With the centenary of the start of the First World War approaching, Martin Hesp talks to a Westcountry writer and poet who believes it is vital to understand an earlier conflict.
The centenary of the beginning of the First World War will be upon us in just over six months time and memorials across the Westcountry will be busy as military personnel, historians, journalists, politicians and families whose loved ones perished in one of the worst conflicts ever fought prepare to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
But before we are swept up in memories of the French trenches and Flanders battlegrounds, a well known Westcountry poet and writer believes we ought to take time to recall another war that cost this region dear.
James Crowden says it is important to remember and try to understand the Boer War before we look back at the much bigger, more ruinous and tragic conflict fought on European soil. And, to that end, he has put together a collection of poems, anecdotes and vignettes which look at the language of the South African war and charts the origins and progress of this long forgotten military action.
Using contemporary sources from the time, diaries, letters, newspaper reports, verbatim accounts and poems to get a real feel for the war as it unfolded and to show how these cataclysmic events were recorded at the time and why the war had such an impact on public consciousness worldwide.
James had two great uncles who fought in the Boer War, one of whom later worked in Somerset at a paper mill at Creech St Michael. He also discovered there were three people in his home village of Winsham, near Chard, who had close connections to the Siege of Ladysmith – one of the most famous incidents in the South African conflict which cost so many British personnel their lives.
After uncovering a wealth of new material and photographs including a set of diaries belonging to his acupuncturist's grandfather who served in the Coldstream Guards at some important battles – James set about writing From Ladysmith to Archangel – The Language of War – Part One The Boer War 1899-1902.
He told the Western Morning News: "There is a lot about the war that has great relevance to the Westcountry – the Devon regiment had one battalion inside the Siege of Ladysmith, and another battalion outside under General Buller, a Devon man, part of the relief force.
"One moving excerpt in the book is from a newspaper report describing the two battalions meeting after many months of hard fighting.
"This is the first volume of a two-part work," he explained. "The second volume which will come out in 2014 and covers the First World War – and ends up in Archangel in Northern Russia as part of the Russian Civil War when British troops were evacuated in September 1919."
In writing this first volume James says he was amazed to find such a rich cast of well known characters, including Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, who worked as a doctor in a field hospital during a typhoid outbreak.
Rudyard Kipling, gets a mention – he briefly edited a newspaper called The Friend in Bloemfontein. The unlikely figure of Mahatma Gandhi figures too – he acted as stretcher bearer under fire at the Battle of Spion Kop – a costly action about which Winston Churchill was later to write: "Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them."
Churchill himself features in the new book – he was captured when an armoured train was ambushed and later famously escaped. His intrepid aunt Lady Sarah Wilson, who was captured after she'd been asked to leave Mafeking for her own safety by one Col Robert Baden-Powell after the Boers threatened to storm the British garrison. Having set off on a madcap adventure in the company of her maid, travelling through the South African countryside, she was finally captured by the enemy – but later returned to the town in exchange for a horse thief being held there. She became the first woman war correspondent.
James Crowden discovered that the Dutch-born artist Vincent van Gogh had a third brother, Cornelis, who fought on the Boer side in a Commando unit. He was captured and died in a British Army hospital.
The Somerset-based author writes: "The Boer War was in some ways a proxy war and, rather like the Spanish Civil War, had many international followers who served as commandos. The Boer War was also used as testing ground for weapons and tactics. It paved the way for First World War in much the same way that the Spanish Civil War opened the gates for the Second World War. Many German military advisers and specialists fought on the Boer side and were captured."
James has also looked at the involvement of other European countries in supplying arms and men to help the Boers: "There were searchlights, machine guns, barbed wire, war balloons and mausers, as well as long-range artillery and high explosives. Here were diamond mines, gold mines, towns under siege, set piece battles, snipers, disease, nurses, concentration camps well as a very hard fought guerrilla war."
Perhaps most importantly, James has taken what he describes as an experimental approach to writing military history, laying the book out as if it was poetry to give the language "a chance to breathe". His aim has been to make military history more accessible to a far wider audience and, in doing so, enable non-military-historians to understand what it was like to be there.
From Ladysmith to Archangel – The Language of War – Part One: The Boer War 1899-1902 is 400 pages with 200 black and white illustrations. Soft-back price £18.95. Publisher: Flagon Press ISBN 978-0-9562778-5-5.