Copyright 2000, H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list.

H-Net Review.jpg (37078 bytes)

Bill Nasson. The South African War, 1899-1902. London: Arnold; and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 304 pp. Maps, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-340-74154-6.

Reviewed by Ron Viney, South African Heritage Resources Agency, Johannesburg, South Africa .
Published by H-SAfrica (December, 2000)

Just a note to the publishers first. Typographical errors are irritating at the best of times, but when the distance between Pretoria and Johannesburg is given as: "... about 300 miles away" (p.181), then it changes the theatre of the war. This should read: "... about 30 miles away".

This book argues that the war has a recognised significance in world history. Bill Nasson aims to provide an account of how the war unfolded. How the political contest between Boer republicanism and British imperialism developed into a violent struggle. How the warring sides conducted their operations; how adversaries saw each other; how the conflict affected belligerent societies and some beyond; how the combatants finally turned to peace; and how finally how the war has come to be remembered in the country across which it was fought and how it might be seen now. [p. xi]. The British defeats of 1899 were surprising precisely because they were inflicted on an army that had long appreciated the danger of underestimating its opponents or the variety of local conditions it would encounter. [p.viii] Nasson makes clear that Britain's weakness at the outset of the war handed the Boers an initial strategic advantage. [p.viii]. This advantage dissipated while the old tardy Boer leadership pondered on their siege strategy as the way to defeat the British. This was nothing new, as all the battles and skirmishes fought by the Boers with black polities relied heavily on siege tactics. Ironically, as the author shows, it was a younger, more liberal generation [and generally better educated and well read; as well as being part of the Boer landed gentry] - Botha and Smuts pre-eminent among them - who reinvigorated the Boer's military effort in 1900 and took it to the guerilla phase. (p. ix). Nasson manages to admirably bring together research on race, class, gender and military history in this book.

For Nasson the account recapitulates much of the staple history of the war, it does not attempt to reproduce every well-known detail about campaigns, sieges, personalities, regiments, and units. This is partly because such technically descriptive detail can be found elsewhere. But it is also because the main purpose here for the author is to produce a fairly compact interpretation rather than an exhaustive treatment of what has been called the Transvaal War, The Great Boer War or even the Grate Bore War (p. xiv). The name for this war even a hundred years later has stirred up great controversy in South Africa. Those wishing for a more inclusive parameter in the new South Africa wanted it to be the South African War. Most British, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians still know it as the Anglo-Boer War. The idea of referring to it as the Anglo Boer South African war also was toyed with or, as some wit noted, the ABSA war - the name of a large banking group in South Africa.

Initially I thought that the amount of space given to the military campaigns and troop movements was out of proportion to the social issues the war has raised. I am not too keen on traditional military histories myself and still see very little point in counting how many bullets were expended on the battlefield. Perhaps, I thought, it was an attempt to get back to the 'real war'; as Janet Farquarson - a Correspendent with the South African Sunday Times and avid amateur military historian - commented at the UNISA Conference on 'Rethinking the South African War,' held in August 1998. [The conference dealt mainly with social issues and very little with military narrative.]

On closer reading, however, the interpretive nuances provided by Nasson are well worth it. This clearly comes out with the interfering Rhodes in the siege of Kimberley. The antics of Rhodes seen a hundred years distant are very reminiscent of the fuss a drama queen makes over little things. The 'over by Christmas' mentality that was to permeate through to the two world wars comes out in this narrative. Nasson points to the engendered nature of the war - women on the Boer side infiltrating a masculine world of fighting. This was not unusual, as war for the Boers was always something of a family business. Initially the war was sustained by memories - for the Boers, of the victory at Majuba in the 1880s, and the British by this ignominious defeat- as well as the refusal by the British to believe that a handful of farmers could hold off large numbers of regular troops accustomed to victory.

By the time of the guerrilla phase of the war, the British had slowly come to realise the value of the use of irregular strategy. This provided ample opportunity for colonial irregulars in the British army to prove their worth by attributing British and Boer characteristics to themselves. Only those steeped in knowledge of the Boer [horsemanship, good shooting, hardship on the open veldt, being able to live off the land] and his ways could defeat him. Quaintly this provided a sense of national identity for Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, but not especially for English speaking South African colonials.

Nasson looks at the perceptions Boers had of themselves and their enemies, what perceptions the British and colonials had of themselves and their enemies as well as some of the popular myth making in the British [especially around Mafeking] and European popular narrative. He looks at the inherent weaknesses that come out in the Boer military system based on equality, as well as the inherent weaknesses of the rigid British military parameter. What does not come out clearly though are the distinct differences in the British Army itself between colonial regulars and colonial irregulars that often hampered the British war effort. No clearer example is that of Breaker Morant.

What can be deduced from this work is that both sides initially used their traditional methods to wage war and failed in their objectives. Clearly, these outdated methods would not give either side the victory they wanted. Armoured trains and the railway, the telegraph and heliograph, balloons, guns with ranges and smokeless powder that made killing the enemy an ever more remote experience, the end of the fixed formation charge, construction of sangars and trenches [a rather disastrous experiment that was attempted during the first world war and modelled after the Boer entrenchments at Magersfontein] all squarely and unmistakably made this a modern war of the twentieth century - right up to the guerrilla tactics used in the second stages of the war.

The book attempts to appeal to roughly two groups of readers:

A] Those interested in a digestible general portrayal of the war, with minimal prior knowledge of the conflict or perhaps even no basic comprehension of the episode at all. In this, Nasson admits it is an attempt to squeeze quarts into pint pots (p. xiv).

B] Those who have an outline grasp of the conflict, or even a grasp of some central detail. Nasson would like to see in the ensuing perspective that readers should find something over which to ponder or quibble. Greater understanding of the war can only benefit from the critical judgement of readers as well as the continuing dialogue of historians (p. xiv).

Judging, however, from the fact that all distances are given in miles the book is aimed mainly at the US market. It should be made more accessible to those places directly involved with the war, especially South Africa. This may help to dispel the myth of this being just another colonial war between two white groups.

Nasson incorporates his earlier work to show how involved in the war many of the black population became (p. ix). Some might ask why should this book even have been undertaken while the larger South African population see this still as a white man's colonial war with blacks only on the periphery? Ironically, as Greg Cuthbertson has pointed out, the more historians attempt [not deliberately so] to tell the forgotten story of black participation and suffering in the war, the more they are again marginalised and placed on the periphery of events.[1] In this work, then, Nasson wants to inform, but also aims to appeal to the general reader. He believes that now, a century on since 1899, a return to some consideration of that harsh imperialist-republican fight is timely (p. xiii).

Not all share this view and the majority of South Africans remain to be convinced otherwise. The newly elected democratic government as well as a number of radical historians called for a boycott of the 100-year commemoration. One possible reason being that they saw the war as too distant to provide relief for the immediate trauma inflicted by years of struggle against apartheid. An intimation of this was the very small amount of oral tradition to be found in the search for the black concentration camps. On the other hand White Afrikaner martyrdom was and still is based heavily on concentration camp trauma during the war and passed down as a treasure trove of oral and written accounts. A hefty debate raged in Free State Afrikaans newspapers in 1996 as to whether blacks had participated or been involved [even on the periphery] in the war. Some white Afrikaans readers vehemently denied black participation or involvement.

For Nasson it was undertaken partly because no new general narrative treatment in English has appeared since Thomas Pakenham in the 1970s (p.xiii). Nasson does not try to emulate Pakenham's work but does manage to bring in wider research conducted on the war since Pakenham's work appeared. Perhaps it is intimated that it should be read as a plea from the novelist Kathy Lette's Australian anti-heroine, Maddy Wolfe: 'go on, rewrite history then!. it's a time honoured English Tradition. The Boer war, Gallipoli, the fall of Singapore' (p. xiii).

Finally, Nasson points out that there is probably nothing like war to remind one that history, if anything, is the story of human folly. Indeed perhaps one of the reasons academic South African historians still give military history a wide berth is that the continuing sound of gunfire on many of the countries streets still brings home the realities of close combat better than any writing (p. xvi).


[1]. Seminar on the 'The role of Christian missions during the South African War,' Rand Afrikaans University Library, 30 October 2000.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 21/03/2001
S D Stein

Reviews Index Page
Holocaust Index Page
Genocide Index Page
ESS Home Page