The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly

Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War

The intimate picture gives us the inner truth of the war. We see how human beings react under the most terrible stresses to the passion of patriotism. We see how, under the influence of an ideal — in this case the ideal of freedom — the most ordinary human material rings true and rises superior to all danger and suffering and privation.

A plain, forthright, and well-written account of the Boer War, from the son of a prominent Afrikaans statesman, Francis William Reitz. The author moves with a steady pace, and with lucid, functional prose, through most major events of the Second Boer War, which he experienced firsthand.

Being the son of a president, he often met with eminent, now legendary, politicians. I found his vivid sketches endlessly entertaining: Cecil Rhodes he describes as “a big florid man who cracked jokes with us boys, but on whose political aims my father looked askance”. Of Paul Kruger, an influential and respected figure in South African politics, he says “The President had an uncouth, surly manner, and he was the ugliest man I have ever seen”. And how could we forget Winston Churchill? – a “clever young man” who “climbed over a wall and escaped out of the Transvaal”. He even meets King Leopold, “an old man with a hooked nose and a long white beard, who extended only his little finger in greeting, perhaps because we belonged to a republic”. It is this frank and irreverent description, tinged with youthful pride, that lends his account its rugged charm.

His rendition of the war is largely accurate. Being, however, a personal tale, it is biased against the English. It also oversimplifies, overlooks, and consequently dismisses the motives and actions of the “natives”. Finally, it contains a certain… romantic exaggeration, not, I believe, deliberate, but a natural outcome of his youth during the events of the war, and the fact that he is writing from memory, and often relies on his own estimations.

The preface, written by South Africa’s most accomplished statesman, and preeminent politician (barring, perhaps, Nelson Mandela), Jan Smuts, is remarkable. He describes the uniqueness of Reitz’s account, not only among portrayals of the Boer War, but of war in general, and gives a lasting testament to the significance of the war, and the journal: “The Boer War was other than most wars. It was a vast tragedy in the life of a people, whose human interest far surpassed its military value. A book was wanted which would give us some insight into the human side of this epic struggle between the smallest and the greatest of peoples. Here we have it at last. There is no strategy and little tactics in this plain unvarnished tale. Wars pass, but the human soul endures; the interest is not so much in the war as in the human experience behind it.”

Reitz’s is a portrayal not only of the Boer War, but a drama of the Afrikaner nation, and a display of the birthing pains of South Africa. It encapsulates the good, the bad, and the downright ugly – of war, and of man.

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