Boer militiamen at Spionkop
Transvaal State Artillery
The forces the Boers were able to put in the field in 1899 were largely volunteers, burghers or citizens who were obliged to serve in a commando, their basic military unit. The professionals amongst them were members of the Staatsartillerie (State Artillery) or the Politie (police). In addition, supporters came from overseas to become members of existing commandos or to form their own brigades. On the outbreak of war the Boer forces comprised approximately 55,000 burghers, 1,200 artillerymen, 2,000 police and 2,000 foreign volunteers, plus some 400 support service personnel, of whom perhaps 35,000 were in the field.
Boer military action was based on the commando system. This had been contrived to meet the needs of a farming people extending their land-holdings in the face of opposition from indigenous peoples. The country was arranged in local districts and each district had to provide a commando, manned by its citizens or burghers. Every man between sixteen and sixty years of age was liable to serve, those between eighteen and thirty-four going first, then those up to fifty years and, in the last resort, those up to sixty years. The system created formations of different sizes. Thaba ’Nchu commando numbered 98 men while Pretoria had 2,832. Commandos were sub-divided into wards, each of which elected its commander, a Field Cornet who might have an Assistant Field Cornet to aid him.
The Transvaal (South African Republic) State Artillery was a well-disciplined force, uniformed, and commanded by Lieutenant-colonel S. P. E. Trichardt. It numbered 733 men and was equipped with four 155mm Creusots (Long Toms), four 120mm Krupp howitzers, fourteen 75mm quick-firing guns and five other 75mm guns. There were twenty-two 37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt Pom-Poms and another twenty-two guns of various kinds. The Orange Free State Artillery was just as professional but smaller, with 474 men, and much less well equipped. It had fourteen breech-loading 75mm Krupps and seven 9-pounder rifled breech-loading Armstrongs, together with seven other old guns. It was commanded by the Prussian-born Major F. W. R. Albrecht.
The ZARP, Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek Politie or South African Republic Police, were 1,545 strong. The Johannesburg Police were particularly unpopular with the uitlandersor incomers who left to fight on the British side as a result of the oppressive treatment the latter had endured before the war. These men, like the 150 Orange Free State Police, were well-disciplined and professional.
In the course of the war, particularly in the guerrilla phase, the commandos tended to break up because of casualties and departures. The remaining men formed units of their own such as the Afrikander Cavalry Corps which Commandant Malan put together to oppose the invasion of the Transvaal. The scout, Danie Theron, of whom Christiaan De Wet thought so highly, headed a formation known as Theron’s Scouts and there were a number of similar units.
The foreign volunteers were formed partly from men already in South Africa and partly from people who came expressly to fight in the Boer cause. Amongst the former were the German Corps, the Hollander Corps one of the Irish Brigades and the Scandinavian Corps. To these were added the French, Americans, Italians (including Lieutenant Count Pecci, nephew of Pope Leo XIII), Russians and Swiss. Mohommed Ben Nasser, a Muslim, came from North Africa and eventually became a Transvaal citizen. Few corps were composed entirely of the nationals of the country after which they were named, as the story of the Russian volunteers illustrates.
Boer formations were held together more by mutual agreement than by any European concept of military discipline imposed from above and sanctioned by law. This made them difficult to control and command, vulnerable in times of hardship and formidable when the spirit of battle was upon them.
European soldiers had great difficulty in understanding the way Boer commandos behaved. The burgher, the citizen soldier, was commanded by an officer he had had a part in electing; the Field Cornet was simply first among equals and could be replaced in another election. Commanders were the social equals of their men and were often their neighbours or members of their own family, quite unlike the hierarchical structure of a European regiment. A burgher might decline to participate in an action he thought unwise or excessively dangerous, or absent himself from his unit entirely, even knowingly breaking the law, in order to attend to the harvest. When they did fight they did so because they chose to do so. It follows that commanding a commando was always something of a gamble.
Nominally discipline was based on the commando acts of the parliaments of the South African Republic (Transvaal) of 1898 and the Orange Free State of 1899. These laws laid down punishments of fines or imprisonment for breaches of military discipline. In fact many offences were allowed to go unpunished or merely admonished, and imprisonment was rarely used given the shortage of manpower. Various field punishments were devised. Saddle-pack involved the miscreant’s walking around the camp carrying his saddle, rifle and other equipment for a set length of time or number of circuits while his comrades jeered, a tiring and humiliating experience. The oxhide punishment involved being tossed in the air from an oxhide from a newly slaughtered animal manipulated by ten men. Gun riding was more serious. The convict, sometimes trouserless, had to sit astride a gun barrel, with hands and feet tied, in the heat of the day. He might eventually collapse because of the awkward posture and excessive heat. Alternatively he might be tied to a wagon wheel to cook in the sun for a while.
Beatings were administered casually, and a commander might use his sjambok, his whip, in the heat of the moment, but there was also a formal use of corporal punishment. Men might be sentenced to a given number of lashes with a harness or offered the alternative of paying a fine or enduring a given number of lashes with a sjambok.
The American Military Attaché, Captain Carl Reichmann, summed up the situation when he said, “Having complied with the law calling him [the burgher] into the field, he yielded cooperation, not obedience”.
For what were seen as acts of treason the death penalty was exacted. Deneys Reitz reports that a Cape Colonial, one Lemuel Colaine, joined Commandant H. J. Brouwer’s commando on the pretext of having been imprisoned by the British. When Colaine subsequently went missing, Reitz says, “No particular notice was taken of his absence, as the men were constantly riding off to visit farms, or look up friends at distant outposts, and it was thought that he had done the same”. They had a rude awakening when the man led a British raiding party against them. Not long afterwards Colaine was caught in an attack undertaken by Jan Smuts’s men and the General ordered him to be shot. A grave was dug and, after being allowed time with a minister, Colaine was executed.
When peace overtures were being made by the British in January 1901 the Landdrost, or district magistrate, of Griqualand West, J. J. Morgandaal was held captive when undertaking an embassy to Senior Commandant C. C. Froneman. Morgendaal’s action in advocating peace with, or surrender to, the British led Froneman first to beat him and then to shoot him. It was said that Christiaan De Wet looked on, but there is no mention of the incident in his book. Another execution was that of Meyer de Kock who had helped set up the Burgher Peace Committee in Pretoria. He was on a mission to Commandant-general Louis Botha when he was captured. He was shot on 12 February 1901.
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.
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 supplies 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.
Pretorius, Fransjohan, Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1999); Reichmann, C., Report on the Operations of the Boer Army (Washington, 1901); Slocum & Reichmann, Reports by Cpts. Slocum & Reichmann of Boer War,U.S. National Archives file number 858–2, 1900.
Hall, Darrell, ed. Fransjohan Pretorius and Gilbert Torlage, The Hall Handbook of the Anglo-Boer War (Pietermaritizburg, University of Natal Press, 1999); Wessels, André, “Afrikaners at War”, Boer War: Direction, Experience and Image,ed. J. Gooch (London, Frank Cass, 2000).
Marix Evans, Martin, The Boer War: South Africa 1899–1902 (Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 1999); Pretorius, Fransjohan, Life on Commando during the Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902 (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1999).