David Gilman is arguably best known for his Master of War series which brings the Hundred Years War of the 14th century to fascinating, bloody life through the deeds and experiences of English longbowman Thomas Blackstone. David has recently taken a break from the Middle Ages to turn his attention to a later conflict – the Anglo-Boer War of the 19th century – in The Last Horseman (published by Head of Zeus on 11 August this year).
To celebrate the publication, I asked David Gilman to write a guest post on the historical background of the war. But before that, here is a little by David on why he chose to write about this new period.
The inspiration behind The Last Horseman came from various sources. I had lived in South Africa and knew not only its beauty but also the harshness of its land. Such a country demanded tough and resilient people to live there, and equally determined men from around the world who went to explore and search for its mineral wealth. The war that exploded in 1899 threw British soldiers against a determined and dogged enemy. It was a story that had seldom been written about in fiction. The vast sweep of the country, the drama that unfolded in this war and the characters caught up in it, enticed me. I also wanted another layer of interest to write about, and for the novel not to just be a ‘war story’. The facts fascinated me. Many Irish soldiers fought in the British Army and they found themselves in conflict against a Foreign Brigade made up of other Irishmen as well as Americans, Germans, French, and as records seem to indicate, one Scotsman. I spent time in Dublin researching these elements.
I did not want a typically heroic main character but rather an older man who had experienced the horror of war and had no desire to return to it. His main enemy, apart from war itself, was a battle-hardened cavalry officer who lived only for battle and the violence it brought. Added to this mix I wanted my main character, Joseph Radcliffe, to carry a secret burden. I added some political intrigue and murder, all these elements finally drew together in what I hope is an ending fraught with danger and excitement.
War in The Last Horseman
So, where did this violent conflict of the Anglo-Boer War originate? In 1895 a failed uprising by British immigrants, volunteers and Rhodesian troops – a scheme instigated by Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony – was considered by the South African general, Jan Smuts, as being the real declaration of war, but it was another four years before the Boer Republics themselves declared war against the British in October 1899. The might of the British Empire gave British politicians and generals a false sense that an easy victory would be achieved by Christmas. It is a perpetual mystery why politicians, in particular, seem never to learn the lessons of history.
The war caught the British unprepared. Troops were drafted from the Empire – India, New Zealand, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – and as tensions heightened volunteers joined the Boer Republics to fight in the Foreign Brigade. Irish, French, Scandinavians, Germans, Russians and, in at least one recorded incident, a Scotsman fought for the Afrikaner cause. There were also women who fought alongside the Boers in the front line.
In the years before the war began, the rush for gold and diamonds in the Transvaal Republic brought men from across the world, and many of them were Irish, who not only brought their strength and dreams to the goldfields but also secured their escape from British rule in Ireland. It was one of the vagaries of war that brought Irishmen to bear arms against each other.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Ireland was part of the British Empire. The Irish Republicans – known then as Fenians – had had little success in their bid for Home Rule. Their ranks were riddled with traitors and the British Army and Irish constabulary had little difficulty in keeping their activities under control. The Irish served in government posts: the civil service, the military and the navy. It was an inconvenient fact for the Irish Nationalists that more than fifty thousand of their fellow countrymen fought for the British Army during the Boer War and were often led by Irish generals.
This constituted the greatest number of Irish troops in any campaign during Queen Victoria’s reign and many of these men were at the forefront of a number of key engagements, serving in Ireland’s thirteen infantry battalions and three cavalry regiments. These men forged a lasting reputation for courage and tenacity. It was this moment in history that I wanted to use in The Last Horseman.