The British Empire Library

A Gentleman in Khaki Ordered South: The Boer War Diary of Corporal George Stokes

by Stephen Huggins

Stephen Huggins was fortunate to come into the possession of an interesting diary by way of a house clearance. This serendipitous acquisition is all the more useful due to its very ordinariness. The original diarist was George Stokes who joined the Northamptonshire Regiment some four years earlier at the age of 16 (technically too young even then). His shipping out to South Africa in 1899 was nothing unusual for a country which found itself at war even if it was against an unlikely enemy such as that provided by the Boer Republics. George Stokes account gives an insight into a sustained campaign and the practicalities of soldiering at this point in history. It is telling that the diarist often refers to Tommy this, and Tommy that... for he is in reality himself the embodiment of a typical Tommy Atkins. He is loyal, honest, follows orders, grumbles about the food, questions the effectiveness of some of his immediate superiors (but never the generals directing the war), carefully counts the miles marched and seems to be cool under fire. He is not particularly erudite and offers no astounding insights into the heart of men or the reasons for the war. However, it is his every day accounts of life in the army at the turn of the Century which possibly reveal more than an author writing for an audience might achieve.

The book gains in value by the added commentary and footnotes provided by Stephen Huggins. It is also refreshing to read an overview of the conflict, however briefly it is given, that is not hidebound to stereotypes on either side. He rightly points out the nuances of the war many of which are later borne out by the commentary of George Stokes himself. For example, Stephen Huggins mentions that one of the prime motivations for the war was over the treatment of black Africans by the two main European protagonists - something often forgotten by historians who should know better. With this in mind, it was interesting then to read later on in the diary when George Stokes explains the treatment of the captured Boer general Cronje by the natives. It is only a throw away line but the fact that they were "hooting and jeering" at the captured Boer more than hints at their antipathy towards the Boers and their wish to see them defeated. The fact that the British soldiers then put a stop to the 'misbehaving natives' provides yet another insight that the British might not be so different from the Boers after all - and a pointer to the future that would unfold after the war. I was also interested that the author addresses another misconception that the British invented the 'Concentration Camp'. He rightly points out that these were already in use by the Spanish in both their Cuban and Philippines colonies in the lead up and into the Spanish-American War. And whilst he does not deny the mismanagement and terrible conditions he also points out that they were also for Africans as well as Boers - another fact that is often overlooked and forgotten by commentators on the Boer War who prefer to deliver an over-simplified narrative. The Concentration Camps were an administrative response to the new kind of Guerilla War that unfolded in the second stage of the Boer War conflict. They were never deliberate death camps designed to kill off the enemy although the maladministration turned some of them into effective death sentences for far too many innocent women, elderly and children. Disease was still a huge issue in what was effectively the last of the pre-vaccination conflicts. Disease affected both sides terribly and many more British soldiers died of disease than from bullets as Stephen Huggins points out. What is interesting from the diary is the corroboration of this fact by the number of references to soldiers going ill, including George Stokes himself who is invalided out of the conflict for a good month. There was also a wry smile when he mentions that a particularly strict Colour Sergeant has to be replaced due to fever and that everyone was glad to be rid of him and that his replacement was much more amenable. That this is a war from a period of scientific transition is revealed when you look at the statistics of soldiers who died from diseases such as Typhus and Dysentery in World War One compared to the Boer War. By the Great War thanks to advances in vaccinations, these Nineteenth Century cullers of soldiers were almost non-existent. It is sobering to think that the First World War was only 12 years after the Boer War finished and yet what an enormous transformation was achieved in that short time.

Stephen Huggins provides an overview of the historical events covered by this diary. Although I couldn't help but feel that a timeline would have been useful. I did find myself going back to his overview a few times to try and keep track of where the diary was in the course of the campaign that George Stokes was involved in. Additionally, a map showing the route taken by George Stokes with his service in the Northamptonshire Regiment and the 9th Brigade would also have been helpful. A map would certainly have helped give context to all the marching that had to be done by poor George - this was clearly the major bane of an infantryman's life. He does record his hours and miles marched with meticulous precision. I also appreciated the insights into the practicalities of night marching, or of the composition of the columns themselves which could often stretch for miles in distance and as he points out could include over 200 wagons to carry the mountain of supplies and ammunition that a modern army required. This war was very much one in the period of technological transition as trains could hurtle soldiers towards the war zone only for them to have to march in the vast spaces of Southern Africa in any other direction not supplied by a rail head. There is also mention of observation balloons and the increased ranges of artillery and rifles are clearly demonstrated time and again in the book. In many ways the Boer War provided serious pointers to the increasing lethality of war that the Great War would reveal on a whole other scale.

I personally was interested to read about the crew of HMS Doris who accompanied George Stoke's Brigade and took part in the fighting around the Modder River and Paardeberg. The reason that this particularly account struck a chord with me is because I come from Plymouth and I frequently walk past the captured Pom-Pom gun in Devonport Park whose capture is explained by George Stokes. He obviously had some admiration for the sailors. I was also interested that they christened their own guns as "Joey Chamberlain's" giving yet more context to the characters of the age. There are also lots of references to contemporary songs of the day which may seem innocent to today's ears but which obviously important to homesick soldiers or to communicate to officers their concerns (there is a funny account of them singing songs to try and encourage the accompanying officers to allow them to put on their raincoats).

George Stoke's bottom up view of the war also allows us to understand the changing nature of the war itself as his own unit goes through the big battles and concomitant setbacks of the early war. They then go on to the offensive with their relentless columns ultimately grinding down the Boers but even as they feel they are coming ever closer to victory you can feel the nature of the warfare change as 'sniping' becomes an ever more serious reality and how it is becoming more and more difficult to engage the Boers in open conflict. Regrettably, the book that the diary is written in becomes full up just as the war is about to fully transition to the full on guerilla warfare which ground on for another two years with all the horrors of the concentration camps and the blockhouses dividing up the countryside yet to come. You can't help wondering how George Stokes adapted to this changing nature of warfare. We do know that he stayed in the country as late as 1903 so became something of a veteran and presumably an experienced one at that by the time he returned home.

There are so many more insights into the war for the reader to uncover and enjoy; the treatment of looters from a militia unit, the The book is actually very easy to read and has an engaging of sometimes perfunctory manner. He certainly does not articulate many criticisms and he seems to harbour almost no ill-will towards his enemy. He is a professional doing as is expected of him. There is one hint in the book that a soldier's lot is not a happy one when he says after a soldier in his company is court-martialled for falling out without permission "Such is Tommy's Lot out here and our friends at home are misled by the newspapers simply because they don't know the true state of things but the truth will come out when the War is over and many a true story will be told by Tommy which will open the eyes of all at home and put England to shame". Oh how you would love him to expand further on this outburst. It was written after a period of sustained marching and some resentment towards officers who were not suffering the same privations as the soldiers themselves. It does go to show though that even loyal soldiers had their breaking point and that their welfare was paramount if you wanted an effective fighting machine. The Boer War itself revealed to Britain, just in time, that the army was in dire need of further reform. Fortunately, Britain did indeed learn many of the lessons from this conflict and these allowed the British Army to make a much better account of itself in the 1914-18 war than may otherwise have been the case. And who else fought in the Great War, none other than the veteran George Stokes who willingly returned to service himself and who used his expertise to both fight the Germans and to train new recruits with himself rising ultimately to the rank of Company Sergeant Major. One cannot help but feel that his own personal experiences of being a lowly soldier in the Boer War had an effect on the way he fought and trained others to fight in the next war and that is why this diary is so useful. As I mentioned above, George Stoke's diary is extraordinarily useful because of its very ordinariness.

British Empire Book
Stephen Huggins


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe