Despatches from the Front: The Boer War 1899-1902, John Grehan and Martin Mace

Despatches from the Front: The Boer War 1899-1902, John Grehan and Martin Mace

The Boer War was the last war of the Victorian Era, and the last significant 'Imperial' war before the outbreak of the First World War. This book reproduces a good selection of the official reports submitted by the senior British officers involved in the war, mainly sent to the War Office, and as a result gives us a view of the war from the higher reaches of the British army.

Some of these reports cover British defeats, and the different approaches taken by the different authors are interesting. Some look for lessons to learn, others attempt to assign blame (rarely taking any for themselves). Baden-Powell is the only senior officer who takes full blame for a failure on himself, a refreshing change ('If blame for this reverse falls on anyone it should fall on myself, as everybody concerned did their part of the work thoroughly well, and exactly in accordance with the orders I had issued'). You can see why Baden-Powell was so successful at Mafeking. 

The worst example is probably General Warren, in overall command during the battle of Skion Kop. Despite being in touch with the troops on the hill, he decided to summon General Coke off ths hill for a personal meeting. While Coke was away, Lt Colonel Thorneycroft, the officer left in command decided to abandon the increasingly untenable position. Warren seems unable to admit that his decision to call Coke back played a part in this result, and even insinuated that there should be an investigation of the decision to retreat.

The section on the siege of Mafeking is of great interest, in part because it makes one realise that this war was fought in a recognisable modern environment. While most of the battle accounts could just have easily come from any time in the previous century (perhaps helping to explain some of the earlier British failures), here we have railway engines being moved around to hide them from artillery fire, a new rail line built along one of the fronts, armoured trains and improvised search lights, modern touches that give this part of the war a rather different feel.

The biggest flaw here is that the editors have chosen to focus on the set piece battles of the war, so the vast bulk of them cover the period 1899-1900. There is only one report from the second phase of the war, when the Boer commandos fought a costly guerilla war that required a different type of fighting. The one report from this period looks at one of the larger fights, although does also cover some of the mobile fight against the commandos. Other that that this is a useful selection of documents, giving us a picture of how the higher ranks of the British Army saw the events of the Boer War, and indeed of warfare in general.

1 - Battles of Talana Hill, Elandslaagte, Belmont, Graspan and Modder
2 - Battle of Graspan, Naval Despatches
3 - Battle of Ladysmith
4 - Battle of Stormberg
5 - Battle of Magersfontein
6 - Battle of Spion Kop
7 - Battle of Paardeberg
8 - Relief of Kimberley
9 - Siege of Mafeking
10 - Relief of Mafeking
11 - Relief of Ladysmith
12 - The Battle of Diamond Hill and the Capture of Johannesburg and Pretoria
13 - Battle of Blood Rover Poort

Author: John Grehan and Martin Mace
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2014

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