Tuesday, May 31, 2022 - 00:00

I gave a talk in July 2021 to the Gqeberha society which concerned the writing of the two early histories of the Anglo Boer War: the official History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 as produced by the War Office and The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 issued in six volumes by subscription by The Times newspaper. Very soon after the conclusion of hostilities there had been a glut of war-related memoirs and personal accounts which were dismissed by critics as ‘having no pretension to be included in the historian’s library.’ Both the official history and the Times History were immediately recognised as works of lasting significance. Indeed, until 1979 few serious works had appeared: De Wet’s Three Years’ War, Deneys Reitz’s Commando, printed and continually reprinted, Ian Hamilton’s Anti-Commando and populist works like Edgar Holt’s Boer War and Rayne Kruger’s Goodbye Dolly Gray: The Story of the Boer War. Many works from that period in Afrikaans are populist in style except for G.D. Scholtz’s book from 1960 Die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, beautifully written, but only a brief survey, intended, he said, to stimulate further study.

The Times version appeared first and ultimately became six volumes with a seventh index volume. It was recognised as ‘an historical work of great national importance’ and that it ‘fills a place in our literature from which no rival can dislodge it’. This was certainly fulsome praise but it does reflect the quality of the work and also The Times’s position as a national institution. The extent of The Times’s influence was fully recognised by Sir Frederick Maurice. He was embroiled in a dispute with the Treasury over staff and funding for his official history. He told the War Office that the consequences of denying him the resources that Amery enjoyed would be that the Times History would become the ‘one authoritative history in England’.

By 1901 the public’s fascination for the war was such that there was a clamour from publishers to obtain the rights. The official account of the Crimean War had been merely a compilation of artillery and engineering records. From 1873 the Intelligence Department had taken over responsibility for the production of such accounts. Their reports now gave a much broader overview of the small wars in which Britain was engaged. Publishers Hurst & Blackett, who secured the rights, predicted sales of 10,000 and the issue of an official history was expected to arouse great excitement.

Robin Smith

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