The meme of honourable death

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.

More like this

Didn't know much about the Boer War; thanks for this.
I grew up an Army brat and was determined to be "dashing", also. Turns out, "dashing" wasn't a big survival trait in Viet Nam.

One might say that the modern phenomenon of suicide bombing is this meme taken to its logical extreme.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

I understand that this is not your main point (and I am not an expert in military history), but I think your argument about early rifles (muzzle loaders) contains some misconceptions. Yes, it is true that (most of) these rifles were not very accurate, but this is precisely why soldiers were trained to line up in rows for volley fire - they became in effect a sort of human shotgun. When the ranks were trained to so that one row would reload while a second row aimed and a third row fired, then they could be very deadly indeed. Witness, for example, numerous American Civil War battles with enormous numbers of casualties (including from some very skilled and accurate snipers).

The above is a critical reason why the military (then and now) emphasizes discipline and courage - both needed in abundance when you are being told to stand in front of thousands of people firing .50 caliber rounds at you.

Large organizations often do stupid things, even when many of the people in them are very bright.

Hey Greg,

The battle Colenso sounds like a repeat of the the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea some fifty years earlier.


uqbar: I'm also not an expert on this, so we should be able to have a pretty nifty knock down drag out fight about it!

Yes, it was a human shotgun, but even so, in the days of the smooth bore, they were shooting arcing, show-moving led balls at each other, not rifle bullets.

The US Civil War was a bit like the AB war in this sense: Rifles were being used, but the tactics of the battle field were not appropriate.

I'm not sure if the kill or injury rate in the AB War was higher than the civil war or not (per battle). The AB war was much more of a trench war, like WW I but with the exploding shells having not been developed to the same degree (thus artillery was said to be less an issue in the AB war). Until the guerrilla component of the war, all significant engagements were trench engagements.

In any event, what happened here, and is very clear and is not in dispute, is that the use of the very advanced repeating long range rifles that were used in the Anglo Boer war (but not in the Civil War in the US) created killing grounds where large numbers of hidden (entenched) shooters could pretty much hit and immobilize any individual over a very large area up to or beyond 1000 yards, and then with only a half second to throw the bolt, do it again, and again, and again.

It is very true that the Civil War was also a kind of turning point. It is said that many casualties were because of soldiers using rifles (with long range) but general using tactics designed for smooth bore weapons (as you describe).

tms: That particular engagement I mention was kind of like that, yes. The charge of the Light Brigade was a little different tactically for a number of reasons. First, it was mounted infantry or cavalry (can't remember). Second, it was an error in orders at some level where the brigade was told to do something no one wanted to do .. someone (almost literally) pushed the wrong button, as opposed to this artillery engagement at Colenso, which was a general thinking it was a good idea.

A slight correction on cavalry v. infantry:

During the Napoleonic Wars, the rule of thumb was that attacking infantry with cavalry was a good way to get your cavalry killed. Cavalry was used in the stages of battle where things were moving quickly, and once things settled down into the slugging match they either moved to the flanks or waited for an opening.

The best cavalry could do against unbroken infantry was to force them into squares and thus restrict their movement.

(Oh, for Colenso to have been a repeat of the Charge of the Light Brigade: There would have had to have been a gross miscommunication sending the guns into an immediate attack on the wrong target.)

By Rick Pikul (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

Greg - I hope you are not disappointed, but I agree with your main point that "The meme of honourable death served the British Empire well." Not everybody bought into though - see Wilfred Owen (

. . .The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori. . .

and an interesting comment at the link:

"the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country."

No doubt this meme predates Horace (born 65 BCE), probably by centuries. Which only goes to make your point: This meme has staying power, despite encouraging its carriers to risk their lives; presumably a lot more people advocate it than practice it.

Also, I don't think you are going to see Wilfred Owens poem on recruiting posters any time soon.

Despite the stereotype, there are lots of examples of western infantry fighting without formation. The American war of independence is a particularly good example. In addition, the AB war should really be compared to other colonial conflicts, rather than to the stereotypical napoleanic battle. As such, it seems like the unusual aspects of the AB war are not the absence of formations and successful cavalry charges, but rather the success of trenches when combined with improvements in small arms. As uqbar points out, this is also characteristic of the American civil war.

William, I agree with some of what you say, but even the small passage quoted above signifies the fact that treating the AB war as just another colonial war was a failed approach for the British, and thus would be unwise I would think for a military historian.

@Bodach #1: 'dashing' has never been a good survival trait, but it does get you 'mentioned in dispatches'.

Just to wade in on the ACW - AB debate. The rifled muskets used during the ACW were an order of magnitude more accurate than the smooth bores they replaced. As ugbar points out, picking out individual targets and even sniping was possible.

However the rate of fire was still relatively low and a decent charge could cross the distance from maximum range to bayonet range in just one or two volleys. So the 'old' tactics still worked, to an extent. Casualties were significantly higher however. But, in recognition of the fact that anything standing on the field of battle could now be hit reliably, smart commanders were already seeking covered positions for their troops by mid-war. At the end of the war the siege of Petersburg had degraded into full-fledged trench warfare.

As Greg points out The advent of breech loading rifles with self contained ammunition changed firepower equation again such that the old fashioned shoulder-to-shoulder charge was now complete suicide.

I think a confusing factor in comparing the two wars is that the AB war was fought in terrain that allowed for engagements at maximum range. In the wooded countryside of the eastern US being able to see an enemy 1000m away was a rarity.

NoAstronomer: Good point about the terrain. Also, don't forget the kojpies.

I think that repeating firearms put some of the infantry (and artillary and cavalry) tactics used previously into the category of "organized suicide" but the motivational tools used to inspire the troops to use those tactics was still valid. And they are still used today.

Most infantry battles before WWI were decided by the moral of the troops and weapons were mainly used in an attempt to break the moral of the other side. After all, few wounds were inflicted by the infantryman's hand-to-hand weapons after gunpowder took over as the primary infantry weapon. I think you may find that many of those wounds that were delivered with the bayonet were delivered to basically defenseless people (surrendered or attempting to surrender). The emotional impact of someone coming at you with a 17" spike would cause you to make a much more immediate and urgent decision as to whether to fight or run than having that same person standing 50 yards away firing his weapon.

I think that those officers that learned their tactics against the Fuzzy-Wuzzy had a hard time changing over but even the US Civil War was dominated by the rifle and the trench before the end.

By SoreLoser (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

It would probably amuse Horace to have been so misunderstood then, but a widespread modern view of the ode in question is that Horace was being gently sarcastic about the whole thing: of course any young man would much rather have fun and get laid than die honourably. So, really, people were being sent off to die encouraged because they thought anything two thousand years old must be serious. Of course the meme must have been current in Horace's time too, or he wouldn't have been taking the mick out of it.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

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.

They don't require encouragement so much as direction.

I have come to the conclusion after a decade-plus of emergency field medicine that young male humans are hard-wired to self-destruct. After all, they're redundant: kill nine out of ten of them and the tribal birthrate doesn't drop worth mentioning. This provides a fine stock of young idiots who will go into caves after bears, raid other tribes, etc.

Those who somehow fail to get killed go on to reproduce. Developmental specialists tell us that somewhere in the early to mid 20s the circuits that enable them to think "Wait a minute -- if I do that, Bad Things could happen!" start to function.

We've made it harder for young idiots to kill themselves lately, but that just means they try harder -- and thus my experiences with field emergency medicine. The little buggers are remarkably creative in finding ways to defeat our attempts to prevent suicide.

As for their elders ...

The prize goes to the geniuses in charge who blithely ignored the lessons of the American civil war, the Spanish-American war, the Anglo-Boer war, etc. and decided to fight the First World War as though they were still in the Napoleonic age.

And then completely ignored the fact that This Obviously Isn't Working after three more years of total failure (and astronomical body counts), continuing to do the same stupid things that hadn't worked before.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

A lot of very interesting information. A couple of things occurred to me. 1) Cavalry in the ACW changed because of the addition of the revolver. Cavalry irregulars in particular gave up on sabers and carried more pistols. So I've heard. This would seem a more effective tactic, was it not used elsewhere? 2) Valiant, honorable death: I think this has more to do with overcoming fear in an overwhelming situation than anything else. The wise thing to do when someone is trying to kill you is to either a)kill them or b)run away. If you don't think you can kill them, you will run away...not a good thing in a military situation. 3) This does get carried too far...aviators in the WWI were discouraged from using parachutes as they were told it was their duty to stay with the matter what.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

Owen is an interesting case - he is widely considered the best of the 1st World War Poets, started the war a cheerful advocate (who no doubt very much bought into the honour and glory), wrote his poems whilst convalescing after being diagnosed with 'shell shock' (PTSD), and then returned to the front only to die gallantly (to borrow a word from the citation for his posthumous MC) seeking through war the very glory that his poetry was in fact destined to bestow on him.

The choice of dying a suicidal but "honourable" death or being killed by your own men in the battle (or being executed for cowardice later on) is well-established in military history, even in the 20th century. Whether for honour or just because you are brainwashed to follow all orders no matter how stupid the CO is seems irrelevant to me...either way you're dead!

By VolcanoMan (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

Now when it comes to cavalry, by the ACW their primary function was more of intelligence than combat. The lack of General Stuart's cavalry during the lead up and 1st days of the Battle of Gettysburg is usually considered one of the contributing factors toward's Lee's loss.

I wasn't familiar with the Boer War or this battle, but any attempt to maneuver artillary to within 1000 yards of an enemy position and come into action, reeks of desperation not necessarily bad strategy. The description of the battle on wikipedia seems to bear that out. Hart's brigade had been lead to the wrong position and was already under fire, taking heavy casualties just trying to cross the river.

If you are analyzing the change in infantry tactics due to changes in firearms, don't forget to include the Franco-Prussian War. The Prussians had single shot cartridge loaded breech loading rifles which gave them a high rate of fire, although the breech didn't seal well. (To preserve their eyesight, many Prussians fired from the hip.) It also allowed them to reload while prone. The AB War sounds a lot like the Spanish-American War tactically. Rifles could fire to 2000+ yards, with sights marked to match. (At that range, targets were company-sized.)
Sounds like the British were slightly behind the times in 1900 in artillery. The first modern field artillery piece was the French 75, which came out in 1897. It was a fixed ammo breech loader with a recoil system, and a range of 7500 yards. I don't think the British 13-pounder used in the AB War had a recoil mechanism.

A lot of the function of the 'honourable death' meme is to maintain military order and effectiveness at a unit scale. Older tech left the individual solider (or even small unit) pretty ineffective, and the unit was what actually got the job done (or not). Also note how strong the distinction between 'men' and 'officers' was.

Technology has empowered small units. Small units down to individuals are now expected and encouraged to make intelligent decisions (the entire Marine doctrine of controlled chaos is based on this idea).
I think the quote attributed to Patton sums up the counter-meme nicely.
"No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.
He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

Of course, when it comes to the Boer War, 'desperation' and 'bad strategy' would seem to describe perfectly much of the conduct of the British officer class, especially those at the top. If you want to see just how bad it could get, have a look at the Battle of Spion Kop Not our finest hour.

As for Doyle, he firmly believed that a pamphlet titled 'The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct', and the book you read, led to his knighthood in 1902. He might have believed what he wrote, but he certainly did well out of it, honourable or not.

I'm quoting this simply because someone has to as a counterpoint to the 'honourable death' meme:

"I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country."

* Spoken by George C. Scott in the film Patton.

MikeB, wow That's one of the biggest cluster f's I've ever read about.

I see that Travc @21 beat me to the quote. Didn't see it until after I posted. My bad.

When I was in the Marines, we used to all sit around dreaming about going to war. But the closest we got was Granada and the closest I came to combat was manning a 55 gallon pump distributing three thousand gallons of water we made potable with a few chemicals and a lot of diatomaceous earth.

We were responsible for the supply of fresh water in the field that supported the assorted showers, laundry trailers and storage bladders scattered around wherever some General in charge decided to camp.

Although I am sure many of us would have given anything to get into a fight, the closest any of us came to being a hero, was when all the plumbing was working, the lights were on and the clothes of the regiment to which we were attached were clean.

Not much glory in any of that, but plenty of honor.

Just a thought,

My G.G.grandfather went to the Boer war. He came back with a bit of his skull blown away and a little bit mental. Didn't stop him working, but made him hard to live with, according to my granddad.

By Katkinkate (not verified) on 25 Sep 2009 #permalink

My great grandfather was also in the Boer War (with the Elswick battery) though not wounded there (he did get wounded at Gallipoli in WW1 but survived). Judging from his letters he did suffer a bit from death before dishonor idealism (though his idea of honor could also be a bit quirky).

Death was perhaps honourable but often long drawn out. At Sanna's Post, the first guerilla action of the ABW, appproximately a thousand men on either side faced each other. The War Memorial records the death of less than a hundred British on the day of the battle but half as many again dying within a few days of being wounded. No med-evac in those days.

Great comments. A few more points:

The majority of people who died in the ABW were not soldiers in combat. They were people who died of disease. Tens of thousands of Afrikaners were in concentration camps for the last part of the war. Most of the very young children died of, IIRC, measles. Most of the soldiers that died died of disease. And so on.

From the perspective of England/UK (the part of "britian" that is where everybody thinks England is, including Scotland, Wales, whatever whatever) sent more people and money off to the Boer War than to any prior military engagement. This was the biggest war Britian had fought to date.

Of the 30 million people in UK at the time, close to a half million went to Boer War (1-2 percent). (For reference, of the 76 million people in the US, somewhate over 3 million were in the field in the American Civil War... close to 6%.0\)

"Also note how strong the distinction between 'men' and 'officers' was."

Which was part of the British distinction between gentlemen and the rest of us slobs. Gentlemen usually became officers and nongentlemen were enlisted. At least that was the case during the Napoleonic wars and I think that much of system was still in place at the time of the Boer War. I know that Winston Churchill had to use his family's income (and eventually the income from his writings) to pay for the lifestyle that an officer was expected to have.

Churchill, by the way, is mentioned frequently in Doyle's book. He was apparently both a correspondent and in the army at the same time and was captured by the Boers and spent some time in a prison camp (from which he escaped).

I think the Spanish have the dubious honour of being the first to employ concentration camps but the Brits, employing a scorched earth policy as a final resort against the Boers, put all the women and children in poorly sanitised camps, where 26,000 women and children died. Curiously, the champion of their rights was an English woman, Emily Hobhouse, who today is still honoured by the Boers. Emily was eventually refused entry into the Cape by the military authorities and was sent home in the ship in which she had arrived. A fine example of Pax Britannica.

@D.C.Sessions: After all, they're redundant: kill nine out of ten of them and the tribal birthrate doesn't drop worth mentioning. ... Those who somehow fail to get killed go on to reproduce.

This assumes that all those departing soldiers were virgins who hadn't participated in any predeparture boinkage. Is that how the contingencies really operate? The whole system leverages aspects of sexual selection. Look at the 'I love a man in uniform' posters from WWI. The cultural reinforcers were all about getting comely, fertile young women to shun with unconcealed disdain slackers who wouldn't sign up for duty, and fall madly in love with brave young warriors who would. The military obligingly sets Johnny up with several weeks of training in an isolated location so his darling can only keep her ardor alive with love letters.Then he gets one last leave before shipping out, perfectly designed for a last-minute wedding and a quick honeymoon (or maybe an accidental honeymoon without a wedding!), so by the time his ship leaves there's a bun in the oven and the next generation of fighters is ready whether Johnny comes marching home or not. Remember, it's really all about whether the genome replicates; after that, as you say, Johnny's redundant.

By ChicagoMolly (not verified) on 26 Sep 2009 #permalink

I've got to admit, I'm all for comely young lasses falling for guys with high I.Q.s, as well as a willingness to use it. It would've probably made my life a lot easier. But, then again, maybe I'm just bragging or "got lucky" taking a test or twenty. My point, however, is that if you look at it from a biological view point, it would seem that evolution would select for men with the best qualities for protecting pregnant women and young children. Let's face facts, running away might be the best survival strategy and fighting is really stupid. But, pregnant women and young children aren't very fast. Many women are attached to those kids and would prefer a brave male who is not abusive towards them or their kids. Therefore it would seem natural selection would choose for men willing to die or be maimed to protect their progeny and the progeny of the tribe. Of course, even better would be males who were willing to die or charge into hell to protect, but came back alive, due to their fighting prowess. Of course, ultimately, intelligence, not brute strength wins the battle. As indicated by this post which discusses changing tech and medical care given to the wounded. The smarter you and your tribe are, the more of the enemy you can kill and the greater your chances of survival, even with extensive injuries.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 26 Sep 2009 #permalink


Yes, that's how the Powers In Charge put the instinct to use. I was referring, though, to what I observe which may well be hard-wired into the species.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 26 Sep 2009 #permalink

Marktime: That's pretty accurate, but only part of the story.

The good news (for the Brits): It is very easy for it to sound all bad ... the word concentration camp all by itself can do that, although we must remember these were not explicitly extermination camps ... but it is also true that the Boer fighters were at least as responsible for continuing the war as any other factor, and the way they were starting to do this was to disappear back to the farms and just be farmers while someone was looking then to reappear as belligerents. Looking at it from the British perspective at the time, the blockhouse lines, scorched earth policy, and concentration camps can not really be seen as a purely evil strategy.

The bad news: The numbers you give are typical and correct for the WHITE concentration camps. There were also Black concentration camps, which had far more people in them, were much more enigmatic as to why the even existed, in which far more people probably died, for which there were no advocates at the time, and which are to this day less known about or of than the Boer concentration camps.

The saddest thing about it all is this: If you look at why the war started, why it was fought, and how things existed say 20 years after the war ended ... well, the Anglo Boer War may have been the single most senseless war fought in the history of modern Western warfare.

Sadder still, Greg, was the bitterness carried over from that scorched earth policy. It contaminated Afrikaaner politics allowing an extreme right wing nationalist party to articulate the rage for those past atrocities, leading eventually to a hard right attitude to race, and the rest is history.

Actually, little was learnt in terms of tactics from the ABW, allowing generals (from the aristocracy, of course), to send waves of infantry against well entrenched machine gun positions in WW1 which led to a level of slaughter that is beyond our comprehension today.

BTW, I'm a Brit.who has known the very best of who the Afrikaaners are.

Marktime: I'm not sure how it matters, but I count among my very best friends in the world ever, among my close colleagues, and just plain people I like or know and respect, South Africans who are Afrikaner as well as all sorts of other South Africans. (I've worked in South Africa for years.) The situation today in South Africa is self consciously divorced (by most people that I know) from the past at a certain level of discourse in order to get some distance and perspective.

I won't totally disagree with what you said, but but I need to point a couple of things out about your statement to contextualize it more or it could be easily misunderstood.

First, make no mistake that the standing policies and attitudes of Boers in Transvaal and to a (somewhat) lesser extent Orange Free State (those are the two countries fighting with the Brits at the start of the war) and the Cape Colony (a British Colony with lots of Boers in it where some of the fighting happened as well) were not even close to devoid of racist and generally atrocious presumptions. It would be very incorrect to read this as a situation in which the seeds of Apartheid lay dormant and minor and were it not for the British atrocities during the Anglo Boer War they would have never sprouted and flourished. Pretty much all of the policies that were later formalized in the named apartheid government of later times were all in place, and no, they were not just typical "white colonialist" manifestations. They were a special and rather insidious, not entirely unprecedented but for the late 19th century very much outdated and relatively nefarious version of racism.

At the same time, it is not true (in case anyone might have thought this from what I just said) that the British invaded Transvaal and OFS for the purpose of overthrowing a racist government. Well, they did actually do that quite explicitly, but the "race problem" that they percieved was the Boer race kicking around the non-Boer white races (mainly bits, but lots of Americans and others too). (This was explicitly, at the time, supposedly a "white man's war").

I don't see any evidence that the racist oppressive Afrikaner government that grew up during the middle of the 20th century happened because of the AB war. (I'm not necessarily saying that you were suggesting that either.) The details may have been different, but when I read what the Boers were saying and doing from the earlies days up throgh, say, 1980, is see a more or less straight line with the AB war not turning that line one way or another. (And I oversimplify only a little!)

"well, the Anglo Boer War may have been the single most senseless war fought in the history of modern Western warfare. "

Even more senseless than WWI?

That is saying a lot.

a lurker: Well, I suppose it all depends on what we mean by "sensless" (and even as I wrote that I wondered what I was up to...)

Let's change "senseless" to "Inexplicable and without effect."

WW I at least had a large effect on the nature of nations. The ABW may have had an effect on the nature of colonialism, but mostly a redundant one.

But what I was really thinking was that to which I refer in my comment above. If you look at European history and imagine it without WWI, do you still get, say WW II? No. (Probably). If you look at southern African History without the ABW, do you still get Namibia and the war there, Rhodesia's war, Apartheid, and so on? Yes. (Probably).

Thank you for an interesting topic. I'm off to the Kruger next month for four nights in the bush. Eat your heart out: :-)

And to continue the meme, in another war, in the Sudan:

"Weep not my boys, for those who fell,
They did not flinch nor fear.
They stood their ground like Englishmen,
and died at Abu Klea".