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The Great Boer War

by Arthur Conan Doyle



It only remains in one short chapter to narrate the progress of the peace negotiations, the ultimate settlement, and the final consequences of this long-drawn war. However disheartening the successive incidents may have been in which the Boers were able to inflict heavy losses upon us and to renew their supplies of arms and ammunition, it was none the less certain that their numbers were waning and that the inevitable end was steadily approaching. With mathematical precision the scientific soldier in Pretoria, with his web of barbed wire radiating out over the whole country, was week by week wearing them steadily down. And yet after the recent victory of De la Rey and various braggadocio pronouncements from the refugees at The Hague, it was somewhat of a surprise to the British public when it was announced upon March 22nd that the acting Government of the Transvaal, consisting of Messrs. Schalk Burger, Lucas Meyer, Reitz, Jacoby, Krogh, and Van Velden had come into Middelburg and requested to be forwarded by train to Pretoria for the purpose of discussing terms of peace with Lord Kitchener. A thrill of hope ran through the Empire at the news, but so doubtful did the issue seem that none of the preparations were relaxed which would ensure a vigorous campaign in the immediate future. In the South African as in the Peninsular and in the Crimean wars, it may truly be said that Great Britain was never so ready to fight as at the dawning of peace. At least two years of failure and experience are needed to turn a civilian and commercial nation into a military power.

In spite of the optimistic pronouncements of Mr. Fischer and the absurd forecasts of Dr. Leyds the power of the Boers was really broken, and they had come in with the genuine intention of surrender. In a race with such was not enough that the government should form its conclusion. It was necessary for them to persuade their burghers that the game was really up, and that they had no choice but to throw down their well-worn rifles and their ill-filled bandoliers. For this purpose a long series of negotiations had to be entered into which put a strain upon the complacency of the authorities in South Africa and upon the patience of the attentive public at home. Their ultimate success shows that this complacency and this patience were eminantly the right attitude to adopt.

On March 23rd the Transvaal representatives were despatched to Kroonstad for the purpose of opening up the matter with Steyn and De Wet. Messengers were sent to communicate with these two leaders, but had they been British columns instead of fellow-countrymen they could not have found greater difficulty in running them to earth. At last, however, at the end of the month the message was conveyed, and resulted in the appearance of De Wet, De la Rey, and Steyn at the British outposts at Klerksdorp. The other delegates had come north again from Kroonstad, and all were united in the same small town, which, by a whimsical fate, had suddenly become the centre both for the making of peace and for the prosecution of the war, with the eyes of the whole world fixed upon its insignificant litter of houses. On April 11th, after repeated conferences, both parties moved on to Pretoria, and the most sceptical observers began to confess that there was something in the negotiations after all. After conferring with Lord Kitchener the Boer leaders upon April 18th left Pretoria again and rode out to the commandos to explain the situation to them. The result of this mission was that two delegates were chosen from each body in the field, who assembled at Vereeniging upon May 15th for the purpose of settling the question by vote. Never was a high matter of state decided in so democratic a fashion.

Up to that period the Boer leaders had made a succession of tentative suggestions, each of which had been put aside by the British Government. Their first had been that they should merely concede those points which had been at issue at the beginning of the war. This was set aside. The second was that they should be allowed to consult their friends in Europe. This also was refused. The next was that an armistice should be granted, but again Lord Kitchener was obdurate. A definite period was suggested within which the burghers should make their final choice between surrender and a war which must finally exterminate them as a people. It was tacitly understood, if not definitely promised, that the conditions which the British Government would be prepared to grant would not differ much in essentials from those which had been refused by the Boers a twelvemonth before, after the Middelburg interview.

On May 15th the Boer conference opened at Vereeniging. Sixty-four delegates from the commandos met with the military and political chiefs of the late republics, the whole amounting to 150 persons. A more singular gathering has not met in our time. There was Botha, the young lawyer, who had found himself by a strange turn of fate commanding a victorious army in a great war. De Wet was there, with his grim mouth and sun-browned face; De la Rey, also, with the grizzled beard and the strong aquiline features. There, too, were the politicians, the grey-bearded, genial Reitz, a little graver than when he looked upon 'the whole matter as an immense joke,' and the unfortunate Steyn, stumbling and groping, a broken and ruined man. The burly Lucas Meyer, smart young Smuts fresh from the siege of Ookiep, Beyers from the north, Kemp the dashing cavalry leader, Muller the hero of many fights - all these with many others of their sun-blackened, gaunt, hard-featured comrades were grouped within the great tent of Vereeniging. The discussions were heated and prolonged. But the logic of facts was inexorable, and the cold still voice of common-sense had more power than all the ravings of enthusiasts. The vote showed that the great majority of the delegates were in favour of surrender upon the terms offered by the British Government. On May 81st this resolution was notified to Lord Kitchener, and at half-past ten of the same night the delegates arrived at Pretoria and set their names to the treaty of peace. After two years seven and a half months of hostilities the Dutch republics had acquiesced in their own destruction, and the whole of South Africa, from Cape Town to the Zambesi, had been added to the British Empire. The great struggle had cost us twenty thousand lives and a hundred thousand stricken men, with two hundred millions of money; but, apart from a peaceful South Africa, it had won for us a national resuscitation of spirit and a closer union with our great Colonies which could in no other way have been attained. We had hoped that we were a solid empire when we engaged in the struggle, hut we knew that we were when we emerged from it. In that change lies an ample recompense for all the blood and treasure spent.

The following were in brief the terms of surrender

1. That the burghers lay down their arms and acknowledge themselves subjects of Edward VII. 2. That all prisoners taking the oath of allegiance be returned. 3. That their liberty and property be inviolate. 4. That an amnesty be granted-save in special cases. 5. That the Dutch language be allowed in schools and law-courts. 6. That rifles be ~lowed if registered. 7. That self-government be granted as soon as possible. 8. That no fr~nchise be granted for natives until after self-governinent. 9. That no special ~nd tax be levied. 10. That the people be helped to reoccupy the farms. 11. That 3,000,000 be given to help the farmers. 12. That the rebels be disfranchised and their leaders tried, on condition that no death penalty be inflicted.

These terms were practically the same as those which had been refused by Botha in March 1901. Thirteen months of useless warfare had left the situation as it was.

It had been a war of surprises, but the surprises have unhappily been hitherto invariably unpleasant ones. Now at last the balance swung the other way, for in all the long paradoxical history of South African strife there is nothing more wonderful than the way in which these two sturdy and unemotional races clasped hands the instant that the fight was done. The fact is in itself a final answer to the ill-natured critics of the Continent. Men do not so easily grasp a hand which is reddened with the blood of women and children. From all parts as the commandos. came in there was welcome news of the fraternisation between them and the soldiers; while the Boer leaders, as loyal to their new ties as they had been to their old ones, exerted themselves to promote good feeling among their people. A few weeks seemed to do more to lessen racial bitterness than some of us had hoped for in as many years. One can but pray that it will last.

The surrenders amounted in all to twenty thousand men, and showed that in all parts of the seat of war the enemy had more men in the field than we had imagined, a fact which may take the sting out of several of our later mishaps. About twelve thousand surrendered in the Transvaal, six thousand in the Orange River Colony, and about two thousand in the Cape olony, showing that the movement in the rebel districts had always been more vexatious than formidable. A computation of the prisoners of war, the surrenders, the mercenaries, and the casualties, shows that the total forces to which we were opposed were certainly not fewer than seventy-five thousand well-armed mounted men, while they may have considerably exceeded that number. No wonder that the Boer leaders showed great confidence at the outset of the war.

That the heavy losses caused us by the war were borne without a murmur is surely evidence enough how deep was the conviction of the nation that the war was not only just but essential - that the possession of South Africa and the unity of the Empire were at stake. Could it be shown, or were it even remotely possible, that ministers had incurred so immense a responsibility and entailed such tremendous sacrifices upon their people without adequate cause, is it not certain that, the task once done, an explosion of rage from the deceived and the bereaved would have driven them for ever from public life? Among high and low, in England, in Scotland, in Ireland, in the great Colonies, how many high hopes had been crushed, how often the soldier son had gone forth and never returned, or come back maimed and stricken in the pride of his youth. Everywhere was the voice of pity and sorrow, but nowhere that of reproach. The deepest instincts of the nation told it that it must fight and win, or for ever abdicate its position in the world. Through dark days which brought out the virtues of our race as nothing has done in our generation, we struggled grimly on until the light had fully broken once again. And of all gifts that God has given to Britain there is none to compare with those days of sorrow, for it was in them that the nation was assured of its unity, and learned for all time that blood is stronger to bind than salt water is to part. The only difference in the point of view of the Briton from Britain and the Briton from the ends of the earth, was that the latter with the energy of youth was more whole-souled in the Imperial cause. Who has seen that Army and can forget it - its spirit, its picturesqueness - above all, what it stands for in the future history of the world? Cowboys from the vast plains of the North-West, gentlemen who ride hard with the Quorn or the Belvoir, gillies from the Sutherland deer-forests, bushmen from the back blocks of Australia, exquisites of the Raleigh Club or the Bachelor's, hard men from Ontario, dandy sportsmen from India and Ceylon, the horsemen of New Zealand, the wiry South African irregulars - these are the Reserves whose existence was chronicled in no Blue-book, and whose appearance came as a shock to the pedant soldiers of the Continent who had sneered so long at our little Army, since long years of peace have caused them to forget its exploits. On the plains of South Africa, in common danger and in common privation, the blood brotherhood of the Empire was sealed.

So much for the Empire. But what of South Africa? There in the end we must reap as we sow. If we are worthy of the trust, it will be left to us. If we are unworthy of it, it will be taken away. Kruger's downfall should teach us that it is not rifles but Justice which is the title-deed of a nation. The British flag under our best administrators will mean clean government, honest laws, liberty and equality to all men. So long as it continues to do so, we shall hold South Africa. When, out of fear or out or greed, we fall from that ideal, we may know that we are stricken with that disease which has killed every great empire before us.

The End

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