Military history


IN BRITAIN'S WEALTHY, aristocratic families, the first son would inherit the title and usually the land, while a younger brother often went into the army. One of those now fighting the Boers, for example, was Major Lord Edward Cecil, who had grown up in the palatial Hatfield House, on a historic estate where Queen Elizabeth I had spent part of her childhood. Along paved paths, Cecil's eccentric father exercised on a large tricycle, a young coachman trotting beside him, pushing him up hills and then jumping on behind for the downhill slopes. For the 21st birthday of an older brother, a special train had brought London visitors to a banquet at which they consumed 240 quarts of soup, 60 partridges, and 50 pheasants, served by white-gloved footmen in blue-and-silver uniforms. After private tutoring and Eton, Edward was commissioned as an officer in one of Britain's most fashionable regiments, the Grenadier Guards. In 1898, befitting someone of social prominence, he had been on hand to watch the Maxim guns in action at Omdurman.

As with many British officers, when he was ordered to South Africa the next year, Cecil's attractive young wife, Lady Violet, accompanied him. After he had joined his army unit far in the interior, she stayed on in Cape Town, the command center of the war effort. As loyal to the empire as someone like Charlotte Despard was rebellious, Violet busied herself working with the Red Cross, while frowning on the British women who arrived in Cape Town "without evening dress of any kind." A drawing of her from this time shows a stunning woman who could turn many a man's head: slender, full-lipped, with dark curly hair and doe eyes set wide apart. And turn one head she did, for here in the seaside city, beneath the spectacular flat-topped Table Mountain with its "tablecloth" of fog rolling off the top, she and Sir Alfred Milner were falling in love.

Decades later, after the world war that would upend both their lives, she combed through Milner's papers and her own, making sure that no intimate details were left to history. But we do know that their passion was mutual, intense, and, for many years, furtive. In Victorian high society, there was no question of Violet and Edward divorcing. And for Violet, who had left their four-year-old son in the care of nannies and her in-laws in England, to be known to have a romance on the side while Edward was under Boer fire would have meant betraying not just her husband but the British Empire itself. Nor could Milner afford the appearance of the slightest impropriety, since as high commissioner to South Africa, in a mansion with portraits of Queen Victoria on the walls, he was the moral embodiment of that same empire.

And there was yet a further reason why public scandal was unthinkable: Edward Cecil's father was prime minister of Britain.

In fact, it was he—Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, to give him his full name—who had suggested that Violet accompany his son to South Africa. Edward's father's position was known to everyone, including the Boers. When Edward's mother died of cancer, they allowed a courier under a white flag to pass through their battle lines surrounding Mafeking, a town where Edward and his contingent of British troops had become trapped under siege, with the news.

Violet was a woman of style, wit, and elegance. Her father was an admiral, and a brother would become a well-known general. As a teenager she had lived two years in Paris, studying music and art, meeting the impressionist painter Edgar Degas, taking in the opera and the Comédie Française, and often seeing a family friend—the French politician, journalist, and future wartime prime minister Georges Clemenceau. It would be good for Edward, his mother wrote to a family member, "to have a clever wife." Violet and Edward had known each other less than six months before they married, but to both it must have seemed the perfect match: to him, Violet appeared suitably wellborn, cultured, and dazzlingly beautiful; as for her, she was marrying someone whose social position promised a glamorous life near the pinnacle of imperial power.

It took little time, however, for the first problems to appear. Violet was the life of any party; Edward had a melancholy streak. She cared passionately about the arts; the Cecils had little use for them. Attending three Anglican services each Sunday, the Cecil family was devoutly religious; Violet was an atheist. At her first Christmas at the intimidatingly gloomy Hatfield House, she recorded dryly that four clergymen had come to dinner, "one, so to speak, to each daughter-in-law." Above all, the recessive Edward never fully emerged from the shadow of his famous father.

Alfred Milner, on the other hand, was a commanding public figure, confident of his destiny. "I wish Milner had a less heroic fight to make," Violet wrote to one of her brothers from Cape Town, adding that the high commissioner "telegrams all day, up at seven and generally not to bed until 2.... He is well, alert and cheerful, absolutely fearless."

Violet's privileged position gave her opportunities denied to other officers' wives, such as being invited to the front to inspect a contingent of guardsmen, and being asked by Rhodes to stay at his spacious Cape Town estate, Groote Schuur. She accepted both invitations, sometimes caring for wounded soldiers recuperating under Rhodes's roof—officers only, of course. Rudyard Kipling and his wife, Carrie, were frequent guests at the mansion's polished mahogany dining table, and became fond of Violet. An eight-person band of Rhodes's servants played on the steps for half an hour every night after dinner, while, from the long, columned porch facing Table Mountain, a herd of zebras could often be seen roaming an adjoining forest. A pet lion cub lived on the grounds. "One day I know he will break his chain and I shall find him in my bedroom," Violet wrote. "What shall I do?"

The imperial lion of Cape Town, Milner, lived a short carriage ride away. Like him, she rejoiced in how the war had made visible "the solidarity of the British people, wherever they were, and of the native races who lived under our flag. From Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and other parts of the Empire, offers came of help in men, money and material. The Empire had found itself." A continent away at Hatfield House, her little son, George, was given a miniature cannon that could shoot peas at toy Boer soldiers.

Avidly interested in politics, Violet watched debates in the Cape Colony's all-white parliament from Milner's private box in the visitors' gallery. The two of them also found time to stroll in the gardens of Groote Schuur and go riding together several times a week on the beach or up the slopes of Lion's Head, a hill with one of Africa's most breathtaking views. She joined him at a New Year's Eve party on the last day of the old century and at many official dinners. A sparkling, high-spirited conversationalist, she could be counted on to charm whichever visiting general or cabinet minister she might be seated next to. For Milner, it was a coup to have the prime minister's daughter-in-law as his unofficial hostess at Government House, where dinner dress for his aides-de-camp was black tuxedos with lapels of scarlet silk.

She was even included in a carefully posed photograph of Milner and his staff. He is seated, with watch chain, vest, morning coat, striped trousers, and the frown of a leader with no patience for trifles. Violet, in a long skirt, her curls tucked under a hat, stands behind him, her hand resting comfortably on the back of his chair.

Her effect on him was noticeable to others. "Sir Alfred is very happy and full of jokes, and chaffs everyone. One sometimes can hardly believe he is the same man as [before her arrival] last July," a friend wrote after Violet had been in Cape Town for a year. Some assume that the couple became lovers in South Africa, but in their book about this love triangle, Hugh and Mirabel Cecil—he is a collateral descendant of Edward's—are convinced that this did not happen until later. All we know is that on the evening of June 18, 1900, Violet Cecil and Alfred Milner dined alone at Government House and something happened that made her forever after fondly mark this anniversary in her diary. "Was it a declaration of love?" the authors ask. "A more than usually tender expression of affection? We shall never know."

For all the Britons engaged in the fight against the persistent Boers, whether civilians like Milner or officers like John French and Douglas Haig, something made this war disturbingly different from the other colonial conflicts they had known. Many people in Britain thought their country shouldn't be fighting at all.

One, naturally, was French's own sister. When Charlotte Despard first addressed a peace rally at the town hall of Battersea, angry hecklers tried to shout her down. But this left-leaning community already felt at war with Britain's upper classes and appreciated underdogs, and antiwar sentiment was not long in growing. Soon there was even a street renamed after Piet Joubert, a Boer commander whose soldiers fought several battles with the troops of Charlotte's brother. (Joubert Street still exists, not far from Charlotte Despard Avenue.)

Despard's denunciations of the war did not dampen her affection for the man she still called Jack. She seemed to think of him mainly as the little boy she had helped raise, not as anyone responsible for "the wicked war of this Capitalistic government" which she fulminated against from lecture platforms. Sister and brother dismissed the other's political opinions as forgivable quirks.

Many of the war's opponents in England were on the political left and saw the Boers as innocent victims. Such dissidents were frequently attacked by angry mobs; one group of antiwar socialists escaped harm only by fleeing to the upper deck of a horse-drawn London omnibus, where they could stamp on the hands of their pursuers, who had to climb a steep ladder to reach them. The youthful David Lloyd George, a Welsh member of Parliament and skilled orator, was one of the war's boldest critics. When he tried to speak in Birmingham, a brass band played patriotic tunes outside the hall and a street vendor sold half-bricks, "three a penny, to throw at Lloyd George." In the uproar, one man was killed by a baton-wielding policeman, and 26 people were injured. Lloyd George escaped the mob by slipping out a side exit disguised in a badly fitting policeman's uniform. At an antiwar meeting in Bangor, Wales, less lucky, he was clubbed on the head and momentarily stunned. Citizens of his own parliamentary constituency burned him in effigy.

Milner often came in for special attack as the man who had almost single-handedly started the conflict in order to seize the Transvaal's gold. Many of the "pro-Boers," as they were called, linked the war to injustice at home, foreshadowing later peace movements: every shell fired at the Boers, Lloyd George thundered, carried away with it an old-age pension. Though they did not prevail against the war fever, the Boer War protests proved an embarrassing—and enduring—crack in the imperial façade. They raised a question that would resound even more contentiously in the next decade, in a war whose costs, human and financial, were astronomically higher: was loyalty to one's country in wartime the ultimate civic duty, or were there ideals that had a higher claim?

Nowhere was opposition to the war stronger than in Ireland, where the spectacle of English troops occupying Boer land evoked the island's own history. Many Irish saw the Boers as Davids ground down by the English Goliath and reaching for their slingshots. Irish sports teams took on the names of Boer generals. Much of the world also viewed the Boers as noble underdogs, and several thousand foreign volunteers made the long journey to South Africa to fight beside them. To British outrage, one of the largest contingents came from Germany.

Given Britain's overwhelming military might, defeating the Boers was only a matter of time, and more battle victories soon came, French and Haig getting credit for several of them. After the grand prize—the gold mines—fell under British control in mid-1900, various honors were handed out, with French awarded a knighthood for his relief of Kimberley. Another siege, the seven-month one at Mafeking that Edward Cecil had endured, was also broken at last. At Hatfield House, four-year-old George Cecil planted a tree, the Mafeking Oak, and lit an enormous bonfire to celebrate the liberation of his father at the other end of the world. When news of the relief of Mafeking reached Cape Town, however, Violet Cecil took to bed with a headache.

Several months later, after she had been reunited with Edward, she returned to England, having been away from young George for fourteen months. Her departure left Milner feeling "very low indeed," he wrote in his diary. "Still feeling profoundly depressed," he added the next day. Violet suggested to Edward that they return to South Africa, where the family could help build the new, British-dominated country envisioned by Milner, and she urged the same on her two brothers. But Edward, by now aware of his wife's feelings for Milner, refused. Instead, he remained in the army and applied, successfully, for service in Egypt.

Like the Cecils, other Britons naturally assumed the war was essentially over. After all, the Union Jack now fluttered over South Africa's towns and cities, garrisoned by hundreds of thousands of tall-helmeted troops who outnumbered the remaining Boer fighters more than ten to one. But, exasperatingly, Sir John French and Douglas Haig, like the rest of the British army, found themselves pursuing elusive, bearded warriors in civilian dress who refused to acknowledge that they had been beaten.

Mounted Boer guerrillas raided British outposts and railway lines, ambushed British troops, and then disappeared into South Africa's endless plains. A proper cavalry charge, like that at Kimberley, was no use if you couldn't even find the enemy. In response, the British decided to cut the roaming bands of Boer raiders off from their food and supplies. This meant that wherever the guerrillas attacked, British soldiers ruthlessly destroyed Boer farm buildings, crops in the field, and food stocks for dozens of miles in all directions. From some 30,000 farms, black pillars of smoke rose into the sky and flocks of vultures swooped down to feast on more than three million slaughtered sheep. French, Haig, and other commanders ordered troops to cut down fruit trees and poison wells, to use their bayonets to slash open bags of grain, and to torch families' furniture and possessions along with their homes. No one imagined that 15 years later this would be the face of war in Europe as well, or that armies would sow vastly wider swaths of deliberate devastation, or that it would be not only farms but centuries-old cities reduced to smoking rubble.

As British troops continued their ruthless farm-burning, what was to be done with the more than 100,000 civilians—almost all of them Boer women, children, or elderly, plus African farmhands—now left homeless? Here, too, came an eerie glimpse into the not-so-distant future, as the British opened a network of guarded concentration camps, row after row of white tents, often surrounded by barbed wire. The largest of these held more than 7,000 Boers, brought in by soldiers in high-wheeled covered wagons or railway flatcars, the grim-faced women clothed in long dresses and bonnets with neckcloths against the sun. Milner ordered all news of these camps censored from press telegrams leaving Cape Town, fearing that it would supply "the mad men at home with their most valuable material."

One day, however, at the beginning of 1901, a visitor arrived to see him bearing a letter of introduction from a member of her family in England whom he knew. He invited her to lunch at Government House, where Emily Hobhouse found herself the only woman among eight male guests, her surroundings indelibly stamped by the image of the British crown—on lamps, writing paper, and even the servants' livery. When Milner asked what brought her to South Africa, she said that she would rather discuss it with him in private. He politely promised her 15 minutes after lunch. She took more than an hour.

In that private session, Milner quickly realized that despite her impeccable dress and prominent family, his visitor was just the sort of person he referred to in confidential correspondence as a "screamer." Hobhouse was the founder of a group called the South African Women and Children's Distress Fund, and she had already joined Lloyd George and others in speaking against the war at public meetings in Britain. But that was not enough for her, and so she had come in person to distribute clothes, food, and blankets to war victims, including the very Boer women and children—as she had discovered to her horror on arriving in Cape Town—whom British troops were now herding into Milner's concentration camps.

Sharing a sofa in the Government House drawing room with his most unwelcome guest, Milner did not want to appear to have something to hide, and reluctantly he agreed to her request to visit the camps and distribute her relief supplies, which filled two railway freight cars. "He struck me as ... clear-headed and narrow," Hobhouse wrote to her aunt in England. "Everyone says he has no heart, but I think I hit on the atrophied remains of one."

Blue-eyed and fair-haired, Emily Hobhouse was 40 years old. In most of the photographs we have of her, she looks at the camera with unusual directness for a woman of her time, as she must have looked at Milner that day. We can only guess at what opened her mind to the injustices of a world far wider than the one she had been raised in. Possibly it was the way her father, an Anglican minister, angrily broke up a romance she had with a local farmer's son whom he considered beneath her—a relative of his had worked as a maid in their house. Or possibly it was the time she spent, some years later, studying child labor conditions with the encouragement of a liberal-minded aunt and uncle, well-known reformers. It was only after the death of her widowed father, whom she cared for through many years of illness in his rural parish, that she felt free to go her own way in life. She traveled to Cape Town on a cheap steamboat, second class, and apparently expected to do no more than put her organization's relief supplies in the right hands. That was before she found out about the concentration camps and went toe-to-toe with Milner.

On a bright moonlit night, Hobhouse boarded a train in Cape Town for a 600-mile journey into the interior. At the first camp she visited, the heat was overwhelming, flies covered everything, and in the tents where destitute, traumatized families were living, the nearest thing to a chair was often a rolled-up blanket. In the chaos of being rounded up by British troops, she discovered, some of the Boer women had gotten separated from their children. The food was terrible, drinking water came from a polluted river, and up to a dozen people were crowded, sick and well together, into each tent. When it rained the tents flooded. While she was interviewing one woman, a puff adder slithered into the tent. As everyone else fled, Hobhouse, no more intimidated by a poisonous snake than by a viceroy, tried to kill it with her parasol. Elsewhere, she saw corpses being carried to mass graves. "My heart wept within me when I saw the misery." (When a final tally was made after the war, it would show that 27,927 Boers—almost all of them women and children—had died in the camps, more than twice the number of Boer soldiers killed in combat.)

As the days went by and she continued touring the archipelago of camps, the scenes of horror only multiplied: "a little six months' baby gasping its life out on its mother's knee," she wrote to her aunt. "...Next, a girl of 24 lay dying on a stretcher." Furious, she issued demands to startled British officers: for milk, for a boiler for the drinking water, for nurses, clothing, medicines, soap. None of the camp commandants were quite sure who this well-dressed, well-connected woman was, but they knew she was angry and they were not about to say no to her. "I rub as much salt into the sore places of their minds as I possibly can," she wrote, blaming the outrages she saw on "crass male ignorance, stupidity, helplessness and muddling." It was not only to her aunt that she sent letters. Thanks in part to a stream of them Hobhouse sent to English newspapers, the existence of the camps rapidly burgeoned into an international scandal. Antiwar members of Parliament denounced them in the House of Commons, leaving an alarmed Milner seeing this as the war's main public relations problem: "If we can get over the Concentration Camps," he told the colonial secretary, "none of the other attacks upon us alarm me."

To read the many letters Emily Hobhouse sent from South Africa is not only to see a war's hidden toll on civilians; it is to see, in this age that was so restrictive for women, one finding herself. Quickly Hobhouse discovered how to make her way around a country at war, learning from soldiers, for example, which valve you could open on the side of a stopped steam locomotive if you wanted hot water for tea. She slept in a missionary's home, railway cars, a stationmaster's quarters, and in a tent in one of the concentration camps. Once she even spotted a troop of Boer guerrillas galloping across the veldt. To be among so many who were homeless, dying, or at war matched nothing in her upbringing, but beneath the outrage and compassion in what she wrote home is a current of restrained exuberance as this country clergyman's daughter fully encounters the world for the first time.

After some five months, Hobhouse decided she could accomplish more by returning to England, and she booked a shared cabin on the mail ship Saxon from Cape Town in May 1901. Once on board, she discovered, in grander accommodations, none other than her archenemy. Sir Alfred Milner kept to himself, but Hobhouse, with typical determination, managed to corner him as he sat alone on the upper deck and immediately launched into a tirade about the camps. He heard her out, polite as always, then jarred her by indicating that he had received some 60 reports on her activities. "What an army of informers to pay!" she wrote later.

Milner was returning to London to dampen what he called the "pro-Boer ravings" against the war that Hobhouse had helped stoke, and to have a series of secret rendezvous with his mistress, Cécile Duval. He would also meet with Violet Cecil many times, in public and in private; as the prime minister's daughter-in-law, she had become his eyes and ears inside the British government. On arriving at London's Waterloo station, he was driven off in an open carriage to receive a peerage from King Edward VII, whose mother, Queen Victoria, had died earlier in the year.

Hobhouse had her own agenda in England. She went to see the secretary of state for war and lectured him, too, about the camps—for nearly two hours. She produced a three-penny pamphlet on the subject and had it distributed to members of Parliament, then embarked on a lecture tour, speaking at 26 public meetings and moving audiences to tears. At Southport, hecklers shouted "Traitor!" In Plymouth, they threw summer squash, and in Bristol, chairs, sticks, and stones. Hobhouse kept some of the missiles as souvenirs. Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain called her a "hysterical spinster."

After nearly half a year of political agitation in England, Hobhouse quietly set sail on a return mission to the camps. Despite her efforts to get her name removed from her ship's passenger list, Milner, himself now back in Cape Town, found out and had soldiers meet the ship when it dropped anchor, to bar her from coming ashore. The following day the local military commander appeared and demanded that she return to England. She refused. A few days later, she was ordered onto a troopship bound for home. She refused again. This time, soldiers picked her up and carried her. She struggled so vigorously, however, that the colonel in charge had to order her arms tied, "like a lunatic," he said. "Sir," Hobhouse replied, "the lunacy is on your side and with those whose commands you obey." Later, the colonel was asked, in this most unusual arrest of a lady, had there not been a danger that her petticoats might have become visible? "I had thought of that," the colonel replied, "and when she was picked up I threw a shawl over her feet." From the troopship, Hobhouse managed to send a last letter to Milner. "Your brutal orders have been carried out," it began, "and thus I hope you will be satisfied." Two officers' wives on board refused to speak to her for the entire voyage.

In putting the camps on the world's front pages, Emily Hobhouse had shown that she had the courage to defy public opinion in wartime, and in a far more destructive war, much closer to home—in which she would again encounter Alfred Milner—she would not hesitate to do so once more.

The guerrilla war in South Africa dragged on, to end only in mid-1902, when an uncompromising Lord Milner accepted the surrender of the last Boer fighters. Now established in a majestic, sprawling red-brick and half-timber mansion in the city of the gold mines, Johannesburg, he saw the next phase of his task as nothing less than "restarting the new colonies [the two conquered Boer republics] on a higher plane of civilization," and molding them and the two existing British colonies into one entity, which would soon take its honored place as part of the British Empire. It was taken for granted—on this alone the British and Boers had always agreed—that in the new South Africa the black majority would be powerless. "The white man must rule," Milner declared, "because he is elevated by many, many steps above the black man; steps which it will take the latter centuries to climb." More than anyone else, he was the architect of twentieth-century South Africa as a unitary state under white control.

If the new country taking shape was to be a shining example of British rule, it would need the best of rulers. And so Milner recruited from England a dozen or so bright, eager aides to help him run the unified territory. All his life, Milner's dynamism and air of high, noble purpose made him a magnet for ambitious and talented young men. Most of those he chose now were graduates, like him, of Oxford, and in their youthfulness they became known collectively as Milner's Kindergarten. His new personal secretary, for instance, was a profoundly upbeat Scot named John Buchan. Buchan found it thrilling to meet in a railway compartment a wounded hussar who had won Britain's highest military honor, the Victoria Cross, or to be sent on a mission to deliver some dispatches to his fellow Scot Douglas Haig. That occasion, incidentally, may be the only time that the laconic Haig is on record as making a joke. Buchan had taken a night train, overslept, and managed to get off just in time, throwing an army greatcoat over his pajamas. Taking in his dishabille, Haig told him not to worry: Brasenose—the Oxford college both had attended—had never been a dressy place.

Buchan had taken up his post before the final surrender, and referred to the Boer guerrilla commanders still on the loose as sporting adversaries. Echoing Newbolt's famous poem, he wrote that they "play the game like gentlemen, and must be treated as such." Once the game ended, he helped Milner with what he called the "fascinating and most hopeful work" of resettling Boer survivors on their ravaged farms. For this ever-cheerful man just three years out of college it was a heady experience to draft laws ("I must say I am rather proud of my Land Act"), supervise a hundred officials, and be responsible for shepherding around a visiting British cabinet minister ("not so big a man as Lord M"). Buchan shared a house with three other members of the Kindergarten. Dressed in black tie for dinner every night, they told Oxford jokes and the others teased the good-natured Buchan for almost buying himself a farm on the veldt that turned out to have no water supply. It was all excellent experience for a talented young person eager to rise in the world, and having Lord Milner as one's patron could ensure a faster climb. To be not yet 30 and helping run an entire country—could any other job better destine a man for still greater things ahead?

Milner and his Kindergarten got the gold mines working again at full tilt, directed the building of some 800 miles of new railway lines, established insane asylums and leper colonies, and drew up regulations covering everything from taxation to the "light corporal punishment" that could be applied to unruly workers. After eight years of war and peace, Milner finally returned to England in 1905.

Douglas Haig and Sir John French had already gone home, where they were amply rewarded for their military triumphs: Haig soon became the youngest major general in the British army, and French was promoted to lieutenant general. He presented Haig—to whom he still owed £2,000—with a gold flask inscribed, "A very small memento, my dear Douglas, of our long and tried friendship." The high-spirited French was delighted to collect honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, but was most pleased by his next job: commanding Britain's 1st Army Corps at Aldershot, Hampshire. Aldershot was considered the home of the British army, and its commander traditionally had influence in military circles well beyond his rank. "I daresay that he is not the cleverest man," one official wrote of him, "but he is the most successful soldier we could find."

"This is certainly a great piece of luck for me," French wrote to a friend. "I think it ensures my participating in the next war."

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!