Fresh perspectives on a crucial part of our history

Review: Vivien Horler

The Boer War in Colour – volume 1, conventional war, 1899-1900, by Tinus le Roux (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The cover photograph in this remarkable volume is a detail of a picture of six Boer soldiers of the Kroonstad Commando, led by Commandant Coen Nel, centre.

Its sharpness and detail is extraordinary, taken from a 120-year-old glass plate. It is not clear to me who snapped the shutter, but it is marked “Boer Officers, 1900”, and was probably the work of the Lund brothers, who travelled with the commandos to the battlefront.

This picture, as it appears here, is the work of Boer War enthusiast Nico Moolman, who used a custom-made scanner to capture the image.

Author and fellow Boer War enthusiast Tinus le Roux describes it as one of the best quality images of the Boers.

There are thousands of Boer War pictures, many of them taken on the battlefield but almost always behind the lines – the tripod-mounted cameras were large and heavy, the exposure time was relatively long, and these facts would have made a photographer a target for enemy fire if he had tried to capture front-line action.

Other pictures were taken in studios, often of family groups who posed before setting out for war.

The pictures as such are not what makes this book stand out – it is the fact they have been “colourised”, to use the technical term. The process has come a long way from the hand-tinted pictures proudly shown off by grandparents in the 1950s.

Today it is done digitally with the help of computer software. Le Roux, who worked for Denel for many years as a design engineer in rocket motor development, writes that he was intrigued when, around 2010, colourists started publishing soloured historical black-and-white images, many of them focusing on the two world wars.

Major General Sir Edward Woodgate, commander of British troops at Spion Kop, who was killed in the battle.

“I was intrigued by how these often-monotonous images suddenly came to life when colour was added. I decided then and there I also wanted to master this art.”

He got in touch with British amateur historian and digital colourist Doug Banks, who guided him and referred him to various online video tutorials.

Le Roux, whose grandfather, a prisoner of war in India whose farmhouse near Belfast was torched by British soldiers, grew up fascinated by Boer War history, and so decided as a budding colourist to focus on this conflict.

In 2014 he created the Facebook page Boer War Colourised Photographs and started sharing the pictures he had worked on. By the time of writing he had more than 28 000 followers, and they were asking for a book of colourised images.

We’re all familiar with old black-and-white images, but Le Roux says in colour, people and places often have more recognition value to the modern eye. “My hope is that The Boer War in Colour will help to bring this conflict into the 21st century, so to speak, and to introduce a younger generation to this fascinating and rich piece of our history.”

He writes the the process is time consuming , requiring research, patience, endurance,  commitment to perfection and continuous attention to detail. “The goal is always to achieve life-life realism.”

Le Roux had thousands of pictures to choose from, coming from the internet, private owners, museums and books. One contributor alone sent Le Roux more than 20 000 pictures.

Research was key. To be sure he had the exact colours of uniforms right, he found colour plates of uniforms of the era, and also museum displays of uniforms, arms, objects and general clothing from the war.

For the landscapes, he drew on Google Maps Street Views.

Despite the useful software, he writes that colourisation is done by hand, “or rather by hand on mouse”. A standard image with an average amount of detail takes him about three to four hours to colourise, but pictures depicting large groups of people or complex landscapes could take between 10 and 15 hours.

So what about the results?

They are astonishing. Somehow the old black-and-white pictures look like historical artefacts, while the colourised versions come to life. The people in them look like real people you might know (the wild Boer beards notwithstanding) rather than quaint figures from a bygone era.

I was also struck by what the combatants were wearing – the British troops were in standard uniforms, but the Boer soldiers wore a wide variety outfits, hats and boots and a mix of corduroy jackets and trousers, many of them tattered.

The pictures show mostly combatants, often relaxing over a brew-up, shaving, or loading their guns. A particularly touching one is of a young British drummer boy, surely no older than 14, writing a letter home, using his drum as a desk.

But that boy wasn’t the only young participant in the war – the Boer commandos included heartbreakingly youthful fighters.

There are also pictures of nurses, hospital tents full of wounded, Uitlanders heading for the British colonies, soldiers’ wives and children, black aides, and lots of guns and horses.

And there are a couple of pictures – one in a white Victorian frock and one in a slouch hat, trousers and bandolier – of an enigmatic woman called Mrs Barrett, who according to the original caption of the Jan van Hoepen picture, apparently spent three months on commando.

I believe that for generations reared on colour pictures and colour TV, some of the pictures depicting injured or even dead combatants hit home in a way that black-and-white ones don’t. The picture of dead British soldiers in their trench after the battle of Spion Kop (January 1900), taken by Van Hoepen, was reportedly the most published photograph of the war. (Afterwards, the trench was filled in, burying the dead Tommies where they lay.)

I have never been a particular fan of militaria or military photographs and I have to say there are an awful lot of posed pictures of unsmiling and bewhiskered Boers in this book. But for anyone interested in the history of this country it is worth looking at, and if you are truly interested, this is a must-have.

There is more good news for fans. This is only volume one, which covers the period of 1899 to 1900 and the British capture of Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Volume two will cover the guerilla phase of the war.







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