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Release Spring 2015
Friends and Enemies: The Natal Campaign in the South African War 1899-1902
When the Boer Republics invaded the province of Natal in 1899, the invaders could have been driven out with casualties measured in hundreds. Instead Britain was to lose nearly 9,000 men killed in action, more than 13,000 to disease and a further 75,000 wounded and sick. The war ended in 1902 with a very unsatisfactory Peace Treaty.
At the start of the conflict Britain’s Generals were faced with problems new to the military establishment. Shows of force did little to intimidate a determined opposition; infantry charges against a hidden enemy armed with modern rifles resulted in a futile waste of lives. Artillery could now destroy unseen targets at great range. Lack of mobility resulted in more than half the army being besieged in Ladysmith bringing with it concomitant civilian involvement. Some generals learnt quickly – others were slower and yet others still, perhaps through pride and stubbornness, refused to alter their ways and thus their men paid with their lives. The bravery and sacrifice during the campaign have been described in many books, as have the faults of the generals. But little attention has been paid to the greatest blunder of all: a failure to take proper cognizance of local advice, opinion and capability.
From the beginning, locally raised regiments demonstrated how the Boers might be defeated without incurring heavy casualties and, when they were finally given their heads, they chased the invaders out of Natal while suffering only nominal casualties.
This deeply researched study of a key aspect of the Boer War includes, for the first time, the experiences of the inhabitants of Natal – soldier and civilian, men, women and children, black and white. Friends and Enemies is the result of years of intensive study undertaken in archives in both South Africa and Britain. It will appeal to the general reader as well as being an important and scholarly resource to students of nineteenth and twentieth century conflict.
Hugh Rethman was born in Natal into a family of farmers and traders whose forbears were among the province’s early settlers. He was educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown, before reading English literature, economics, economic history, and political philosophy at the University of Natal. A keen sportsman and horseman, he later moved to England where he read law at the University of Leeds. He qualified as a Barrister and practised law in both England and South Africa, and also ran a retail business in Durban. He holds a wide range of interests, but is particularly passionate about history. He has written articles on the Boer War for the journals of the Victorian Military History Society and the Military History Society of South Africa. He lives in Suffolk, England. Friends and Enemies is his first book.
A five-minute interview with Hugh Rethman
The Tattered Flag: Thank you for your time. Perhaps we can start by asking you how you came to be interested in the history of the Boer War?
Hugh Rethman: Everyone living in South Africa has had their lives affected by the Boer War and should be interested in that conflict.
TF: Why did you choose the Natal campaign as the subject for a book? What was it that motivated you to write about it?
HR: In 1899 a substantial section of my family was living in northern Natal and they were to suffer much during the Boer invasion. My great grandfather commanded a Natal Volunteer Regiment which participated in many of the actions which occurred before during and after the Siege of Ladysmith. I first visited the battlefields in Northern Natal many years ago. I have ridden in country horse races, run marathons and ultra-marathons and taken part in cycle races around northern Natal and in the process made many friends. The place and its history are familiar to me. In 1999 the centenary of the start of the Boer War was celebrated by a rash of books on the subject. I was astonished to find that the people of Natal were being written out of their history, and resolved to correct the position.
TF: What lessons were learned by the British and the Boers from this campaign? Was there a clear winner - and why?
HR:The British Military learned to take account of local advice and experience, and that one's position, strength and intentions should be hidden from the enemy. Training was adapted to ensure that all troops should be thoroughly schooled in the use of their weapons and in particular how to shoot straight. Horses ought only to be used for transport or when they increased mobility. The days of the Cavalry charge were over.
Politicians learned that by use of what Churchill called 'terminological inexactitudes' one's career could be promoted, and if repeated often enough their veracity would not be questions.
Though the Boers suffered defeat, the peace terms handed down by British politicians gave them a victory for which the rest of South Africa was to pay a heavy price.
TF: Did the Natal campaign have any direct and significant longer-term political, social or military effects on, or implications for, southern Africa?
HR: The lessons learnt by the military were to stand them in good stead in the latter stages of the Boer War and in WW1. The longer term political and social effects are beyond the scope of the book.
TF: How did you conduct your research for the book and how did it evolve?
HR: I created a diary for each day of the campaign. In recording my research I made a brief note in the diary of each event with a reference to the authority which provided the information. In my research I realised I would have to include the experiences of the so-called Uitlanders who in 1899 were in Natal. Many of these people were born and bred Natalians who had been employed in the Transvaal. Others such as the Australians and New Zealanders had strong cultural ties with their fellow colonials in Natal.
TF: During the course of writing Friends and Enemies did you come across any surprises or did your opinions change on aspects?
HR: I was surprised by the savagery of the Boer invasion of Natal. I knew what they had done to my family but did not realise just how extensive and universal this behaviour was. My attitude towards some British Generals mellowed. The War Office and the Colonial Office had issued a directive that the Natal Colonial Government and locally raised forces were not to be given any military information. It was the authorities in England who issued these directives who should bear the lion's share of the blame for the calamities which befell the army during the first few months of the war.I developed great affection for Generals Buller and White. Both men had tremendous organisational ability. Buller's great concern for his men and the total absence of what used to be called side makes it very difficult not to like him. The incident in which he led the recalcitrant mules onto the train says so much about his character and why he attracted such loyalty from the rank and file. In a situation where British officers barely noticed the existence of the civilians in Ladysmith, General White always considered their position and the suffering they endured. From the start he realised the capability of the local Volunteers.
TF: Many thanks for your time. Finally, any further writing projects planned?
HR: I would like to write a short book on the Kitchener's concentration camps, in reality, Refugee Camps and Hospitals. The title would be 'She Meant Well', she being the suffragette Emily Hobhouse. Most of the research has been done. For a rooinek I have an unusual connection here. One of my mother's uncles died in the Brandfort Concentration Camp, and is therefore one of the heroes of 'Die Volk'. I would also like to write a booklet about a South African who while flying a fighter in the Battle of Britain was shot down and severely burned. In fact he was the most seriously burned person to have survived the war. He underwent very painful surgery for more than three years as his face and body were reconstructed. After the war he returned to his home in Kokstad, one of our neighbouring towns. As a late teenager I played cricket against him on numerous occasions. He fielded in gloves and was, I suppose, a passenger in the team. However, he was good company and it was an honour to play with him. I last saw him in the mid-seventies so there should still be people in Kokstad who remember him. His flying and medical records should be available here.