Two More Books on the South African War

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Two More Books on the South African War is an article published in The Sketch on 14 november 1900.

Review about Arthur Conan Doyle's essay The Great Boer War.

Two More Books on the South African War

The Sketch (14 november 1900, p. 144)

Dr. Conan Doyle and Mr. Winston Spencer Churchill's Contributions to the History of the South African Campaign.

Two more strongly contrasting contributions to the history of what will, no doubt, in time be regarded as the greatest War of the Victorian era could scarcely be imagined than these books by two men who are at present playing so important a part before the public — a contrast, indeed, subtly suggested by the very bindings of the volumes, which are at each end of the spectrum, the one being bright red and the other dark blue.

While many men have written much on the varied episodes of the campaign,


in one thick volume of over five hundred pages, the whole story of the War, and his estimate of it may be judged from the title be has selected, "The Great Boer War." To this title he has striven, with his well-known brilliancy and felicity of expression, to live up, and he has not striven in vain, while his mind, trained to diagnosing causes from effects, and, given the cause, to evolving the logical conclusion, has enabled him not only to place his finger, as it were, with unerring certainty on the vitalities with which he has concerned himself, but to make them plain to his readers, as he traces the genesis of the Boer nation and the causes which made it what it is, up to the cause of quarrel, thence through the negotiations to the eve of War and the dawn of that day of carriage on which the sun has not yet gone down in the blood-red West.

Where is one to find, for instance. a more succinct statement of the "items which we were buying for our six million pounds," the sum paid in 1814 for Cape Town and "some South American land"? "The inventory," says Dr Doyle, "would have been a mixed one of good and evil nine fierce Kaffir Wars, the greatest diamond-mines in the world, the wealthiest gold-mines, two costly and humiliating campaigns with men whom we respected even when we fought with them; and now at last, we hope, a South Africa of peace and prosperity, with equal rights and equal dirties for all men."

And in the mere question of phraseology, what happier term or one more particularly individualistic can be quoted than the statement that "British justice, if not blind, should At least be colour-blind as applied to the relations of the white man and the black"?

The War-Correspondents who have so far contributed what has been written of the various portions of the campaign have naturally been compelled to speak of what came under their own eyes, with the result that they have inevitably presented what they saw in the foreground, and there has hitherto been no middle distance, to say nothing of background, in connection with the epoch-making events which have been crowded into the last year of the century. Dr Doyle has, indeed, surveyed the War from its metaphorical "China to Peru," and the great value of his work consists in his throwing the leading events into their proper perspective. This is especially noteworthy in the fact that, although he himself was attached, as everyone knows, to the ambulance, he has devoted very little space to the medical department, "upon which," as he says, "so fierce a light has beaten." Almost on the eve of the publication of the Report of the Special Commission which was sent to inquire into the hospital question, such an expression as the following, coming, as it*does, from a properly qualified medical man, cannot be denied its full measure of importance if we are to learn some of the military lessons of the War which not only Dr Doyle has pointed oat, but, if report can be trusted, the War Office officials themselves will have to study before long. "For reasons of policy," he says, "the grave state of the Army in Bloemfontein was never made known, and, at the moment when the public was reading optimistic reports, the town was a centre of pestilence and the hospitals were crammed to their utmost capacity. The true statistics of the outbreak will probably never come out."

Within these limits, it is impossible to do justice to a volume whose importance will grow with years, and which, it is not too much to say, will probably be for long the standard work of our last War. Messrs. Smith, Elder, and Co., the publishers, may well congratulate themselves on having secured the privilege of presenting it to the public, but they may at the same time be earnestly entreated to spare the public the trouble of cutting pages.


defines its own limits in dealing with the force "which encountered and overcame the brunt of the Boer resistance, which, far from the railway, marched more than four hundred miles through the most fertile parts of the enemy's country, which fought ten general actions and fourteen smaller affairs, and captured five towns," and yet, "owing to the difficulties of telegraphing, was scarcely attended by a single Newspaper-Correspondent and accompanied continuously by none."

His contribution is therefore a valuable one, and is written with such a frank, breezy suggestion of youthful strength and a sense of triumph that his readers will not quarrel with him in that he fails to bring out anything like the deep significance of the suffering which underlies the success — or the failure — of War. His work professes to be merely journalism, but it is something to he thankful for that, even when he takes pot-shots at description, he does not wound the English language.