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Review of Letters from the Empire

22 Dec

Review of Letters from the Empire: A Soldier’s Account of the Boer War and the Abor Campaign in India (The History Press Ltd)

Meet Allan Marriot Hutchins: gentleman, wit and soldier. At the height of the British Empire, he served in the Boer War and the Abor Campaign in South Asia. He kept the proverbial stiff upper lip at all times, even when sustaining serious wounds and losing comrades. Of repelling snipers at Oorlogspoort, he writes, almost casually, ‘We turned our attention to them and shut ‘em up.’ Even in the most exotic of places, Hutchins – in true English style – dreams of roast lamb and mint sauce and obsesses about the weather. On first glance, Hutchins’ life story evokes the boy’s own yarns of Rider Haggard or Kipling. The reality, however, is less romantic.

Assembled from a recently-discovered trove of Hutchins’ letters from the front line, Letters from the Empire tells the gritty truth about colonial warfare. The battles come thick and fast, but there’s more disease than distinguished service, more grime than gallantry. Hutchins must survive his own side’s field hospitals as well as the other side’s firepower. On other occasions, such as when he is first posted to India, the problem is how to kill time rather than how to kill people. Thus he dedicates himself to polo, gymkhanas, sergeant’s dances and heavy drinking (no one in the regiment is allowed to go to bed sober unless it’s a Thursday). Bored and having seen little action in South Africa, Hutchins starts to mythologise his war record: ‘Tell him how his Uncle Allen has slain many a Boer and marched from Bloemfontein to Pretoria dripping blood from every step.’

Although Hutchins is a lucid correspondent, amusing us with vernacular phrases (for ‘snaffling a mount’ read finding a reliable horse), some of his descriptions are a touch mathematical: ‘The garrison had 2 men killed and 5 or 6 wounded and the Boers admitted to having 23 wounded…’ Then again, he could not have predicted that his letters – written primarily to inform – would one day be turned into a book. Similarly, while the surfeit of names, ranks, regiments and makes of firearm will delight the military history buff, a few more explanatory notes would have helped the casual reader.

Unsurprisingly, Hutchins’ views on race and culture seem reactionary today, but as the narrative unfolds, so his cynicism about the imperial project grows. The poverty of the soldiery is a recurring bugbear. The learned editorial commentary also highlights the abuses of empire, its war crimes and – making their horrific debut in the Boer conflict – concentration camps.

All in all, Letters from the Empire is an engaging insight into both the minutiae of war and a complex yet charismatic man.

Originally published in the Bristol Review of Books, March 2012