingh and – if I may be so bold – perhaps myself. The Master’s dissertation by Grundlingh on the Boer collaborators with the British, entitled Die “Hendsoppers” en

“Joiners” was published in 1979, and this was given an English edition in 2001 with the title The Dynamics of Treason. Meanwhile my PhD on life on commando during the war was published in Afrikaans in 1991, and the English edition came eight years later. In this work the intent was to investigate the Boers on commando, warts and all, and it was no coincidence that the chapter on discipline was the longest chapter in the book – because there was such a lack of discipline on commando.

The commemoration of the war (1999-2002) followed in the wake of the Afrikaners’ renouncement of power in the democratic South Africa of 1994. Afrikaners now had to cope with a challenging new political environment. Some Afrikaner historians used this opportunity to write about the war more objectively than before, because it was a period in Afrikaner history for which they did not have to apologize – in stark comparison with the apartheid era. A good example here is Grundlingh’s work. However, it also provided the opportunity for a number of works in continuation of the nationalist paradigm – for example Andries Raath’s two volumes entitled Die Boerevrou 1899-1902, Moederleed and Kampsmarte.

Until the 1960s, apart from the Afrikaner emphasis on the suffering in the concentration camps, the historiography of the Anglo-Boer War focused mainly on the military course of the conflict, the role of prominent military commanders and political aspects. Although these issues have by no means been exhausted, historians subsequently began to consider other aspects of the war, thereby dramatically broadening our view. Following research into war and society in Europe and the United States, the primary focus shifted to social aspects – the vicissitudes of ordinary civilians in wartime. The war is now seen as a total South African war in which all groups participated; a war that affected all the inhabitants of southern Africa, hence the designation “South African War” favoured by some historians. The new approach has given prime attention to the position, role and experience of black people during the war, and has captured the attention of British, English South African, Afrikaans and black South African historians. Gender is another issue that has aroused interest.

Perhaps the title of the book published after the conference held at the University of South Africa in

1998 – Writing a Wider War: Rethinking Gender, Race, and Identity in the South African War 18991902, edited by Greg Cuthbertson, Albert Grundlingh and Mary-Lynn Suttie – is the best indication that the paradigms for the historiography of the war have shifted significantly.

Allow me now to continue discussing the historiography of the Anglo-Boer War along thematic themes. Firstly, on the bibliography of the war. Unquestionably one of the best is A Bibliography of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, published in 1999 by the War Museum of the Boer Republics and the University of the Orange Free State Library and Information Services, under the editorship of M. C. E. van Schoor. Subsequently in my The A to Z of the Anglo-Boer War in 2010 I include a bibliography of 53 pages, arranged according to themes. Most of the titles mentioned there are books written in English.

A number of thought-provoking books have appeared on the origins of the war. J.A. Hobson’s The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Effects (1900) succeeded in setting in motion a lively debate for an entire century, with contributions representing a wide variety of ideologies, including those of G.D. Scholtz, J.S. Marais, Shula Marks, Alan Jeeves, Andrew Porter and Iain R. Smith. The latter’s careful analysis, The Origins of the South African War (1996), remains the best broad analysis to date.

Many histories have offered a general overview of the entire war. The jingoistic works of the likes of

H.W. Wilson’s With the Flag to Pretoria (2 volumes, 1900-1901) and After Pretoria: The Guerilla War

(1902), and Louis Creswicke’s South Africa and the Transvaal War (8 volumes, 1900-1902).are equalled in their excessive subjectivity by pro-Boer publications from the European continent, such as the Dutch W.F. Andriessen’s Gedenkboek van den Oorlog in Zuid-Afrika (1904) and G.L. Kepper’s De Zuid-Afrikaansche Oorlog (1900).

Louwrens Penning’s De Oorlog in Zuid-Afrika (3 volumes, 1899-1902) is on a par with Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Great Boer War (1902) with regard to some balance and depth.

Leo Amery’s The Times History of the War in South Africa (7 volumes, 1900-1909) and Frederick Maurice and Maurice Grant’s The History of the War in South Africa (4 volumes, with 4 volumes of maps, 1906-1910, known as The Official History), still offer the best military overviews of the war, although they are not free of undue bias for the British.

Meant as an Afrikaner nationalistic antipode to them, Die Geskiedenis van die Tweede

Vryheidsoorlog in Suid-Afrika (6 volumes, 1969-1996) by J. H. Breytenbach has a pro-Boer bias, but as a reference work it proves as useful as the Times History and the Official History. However, it does not take the war beyond the middle of 1900.

Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War (1979) has played a major role in opening up a renewed interest in the war, particularly in Britain, but also in South Africa and the United States. It is piece of exceptional literature. Although it is an honest attempt to give a balanced picture, the author remains an observer from within the British lines. A more academic approach is found in editors Peter Warwick and S.B. Spies’s The South African War: The Anglo-Boer War (1980). Bill Nasson’s The

South African War (1999) and its 2010 edition, and Denis Judd and Keith Surridge’s The Boer War (2003) are also very sound works. Martin Bossenbroek’s The Boer War (2018), boasts with an original angle from the memoirs of three prominent people involved in the war.

Among the many published reminiscences, diaries and letters of the war, some have achieved classical status, none more so than Deneys Reitz’s Commando. Although originally written in Dutch in 1903 and published in English only in 1929, it is the sparkling reminiscences of a young Boer who went to war at the age of 17. Less well-known is the diary of a youthful anti-hero with a wonderful sense of humour, Roland Schikkerling, entitled Commando Courageous. Its publication in South Africa as late as 1964, when the main interest in the Anglo-Boer War had waned, sadly prevented this book from reaching Commando’s classical status. To complete my choice for the trilogy of Boer greats is the sensitive diary (in Dutch) of the later famous poet, Jan Celliers, published as late as 1978 under the editorship of A. G. Oberholster. Gen. Christiaan de Wet’s reminiscences, Three Years War (1902), written in less than three weeks while De Wet was on board ship to England shortly after the war, has been a faithful companion to many a student of the war.

Winston Churchill’s London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900) can be regarded as the British counterpart to Reitz’s epic volume, although General Ian Hamilton, together with V. Sampson, attempted to seize that honour with their Anti-Commando in 1931.

In recent years Edward Spiers’, Letters from Ladysmith (2012), Letters from Kimberley (2013) and in 2018 Letters from Mafeking are exceptionally scholarly works.

Books on the military and social history of the combatants include publications that cover specialized themes. Modern scholarship has produced a number of fine military histories, among others Lord Methuen and the British Army (1999) by Stephen Miller and Generaal Louis Botha op die Natalse Front (1970) by C.J. Barnard. Just off the press is the book by Tian Schutte and Peet Coetzee, entitled Treinvernielers, about Boer attacks on the railways in die Transvaal. Railways and the war is a very welcome theme of investigation – in fact, it delights me that there are four papers at this conference on the railways during our war.

Some commendable recent publications that can be defined broadly as social history are Diana

Cammack’s The Rand at War (1990); The Siege of Mafeking (2 volumes under the editorship of Iain R. Smith, which hosts chapters by historians from both Britain and South Africa, in 2001); Albert Grundlingh’s The Dynamics of Treason: Boer Collaboration in the South African War (2006); my Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War (1999); and John Boje’s An Imperfect Occupation (2016) on the district of Winburg and the war.

The Anglo-Boer War had a profound effect on the adjacent British colonies – the Cape Colony and Natal. Rodney Davenport’s The Afrikaner Bond (1966) remains a classic in this regard, as does J.H. Snyman’s Die Afrikaner in Kaapland (1973). Johan Wassermann has filled another lacuna with his unpublished D.Phil thesis, The Natal Afrikaners and the Anglo-Boer War (2004).

The Anglo-Boer War was of considerable importance to Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and several contingents came to South Africa in support of the British army. This, together with the war’s influence on local politics, ensured a solid bibliographical contribution. The best examples are Craig

Wilcox’s Australia’s Boer War (2002) and Carman Miller’s Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War (1993). The circumstances surrounding Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt

Carbineers have sparked a number of recent anti-imperial Australian publications, including Nick

Bleszynski’s Shoot Straight You Bastards! The Truth Behind the Killing of ‘Breaker’ Morant (2002) and

William Woolmore’s The Bushveldt Carbineers and the Pietersburg Light Horse (2002). South African

Arthur Davey provides a more balanced view in Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers

(1987). With One Flag, One Queen, One Tongue: New Zealand, the British Empire and the South African War, 1899-1902, John Crawford and Ian McGibbon have edited a useful reference work to the Kiwi experience of the war (2003).

With the British empire at the height of its power, the reaction of British society to the Anglo-Boer War has been portrayed in a number of excellent works in the last four or five decades. Richard Price looks at working-class attitudes and reactions to the war in An Imperial War and the British Working Class (1972); and Arthur Davey gives a broad overview of the British Pro-Boers in the period 18771902 (1978).

Religious reaction in Britain is covered inter alia by Greg Cuthbertson’s unpublished D.Phil thesis, The Nonconformist Conscience and the South African War (1986) and H.H. Hewison Hedge of Wild Almonds: South Africa, the Pro-Boers and the Quaker Conscience, (1989).

Donal McCracken studies The Irish Pro-Boers (1989) and The Irish Brigade that fought on the Boer side (1999); Stephen Miller fills an important gap with his Volunteers on the Veld: Britain’s CitizenSoldiers and the South African War (2007).

There is some fine material on Boer prisoners of war. S.P.R. Oosthuizen’s unpublished thesis on the treatment and life of these Boers is only available in Afrikaans (1975), but Colin Benbow’s revised edition of Boer Prisoners of War in Bermuda (1982) is quite useful in this regard. In 2010 Elria Wessels’s, Bannelinge in die Vreemde appeared.

Afrikaner nationalist studies on the white concentration camps, in which women are portrayed as victims of the war, flooded the market between the 1930s and 1960s. J.C. Otto’s Die

Konsentrasiekampe (1954) was countered by A.C. Martin’s The Concentration Camps (1957), which attempts to prove that the British were grossly but unfairly maligned for their conduct of the camps.

S.B. Spies’s Methods of Barbarism? (1977) on Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener and civilians in the Boer republics brought much-needed balance and has given direction to subsequent publications, among others the five volumes on this topic in Afrikaans by Jan Ploeger (1990), and Scorched Earth (2001) under my editorship.

Lately gender studies on the role of women in the war have received long-overdue attention.

Notable is Liz Stanley Mourning Becomes Post/Memory and Commemoration of the Concentration Camps of the South African War, 2006). Paula Krebs brings Gender, Race and the Writing of Empire: Public Discourse and the Boer War (1999) into the fray. In 2016 Elsabé Brits made a terrific contribution with Beloved Traitor, a biography of Emily Hobhouse.

Elizabeth van Heyningen is known for her excellent book, The Concentration Camps of the AngloBoer War: A Social History (2013). Bill Nasson & Albert Grundlingh edited an excellent The War at Home in 2013 on women and families in the Anglo-Boer War.

Since Philip Bonner’s thesis on the participation of black people in the Anglo-Boer War in 1967 aroused interest in this issue, a host of exciting new material has appeared, some of it by black historians. Sol Plaatje’s diary (the only thus far found that was kept by a black person during the war) was first published by John Comaroff in 1973. Peter Warwick’s Black People and the South African War (1983) is still the best overview and Bill Nasson’s Abraham Esau’s War: A Black South African War in the Cape (1991) the best regional monograph. Stowell Kessler made a great contribution with his book The Black Concentation Camps of the Anglo-Boer War (published by the War Museum of the Boer Republics in 2012). The Museum also published another title in 2012 under the editorship of Johan van Zijl, Rodney Constantine and Director Tokkie Pretorius An Illustrated History of Black South Africans in the Anglo-Boer War. Authoritative books have appeared on other ethnic groups by Fred Morton (1985), John Laband (2000), and Bernard Mbenga (2002).

The medical history of the war is rich with diaries and reminiscences of doctors and nurses who served on the Boer or the British side (or both). J.C. (Kay) de Villiers and Miemie Groenewald have done some sterling work on Boer medical aspects, as has Shula Marks on British nursing in the war. De Villiers’ 2 volumes, Healers, Helpers and Hospitals: A History of Military Medicine in the AngloBoer War (2008) is a monumental contribution. A very, very interesting book is that of Rose Willis, Kay de Villiers & Arnold van Dyk, Yeomen of the Karoo (2016) about the Imperial Yeomanry hospital at Deelfontein, a forsaken place in the Karoo.

International interest in the war, particularly in Europe and the United States, has ensured a rich harvest of books on the topic. Ulrich Kröll’s Die Internationale Buren. Agitation (1973), which looks at pro-Boer activities in Germany, France and the Netherlands, is sadly only available in German. The International Impact of the Boer War (edited by Keith Wilson, 2001) offers some excellent chapters, but an overall binding factor is lacking. Vincent Kuitenbrouwer looks in great depth at Dutch ProBoer Propaganda and the war in A War of Words (2010).

Biographies of people involved in the war have accumulated steadily. Fine examples include Keith Hancock’s biography of Jan Smuts (1962); Tim Jeal’s on Robert Baden-Powell (1989), Roy Macnab’s on Gen. Georges de Villebois-Mareuil (1975); Richard Mendelsohn’s on Sammy Marks (1991); J. W. Meijer’s on Gen. Ben Viljoen (in Afrikaans, 2000) and Brian Willan’s on Sol Plaatje (2001). Expect early next year Carel van der Merwe’s biography of General Ben Viljoen – a superb contribution.

Important work has been done on the Peace of Vereeniging. This includes Sophia du Preez’s unpublished thesis in Afrikaans (1986); M.C.E. van Schoor has looked extensively at peace attempts before and during the war, which culminated in the Peace of Vereeniging (Die Bittereinde Vrede) (2005). Of great importance as a source for further study is the minutes taken by J.D. Kestell and D.E. van Velden on the peace negotiations between the Boer governments and the two representatives of the British government (Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner), which was published in English in 1912.

My final theme, on the aftermath of the war, provides important material on the political and social reconstruction in South Africa after the war. In A Grand Illusion (1973) Donald Denoon succinctly looks at the failure of imperial policy in the Transvaal Colony during this period. Unfortunately A.P.J. van Rensburg’s probing study on the economic recovery of the Afrikaners in the Orange River Colony is only available in Afrikaans (1967). David Omissi and Andrew Thompson have acted as editors for the authoritative The Impact of the South African War (2002). Military lessons learned from the war are well covered in Jay Stone and Erwin Schmidl’s The Boer War and Military Reforms (1988) and in

  1. Williams’s The South African War and Army Reform (1991). And also in Spencer Jones’s From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reform of the British Army, 1902-1914 (2012). Most recent on the aftermath of the war is Karel Schoeman’s Imperiale Somer in Afrikaans (2015).

In conclusion: We have a proud history of books on the Anglo-Boer War, covering a wide range of relevant themes, and the latest publications are mostly at a high level, revealing a balanced and objective historiography. However, we should not be too complacent – more and hard work still needs to be done. We need to look closely at military case studies, regional social histories, and biographies on for example George Benson, Lucas Meyer and Gideon Scheepers, British prisoners of war, and case studies on the black experience.

The wars of the second half of the twentieth century are no less interesting for the military history person that those of the first. Some opinions on their literature, Korea and Vietnam, already expressed. Then on into the twenty-first. It might seem that nuclear deterrence has prevented a war between the major powers but warfare has been ongoing right up to the time of writing. Korea and Vietnam have been mentioned above but the Middle East and Afghanistan have seen historians present a number of excellent books on these conflicts. Two on Afghanistan – Peter Bergen The Longest War which covers the war on terror which still goes on but conceivably no longer in Afghanistan. Chris Kyle American Sniper was the subject of a very powerful film but you can read a book about it too!

Musings on military history

Finally, I came across this little story about the Falklands War which I found to be interesting. I wonder if it is not apocryphal but the writer appears to know his business about this and many other topics relating to military intelligence (Colonel John Hughes-Wilson Military History Blunders):

Galtieri was encouraged in his course of action by universal professional opinion that the British could not retake the Falklands once they had been occupied. US admirals openly briefed correspondents that the British Task Force would be ‘too weak, too small and too far from home to achieve its objective. Above all, the received wisdom was that the Task Force lacked sufficient air power. If professional naval opinion was united in this view across the world, then Galtieri may be forgiven for thinking he could win. After the war, there was confirmation of this particular viewpoint from an unlikely source. During the Cold War,

Britain maintained a discreet and highly sensitive official liaison with the Soviet Army. In July 1982, a Soviet general quietly requested an exchange of intelligence on any subject of importance with his British counterparts. Slightly stunned, the UK military officer agreed and, after official checking with an equally surprised MOD, a British military officer asked the Russian a serious question on the top technical intelligence priority of the time. The Russian officer nodded, thought hard and then gave a brief – but as it was later confirmed – entirely honest answer about the secret capabilities of certain Soviet equipment. When he had finished, he turned to the British officer: ‘Now, Tovarich, it is time for my question from MOD Moscow: How the hell did your task force really manage to retake the Falklands? Where do you secretly train your professional sergeants?

No secret – sergeants in the British army are experienced senior professionals whose task is to enforce discipline and training at the tactical level. It is surely the lack of such seasoned soldiers in the Russian army that is the cause of their difficulty in Ukraine.

It remains only to wish you and yours all best wishes for the Festive Season and to assure you that next year is going to be THE BEST ONE YET!

Robin Smith
Howick KZN
December 2023

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