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Biographies of Winston Churchill in his youth are always ripe with tales of the leadership, valor, and brash self-promotion of the soldier / correspondent. Millard’s Hero of the Empire is no different. She covers Churchill’s time as a correspondent, POW, and British officer in South Africa with an engaging and energetic vigor. She fairly describes Churchill’s sometimes off-putting tendencies for self-aggrandizement, but dedicates the bulk of Hero to exploring the desperately ambitious character that drove Churchill into four separate wars and eventually the Prime Minister’s office.
Millard’s work is most interesting, however, in its discussion of the British war against the Boers in South Africa. Millard’s illustration makes for easy comparison to modern relations between developed and developing nations, between colonizers and natives, and between invading foreign armies and local guerilla fighters. At the turn of the 20th century in South Africa, the British dealt with all three issues and largely bungled each of them.
English contempt for the Boers, whom they dismissed as backward, was evident in their relationship. Few British were more vehement in their criticism of the Boers than Winston’s own father, Randolph Churchill. He upbraided the Boers for their treatment of native Africans and wrote, “The Boer farmer…is perfectly uneducated. His simple ignorance is unfathomable, and this in stolid composure he shares with his wife, his sons, his daughters, being proud that his children should grow up as ignorant, as uncultivated, as hopelessly unprogressive as himself” (Millard, p. 144). Unsurprisingly, this made for poor relations between the young Boer state and the British Empire.
There were obvious areas in which the British could have, and should have, worked with the Boers to become more progressive, particularly for better rights and treatment of native Africans. Instead, there was no real cooperation because the Boers constantly chafed under unequal treatment from the British. Similarly, if developing nations are not made equal partners in their own development today, there is little hope of true progress and cooperation. Western and Asian states must be cognizant of the effects of their judgements on emerging partners and work to move forward together.
By failing to change the power dynamic between Boers and native Africans, the British not only neglected to right a great human rights wrong but also failed to galvanize support for their rule among the majority African population. Winston Churchill observed that Boer opposition to British rule was grounded in fear that the British would upend traditional Boer subjugation of African natives. He wrote, “British government is associated in the Boer farmer’s mind with violent social revolution. Black is to be proclaimed the same as white. The servant is to be raised against the master” (Millard, p. 240). One can see why Boer farmers, who had long profited from power over the natives, would be committed to the status quo, but the British could have demanded a shift in the power structure at the close of the war.
Instead, the British allowed their new Boer subjects to further stratify society, passing the Native Land Act in 1913 which forced native Africans, 67% of South Africa’s population, onto 7% of its land (Millard, p.311). Perhaps the British felt that they would not have been able to bring an end to the vicious Boer guerilla war or that they would have faced another insurrection if they had demanded the Boers extend broader rights to the Africans. In either case, the British decision represents a distinct lack of foresight. Had they elevated the Africans, keeping the Boers from falling back on segregation to maintain power, the British might have built a powerful allied group within South Africa. They would have made allies out of men like Solomon Plaatje, first secretary-general of the African National Congress (Millard, p. 311). Instead, the relationship between Britain and its African and Afrikaner subjects remained cautious at best. Today, Western and Asian nations cooperating with developing countries should also work for greater human rights in their partner states. Even from a strictly self-interested perspective, such progress can generate long-term friends in strategically important regions among formerly subjugated and persecuted peoples.
Finally, the British army underestimated the relative warfighting abilities of their adversaries. Churchill wrote that British officers traveling to the war in South Africa “could not conceive how ‘irregular amateur’ forces like the Boers could make any impression against disciplined professional soldiers” (Millard, p. 63). Like many foreign invading armies, the British failed to acknowledge the strengths of the Boer fighters, and to properly adjust to the terrain and climate. This British dismissal of Boer fighting capabilities was shocking because recent British wars in Afghanistan and in Sudan—against irregular amateur forces—had been particularly bloody affairs and because the British had already lost a war against the Boers at Majuba.
In the case of South Africa, the British were unprepared for three key Boer advantages. First, the Boer army wielded modern Mauser rifles, which they bought by the tens of thousands in the 1890s and were a significant upgrade over those of the British (Millard, p. 68). Second, the Boers easily outmaneuvered British forces, “with little more than men, horses and Mausers,” whereas “the British army moved at a glacial pace, weighed down by the sheer number of its possessions” (Millard, p. 81). Similarly, the British were unable to cope with or learn from the Boers’ effective use of terrain. At Colenso, the greatest Boer victory of the war, the British made a series of costly mistakes because they refused to learn from Boer tactics. Millard writes, “Although in the past week alone they had already lost two battles to an invisible and devastatingly effective enemy, the British army had continued to fight in line formation” (Millard, p. 257). While the Boers relied heavily on scouts, the British, “who did not even have a reliable map of the area, had shown little interest in reconnaissance” (Millard, p. 259). Additionally, the British preoccupation with honor led to repeated battlefield blunders. The most devastating was that of Colonel Long, who rushed his 18-gun artillery brigade into the front of the British line and withering Boer crossfire, losing the entire battery (Millard, p. 263). Similar mistakes plagued Western and Soviet armies throughout the late 20th century. The rise of the helicopter began to solve the problem of mobility, and invaders finally learned to be more adaptive, but it took many bloody and potentially unnecessary conflicts to engrain these lessons.
The British also made crucial errors when fighting Boer guerilla at the close of the war. Lord Roberts, commander of the British forces in South Africa, left long before the end of the guerilla conflict, declaring the war over (Millard, p. 307). This particular decision mirrors the embarrassing American mistake in Iraq almost 100 years later. Further, frustrated British forces burned farms to deny Boer guerillas access to food and support and gathered Boer and native civilians in concentration camps (Millard, p. 307). Over 45,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, died in the poorly provisioned British camps (Ibid.). While these tactics did actually hamper Boer guerilla activities, the victory did not justify the human cost. In Vietnam, American forces tried similar tactics to bring civilians into protected areas and deny support to the Viet Cong. While the American strategy included much improved civilian protections and provisions than that of the British in South Africa, it still led to a number of well-documented excesses more than 70 years after the Boer War.
The British campaign in South Africa, while ultimately victorious, exemplified a number of the mistakes that plagued developed-developing world relations throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. In times of peace, established countries often treat their developing partners with disrespect and fail to use their influence to improve support for human rights. In times of war, invading developed forces often fail to adapt and learn from their enemies. Most damagingly, armies of the developed world have still not learned to effectively quell guerilla resistances. The same problems chronicled by Millard and witnessed by Churchill at the turn of the 20th century remain unsolved almost 120 years later.