Story of a war in objects

Review by Vivien Horler

The Anglo-Boer War in 100 Objects, edited by Johan van Zÿl and created by the War Museum of the Boer Republics (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

War might be a ghastly waste of life and a failure of diplomacy, but it does seem to promote extraordinary human ingenuity.

Or, in this context: ’n Boer maak a plan.

You’re a member of a Boer commando in the guerilla phase of the Anglo-Boer War, and it has been decided by a war council of senior Boers, including presidents Paul Kruger and MT Steyn, that the British communication systems must be disrupted.

Your capital cities have been occupied, you have no access to industrial workshops, and you are waging war on the back of a horse. How do you derail the trains and blow up the bridges that the British depend upon?

Captain Henri Slegtkamp, a Dutch-born member of Captain Danie Theron’s Reconnaissance Corps, came up with the idea of a “trein vernieler” or train wrecker. The Boers would place a few sticks of dynamite and part of a Martini-Henry rifle bolt containing a single round under the rail. When a train passed, its weight depressed rail on to the trigger, firing the round into the dynamite and detonating it.

The Brits could be ingenious too. During the siege of Mafeking, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, commander of the British garrison in the town, had limited artillery to hand: seven aging .303 Maxim machine guns and seven artillery pieces. But they also had the Lord Nelson, an old ship’s cannon which they used to fire dynamite grenades at Boer positions.

And where did they find a ship’s cannon in the inland semi-desert town? It was being used as a gatepost.

On Christmas Day 1899 during the siege of Ladysmith in Natal, the Boers fired two Long Tom salvos over the town. But death and destruction did not result: instead of bombs, what landed were small white bowls containing Christmas puddings.

A “trein vernieler” and one of the pudding bowls are among around 50 000 artefacts housed in the War Museum of the Boer Republics founded in Bloemfontein in 1931. They include photographs, documents, art, siege currency, prisoner-of-war art and stamps, firearms, artillery, medals, clothes and uniforms, children’s toys, textiles and furniture.

Another example of war ingenuity: during the first Anglo-Boer War of 1880 to 1891, the Boers used two so-called Ras cannons made by the Ras family. Each barrel was made of eight wrought-iron wagon-wheel hoops. “The manufacture of these guns is regarded as the beginning of the arms industry in South Africa.”

This book tells a chronological story of the war, and is, in the words of the museum’s director, Tokkie Pretorius, the realisation of one of the War Museum’s greatest ideals.

It is also an engaging and extremely readable history, richly illustrated with photographs, maps and sketches.

It begins with an overview of the situation in South Africa in the late 1890s, including the Jameson Raid and Boer Republics’ ultimatum to the British. It goes on through Britain’s Black Week, the sieges, the end of the formal war with the British taking Bloemfontein and Pretoria, and the guerilla phase. It also has chapters on arms, such as the merits of the Mauser vs the Lee-Metford, Kitchener’s deadful Scorched Earth policy, the camps – both the concentration camps and the prisoner-of-war camps – and the signing of the Peace of Vereeniging.

One item held by the museum is a field telephone used by General Christiaan de Wet’s commando and taken by the British at Lindley. Field telephones took over from early form of “wireless” communication: semaphore flags and heliographs.

Field telephones were just one of the objects used in this war that foreshadowed many developments of the 20th century. X-rays, for instance, had been invented in 1896, and the museum has a British X-ray of the foot of a burgher called Viljoen, and the bullet lodged in it.

The Mauser was a superior firearm to the British Lee-Metford/Enfield, writes Ron Bester in one chapter. About 75% of American troops in World War I were equipped with rifles inspired by the Mauser.

The cost of the war was staggering: at the outbreak of war in October 1899 the British treasury budgeted £10 million; it ended up spending £217m.

The cost was of course worse in terms of lives. It is thought about 20 800 British soldiers died, as against 6 590 Boer fighters (a figure which includes 778 prisoner-of-war deaths).

But the deaths of those in the concentration camps far surpassed the number of dead combatants: around 26 380 people died in the white camps, of whom 22 057 were children under 16. And in the black camps it is thought about 24 000 people died.

The war ended more than a century ago, but it cast a very long shadow, the bitterness lingering for generations. If you read only one book about the war that had such a profound effect on South Africa, let it be this one.

  • This review also appears in Weekend Argus on Sunday of October 8 2017.

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