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The long shadow of the Boer War

As Victoria's soldiers fought in South Africa, some of the era's best known authors reported home. Their writing shaped the legacy of a traumatic conflict. 

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Had everything gone to plan, Britain’s conflict with the Boer Republics that began in October 1899 would have been over by Christmas, and would today be little more than a historical ­footnote, the last of Queen Victoria’s small wars on the fringes of the British empire.

The world’s most technologically advanced army expected a quick victory against a largely unmilitarised and predominantly agricultural opponent, but the conflict dragged on into the 20th century and the reign of a new monarch; at the peak of the bloodshed Rudyard Kipling wrote that “the ‘simple and pastoral’ Boer… seems to be having us on toast”. By the time the republics surrendered at the end of May 1902, the British had been taught, Kipling later wrote, “no end of a lesson”.

The Anglo-Boer War was a pyrrhic victory that cost British taxpayers more than £200m; 22,000 troops never came home to a hero’s welcome, and more than 400,000 army horses, donkeys and mules were killed. This traumatic conflict was memorialised to an unprecedented degree across Britain and its colonies in the form of cenotaphs, drinking fountains, street names and football stadiums (Liverpool’s “the Kop” derives from the Battle of Spion Kop, a disastrous attempt to relieve Lady-smith in January 1900).

The war coincided with a rapid expansion in cheap and popular ­newspapers, ­magazines and books: the populist and ­imperialist Daily Mail, founded in 1896 and half the price of its competitors, swiftly ­became the world’s biggest-selling ­newspaper, partly as a result of its jingoistic coverage of the war.

The Mail led a phenomenally successful campaign for soldiers’ families, ­recruiting Kipling, who raised £250,000 with his tub-thumping poem “The Absent-­Minded ­Beggar” which, set to music by Arthur ­Sullivan, became a fixture in Edwardian music halls.

Reporting, interpreting and arguing the war’s significance was the responsibility of a cadre of writers who descended on the ­conflict and created acres of newsprint, ­volume after volume of ­contemporary ­history, and countless memoirs and ­polemics. Sarah LeFanu’s Something of Themselves follows three of those writers through their early lives to their ­engagement in the war and its aftermath.

When war came Kipling was already ­familiar with the Cape Colony, and in 1898 had befriended the mighty Cecil Rhodes, still one of the most powerful figures in the empire despite the fiasco of the 1895 Jameson Raid – an abortive attempt backed by Rhodes to trigger an uprising of largely British uitlanders – outsiders – in the Transvaal.

As a coalition of imperial statesmen, jingo editors and mining millionaires (the so-called “Randlords” and “Gold Bugs”) determinedly dragged Britain into war, ­Kipling subscribed uncritically to its official justification: “It has the merit of being the one war that has been directly fought over the plain issue of elementary freedom for all white men,” he said.

These white men were the uitlanders, and British anger over their lack of political representation was, it is now clear, largely a smokescreen for more mercenary and expansionist motives. Kipling’s contribution to the war effort ­included a stint editing a propaganda sheet in the city of ­Bloemfontein. But the war also ­stimulated a renewed creativity for the grieving author, recovering from his six-year-old ­daughter’s death from pneumonia a few months before.

Kipling’s view of the conflict was shared by the second of LeFanu’s subjects, Arthur Conan Doyle, who similarly believed in the natural affinity of the English-speaking ­nations and who looked forward to their unification in “Greater Britain”.

Doyle volunteered, aged 40, for the ­Middlesex Yeomanry, but finding himself parked on the reserve list he joined a friend in ­establishing a private field hospital in Bloemfontein. Expecting a short but significant conflict, he began his history of it in situ and in real time, only to find The Great Boer War expanding organically through numerous editions as hostilities dragged on and on.

The views and motives of LeFanu’s third subject were very different. Mary ­Kingsley had made a name for herself as an ­explorer and natural historian on two ­expeditions to West Africa, where she rejected ­colonialist ethnological attitudes and ­developed an ability to, as she put it, “think in black”.

In addition to collecting specimens of fish and insects, and objects such as the blood-stained Congolese idol, which took pride of place in her Kensington home, ­Kingsley (the daughter of her father’s ­servant) ­challenged the period’s racial, class and ­gender stereotypes.

Her decision to travel to South Africa in 1900, accredited triply as a nurse, ­journalist and scientist, appears to have been a ­pragmatic one. Told by the War Office that the conflict “would all be over in no time”, Kingsley saw an opportunity to relieve more experienced nurses while ­obtaining passage to Africa as a prelude to a third ­voyage of West African discovery. Once the war was over, she would travel again to “the thousands of square miles of dark ­forest, swamps and ­mountain ­ranges” and “the great rivers which come from a thousand miles away… bound ­seawards forever”.

It was not to be. Kingsley died of ­typhoid in Simon’s Town in June 1900, aged 37, after just two months of nursing Boer prisoners of war at the Palace Barracks ­Hospital. Among overcrowded wards of delirious patients suffering from war wounds and malaria as well as typhoid, she seems to have found her true vocation: “All this work here, the stench, the washing the enemas, the bed pans, the blood, is my world. Not London society, politics, that gateway into which I so strangely wandered.”

Despite the contrast in their world-views, South Africa brought Kingsley together with Kipling, who called her “the bravest woman of all my knowledge”. After her death, he invoked her in his poem “Dirge of Dead Sisters”:

Yet their graves are scattered and their names are clean forgotten,
Earth shall not remember, but the Waiting Angel knows
Them that died at Uitvlugy when the plague was on the city –
Her that fell at Simon’s Town in service of our foes.

As Conan Doyle also discovered, the ­British Tommy’s enemies were poor ­sanitation and logistical incompetence as much as the opposing Boer forces.

Expecting to be treating battlefield trauma, Doyle found so many of his patients to be suffering from typhoid (also known as enteric fever) that he ghoulishly recorded his Bloemfontein address as Café ­Enterique, Boulevard de Microbes: “we lived in the midst of death – and death in its vilest, filthiest form”. Thousands died, avoidably.

LeFanu’s book is at its strongest in its ­central section, chronicling these ­writers at war – in some cases in the thick of the action. Doyle accompanied the British advance on Pretoria and later recalled his experiences in vivid present tense: “A fat white pig all smothered in blood runs past. A ­soldier meets it, his bayonet at the charge. He ­lunges and lunges again, and the pig screams horribly… Some are up in the loft throwing down the forage. Others root up the ­vegetables. One drinks milk out of a strange vessel, amid the laughter of his comrades. It is a grotesque and medieval scene.”

Kipling was nearby, witnessing the Battle of Karee Siding, where an exploding shell “breaks up and yowls like a cat” and a patch of woodland “filled and fumed with our shrapnel as a man’s moustache fills with cigarette-smoke”.

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LeFanu’s decision to take a straightforwardly biographical approach is a ­surprising one. The first half of the book is given over to her subjects’ early lives, and the chapters on Kipling and Doyle, adding little to comprehensive ­biographies such as those by Andrew Lycett, seem ­redundant.

Her chapters on the less celebrated ­Kingsley are more successful, not least as LeFanu draws illuminatingly on a wealth of unpublished correspondence. One ­section examines the legacy of their war ­experiences and, again, the chapter on Kingsley is the strongest, detailing her posthumous ­influence on Western scholarship on Africa.

LeFanu might have productively narrowed her scope to the war and its legacy while expanding it to cover other writers also involved in the conflict. Figures who appear tantalisingly in passing ­include ­journalists like B Fletcher Robinson, ­the foreign correspondent of the Daily Express who gave Doyle the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles, AB “Banjo” ­Paterson (­author of “Waltzing Matilda”) of the ­Sydney Morning ­Herald, HW Nevinson of the ­Daily Chronicle, ­Bennet Burleigh, celebrity war ­correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, and ­Winston Churchill, who covered the ­conflict for the Morning Post.

Then there are those who wrote immediate and sometimes popular memoirs of their war experiences, such as the society surgeon Frederick Treves, the well- connected civil servant Erskine Childers (who left his job in parliament to volunteer for the City Imperial Volunteers and would later write The Riddle of the Sands), and Robert Baden-Powell, whose Scouting for Boys (1908) would turn the lessons of irregular warfare in South Africa into one of the most ­influential books of the 20th century.

The final section on the war’s aftermath is short and rather ­underdeveloped, despite the major roles played by its subjects in contesting its political and ­intellectual legacy.

For Kipling (“We have had no end of a lesson, it will do us no end of good!”, he wrote) and Doyle, the lesson was the need for ­efficiency, hygiene and military ­readiness. Doyle, who stood unsuccessfully for the Liberal Unionists in the Khaki ­election of 1900, also campaigned for causes such as the use of camouflage and inoculation programmes, and both men set up rifle clubs in their home towns.

In his 1902 story “The Captive”, Kipling has a British general describe the war as essential preparation – “a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon”. But he was also a savage critic of military incompetence and a British public complacent about the ­growing threat from Germany, as in his 1902 jeremiad “The Islanders”:

But ye say, “It will mar our comfort.”
Ye say, “It will minish our trade.”
Do ye wait for the spattered shrapnel ere ye learn how a gun is laid?
For the low, red glare to southward when the raided coast-towns burn?

The influence of their South African ­experiences on future war propaganda was significant – so much so that when the ­government set up a secret War ­Propaganda Bureau in 1914, Kipling and Doyle were among the first writers to be approached.

In fact, the Bureau was partly inspired by Doyle: in 1901, astonished at the government’s lack of effort in justifying its motives and actions, he took the initiative to write The War in South Africa: Its Cause and ­Conduct, a riposte to what he saw as misconceived anti-war agitation by campaigners such as Emily Hobhouse, who revealed the horrors of Lord Kitchener’s concentration camps, the journalist WT Stead (founder of the Stop the War Committee), and the economist JA Hobson, who had covered the war for the Manchester Guardian.

Doyle was rewarded for his freelance propaganda with a knighthood and a subsidy from the Secret Service Fund to translate his pamphlet into 15 languages. Never again would a British government overlook the importance of propaganda in wartime.

As the invasion of Egypt in 1956 and of Iraq in 2003 were to do, the Anglo-Boer War split the nation. Opponents such as Stead and Hobson drew a very different lesson from Kipling and Doyle – that military interventions for imperialistic and capitalist motives need to be opposed and if possible prevented. (Hobson’s resulting analysis, Imperialism, which strongly influenced Lenin’s thinking, became briefly famous last year when a 2011 edition was found to have a preface by Jeremy Corbyn that seemed to completely miss Hobson’s overt anti-Semitism.)

Like those later conflicts, the Anglo-Boer War also prompted agonised national ­introspection leading to significant reforms. In 1902, fears that the war had revealed the degeneration of the working class led to the Inter-Departmental Committee on ­Physical Deterioration, which concluded in 1904 that the problem was not racial decline but poor housing and nutrition, and its findings helped make the case for health and welfare reforms later in the decade.

How the Anglo-Boer War was ­written about had profound social and political ­effects. LeFanu makes a valuable contribution to our understanding but there is still much to say about the writers who tried to teach us its lessons. 

Andrew Glazzard’s books include “The Case of Sherlock Holmes: Secrets and Lies in Conan Doyle’s Detective Fiction” (Edinburgh University Press)

Something of Themselves: Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and  the Anglo-Boer War 
Sarah LeFanu
Hurst & Co, 352pp, £25

This article appears in the 05 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe