Charlie’s First War: South Africa, 1899–1900 by C.H. Tweddell (review)
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Charlie’s First War: South Africa, 1899–1900, C.H. Tweddell. Edited by Carman Miller. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. Pp. xxii + 246, $34.95 cloth

Charles Henry Tweddell’s diary is the “best sustained first-hand account of a Canadian private soldier’s Boer War experience” (4) that Carman Miller, the leading expert on Canada’s role in that conflict, read during his research on the subject. Miller’s introduction, together with his annotated transcription, serves as a reader’s guide to Charlie’s diary. That diary begins on 30 October 1899 in Quebec City, as the volunteers parade for their final inspection, then board the Sardinian for a voyage that would end in Cape Town on 30 November. We watch as the Canadians train and endure a delay of several months before beginning the long march to Bloemfontein. Charlie’s narrative of that punishing march and the battles along the way provides a vivid portrait of the nature of the war. For our diarist, struck down by illness not bullets, the fighting, although far from over, ended just days after he reached Bloemfontein. Charlie’s diary entries for the next four months offer a perspective on another aspect of the war, taking us into poorly equipped and understaffed field hospitals and convalescent homes, where typhoid and enteric fever reached epidemic proportions. It is not surprising that by 15 July Charlie should write: “Oh! to be home & free” (186).

Miller’s thoughtful and nuanced discussion of the nature and value of war diaries alerts scholarly and lay readers alike to the insights that can be gained from a careful reading of Charlie Tweddell’s engaging diary: “Charlie’s diary does not ‘reveal all’; nonetheless, his record remains relatively transparent. He does not disguise his own drinking and partying or the gambling, drunkenness, fighting, looting, theft, and petty rivalries that plagued camp life” (13). He provides insights into aspects of life on the battlefield that are not often discussed in the literature, such as the significant amount of “unstructured or free time” (7–8). Related to this is the “toleration of autonomy in military life” (9), encompassing such activities as keeping mascots, engaging in pilfering expeditions, and trading in contraband goods. Miller argues [End Page 151] that the battalion commanding officer’s failure to “stamp out” the practice of looting can partially be explained by this “cross-rank complicity” (12), with junior officers regularly sharing in the spoils. Charlie’s diary, then, provides insight not only into one soldier’s Boer War experience but also into many questions posed by social historians about the experience of war for ordinary soldiers.

Charlie Tweddell’s diary also raises questions. For students of the Boer War or of diaries as a genre, this book invites critical analysis. Miller invites speculation, acknowledging, for example, that we do not know why Charlie, who, at thirty, was more than six years older than the average soldier, signed up (28). Miller further informs us that Charlie was writing for an audience, and his footnotes remind us that Charlie, who overestimated the strength of the opposing forces, did not always have accurate information. And the diary, offered in its entirety, invites different interpretations. The extent of the “male bonding or primary group cohesion” (7) that emerges in its pages may be questioned. After all, Charlie had been friends with his tent mates before they signed up, and the numerous instances of theft he reports imply less cohesion than one might expect. Charlie’s relationship with his Boer hospital mate may encourage discussion about ordinary soldiers’ views of the “enemy.” And, while Miller argues that “memories of a good war … led or misled many Boer War veterans such as Charlie Tweddell to volunteer for service in the Great War (1914–18)” (7), some readers may wonder if Charlie did have “a good war” and whether his decision to enlist in 1916 really was linked to any nostalgic memories.

The impulse to retain Tweddell’s capitalization, punctuation, and spelling was a good one. But some of the editing is tiresome. Many of the “editorial corrections, suggestions, and intrusions” (57) are distracting...