To kick start each morning of the South African Military Societies International Anglo Boer War History conference, held in Ladysmith two weeks ago, a blank was fired from a British Naval 12 pounder. This I soon discover is the Military equivalent of slugging back a double Espresso first thing the morning. A reverberating shock to attendees’ ear drums and pace makers, prepping us all for the illuminating and often arduous day of battle-speak ahead.
Held at the Platrad Lodge, overlooking significant Anglo Boer War battle terrain, the conference boasted a range of international and local speakers talking on topics that ranged from this War’s many myths, tactics and military blunders as well as revisionist takes on controversial and largely misunderstood historical figures of the time.
With one hundred and ten years having passed since the War, it seems Boer and Brit can now comfortably share the same room without wanting to ‘bliksem’ each other every time things get a little heated. Throughout the conference, areas of research and interest were analysed with healthy amounts of objectivity and the atmosphere reminded one of a jovial old boy’s reunion.
The aim of the conference was to provide a new source of understandings around the causes, events and consequences of Anglo Boer War. As organiser and military historian Ken Gillings stated in his opening address: “Such a conference is arranged so we can learn from the past and ensure that such atrocities never again occur in the future.”
Certainly the seminal purpose of any historical gathering– the very hook on which history’s precarious future hangs– is how to ensure that younger generations of South Africans are made privy to such findings.
Presently the Anglo Boer War receives no attention in the South African school curriculum. From a contemporary vantage point it seems it has become increasingly hard to relate, let alone sympathise, with the megalomaniacal Empire plundering and pillaging continents that never belonged to her. Similarly empathy for the Boers, in the aftermath of Apartheid, still seems for many too generous an emotion to muster.
Furthermore youngsters struggle to make head or tail of such antiquated notions of valour and self-sacrifice. What might once have been considered ‘noble’ and ‘courageous’ by the (apparently) more sober light of the Twenty- First Century appears just plain suicidal!
Hundreds of thousands of lives lost for what? A posthumous medal? A pile of rocks marking a mass grave on some forsaken koppie? A condolence telegram from the queen?
It was no surprise then that a majority of the delegates at the conference were elderly white men with either ancestral or academic/ military interests in the War. Khaki clad farmers with cement bags for bellies, bespectacled academics and British military men burnt beetroot pink from their previous day’s excursion to the battle fields.
The only other attendee below forty I could spot was a teenager from Durban, who told me his interest in the war was sparked by a battle field video game he and his mates enjoyed playing at home.
Offering a welcome change of tone and pace to the three day proceedings was Prof Donal McCracken from UKZN, who gave us an irreverent and humorous paper on a little known German-American soldier named Ernst Luther, who fought alongside the Boers in an Irish Commando during the War.
Further illuminating discussions came from Prof Marc Connelly and Dr Peter Donaldson from the University of Kent who examined the evolution of war veneration and memorialisation in the UK while Ms Elria Wessels of the Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein delivered photographic insights into the Boer POW’s deported to overseas camps during the course of the war.
For every gem of illuminating research (and there were many) there were a fair share of soporific blanks fired by gents with either Lt, Col or Sgt emblazoned on their name badges. Having spent hours listening to lectures on the atrocities of war, I found it hard to delight in lengthy chronicles of human culling-machinery.
Too often gory, depressing truths reduced to dour power- points of strategy and tactic, graph and game-plan. History hobbling so laboriously along that I prayed someone would just put it out of its misery, and send us all on an early lunch.
Surely historians and academics –and not just tour guides– have the responsibility (Yet sadly not always the talent) to salvage and resuscitate past narratives from the dusty archives of yesteryear and transform them into something that might captivate the (mostly) indifferent imaginations of today.
How else do we intend to ensure that in ten years time there will still be an audience left to populate another conference of this sort?
The late David Rattray was a pioneer in such a field, transforming Anglo Zulu War battles into compelling three act operas. The type of compulsive story-telling that had even teenagers—with Lost and Prison Break attention spans– gagging to know what was going to happen next.
Rattray presented his legions of followers with clearly defined characters and trajectories. Soldiers from both factions were granted names and personalities, allowing novices, such as myself, to navigate the muddled and often muddied terrain of the battlefield.
The Anglo Boer War, as Prof McCracken proved, is rife with similar action and incident. So if there is one quibble to be had with this year’s gathering it’s that it was so bent on scrutinising the past (what was the name and breed of Sir Redver’s Buller’s Dog?) that it failed to recast or contextualise its gaze in the present or future.
Surely now is the time to shift misconceptions around the Anglo-Boer War being strictly a white man’s war? Why then were few, if any, mentions made of the indispensible Indian stretcher bearers or of the 140 000 Africans utilised by the British and Boers over the duration of the War?
Kudos to Raymond Heron, Chairman of The Battlefields Route Association who discarded his talk on Sir Redver’s Buller in favour of yanking the polite order of proceedings into the immediate.
“What’s missing from our discussions this week” an impassioned Heron ranted from his podium, “is how important and powerful education is in this country. If there is one thing we need to take from this conference it’s the genuine desire to go to the current Government and tell them about the past in a way they need to hear about it. South Africa is on the verge of being colonised once again by exterior forces with vast resources of money and power. If we don’t teach these lessons on colonialism now then I fear this country is going to make the same horrific mistakes.”