Thoughts of battle

2011-07-13 00:00

SUBTITLED Eyewitness Accounts from the South African War, this compact volume consists of 250 letters, diary entries and interviews published in British metropolitan and provincial newspapers, during the course of the Ladysmith campaign.

The events covered include the first battle of the war outside Dundee, the subsequent retreat to Ladysmith, the battle of Elandslaagte, and the siege and the various battles fought to relieve Ladysmith, such as Colenso, Spion Kop, Vaal Krantz and Tugela Heights, until the final breakthrough.

Unlike the articles by newspaper war correspondents, letters penned by the troops were not censored. The families and friends to which they were written, realising their value, passed them on to newspapers for publication. Here are frank and vivid evocations of both siege and battlefield, as well as opinions regarding leadership and tactics.

If there is a fault in the book, it is the lack of Boer voices. Their thoughts are occasionally glimpsed via quotations from Deneys Reitz, or in the compelling account of chaplain Father Reginald F. Collins who met with the Boers on top of Spion Kop after the battle.

His letter, published in the North British Daily Mail, paints a moving picture of the aftermath of battle: “After collecting all the identification papers, letters, and personal property of the fallen, and whilst waiting for the graves to be dug, we chaplains were unoccupied, and therefore had plenty of time to talk to the Boers around us ... there was a total absence of anything like exultation over what they must consider a military success ... there was sadness, almost anguish, in the way in which they referred to our fallen soldiers. I can best convey the truth of this statement ... by repeating expressions used, not once, but again and again, by great numbers of them as they inspected the ghastly piles of dead. ‘My God! What a sight’. ‘I wish politicians could see their handiwork.’ ‘What can God in heaven think of this sight?’ ‘What a cursed war that brings these fellows to such an end.’ ... ‘Would that Chamberlain, Rhodes and the millionaires could see these trenches and graves.’”

Editor Edward Spiers has done an excellent job in constructing a textual framework for the letters, providing connecting commentary, as well as an introduction and a final essay assessing the value of these letters unseen since their original publication.

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