Henry Rider Haggard and the Imperial War

Henry Rider Haggard and the Imperial War

This post was only possible with the energetic assistance of the Secretary of the Rider Haggard Society and the enthusiastic support of its members, and with the advice of the Curator of the Bungay Museum. Any inaccuracies in what follows are the fault of this writer, a long-time admirer of Rider Haggard’s novels, but a recent acquaintance with his life. www.riderhaggardsociety.org.uk/

Henry Rider Haggard was a Norfolk countryman by birth and inclination: born on 22 June 1856, his father was the squire of Bradenham near Swaffham and his mother a literary and romantic woman who had grown up in India. He was their eighth child, and thought rather unpromising by his father. Yet, on his departure for Africa in July 1875 at the age of twenty-one, his mother, Ella, wrote these beautiful lines to her son:

That Life is granted, not in Pleasure’s round,

Or even Love’s sweet dream, to lapse content:

Duty and Faith are words of solemn sound,

And to their echoes must thy soul be bent. …


So, go thy way, my Child! I love thee well:

How well, no heart but mother’s heat may know –

Yet One loves better, – more than words can tell, –

Then trust Him, now and evermore; – and go!   H. Rider Haggard, The Days of My Life, 1912

For much of his life, after returning from Africa in 1881, he lived at Ditchingham House on the Norfolk side of the River Waveney, close to Bungay.

Ditchingham is a distinctly cosy Norfolk village, small and picturesque. Ditchingham House is a typical Norfolk home. It stands in the midst of a perfect shelter provided by the surrounding elms and beeches, for the winds which come across from the glorious valley of the Waveney, and over the Bath Hills, or the Earl’s Vineyard as it was once called – one of the prettiest hillsides in this part of Norfolk – are keen and cutting, and blow hard o’ nights. Here Mr. Rider Haggard – barrister, justice of the peace, farmer and novelist – lives.    Source: Illustrated Interview, Mr H. Rider Haggard, The Strand Magazine, 1892

Ditchingham House pictured in a postcard c.1920
Source: collection of the writer

By 1914, he was a well-known figure in Britain and the Dominions of Canada (and Newfoundland), Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. He was the author of  more that thirty novels, including such continuing favourites as She and King Solomon’s Mines. Allan Quatermain, regarded by some as Haggard’s alter ego, had become a favourite character among his wide readership. Quatermain was a spare and modest man, a big game hunter and trader at a time when game was plentiful and unthreatened by habitat loss and poaching – a creation of Haggard’s youthful experiences in Zululand and the Transvaal. Quatermain personified the free-spirited outdoorsman who preferred the challenges of Africa to polite society in England.

Henry Rider Haggard, 1910’s
Source: © National Portrait Gallery, London

When the United Kingdom declared war on Germany Henry Rider Haggard was in Canada as a member of the Dominions Royal Commission*. He wrote in his diary on 5 August, 1914:

This morning we learned that England had declared war against Germany on the ground of the violation of the neutrality of Belgium by that Power. It is terrible, and of this business none can foresee the end. For years some of us have known that such a war must come, although millions at home have mocked the idea. But always one hoped vaguely that it would not be in our day, knowing how ill we were prepared, owing to the madness of our nation which has steadily refused to bear the burden of any form of National Service. Now the thing is on us in all its horror and, ready or unready, we must fight – and win, or go under. God save England!    Source: D.S. Higgins (ed), The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard, 1980

* The Dominions Royal Commission was set up in 1912 to report on the health of the British Empire, with a focus on natural resources and their development, manufacturing and distribution, food production and trade.

On 12th August, Rider Haggard was in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, where, at a large public dinner given by the Mayor, he was prevailed upon by a storm of cries of “Haggard, Rider Haggard” to give a short speech but given “with all my heart as the Zulus say.” He spoke:

I doubt if those present, indeed if those in this country, realise the state and appreciate the peril in which this Empire stands tonight. I believe that few of them really understand. Do the men and women in your great country of Canada, whom I notice laughing and talking daily in the streets, understand that the Empire is at grips for life and death? I know that Canada is glad to give her aid and I know that England is glad to accept your help, but do you all understand that you are England. Do you understand that if we fall, you fall? Do you understand that if Germany and her allies become masters of England, they become masters of the world; and that in two or three years time there will be no British Empire?… The Angel of Death appears in a dawn of blood; the Armageddon, which has been so long foretold, has at length fallen upon us… We believe that by the aid of God we shall conquer, and that through us the world shall be free.    Source: Tom Pocock, Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire, 1993

Haggard’s speech received wide coverage in Canada and was reprinted in Australian newspapers, too. In 1915, a  recruitment poster quoting his words was printed in St. John. (For further information consult: The Lost Valley – An Internet History of Saint John, N.B. http://thelostvalley.blogspot.co.uk/)

Candian Recruitment Poster, 1915
Source: U.S. Library of Congress

In September, 1914, Haggard was invited to address a recruiting meeting in the Drill Hall in Bungay and did so ‘with thundering rhetoric’. His speech was subsequently published by Clays of Bungay and 10,000 copies were printed and distributed. In answer to the question, ‘What does the war mean to us, to our great Empire?’, he answered as follows:

I tell you flatly it means life or death. The England you know is not all England. There are many Englands across the seas, and it so happens that I am able to bring you a message from some of them. I have been for the last three months travelling round the Empire on the service of His Majesty. I have but two days ago come back from Canada, and I can tell you what the Empire feels. The Empire means to stand with her mother to the last. Aye, even unto the gates of death, and if need be through them, the Empire will go with England. You do not fight alone. Across the seas there are many who will fight with you, who will fall with you – naye, who will win with you. Canada is awake. From the Pacific to the Atlantic she is astir. Australia is awake. New Zealand has already distinguished herself, and soon you will hear something from South Africa, our recent foe, whose hatred has turned to love. It is a question of slavery or freedom, not only for England, but for all her colonies. … We are not alone, we are many, and before one is broken all must be broken.   Source: ‘A Call To Arms To The Men Of East Anglia’, H. Rider Haggard, September, 1914.

The British Empire during the First World War
Certificate presented by the Overseas Club on Empire Day, 24th May, 1916
Source: collection of the writer

Aged fifty-eight at the outbreak of war, Haggard was too old to serve in a military role. He had known danger in South Africa and had been on the fringes of the Zulu and Boer Wars, but had not been a uniformed soldier. A sense of depression is evident from his diaries:

Last night I returned after spending the week in London on the Royal Commission. It is a curious place just now. The lighting is about as bright only as that which I remember as a boy, when the gas lamps were few and burned dully and electric lamps were unknown. This is to avoid attracting Zeppelins, though whether it would have the effect if they were to come is another matter. Consequently the town looks melancholy, and so are its inhabitants.   4th October, 1914   Source: D.S. Higgins, The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard, 1980

To the outward eye things go on much as usual, at any rate in Norfolk. The bulk of the population do not seem to at all understand the seriousness of the crisis in our national affairs.   14th October, 1914   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

The Evening Standard asks me to write a series of articles on the war. I have declined, both because of my official position as a Royal Commissioner and because I am too outspoken a person in these days of censorship. If I wrote at all I should say what was on my mind, and that would never do.   28th October, 1914   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

His mood of melancholy was exacerbated in November by the adjournment of the Dominions Royal Commission for the duration of the war, and by his perhaps overly romantic view of Britain’s past conflicts and his obvious frustration at the bloody stalemate on the Western Front:

This war lacks the grandeur and picturesqueness of those of old time. There are no great battles, only one long hideous slaughter in the trenches. In the same way, where now is the majesty of Nelson’s battles on the sea? In the place of them we have mines and sneaking submarines. … Yet, as of old, great deeds are being done. …  11th November, 1914   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

As with so many middle-aged men at that time, he felt thwarted by the lack of a clear wartime role and felt the need to ‘do his bit’. Instead, he turned his attention to the dangers, as he saw them, to the underpopulated Dominions. With some prescience of mind in light of what occurred between 1937 and 1945, he foresaw the threat, initially to Australia and New Zealand but in time to Canada too, of a militarised Japan in control of the resources of China. He wrote in his diary, that in a day to come, say fifty years hence, Japan and China ‘might be able to do what Germany has done, but with greater success, that is to attempt to obtain the supremacy of the world’.

His answer to the risks which he foresaw was populate the Dominions with hard-working populations of English-speaking Anglo-Saxon and Celtic stock, principally from among the urban poor. Yet, his experience of volunteer recruitment for the army left him in no doubt of the under-nourishment and poor physical condition of many young men from Britain’s cities. He estimated that it might take two or possibly three generations to establish the strong, unified populations that he envisaged.

By the time of the South African War (1899-1901), 40% of British volunteers were unfit: many had rickets, skin diseases and chronic bronchitis and a number had teeth too rotten to chew properly.

In the First World War (1914-18) almost half the conscripted men were considered unsuitable. Many were given ‘Grade III’, which meant that they had marked physical disabilities and were considered fit only for clerical work*.

Source: www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/themes/war/reconstructing 

*Assessments were made by medical officers as to the suitability of men to perform military duties. A system of lettering and numbering was devised to enable a man’s abilities to be quickly noted. The categories were refined and amended as the war progressed.

It remains a popular myth, but one with some foundation in fact, that recruits gained up to a stone in weight and two inches in height during their first year of army physical training and three square meals a day. As Haggard’s ideas evolved, it would be the surviving soldiers, sailors and airmen, fit and determined, who would be the soldier-settlers of the empty land of the Dominions.

However, preoccupied with the course of the war, there was little Government interest in the fate of the surviving men once the war was won:

Bonar Law* writes… that he is not prepared ‘at present’ to recommend that a mission should be sent to enquire into land settlement for soldiers in the Dominions. This means of course that enough pressure has not been put on the Dominion Governments. Indeed it is doubtful whether these really want immigrants, especially in the case of the Australasian Labour Governments. Also the end of the war seems some way off!   4th August, 1915   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.  * Secretary of State for the Colonies

Later in 1915, Haggard attempted to raise official interest in his land settlement ideas:

Today I went to London to attend a Committee Meeting at the Royal Colonial Institute on the question of Empire Land-Settlement. It is obvious that the Government will do nothing to help this forward and the question arose as to whether the Royal Colonial Institute should not undertake the work and send me to the various Dominions to interview their Governments. …

I passed St. Paul’s Cathedral in a bus about noon, not without difficulty because of the great crowd that had gathered to attend the memorial service to Miss Cavell. It was not till 3.30 in the afternoon, but I was told that people had been waiting to get in since 8 or 9 in the morning.   29th October, 1915   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

A newspaper photograph of the crowds outside St Paul’s Cathedral for the Memorial Service to Edith Cavell on 29 October, 1915
Source: https://www.stpauls.co.uk

Earlier in the month, Haggard had committed his thoughts on Nurse Cavell’s murder to his diary, which no doubt accorded with a widely held sentiment at the time:

It seems that Miss Edith Cavell, the daughter of the late Rev. F. Cavell, Vicar of Swardeston, near Norwich, who has been murdered at Brussels by the Germans for assisting Belgians to escape from that city, met her end bravely. … May Heaven avenge this noble woman, whose fate, perhaps, will bring home to the civilised world what German domination really means. So would our wives and daughters be dealt with if ever the Huns got a footing in England.   28th October, 1915   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

In December, 1915, Haggard’s fortunes were to change:

I have just been on the telephone with Sir Harry Wilson, the Secretary of the Royal Colonial Institute. Mr Bonar Law will not help officially about Land Settlement in the Dominions but Sir Harry says there is no doubt that it will be arranged for me to go to Australasia, though nothing definite can be said until the money for expenses is subscribed. Doubtless I shall hear more soon.    10th December, 1915   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

I have been in town for the last day or two attending a meeting the Council of the Royal Colonial Institute and of the Committee as to my going to Australasia… Everything seemed to be satisfactorily arranged…    22nd December, 1915   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

His mission was not uncontroversial; there were voices which expressed the view that returned soldiers should be settled at home and not ‘exiled’ to the Dominions. Haggard, perhaps romantically, imagined tens of thousands of returned soldiers setting out for the Australian outback, the Canadian Prairies and the South African veldt. However, practical support was forthcoming; if the soldier-settler plan was adopted, the Union Castle Line offered to ship settlers and there families to South Africa free of charge for up to three years, and later, following his arrival in Cape Town, the British South Africa Company promised half a million acres of land in Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe) to soldier-settlers.

Evening on the Veldt from an old postcard c.1912
Source: collection of the writer

After weeks of preparation, Rider Haggard set off on 10 February, 1916 as the honorary representative of the Royal Colonial Institute to ascertain by local enquiry the possibilities of post-war settlement or returned British soldiers and sailors. For the next four months he travelled to South Africa, Tasmania, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The journey would be taxing for a man approaching sixty who had long-suffered from chest problems, and during wartime too with the ever-present threat of attack by torpedo. There was a farewell luncheon for 250 guests at the Hotel Cecil in London, at which the toast to Haggard was proposed by Lord Curzon, who said,

…he is about to undertake war work which would inure to the benefit of the people of our race for generations to come … A great host of men – possibly from one to two millions – will come back to a country where the labour market will be congested … We do not want these men to go to America; we want to keep them as British citizens and thus to add to the economic and industrial strength of the Empire.

Rider Haggard’s Journey to the Dominions in 1916
Source: compiled by the writer, on a base map © 2009 http://www.outline-world-map.com

In Cape Town he had an interview with the Prime Minister of South Africa, General Louis Botha, which Haggard described as “altogether most satisfactory”. In Hobart he met the Tasmanian Premier, John Earle, from whom he later received a letter “formally undertaking to provide land for and to look after a minimum of 300 soldiers (and their families)”. In Melbourne he expounded his mission to George Pearce (later, Sir George), Acting Commonwealth Prime Minister, for whom he drafted a letter the text of which he would like to receive in support of his ideas. His ideas were accepted by the Government of Victoria, and later the draft letter was approved by Pearce and the Cabinet. However, the work was sometimes involved and arduous – his diary entry for 13 April, 1916 is revealing:

The burden of this work is hard for one man to carry. Speech making, diplomacy, interviews, bores, endless arrangements, and negotiations fill the day very full, to say nothing of the constant strain of thought. I hope I shall pull through the job all right, but it is very, very tough.    Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

He then travelled on to Brisbane, stopping briefly in Sydney to where he returned later. The negotiations in Brisbane were tricky; unsurprisingly, the concern of many of the state governments was meeting their obligations to returned Australian soldiers. However, after giving an influential speech, he received an undertaking of a million acres of dairy and agricultural land for soldier settlements, if the funds could be raised to build railways and to develop settlements. Back in Sydney, following initial hostility to his ideas, William Holman, the Premier of New South Wales, offered 1000 farms in the irrigated Yarroo district to British soldiers. In Adelaide he met Mr Goode, the Minister for Lands and left the meeting in optimistic mood, and did indeed receive a letter of approval on behalf of South Australia. In Perth he met the Premier of Western Australia, John Scaddan, and received a letter similar in tone to the one from Victoria. On 20 May, 1916 Haggard confided to his diary:

Well that finishes my work here – except for the Premiers’ conference, if this can be arranged on Monday morning – and today I was able to cable Wilson [Royal Colonial Institute] that there is an open door throughout Australia for our ex-servicemen. If ever [the efforts of the Royal Colonial Institute] result in anything really useful will depend upon how the matter is handled at home in the future.    Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

A report of the final day of the Premiers’ Conference in Adelaide was reported in the Hobart Mercury on 27 May, 1916:

For the fourth time since the conference opened, the question of dealing with returned soldiers came under consideration for discussion. Some of the delegates objected to the creation of an organisation in Great Britain which would encourage the immigration of British ex-soldiers, on the grounds:- (1) That Australia would have sufficient to deal with her own returned soldiers after the war; (2) That Australia did not need the immigration of an industrial population; and (3) that it might tend to rob the vitality of the Mother-Country.  …

Sir Rider Haggard seemed to be quite clear on the point. His view was that after the war there would be a tendency for people to leave the shores of Great Britain; that there would be a stream of emigrants from England; and that the immigration would naturally direct itself to the countries whose industries had not been disturbed by the war, notably North and South America. It was in the Imperial interest to prevent that, or bring the interest to prevent that, or bring the stream to the British Dominions, rather than to other countries.

Mr Holman concluded:

That we ask the British Authorities to create a suitable organisation to co-operate with the Agents General of the States in bringing before returned British soldiers who contemplate emigrating from Great Britain the advantages accruing to them and to the Imperial interests from their making their future homes in the Dominion, and to arrange for their immigration in such numbers, and at such times as the respective State Governments are of opinion that such immigrants can be satisfactorily absorbed,”

Mr William Holman, Prime Minister of New South Wales 1913-1920 (left)
Mr William Massey, Prime Minister of New Zealand 1912-1925 (right)
Source: Public Domain images, Wikipedia

Onward to New Zealand through a cyclone, he arrived in Wellington to a meeting with the Prime Minister, William Massey, from whom he received a sympathetic hearing. In Auckland he received a letter from Mr Massey which “is not very definite but full of goodwill both as regards land settlement and employment”.

On 11 June he attended a crowded memorial service for Lord Kitchener in Auckland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral. (Kitchener had been killed when HMS Hampshire, in which he was travelling between Scapa Flow and the Russian port of Archangel, hit a German mine on 5 June, 1916.) Haggard notes that without a place having been reserved for him he would not have got in.

The Dead March was played and the Last Post was sounded, also the Bishop preached a good sermon, all about Kitchener and his career.  For my part, I could not help thinking of the six or seven hundreds of good men and true who went to doom with him. But of these we heard little or nothing. Such is the world.    Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

From the ‘Auckland Star’, 12 June, 1916
Source: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19160612.2.9

The report of the sermon in the Auckland Star continued, ‘The death of Earl Kitchener, he [the Bishop] hoped, would have the effect of increasing the Empire’s determination to see the war through to a complete and enduring peace’.

The voyage to Canada was via Suva in Fiji, and Honolulu. On 22 June he celebrated his birthday with this laconic entry in his diary:

Today I have definitely entered upon old age, for at sixty a man is old, especially when he begins young as I did. … For me the world is largely peopled with the dead; I walk among ghosts,especially at night.    Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

In British Columbia he visited his brother, Andrew. He also learned that a peak and a glacier in the Rocky Mountains would be named in his honour: Mt. Rider, and the Haggard Glacier.

We reached Victoria about 5 yesterday afternoon, after steaming for a long while past beautiful wooded hills – and on the main land – a mighty range of snow-clad mountains, one of which is, I think, called Olympus.    29th June, 1916    Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid

On learning that the Government of British Columbia had decided upon post-war land settlement scheme exclusively for British Columbians, Haggard went to see the Prime Minister.

At 12 went to see the Premier, Mr Bowser, and put my case before him. Convinced him so thoroughly that he promised to introduce legislation to amend the Homesteads Act of 1916 and to place Imperial ex-service men on the same footing, also let me have a letter, which half an hour later was put into my hands. A great triumph as I was up against an existing Act. … My visit to this beautiful place has been successful indeed.    3rd July, 1916    Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid

In Vancouver, a luncheon for 500 people was given in his honour. Then by train via Prince Rupert to Edmonton, Alberta. Along the route of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the station of Knole, near the town of McBride, was renamed Rider.

The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Company wants, if the Geographical Board of Canada consents, to name a great Alp in the Rockies after me – Sir Rider Mountain and Haggard Glacier, a great and unusual compliment.    8th July, 1916   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

From Edmonton he travelled by train to Calgary.

Here there was a luncheon … attended by 300 people. It really was a great success. I made some play with the Alp, Mount Sir Rider …saying that it would make the best and most enduring of tombstones… I never had a better audience… The luncheon ended with rousing cheers for myself followed by ‘God Save the King’. It is a curious world. Here they give my name to a towering Alp; in Norfolk they would not bestow it on a ‘pightle’! Truly no man is a prophet in his own country.    11th July, 1916   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

In Regina, Saskatchewan.

In the afternoon I had a long interview with the Government (Mr Walter Scott, Premier). As a result they promised me a letter of support as I desired. We dined at Government House. It was a great treat to get a quiet dinner and a glass of light wine after a long and tiring day. I have rarely enjoyed anything more than that Sauterne.    12th July, 1916   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

Haggard’s mission then took him via Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he had a satisfactory interview with the Government, on to Ottawa. He had lunch with the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden who made an appointment for him to meet a committee of the Privy Council dealing with resettlement. He also received an invitation to lunch with Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of the United States, with whom he had long corresponded.

The last two days of my journey have been very busy and hot as only Canada and America can be at this time of year. On the morning of the 20th I received the promised letter from the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden. It is much better than I expected and indeed all that I can hope for in the circumstances. Also I had a conversation with Mr Hearst, the Premier of Ontario, at Toronto, a place I did not visit owing to the non-delivery of a telegram. I understand him to promise everything I asked on behalf of his Government…   On board S.S. ‘St. Louis’  22nd July, 1916   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada 1911-1920
Source: Public Domain image, Wikipedia

Haggard’s return journey took him via Montreal and New York (where he spent long hours in conversation with Roosevelt), and thence to Liverpool finally arriving at London Euston on Sunday, 30th July.

I slept at the Hotel York and next morning I went to the Royal Colonial Institute… Instantly I was whisked off to the House of Commons where a conference was sitting of representatives from the Colonies. I received a fine reception, all the gathering clapping when I came in with Sir H. Wilson and the Chairman called out my name.   1st August, 1916   Source: D.S. Higgins, ibid.

The following day he was back at Ditchingham.

From ‘The Barrier Miner’, Broken Hill, New South Wales, 3 June, 1919
Source: National Library of Australia

This is not the place to discuss the merits or success of Haggard’s mission to the Dominions, but the Exodus website (www.exodus2013.co.uk/empire-settlement-schemes-after-wwi) makes this summary of the situation at the end of the war:

The 1919 Overseas Settlement Scheme was passed to assist discharged soldiers returning home from the war. The scheme offered free passage to ex-service men and women and their dependents. The scheme lasted until the end of 1922, and over its duration, over 86,000 migrants were provided with assistance. Of this 86,000, 26,560 went to Canada, 34,750 went to Australia, 12,890 went to New Zealand, 5,890 to South Africa, and nearly 3,000 ended up in other parts of the Empire.


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