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November Book Reviews

by Prof. Rick Norton

Greetings! Hope your fall season (for those readers in the Northern Hemisphere) is going well. Although I had not intended to focus exclusively on the Boer War, that is what happened as my monthly reading progressed. The first two books were new to me and when I was finished with them I found myself re-reading the third. Given that all three books dealt with the topic, I decided that I would finish off the month with a fourth Boer war book, one that is no less than the single best volume on the war (in my opinion). If the Boer War is not to your taste, next month will probably see the column return to a more menu of readings. At any rate, here are November's selections.

"Breaker Morant And The Bushveldt Carbineers", edited, with commentary, by Arthur Davey, (Capetown: Van Riebeeck Society, 1987), 247 pages. (No ISBN. Price unknown)

The court-martial and subsequent execution of Lieutenant Henry Harboard "Breaker" Morant, Veterinary Lieutenant Peter Handcock and Lieutenant George Witton, all of the Bushveld Carbineers, is one of the most widely known episodes of the Boer War. This is due primarily to the release of a very well acted, if not exceptionally historically accurate, movie based on the three officers' trial. The movie portrays the three men as essentially honorable fellows, fighting an implacable and unconventional enemy. The heroes are brave fellows and if they did violate accepted norms of war, it was out of a sense of vengeance and in accordance with instructions from higher authority. The execution of Morant and Handcock and the imprisonment of Witton is suggested to have been politically motivated. It is also safe to say that the British are portrayed in a most unflattering light, while the Australians are nothing short of warrior- poets and all around good guys.

This book explodes the carefully built fa‡ade of the film and does so through the reproduction, with minor editing, of letters, court documents, testimony and other primary source material relating to the case. This is good scholarship and readable to boot. The picture that emerges is anything but flattering to Morant and his brother officers. Rather than bluff, well-meaning, natural noblemen caught in a web of guerilla war and English machinations, they are revealed to be, in a word, murderers. Their alibis and justifications for their actions are torn to ribbons by their own words and the words of the men they commanded.

Ever wonder how Morant and the rest came to trial in the first place? Turns out that Australians in the Bushveldt Carbineers, feeling shamed by the actions of these officers, turned them in. The prisoners they were charged with shooting included unarmed women and children, as well as unarmed Boer combatants. When it came to attention that some of their own soldiers were going to potentially "rat them out," at least one of these "informing" troopers was killed. And, although it doesn't come up to the level of murder, there was also organized theft of Boer property undertaken by these men.

The trial, far from being the kangaroo court depicted in the film, which was produced in Australia, was a very serious and carefully conducted affair. The prosecutor, one Major Bolton, didn't want the job to begin with, and was deeply saddened by the verdict. Nor was there a single trial, but rather a series of trials, each devoted to a particular charge or set of charges. Another movie misrepresentation of officers being sent to India to be unable to testify on the Australians' behalf seems to have been turned on its head. The prosecution requested the presence of at least one witness only to be told that the man was unavailable, as he had been posted to India.

It is a measure of the book's value that having not painted the BVC trio as saints, other individuals are identified as having played an unpalatable role in the affair. Chief among these are Captain Alfred Taylor and Captain P.F. Hunt. Indeed, the book argues that Captain Taylor was probably the guiltiest of the six men originally charged by the British government.

The British case is also exposed as having some weaknesses. For one thing the make-up of the court was not precisely in accordance with regulations, having more junior officers on it than was supposed to be allowed. It was also proven that Captain Hunt had ordered that Boer prisoners were to have been shot - a fact the defense claimed gave immunity to the actions of the accused. Morant, was also shown to have not executed Boer prisoners before Captain Hunt was killed - a factor which could have been taken into mitigation and was not.

If all that could be gleaned from this book were a deeper appreciation of the trial of Morant and company it would be a useful read. But the letters and other exhibits paint a deeper picture of the lives of men engaged in this war. The letters of Sergeant Frank Eland, also killed in a raid on a Boer farmhouse with Captain Hunt, are especially illuminating in this regard.

Good luck on finding this volume. Published by a specialty press in South Africa, it may be hard to uncover.

"The Boer War Generals," by Peter Trew (Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1999), 274 pages, ISBN: 0-7509-2294-X

This selection is simply a compilation of biographies of several field officers, both Boer and British, who were prominent in the Boer War. It is a workmanlike book, aimed predominately at the lay reader with an interest in history. As such, it succeeds.

Trew's list of generals is solid. Bullers, Roberts, and Kitchner comprise the British chapters; Botha, De Wet and De La Rey the Boer. There is a "post-script" devoted to Smuts, although this is more concerned with his post-war life than that he led while on commando. Readers already familiar with the Boer War may justifiably complain that the subjects of the book are too mainstream and that an anniversary work that looked at some of the lesser-known commanders would have been a more valued addition to the literature.

Of the two sections, the portion devoted to the British is the weaker. This is due to the author's attempting to provide complete biographies, rather than limit the focus to simply their actions in the war. There is also a lamentable tendency to avoid some of the more difficult questions, such as the extent to which Roberts and Kitchner condoned and utilized operations against the Boer noncombatant population to advance their war aims, or Kitchner's role in the formation of irregular units, such as the Bushveld Carbineers. The author is also surprisingly reticent, in this day and age, to delve into the more personal side of his subjects. Finally, there is also an underplaying of the political schisms and currents that flowed among these men, and at least in Bullers' case, a lack of acknowledgement of his ability to grasp the emerging lessons of the first war of the twentieth century.

The limitations noted for the British also extend to the writings on their Boer counterparts, with the exception that the war years hold center stage, as they should. But temperament and politics are also given short shrift. Nor are the questions of alleged Boer atrocities addressed, as they should have been. It would also have been nice if the author had explored in greater depth the inherent political, military and cultural weaknesses of the Boer state and how those weaknesses were surmounted or exacerbated by the individuals in question.

Still, what there is in the book is well written, factual and easy to follow. There are enough maps of enough detail to give a feeling to the battles that are discussed. Enough photos are provided to give the reader a sense of the men being described. {There is one of Boers taking British targets under fire at Vaalkrantz that is especially interesting.}

Gamers will not, as a rule, find this work to be especially useful. There are no uniform descriptions, only the most cursory of orders of battles and much of the military history can be found elsewhere. However, in the brief description of some of the lesser military actions, especially those conducted by the Boers, will be found a great many inspirations for scenarios. These include some gallant last-ditch stands, surprising raids, and attacks on British supply convoys.

All in all, the book is worth the read, but not the cost. Head for the library on this one.

"Boer Commando: An Afrikaner Journal of the Boer War," by Deneys Reitz (London: Sarpedon, 1993), 286 pages, ISBN: 0-9627613-3-8, $12.95.

Denneys Reitz was the son of the President of the Orange Free State and when the second Boer War burst over South Africa young Reitz, a patriotic teen, convinced his father to let him take up the rifle and take to the field. With him he took a diary. The diary and its owner wound up in many of the larger battles of the war, including Talana, Ladysmith, Surprise Hill, and Spion Kop. When the conventional phase of the war was over, Reitz rode with Jan Smuts and became a guerilla fighter.

Reitz knew how to turn a phrase. He was a keen observer and took care to distinguish between what he heard and what he saw. The result is a soldier's eye view of the war that is well written and entertaining. Considering how many accounts of this conflict are dispassionate third party affairs, Reitz' account is especially refreshing. It is also highly quoted in other works.

The book is also at its best when it tells of the last phase of the war. Although all hope of victory had long perished Smuts, Reitz and other die-hards kept true to what had become a hopeless cause. There is a tendency to think of these fellow hold-outs striking where they pleased, living off the land and making life miserable for the British. Reitz points out that the reality of the Boer Commando was spending life on the run, hungry, tired, cold and always worried about British patrols.

Reitz himself was an interesting guy. After the war ended, unbowed and unrepentant, he went to Madagascar where he wrote his memoirs. He eventually returned to South Africa and reconciled himself to new political realities.. By 1914 he was giving his loyalty to South Africa as fiercely as he previously had the Boer cause. He helped put down the Boer rebellion, commanded a mounted Regiment in the fighting in East Africa and prior to the war's ending, the First Royal Scots Fusiliers.

This book is highly recommended for anyone wishing to get a different view of the war. Although it is of marginal utility to the war gamer, time sacrificed to reading the book would be time well spent.

"The Boer War," by Thomas Pakenham (New York: Avon, 1979), 717 pages, ISBN: 0-380-72001-9, $15.00

Simply put, this is the best one-volume account of the Boer War in print. Meticulously researched, clearly organized and passionately delivered Pakenham tells history as if it were a work of fiction. Pakenham begins by analyzing the causes and events that led to war, painting complete pictures of the key personality involved. He then presents the war in three great phases entitled, "Milner's War," "Roberts' Advance," and "Kitchner's Peace."

Although not precisely written for war gamers, the book contains some excellent photos, useful maps and some great scenario information. You'll want to read this before buying it, but buy it you eventually should. No colonial library should be without it.

And that's it for this month. Hope that your dice are hot, your games successful and your lives free from any strife other than that on the gaming table. See you in December!

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