John Buchan’s clandestine work

John Buchan’s clandestine work in South Africa with secret agents brought him closer to Jan Smuts

This is the third of four articles about the novelist and politician, John Buchan, a colonial administrator during the Anglo-Boer War who wrote a dozen or so books mentioning South Africa

John Buchan’s clandestine work

The last two issues featured the the first two spy-yarns with a South African flavour, written by John Buchan who had been a colonial administrator, outside Johannesburg, from October 1901 to August 1903.

Whilst The Thirty-nine Steps and Greenmantle both had some plausibility, the third novel Mr Standfast is rather too far-fetched, although it still makes a good read. For the second time, Richard Hannay drops his military rank and his Scottish origin to play a Boer opponent of the First World War, easily creating a bogus character after his time in southern Africa as a mining engineer.

Again, he is assisted by his old Afrikaner pal, Peter-ek sal ‘n plan maak-Pienaar, who has joined the Royal Flying Corps. It is a fact that 3000 South Africans flew with the British, and it was Jan Smuts in the Imperial War Cabinet, who recommended turning the flying arm into an independent Royal Air Force. Thanks to the so-called Smuts Report, the RFC became the RAF in April 1918.

Hannay, having done counter-espionage in the first book, and having been a spy in the second, must now break up a German spy-ring linked to pacifists. He travels through England, Scotland, France and Switzerland. Both men are supremely qualified, because Pienaar is an old scout, while Hannay mentioned in The Thirty-nine Steps that he was “once an intelligence officer at Delagoa Bay during the Boer War”.

This suggests that Buchan had dealt with secret agents as Lord Milner’s personal secretary, and he eventually joined the British Army to become a second-lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. He was stationed in France in February 1916 when the 1st South African Brigade transferred to the Western Front to make its immortal name at Longueval.

Buchan knew many of their commanders personally, as shown in his History of the South African forces in France, published in 1920. He wrote on the flyleaf of one copy: “… I think all soldiers would agree that at any vote the South African infantry brigade had no superior. The large Boer contingent, many of whom had fought us in the South African War, gave it a special romance.”

Thanks to his skill with a pen, Buchan was recalled to London to establish a Department of Information – in other words, produce anti-German propaganda. In a letter of May 1917, he wrote that his job involved “Correspondents and secret agents till all hours”, and it also clear that the clandestine work also brought him close to General Smuts who had recently arrived in London after capturing South-West Africa and heading the British Army in East Africa.

The redoubtable Smuts was tasked later with peace in Ireland, negotiating with Arthur Griffiths, a Nationalist who had been a journalist in South Africa. And the Irish are called “the cleverest propagandists extant” in Buchan’s fourth Hannay — defeating a global conspiracy. In my final piece, I will mention the Scotsman’s other works that cover South Africa as well as a further link with Jan Smuts.