The Boer War. A war that broke the imperial spirit which in the end, the victory of the British more closely resembled defeat. It was a war of striking personalities, forcefully imposed upon events. The story of the Boer War is full of sudden charged confrontations, pungent cameos of human conduct, bitter vignettes. It was not a war on the gargantuan twentieth-century scale. It was war recognizably between people, fighting for targets all could see, commanded by generals everyone knew, and raising conjectures all could voice. It was war in the open, self-explanatory, affecting everyone.
And the British; thereupon the pinnacle of their success, they were represented in South Africa by a gallery of originals, good and bad. There was Cecil Rhodes, the great financier, half villain, half idealist, with his mad ideas about British destiny and his infatuated love for Oxford. There was Roberts of Kandahar and Waterford, “Our Bobs,” the most beloved general of the British Army, whose only son was killed upon the Tugela River the week before his father assumed command. There was Kitchener of Khartoum, who had dragged a Sudanese leader in chains during a victory parade in Berber two years before. There was Baden-Powell of Mafeking, who had dedicated a book on pig sticking to His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught and was shortly to invent the Boy Scouts. Lord Methuen was a patient, sensitive West Country landowner, General Buller an apoplectic and self-indulgent bravo who was adored by his soldiers.
Winston Churchill covered the war for the Morning Post, now and then fighting a spirited skirmish and once escaping with great publicity from a Boer prison camp. Mahatma Gandhi, then a resident of natal, was one of the volunteer stretcher-bearers who removed the dead and wounded from Spion Kop. Arthur Conan Doyle ran a field hospital. Rudyard Kipling edited a field newspaper. Even Queen Victoria herself, though she did not visit the battlefields, was there in spirit, and sent to each of her soldiers for Christmas in 1900 a tin of chocolates as a souvenir, with a picture of herself on the lid.
The war dragged on, the heroic spirit faltered. It became a war of recriminations and reprisals, executions in the field, treacheries and betrayals. On both sides a mood of disillusionment set in. Among the Boers it was the despondency of failure, but among the British it expressed the first beginning of a fatal doubt.