Area 2: Thomson abroad

  1. 9 of the 16 folios of Thomson’s Chart of the occupied territory in Great Aceh (Collection G. de Vries, Heveadorp)
  2. Knight’s Cross of the Military Order of William, 4th Class (IMG, The Hague)
  3. Thomson as a military observer in South Africa (3rd from left) (IMG, The Hague)

From 1894 to 1896, Thomson was assigned to the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. Thomson took part in combat in Aceh and was decorated for courageous conduct during those actions (B). Years later in the House of Representatives, he criticised such actions to combat the Jihad against the colonial government. During the Parliamentary session of 9 November 1906, Thomson lectured the House concerning the ‘sabre regime’ of General Van Dalen and reflected critically on his own actions. In his view, only an increase in the troop strength could reduce the terror of the Dutch troops and protect the indigenous population. In 1897, his Aceh chart (A) was published for the general public. Although Thomson was a trained cartographer, the Topographical Office in Batavia (Netherlands East Indies), which was planning to publish a map of Aceh of its own, dismissed him as a ‘compiler’. The Military Guide of 1898 responded: better a temporary map than temporarily no map at all.

In 1899, he was dispatched as a military observer to the Boer War. Photograph C shows him among his fellow observers from the USA, Norway, France and Russia. In his Lessons from the South African War (1902), he stated that modern armaments, with rapid fire artillery, machine guns and small arms with smokeless powder required an earlier dispersion of large units than had been the case in the past. Inasmuch as that would lead to senior commanders having less contact with their troops, the initiative of lower commanders and subordinates would become very important. The strict ‘Prussian’ discipline – too strict, in Thomson’s view – of the Netherlands army should therefore make way for the training of battle-ready soldiers able to act independently within the greater whole.