By C. Michael Forsyth
Like most Americans, I learned nothing about the Boer War in high school. Knowing only that it was between Great Britain and the Afrikaners, and not being a fan of apartheid, I assumed the English were the “good guys.” But, the war was fraught with moral ambiguity – as was Conan Doyle’s role in it, as I learned while researching my novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Harry Houdini in The Adventure of the Spook House.
The war was declared in October 1899, when the Boers – descendants of the Dutch, German and Huguenot who’d settled in the Cape of South Africa – rose up against the British Empire. Britain had established a major military presence in the region, ostensibly to protect the rights of British settlers. But the Boers contended that the English were only concerned with getting their hands on the largest gold field in the world, discovered a few years earlier.
A superpatriot, Conan Doyle promptly volunteered for the army, telling his mother he was “honor bound” to do so, since as a public figure, he could be a role model to younger men. Due to his age (40), he was placed on a waiting list. Undaunted, Conan Doyle joined as a medic, although the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes stories had hung up his stethoscope many years earlier.
Conan Doyle’s doctoring skills were put to the test soon after his arrival with the troops. His unit, stationed at Bloemfontein, was overwhelmed by a virulent epidemic of typhoid (then known as enteric fever). The horrific conditions in the hospital ward have been likened to a slaughterhouse. But the author rose to occasion magnificently, rolling up his sleeves and working tirelessly and without complaint, never leaving his post, according to an account in The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Russell Miller.
“I never saw a man throw himself into duty so thoroughly, heart and soul,” wrote Mortimer Memes, a war artist who visited the Longman Hospital and sketched the author tending to stricken soldiers.
But there is a dark side to this tale of wartime heroism.
When the mighty British Empire took up arms against the Boers – dismissed as ignorant farmers with rifles – the government assumed the conflict would be over in a matter of weeks. Newspapers nicknamed it “The Tea Time War.” But it turned out to be anything but tea with the queen. The Boers were surprisingly adept with firearms and employed guerilla tactics that left British military leaders – used to infantrymen marching at them shoulder to shoulder—flummoxed. The Boer War ended up being the longest, costliest and bloodiest conflict Britain fought in the 19th century, with 22,000 English troops dead, mostly from disease. As the casualties mounted and reports of wartime atrocities by the British army surfaced, support from the public — reared on the assumption of the Empire’s invincibility — waned. It was in some ways this was Britain’s Vietnam.
To stamp out the Boers’ guerilla force, the British commander Lord Kitchener resorted to scorched earth tactics, torching crops and farms, and poisoning wells. More than 30,000 farmhouses and 40 small towns were destroyed, according to Miller’s book. Nearly 120,000 civilians were herded into what the government called “concentration camps,” introducing that now-infamous term to warfare. At least 25,000 civilians, including many children, died in the camps due to the appalling conditions, often succumbing to disease.
None of this dampened Conan Doyle’s enthusiasm for the war; he remained a vocal champion. Returning from his five month tour of duty, he penned The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, a spirted defense of the Empire’s war effort. He emphatically disputed charges that British soldiers had committed rape and insisted (wrongly) that they had never used dum-dum bullets (expanding bullets that created horrific wounds). Those civilians were kept in refuge centers where the conditions were not to blame for any deaths, he adamantly maintained.
“I do not think that any unprejudiced man can read the facts without acknowledging that the British government had done its best to avoid war and the British army to wage it with humanity,” Conan Doyle wrote.
About 300,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold in Britain and it was translated to foreign languages and read by people around the world. It is credited with shifting the tide of public opinion at home and abroad.
Conan Doyle was rewarded for his role as war propagandist, after the war ended with a British victory in May 1902. That October 24, he was knighted by the recently crowned King Edward VII.
The Boer War chapter of Conan Doyle’s life highlights his courage and compassion. It also illustrates his extraordinary capacity for ignoring reality once fixed upon a belief. Years later, this quality would be on spectacular display when he championed the belief in the existence of fairies.
Copyright C. Michael Forsyth