The Boer War and its Humanitarian Critics

David Nash argues that opposition to the Second Boer War began the tradition of peace politics that has flourished through the twentieth century.

Boer women and children in a British concentration camp during the Boer war.Writing in the 1930s, George Orwell was convinced that the military and those associated with it had become essentially anathema to British public and cultural life. But such naked suspicion and mistrust of the soldiering profession had not originated overnight, and, arguably, had been produced by a series of ambivalent military episodes which had served to discredit the institution. Similarly, the philosopher Karl Popper, writing in the 1960s, believed that the experience of the South African War in particular, had had a lasting effect on British public opinion. Repugnance at what war had become, stimulated by the experience of this conflict, he argued, had definitely affected Britain’s attitudes in 1914 and in the inter-war period had laid the foundations for the policy of appeasement.

The later years of the nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic surge in popular enthusiasm for imperial adventures as well as the courage and generalship that made them possible. Comics, novels, popular songs and even poetry and literature celebrated the innate heroism of England’s civilising mission. On occasions this could also be given the blessing of religion and higher morality, which made it into a remarkably potent cultural package. Thus the enthusiasm of the population for soldiering could be said to have come alive as the old century died.

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