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The South African War, 1899-1902 -- stray thoughts on its history and its literature.

Common sense, the resourcefulness which is born of a varied experience, and the habit of dealing with questions of organisation to suit special circumstances, are alone to be relied on where a new army has to be constituted from the disjecta membra of an old one. When Lord Roberts landed at Cape Town on January 10, 1900, and decided to march on Bloemfontein, and so relieve both Kimberley and Ladysmith, the troops available for the enterprise were scattered in independent commands over a huge tract of country. There was no army organisation. There was very little transport. There was a deficiency of mounted men. The railway facilities were limited. There was no plan of campaign, and there was hardly any information regarding the physical features of the country to be invaded. In short, expect the organisation of the communication, almost everything to be dealt with de novo. -- From Colonel G F R Henderson's Introduction To Count Sternberg's My Experiences of the Boer War, Longman, Green, London 1901, p xvii.

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The object of this paper is twofold. First it is to widen Australian intellectual horizon of the South African War, 1899-1902 and second it is to extend its historical boundaries from an Australian point of view. Such an approach should show that there was in conducting this war, from London, an overall want of better organisation and a need for more effective general administration. This was especially so at higher levels in the employment of human and material resources. This was certainly the view of the future Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges, who when arriving at Cape Town on 6 December 1899 from Sydney, confided to his diary something to the effect that nothing seems to have been done in South Africa for the systematic employment of colonial troops. Hitherto, wars had been in the main matters for the British Regular Army. (2) Consequently in 1899 colonial military assistance with troops at first caused confusion, rather than being a contribution to British military power.

The centenary of the outbreak of the South African War of 1899-1902 occurred on Monday 11 October 1999, and the public interest that has arisen in this war can serve as a period of reappraisal.

The contestants were the two Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State on the one side and on the other side Great Britain and its self-governing colonies. Along with Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, the Australian colonies volunteered to send military forces to assist the British military forces in the field in South Africa. Once in South Africa, these forces were directed and controlled by a C-in-C, who was responsible to the War Office in London.

After war broke out, the day after the expiry of an ultimatum from Transvaal, General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC (1839-1908) sailed on 14 October 1899 from Southampton for Cape Town, where he landed on 31 October 1899. He took overall command of British and Colonial troops in South Africa. Under Buller the British suffered serious military reverses, and the War Office on 18 December 1899 replaced him with Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC (1832-1914). (3) General Lord Kitchener was concurrently appointed Chief of Staff to Lord Roberts. Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener landed at Cape Town on 10 January 1900. General Buller's magnanimous offer to serve under Roberts was accepted.

At the end of December 1899, British prestige was shattered. The cause lay in three major defeats and General Buller's failure to relieve Ladysmith. On 6 February 1900 Lord Roberts left Cape Town for the Modder River which he reached on 8 February 1900, and then pushing northwards energetically arrived in Kimberley on 1 March. General Buller occupied Newcastle on 1 8 May 1900. The British authorities proclaimed the annexation of the Orange Free State on 24 May 1900.

Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal, was captured by Buller on 5 June 1900. As General Louis Botha, the Boer leader, refused the surrender conditions, Lord Roberts, on 1 September 1900, proclaimed the annexation of the Transvaal. Later, on 19 October 1900, President Kruger of the Transvaal departed into exile, via Portuguese East Africa to Europe. Thereafter there were changes to the British command structure; General Buller, departed Cape Town on 24 October 1900 for duty in England; on 29 November 1900 General Lord Kitchener succeeded Lord Roberts as C-in-C of the British Field Force in South Africa; and on 11 December 1900, Lord Roberts sailed from Cape Town for London, where he succeeded Field Marshal Lord Wolseley as C-in-C at the War Office.

Lord Kitchener as C-in-C in South Africa finished the war, although it took longer than expected. The British, used to the tactics of the day of battles of armies -- of advance, attack and withdrawal -- had to contend with Boer guerrilla tactics of war without fronts. Until December 1900 the battlefields were in the Boer Republics and nearby territories, from then on fighting extended from the Atlantic to Zululand and from far North Transvaal to the southern Cape. Lord Kitchener introduced new and vigorous methods of devastation of land and deportation of civilians, crop burning and stock removal to British control, drives and raids, introduction of blockhouses, barbed wire and internment camps. The fighting became `dirtier' on both sides, reflecting the increasing desperation of the Boers and the frustration of the British.

The devastation of the Boer sources of supply, the superior manpower and resources of the British finally in 1902 convinced the Boers of the inevitability of defeat. The Boer commandos were allowed to meet and confer. On 15 May the Vereeniging Conference began, and a draft proposal for peace was prepared. The Boer delegates met at Pretoria where a Treaty was prepared, finally accepted at Vereeniging, and on 31 May 1902 the war ended with the Peace Treaty signed at Pretoria. General Lord Kitchener, on 1 June, addressed the Boer leaders at Vereeniging. On 20 June, Lieutenant-General Sir Neville Lyttelton took over command from Kitchener who departed for London.

For the military historian there is a vast accumulation of historical literature available in the English language. The past century has been responsible for works on various aspects of the conduct of this war by these commanders and others, including war correspondents and foreign observers. I shall be concerned generally with publications in English of the exploits of the British Regular Army and its non-regular British forces, ie those raised in the UK and those attached land forces of the overseas self-governing colonies, which made up the British forces in South Africa. Nevertheless, attention will be given to the military forces sent direct to South Africa at first from the self-governing colonies of Australia, and then after Federation in 1901 only from the Commonwealth of Australia.

The greater part of the British forces in South Africa originated in the United Kingdom, and so it is reasonable to expect that the greater part of the vast literature which exists, is concerned with the arms originated in the United Kingdom. literature on the South African War of 1899-1902 published in the United Kingdom has been produced in many different forms -- a fact which is not always indicated by an inspection of some bibliographies. These forms include books, pamphlets and articles in journals. Another fonn rich in expression and vast in quantity is of course to be found in newspapers especially those issued during the conduct of the war itself.

One more form of literature on the South African War is the Government Report. Such reports appeared on the South African War in many different forms, including Ministerial Statements to Parliament, which are then published in Hansard or issued direct to the public in the form of printed pamphlets and leaflets. Parliamentary Committee Reports and Royal Commission Reports, which are usually submitted to Parliament by a Minister; and, then ordered to be printed and thus become a parliamentary paper. So, literature related to the War includes Royal Commission Reports, Ministerial Statements published in Hansard, as well as reports and press statements by journalists, which may be subsequently published in newspapers.

Unexpected changes in public life occur and in November 1900, Lord Landsdowne, the Secretary of State for War was succeeded at the War Office, London by Sir John Broderick (later the Earl of Middleton) and Field Marshal Lord Wolseley succeeded at the War Office by Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC in the Office of C-in- C. In July 1901 the Secretary of State for War formed a committee to investigate reorganising both the army medical and nursing services. The combined wisdom of the British inquiries took the War Office time to digest. However, it wasn't until 1906 that the RAMC had major reforms.

The publication of the Clinton Dawkins Committee's Report on War Office Administration occurred in 1901 The Report recommended decentralisation and that more responsibility for decision making be delegated to the District Commanders. This Report was followed in 1902 after the end of the war in South Africa, by the Report of the Lord Elgin Royal Commission. This Royal Commission inquired into the military preparations made for the conduct of the South African war of 1899-1902. (These are some examples of Government Reports as mentioned earlier on). During the course of the South African War 1899-1902, and afterwards, a number of inquiries took place at the War Office, London concerned with the methods of conducting this war, and how to improve.

An important inquiry arising shortly after the end of the South African War was the Viscount Esher War Office (Reconstitution) Committee. It was known as `The Committee of Three' and consisted of Ronald, Viscount Esher as Chairman and two members, Admiral Sir John Fisher RN widely known as `Jackie Fisher', and Colonel Sir George Sydenham Clarke, RE (Rtd), a former Governor of Victoria in Australia. This Committee recommended the abolition of the post of Commander-in-Chief at the War Office. The creation of an Army Council, the creation of a General Staff and the appointment of a Chief of General Staff as its head accepted and became effective without undue delay. The recommendations were This organisation was later adopted in Australia but on a smaller scale. Colonel (later Major-General Sir) W T Bridges became Australia's first Chief of the General Staff to date 1 January 1909. The War Office, London, like the Department of Defence in Melbourne was a Department of State and its staff was partly military and partly civil. These two groups serving under a Minister of State.

The last C-in-C at the War Office, London was Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC and the first Chief of the General Staff was Lieutenant-General, the Rt. Hon. Sir Neville Lyttelton, who was appointed to be the first Chief of the General Staff at the War Office, London to date 1904-08. Lyttelton, although a soldier of wide experience, was one of the `old school' and so did not make much of a contribution to this new appointment. (4) It required a younger officer, more receptive to new ideas.

By comparison the output of literature written by Australians and published in Australia is neither as great quantitatively, nor as varied in the aspects of the war, as the literature written in the United Kingdom. For instance, I know of no Australian books written on those aspects of war and military training which are to be found in say [Reginald Rankinj A Subaltern's Letters to his Wife, London 1901; [Colonel N H Grant] The Mechanics of War, London 1902; and Anon, The Army from Within, London 1901. These books are still valuable as part of one's military education and military training. Several reasons may be given for this difference in the Australian writing on this war in South Africa. First, the Australian military forces sent to South Africa were not only numerically smaller, they were restricted at first to mounted and dismounted combatant troops of about a company strength, commanded by captains or majors. After Federation in 1901, the Federal Government took charge and the contingents sent from the States were, generally speaking, increased in strength to lieutenant- colonels' commands. Secondly, the employment of all these units, including how they were employed operationally, was a matter left to British GHQ in the field in South Africa. Further, as Australia did not send field formations such as infantry brigades, divisions and corps to South Africa, the size and nature of the independent units were reflected in the literature produced during the campaign. This shows up both in the writing by Australian War Correspondents and by writers at home in Australia.

It should be noted that the Federal Government in Australia has never published an Official History of Australia's part in the South Africa War of 1899-1902. When Lieutenant-General Sir Edward Hutton (1848-1923) was commanding and re- organising the military forces in Australia after Federation, he recommended that such a history be written and published, but the Federal Government of the time did not take any action on General Hutton's recommendation. (5)

It is appropriate that this paper on the centenary of the war in South Africa should end by refreshing ourselves with the memories of a few of the `old masters', not so common in libraries public or private today. Three great works must be mentioned, namely:

(a) The British Official History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902 by Major General Sir (John) Frederick Maurice and his staff and published in 4 volumes by Hurst and Blackett, London.

(b) The Times History of the War in South Africa (1899-1902) published in 7 volumes by Sampson Low Marston and Coy Ltd London. Edited by L S Amery.

(c) The War in South Africa 1899-1902 by the Great General Staff Berlin. English translation published in 2 volumes by John Murray, London, 1904 and 1906. Authorised translators were Colonel W H H Waters CVO, RA and Colonel Hubert Du Cane MVO, RA.

Finally with regard to Australian literature, it is without an official history of Australian land forces part in the South African War of 1899-1902. It is my hope that the Australian Government will follow the example of the New Zealand Government, and have one written and published. (6)

(1) Major Warren Perry, MBE, ED, MA (Melb) 1st Cl Hons, BEc (Syd), Federal President Military Historical Society of Australia 1964-68.

(2) For the case of The Sudan Contingent from NSW in 1885 one should study Donald C Gordon, The Dominion Partnership in the Imperial Defence 1870-1914. Published by The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, USA in 1965. See Chapter 4 -- Colonial willingness to serve.

(3) The author of Forty One Years in India which became a best seller in its time.

(4) General Sir Neville Gerald Lyttelton, Eighty Years: Soldiering, Politics, Games. Hodder and Stoughton, Chapters 19 and 20 [no date].

(5) See General Hutton's last Annual Report to the Australian Government.

(6) In preparation at the Australian War Memorial by Dr Craig Wilcox.

Warren Perry (1)
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Author:Perry, Warren
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Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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