Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Brothers in Arms

By Margaret Lenta

Brothers in Arms is not a general history of the Anglo-Boer war, but a somewhat anecdotal account of the participation in it of the Dutch – readers need pencils and paper by their sides to help them find their way through the enormous number of individual names.
As happens in most wars, some of the Hollanders who joined the Boers found they were in their element, enjoying attacks on blockhouses and other fly-by-night activities. Others adapted to wartime conditions and endured the hardships and the gradual fading of hope as best they could.
Chris Schoeman’s interest is in the Boer side of the contest, and there is no attempt to understand British strategy or motives.
The Dutch who volunteered to fight alongside the Boers belonged roughly to two groups: those who were resident in the country when war was declared and whose sympathies, understandably, were with their friends, colleagues and neighbours; and those resident in the Netherlands who felt sufficiently strongly about the war to come to southern Africa and fight alongside their distant relatives.
Schoeman explains that the people of the Netherlands “felt an increasing solidarity with their Dutch-speaking (relatives) in South Africa”, and their queen, Wilhelmina, wrote to the Boers expressing her sense of the strong bonds which united them. She even tried to dissuade the aged Queen Victoria from endorsing the war, according to Schoeman. It was in vain: the last major war of British imperialism was unstoppable.
This preliminary political information is the first and last we are offered. Other than this, Schoeman is concerned with the lives of the Hollanders who volunteered and served, though he does imply that other Europeans felt that Britain’s attack on the Boers was unjustifiable. Many of us have read of the Irish presence on the Boer side, and the sympathy of the Kaiser (despite the fact that he was Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson) for the Boers.

The Hollander Corps was founded partly because there was a fear that Hollanders who joined a Boer regiment might jeopardise their Dutch citizenship. It did not, however, survive the battle of Elandslaagte, early in the war, which Schoeman describes in detail. It was a ghastly rout, in which the Boers’ inexperience exposed them to an expensive defeat. Thereafter the Transvaal government refused to allow a separate Hollander corps to be formed. From this point, Hollanders were integrated into Boer military formations.
Schoeman has a good deal to say about Boer-Hollander relations. The Hollanders, most of them probably from an urban background, were neither capable horsemen nor good shots, deficiencies which became increasingly disadvantageous as guerrilla tactics were adopted.
Many had difficulty in making a fire, and few knew anything of camp cookery. At this time, the languages of both Hollander and Boer were still sufficiently similar for them to be mutually comprehensible, but the difference between their accents meant a Hollander could immediately be identified.
Schoeman gives space to the auxiliary services staffed by the Dutch, especially the ambulances, which were of considerable importance in the war, as well as to the horrors of the concentration camps where, he says, Hollanders “attempted to alleviate the poor circumstances of the camp inmates”.
 They would certainly have had plenty to do: Schoeman quotes a report after the war which claims that “27 927 Boers, of whom 24 074 were children under sixteen, died of starvation and disease in the camps”.
For anyone who has a Dutch ancestor or personal hero who fought in the Anglo-Boer War, this book is indispensable. Four appendices, “Members of the Original Hollander Corps”, “Hollanders Who Fought with the Boers”, “Hollander Corps Casualties: Elandslaagte” and “Roll of Honour: Hollander Casualties 1899-1902”, name every Dutch citizen, and quite a few men who were naturalised citizens of the South African republic and who fought on the Boer side. The contributions of almost all are included in this work. - published in The Sunday Independent, June 3, 2012.

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