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Dr. Conan Doyle's The Great Boer War

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Dr. Conan Doyle's The Great Boer War is an article written by Robert Machray published in The Sketch on 8 january 1902.

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

Dr. Conan Doyle's The Great Boer War

The Sketch (8 january 1902, p. 463)

Dr. Conan Doyle in the uniform he wore at "the front."
Photo by the London Stereoscopic Company.

A new edition, which forms the fifteenth impression, of Dr. Conan Doyle's history of the War in South Africa has recently been issued by Messrs. Smith, Elder, and Co. "The Great Boer War" has now been expanded by the addition of seven lengthy chapters into a two years' record, the story of the struggle being brought down to last October. The new parts of the book are characterised by the same vigour, the same sincerity, the same manly fairness which were seen in the old. No one can read anything of Doyle's without being struck with the robust quality of the man. Physically he impresses you as a strong man — keen-eyed, big-chested, large-hearted, high-spirited, buoyant, full of vitality and force, and his writings body forth the man. As an author, he is singularly free front affectations and vanities and tricks of "style." Yet he excels in vivid and picturesque narration; his books are full of "go," like himself. "The Great Boer War" carries you along with a swing. To say that it is as exciting as a novel is to fall below the truth. It is a long book (not far from seven hundred pages), and it is a "packed" book, but it is never dull, never heavy; best of all, it is honest and just. Of how many novels can such things be said? The great sale the book has enjoyed witnesses to its popularity, and I have no doubt it will remain the most popular chronicle of the War. In the earlier editions, Dr. Doyle remarked that it was possible a fuller knowledge might give an entirely different meaning to some of the events of the Boer War, but there does not seem to me to be much change in this last edition. I take it, therefore, that Dr. Doyle found his impressions, in the main at all events, correct. The former book was begun in England and continued on board a steamer, but the greater part of it teas written in a hospital-tent in the intervals of duty during the enteric epidemic in Bloemfontein. At that time, the only documents he had to consult were the convalescent officers and men who were under his care and that of the other members of the medical staff. But — also during that period — he had the inestimable advantage of visiting the actual scene of the drama, of meeting many of the chief actors in it, and of seeing with his own eyes something of the operations in the field.

The later chapters (which bring the chronicle of the Was up to within a few weeks of the present time) have been compiled from published accounts of what has taken place, as well as from a great mass of correspondence with those who had some share in the particular events recorded by Dr. Doyle. The fine introductory chapter, entitled "The Boer Nations" — which is in its way a model of concise and sympathetic description — remains unaltered. In this the historian pronounces the Boers "one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon earth." And so, in very truth, have we found them — to our exceeding great cost. Our newspapers but too plainly endorse this estimate of their qualities from day to day.

Several weeks have passed since Dr. Conan Doyle concluded this edition of his book, and it occurred to me that readers of The Sketch would be interested in hearing his views on the present phase of the War, and also on the future settlement. He has been good enough to tell me what he thinks. In the penultimate paragraph of "The Great Boer War" he wrote: "So often have we been deceived that it is a hardy prophet who will continue his role, and yet it has become as certain as the future can ever be that, without some foreign complication and without some general rising in the Cape, a very few months must see the end of the drama." There has been a good deal of prophesying about the War which has been vain, and Conan Doyle does not wish to pose as a prophet — though be did foretell Botha's last great assault. He believes, however, that the final "round-up" of the fighting Boers cannot be far away and that they cannot much longer continue a struggle which they know very well can end only in one way. One by one the commandoes will be eaten up, until even the last. desperate "irreconcilables" will be compelled to accept the inevitable.

Then comes the question of the settlement which must be made — a satisfactory, an enduring settlement. Dr. Doyle's solution of the problem is as follows: After the War is over and the Boers have no illusion as to the thoroughness and completeness of their defeat, he would advocate a policy of magnanimity on the part of the Empire. He would offer them as a Boer reservation the two northern districts of the Transvaal, where they would be guaranteed, as the Basutos are guaranteed, against the miner and the prospector, and he would permit them, safe from all intrusion from any quarter, British or otherwise, there to live out their lives according to their own ideas, in their own simple, pastoral, primitive fashion. The two northern districts to which he refers are known as the Waterberg and the Zoutpansberg, and lie between the Limpopo and the Olifant Rivers. The capital of this area is Pietersburg, and the country is surrounded by British territory except on one side — that which adjoins the Portuguese.

I reminded Dr. Doyle that most people in this country have been made pretty sick of a


His answer was that a former policy of magnanimity had been construed by them as a confession of our weakness; we were "magnanimous" because we had been worsted in the fight; "magnanimity" was the sales with which we anointed the wounds to our pride — so thought the Boers. But now the case was entirely different. It was the Boers who were now in the position of the defeated. "Only after they thoroughly recognise the fact that they have been defeated, hopelessly defeated, would I suggest that a magnanimous policy be followed," said Dr. Doyle. "Then there is the further point. We have thousands upon thousands of Boer prisoners, who have been in the field against us, upon our hands. When peace has been declared, what are we to do with them? My suggestion is that we should say to these men: 'Those of you who will live loyally in British South Africa, those of you who will be true and faithful subjects of the Empire, will come and settle on your own farms, and let bygones he bygones; those of you who will not do this — then there is this place, this Boer reservation set aside for you. We give you. We guarantee to you, its possession.'" When I asked if such a place would not likely become a focus and hot-bed of Boer revolt, he replied, "No, because it would be but an insignificant country, cut off, as it were, from the world, and because we could command all avenues by which arms could be imported."

Dr. Doyle has been busily engaged for some time past in writing a brochure — it is to be issued almost immediately in a sixpenny pamphlet—


in South Africa. This is to be an investigation into the charges brought against coo soldiers of "methods of barbarism" which have been so rife in the foreign Press and not wholly absent from our own. Needless to say, Do. Doyle exonerates our Army, on the whole, from these atrocious charges ; never has a wtr been waged with more humanity than this. At the same time, he says that undoubtedly farms were destroyed contrary to the recognised rules of the game of warfare as understood by civilised belligerents, and that compensation must be made to the people who have suffered in this way. He thinks that the sum which would be required to compensate them would not, comparatively speaking, he a large one; probably £100,000 would cover it. But it would be a great act of justice. ROBERT MACHRAY•