Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War

I have this odd fascination with England and her Empire. I also have this odd fascination with Germanic peoples and languages) Of course South Africa and her Afrikaners then are a natural subject toward which I tend to gravitate. Plus, I am a sucker for war and various other misery, so hell, why not learn about the Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, or the Boer War [actually, the Second Boer War].

I first learned about the Boer War from watching Breaker Morant. [NB One is not allowed to live freely in Australia without watching Breaker Morant, period. I think it is a condition for obtaining a visa.] Breaker Morant, of course, takes place during the Boer War in 1902, rather late in the game. The Boers have gone guerrilla on the British, who in desperation get their colonial subjects to pick up the slack. Breaker Morant his his chum Handcock [am I the only one to notice that this is a rather unfortunate name?] are part of an Australian regiment, the Bushveldt Carbineers. They get into a battle with some Boers who kill their leader, Captain Hunt. Morant and Handcock, as vengeance, kill a bunch of Boer prisoners and a German missionary. Morant and Handcock are arrested, tried and found guilty of murder, for which they are put to death by firing squad. Bloody evil Poms!

For all the rage this incident caused in Australia, it is but a single paragraph of the 700-page history weaved together by Thomas Pakenham, one of the finest popular works of history I have ever read. There are 3 reasons why Pakenham’s account stands out from so much of the other fine works I have read. First, his timing is impeccable. This book was written over 10 years in the 1970s, a period in which Pakenham was able to track down over 50 surviving veterans of the war. [The youngest veteran was 86 years old!] By getting access to these men and so much first-hand material, Pakenham is able to provide incredible detail in every facet of the agonizing story, especially in describing many of the battles.

Second, Pakenham does more than simply recite the facts and weave them into a narrative. Pakenham is able to make a case that the previous histories were biased and faulty. For example, Pakenham works hard throughout the work to resurrect the reputation of Sir Redvers Buller, who was blamed for the sorry state of the early part of the war and left South Africa with his reputation in tatters, despite a long string of victories. Pakenham details the infighting in the War Office and the Army and concludes that, in many cases, the British were their own worst enemy. Pakenham is also able to present the Boer perspective based on his primary sources.

Finally, Pakenham can bloody well write. This work of history reads like a novel. Because Pakenham takes a stand on certain topics, there are clear heroes and villains and this makes for a terrific popular history. Further, Pakenham provides just the right level of detail in his maps: every feature marked in the maps represent a significant point of discussion. Despite the length, this is a lean work presented with efficiency.

I cannot recommend this book more highly.  That is, unless you are Australian and believe Breaker Morant was sacrificed by Lord Kitchener on the altar of international intrigue.