The Last Horseman & the Boer War

The Last Horseman & the Boer War


Some notes on the background for my latest novel that was published 12th August.

The Boer War conflict of 1899-1902 embodied human drama, tragedy and heroism, but it also showed military and political folly on a grand scale. Like all great conflicts that can split communities and families there were Irishmen not only from the same county, city or town fighting each other in the Anglo-Boer War, but from the same neighbourhood. Echoes of the American Civil War. This Anglo-Boer War, also known as the South African War and to one side who fought it as the Second War of Freedom, became a torturous series of battles of attrition that caught up women and children and the African population. It also divided the South African nation as, like the Irish, families fought on both sides.

The conflict also foreshadowed the Great War that followed twelve years later. More than 400,000 horses and mules died in the Boer War, but the lessons were not learnt quickly enough by those who took their cavalry into Europe years later. For those who fought the Boer War on horseback – the end was already in sight. And, like the Spanish Civil War in 1936 it attracted foreign fighters from across the world. A Foreign Brigade, among them of Irish, Dutch, German, American and French fought on the side of the Boers.

At the outbreak of hostilities between the South African Republics and Great Britain, European counties adopted a strict neutrality, issuing instructions to their citizens that they should refrain from taking any part in the conflict. The German and Dutch governments issued direct warnings that no assistance was to be offered and that any vessel found to be taking supplies to aid South Africa against Great Britain would have its cargo impounded and the shipping line would be subjected to punitive fines. The German people might well have sympathized with the South Africans but Count Von Bülow, the German Imperial Chancellor, issued a statement that the policy of a great country should not at a critical moment be governed by the dictates of feeling, but should be guided solely in accordance with the interests of the country, calmly and deliberately calculated. French popular sympathy was clearly with the Boers but the Paris administration ordered the prefects throughout the country to remove from official minutes the resolutions of sympathy for the Boers which had been adopted by the provincial councils.

The Americans were fascinated by the South African/Boer War. It was a spectacle of a farmer militia taking on the might of the British Empire and their professional soldiers – a conflict that reflected American’s own struggle for independence. They displayed as much interest in this colonial war as they did in their own fight against Spain a year earlier during the Spanish-American War. America was now a colonial power like Britain and the South African War created divisions within American society.

In 1900 Theodore Roosevelt, then governor of New York, wrote: ‘The trouble with the war is not that both sides are wrong, but that from their different standpoints both sides are right.’ He insisted that the Republican administration remain neutral but felt that Britain was undertaking the same role of benevolent international policeman that he sought for the United States. He felt that the interests of the English-speaking peoples and civilization ‘demand the success of the English army’. Some church ministers were also vociferous in support for the British. Bishop Joseph C. Hartzell – responsible for the American Methodist missions in Africa – proclaimed that only the British were fit to bear the white man’s burden in Africa and explained that the Boers considered the Africans to be children of Ham and treated them as slaves, but the British in the Cape Colony (to the south of the Boer Republics) gave Africans the franchise under the same conditions as their white neighbours.

Needless to say, the German-American Methodists heartily contested Hartzell’s assertions, claiming he had been influenced by the grant of free land for his missions by Cecil Rhodes – the great instigator of imperial expansionism in Southern Africa.
Mark Twain was not pro-British but was forthright in his opinion. ‘England must not fall,’ he said. ‘It would mean an inundation of Russian and German political degradations… a sort of Middle-Age night and slavery which would last until Christ comes again. Even wrong – and she is wrong – England must be upheld.

The Last Horseman & the Boer War