Friday, October 29, 2010


The movie, “Breaker Morant” is generally an excellent portrayal of the 1902 contemporary atmosphere in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War. However, it distorts several historical events. Though Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant was a gallant soldier in real life, there is no escaping the reality that Morant was guilty of murder as charged, and he wrote a confession to that effect the night before his death.
Among other distortions, is the movie’s melodramatic portrayal of the moments before his execution, when the actor has Morant shout at the firing-squad, “Shoot straight, you bastards!”
The facts of Morant’s last moments were described in a letter written at the time by an Australian eye-witness, Mr. J. H. Morrow, warder of the Pretoria Gaol, with reference to the shooting of Lieutenant Morant and Handcock. The letter was mailed to a mutual friend, dated March 1, 1902, and published in an Adelaide newspaper. The letter states :-
"Dear George, I write these few lines to you on behalf of Lieutenant H. H. Morant, who was shot here on February 27, two days ago, by order of court-martial. His last word was that I should write and tell you that there were four officers -- one South Australian, one Victorian, one New South Welshman, and one New Zealander, all Australians -- concerned. The South Australian and the New South Welshman were shot, and the others were transported [to prison]."
"It is quite a mystery here regarding the deed. All I know is that they shot 38 Boers, and there are rumours circulating that these Boers surrendered to them. Morant told me that he was guilty of shooting the Boers because they shot his captain.”
“I was the warder who was in charge of the officers the last week they had on earth, and they faced their doom as brave as men could do. Everyone said it was a pity to shoot two such brave men. Morant came out here with the South Australian Mounted Rifles with which you and I enlisted. Morant got a commission with the Bushveldt Carbineers, and I went on the railway here, and I was only transferred to this prison about six weeks ago. I was not here when they came here.
They had been in prison at Pietersburg for four months, and then they were transferred to Pretoria, where sentence was passed upon them. They were shot next morning at 6 o'clock, and were buried at 5 o'clock in the evening. There were a large number of Australians at the funeral; no less than 30 of them were Australian officers. I felt it very much.”
“The only reply given by the two men when asked if they were ready was, 'Yes, where is your shooting party?” and the men marched out hand in hand. The firing party went to blindfold the men, but Morant said, 'Take this thing off,” and pulled the handkerchief off. As the two sat in the chair awaiting death Morant remarked, 'Be sure and make a good job of it.' Morant folded his arms across his chest and looked them straight in the face. The firing party fired, and Morant got all in the left side, and died at once. With his arms folded and his eyes open you would have thought he was alive."
[See other passing reference in “KRUGER’S GOLD: A novel of the Anglo-Boer War.”]

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Military history books, and related writings in general, still keep generally high standards of literacy and clarity. But even in this genre, the discerning reader is starting to notice lapses in language.
Possibly more depressing, there is also a steady decline of public interest in the entire subject. One can repeat until blue in the face the wise old saw, "A nation ignorant of its history is doomed to repeat it."
Here is one likely cause of the circumstance:
Historian Jack Granatstein, an outspoken critic of the public school system, said there is no doubt in his mind that "standards have collapsed."
After becoming director of the Canadian War Museum, Mr. Granatstein said one of the reasons he left his long-time teaching position at York University was that "the students were so depressingly bad."
"They could not write a sentence, they could not read or understand complex things, they had lost the ability to speak in sentences, and... on top of that, they had no knowledge of history," said Mr. Granatstein, author of his controversial book, Who Killed Canadian History? (HarperCollins).
He blames the schools and teachers in large measure. "They could all use a computer," he said of his former students at YorkU, "Perhaps they had some skills I didn't know about."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


In 1902, just as in 2010, guerrilla fighters challenged the might of the pre-eminent world power. A 100 years ago it was Dutch settlers, called Boers, fighting Great Britain for possession of South Africa. Today, a band of Islamic extremists attack the United States and its allies everywhere.
The lesson from both: small forces are potent. Kruger's Gold is not a dry military history book, nor does the reader miss anything if, like this reviewer, he or she comes to it more or less ignorant of the Anglo-Boer War that took place in 1899-1902.
Victoria author Sidney Allinson has written the sort of gripping, fast-moving novel that keeps you turning pages long after bedtime. The characters and their loves and hatreds, their ideals and weaknesses, failures and triumphs, would have provided the human material for a thoroughly satisfying novel even if presented in an imaginary setting.
The novel's hero is a Canadian volunteer from Victoria, Lieut. Harry Lanyard serving with the British Army. Given the choice between disgrace before a court martial and leading a particularly hazardous mission, Lanyard takes the latter. With a rag-tag troop of mainly Canadian mounted infantry, Lanyard is ordered to recover a king's ransom in stolen gold bullion - enough money to keep the Boers fighting for goodness knows how many more years.
The gold had been looted by Boer president Paul Kruger, hence the book's title -- an actual real-life hidden treasure, portions of which are still being discovered to this day. And hence also, the skilful merging of the fictional characters in the foreground of the story with the meticulously researched historical events that provide the backdrop.
We are introduced to the tough Afrikaner Boer fighters whose title "Commando" has been handed down through generations since as the hallmark of military excellence. We discover to our chagrin that the South African War also fathered the concentration camp, a term now synonymous with death. Although these camps were devised initially by the British as shelter for destitute families whose homes had been torched by one side or the other in this increasingly cruel campaign, disgraceful mismanagement and rampant disease reduced the camps to death-traps.
Meanwhile, the action continues: ambush, deception, guerrilla warfare, espionage mutiny, pitched battles and encounters with bandits - while a forbidden romance struggles to survive across the invisible line separating friend from foe.
Lieut. Lanyard would be a real asset in today's Special Forces; but is this enough to gain his two objectives, Kruger's gold, and the love of his life, the Boer-American girl, Beth?
This book has stirred great interest among historians and military buffs of the period, some of whom have been brought up on "official" versions of events that omit what is unpalatable about your own side. The truth is that war brings out the best and the, worst in mankind and there never was an unblemished battle record. Sidney Allinson pays his respects to Boers, Brits, and colonials, and avoids any temptation to portray the fighting in terms of good guys and bad. To assist the keen researcher, the author includes a glossary, casualty statistics and bibliography, plus a summary of later events in South Africa.

Reviewer Maurice Tugwell is a retired brigadier of the British Army, and director of the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

New findings cast more doubt on value of Canada’s 1917 military draft.

The conscription crisis caused lasting rifts in Canada. Now a self-taught expert has found the price paid brought less value than historians thought, writes Randy Boswell, in The Ottawa Citizen. Published: Monday, April 16, 2007.
A roofing salesman who studies Canada's military past in his spare time has prompted the country's professional historians to rethink one of the great controversies of the First World War: the success -- or not -- of the conscription policy that created a deep national divide along French-English lines.
Michel Gravel, a history buff from Cornwall, Ont., has unearthed what appears to be a significant error in the traditional calculation of how many conscripted soldiers were sent into battle before the end of the war. And the find has been hailed as "a great service to scholars" by none other than Jack Granatstein, the dean of Canadian historians.
Generations of war chroniclers -- most notably Mr. Granatstein himself, author of a book on the subject, as well as the conscription entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia -- have accepted the figure of 24,132 compulsory recruits who reached the front lines in Europe.
Mr. Gravel probed the conscription question while researching his recently published biography of Ottawa native Sgt. Hillie Foley, a long-overlooked hero from the First World War. Part-time researcher Gravel discovered evidence that as many as half of the supposed Canadian conscripts were actually British-born Americans who volunteered for overseas duty through a U.S.-based recruitment drive orchestrated by British patriots in North America.
The British-American recruits were sent north to enlist in Canada until mid-1918, when the U.S. military announced its own draft.
"The error came about because both volunteers obtained by the recruiting missions in the U.S.A. and conscripts raised in Canada were assigned regimental numbers from the same block (3,000,000 to 4,000,000)," Mr. Gravel writes in an appendix to his book about Foley.
"This made it impossible to tell the American volunteers apart from the Canadian conscripts ...The contribution to the great Canadian victories of 1918 by these late-war volunteers from the U.S.A. has never been examined."
Mr. Gravel's conclusions about the conscription numbers have impressed Mr. Granatstein.
"Gravel launches a full frontal assault on the standard and accepted numbers of conscripts who went overseas in 1918. I'm one of the people he attacks, and I'm afraid I must agree that he is likely right," Mr. Granatstein writes in the latest edition of Legion magazine.
"I took as fact the number of 24,132 put forth in Col. G.W.L. Nicholson's official history (as did everyone else), but Gravel -- who comes to it all with a fresh, skeptical eye -- has done a great service to scholars by parsing the data with exemplary care.
"By studying regimental numbers, by examining the late war volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force recruited in the U.S., Gravel has forced me to reassess matters. The Military Service Act of 1917 clearly worked less well than the politicians -- and the historians -- believed."
The act was passed in August 1917 by the wartime Conservative government of Robert Borden. Opposition to the plan in French Canada was intense and nearly universal, prompting realignments in Parliament and riots in Quebec in response to a measure that forced thousands of young men to fight in what some Canadians viewed as an essentially "foreign" war.
Borden, who had once pledged not to impose a military draft, had become convinced by the summer of 1917 that the terrible carnage in Europe -- even in victories such as Vimy Ridge, the focus of a landmark 90th anniversary commemoration in France last week -- meant Canada's army would collapse without a faster flow of reinforcements than voluntary recruitment alone could supply.
But recognizing the huge political risks, Borden invited rival Liberals who would back conscription to join his Tories in a bipartisan Union government. Many from English Canada did, but Quebec MPs remained solidly against the policy, crippling the Conservative party in that province and deepening the country's French-English rift.
And what was achieved? Though the policy was intended to raise 100,000 front-line soldiers, the war ended in November 1918 with the number of deployed conscripts still well short of the target. To many historians, including Mr. Granatstein, even the 24,132 figure represented a failure for Borden's policy.
The much lower number suggested by Mr. Gravel's research could erase any lingering doubts about whether conscription was worth the trouble it caused for Canada.
Mr. Gravel, who spent five years and $15,000 to publish his book, says Mr. Granatstein's "gracious" endorsement of his discovery is deeply satisfying -- particularly since "I never went to university, and make my living selling roofing materials."

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Royal Canadian Military Institute: 100 YEARS 1890-1990

Sad news for many Canadian enthusiasts of military affairs, with the announcement that the 120-year-old Royal Canadian Military Institute closed the doors of its historic building on University Avenue, Toronto, in October, 2010. and will be moving to modern new quarters elsewhere in Toronto.
The announcement is particularly poignant for me personally. I have been a member of the RCMI for over 30 year, had the honour to be a member of the Board Of Directors, and was editior of both the RCMI Yearbook and SITREP Newsletter.
Here's a description of the Institute's cloising days, reported by Peter Kuitenbrouwer in the National Post.:


"Director Captain Charles Scot-Brown stood on Friday in the lounge of the Royal Canadian Military Institute, at 426 University Avenue, resplendent in his navy blazer with polished RCMI brass buttons. On his lapel glittered the wings which attest to his participation, as a Can-Loan military officer with the British troops, in the ill-fated paratrooper drop into Arnhem, the Netherlands, in 1944 (immortalized in the film A Bridge Too Far.)
Yesterday Cpt. Scot-Brown, 87, prepared to give his last tour of this 100-year old Institute before wreckers demolish it to make way for a 42-storey condo. I asked his feelings.
“It’s like watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in a new Cadillac,” he said. “Mixed emotions.”
Few living Canadians know this place as well as Capt. Scot-Brown. “I first came here as a boy in 1936 when I was getting ready to go to Jarvis Collegiate,” he recalls. He was a guest of his father, also a soldier. Six years later his father was killed in the bombing of Bristol, 1942. “Luckily I was overseas so I was able to go to the funeral.”
Thousands of memories cram the privately owned Institute, which bristles with pistols, rifles, swords, bayonets, even clubs and boomerangs, and made me well up with nationalistic pride. Canadian Forces rifles, from the 18th century to those used today, line one side of a hall; across from them are enemy rifles, including the weapon of choice for the M├ętis in Louis Riel’s Northwest frontier rebellion: an “Indian-modified American Army model 1863 rifled musket.”
Another case contains the history of pistols, ranging from a 1775 Wilson flintlock pistol through a “Great War 1911 German Army P-08 Luger semi-automatic pistol” to a black Browning hi-power Mark 1 automatic pistol, labeled, “1944-present.”
Cpt. Scott-Brown showed us what used to be known as “the Ladies room.” Until 1974 the club required all women to enter through the rear, with only two exceptions: the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II. “Their men’s club was their men’s club, and they didn’t like women around,” he recalled.
Pauline McGibbon, the first female lieutenant-governor of Ontario, changed that. “She wasn’t about to come in the back door,” our tour guide recalled.
The plan gives the club floors two through six in the new Tribute Communities tower, and club staff said that most members approved it.
Last fall city council overrode planning staff to approve the project. Staff had said the tower, with 210 one-bedroom and 105 bachelor units, five times the size permitted by the zoning and with just nine parking spaces, “is not considered appropriate.”
Some members had other objections: Brian Lawrie, a member, worries for the future of the collection. On Friday Lt.-Col. (ret’d) Jeffrey Dorfman, chairman of the building committee here, promised that, “It’s being all packed up and crated and going off to Fine Art Storage. The library and museum will be brought back two years later.”
Today the two British field artillery 9-pounder canons that flanked the entrance are already gone into storage. They will return when the new building opens.
In the meantime the members will meet at the Albany Club, Church and King streets; their bartender, Mike Leavy, is moving there too.
Capt. Scot-Brown remains unconvinced of the wisdom of the move: “I’m a crusty old sucker. I was brought up in a generation where you didn’t sell the family farm,” he says. But then he reached for a more optimistic metaphor: “It’s almost like a mother watching her child go off to kindergarten. It’s emotional.”

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Rewriting history.

The most critical issue connected with historical writing in general, and historical novels in particular, is the problem of revisionism. Revisionism is a deadly and contagious condition which afflicts some researchers – and more than a few novelists. Its chief characteristic is the urge to "reveal" something extraordinary to the public, which will cause readers to completely change their opinion about how and why the event being described occurred.

Revisionism is not to be confused with valid new research which fills broadens our knowledge and understanding of historical incidents. This is what legitimate historical research is all about, though the distinction between the two can sometimes by subtle. Revisionism, however, can be clearly identified because its theory is always astoundingly new and sensational and turns an accepted historical happening upside down.

Have you ever noticed that nowadays nothing of consequence happened the way it was originally explained? Napoleon Bonaparte died of cancer, yet now two centuries later, it is widely accepted that he was poisoned by his British guards. Millions of credulous folk firmly believe Princess Diana was not simply killed in an automobile accident caused by her drunk driver, she was "murdered by the British Secret Service". Lone assassin” Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill JFK” -- the dastardly CIA did it. Amelia Earhart did not crash her plane into the Pacific and die; “she came down on a desert island and was shot as a spy by the Japanese.” James Earl Ray did not kill Martin Luther King; he was the patsy for some huge conservative conspiracy. These are just a few typical examples of fashionable (and comical) revisionism.

Although most of these examples are from the 20th Century, wise men throughout the ages have been well aware of this tendency by some to disbelieve the obvious. Why is this belief in "hidden truth" so pervasive? For the public, there are many reasons: an under-lying distrust of anything said by authorities; a need to believe that bad things just could not happen to people in a simple or random manner; and finally, there may be the delight caused by gossip or sensationalism.

For historians, it is even more complicated. As human beings, they are subject to the other motives, but additionally, the very validity of their field of study rests on their ability to revise. There is a fundamental presumption within the discipline that what is known to have happened did not happen in the generally accepted manner or for the generally accepted reasons. Furthermore, their professional reputations and individual egos are based on their revisions. Any historian who investigates the French Revolution and discovers that it simply happened exactly as described in history books is professionally dead. This drive to radically alter the accepted truth is not the only reason many historians change history; they also change it for cultural or national self-interests, or the simple urge for political correctness.