Seeking the secrets of war. Russian military observers at the South African War (1899-1902)
Apollon DavidsonThe South African, or the Anglo-Boer War occurred after what was -- for 19th-century Europe -- a long hiatus of peace, for there had been no wars there for several decades since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870--71 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877--78. In these two decades a great deal of new military technology had been introduced and new notions of strategy and tactics developed. All such innovations had, however, only been debated within the military academies and general staffs. Some of these had been tested during the exercises and manoeuvres but none in the conditions of a real war. In this respect the numerous colonial wars of the various imperial powers hardly counted -- punitive expeditions against ill-armed tribesmen and states of Asia and Africa were usually regarded as requiring little military subtlety.
Centre for Russian Studies, University of Cape Town
University of Durban-Westville
The Anglo-Boer War thus presented the first opportunity of applying the full range of military inventions and innovations. Machine guns, mobile six-inch guns, field trenches, barbed wire, finely sighted clip-loading rifles with a long, flat trajectory, smokeless Mauser rifles, camouflage khaki uniform and the deployment of troops in the loose order appropriate to the use of the new technology -- all made their first appearance during the Anglo-Boer War or were applied there on a large scale for the first time.
Naturally, general staffs of many countries studied this experience most intently both during this war and long after it. This was not only true of the great imperial powers; many smaller states showed a keen interest. Thus, for example, the Norwegians sent a military attaché to South Africa, and on their return to Sofia, two Bulgarian volunteers with the Boers were asked to share their experience with military specialists. In 1913, in the Second Balkan War, Bulgarian guerrillas used Boer methods of warfare.
The Russian War Ministry was no exception. It used various methods of collecting information about the military side of the Anglo-Boer War, some of them official, others secret, or semi-secret and the Military Academic Committee of the General Staff was formally entrusted with the task of co-ordinating the collection and processing of this information. There was no doubting the seriousness with which the Russian army viewed the war.
The Tsar's War Ministry and the war
Military attachés in Russia's European embassies were the first to get involved in collecting information about the Anglo-Boer War. Reports from London were considered the most important,1 although reports by Yevgeny Karlovich Miller, the military attaché in Holland who was traditionally sympathetic to the Boer cause, were greeted with rapt attention as well.2 Using mainly his Dutch sources Miller wrote a book Survey of the armed forces of the South African and Orange Republics,3 which appeared while the war was still in progress. Information about the war was also collected by Russia's military attachés in several of the neutral powers.
All this data flowed back to the Military Academic Committee of the General Staff who closely followed the events of the war and also collected data from the international media, both from specialist military periodicals and from newspapers and magazines of a more general nature. The Committee's specialists then selected the materials that they considered most important for high-ranking Russian officers. These were translated into Russian, and compiled into books which were published periodically by the Military Academic Committee under the title Collected materials on the Anglo-Boer War, 1899--1900.4
The editor of this series was Leonid Konstantinovich Artamonov, a Lieutenant-Colonel of the General Staff, who himself had some African experience, having spent March 1898 to February 1899 in Ethiopia on a mission from the war minister to study the White Nile area, then practically unknown to Europeans.
In the course of 1900--1902 the Military Academic Committee published 20 volumes of Collected materials, of which Artamonov edited the first 12. A further volume appeared in 1905. The result is one of the largest collections of documents and materials from and about the Anglo-Boer War worldwide: 3 561 large format pages with 79 maps and charts.
The Collected materials comprises full or abridged Russian translations of official reports from both combatant sides about military actions, reports by military specialists, articles from Militär Wochenblatt, La Belgique Militaire and other military journals published by the neutral powers; articles from The Times, The Morning Post, The Morning Leader, The Standard, The Daily News, The Daily Mail, The Daily Chronicle, The London Gazette, The Westminster Gazette, Die Kölnische Zeitung, Die Frankfurter Zeitung, and Die Wochenschrift, Revue des Deux Mondes, Nineteenth Century and After and many other periodicals. Also included are full or selected translations of several important books about the Anglo-Boer War such as Kriegführung in Süd-Afrika by Curt von François, Der krieg in Süd-Afrika by Alfred von Müller, Transvaal die Südafrikanische Republik by A Seidel, Der krieg in Süd-Afrika by Major von Faller, La guerre au Transvaal by P M Flocard and A P A Painvin, and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Great Boer War. Extracts from The guide to South Africa were also translated so as to give readers a better grasp of the geography of the war's operations.
Documents from the Boer side were, of course, more difficult to obtain, yet even they found their way into the Collected materials. Indeed, the book A century of wrong, written by Boer politicians (Jan Smuts among them), was published in the third volume in 1900, only months after its publication in Pretoria. A short preface to the book informed readers that it had been 'sent to the General Staff in St Petersburg by one of the Boers, a member of the Volksraad, together with a letter of 9 December 1899 (new calendar)5, from the vicinity of Ladysmith'.
Battle reports by Smuts, Generals Jacobus De La Rey and Van der Merwe, a letter from General Piet Joubert's wife and The war diary of a Boer from The Times were also translated, as were many materials about the British prisoner-of-war camps, including the writings of Emily Hobhouse.
The military lessons of the Anglo-Boer War were summarised in the three-volume Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, published in 1901--1903 6 with the assistance of the Military Academic Committee of the General Staff. In 1905 a further large volume containing the French General Staff analysis of the war was translated from French into Russian.7 Somewhat simpler books were published for officers who had not been exposed to the study of military theory, but who wanted to study the Anglo-Boer War to acquire some general knowledge of it.8 Similar books were published by the Navy Ministry.9
Valuable though this information might be, it all depended on secondary sources. Russian military attachés in Holland and Britain were, after all, thousands of kilometres from the front line, and they could only summarise the impressions and reports of direct witnesses of the events. Accordingly, both the War Ministry and the General Staff wanted to get information and materials directly from the South African battlefields.
Military agents, official and unofficial
Sending military observers who were attached to both combatant sides to observe events was a well-established official practice: indeed, even before the Anglo-Boer War began the Russian War Ministry had made plans to dispatch observers there.
Thus on 9 October (27 September) 1899 the War Minister, Alexei Nikolaievich Kuropatkin, ordered the commander of the General Staff to appoint two officers of the General Staff as military agents (as Russian military attachés were then called), 'one for each side, in case of war in South Africa'. 10 The same day Lieutenant-Colonel Pavel Alexandrovich Stakhovich was appointed as military agent to the British side and was immediately handed a passport and a travel allowance. To those familiar with Russian bureaucratic red tape, the speed with which this was done made one thing obvious, namely that Stakhovich had been selected for the mission in South Africa long before Kuropatkin wrote his letter.
The appointment of military agents to the Boer army was delayed by the cautious stand of the Foreign Ministry. Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Nikolaievich Lamsdorf expressed apprehension that any hasty action, such as the speedy appointment of a Russian military agent to the Transvaal, could lead to serious and unnecessary complications with Britain.11 And, indeed, when on 21 November (3 December) 1899 Nicholas II approved the appointment of Lieutenant-Colonel Vasily Yosifovich Romeiko-Gurko as military agent 'to the army of the Boers in order to follow the development of military actions', this resulted in a serious diplomatic confrontation with the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, who expressed his dissatisfaction with this appointment to Russian Ambassador Yegor Yegorovich Staal on 1 (13) December 1899. The Transvaal's reaction was the mirror-opposite, the State Secretary of the Transvaal telegraphing to the Russian Foreign Minister that 'Lieutenant-Colonel Romeiko-Gurko will be welcome as our dear guest.'12 Gurko finally departed for South Africa two months after the beginning of hostilities.
Stakhovich and Gurko were sent mainly to collect information about both combatants' strategy and tactics but the War Ministry was also interested in new military technology. Information about such matters could, however, only be collected by specialist military engineers, and Kuropatkin wrote to the Tsar that:
In view of the special interest that the war between England and the South African republics presents in the sphere of military engineering it would be appropriate to send two military engineers as aides to the Military Agents ... These military engineers should be entrusted with the task of studying all technical means and appliances used by the combatant sides in fortifying, defending and attacking positions, as well as the nature, location and structure of fortifications in Ladysmith, Kimberley, Mafeking, Pretoria and other points where particularly prolonged defence and attack actions can be expected, first of all in Pretoria.13
For some reason this document was handed in to Nicholas II only on 28 April (10 May) 1900 at the end of the seventh month of the war and just a few weeks before the fall of Pretoria. Nicholas approved Kuropatkin's proposal the next day but vetoed (for no obvious reason) one of the candidates presented to him, allowing only Captain Shcheglov, a lecturer at the Nikolaievskaia Engineering Academy, to be sent to South Africa. Shcheglov spent almost half a year in South Africa and managed to collect information from both sides of the front. Shcheglov was 'with Botha's army during its march from Pretoria to the Portuguese border. After President Kruger and the other Military Agents left for Europe he was transferred to the British army.' According to the official report, 'Due to the fact that his previous attachment to the Boer army was not known to the British military authorities, Lieutenant-Colonel Shcheglov managed to obtain Kitchener's permission to be admitted to all points of the theatre of war.'14
A second military engineer was ultimately chosen for dispatch to the Boer army, a Captain (later Lieutenant-Colonel) of the 1st Engineering Battalion, Mikhail Antonovich Zigern-Korn.15 Zigern-Korn departed for South Africa on 10 (23) May and returned to Russia on 16 November 1900.16 Meanwhile, a second agent, Nikolai Mikhailovich Yolshin, was sent to the British side as an aide to Stakhovich, the War Ministry commissioning him to report on the condition of the British army and its military operations. Yolshin was with the British troops for six months.
These military agents sent regular reports back to Russia, supplementing these with thorough analytical surveys when back home. A number of these reports are housed in Russian archives, some of them published by the Military Academic Committee of the Main Staff. Altogether Gurko sent nine reports from South Africa17 and on his return he submitted a 340-page report with an appendix of plans and maps,18 while Zigern-Korn's report, The Anglo-Boer War. From the surrender of Pretoria by the Boers to Kruger's departure to Europe, was presented to Nicholas II and housed in his library. The typed manuscript was luxuriously bound in leather with gilt edging and moiré lining. It is now housed in the manuscript department of the Russian State Library.19
Stakhovich had already begun to send his reports from London, where he had arrived at the end of October 1899. On 6 November he left Britain together with a party of German, French and American military attachés. They shared a long and dreary voyage to the Cape with a squadron of Scots Greys whose honorary patron was none other than Nicholas II. It was not, perhaps, incidental that Colonel Igor Herbert, who was in charge of all the military attachés, had previously been the British military attaché in St Petersburg.
The military attachés arrived in Cape Town on 10 December and immediately asked permission to go to Natal, where the fighting was most intense. Such permission was not granted -- and they found themselves in a gilded cage. As Stakhovich wrote to St Petersburg, 'It looks as if we have been offered board and lodging in a luxurious hotel' -- they stayed at the 'Mount Nelson' -- 'as a compensation for not being allowed to join the troops.'20
Under various pretexts the military attachés were not allowed anywhere near the area of military operations. Stakhovich was the most persistent among them -- but to no avail. Only in the second half of February 1900 did the British allow Stakhovich to visit the fronts. By that time the British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Roberts, was confident that the turning point of the war had passed and that there was no chance of further defeats for the British army. Roberts had had no intention of allowing potential enemies to study his army's weak points under pressure but he had no objection to their watching his triumphal ride into Pretoria.
This was, of course, true of all potential enemies but maybe more so in respect of Russia. The 19th century was marked, for both Britain and Russia, by rivalry and mutual hostility, and sometimes by direct political and military clashes, of which the Crimean War of 1853--55, the last Russo-Turkish War of 1877--78 and the hostilities in central Asia in the 1880s were particularly important. The intense animosity between the world's two biggest empires in the making was strengthened by the contrast between their systems of government, Russia's absolutism and Britain's liberal parliamentarism.
Gurko, on the Transvaal side of the lines, had other problems. The Transvaal authorities did not interfere with his movements, but the Transvaal censorship was very tough, often preventing him from collecting information or communicating it when he did. Worse was to follow, for he was soon taken prisoner by the British. He had only arrived in Pretoria on 26 January 1900 and was captured at Poplar Grove in the Republic of the Orange Free State on 7 March during the Boer retreat. Gurko was detained in Cape Town, with the British authorities keen to return him to Europe by the first ship. Only his desperate resistance delayed his deportation. He was finally sent to Louren.o Marques, whence he returned to Pretoria on 30 March.
The mission of the military agents was soon over. Stakhovich left South Africa in May 1900 (his last report was dated by 8 May) and Yolshin went at approximately the same time. Gurko left at the end of August, Zigern-Korn at the end of September. None of them witnessed the long and strenuous guerrilla war which followed the Boers' defeat and in any case their opportunities were limited by their official role. But so hungry was the War Ministry for every scrap of news that in spite of these limitations it considered the information received from these agents to be of primary importance.
Just how keen the Russian leadership was to secure such information is best judged from the fact that War Minister Kuropatkin received and read Yolshin's report on 5 December 1900 when he was on leave in Yalta in the Crimea, while Nicholas II ordered all reports from Stakhovich to be delivered to his suburban residence by the state courier service immediately on receipt without their being typewritten, which was usually done with all documents for his convenience. Shcheglov was received by the Tsar almost immediately upon his return, decorated and promoted.
Like other governments, the Russian government was naturally interested in getting information from as many other sources as it could. Several officers among the Russian volunteers supplied the General Staff with information about the political situation, the use of new military technology and so on. Some did this on their own initiative while others were clearly sent to South Africa with this purpose specifically in mind.
The list of Russian volunteers who fought for the Boers prompts the obvious question: how could all these officers on active service go anywhere without the permission of the military authorities? For such officers to be allowed to fight under a foreign flag of any kind would require very high-level consent; for them to fight against the world's leading imperial power under what it saw as a rebel flag -- with all the possible consequences -- made the permission to let them go a political decision.
Some officers among the volunteers, such as Lieutenant Alexei Yefimovich Yedrikhin, were simply transferred to the reserve with the right to be reinstated in their regiments on their return from the theatre of war, and were even paid their salaries while they were in South Africa. Others, like Second Lieutenants Leo Pokrovky and Yevgeny Augustus were granted long leave,21 while Lieutenant Count Komarovsky was temporarily dismissed into the reserve.22
Hardly had Lieutenant Yedrikhin returned from South Africa (in May 1900) when he received a notice: 'The War Minister deigns to receive you on Sunday 7 May at 1 o'clock pm at his flat (Moika, 67).' For a lieutenant to be invited to meet a war minister, not even in his office but in his home, and on Sunday, was certainly not a common practice in the Russian army.
We do not know what Yedrikhin and Kuropatkin discussed, but the outcome of their conversation was certainly very favourable for the lieutenant. A royal assent followed to the effect that 'the time that Lieutenant Yedrikhin, previously discharged from the 117 Yaroslavl Regiment, spent observing military operations in South Africa is to be reckoned as regular service with the remuneration of the salary that he would have received in regular service.'23
One is tempted to think that Lieutenant Yedrikhin was not an ordinary lieutenant, if for 'observing military operations in South Africa' he was paid the full salary of an officer of the Russian army on royal orders. And so it turns out, for Lieutenant Yedrikhin had graduated from the Academy of the General Staff, which meant that he was a highly qualified military specialist whose observations on the war's course and the techniques and weaponry deployed were correspondingly expert. This obvious ploy is yet further evidence of the importance that the Russian government attached to the information it received from unofficial observers in South Africa.
One can only speculate as to what it was that so worried and interested Russian officialdom about the Anglo-Boer War, for no minutes of their meetings with the returning officers have been found. Archivists believe that at least a third of all the files containing confidential documents from and about the Anglo-Boer War were destroyed on the order of the War Minister in 1900, even before the war had formally ended. This extraordinary action suggests strongly that the minister had a reason to hide some of his actions not just from future generations but even from his immediate successors.
Another unofficial military observer was, without doubt, Junior Captain Alexei Stepanovich Potapov, the administrative secretary of the Red Cross detachment. Potapov, too, had graduated from the Academy of the General Staff shortly before the Anglo-Boer War, and had been discharged from his regiment -- just like Yedrikhin. Among other things this meant that these officers could be regarded as civilians in South Africa.
It is striking, too, that volunteer Alexander Guchkov, although then only a lieutenant, wrote his reports directly to the War Minister. On 25 (12) May 1900, for example, he informed Kuropatkin of 'the landing of the British at Beira and their consequent expedition which has the purpose of invading the Transvaal from the north through Mozambique and Rhodesia'.24
There is, in fact, good reason to believe that in addition to the official military attachés and semi-official observers there was a whole further (and larger) group of unofficial 'observers'. Lieutenant-Colonel Yevgeny Yakovlevich Maximov, Deputy Commander of the European Legion, was quite possibly another such observer and Junior Captain Alexander Shulzhenko yet another. Shulzhenko, it should be noted, told other Russian volunteers that he had taken leave from his regiment to go to South Africa and that he had participated in the siege of Ladysmith as a miner to get a better understanding of new engineering and artillery technology.25
Shulzhenko was taken prisoner and sent to the British prisoner-of-war camp in Ahmadnagar in India. From there he managed to pass on a letter and a report to Kuropatkin through 'a loyal Indian' who took the documents to the Russian consul in Bombay. Shulzhenko wrote that he 'went to South Africa to study the war on his own' but this is hard to believe, for on his return he also received funds from the General Staff which were allocated to him 'on royal orders'. The consul did everything to help him, trying to prove that Shulzhenko had voluntarily surrendered himself as a prisoner. The British knew that this was an outright lie and kept him prisoner from 6 April 1901 until July 1902.26
It seems that virtually all Russian officers who went to South Africa studied and assessed the military lessons of the Anglo-Boer War. Many believed, like Augustus, that they needed this experience for the imminent war between Russia and Britain. Some were interested in studying new military tactics and technology more or less out of principle, so that they could develop their field of military expertise back in Russia. Second Lieutenant Nikitin, for example, seems to have been such an independent enthusiast for military knowledge. He told his comrades, 'I have studied the mountain war in Natal, and now I shall go to the Vrystad to study the war on the steppes.' 27 Soon after the Anglo-Boer War Nikitin went to China to get more military experience in Asia -- where his inquisitiveness nearly cost him his life.
The information and evidence that Russian officers collected in South Africa were accessible not only to the officials of the War Ministry and the General Staff but were popularised for a wider public through publications and presentations at the Society of Zealots for Military Knowledge. Almost all senior officers who returned from the Anglo-Boer War presented their reports at meetings of this society, besides which the society organised several series of lectures, such as Essays on the Anglo-Boer War and The stories of the participants of the Anglo-Boer War, in which the returning officers actively participated.28
Although these reports, lectures and the other published and unpublished materials which proliferated during and in the wake of the war differed in their scope and content, some common themes emerged. Russian observers admired the courage of the Boers and their ability to co-ordinate and organise their military efforts in the absence of either a regular army or any tradition of regular military service. The Russians also noted with respect how well the Boers used their knowledge of the terrain, scenery and natural conditions. They were, however, somewhat surprised to discover how well the Boers were armed, for they had not realised that the Transvaal government had used the funds gained from taxing the British gold mining companies for enlarging and renovating its arsenal and medical stocks. Using this cash store the Transvaal Treasury had quietly purchased the latest model Mauser rifles and other sophisticated weaponry from Krupp in Germany, some of which armaments had not yet gone into use with European armies.
At the same time the Russians were sorely struck by the Boer commanders' lack of any professional knowledge of military tactics and strategy. All too often, having won a battle, they could not consolidate their success or organise an offensive in pursuit of the enemy. All Russian observers without exception noted the lack of discipline of the Boer commandos, their inability to co-ordinate their actions, and consequent waste of much of their initial élan and courage.
But however deep their interest in and sympathy with the Boers, Russian military specialists were far more interested in the analysis of the British war machine, for they saw Britain as a potential enemy that they might soon have to confront themselves. The general opinion was that the British had greatly underestimated their enemy's stamina and tactics and they had unwisely ignored the lessons of the first Anglo-Boer War and the defeat of the British at Majuba in 1881. Despite these warnings, Britain had, they felt, not generally been prepared for the war and their strategists had not worked out any definite plan of military operations.
The observers noted, moreover, that Britain was unable to increase its army as readily and quickly as the war demanded. The British troops sent to South Africa amounted in the end to some 450 000 men -- an army whose size exceeded by far the British armies that had fought against Napoleon and against Russia during the Crimean War. The costs of this lack of preparedness were heavy. The soldiers recruited during the war itself were poorly trained -- indeed, some could hardly shoot, and there was an obvious lack of officers. The Russians commented, too, on the passivity of the British cavalry detachments, the inadequate reconnaissance service and several other tactical weaknesses of the British army. For half a century after the Crimean War, the Russians reflected, the British army had been engaged only in colonial wars against an enemy who had not even been properly armed and was often tactically naive.
Many Russian officers brought up within Russian military traditions felt equally alien from both the Boer methods of war, which differed drastically from classical warfare, and from the British system, in which conscription did not exist. Lieutenant Augustus felt that Britain must, imperatively, reorganise its army because 'under the present system of recruitment, organisation and training of its troops, it will not sustain a fight against the army of a continental power.'29
At the same time, having seen British soldiers on the battlefield, the Russians learned a certain wary respect for them. Even Augustus, who could not, to say the least, be accused of anglophilia, wrote:
There has been much criticism of the British army. It has become an object of jokes in newspaper columns and humorous magazines. But it has never lacked warrior spirit, a fact proved by Waterloo and Balaklava, Lucknow, and Ladysmith.
I am now aware that the British army not only provide material for cartoons in the Journal Amusant and the Budilnik. I have felt with my own frame what it means to fight against a regular Tommy Atkins. Lying in trenches, pressing myself to the butt of my rifle, I sometimes unwittingly forgot about aiming, peering into the pale faces of soldiers, slowly clambering up the steep slope to the top of the mountain from which an invisible enemy, hidden by the stones, was pouring fire into them. And they just kept on advancing, without their generals riding ahead of them, without any flapping banners, they were walking non-stop, to their certain death. This was on the Tugela River, on the bloody day of the storm of Pietershill.
I heard how the Boers asked a Scot whom they had taken prisoner: 'How long will you hold out in Ladysmith?' The soldier, exhausted by hunger and deprivation, nevertheless answered proudly: 'Until the ammunition runs out!'
I saw how a platoon of Dublin Fusiliers, caught unawares by a mounted patrol, fought with bayonets and rifle-butts, without even thinking of giving in. Their officer, wounded and profusely bleeding, shouted to his soldiers in a hoarse voice: 'Fixed bayonets! No surrender!' Only two out of twelve men surrendered to us.30
Russian observers noted that the situation of the rank and file in the British army was actually much better than the popular image derived mainly from what the British themselves had written, for example, from Kipling's stories and poems. Russian officers were quick to notice that in reality Tommy Atkins was better fed and better dressed than a soldier of any continental army, and that the British government spent more money on him than any other European government would. They wrote this in full understanding of the fact that in all other respects the fate of Tommy Atkins was no better than that of any of his colleagues in other countries.
Given all this highly focused attention to the military experience of the Anglo-Boer War, it would have been nice to record that Russia drew lessons from it which enabled it to avoid unnecessary bloodshed in the military trials that lay ahead -- but this was sadly not so. While Russian military observers often noted that the British had not learned anything from the experience of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877--1878, the Russian General Staff turned out to be no better a student of other countries' experience than its British counterpart -- if not worse.
To give just one example, the Anglo-Boer War made the deadly effect of machine-gun fire on infantry and cavalry clear to everyone -- and the Russian observers made copious mention of it. Yet, almost one and a half decades later, at the beginning of the First World War, the pick of the Russian cavalry was to perish in terrible numbers when sent by its commanders straight into the mouth of withering German machine-gun fire.
For all that, the observations of Russia's military specialists of the Anglo-Boer War, though perhaps more important for understanding the Russian army and Russian military doctrine than those they observed, were nonetheless considered sufficiently important for some of them to be translated into English and published in Pretoria several decades later.31
The names of several officers who collected information about the war for the General Staff and the War Ministry became widely known in later years. Their South African experience undoubtedly furthered their careers.
Thus Artamonov, the editor of the Collected materials, distinguished himself in the Russo-Japanese War and by the time of World War I he was already a lieutenant-general and commander of the corps which advanced in East Prussia. The army of which this corps was part was, however, to suffer one of the most severe defeats of any inflicted on the Russians in that war. These events and Artamonov's role in them have been immortalised by Solzhenitsyn in his novel August 1914.
Yevgeny Miller, the Russian military attaché in Holland, was also a lieutenant-general during World War I, and Pavel Stakhovich was promoted to this rank later. Yolshin became a general in 1911, while Gurko went farther than any of them; in 1917 he became Head of Staff of the Supreme Commander of the Russian army, that is Nicholas II himself.
The Anglo-Boer War also proved important for the career of Alexander Ivanovich Guchkov. His South African experience furnished him with a reputation as a military specialist which very few Russian politicians had at that time. It was mainly because of this reputation that he was to become Chairman of the State Duma and later, in 1917, the War and Navy Minister in the Provisional Government.
Such men rose high but ultimately the fate of nearly all of them was tragic. After the Bolshevik revolution many had to leave Russia and share the tragedies of the Russian emigration of the 1920s -- and many, of course, were killed. Miller's end was particularly dramatic. In the 1930s Miller became Commander of the Russian White Army in exile and on 22 September 1937 agents of the Soviet secret service (at that time called the People's Commissariat for Home Affairs, the NKVD) kidnapped him in Paris. He was killed (thus sharing the fate of his predecessor, General Kutepov), although the exact circumstances of his death remained obscure until 1995 when several documents about it were published in Moscow. It turned out that Miller spent almost two years in the KGB prison in the centre of Russia's capital. He was a secret prisoner: not even his guards knew who he was for he was kept under a different name, Piotr Vasilievich Ivanov. He was shot dead in a Moscow crematorium on 11 May 1939 and his body immediately burned.32
Guchkov's career, too, proved to be shortlived. In his capacity as War Minister he dismissed 143 senior commanders and made new appointments irrespective of rank and seniority, appointments which one qualified observer considered a disaster for the Russian army. Guchkov soon quarrelled with the government, resigned and quixotically enlisted in the army as an ordinary ensign.33 He ended up abroad, among the remnants of the White Army. In October 1923 the NKVD broke into his flat in Paris and all his documents and diaries of the time of the revolution and civil war were stolen.34
Ironically, the lives of some of these Russian veterans of the Anglo-Boer War remained closely intertwined, both in Russia and in exile. Thus, none other than Guchkov's close associate, General Skoblin, who had been converted by the Bolsheviks, organised Miller's kidnapping. Guchkov and Gurko (who belonged to the same Masonic lodge) worked closely together, although Gurko deeply respected Tsar Nicholas II, while Guchkov did everything in his power to replace this unfortunate ruler with a more able member of his family. At one stage in 1916 the Police Department informed the Tsar that Gurko had met with Guchkov, who was under permanent police surveillance, but the Tsar answered that he was aware of the meeting.35
Several of these veterans left memoirs, but Russian affairs clearly overshadowed their Transvaal memories, for none even mentions South Africa. General Gurko, for example, wrote a book Tsar and Tsarina for he knew Nicholas II well and saw him virtually every day. Gurko, a straightforward, dignified and independent personality, was one of those few among the Tsar's entourage who often told Nicholas II 'about Rasputin and about the growing signs of the coming catastrophe'.36 He remained such a staunch and loyal supporter of the Tsar and the royalist cause that even the liberal Provisional Government that came to power after Nicholas's abdication (in which Guchkov played a crucial role) arrested him for his pro-monarchist stand and for corresponding with the Tsar, and then expelled him from Russia.
Some veterans intended to write about South Africa but never managed to do so. One such person was Mikhail Antonovich Zigern-Korn, who wrote of his intention to publish his memoirs of the war once he 'had taken this all in and had worked through the materials' that he had collected. He never did -- a great pity, for his South African diary, from which this quotation comes, is one of the most interesting documents of the Anglo-Boer War.
The diary is clearly a private document: it contains not only the drafts of Zigern-Korn's reports to St Petersburg and his notes, observations and impressions but his thoughts about the woman he loved and drafts of his letters to her. The diary, a manuscript which is now housed at the State Public Library in St Petersburg, consists of the second and the third notebooks in a series of which the first one is lost.37
Zigern-Korn's diary is unique because it describes the period when the Boers were being defeated on all fronts and had begun to switch to guerrilla warfare -- by which time there were few other foreigners left in South Africa. Unfortunately much of Zigern-Korn's handwriting is illegible, though we append below some of the results of our truly hectic deciphering efforts:
19 August 1900: Zigern-Korn writes that Gurko was, throughout the day, at a meeting with Botha and Smuts. On the same day: 'The whole of the Orange Republic is burning, all the farms have been set on fire. These repressive [measures?] will not achieve anything because the Boers thus ruined and made destitute will have to join the guerrilla fighters, whether they want to, or not.'
22 August: Zigern-Korn, having gone to examine a Long Tom, suddenly saw General Louis Botha sitting on the gun. 'I was casually chatting with the gunner,' he wrote, 'and only after I rose to the parapet, did I see the general.' Zigern-Korn took Botha's picture 'speaking over the heliograph' with Smuts. Zigern-Korn was respectful of Botha but measured in his praise: 'He is a brave person, and this is the main quality the Boers value ... He could manage a comparatively small detachment well, but is unable to control the defence of an extended position', though 'under the present state of affairs such things are, in general, difficult.'
Zigern-Korn felt that the main reason for the Boers' defeats and retreats lay in bad organisation and management. At the beginning of the war, he wrote, several officers of the German General Staff had offered their services to Botha, but he had -- unwisely -- refused.38
Zigern-Korn's attitude to the Boers was mixed. He admired their love for freedom and their patriotism, qualities which led him to call them 'the people of the idea'. At the same time he wrote that: 'As far as the attitude of the Boers to the Africans is concerned this is always lousy and presents a picture of real slavery ... A Boer can easily shoot a Kaffir when irritated and if he is in a good mood he will just hit him for fun with a hippo [whip].'39
On the other hand, the Russian observer was touched by the attitude of the Boer authorities to volunteers. 'The Transvaal Government,' he wrote, 'provides every foreign volunteer with a ticket back to Europe and £20. This is praiseworthy.' He commented, however, on the lack of hospitality of the Boer leaders to him personally and to other observers.40
By October 1900 Zigern-Korn was on a boat back to Europe, with the majority of the passengers being either Boers or Dutch. Many were gloomy and although the boredom of the long voyage resulted in a great deal of boozing, their manner was still restrained, for some believed that they were surrounded by British spies.41 Zigern-Korn's companions often asked his opinion about Russian interference in South Africa. 'Obviously, they need to know this,' he wrote, 'but I've got no right whatsoever to discuss this subject. I've already [blurted out?] today that interference is possible and that "we'll see". And then I hurriedly left ... thus attaching to my words a shade of "mystery" and "significance" ... I have to watch out. It's easy to get into an interview.'42
Zigern-Korn's diary is supplemented with 115 photographs, several with inscriptions, among them: 'A small house in Nelspruit, where President Kruger prepared his last speech', 'Bivouac of the Krugersdorp commando near the Dalmanutha position', 'Dalmanutha station', 'Bivouac of the military attaché in Nelspruit', 'Bivouac of the Riccardi commando', 'Inside the Witrand fort', 'Louis Botha near a "Long Tom" ', 'State Secretary Reitz in Nelspruit'.
The List of colonels for 1906 gave some scanty information about Zigern-Korn: born 02/02/1858; of the Roman Catholic faith; graduated from the Nikolaiev Engineering High School; single; commissioned to Africa from 10 May till 16 November 1900; colonel from 1906; participated in the Russo-Japanese campaign of 1904--1905.43 In the similar lists for 1914 and 1916 Zigern-Korn was not mentioned. Perhaps an experienced cryptographer will one day decipher the whole of Zigern-Korn's diary and find out more about the secrets of those who went to South Africa in search of the secrets of war.
But perhaps we have the essentials. After all, one of the best guarded secrets of Russia's involvement in the Anglo-Boer War, its far-reaching expansionist plans which clashed with those of Britain, turning the two into worst enemies, was not really a secret. For many among the Russian military this was a self-evident fact and the activities of the Russian military observers at the South African War as well as the reaction of the government to them proved exactly that.