A ruinous price of victory. The British victory over the Boers more closely resembled defeat. It was the war that broke the imperial spirit…
From many parts of the world young men volunteered to fight with the Boers: Germans, Frenchmen, Americans, Scandinavians, and a fierce and treasonable corps of Irishmen. They were inspired partly by idealism, partly by a taste for adventure in an adventurous age, but largely no doubt by the deep-rooted resentment with which the world regarded the British Empire. To the British the empire was a mighty force for good; to their foreign contemporaries it was all too often an overweening, snobbish, sanctimonious, greedy, and hypocritical private club.
More damaging still to the British assurance was the extent to which loyal Britons were tempted to agree with them. It was Rudyard Kipling, that bard of empire, who most powerfully expressed the public unease about the war, the suspicion of an underlying malaise. He wrote of “obese,unchallenged old things that stifle and overlie us.” He wrote of “flannelled fools at the wicket, muddied oafs at the goals.” The conduct of the Boer War had revealed to the British not simply inadequacies of military system, but fundamental flaws in their society- old assumptions and traditions that, unchallenged in the euphoria of nineteenth-century success, did lie deadweight upon the nation.
Britain was at the end of its aristocratic period. For the most part, in the Britain of 1900, what the gentry said, went. Now this ancient hierarchy was vaguely but significantly discredited. The British gentleman, it seemed, was not organically constructed to command, not entitled to success as a birthright. The British soldier’s traditional loyalty to his social betters was evidently no longer enough. The great regiments of the British Army, the Guards, the Highlanders, the cavalry of the line, were the most devoted to the old order. Yet these same proud brotherhoods were to be seen running for their lives through the South African night or pinned humiliatingly among the thornbushes.
There were doubts of another kind, too, doubts whether the war ought to have been fought at all. Thought the vast majority were determined to see the thing through, the British were permanently affected by the opposition of many public men, not just to the conduct but to the fact of the war. The British commander in chief in South Africa, General Sir William Butler, had resigned rather than lead his troops into battle against the Boers, and he had many vociferous supporters at home.
Lloyd George became a national figure by campaigning against the war. Passions ran high, for and against the war; families were divided, friends estranged. The reasons were deep, and intuitive: for men like Lloyd George and newspapers like the Manchester Guardian declared themselves opposed to the Boer War, they were really questioning the whole morality of the imperial idea. They were doubting the empire itself.