Saturday, July 28, 2007

Over by Christmas

* A vast, mostly empty country, with geography ranging from deserts to craggy mountain ranges.
* Coveted riches stored deeply underground, a people half a world away with an unlimited appetite for those riches, and a government of those people intent on securing those riches for their own purpose, leading inevitably to war.
* An invasion popularly if tepidly supported in its earliest days, and commonly expected to be over by Christmas.
* A massive army rolling through the invaded country by the overwhelming strength of its numbers and firepower, only to bog down through overconfidence, mismanagement, and an enemy that refuses to wage war in the accepted manner.
* That same enemy, nearly invisible, taking advantage of guerrilla tactics and supported by a large portion of the country's inhabitants, refusing to surrender despite the ghastly toll on its soldiers, driven by religious fervor and the undeniable power of the underdog to deny its bully opponent what it wants.
* A majority of the natives of the invaded land actually hoping for the invaders to win and institute a new form of government, but afraid to show it through fear of reprisal by the insurgents.
* A massive loss of heart by the population of the invading country as the war drags on, leading to a turnover in the government and the ascendancy of the Liberal party.
* A string of commanding generals changing strategies, being managed by the intrusive government back home, and ultimately failing and being replaced in turn.
* War expenses far surpassing anything ever imagined before, and bodies piling up without a clear end in sight.

Sound familiar? Well, perhaps it is...but the country of the description above is actually South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, not Iraq at the beginning of the 21st. In 1899, overzealous imperialist government officials of Great Britain, eager to squelch rising nationalistic yearnings of the Boers in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, and at the same time, secure the gold mines of the Rand controlled by the English conglomerate of Wernher-Beit, privately squelched a peaceful compromise with the ruling Boers of the OFS and Transvaal. Publicly, they played the benevolent benefactor card, disdained the idea of the Boers capability to manage their own independence, and feigned shock and disgust with the Boers unequal treatment of the native Africans. And in the later half of 1899, they got exactly what they wanted; the Boers were provoked to attack in an effort to secure the borders of their respective countries before Great Britain could get its huge army of soldiers, no longer clad in scarlet but in khaki, into position to impose the will of the Empire.

From the beginning, the Boers were forced to fight a defensive strategy, and they excelled at inventing and refining tactics that the 19th-century British field manual had no answer for. Using native labor, they dug trenches in non-conventional positions, and used new French Mauser rifles to sharpshoot at the conveniently ordered British troops as they displayed their field marching superiority. Since the new Mausers were smokeless, British commanders on distant knolls couldn't locate the strength or weaknesses of the Boer defenses, and they inevitably ended up attacking at the exactly worst points. The results in terms of body counts were ghastly for the British Tommies and officers; but given the essentially unlimited numbers of forces at their disposal, the British generals kept attacking, and failing.

Back home, the Liberal politicians took up the chant to negotiate a quick end to the war, but the tide of the war contained just enough success to periodically revive the indomitable British patriotism. As Boer sieges at Ladysmith, Kimberly, and finally Mafeking were lifted, wild euphoria raged through the streets of London, and thoughts that the war was nearly over lifted the gloom from the daily casualty list. But the war dragged on; the Boers were not ones to easily submit to the foreign power, no matter how limitless it appeared.

For the Boer strength came from the soul. A deeply religious people, they routinely went into battle singing hymns after a short prayer service. They were certain that the Lord would deliver them from the hand of the Philistine. Their spiritual leader, the President of Transvaal, was Paul Kruger, a massive, puffy, bushy grey-headed 'peasant' with a gruffy voice and a strange syntax. Perhaps the furthest thing one might expect of a head of state, he nonetheless had attained his position through trial by fire. The third child of a migrant farmer in the Cape Colony, he participated in the "Great Trek" of the mid-1830's, a migration of the Boer population to the far reaches of the South African frontier where they could live free from the worldly dominance of the British. His education was "left to the Good Book and the rifle"; his father read the Bible aloud every day of his life, and his ability with the rifle was well-proven by the time he had killed a dozen lions. He had become a deputy field coronet by the time he was twenty-six, and proceeded to subdue a long list of African chieftains. By thirty-six he was Commander-General, and spent the rest of his life leading the inexorable movement of the Boers toward complete independence from Great Britain. As he sat on a train in June 1899, headed for the one last negotiation to avoid war, he spoke determinedly to his companions: "I shall give everything, everything, everything, for peace; but if they touch my independence, I shall resist."

But the British administrator in South Africa, Alfred Milner, had no intention of allowing President Kruger leave the meeting with his independence. Milner's grand plan was to force the Boers into war, quickly overcome them, discard the seated Boer governments, and replace them with colonial governments loyal to the British Empire. Then he would remake the countries into ideal mini-models of British society, securing the gold of the Rand for the capitalist giants of British industry, and assuring his place in British history.

Although the British finally prevailed in a war that took much longer than planned, and cost far more than the British treasury could afford, Milner's plans were continually frustrated. In the end, even though the Boer states were denied independence for the time and the gold fields were secured, nearly every other aim of Milner's was left unachieved. Especially embarrassing to Milner (and to the British government), the rights of the native Africans in South Africa were left to the determination of the Boer governments that were re-established in the years shortly after the war by the newly-seated Liberal government in London. That being done, the native Africans essentially had no rights at all for the next ninety years, until the first completely free and inclusive elections were held in South Africa in 1994.

Kruger was forced to flee Africa in the middle of the war and died in exile in Switzerland in 1904. While most of the British field generals of the Boer War "faded away", their proteges went on to become famous names in future wars: Ian Hamilton, Metheun, George White, Byng, Robertson, Birdwood, Allenby, French, and Douglas Haig. In an ironic twist of fate, Boer field generals Louis Botha and Jan Smuts went on to become leaders of the new states and imperial statesmen for the Crown in visits around the world. Meanwhile, the most committed and successful Boer generals, De Wet and De la Rey, remained stubborn, and led an unsuccessful Boer uprising in 1914; De la Rey was killed in the uprising, and De Wet was imprisoned and died there in obscurity eight years later. Milner retired from the front, resurfaced in the British War Office in the "Great War" ten years later, and finally, vacationing in South Africa in 1924 to re-visit the his "days of glory", was bitten by a tsetse fly and died of sleeping sickness.

Most who fought in and deliberated over the Boer War of 1899-1902 never ultimately knew what was won, or lost, by the war. By most appearances, life went on the same as it was prior to the war. But over one hundred thousand British casualties, including over 22,000 buried in the South African plain attested to the British public that they had indeed been in a war. The Boer dead included over 7,000 soldiers killed in battle, and another unknown number (estimated at 18,000 - 28,000 men, women, and children) died in a new product of modern war: the concentration camp, created by the British general Kitchener to "sweep the veld clean" for his war operation. And native African deaths were largely unregistered, but they appear to have totaled at least 12,000 among these black "non-participants" of a "white man's war."

Great Britain's War with the Boers of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal served primarily to change the nature of warfare. Open field formations and devastating cavalry attacks were gone forever; trench and bunker warfare, and death from an invisible enemy was ushered in and remained the mode of warfare for another hundred years. It took the opening of the next century, and the current "Boer War" against radical religionists to re-define once again how and why wars are fought.

"They took the hill. (Whose hill? What for?)
But what a climb they left to do!
Out of that bungled, unwise war
An alp of unforgiveness grew."
- William Plomer

Lord, we marvel at your ways.

Sir Chuck, looking backward to see forward

(For more of the Boer War, read the book of the same name by Thomas Pakenham)

1 comment:

  1. Concentration Camps was an unfortunate phrase chosen by Kitchner. They were not the same as the more fammiliar form

    Sir Jason