The Last Horseman

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The Last Horseman


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Summary: David Gilman shares a few thoughts on what made him write this exciting historical novel
Date: 7 September 2016

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The inspiration behind The Last Horseman came from various sources. I had lived in South Africa and knew not only its beauty but also the harshness of its land. Such a country demanded tough and resilient people to live there, and equally determined men from around the world who went to explore and search for its mineral wealth. The war that exploded in 1899 threw British soldiers against a determined and dogged enemy. It was a story that had seldom been written about in fiction. The vast sweep of the country, the drama that unfolded in this war and the characters caught up in it, enticed me. I also wanted another layer of interest to write about, and for the novel not to just be a 'war story'. The facts fascinated me. Many Irish soldiers fought in the British Army and they found themselves in conflict against a Foreign Brigade made up of other Irishmen as well as Americans, Germans, French, and as records seem to indicate, one Scotsman. I spent time in Dublin researching these elements.

I did not want a typically heroic main character but rather an older man who had experienced the horror of war and had no desire to return to it. His main enemy, apart from war itself, was a battle-hardened cavalry officer who lived only for battle and the violence it brought. Added to this mix I wanted my main character, Joseph Radcliffe, to carry a secret burden. I added some political intrigue and murder, all these elements finally drew together in what I hope is an ending fraught with danger and excitement.

It was never my intention to look over the shoulders of the towering figures who were the key players in this conflict: Cecil John Rhodes; General Sir Redvers Buller; and Field Marshal Frederick Lord Roberts, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Bob’, who had had resounding success in the campaigns in India. That Lord Roberts and Sir Redvers Buller were at loggerheads, and that military and political divisions between many of the commanders became entrenched during this conflict, had a negative impact on the execution of the war. Water and food was scarce – and in general terms so was the feeding of this vast army as supply lines were long and difficult to manage and often destroyed by the enemy.

The British Army were unprepared for guerrilla warfare. They were used to volley fire during their colonial wars, often against a poorly armed enemy; now they were faced by a determined group of men and women who fought for their homeland. The Boers were expert horsemen, accustomed to riding across vast tracts of countryside, and they often depended on their shooting skills to put food on the table. These ‘dirt farmers’, frontiersmen who scraped a living from the harsh land, formed themselves into commandos: groups of highly mobile fighters who could strike fast at the lumbering British. (The same term would be applied to shock troops used by the British in the Second World War.)

During the South African conflict the British soldiers had no bush- or fieldcraft and the generals often insisted their men advance on their enemy in closed order – virtually shoulder to shoulder. Boer marksmen with their German Mauser rifles – which had an effective range of two thousand metres and a five-round magazine whose ammunition used smokeless powder making it difficult to spot – made short work of many a brave British Tommy who had never heard of, let alone trained in, fire and manoeuvre. Onward they went against the guns until they could fight hand to hand and deliver a terrifying death to the Boers entrenched on hillsides and the rock-strewn kopjes and these attacks took their toll. It was when the infantry scaled the heights and engaged in hand-to-hand bayonet attacks, and cavalry assaults with lance and sword, that they put the fear of God into the Afrikaners. The soldiers of the British Army took their poor conditions in good spirits, as cheerful and philosophical as soldiers often are in any campaign, despite exercising a soldier’s right to moan. They looked out for each other and held regimental pride close to their hearts.

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