Conan Doyle, Kipling and The Boer War

Posted by Steve Emecz on

Several of our Sherlock Holmes books feature the Boer War - most notably 

Tim Symonds - Sherlock Holmes and The Dead Boer at Scotney Castle

Kieran McMullen - Sherlock Holmes and The Mystery of The Boer Wagon

This fascinating recent article from the New Statesman talks about how Conan Doyle featured.

The long shadow of the Boer War

As Victoria’s soldiers fought in South Africa, some of the era’s best known authors reported home. Their writing shaped the legacy of a traumatic conflict. 

Had everything gone to plan, Britain’s conflict with the Boer Republics that began in October 1899 would have been over by Christmas, and would today be little more than a historical ­footnote, the last of Queen Victoria’s small wars on the fringes of the British empire.

The world’s most technologically advanced army expected a quick victory against a largely unmilitarised and predominantly agricultural opponent, but the conflict dragged on into the 20th century and the reign of a new monarch; at the peak of the bloodshed Rudyard Kipling wrote that “the ‘simple and pastoral’ Boer… seems to be having us on toast”. By the time the republics surrendered at the end of May 1902, the British had been taught, Kipling later wrote, “no end of a lesson”.

The Anglo-Boer War was a pyrrhic victory that cost British taxpayers more than £200m; 22,000 troops never came home to a hero’s welcome, and more than 400,000 army horses, donkeys and mules were killed. This traumatic conflict was memorialised to an unprecedented degree across Britain and its colonies in the form of cenotaphs, drinking fountains, street names and football stadiums (Liverpool’s “the Kop” derives from the Battle of Spion Kop, a disastrous attempt to relieve Lady-smith in January 1900).

The war coincided with a rapid expansion in cheap and popular ­newspapers, ­magazines and books: the populist and ­imperialist Daily Mail, founded in 1896 and half the price of its competitors, swiftly ­became the world’s biggest-selling ­newspaper, partly as a result of its jingoistic coverage of the war.

The Mail led a phenomenally successful campaign for soldiers’ families, ­recruiting Kipling, who raised £250,000 with his tub-thumping poem “The Absent-­Minded ­Beggar” which, set to music by Arthur ­Sullivan, became a fixture in Edwardian music halls.

Reporting, interpreting and arguing the war’s significance was the responsibility of a cadre of writers who descended on the ­conflict and created acres of newsprint, ­volume after volume of ­contemporary ­history, and countless memoirs and ­polemics. Sarah LeFanu’s Something of Themselves follows three of those writers through their early lives to their ­engagement in the war and its aftermath.

When war came Kipling was already ­familiar with the Cape Colony, and in 1898 had befriended the mighty Cecil Rhodes, still one of the most powerful figures in the empire despite the fiasco of the 1895 Jameson Raid – an abortive attempt backed by Rhodes to trigger an uprising of largely British uitlanders – outsiders – in the Transvaal.

As a coalition of imperial statesmen, jingo editors and mining millionaires (the so-called “Randlords” and “Gold Bugs”) determinedly dragged Britain into war, ­Kipling subscribed uncritically to its official justification: “It has the merit of being the one war that has been directly fought over the plain issue of elementary freedom for all white men,” he said.

These white men were the uitlanders, and British anger over their lack of political representation was, it is now clear, largely a smokescreen for more mercenary and expansionist motives. Kipling’s contribution to the war effort ­included a stint editing a propaganda sheet in the city of ­Bloemfontein. But the war also ­stimulated a renewed creativity for the grieving author, recovering from his six-year-old ­daughter’s death from pneumonia a few months before.

Kipling’s view of the conflict was shared by the second of LeFanu’s subjects, Arthur Conan Doyle, who similarly believed in the natural affinity of the English-speaking ­nations and who looked forward to their unification in “Greater Britain”.

Doyle volunteered, aged 40, for the ­Middlesex Yeomanry, but finding himself parked on the reserve list he joined a friend in ­establishing a private field hospital in Bloemfontein. Expecting a short but significant conflict, he began his history of it in situ and in real time, only to find The Great Boer War expanding organically through numerous editions as hostilities dragged on and on... (more)

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