and the Anglo-Boer War
by Apollon Davidson
and Irina Filatova
Human and Rousseau/Combined Book Services 287 pp. £17.99
When we were at
school 70 years ago, a quarter of the World's map was coloured
red to denote the territories of the British Empire on which
the sun never set. Britain did not acquire this largest Empire
in history by chance, or by mere luck, Britain fought its
way at every turn in the face of jealous rivals such as Russia,
France, Spain and Germany.
Even when transport
was slow and the motorcar and aeroplane were not yet in service,
Britain could despatch half a million troops to South Africa
to protect the long route to India via the Cape. Jews played
a major part in Britain's ascendancy in the 19th Century.
whose family were members of the Sephardi Bevis Marks Synagogue,
acquired the shares of the Suez Canal with the help of the
Rothschilds and he made Victoria Empress of India.
Jews likewise helped to further the extent of the British
advance in the Far East to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and
At the outbreak
of the Boer War in 1899, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his sister,
ĆI am wholly pre-occupied with the war between England and
the Transvaal. Every day I read the news in the British newspapers
from the first to the last line.... I cannot conceal my joy
at Boer success.√
on South Africa was significant for the Russians partly because
the route to India lay via the Cape, and as Governors of the
Cape were only too aware, Russia had its own designs on India.
In 1879 the British
feared that Russia might take advantage of the Zulu War and
strike in Central Asia - or even send arms to the Zulus. The
young Jan Smuts, conscious of this Russian interest, advised
his Boer colleagues on the eve of war to prevail on the Russians
to foment an anti-British rising in India. In fact, Kruger,
thinking along similar lines, had already sent the Russian
Jewish emigre financier Benzion Aaron to represent the Transvaal
at Nicholas's coronation in 1896.
clashed with Britain's in central Asia, Iran, the Bosphorus,
the Mediterranean and the Balkans as well as over India; and
in addition to her vengeful feelings about the Crimean War,
Russia felt herself blocked at every turn by Britain. Wildly
excited at the thought that the Boers might at last have created
the vital crack in the wall of the British Empire, Nicholas
rushed off to see the Kaiser (both grandsons of the reigning
Queen Victoria). 'I intend to set the Emperor on the British
- while the Russian Foreign Minister tried to interest the
French in an anti-British alliance. In order to increase the
pressure, Russia built up its Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets
and even courted provocation with the dispatch of four cruisers
to the Channel. At the same time, Russian troops were moved
up to the borders of India and Afghanistan.
The Tsar was,
in fact, quite carried away. 'You know, my dear,' he told
his sister, but it is pleasant for me to know that I and I
only possess the ultimate means of deciding the course of
the war in South Africa. It is very simple - just a telegraphic
order to all the troops in Turkestan to mobilise and advance
towards the Indian frontier. Not even the strongest fleet
in the world can keep us from striking England at this her
most vulnerable point.' Such was Nicholas's 'dearest dream'
but it came to nothing. The Germans and French scuttled away;
Russia was in no position to take on Britain without their
Russians came out to fight for the Boers and to be their nurses
and doctors. It is difficult to be precise about the size
of this group because many thousands of Jews, fleeing from
the pogroms in Russia, had already joined the great gold rush
to the Transvaal in the latter part of the 1880's. A good
number of these left the Transvaal at the outbreak of war,
some to join the British forces; but many fought for the Boers
and probably accounted for the majority of the entire Russian
contingent. The problem was that in the eyes of the often
anti-Semitic Russian nationalists who flocked to the Boer
cause such people were not Russians at all: the nationalists
formed a separate Russian Commando unit in the Boer Army and
refused to allow Russian Jews to join it. On the other hand,
the British, enraged that such recent emigres should take
up arms against them, found it convenient to regard them as
Russians and deported large numbers of them back to Russia
to face the pogroms again, an act of callousness which has
never attracted the attention - or opprobrium - it deserves.
(In 1946, Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin repeated this heartless
procedure by returning Jewish refugees trying to reach Palestine
back to detention camps in Germany.)
Not much is known
about the Russian Jews who fought on the Boer side, though
several rose to significant rank; we find a Commandant Kaplan
and a Commandant Isaac Herman, while two others, Josef Segal
('Jackals') and Wolf Jacobson ('Wolf'), who acted as scouts,
were legendary figures in their time; Segal became a special
adviser and secret agent for the Boer general, Christiaan
de Wet. Benzion Aaron, by now a very wealthy man and a personal
friend of Kruger, set up a Jewish Ambulance Corps and bankrolled
whole depots for the Boers. The anti-Semitism of the Russian
nationalist volunteers doesn't seem to have caused any difficulties.
Wounded nationalists were shown great solicitousness by Aaron's
ambulance corps while the members of the anti-Semitic Russian
Commando, according to their own reports, were greeted as
compatriots on their arrival by Russian Jews who showered
them with fruit, cigars and good wishes.
Last July, the
remains of Tsar Nicholas and his family were ceremoniously
buried at St Petersburg, exactly 80 years after they were
murdered by the Bolsheviks at Yekaterinburg, in the Urals,
for fear of the advancing white Russians. The opposition of
King George V in 1917 to grant his deposed cousin asylum in
Britain, may have sealed the imperial family's fate.
The British Empire
came to an end after W.W.II. It did so in an orderly manner
as no other empire in history. Overnight, it became The Commonwealth.
Even without "British" and without the crown, it goes from
strength to strength.
South Africa that
had left it earlier came running back under Mandela. This
augurs well both for South Africa as well as for the Commonwealth.
Just like the
Jews, by sheer tenacity and obduracy, the British have left
their mark in the world. The one has given half of mankind
its religious beliefs; the other has given half mankind the
nearest thing to an international language, as well as, the
tradition of Parliamentary democracy.
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