The Anglo Boer War (in what is now South Africa from October 11th, 1899 to May 31st, 1902) was a turning point in European style military history. Previously, infantry would operate in large blocks that would move forward, turn and open or close ranks, and winning an infantry engagement would involve getting your columns around the side or back of the enemy’s columns, or simply overrunning them head on. This worked in part because although everybody had a firearm of some kind, the firearms held few bullets, took time to reload, and were inaccurate, and since they tended to be inaccurate, the soldiers were generally not trained to shoot as well as they might. So, a rifle was really a spear (with a bayonet attached, of course) that also made a lot of noise and fired a few relatively useless bullets. Previously, the cavalry was effective because it consisted of swordmen up on big and/or fast horses who could move quickly across the landscape and would wade into the enemy’s infantry slicing up the foot soldiers. The cavalry could not be stopped easily by the infantry because the infantry would shoot a relatively small number of relatively bogus bullets at the cavalry, knock a few guys off a few horses, then get ripped to shreds with the swords. The fact that the cavalry often consisted of members of the elite classes and the infantry consisted mainly of working class men made it all the more … Victorian.
By the time of the Anglo-Boer War, the rifles that soldiers carried were more accurate, held more bullets, and overall were more deadly especially in the hands of the sharp-shooting Boer farmers who had been shooting game or involved in bellicose activities of one sort or another for years. In the old days, you could bring cannon close to the lines, have your infantry cover the cannons, and have your cavalry cover the infantry. In the new days, if you were within shooting range of the enemy’s infantry, they would cover you with a hail of bullets. During the two plus year long Anglo-Boer war, the number of times cavalry actually charged into a sea of infantry and used their swords can be counted on one hand.
Why am I telling you all of his? Well, I recently finished reading a contemporary history of the Anglo Boer War. There were several things about this history that I found (most of which I was looking for) regarding English, Afrikaner, and other Euro-ethnic interactions, white vs. non-white interactions, and so on. I was also looking for examples of attitudes towards non-white native Africans at the time, and for information on the role of, or at least reaction of, ‘bushmen’ groups in the Cape at the time. I found about five examples of the former and no examples of the latter in this enormous tome, The Great Boer War written by Arthur Conan Doyle.
But along the way, I found something else that I knew would be there but did not know would be as striking and as interesting as it is. Doyle’s writing includes numerous references to the roles of valour, bravery, and ultimately, reputation, in the execution of warfare. I hesitate to use the word “meme” but I will use it here with my tongue in, or at least near, my cheek; In bunny-like fashion Doyle copiously reproduces the meme that to live dishonourably is a life not worth living, and to die honourably is second most desirable outcome in war. (The most desirable outcome in war would be to manage to live through your honourable death.) Doyle’s history is so heavily draped in the thick velveteen of honour and valour (and notice I feel obliged to use the British spelling) that it becomes apparent that the propagation of this meme is the main purpose of the book itself. Perhaps of Doyle himself. Arthur Conan Doyle, it turns out, is an over-active ovary pumping out a veritable caviare destine to grow into widespread patriotic feelings of “I want to die for the Empire!” among young subjects of the crown in the homelands and all the colonies. They were probably handing it out to school children.
This theme of honourable death in warfare builds and sustains throughout the long monograph, but there are three or four points where it is so overblown that one wonders (at least from an early 21st century perspective) what really goes on in the human brain. A few years ago, Richard Wrangham wrote a paper or two suggesting that self deception in times of warfare explained the seemingly inexplicable fact that military leaders would enter into battles that any half-witted cadet at military academy could plainly see were simply not winnable. That may well explain the phenomenon of war as we have known it for centuries at one level, but there may be more to learn of the proximate mechanisms involved, and I think Doyle’s meme may be one of the mechanisms. To illustrate this, I’ll give as example the very scene that made me both sick to my stomach and inspired to write this post.
We are at the Battle of Colenso. This is fairly early in the war, and the British are just beginning to learn (the hard way) about a) the military prowess of the Boers and b) the ineffectiveness of their own 19th century tactics. So far there has not been a major battle that was actually won by the British, or if there was one here or there, it was overshadowed by some strategic defeat. This was the case mostly because the political policy of the British was to let the Boers get way ahead in the material preparations for the war so that once the inevitable conflict started the British could take the moral high ground. Which they would need later, as it would turn out, as buffer when things went badly in the concentration camps and other bad things happened.
Anyway, here’s the setup, very briefly: The Boer army is entrenched, and the British are moving against them. Since the Boers are literally in trenches they can’t be effectively shot at, and the artillery bombardments are not really working either. The British have to expose themselves to move in, and they’ve been discovering the hard way that they tend to get all shot up when this happens, and again and again some unit of British sholdiers find themslevs lying on the ground hiding behind ant hills waiting for night fall to come when they can sneak away if they are still alive.
At one point, the British infantry are held back from attcking a particular unit of Boers when a British artillery officer decides to wade in really close to the Boer line and blast them with his cannons. In the old days, this may well have worked, because the rifle fire against the artillery would have been manageable, and once the cannons started letting rip, that rifle fire would be attenuated as the frightened enemy soldiers ran away. But that is not what happened.
Now remember, this is the old days. The cannons are being brought in by teams of horses, and then unlimbered (disconnected) from the horses and set up by gunners, who then fire the cannons at the enemy. I’m giving you the long version of the account because I want you to appreciate the references to the earlier formed expectations when the British were busy fighting “barbarians” in comparison to the situation at Colenso. This is important because by this time in the war, something like what you are about to read about has happened a few times, and the British should have learned something already. So, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s words:
This consisted of the important body of artillery [supporting] the main attack … under the command of Colonel Long … Long has the record of being a most zealous and dashing officer, whose handling of the Egyptian artillery at the battle of the Atbara had much to do with the success of the action. Unfortunately, these barbarian campaigns, in which liberties may be taken with impunity, leave an evil tradition, as the French have found with their Algerians. Our own close formations, our adherence to volley firing, and in this instance the use of our artillery all seem to be legacies of our savage wars. …
… at an early stage of the action Long’s guns whirled forwards, [passed] the infantry …, left the slow-moving naval guns with their ox-teams behind them, and unlimbered within a thousand yards of the enemy’s trenches. From this position he opened fire …
But his two unhappy batteries were destined not to turn the tide of battle, as he had hoped, but rather to furnish the classic example of the helplessness of artillery against modern rifle fire. [Nothing] … could do justice to the blizzard of lead which broke over the two doomed batteries. The teams [of horses] fell in heaps, some dead, some mutilated, and mutilating others in their frantic struggles. One driver, crazed with horror, sprang on a leader [horse], cut the [ropes] and tore madly off the field. But a perfect discipline reigned among the vast majority of the gunners, and the words of command and the laying and working of the guns were … methodical…. Not only was there a most deadly rifle fire, partly from the lines in front and partly from the village of Colenso upon their left flank, but the Boer automatic quick-firers found the range to a nicety, and the little shells were crackling and banging continually over the batteries. Already every gun had its litter of dead around it, but each was still fringed by its own group of furious officers and sweating desperate gunners. Poor Long was down, with a bullet through his arm and another through his liver. ‘Abandon be damned! We don’t abandon guns!’ was his last cry as they dragged him into the shelter of a [nearby hut]. Captain Goldie dropped dead. So did Lieutenant Schreiber. Colonel Hunt fell, shot in two places. Officers and men were falling fast. The guns could not be worked, and yet they could not be removed, for every effort to bring up teams from the shelter where the limbers lay ended in the death of the horses. The survivors took refuge from the murderous fire in that small hollow to which Long had been carried, a hundred yards or so from the line of bullet-splashed cannon.
Now, I want to pause for a moment for you to catch your breath. The following bit is the icing on the cake. And the cake, too, really …
One gun on the right was still served by four men who refused to leave it. They seemed to bear charmed lives, these four, as they strained and wrestled with their beloved 15-pounder, amid the spurting sand and the blue wreaths of the bursting shells. Then one gasped and fell against the trail, and his comrade sank beside the wheel with his chin upon his breast. The third threw up his hands and pitched forward upon his face; while the survivor, a grim powder-stained figure, stood at attention looking death in the eyes until he too was struck down. A useless sacrifice, you may say; but while the men who saw them die can tell such a story round the camp fire the example of such deaths as these does more than clang of bugle or roll of drum to stir the warrior spirit of our race. [emphasis added]
At no point during this particular engagement could anyone with a modicum of rationality have believed that this was a good idea. Even if the officers in charge, who were taken out of action right away, honestly thought that bringing the artillery, with its horses and its gunners, to within killing range of several hundred sharp shooters would be an effective strategy, it would not have taken long to figure out that they were wrong. Yet once the operation started up, the “right” thing to do was not to back off, not to question authority, not to run and hide because death was a near certainty and success impossible. No. The “right” thing to do was do die, and the reason to die was because … well, because it was the right thing to do. Those soldiers that were hiding in the hollow or the hut were forgiven by Doyle, because there was not much they could do. But the soldiers that stayed with the artillery were honoured by him, and by the British Government and the people back home and their comrades.
The meme of honourable death served the British Empire well.