Monday, 23 May 2011

The Boer War - Thomas Pakenham - book review

I have just finished reading this admirable chronicle of an often overlooked conflict.

The author is at great pains to lay pipework in the opening chapters, placing the war in its correct historical and geo-political context, and explaining the role of the politicans, military men and also the businessmen (particularly the owners of the large mining companies).

As Pakenham vividly details, the conflicts were not only played out between the British and the Boers. Vested interests, both political and economic, led to internal dissension on both sides, particularly in the British camp. The antipathy between notable British generals, and also with their political masters, is a constant theme throughout the book.

The story also examines the war's role in the industrialisation of warfare, and the measures taken against civilians as a means of furthering war aims. It is clear that these trends continued to develop, reaching their peak (or nadir) during the two world wars.

Militarily, the main strands which I picked out were the resourcefulness of the Boers, fighting against the numerical and material odds, and the often painful lessons learnt by the British in adapting to the terrain and the tactics of the enemy. Also stark are the strategic errors made by the British in seeking to bring the war to a swift conclusion. These mistakes seemingly often had the effect of bolstering Boer resistance, thereby prolonging the war.

The issue of the "camps" set up by the British to house Boer women and children is also examined in some detail, as is the role of the indigenous populations of South Africa in the war as a whole. To his credit, the author addresses these matters in a balanced but frank way.

In the closing chapters, the peace agreement, and the legacy of the war for the region, are also scrutinised.

As someone who before reading this work had limited knowledge of the subject, I found this to be an absorbing and enlightening book.

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