Reviewer: Archie Henderson
The Natal Campaign: A Sacrifice Betrayed by Hugh Rethman (Amberley)
Just when you thought you knew everything about the Boer War, along comes Hugh
Rethman. His book is a radical revisionist history of that war fought at the turn of the
last century and which so dramatically shaped South Africa.
None of the usual suspects come of Rethman’s book well. Paul Kruger,
puritanical Old Testament president of the ZAR (the Transvaal) and General
Redvers Buller, the indecisive commander of the British forces, we expect, but Jan
Smuts? And even Louis Botha? The latter pair, heroes of the Union of South Africa,
are treated dismissively by Rethman. And Denys Reitz’s father, FW Reitz, who has
always been regarded as something of an Anglophile, is portrayed as disliking the
English “with a passion that at times made even Paul Kruger look pro-British”. It was
Reitz, then state secretary of the Transvaal republic, who wanted to expel all people
of English descent from Southern Africa and who refused to allow about 7 000 Zulu
refugees to return to their homes on the eve of war.
For a war that was supposedly fought between only white men, Rethman
reminds us of the sacrifices and service that black people performed in the war,
especially as scouts for the British.
The book, as its title suggests, is only about the conflict in what was then
Natal. The war raged in the Northern Cape, across the Free State and in Transvaal.
Once the conventional part of it was won, with the capture of the Boer capitals, the
guerrilla phase, with its grim reprisals, carried on for almost two more years before
peace in 1902 along with its bitter legacy.
Rethman has written the book because he believes that Natalians have been
treated shabbily by historians, and especially the Natal volunteer units – among
them the Imperial Light Horse. This is an attempt to put the record straight, and he
succeeds admirably. Along with that, his descriptions of the battles – Spion Kop,
Colenso, Vaalkrantz being the most famous – are among the best I have read. It
makes you want to revisit these sites and walk the battlefields again, with a new
Just a pity there are some editing and translation errors. “Court marshall” for
court martial is unforgivable in an authoritative book on war such as this. And spion
is not part of a cow’s udder (speen) but a Dutch spelling of spy as in Spy’s Hill, a site now immortalised at the football stadium Anfield in Liverpool where so many of that
city’s soldiers died in Buller’s disastrous attempt to take vital high ground in the war.
The author, by the way, has deep roots in KwaZulu-Natal. His great
grandfather commanded the Border Mounted Rifles, who distinguished themselves
during the fighting around Ladysmith. Rethman was an attorney in Richmond before
leaving South Africa in the 1970sboer war battle spioen ko and now lives in Suffolk, England.