Dienesch on Tweddell, 'Charlie's First War: South Africa, 1899-1900'

C. H. Tweddell
Robert Dienesch

C. H. Tweddell. Charlie's First War: South Africa, 1899-1900. Edited by Carman Miller. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014. 276 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-4432-1.

Reviewed by Robert Dienesch (University of Windsor) Published on H-Canada (March, 2015) Commissioned by Corey Slumkoski

The Canadian role in the Boer War1899-1902, is only rarely discussed in most high school and university curricula. In some ways it is the dirty little secret in Canadian military history. As a conflict, it has been greatly overshadowed by the two wars that fundamentally bookend it. On the one hand, we have the War of 1812, subject of much hype during its recent two-hundredth anniversary commemorations. On the other hand, the First World War’s massive casualty rates and destruction tend to overshadow any discussion of the Boer War.

Thus, the Boer War has vanished from most discussion. Yet Canadians contributed their fair share to the conflict, drawing people from across Canada into the fight. One of these individuals was Charles Henry Tweddell who served with the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry (RCRI) in the South African war between October 20, 1899, and October 1, 1900. The 2nd (Special Service) Battalion was the first contingent of troops sent overseas during the Boer War and consisted of only about a thousand men (p. 3).

Charles “Charlie” Tweddell is a significant person for our understanding of the Boer War—not necessarily for his actions during the conflict but for what he did with his spare time. During his service in the war, Charlie was an avid diarist who left four diaries with entries on a great number of subjects and events. The four diaries, donated by his granddaughter Wilma Anderson to the Royal Canadian Regiment’s Museum at Wolseley Barracks, London Ontario, form the core of the book Charlie’s First War: South Africa, 1899-1900. Transcribed with a solid introduction and annotations by Carman Miller, Charlie’s diaries provide a fascinating glimpse into daily life for this first contingent: from weather and climate issues, to the experience of the crossing, to battles like Paardeberg. This diary opens up a fascinating window into the daily life of soldiers on campaign during the Boer War and provides a wealth of information on a war and an experience long ignored. 

The experiences of Charlie and his compatriots are at the same time compelling and mundane. The compelling elements are what should be expected. The discussion of military operations, combat, patrols, and guard duty contributes a great deal to understanding the military experience at the turn of the century. However, the mundane aspects of life are equally fascinating. Everything from food rations to the climate and experience with the native population enter the discussion. For example, Tweddlell’s Christmas Eve, 1924, entry contrasts his having “suffered all night with cramps” with the prospect of the evening’s pending church services (p. 91). In this manner, Charlie’s First War produces a far more comprehensive understanding of the experience of military life in the Boer War. 

As with all diaries, however, caution is needed in its use. Soldiers rarely see the entire experience of the conflict and as such they represent very narrow lines of vision and experience. They also carry the diarist’s biases, along with any additional biases that might have been added unintentionally by the editor. While the book does not seem impartial, it is a possibility the historian must keep in mind. I strongly recommend this piece as an addition to any military history collection in part due to the lack of material available for the Boer War. However, it is also an incredible personal account and adds a significant amount of value to any understanding of the Boer War.

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Citation: Robert Dienesch. Review of Tweddell, C. H., Charlie's First War: South Africa, 1899-1900. H-Canada, H-Net Reviews. March, 2015. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42699

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