Review: The Great Anglo-Boer War by Byron Farwell


4 of 5 Stars

I recently finished reading “The Great Boer War” by Byron Farwell but it took me awhile to finish this review because I wanted to think about what I’d read for awhile. I’ve known about the Boer Wars but this is the first time I’ve ever really read anything in depth about them. For that reason, this book was an enlightening read.

“The Great Boer War” is an excellent read. It’s well written and engaging; Farwell described the fighting without getting into too much detail and also delved into the personalities of the leadership. It isn’t just a military history; it is a military, political, and social history. In the Boer War, all three intertwined and Farwell neglected none of those aspects in his writing. As I mentioned above, I’m not an expert on the Boer Wars, but it seems to me that Farwell gave equal treatment to both sides. He described the war from both the British and the Boer perspectives and seemed to be objective; when and where the British erred in battle or in policy, he pointed it out and did likewise with the Boers. He didn’t just offer an explanation of what happened and how, he delved into the why and explored what happened as a result of decisions, battles, and policy actions. He also looked at the fighting from the staff level and the field level, using resources that included the viewpoints of the generals all the way to the individual combatant as well as civilians. He didn’t stop at the fighting and the politics; he showed how they impacted the civilians on both sides, especially in later stages when Boer non-combatants were brought into concentration camps. The Boer War was truly one in which the military, political, and social were all intertwined, influencing events and decision making and Farwell definitely drove that point home.

I would have loved to have given this book a five star rating and perhaps in the print form it may have gotten one, but the Kindle version that I read has to get four starts. As well written as the book is, the Kindle version (no surprise) lacks maps. Maps really do make a difference when you’re dealing with military movements and not being able to see a representation of the movements and see how positions related to each other when you’re not familiar with the geography made visualizing what was happening more difficult. If the print version has maps, it would most definitely get five stars.

There is a lot to take away from this book and that’s why it took me so long to write this review. This quote from early in the book is the tip of the iceberg on what can be learned from the Boer War. Sadly, we seem to continue to not learn the lessons or forget them after we’ve learned them.

“The Anglo-Boer War, like the American entanglement in Southeast Asia, involved a highly industrial nation’s attempt to subdue a smaller agricultural country; in both instances the smaller nations resorted to that form of combat in which the intelligence, imagination, and character of the people count most and the quantity and quality of the weapons least: guerrilla warfare. In both cases the basic limitations and weaknesses of the great powers were revealed to an envious world and to its jealous and ambitious rulers and statesmen.”

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but compare what I was reading to future conflicts, from World War I all the way to our recent and current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of Britain’s World War I leaders fought in the Boer War and it’s interesting to see how their experience in South Africa likely colored their decision making in World War I; it’s quite possible they carried some false lessons into World War I. As we draw later into the 20th Century, it’s easy to see that the Boer War was a forgotten war. As the US military became involved in irregular and guerrilla warfare in Vietnam and later in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems very few looked back at what happened in South African or attempted to learn from what happened there at the turn of the century.

The fact that lessons from the Boer War weren’t heeded is no surprise; it is another forgotten and overlooked war. Despite the military, political, and social lessons to be learned, it is little mentioned and glossed over in our history classes. Given our recent military and foreign policy experiences, perhaps it shouldn’t be.

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