Review: Memoirs of the Boer War by Jan Smuts

I set myself the challenge ot read through Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel’s 7 volume Selections from the Smuts’ Papers. So far, I’ve completed volume 1. As a specialist of WW1, I thought it would be interesting to see what documents and thoughts he’d written prior to the 1914-1918 war and to see how his younger days influenced his later…

What I didn’t expect to find though was a draft memoir of his Boer War experiences. Part V of volume 1 is the start of what was to be a book but which was never finished due to his getting more involved in politics from 1904. These almost 130 pages tell Smuts’s story from the Fall of Pretoria [*] June 1900 through to the start of The Potchefstoom Campaign in early 1901.

[* you can see some of the pages on Google books (the first page is 536)]

This is not a military account, I wouldn’t expect anything like that from Smuts; it is rather a personal reflection on how he saw the war (and no doubt how he wanted the public to see the war – compare this with his reports to the War Office which were published in the Gazettes in 1916 and 1917). Tucked within these pages, and the earlier part dealing with his correspondence during the Boer War, are insights into his views on military strategy and how these were received by others. For those with the patience to tackle military strategy, this should provide some good material for understanding (or confusing) what he did during the East Africa campaign. I couldn’t help but be struck by his comments about organisation and his take on small forces being chased by a force much larger than the numbers they were chasing.

Interspersed are accounts of meeting with his wife, how he got letters through to her and other family members on occasion, humour, and frustration. He explains the Boer take on fighting (or rather retreating) and their fear of being captured – one group being found reciting prayers aloud in the hope that they would not be mistaken for fighters. And to top it all we get some history lessons from Smuts – not least the significance of Dingaan’s Day (Day of the Covenant and now Day of Reconciliation) and the Great Trek – all in the context of the Anglo-Boer War. It was the day after 16 December 1899, a day of solemn reflection and rejoicing in the progress of the war, that things started to go awry. Smuts gives credit where it is due – I was surprised at the number of British officers he commented on: favourably. Another striking point was his regular references to Kitchener allowing the Boers to cross the lines to meet with fellow Boers or get messages to Europe where President Kruger was in exile. Surely, if one is at war, you don’t rely on the favour of the enemy to let you communicate with your own side which is positioned on the other side of the enemy? It clearly was a war with a difference…

It’s not the most gripping and exciting of reads, if I’m honest, but it is a worthwhile read for those interested in understanding Smuts’s behaviour and actions during the East Africa campaign of 1916-1917.

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