How did the wars in South African shake British prestige so badly and cause a major re-evaluation of military tactics in the years before World War One?
By Professor Fransjohan Pretorius
Last updated 2011-03-29
How did the wars in South African shake British prestige so badly and cause a major re-evaluation of military tactics in the years before World War One?
These are wars of many names. For the British they were the Boer Wars, for the Boers, the Wars of Independence. Many Afrikaaners today refer to them as the Anglo-Boer Wars to denote the official warring parties.
The first Boer War of 1880-1881 has also been named the Transvaal Rebellion, as the Boers of the Transvaal revolted against the British annexation of 1877. Most scholars prefer to call the war of 1899-1902 the South African War, thereby acknowledging that all South Africans, white and black, were affected by the war and that many were participants.
The republicans acquired the name 'Boers' - the Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmers.
Between 1835 and 1845, about 15,000 Voortrekkers (people of Dutch extract) moved out of the (British) Cape Colony across the Gariep (Orange) River into the interior of South Africa. Their 'Great Trek' was a rejection of the British philanthropic policy with its equalisation of black and white at the Cape, and of the political marginalisation they experienced on the eastern Cape frontier.
They established two independent republics - the Transvaal and the Orange Free State - as recognised by Great Britain at the Sand River (1852) and Bloemfontein (1854) Conventions.
The republicans acquired the name 'Boers', the Dutch and Afrikaans word for farmers. Like the African societies within their borders, the stock farming Boers enjoyed a pre-capitalist, near-subsistence economy. Only gradually effective state administrations emerged.
As part of a surge of neo-imperialism, which had already started with the annexation of Basutoland in 1868, the British Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon, proposed a confederation of South African states in 1875, along the lines of the Canadian federation of 1867. In a rather unstable political and economic fragmented region this would create a settled environment for greater economic integration and progress under British supremacy, particularly after the discovery of diamonds in 1867 near the confluence of the Orange and Vaal Rivers.
Initially, the Transvaal Boers adopted a policy of passive resistance. When the British government made its determination to uphold the annexation clear, the Boers turned to armed resistance in December 1880.
They reinstated the republic, led by a triumvirate consisting of Vice President Paul Kruger, Commandant-General Piet Joubert and MW Pretorius. The first Boer War broke out on 16 December 1880 with a skirmish between the British garrison in Potchefstroom and a 'commando' under General Piet Cronjé.
Essential Boer tactics were speed in concentration and attack, and a readiness to withdraw.
The Boer 'commando' system evolved from the early defence system at the Cape. Each district was divided into three wards or more, with a field cornet for each ward and a commandant taking military control of the entire district.
The burghers elected these officers, including the commandant-general of the Transvaal. When mobilised, a burgher had to be prepared with his horse, rifle and 50 (later 30) rounds of ammunition and food enough to last for eight days, after which the government would provide supplies. Assembled burghers formed a 'commando'.
Except for the artillery and the police in the second Boer War, no uniforms were worn, the burghers preferring drab everyday clothes. The Boer force is the classic example of a citizen army, because virtually the entire white male population of the republics between the ages of sixteen and 60 was conscriptable for unpaid military service.
Growing up on the farms with a rifle in their hands made the burghers generally good marksmen, with the ability to judge distance accurately. The commando formation for driving home an attack was a loose swarm intent on outflanking the opponents.
Once the enemy was located by efficient scouting, the commando would approach in a solid column under cover of dead ground in order to get within effective rifle range. Then the men would get into line, gallop into the nearest dead ground, dismount and open individual fire.
Essential tactics were speed in concentration and attack, and a readiness to withdraw to a more favourable position in case the fire-fight was going against them. The commando system called for initiative and self-reliance, which were essential in irregular warfare when men were widely scattered and not in close communication with their officers. Although the commandos had had mixed success against the indigenous black societies within their borders, they were to prove their mettle in the wars against the British.
Going into the first Boer War, the Boers’ most popular firearm was the British-made .450 Westley Richards, falling-block, single-action, breech-loading rifle, with accuracy up to 600 yards. It was very similar in manufacture, sighting, calibre, weight and ammunition to the Martini-Henry Mark II carried by British troops.
In the British army the officers were from the gentry and the professional middle classes, and the recruits from the poorest sections of society. Firing from medium to long range – 300 to 1,400 yards – was delivered in volleys. Independent fire was normally only ordered from close range – less than 300 yards.
The Boer commandos – as had been their custom in the wars against the black communities – lay siege to the British garrisons.
Before the Boer Wars, the late Victorian Army had been engaged in colonial campaigns against irregulars inferior in armaments, organisation and discipline. The Boer experience therefore came as a total surprise.
In the first Boer War the British uniform consisted of the serge frock, which was scarlet for the infantry and engineers, dark green for the rifles and blue for all others. Dark blue trousers were worn with a red welt down the seam for infantry and a wide red stripe for artillery, with black leather boots. Highland regiments wore tartan kilts instead of trousers.
The 92nd Highlanders came to South Africa with khaki tunics instead of scarlet ones. Khaki was finally adopted in 1897 as service wear overseas, so the British soldier of the second Boer War was clad in khaki.
Upon the outbreak of the first Boer War, the Boer commandos – as had been their custom in the wars against the black communities – lay siege to the British garrisons in the towns of Potchefstroom, Pretoria, Rustenburg, Standerton and Marabastad near Pietersburg, in an attempt to starve them into submission.
Meanwhile, the main force under Piet Joubert was bent on preventing the British relieving force under Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, the governor of Natal and high commissioner for South East Africa, from entering the Transvaal from Natal.
While on its way to relieve Pretoria, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Anstruther’s British force was crushed by Boer Commandant Frans Joubert near Bronkhorspruit on 20 December 1880. Colley’s attempt to enter the Transvaal was thwarted by Piet Joubert at Laing’s Nek on 28 January 1881 and again by General Nicolaas Smit at Ingogo on 8 February 1881. The British were driven back with heavy losses.
During the night of 26 February, Colley occupied Majuba Hill, which towered over the countryside on the Transvaal border, with 400 men. These comprised two companies each of the 92nd Highlanders and 58th Regiment, and the Naval Brigade.
The Boers stormed Majuba Hill, using dead ground to reach the top, and achieved a brilliant victory.
It seems that he either reckoned that this would place him in a position to turn the Boer flank on Laing’s Nek, or that the sight of his occupation of Majuba would make the Boers withdraw, thus opening the road to the Transvaal.
Instead, early on 27 February, the Boers stormed the mountain using dead ground to reach the top, and achieved a brilliant victory. The British suffered a 46% casualty rate – five officers and 87 men were killed, eight officers and 123 men wounded. Seven officers and 50 men were taken prisoner. Colley was among the dead. The Boers lost one man killed and six wounded, one mortally.
The Pretoria Convention of 3 August 1881 did not reinstate fully the independence of the Transvaal, but kept the state under British suzerainty. This vague concept meant that Britain retained supervisory control of the foreign affairs of the Transvaal and of its internal legislation with regard to the black societies.
However, the London Convention of 27 February 1884 conferred full internal independence on the Transvaal.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 made the Transvaal, until then a struggling Boer republic, potentially a political and economic threat to British supremacy in South Africa at a time when Britain was engaged in the scramble for African colonies with France and Germany.
The British believed that the Transvaal was pressing for a united South Africa under the Afrikaaners.
When the scheme of Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, to overthrow the Transvaal government of President Kruger by means of the so-called Jameson Raid, failed in 1896, Afrikaner nationalism again, like in 1877, flared up all over South Africa.
The Orange Free State concluded an alliance with the Transvaal. Although Kruger was only interested in preserving the independence of the Transvaal, the British colonial secretary, Sir Joseph Chamberlain, and the British high commissioner in South Africa, Sir Alfred Milner, believed that the Transvaal was pressing for a united South Africa under the Afrikaaners.
Milner, a self-acknowledged race patriot, resolved that if the Transvaal would not reform, war would be the only way to eliminate a Boer oligarchy threatening British supremacy and to facilitate the development of the gold mining industry.
In order to become involved in the domestic issues of the Transvaal, he agitated that the foreign mineworkers (Uitlanders) should get the vote. In the diplomatic tussle that followed, Kruger refused to budge, despite a meeting with Milner in Bloemfontein in May - June 1899. A complete political deadlock was reached.
On 11 October 1899, the second Boer War broke out after Britain rejected the Transvaal ultimatum. The ultimatum had demanded that all disputes between the two states be settled by arbitration; that British troops on the borders be withdrawn; and that troops bound for South Africa by ship should not disembark.
The Orange Free State joined the Transvaal in accordance with the alliance of 1897. In the course of the war, the British Army was reinforced by volunteer contingents from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Cape Colony and Natal.
Alarmed by the Jameson Raid, the governments of the Transvaal and the Free State started arming themselves.
Alarmed by the Jameson Raid, the governments of the Transvaal and the Free State had started arming themselves. The burghers consequently went into the second Boer War with the British-made single shot .450 Martini-Henry (the Westley Richards version), which had the disadvantage that the black powder betrayed the rifleman’s position, and the German Mauser 7 mm Model 95/96/97, which had a maximum range of 2,000 yards, fired smokeless powder, and held five rounds in its magazine.
It compared favourably with the bolt-action .303 Lee-Metford which the British Army had been using since 1888, and the improved version, the Lee-Enfield, which was introduced during the second Boer War. They had a greater magazine capacity than the Mauser – ten rounds – but had to be loaded one round at a time, while the Mauser could be loaded quickly from clips.
The first five months of the war consisted mainly of set-piece battles. The Boers besieged Ladysmith in Natal and Kimberley and Mafeking in the Cape Colony, while the British forces strove to relieve their beleaguered garrisons in these towns – Lord Methuen in the west and General Redvers Buller in Natal.
From their camouflaged positions, the Boers scored impressive victories at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso in mid-December 1899 (called 'Black Week' in Britain), and Spioenkop in January 1900.
The relief of Mafeking caused tumultuous joy in Britain, making Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, commander of the garrison, an instant hero.
But by late February 1900 there was a definite change in their fortunes. Kimberley and Ladysmith were relieved and Piet Cronjé surrendered at Paardeberg with 4,000 burghers. All Boer fronts collapsed.
The next six months was a period of great confusion for the Boers. Everywhere they were compelled to retreat. On 13 March 1900, Lord Roberts, the British commander in chief, occupied Bloemfontein and on 5 June 1900 he took Pretoria.
With both republican capitals in British hands, he annexed the Free State as the Orange River Colony on 24 May 1900 and the Transvaal on 1 September 1900. The relief of Mafeking on 17 May 1900 caused tumultuous joy in Britain, making the commander of the relieved garrison, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, an instant hero throughout the British empire.
Lured by British promises of peace and protection, many burghers surrendered. They were called hendsoppers(having 'hands-upped') by the men remaining in the field. By the end of the war they totalled 20,000 men – a third of the original Boer numbers.
In the last six months of the war, 5,400 of them joined the British Army as collaborators ('joiners'), with General Piet de Wet becoming one of the leaders of the Orange River Colony Volunteers.
Meanwhile, there was a revival in the Boer military effort. In the Free State, General Christiaan de Wet, brother of Piet de Wet, led the recovery of Boer resistance with surprise attacks on Roberts’ vulnerable lines of communication.
After Roberts dispersed the Transvaal forces in the last pitched battle of the war at Bergendal (Dalmanutha), in August 1900, General Louis Botha’s officers, similarly to De Wet in the Free State and General Koos de la Rey in the Western Transvaal, applied the tactic of swiftly gathering their scattered commandos whenever the occasion arose, attacking isolated British columns and then disappearing into thin air.
In this way the resistance of about 20,000 Boer bitter-enders was to continue for almost two more years, in what is known as the guerrilla phase of the war.
Lord Herbert Kitchener, who succeeded Roberts in November 1900, adopted a three-fold strategy to end the war. Firstly, he continued Roberts’ 'scorched earth' policy, in which the republics were deliberately and systematically devastated to deprive the guerrillas of food and shelter.
Some towns and thousands of farmsteads were burnt or ravaged. This onslaught on Boer survival was backed up by the destruction of food supplies. Herds of livestock were wiped out and crops were burnt.
The bad administration of the camps led to poor quality of food, unhygienic conditions and inadequate medical arrangements. Civilians suffered terribly.
Secondly, Roberts’ 'concentration camp' system was expanded, wherein civilians were confined in camps, especially women and children whose houses had been burned. In Kitchener’s view this meant that burghers on commando would no longer be able to obtain food from women on the farms, and would, moreover, surrender in order to reunite their families.
Black people, too, were gathered in concentration camps, partly to deprive the commandos of yet another means of getting to food producers, and to obtain black labour for the gold mines that had been re-opened by mid-1901.
The British were not the first in the modern age to use the concentration camp system. The Spanish General Valeriano 'Butcher Weyler had enforced a similar system on a far larger scale to crush a rebellion in Cuba in 1896, leaving more than 100,000 dead. The United States authorities had also established concentration camps to suppress the insurrection in the Philippines early in 1899.
In South Africa, the bad administration of the camps led to poor quality of food, unhygienic conditions and inadequate medical arrangements. Consequently civilians suffered terribly. Eventually 28,000 Boer women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in the camps.
A turning point in the death rate in the Boer camps came about by November 1901, after the Fawcett Ladies Commission had made some recommendations for improvement. However, this was only after Emily Hobhouse from the Liberal opposition in Britain had revealed the terrible conditions in the camps to a sceptical British public and an embarrassed government, and High commissioner, Lord Alfred Milner had taken over the administration of the camps from the army.
The concentration camp system caused the widest opprobrium of the second Boer War. In the first half of the 20th century Afrikaaner leaders effectively used the suffering and deaths in the Boer camps to promote Afrikaaner nationalism.
(The term concentration camp has also been highly emotive since the advent of Nazi Germany’s death and labour camps. However, it is worth noting that there is very little similarity between the Nazi camps and the concentration camps established by the British army in the second Boer War. The latter were not set up with the express intention of exterminating a section of the human race, but to deprive the Boer commandos of supplies and to induce the burghers to surrender. Things went horribly wrong because of the poor administration of the camps by the British and their callous lack of care.)
Although the leaders of both the Boers and the British believed that this should be a 'white man’s war', black people played an important part, and also suffered severely.
From the start British and Boer forces alike employed black people in non-combatant roles. About 10,000 agterryers ('after-riders') accompanied the Boers to perform small duties on commando. A very tiny number of them unofficially took up arms on the Boer side.
The Afrikaaners took control of South African politics, and they resolved to become independent of the British sphere of influence.
In the British Army, at least 14,000 black people worked as wagon drivers. The British Army increasingly employed blacks in combatant roles, such as spies, guides and eventually soldiers. Under Kitchener’s command they were armed for self-defence against the Boers, who were executing them when captured.
By the end of the war there were probably 30,000 armed black men in the British Army. Moreover, black communities drove Boer commandos and families from large areas of the Transvaal, thus further curtailing Boer operations and contributing to the Boer acceptance of the peace terms.
The imperial policy promoted by Milner, which included rigorous Anglicisation efforts, failed soon after the war and merely fanned Afrikaaner nationalism. The British empire had been shaken by its efforts to force two small nations into submission, just a decade before World War One.
The war had devastated the Afrikaaners economically and psychologically. This contributed to Boer poverty and accelerated urbanisation. In the course of the 20th century, the Afrikaaners took control of South African politics, and they resolved to become independent of the British sphere of influence.
It shaped them as 'race patriots' and revealed an aggressive nationalism, which led them to aspire to self-determination and complete dominance of South Africa. This, together with a fear of the black majority, may partly explain the implementation of the policy of apartheid (racial segregation). With the forming of the Republic of South Africa in 1961, the Peace of Vereeniging seemed to have been avenged.
Black people were equally devastated by the war, with similar results concerning poverty and urbanisation. Moreover, their occupation of Boer land during the second Boer War was not recognised, and they did not receive an extension of the qualified franchise (practiced in the Cape Colony and Natal) to the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony.
With the coming of Union in 1910, these aspirations were again frustrated which led to the founding of the South African Native National Congress in 1912. This became the African National Congress in 1923. The black struggle was to continue throughout the 20th century and would achieve success in 1994 with a democratically elected South African government.
The second Boer War had a major impact on British tactics leading up to World War One. The war had shown that modern rifles and artillery provided greater accuracy, range and rates of fire than before. This led to the belief in a fire zone of increased depth and danger, and the need for formations that were more open. One of the most useful lessons was the necessity of cover for the attackers.
During the war in South Africa, clear terrain had been sought when on the offensive, and rough terrain in defence. The new emphasis on fields of fire meant a reversal in policy. And, finally, following the French, the British began to consider frontal attacks as decisive, giving them official sanction in the 1912 field service regulations. This marked the greatest diversion from the Boer War experience and the flank attacks of Lord Roberts.
The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 by Amery, L.S., ed. (7 Vols. Sampson Low, Marston, 1900-1909.)
The Dynamics of Treason. Boer Collaboration in the South African War of 1899-1902 by Albert Grundlingh (Protea, 2006)
The Boer War by Denis Judd and Keith Surridge (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
The Transvaal Rebellion. The First Boer War, 1880-1881 by John Laband (Pearson Longman, 2005)
Volunteers on the Veld. Britain’s Citizen-Soldiers and the South African War, 1899-1902 by Stephen M Miller ( University of Oklahoma Press, 2007)
The South African War 1899-1902 by Bill Nasson (Arnold, 1999)
The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979)
The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 by Fransjohan Pretorius (Struik and Pretoria: Protea, 1998)
Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 by Fransjohan Pretorius (Human and Rousseau, 1999)
Scorched Earth by Fransjohan Pretorius, ed (Human and Rousseau, 2001)
The Origins of the South African War 1899-1902 by Iain R Smith (Longman, 1996)
Black People and the South African War 1899-1902 by Peter Warwick (Cambridge University Press, 1983)
Fransjohan Pretorius is professor of history at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He specialises on the Boer War of 1899-1902. His book, 'Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902', was runner-up for the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. The Afrikaans edition won three major awards. He received the Stals Prize from the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (South African Academy for Arts and Science) in 1998. He is a former editor of 'Historia', the journal of the South African Historical Association. At present, he chairs the history commission of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.
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