My grandfather’s diary of his experience in the Boer War surfaced in the family a few years ago; a generous cousin typed up the whole thing and sent it around to us. It has left an indelible impression of the horror that injury or death must have meant. In fact, his descriptions suggest that just the experience of being there, day after day, would have provided a lifetime of nightmares.
We have all heard the horrific numbers – the tens of millions who died in the “World Wars” and others. But they are impersonal, missing the fever, hunger, and terrible discomfort, demoralization and death. Once in awhile, though, it hits home for real, like when I read the diary. And even then, I had to shut my eyes and try hard to imagine what Grandpa Badger was talking about. His description began in February 1899, and for starters, everything – from the material of their uniforms, to the heavy and difficult machinery they had – was so different from today’s light, efficient clothing – and no jeeps for moving people, machinery and supplies. Just old-fashioned wagons and horses.
Example: “Outpost on South of River – no blankets – had to drink water from River full of dead cattle – half rations – commenced Feb 20th. Artillery fire continued.”
At one point his colonel says “I have permission to let you fall out for half an hour to get something to eat. Afterwards we will cross the river which is very much swollen and in swift current and you must help each other to cross.”
Suddenly I’m picturing a dangerous, fast-flowing river. Grandpa adds, “…and little did any of us think the awful time we were about to be launched into in a short time – modern rifle fire had very little dread for us as we had never experienced it up till then, but we were all to have a very rude awakening …”
Then, “…When we fell in and moved off toward the river bank; on nearing it, the Boers opened fire on us so we had to rush for it and the whole lot of us reached the bed of the river without a casualty where we were safe for the time, a bend in the river a little higher up shielding us from the enemy.”
And, “The colonel was the first to cross, taking a rope with him, and a hard struggle he had as he was a small man and the water reached his neck but he managed it and secured the rope to a tree on the opposite bank by which the remainder of us crossed but there was (sic) some narrow squeaks. Several men were nearly washed away but it was over at last…”
“The colonel on rising to give the order to advance was shot in the shoulder. He made a second attempt but on getting on his feet he received one in his head and he fell forward and gasped ‘Go on men and finish it!’ With that the regiment rose as one man and rushed forward about 100 yards when we all fell prone I don’t know who gave the order but it was impossible to face such a fire and live, all you could do was lie still as near to the earth as possible….” This was where they lost the most men.
He goes on to describe days of rain, soaked clothing, and “the most miserable night I ever spent – water running out of my boots all the night – the most welcome daybreak I think I ever saw.” On one occasion “our baggage did not arrive until next morning so we had to lay all night without any blankets or food and the night being terrible cold.”
On March 14th, he notes “Day’s rest – what would I give for a substantial feed” . The next day – “Moved off at 6 a.m. and arrove (sic) at Bleomfontein and bivouacked NW of town on Boer Rifle Range about 9 a.m. – a very dejected looking lot – our clothes were torn to shreds, and we were in a starving condition”. Later: “It is a nightly occurrence to get drenched. A man with a constitution like a horse could not stand this for long, and yet they are wondering why there is so many sick – Enteric fever is raging here now very severe owing to the hardships and privations we have been subject to during the last two months**. Also the stagnant waters we have been forced to drink…”
To add insult to injury, many of the British officers treated the foot soldiers so badly that some like my grandfather didn’t care to remain in their own country. They instead emigrated to Canada and other parts of the British Empire, never to speak of their experience. Many of those soldiers apparently worked not only for low pay – which sometimes simply didn’t arrive – but sometimes for food alone, such was the extent of poverty at the time. Obviously even their rations were an insult.
On May 30th he describes what was apparently an increasingly typical day, “…no breakfast, as no water was to be had for miles and no food as we were run out of rations”.
In all, 28 typed pages of this. I am struck by the fact that most had volunteered. And it dawns on me that for many, ordinary life back home was little more than slavery in any case. What a choice! I’m betting these nightmare experiences gave strength to the labour movement’s rise in the 20th century. So many must have felt they had nothing to lose, really.
Yes, we’ve come a long way. But it strikes me war is still hell. Bodies still blow apart like they always did. PTSD or missing limbs are as hard to live with as ever. Yet the wars go on. And the permanent members of the Security Council at the U.N. still use their vetoes disgracefully as if they were playing a game of chess.
The Russians and Chinese, for example, stand in the way of taking Syria to court for war crimes, with 150,000+ already killed. In 2003, George W. Bush invaded Iraq, on the pretense of pursuing Al Qaeda. But neither will Bush end up in court for his war crimes.**** It’s a formally organized stalemate, a crime against humanity.
Diplomacy and education could achieve wonders. If ordinary citizens around the world understood the situation, they would be marching in the streets. A new Peace Movement would be born. As with the French Revolution, the Civil Rights movement, or anti-Vietnam War movement, people could change the world.* http://i.a.cnn.net/cnn/2006/images/10/11/human.cost.of.war.pdf ** my italics *** http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47930#.U4j1RVhdVPI ****http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/5/28/former_counterterrorism_czar_richard_clarke_bush and http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/31/obama-justice-department-immunity-bush-cia-torturer