Of spies and wars: remembering

Of spies and wars: remembering John Buchan in light of the WWI centenery

Famous for his colonial exploits in Canada, John Buchan also spent time in Southern Africa, and was so affected by his experiences on the continent, that he wrote a dozen or so books mentioning South Africa

Of spies and wars: remembering

As we commemorate South Africa’s part in the global conflict from 1914 to 1918, epitomised at the Longueval memorial in France, it is worth remembering John Buchan, soldier, novelist and politician, whose career went back to the Anglo-Boer War.

Buchan was a Scotsman who, on graduating from Oxford in 1901, went to assist Lord Milner, the High Commissioner for South Africa and administrator come governor of Transvaal and Orange Free River. Buchan stayed in South Africa only until 1903, but it left an indelible impression that emerges in many of his books

His awareness of African aspirations is seen in Prester John, a novel published in 1910. It is about an uprising led by a clergyman, and although suppressed, Buchan’s solution is paternalistic development.

His most famous books have Richard Hannay as their hero, who repeatedly mentions earlier adventures in southern Africa. The first one, published in 1915, is set in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of war, and it capitalised on three phenomena in Britain.

First, there had been a spate of spy-yarns – the beginning of espionage fiction – as Germany became increasingly powerful and bellicose. The best was Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, an Irishman who had fought in the Anglo-Boer War. Secondly, public hysteria about spies reached a crescendo late in 1914. Thirdly, the police had a list of real agents, 22 of whom were arrested shortly before the Royal Navy went to battle-stations.


So The Thirty-nine Steps has Hannay visiting the old country in June after making his pile in Bulawayo. Bored already with London, he comes back from discussing mining shares with his stockbroker to find a nervous American outside his flat (near what is now the BBC.)

He claims to be a lone agent, fleeing from the Kaiser’s spies who suspect he has rumbled Germany’s mechanism and timetable for war. They shortly kill him while Hannay is out, but fail to find a coded report. Hannay feels it inside a jar of tobacco, and realises that he too is at risk besides being a prime suspect for murder.

Escaping by train to his native Scotland, he uses several disguises – and never forgets the advice of his old Afrikander pal, Peter Pienaar, an expert on impersonation and camouflage, about living the part. Hannay also uses all the veldcraft of a Boer commando to hide among the hills, and then his mining skill after capture by the Germans who have a Scottish lair, complete with bi-plane.

As revealed in the deciphered report, Germany needs Britain’s naval plans before declaring war, but Hannay foils the plotters on the Kent coast. They seem to be sporty English holidaymakers, but Hannay remembers losing a dun rhebok while hunting in the grey Pali hills. His prey merely had to “stand still and melt into the background”.

The daring Hannay is later given a wartime mission by the British government. This tale, entitled Greenmantle, will be reviewed in next issue, plus more about Buchan’s links with South Africa.