The British Empire Library

The Boer War

by Thomas Pakenham

The passage of time is chipping away many of the illusions from which we have suffered over a good deal of British military history. Thomas Pakenham's The Boer War, which is the byproduct of eight years of diligent research and is based upon information sources not previously available, sets out to do just this. It was disappointing to find that, due to his apparent determination to give The Establishment a sound hammering, the book is sadly out of balance. When you consider this tragically ill-managed campaign, it is easy to see that anyone wishing to denigrate the commanders and politicians invol ved would have little difficulty in doing so. The story is well written but it is clear that the author has little real knowledge of tactics and strategy and that all too often, in the interests of reinforcing a particular point or prejudice, he tends to draw conclusions from his data which are not entirely logical or consistent. Most readers with a feeling for military history will become irritated by the book because they will find it difficult to live with its lack of objectivity. However, one must be fair and record that it contains a great deal of fascinating material and stimulating argument which deserves serious consideration. Certainly it made this reviewer realise what dramatic advances were to be made in the conduct of war even by 1914 and how totally different are the professional standards of the British Army today to those reflected by the Commanders and staffs fighting this remarkable campaign in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century - although many finer traditions remain essentially unchanged.

One particular facet of the growing realism of modern history which strikes one forcibly is the cold-blooded and ruthless analysis which historians now make of the personalities of names which have long been revered by the British public. Thus, not only the unfortunate Buller, but the great "Bobs" and Baden Powell, not to mention lan Hamilton, all receive pretty savage treatment from Thomas Pakenham. (Whilst no one would wish to sustain a false image of any national figure, one is driven to feel that, in the search for truth, historians do not always look at things through eyes atuned to the age about which they are writing.)

Pakenham rightly shows us how bitter were the personal animosities which existed within the Army between various factions and of the lengths to which men were prepared to go to score over those for whom they felt deep personal antipathy. Perhaps the most drastic of all these was Roberts' action to have Buller dismissed from the Army for indiscipline on the grounds of a breach of security after the war was over. The sad thing about the Buller-Roberts conflict was that there were many occasions during the war when Buller might justifiably have been sacked. Mainly on account of his great popularity with the troops and, one suspects, because of the generally poor quality of the higher commanders available from which a replacement might have been sought, he was allowed to soldier on and, as Pakenham shows, actually finished the war on a very high note. The author's other principal indictment of Roberts centres around his incompetence as a logistician. Looking at the author's case through modern eyes, it is certainly pretty damning. There can be little doubt that the progress of the war was very adversley affected by the extraordinarily low standard of logistical awareness which existed amongst Roberts and his senior staff officers. It is, perhaps, difficult for us to appreciate how little attention was given to logistics by the General Staff in those days. Yet, if you look back to the more recent past, you can find that the legendary Erwin Rommel, suffered from virtually the same shortcomings and paid much the same price. (This reviewer once wrote to Rommel's former Chief of Operations asking him some questions about the logistical support of the Afrika Corps and received the reply:

"I cannot answer your questions about logistics, I was responsible for Plans and Operations. We had specialists to deal with administrative matters.")

Like so many controversial books, Thomas Pakenham's bulky volume is not one for the tyro. However, if you have some knowledge of The Boer War and are prepared to take your time, the book certainly provides one with an interesting intellectual exercise.

British Empire Book
Thomas Pakenham
Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Review Originally Published
British Army Review 64


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