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Boer Republics

At the outbreak of war in 1899 the British faced the forces of two Boer Republics. The principal combatant was the South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek), which the British knew by its former name of the Transvaal, and the secondary adversary, entering the war in support of the ZAR, was the Orange Free State. These republics were the final consolidation of a number of lesser republics that had formed since the Great Trek in 1836 and illustrate the diversity of Boer political opinion.

A first republic was set up at Thaba ’Nchu in 1837 but the original Voortrekkers to the area, Hendrick Potgieter and Piet Uys, were not elected to the government and, in annoyance, took their followers across the Vaal to set up another at Potchefstroom. Meanwhile Piet Retief led the expansion into Natal against Zulu resistance, lost his life and was avenged at Blood River by Andries Pretorius who founded Natalia. Other republics came and went at Utrecht and Lydenburg while Natalia faded away. The Sand River Convention of 1852 recognised the Transvaal which was actually three republics and the Bloemfontein Convention recognised the Orange Free State which was, in fact, the amalgam of two republics. The divisions between the various groups of Boers were not apparent to outsiders, and would resurface under the strains of warfare as bitter-enders stubbornly fought on, hands-uppers withdrew from the conflict and joiners threw in their lot with the British.

Boer Forces – Training

Although most of the Boer fighters were conscripts or volunteers, they were not untrained. The ordinary life of the farming Boer demanded competence as a marksman and skill in horsemanship, not just riding but all aspects of caring for a horse as well. In addition, competitions and field days were used to build on these skills and to bring town dwellers up to standard. However, apart from the States Artillery and the Police forces, the Boers were an amateur army.

Marksmanship of a high standard was encouraged by holding Wapenschouwsor rifle meetings, also known as Bisleys after the British rifle championships, at which cash prizes were awarded. Ammunition was issued free for this purpose, as were 200 rounds when, just before the outbreak of war, the Boer government exchanged new Mauser rifles for the burghers’ old Martini-Henrys and wanted to ensure the owners were familiar with their new weapons. These competitions took place two or three times a year as did Field Days on which various martial activities were undertaken. A mock battle might take place or a number of simulated attacks were undertaken on supposed enemy positions. In the period immediately before the outbreak of war the frequency of field days increased and they became common once again during the guerrilla phase when boredom was a problem during the numerous periods of inactivity.

Boer Tactics

Although the Boers are best known for their mobility and evasiveness, they did change their tactics during the war. At times they carried out lightning attacks, and at others they took up siege warfare. They used trenches in defence and concealment in the field, but also, on occasion, made attacks very like classic cavalry charges. They were versatile and opportunistic which sometimes gave them the advantage, but they were also poorly disciplined and easily discouraged and their lack of staying power let them down.

At the outbreak of the war the Boers moved quickly in a large number of quite small groups, permeating the British defences and eventually surrounding their enemies in Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking. From Ladysmith, in Natal, they might have gone on to the coast at Durban, but the determination of their aged leader, Commandant-general Piet Joubert, failed and they fell back to defend the Tugela River against the force seeking to lift the siege. The events in Natal illustrate the first phase of the war.

In siege situations the Boers depended on tactics such as cutting off supplies to the besieged, shelling the towns indiscriminately with their guns and occasionally attacking on foot. They were aware of the dangers of illness and, at Ladysmith, were in the process of building a dam to cut off the Klip River, the supply of drinking water. At the same time they had agreed a neutral zone for the sick at Intombi camp and adhered to their promise to leave it safe. Neither the British nor the Boers appeared to see any inconsistency in doing this while shelling civilians – men, women and children.

In defence the Boers made excellent use of the ground, exploiting natural cover and making it difficult for the British to locate the source of rifle fire when smokeless powder was used. In Natal they made their traditional good use of high ground which, on the Tugela where they overlooked the lowlands from which the British approached, worked well until General Sir Redvers Buller perfected his tactics of giving his infantry limited objectives and close artillery support. On the approaches to Kimberley, on the other hand, the terrain was flat and open with occasional kopjes, mesa-like hills, and a few rivers. Here the flat trajectory of the high-velocity rifle was exploited by firing from concealed positions in trenches. This tactic worked until the British achieved superior mobility and were able to outflank the Boer positions, at which the defenders abandoned their trenches and moved off.

In the guerrilla phase of the war the main aggressive effort went into disrupting communications by blowing up bridges, breaking up railway tracks and intercepting supply-wagon trains. At Waterval Drift on 15 February 1900 Vecht-general Christiaan De Wet captured a supply train with a third of the British oxen and a full four days’ supplies. However, he was so keen to squirrel away his plunder that he was fatally slow in moving to the support of Assistant Commandant-general Cronjé at Paardeberg. As the war continued and Boer sup plies by railway from Portuguese East Africa were cut off, the need to acquire clothing, guns, ammunition and even food from the British was added to the incentives to ambush and cut out small contingents of their enemies. By that time, having no permanent territory under their control, the Boers had nowhere to keep prisoners. They therefore took to uitskud,literally ‘shaking out’, that is, stripping the British and releasing them naked to find their way back to their comrades.

On one occasion the attempt to promote disease was purposely undertaken. Bloemfontein was supplied with water from waterworks at Sannaspos to the east of the town. It was to destroy these works and to deny clean water to the town and both civilians and military there that De Wet went there on 31 March 1900 and, by chance, encountered Brigadier-general R. G. Broadwood. The fact that he won a famous victory there and that the waterworks survived should not obscure the fact that the increase of typhoid (enteric) fever in Bloemfontein was De Wet’s primary objective.

On their Field Days, their training days, the Boers practised charging towards an objective and opening fire upon it, either from horseback or dismounted. These tactics were rarely used in the field but some examples exist, such as at Blood River Poort in northern Natal where Commandant-general Louis Botha worsted Lieutenant-colonel Hubert Gough, and at Rooiwal where Lieutenant-colonel Robert Kekewich destroyed a force of 1,500 Boers who charged him. Deneys Reitz gives a graphic account of the foot charge made by the Boers against the Northumberland Fusiliers at Nooitgedacht and the attack on Wagon Hill at Ladysmith also involved Boers advancing under fire, though the terrain precluded a charge as such.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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