Nicholas II and the Boer War

PHOTO: Postcard depicting Transvaal President Paul Kruger and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia

I am wholly preoccupied with the war between England and the Transvaal,” Nicholas II wrote to his sister Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna at the outbreak of the Boer War. “Every day I read the news in the British newspapers from the first to the last line . . . I cannot conceal my joy at . . . yesterday’s news that during General White’s sally two full British battalions and a mountain battery were captured by the Boers!”

Britain’s hold 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 1896, President Paul Kruger (1825-1904), sent the Russian émigré financier Benzion Aaron to represent the Transvaal at Nicholas’s coronation in Moscow, which led Russia to establishing diplomatic relations with the Transvaal.

Nicholas was, in fact, quite carried away. ‘You know, my dear,’ he told his sister Xenia Alexandrovna, ‘that I am not arrogant, 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 mobilize 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.

For their part the British made some effort to accommodate Russia. On 31st August 1899 London agreed to accept a Russian consul in Bombay, thus for the first time permitting official access to India which the British had preserved so carefully from Russian influence.

Xenia replied from Ai-Todor [Crimea] on 11th October 1899: “We are terribly interested in the war in the Transvaal, and are right behind the Boers and wish them every success in the war. I think there can be no one (except the English!) who isn’t on their side!.”

The Boer War found Nicholas and his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna taking different sides.

In a letter written to her son from Bernstorff Palace [Denmark] on 7th November, 1899, Maria writes: “We are following the news of the war in the Transvaal with great interest here. It does seem more than surprising that the English had so little information about the Boers being so well prepared for war: for a long time ago, four years, they ordered 150,000 rifles of the best pattern from Krupps, and many guns as well. The losses of the English are terrible, and the position they’re in is most depressing. What a terrible deathroll! How awful it all is! I am sure there is not one family in England which has not lost one or several of its members. What a sad place it must be now! And what sorrow for poor Queen Granny at the end of her days!”

Nicholas replied from the Alexander Palace [Tsarskoye Selo] on 9th November, 1899: “The Anglo-Boer War interests me terribly; I wish all possible success to those poor people in this unequal and unjust war. Almost unbelievable sympathy is shown all over Europe to the Boers, even ordinary folk take the greatest interest in their fate.”

The enthusiasm of the Russian public for the Boer cause knew no constraints. Books, articles, poems, plays and pamphlets about the Boers poured out, orchestras played ‘Transvaal, Transvaal, My Country’ over and over again, money was collected and sent, prayers were offered up in church for a speedy victory against the British and pictures of the Boers were everywhere.

Russian conservatives were pro-Boer not only for the usual nationalist, anti-British reasons but because they thought the Boers were like the best sort of Russians – conservative, rural, Christian folk resisting the invasion of their land by foreign (especially Jewish) capitalists. ‘The deep historical meaning of this war,’ wrote one conservative Moscow paper, ‘is that faith, patriotism . . . the patriarchal family, primordial tribal unity, iron discipline and the complete lack of so-called modern civilization have . . . become such an invincible force that even the seemingly invincible British have begun to tremble.’ 

PHOTO: Russian Boer general Lt Col Yevgeny Maximov
on his return from the Anglo-Boer War

Several hundred Russians – including some Russian aristocrats and two medical units – came out to fight for the Boers. One of the most famous was ‘the Russian Boer General’, Lt-Col. Yevgeny Maximov (1849-1904), who seems to have had such extraordinary influence with Kruger and his generals that he is thought to have arrived in South Africa on a secret mission from the Russian Government. And even after Kruger was exiled to Holland after the war, he remained in touch with Maximov, thanking him for his bravery. Maximov was the real thing: a professional soldier, a wonderful horseman, an almost miraculously good shot (on one occasion he shot a springbok at 800 metres from a moving train) – the sort of man who fought on despite his wounds when most of his unit had been wiped out. (He returned from that engagement a hero and was personally thanked by Smuts.) Like most of the Russians, he left via Mozambique once it became clear that the Boer cause was lost.

On 22nd May 1901, Nicholas wrote to King Edward VII of Great Britain: “Pray forgive me for writing to you upon a very delicate subject, which I have been thinking over for months, but my conscience obliges me at last to speak openly. It is about the South African war and what I say is only said as by your loving nephew.

“You remember of course at the time when war broke out what a strong feeling of animosity against England arose throughout the world. In Russia the indignation of the people was similar to that of the other countries. I received addresses, letters, telegrams, etc. in masses begging me to interfere, even by adopting strong measures. But my principle is not to meddle in other people’s affairs: especially as it did not concern my country.

“Nevertheless all this weighed morally upon me. I often wanted to write to dear Grandmama [Queen Victoria] to ask her quite privately whether there was any possibility of stopping the war in South Africa. Yet I never wrote to her fearing to hurt her and always hoping that it would soon cease.

“When Misha [Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich] went to England this winter I thought of giving him a letter to you upon the same subject: but I found it better to wait and not to trouble you in those days of great sorrow [death of Queen Victoria on 22nd January 1901]. In a few months it will be two years that fighting continues in South Africa—and with what results?

“A small people are defending their country, a part of their land is devastated, their families flocked together in camps, their farms burnt. Of course in war such things have always happened and will happen, but in this case, forgive the expression, it looks more like a war of extermination. So sad to think that it is Christians fighting against each other!

“How many thousands of gallant young Englishmen have already perished out there! Does not your kind heart yearn to put an end to this bloodshed? Such an act would be universally hailed with joy.”

On 26th November 2019, a plaque (above) commemorating the sacrifice of more than 270 Russians who fought with the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War against the British was unveiled at the Green Point Common Memorial at Fort Wynyard [Cape Town, South Africa]. The event was attended by Russian Ambassador to South Africa Ilya Rogachev and members of the Russian Navy who were participating in military exercises in the region.

Rogachev, along with members of the Cape’s Russian community and military veterans, laid wreaths at the plaque in memory of the Russian lives lost in the war that stretched from 1899 to 1902.

© Paul Gilbert. 16 September 2020