I’ve been working on a project which has involved going through newspaper and magazine reports written during the Boer War. What always strikes me about them is how honest they are about the reality of war. Soldiers suffer mental breakdowns and shock on the battlefield. Sergeants claw at the veldt scrub in agony as they wait for a death that no medical attention can avert.
This is the kind of coverage not seen in the heavily censored accounts that came out of the First and Second World Wars. The British commanders in the Boer War come in for a scrutiny and criticism that might have been valuable in the First World war – and may even have saved lives. The ordinary soldiers didn’t escape criticism either. As an office boy on the Glasgow Herald I spent two weeks finding out what the paper had to say about events over the preceding 200 years. I remember a leader, or as some people might call it, an opinion piece, along the lines of “We do not mind British soldiers surrendering, but 200 fully armed and fresh troops raising their hands to 20 Boers does stick in the craw more than somewhat”. The Herald’s leader writers were also far from impressed with the treaty which ceded Hong Kong to Britain in 1842 and were convinced the Chinese negotiators had got the better of the British. “Just what use is this miserable little island at the mouth of the Canton?” was the gist of the paper’s leader at the time.