FRIENDS AND ENEMIES: The Natal Campaign in the South African War 1899-1902
When the Boer Republics invaded Natal in 1899, the invaders could have been driven out with casualties measured in hundreds. Instead Britain was to lose nearly 9,000 men killed in action, more than 13,000 to disease and a further 75,000 wounded and sick were invalided back to Britain. The war ended in 1902 with a very unsatisfactory Peace Treaty.
At the start of the conflict Britain's Generals were faced with problems new to the military establishment. Shows of force did little to intimidate a determined opposition; infantry charges against a hidden enemy armed with modern rifles resulted in a futile waste of lives. Artillery could now destroy unseen targets at great range. Lack of mobility resulted in more than half the army being besieged in Ladysmith bringing with it concomitant civilian involvement. This includes, for the first time, the experiences of the inhabitants of Natal - soldier and civilian, men, women and children, black and white.
Some generals learnt quickly - others were slower and yet others, perhaps through pride and stubbornness, refused to alter their ways and thus their men paid with their lives. The bravery and sacrifice of men during the campaign have been described in many books, as have the faults - real and imagined - of the generals. But little attention has been paid to the greatest blunder of all: a failure to use local advice, opinion, and capability.
From the beginning, locally-raised regiments demonstrated how the Boers might be defeated without incurring heavy casualties and, when they were finally given their head, they chased the invaders out of Natal while suffering only nominal casualties.
Diaries and letters vividly portray the actions at Talana, Elandslaagte, Colenso, Acton Homes, and Spion Kop, as well as the siege of Ladysmith in which 15,000 military personnel and 2,500 residents and refugees were incarcerated for four months, slowly but surely dying from starvation and sickness until their relief.
Before, during and after the Boer War many myths were created and facts hidden to suit political ends. The result was that lessons, which should have been learned were never adequately understood or applied. With the West still engaged in foreign wars, these old mistakes should be remembered and not repeated.
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