The Boer War as a lantern performance

The Second Anglo-Boer War (11 October 1899 – 31 May 1902) was fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer Republics in South Africa. The Boer republics were formed between 1835 and 1845 by a population of Voortrekkers (people of Dutch origin in South Africa) who moved out of the British Cape Colony into the South African interior. This population formed two republics: the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and were recognised as such by Britain in 1852 and 1854. In 1868 there was a move to confederate all South African States with the expressed intention of providing greater economic integration, which would be favourable to British interests. The Transvaal Republic resisted this move, and later turned to force after passive resistance failed. This action led to the First Boer War, or the Transvaal War.

The Boer resistance was successful and led to British concessions. The Pretoria Convention of 1881 conceded some autonomy to the republics, but they still remained under British supervision. Full internal independence had to wait until the London Convention of 1884.

However, peace was not to last long. Gold was discovered in Transvaal territory, making the republic a political and economic threat to British power and interests in South Africa – especially at a time when other European powers were vying for colonies and land in the region. There were schemes by British colonies to overthrow the Transvaal government in 1896, but its materialisation in the “Jameson Raid” failed. After the attempted coup, the Orange Free State allied with Transvaal, hostilities escalated between the belligerents, and the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1899.

The first five months of the conflict were relatively successful for the Boers as they besieged Ladysmith and Mafeking in the Cape Colony. However, in early 1900, Ladysmith was relieved; and event commemorated in one of the slides below. During the next few months the Boer capitals Pretoria and Bloemfontein were occupied by British forces, and were soon annexed. Mafeking was later relieved on the 17 May 1900 to much jubilation back in Britain, turning the commander of the operation, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, into a national hero.
At this point, many Boer soldiers surrendered, with some even joining the British Army. The remaining Boer fighters, however, continued the struggle, employing the infamous “white flag treachery” tactics (where Boers would pretend to surrender, and then fire on unsuspecting British soldiers) and resorting, wisely, to guerrilla warfare, leaving the British rattled.

Indeed, the nature of the Boer tactics necessitated changes in the way the British went about conducting war: it was the first conflict in which British soldiers started wearing Khaki uniform so they didn’t stand out as obviously as they did in red tunics.
The last pitched battle occurred in August 1900 – the remaining two years of the war was spent in sporadic, guerrilla conflict.

The public response to the war in Britain has been debated: it oscillated between pro- and anti-war sentiments at various stages. In any case, there was at the time enormous public interest in the conflict, and this was registered in the quantity and popularity of war news and images. The war had a great commercial impact on illustrated news: in 1900 three new publications were founded. This might sound small, but only two existed from 1842 – 1899. But not only did news, and its illustrated counterpart, capitalise on this interest: magic lantern shows catered to a public appetite. The relation between the lantern shows and illustrated news was very close indeed: the slide images were sourced from an illustrated news publication called The Sphere, one of the new publications set up on the back of the war. News and popular entertainment, then, were forged together in these lantern performances.

SA heroes textThe slide sets were manufactured by W. Butcher & Sons, who traded under the name Primus. This company produced slide sets in a “Lecture Series”, and their catalogue included sets on well-known children’s stories such as Dick Whittington, Tom Thumb, and Little Red Riding Hood. Primus slides were sold in chapters, consisting of eight slides. There are four chapters to the “Our South African Heroes” series, entitled “Perils Past”, “On to Victory”, “An Invisible Enemy”, and “Men in Khaki”. The chapters each come with a lecture script, which in this collection have been preserved in their original form (see image above). The projected images in the original performance would have been accompanied with the lanternist reading out the script narrating the action of the slides. The exact date of the slide set’s manufacture is unknown, but it was clearly sometime shortly after the end of the war. This date of manufacture may explain the tone of the lecture, which is triumphant, patriotic and at times melodramatic: the events are sensationalised. What follows below is a sample of a Boer War slide set entitled “Our South African Heroes”.

Our South African Heroes - The Men
Chapter III, An Invisible Enemy

Boer image 1Boer Invisibility. Some 250,00, regulars and irregulars, have been engaged in the South African War; who shall presume to select the heroes from this vast multitude? Rather we will assume that there was at least somewhat of the heroic in all of them, even if they did not all win the Victoria Cross. War, at its best, is a terrible thing; but even Miss Florence Nightingale, who saw so much of its horrors, thought it had its advantages, like persecution. ‘See those manly fellows in time of war,’ she said, ‘men not near the beasts, as sometimes we see them in time of peace; everyone devoting his life for his comrade on the field, without notice or praise from anyone, either in words or in print; if killed in the attmpt, his name only going down as ‘killed in battle.’ Well, the Boer war has been like all other wars in this respect; it afforded evidence on many occasions that the race of heroes is not yet extinct. But in many respects, it was altogether different from the wars that had preceded it. To a very great extent, Tommy Atkins had to fight an invisible foe; the Boers generally fought, as seen in our picture, from behind the shelter of great boulders, and their modern weapons carried enormous distances. Hence soldiers went through fight after fight, and scarcely saw a Boer, and the picturesque fighting crowds of Wellington’s campaigns or of the Crimea gave place to battles in which men fought in extended order, and were told to seek cover as much as possible. However, they got to close quarters occasionally, and then the blows rang fast and furious.”

Boer image 2
Elandslaagte. Elandslaagte was one of the first battles of the war; the Boers held a strong position on a chain of hills and were attacked by the gallant Gordons and the Devonshire Regiment under General French. There was a close and fierce struggle for the position, and then the Boers broke and fled, pursued by the British cavalry.”

Boer image 3Bugler Sherlock. It was during this pursuit that Bugler Sherlock of the 5th Lancers distinguished himself by shooting three Boers with his revolver. Young Sherlock was the pet of the regiment, and as they are known in the service as ‘The Redbreasts,’ he was dubbed ‘Little Redbreast.’ His mother wrote of him that he was ‘a brave, good, and generous son.’ I have read another story of a boy-bugler, a young hero, in very truth; he, however, had nothing to do with South Africa, but was engaged in the last New Zealand War against the Maories. The British Were encamped in a clearing surrounded by dense bush, and one dark night the sleeping camp was attacked by a band of Maories, who crept up, and, springing on the sentry, killed him with a tomahawk. A young bugler, one of the guard, began to sound the alarm, but was immediately attacked by one of the natives, who, with his tomahawk, chopped of the hand which held the bugle. The gallant little fellow however snatched up his bugle with the uninjured hand and managed to rouse the whole camp before his brave young life was dashed out of him by the furious natives.”

Boer image 4
Attack on and Armoured Train. The armoured train was a rather important feature in the war, both during its earlier stages and also in connection with Kitchener’s system of block-houses; provided with a gigantic search-light it patrolled up and down the railway, and assisted the sentries in keeping a sharp look-out for parties of the enemy attempting to rush the line of block-houses. He incident illustrated took place at Chieveley, near Ladysmith, in the early days of the war, where an armoured train was attacked by the Boers, the trucks and engine derailed, and the British force captured. Mr. Winston Churchill, then acting correspondent for ‘The Morning Post,’ was also taken prisoner and sent to Pretoria, from which place he escaped after some exciting adventures.”

Boer image 5Building a Pontoon Bridge. The Royal Engineers, appropriately known amongst their comrades as ‘The Mudlarks,’ the bridge-builders and road-makers of the army, had some exciting times, especially when Buller was crossing and re-crossing the Tugela again and again in his attempts to get to Ladysmith. The slide shows one of these occasions when a pontoon bridge, about 85 yards long was thrown across the river in a few hours. This was gallant work, seeing that the men were under fire the whole time.”

Boer image 6
In the Trenches at Ladysmith. The brave fellows who were shut up at Ladysmith had some hard fighting during the siege, especially on the 6th of January, when the Boers attacked in great force, and some of the trenches were actually carried by the enemy and re-taken by the British three times in succession. ‘One point in our position,’ wrote Sir G. White, ‘was occupied by the enemy the whole of the day, but at dusk, in a very heavy rain storm, they were turned out of this position at the point of the bayonet in the most gallant manner by the Devon regiment, led by Colonel Park.’ After this repulse, the Boers kept out of reach of ‘the point of the bayonet’ and contented themselves with bombarding the town.”

Boer image 7
The Inniskillings. The Irishman, as everyone knows, loves a fight, and that is probably why Ireland supplies some of our bravest soldiers, as well as many of our leading generals. Wellington was an Irishman, so is ‘Bobs,’ so is Lord Wolseley, and even ‘K. of K.’ was born in Ireland. The ‘Inniskillings’ had their fill of fighting at Pieter’s Hill, the last stage of Buller’s advance to the relief of Ladysmith. They got within 500 yards of the enemy’s main position, but were then compelled to halt, the rifle fire being described as the most terrible yet witnessed. Of 1,200 men no less than one half were killed or wounded. But the stubborn enemy had to give way before the determined advance of the 6th Brigade and the Dublin Fusiliers, who scaled a precipitous cliff 500 feet high, and assaulted and carried the position on the top of the hill, driving the enemy in all directions.”

Boer image 8
The Fight at the Farm. This incident took place at the battle of Modder River. The Boer positions extended for about five miles along the banks of the river, and the firing was kept up for ten hours, when it was interrupted by dusk; during the night the Boers retreated. A small party of the British succeeded in crossing, and a smart fight took place for the possession of a farm near Modder Village, which was captured and burnt. But it was only occasionally that Tommy Atkins was able to indulge in such a scrimmage as this with his generally ‘invisible’ enemy.”

References and further reading

Condon, D. (2011). 'Receiving news from the seat of war: Dublin audiences respond to Boer war entertainments', Early Popular Visual Culture, 9:2, 93-106

Popple, S. 2010. '"Fresh from the Front": Performance, war news, and popular culture during the Boer war', Early Popular Visual Culture, 8:4, 401-418

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