Reviewed by Stephen M. Miller (Department of History, University of Maine)
Published on H-SAfrica (July, 2006)
Strategy and Logistics in the South African War
Since 2000, much has been added to the historiography of the South African War. Historians have explored themes of the "new" military history including memory, gender, black participation, and propaganda. However, most of the literature continues to investigate more traditional subjects like tactics and leadership. Much of the latter work has focused on the British side of the conflict. Despite Fransjohan Pretorius's seminal work on commando life, there is still much to be written about the Boer story. Why the Boers Lost the War is Leopold Scholtz's attempt to do just that. Although Scholtz provides some interesting material, his project falls short in reconstructing the Boers' strategic and operational thinking.
Scholtz, a deputy editor of the Cape Town daily Die Burger and Extraordinary Professor of History at Stellenbosch University, is quite interested in counterfactual questions, or what he calls "virtual history," and throughout the book he second-guesses both British and Boer operational decisions. He argues, for example, that the Boers should have waged an offensive war from the start, bringing the conflict to the Cape Colony and Natal even though the President of the Orange Free State, M. T. Steyn, feared that this action would have been seen as an imperialist move. Oddly enough, the author then states that the Boers did not have the leadership, organization, or logistical apparatus in 1899 to conduct an efficient operation into British territory. Likewise, Scholtz wonders what would have happened had Louis Botha and C. R. de Wet coordinated their offensive thrusts into British territory after the Syferfontein War Council of September 1900. Could that invasion have worked? Scholtz thinks that it was a very good plan and may have been successful, but it would have required a force the size of which the Boers could not field. One has to wonder about the merits of asking such questions when the actual events of 1899 and 1900 dictated the answers.
Although Scholtz has accessed several South African archives and the British Parliamentary Papers, he has not used them to their fullest. He too readily relies on L. S. Amery, Maurice and Grant, and other older sources with which historians of the South African War will be quite familiar. Despite all the work that has come out in the last fifteen years, he makes little use of the current secondary literature.
Why the Boers Lost does offer insight on some aspects of the war, in particular the Boer War Councils, and it does a good job in succinctly detailing British responses to Boer guerrilla tactics like Kitchener's "New Model Drives." However, a thorough investigation of Boer strategy and logistics remains to be written in English.
. Fransjohan Pretorius, Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1999).
. This book was originally published in Afrikaans in 2000 by Protea Boekhuis as Waarom die boere die oorlog verloor het.
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Stephen M. Miller. Review of Scholtz, Leopold, Why the Boers Lost the War.
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