Edited by Boris Gorelik
Jonathan Ball Publishers, Jeppestown, South Africa 2022
ebook ISBN 978-1-7761-9137-6
‘I will have to kill these people, even though they did not cause me the slightest harm!’
Not the best thought with which to enter a war perhaps, but that was the reaction of a Russian as he encountered a friendly Englishman who had just rescued his pith helmet from the waters of the harbour at Lourenco Marques, Portuguese East Africa in January 1900.
The Russian was Yevgeny Augustus, a proud officer of the Imperial Russian Army. Yevgeny was one of a few thousand volunteers who travelled thousands of miles to southern Africa to join the two Boer republics in their war against the Imperial British Empire.
Yevgeny wrote about his experiences and these have been translated into English (done well by Lucas Venter) and expertly edited by Boris Gorelik. Yevgeny’s memoirs were spread across a book and newspaper and magazine articles that have been expertly combined into one. A portion of Yevgeny’s memoirs were published by Boris in 2016.
Yevgeny writes well and honestly providing an insight into his motives, the effort of getting to southern Africa and then his war experiences; no one escapes criticism. One is left with a question; “Why did he go to war for countries and a people he had no stake in, no future with, nothing to gain and everything to lose?”
Yevgeny’s honestly consider his motives; the Boer fight for “freedom and very existence” appealed (although he was not a republican and remained committed to Imperial Russia until his death in battle, Boris concludes he was “a staunch monarchist”) and “there is an opportunity to smell gunpowder not on the training ground..but..in mortal combat”. He was bored of peace time soldiering. The war in southern Africa was a convenient opportunity for Yevgeny “to go off in search of another field of activity if the close confines of everyday life oppress him”. It is easy to reach the conclusion that if there had a been a war in Europe, closer to home, he would have fought there. The Balkan Wars of the 1870s attracted about 4,000 Russian volunteers, 10 times more than travelled to southern Africa.
From the moment Yevgeny left Russia in December 1899 the
journey to South African Republic (SAR) presented moments of reflection,
insight and new information as to what lay ahead. With fellow volunteers they travelled
to Brussels to SAR’s representative in Europe, Dr WJ Leyds, to get papers that
would allow him to cross into the SAR. Dr Leyds explained, he himself felt
unable to directly recruit volunteers in Europe out of respect for Belgium’s
official position of neutrality over the war. One theme sustaining the Boer
fight was the false hope Europe (including Russia) would intervene on their
side tipping the military balance in their favour. Clearly, this was always a
From Brussels they travelled to Marseilles to board a ship for Lourenco Marques via Madagascar and Beira. In Beira he met many Englishmen, “who had abandoned their affairs in Rhodesia… They all struck me as prime candidates for the gallows.. After I got to know them more closely, I spent several pleasant moments in the company of these gentlemen, who had lived through all manner of trials and tribulations.” The power of honest conversation. There were many Europeans there, like the English, seeking a fortune one way or another from gold mining in Rhodesia and the SAR.
One such entrepreneur, a German from Alsace, gave Yevgeny the benefit of his experiences through his brother who, “was also stupid enough to go fighting for the Boers as a volunteer, and now I got his last letter in which he says that the Boers give the foreigners the cold shoulder, look down upon them, that’s how dizzy their recent victories have made them. You have to pay out of your own pocket for your kit, shoes, clothes and provisions, and I doubt if you have a lot of money left after your partie de plaisir’ [pleasure cruise].”
He also freely offered his opinion and advice, “Remember never to believe the newspapers when they accuse the British of everything and depict the Boers as some Old Testament patriarchs. Once you get there, you’ll understand things better and change your convictions. You’ll realise that this war was caused by the Boers’ hatred of all other nations and their fear of losing their oligarchic form of government in their struggle against new and alien elements. On both sides you’ll see the most unbridled greed and narrow-minded egoism conceivable. But in any case, my sympathies are with the English, because they and they alone brought the light of culture and civilisation to these shepherds, who spend all their time singing psalms and reading the Bible…I feel sorry for you, young man, so take my sincere advice: go home before it’s too late”.
Yevgeny ignored this man’s advice and travelled on, crossing the border at Komatipoort. The Boers he encountered there were “very unkindly, to tell the truth”. At Lourenco Marques there was confusion whether they would need to pay their train fare to Pretoria. Yevgeny decided not to trust the rumour and bought a second-class ticket. At Komatipoort, some French volunteers claimed a free ticket. Yevgeny complained to the station master and was offered a free upgrade to first-class. Further down the line at Waterval Boven the station master there refused to recognise the upgrade and demanded eight shillings from a frustrated Yevgeny promising him the fare would be refunded at Pretoria by the director of the railway. At Pretoria the director explained there was no such refund policy.
Finally, Yevgeny arrives at the Natal front in late January and attaches himself to the Krugersdorp Commando. His first battle experience is that of Vaalkrans in early February. Travelling through northern Natal he notes the destruction wrought by the Boer invaders in Newcastle, which had not been defended by the British; the town “seemed completely lifeless. Everything around us bore the signs of ruthless, senseless destruction: ruins, the heaps of rubbish and bricks, the oppressive silence of the deserted streets and squares, recalled the darkness of the Middle Ages, when wars were characterised by savage hostility between peoples, when it was considered inadequate merely to rout the enemy in an open field and every victory was accompanied by looting, destruction and the wreaking of violence upon peaceful, unarmed civilian”. Betraying a naivety born out of an idealistic view of the war fostered in European coffee houses and bars, also surprising for a professional soldier, he pondered how such a state of affairs could exist “in our age of civilisation and progress”.
Now Yevgeny’s narrative turns to warfare and it is apparent the foreign volunteers, like Yevgeny, who thought their professional training would be of use, begin to question what they can contribute beyond simply adding an extra rifle to the firing line. Not the role for a European trained officer. The Boers needed no lessons in military engineering, especially their ability to dig concealed trenches “as though guided by some deeper instinct”.
However, he had reason to doubt the commitment of Boers and foreign volunteers to a fight to the finish. In the desperate battles on the Tugela Heights he felt many Boers “had probably dispersed, believing that the cause was lost”. On the final day, February 27th, he counted seventeen of the Krugersdorp Commando still present. The retreat north was dispiriting, Yevgeny found some Hungarians who had fled the Tugela Heights before the final battles, nicely set up “the owners of a squat little tent and a wagon with all sorts of goods – canned food, saddles, blankets and the like.”
Amidst the chaotic retreat of the Boer forces in Natal, the foreign volunteers began to think of forming their own units to conduct guerrilla operations at which they felt they could excel. Once again lofty ideals did not materialise, the “Russian Corps” failed due to a lack of Russians, so they became 36 Europeans. For some ego was primary, of the two Germans, a Prussian officer was given command of a German Baron on the promise that German and Dutch recruits would be placed under his command. It was not the foreign volunteers who would shine but the Boers, “the flawless guerrilla operations of De Wet, De la Rey and Botha will make their way into tactical handbooks.”
Yevgeny was wounded and captured in the defence of Pretoria in June 1900. Spared from being sent to a POW camp in Ceylon by the intervention of the Russian military attaché with the British forces he was back on duty with the Russian Army in August 1900.
These memoirs are an invaluable addition to the literature on
the war. Yevgeny provides many insights on the complete journey, physical and
mental, of a foreign volunteer. His honest assessment and opinions shine a
light and make obvious the complexities of a war keenly debated today.