/ 8 August 2022

Book extract: ‘A Russian on Commando’ in the Boer War

A Russian on CommandO front cover final

It was a period of calm, even though the British felt obliged to send us a dozen shells or so every day. Yet that did not worry us much. We had become thoroughly accustomed to the shelling and stopped fearing it, even though their range increased by the day. The fearless Second Lieutenant Vasily Nikitin decided to educate the Boers a bit, and folded the sides of a shell casing into a hearth on which he grilled and roasted sizzling, succulent pieces of steak. 

Let me say a couple of words about Nikitin. He arrived in the Transvaal as soon as he’d become an officer, right after the completion of his training at the Odessa military school, where he received first prize, a gold watch. 

We often had a bit of a laugh at him, partly because of his prize watch, whose inscription he tried to explain to curious Boers, partly because even while lying in the trenches, he would open up his tactical handbooks and all the manuals and instructions he had brought with him from his regiment, to check the course of the battle. 

“The British are idiots,” he would grumble as he sat in his trench returning the enemy fire. “They’re marching their reserves in columns, while it says clear as day in the Military Manual that when you’re in the line of fire you need an open, deployed formation. Ah well, all the worse for them.” And he’d snap the bolt of his rifle with a click. 

All the fellows grew sincerely fond of him for his down-to-earth, outgoing nature. With his courage, which was the calm, sober courage of a true soldier, without bravado or boastfulness, he managed to earn such respect from the Boers that they later called him “dappere Nikita” (brave Nikita), unlike another Nikitin, a lieutenant from one of the Caucasian Grenadier regiments who joined us later. 

We had meat in abundance: every day an ox or several fat sheep were slaughtered for the commando. The squad commandant handed out delicious white rusks, rice, salt, tinned pork and Ceylon tea or coffee. When the fancy took me, I cooked a borsch with meat and the hyacinth bulbs that grew wild on the slopes of the mountain. The borsch was quite filling, although it had a peculiar taste. 

Sugar was sometimes in short supply but we replaced it with jam or fruit marmalade in round tin boxes. We also contrived to make Russian hotcakes, doughnuts and flatbreads from flour and baking powder. 

A springbok or partridge, shot on occasion, and a peach kompot (a Russian sweet beverage made from cooked fruit) gave some variety to our dinners, and the Boers, whose table was less exciting because the black auxiliaries did their cooking, glanced with envy at our rich soup with onions, huge beefsteaks with rice and browned griddle cakes with jam. Sometimes we generously treated them to our culinary works of art, especially because they never got us involved in the dirty work of cutting up carcasses and always gave the best parts — the fillet or tongue — to our team. 

The Boers often received delicacies from home — rich pies or fruit baskets — through the military post and they always remembered to share with us. Generally, they treated us, the Russians, with more consideration and kindness than other foreigners. 

To tell the truth, we also behaved more modestly than the other volunteers. We did not make a display of our officer’s rank and obeyed the corporals put in charge of us without protest, whereas the Hungarians, Germans and other volunteers frequently showed contempt for the Boers, tried to impose their expert advice and often got into vehement squabbles with them. 

Of course, the Boers did not always treat the volunteers properly either. It was utterly beyond the simple psychology of an unsophisticated Boer to resolve this seemingly incomprehensible phenomenon: how was it that these foreigners, these complete strangers, who did not know his language, his faith or his customs, had sailed to him from across the distant seas and were prepared to fight and suffer and die with him, and yet demanded no payment or reward? 

I would often be sitting in the tent of some esteemed Boer and, as I drank my coffee, he would strike up a conversation like this: 

“Do you also have cows in Russia?” 

“Yes, we do.” 

“And sheep?” 

“And sheep.” 

“And railways?” he kept on asking. 

“And railways.” 

Then the Boer would puff on his pipe as he digested this information, until he suddenly asked: “Now when will the Russian Tsar stand up for our people?” 

People would read with rapt attention the fanciful news that often appeared in the Johannesburg newspaper, The Standard and Diggers’ News, concerning military preparations by Russia, the mobilisation of troops in the Caucasus and Turkestan military districts, of Russian troop movements towards Herat, etc. 

Every time such an article appeared, it caused lively discussions among the Boers. To be honest, we too, deprived as we were of any news from our distant fatherland, were sometimes perturbed by the possibility of complications in the East. What if Russia suddenly declared war on England and we, abandoned by fate on the other end of the Earth, had to fight here with lower ranks for what was in fact a completely alien cause, without any benefit to our service record? 

If a British bullet were to cut any of us down, we would not even land up on the pages of The Invalid, and our powerless wives and orphans would lose their widow’s pension. We thought hard about this at times. 

But at least we were somewhat comforted by Lieutenant Nikitin’s sensible arguments that in the event of a war between Russia and Great Britain, we would be doing Britain no less harm here than if we commanded half a company in the Pamirs. 

“As for me,” declared the free-thinking Warrant Officer Alexey Diatroptov frankly, “although I am just a praporshchik in the reserve, I will do everything in my power not to take part in a war caused by diplomatic misunderstandings or by aspirations to seize foreign territory. Here I can defend the sacred droits de l’homme, freedom, equality, fraternity and the like with a rifle in my hands.” 

The affable young Pavel R looked at things even more simply: “Ours is not to reason why; ours is just to have a drink and carry on fighting.” 

At the time, none of us doubted that the outcome of the campaign would be successful. We were sure that we would rout those despicable seafarers, who had once invented boxing and now lyddite bombs and dum-dum bullets, and that we would enter Durban as victors with our hats dashingly cocked. Diatroptov had even made up a song for that occasion to the tune of Resound the Glory Trumpet: “At Tugela’s distant stream, We had fought old Buller’s team. And the glory of our names Echoed through the Transvaal hills.’ 

In fact, we had no time to dream of the past or ask anxious questions about the future; the concerns and needs of everyday camp life fully absorbed what little time we had left between sorties and guard duty. We took turns to prepare lunch and make tea; the others would bathe or wash clothes under the arches of a ruined bridge, beyond the reach of flying shrapnel. In the evenings we had to drive our horses from the pasture. We tied them for the night to hitching posts made of railway sleepers and wire, and diligently cleaned and brushed the animals as taught by the experienced Austrian cavalry officers. 

By now, pointlessly sitting in trenches on the mountain and observing British batteries and armoured trains from Chieveley through binoculars had lost its former interest. The enemy’s shells sometimes exploded very successfully but the sight of the dead and wounded no longer disturbed us, as we had somehow grown inured to other people’s suffering. In short, our life amid the ranks of Boer warriors was by no means a constant picnic. 

All the charms of unfettered camp life paled in comparison with the torments we suffered as a result of the unbearable heat and the insufferable stench of cattle innards and leftover food lying all about. We were horribly plagued by swarms of bothersome flies, against which neither tobacco smoke nor the shade of a tent or a bath in the river offered any salvation. Swimming in the warm, muddy water was not particularly pleasant either. Every now and then the current would carry past the bloated, crab-eaten body of a horse or a soldier. 

It is small wonder, then, if in the end we were overcome by some kind of apathy. Our thoughts would become sluggish, and we would lie as if drowsy for days on end in the tent, only coming to life when it was our turn for guard duty. 

This is an edited extract from A Russian on Commando (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.