Nicholas Riall, ed. Boer War: The Letters, Diaries and Photographs of Malcolm Riall from the War in South Africa. London: Brassey's, 2000. 207 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-85753-266-1.
Reviewed by Bertil Haggman (Author, Member, Swedish Writers' Union)
Published on H-SAfrica (March, 2001)
Nicholas Riall, a landscape gardening expert in England, inherited his grandfather's Anglo-Boer War papers and has compiled an interesting book around this material.
Like many young men of his generation Malcolm Riall went to South Africa to take part in a war that upset him because of British defeats. Before leaving England he bought a Kodak camera and plenty of film. Riall wanted to document his experiences both in word and photo. He sailed south in October, 1899, and did not return until May, 1902, having taken part in a large number of the great battles. Bringing with him 600 photos and extensive diaries these lay forgotten for many years until discovered by his grandson.
Malcolm Niall joined the West Yorkshire regiment. One of his first experiences in South Africa was a train wreck of the Boers:
"We saw the bridge that the Boers had blown up and the armoured train which the Boers had destroyed..." (p. 29) Two of the trucks were off the line and two left on. He could see the hole where the Boer shell had struck and close by were the graves of those killed on board." Of course there are photos in the book of the wrecked train.
Niall "saw the elephant" at Colenso. The regiment went on to Spion Kop and there are a number of fine photos from the British preparations for these battles including a full page one showing Royal Engineers building a pontoon bridge at Trichardt's Drift.
Next Riall's regiment was placed to aid in the relief of Ladysmith, which became a time of rest and recuperation. It was not until 10 April that suddenly in the middle of the breakfast a Boer shell came whizzing over the Mess.
An example of British inventions is provided in a photograph of "Hairy Mary", a railway locomotive covered in heavy ropes to protect from Boer rifle fire (p. 89).
Next the regiment moved by train to Pretoria, but was on the way ordered to take part in the hunt for De Wet in August 1900. One of the later chapters provides example of the total warfare against the Boers. The regiment now participated in what Niall called "farm burning". Often straw from haystacks was used to ignite and if the building was tin roofed, that was removed before setting ablaze. But Malcolm uses words like "collecting stray Boers, burning wheat and wagon-wheels and generally clearing up the district" (p. 114).
During the latter part of the war, West Yorkshire regiment was mainly employed guarding blockhouses and there are some good pictures of these new factors in the South African landscape. The last months of the war Malcolm Niall spent training troops.
This is a fine, well illustrated war memoir. The great number of photos gives a down to earth feeling about the campaign of a British regiment. The editor has also included a number of photos from the Boer side for balance. The grandfather was later posted to India and also served during World War I, surviving to die at home in 1968.
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Bertil Haggman. Review of Riall, Nicholas, ed., Boer War: The Letters, Diaries and Photographs of Malcolm Riall from the War in South Africa.
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