Servant’s Diary from Second Boer War for Sale at Bonhams

A diary covering some of the key moments of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) kept by one of the servants of Sir Redvers Buller VC, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, is to be sold at Bonhams Fine Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs Sale on 12 November in London.  It is estimated at £600-800.

Intriguingly, the identity of the servant is unknown though he was clearly a close member of Sir Redver’s staff. The diary entries cease when Sir Redvers was recalled home in 1900 and the writer’s brief first entry records Buller’s 60th birthday "...8.12.99/ Waited, on General Buller at dinner on the 4.12.99 (60 years old).”

The mystery diarist follows the next ten months of the campaign. In particular, he covers the three major engagements of Buller's desperate attempts to relieve the British forces at Ladysmith, under siege since early November 1899. A hero of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 during which he had won a Victoria Cross, Sir Redvers - pronounced Reevers - earned the nickname 'Reverse' Buller for his repeated failure to reach the town.

The diary recalls the misery of Buller’s defeat at the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899. “8 hours bombarding, one Battery Artillery cut up, 3 men only left out of the Battery. Infantry losses heavy. Enemy estimated at 80,000 and well fortified, our men was shot down like rabbits. Don't know the exact loss killed and wounded but must be great, also Boers; stopped fighting about 6 p.m, cannot move the Boers out of their positions,"

Buller fared no better in his next attempts to break through to Ladysmith.  The battle of Spion Kop on 24 January 1900 is graphically described - "...the bombarding was terrific, I never saw such a battle in my life, it was awful..." as is the subsequent defeat at Vaal Krantz."...Battle started again this morning, our troops getting badly mauled, took one position, and had to give it up again, as they was too heavelly shelled by the Boer guns, our balloon went up and reported that the Boers had big guns all round the high hills, on the top of the hills, our troops on an open plain below, General Buller nearly got hit today again by a shell, it dropped close by the General; the Rifle Brigade lose heavy, a lot of my old pals I saw killed and wounded.”

Ladysmith was finally relieved on 28 February 1900 after a siege lasting 118 days and the deaths of 3,000 British troops. By this time Buller had been replaced as overall commander by General Roberts and though he enjoyed some further military success he was recalled to Britain in September that year at which point the diary entries stop.

Bonhams Head of Books, Matthew Haley, said, “So often the accounts we have of historical events are the protagonists’ recollections, in their old age; to read the raw experience of an eye witness, unfiltered by time, is exciting and refreshing.”

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