Underestimating the Boers

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The British deceived themselves as to the military competence of the ‘armed farmers’ whom they were facing.

Transvaal, now free from the Zulu threat, rose in rebellion, and between December, 1880, and February, 1881, inflicted a series of humiliating defeats upon the British garrison. General George Colley, the British Governor of Natal at the time, was a brilliant soldier. He was, however, new to the area and had to rely upon his subordinates to advise him of the worth of his enemy. In this he was tragically ill-served.

Colonel Lanyon, Administrator of the Transvaal since 1879, gave Colley a wholly inaccurate assessment of the Boer military strength. He advised the Governor that the Boers were incapable of any united military action, that they were mortal cowards and that the mere sight of British regulars would be enough to make them sue for peace. In this Lanyon made the cardinal error of underestimating his enemy. The Boers had no standing army. However, they had a strong tradition of frontiermanship and had fought at times fanatically against a series of native enemies, including the much-vaunted Zulus. More fundamentally, with only 1,760 troops in the area, the British were badly outnumbered.

The first British encounter with the Boers proved catastrophic. On 20 December, 1880, a detachment of 264 soldiers from the 94th Regiment was stopped by a 1,000-strong commando dug in on the surrounding hills. The British were given the opportunity to retire, but declined and instead decided to fight it out. Their column was decimated with 77 soldiers killed and over 100 wounded. The Boer sharpshooting was astonishing and should have sent a warning to Colley. It did not. Instead, against all the rules of war, the British general decided to ‘invade’ the Transvaal, even though his enemy outnumbered him two-to-one, was well entrenched and knew the terrain well.

Soon thereafter the British suffered a further reverse at Laing’s Nek, close to the Boer main encampment, suffering 160 casualties out of a force of 480 officers and men. Colley must have known by now that he had underestimated the Boers, but refused to change his tactics and decided upon revenge. Majuba Hill, 2000 metres high, overlooked the Boer position and commanded their defences on Laing’s Nek. He reasoned that if the British were to take the Hill the Boers would be forced to evacuate Laing’s Nek and ultimately their entire position.

In the course of a night march he occupied the hilltop with 490 soldiers and 64 sailors. From the peak the enemy camp was less than 2km away and the effect of overlooking the Boers made the commander and his men over-confident. Rather than maintain the element of surprise groups of Highlanders heralded the daybreak by waving and jeering at the enemy below. Incensed by the behaviour of the soldiers and by the fact that the British had taken the hilltop on a Sunday, a day kept holy by the ultra-religious farmers, the Boers opened effective fire at once, causing casualties among the British who had not bothered to dig in.

Colley, who had fallen asleep as soon as he had reached the peak of the hill, could not believe that the Boers would not evacuate their camp. Instead they sent a picked force of 180 marksmen, most of them teenage farm workers, to climb the hill while covering fire from another 1,000 troops kept the British pinned down. Majuba was a convex hill, and without the protection of slit trenches the British could only engage the climbing enemy by exposing themselves to the fire from below.

Even when Lieutenant Hamilton, later to command the disastrous 1915 campaign in Gallipoli, woke Colley to advise him that at least 100 Boers had reached the summit of Majuba the General refused to accept the gravity of the situation. Instead he continued to doze, presumably to refresh himself for his ultimate occupation of the Boer position! When eventually Colley did appreciate his predicament and ordered the formation of a skirmishing line his men were shot to pieces by the Boer marksmen.

Within an hour of reaching the summit of Majuba Hill the Boers had completely routed the British, killing 93 soldiers, wounding 133 and taking 58 prisoners for the loss of one dead and five wounded. Colley himself was killed, reputedly by a twelve-year-old farm lad. The British had suffered a humiliating and unnecessary defeat, caused totally by their failure to appreciate the true military qualities of the boys and irregulars whom earlier Lanyon had referred to as ‘mortal cowards’. Less than twenty years later the British were destined to suffer a further series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the same enemy.

The Second Boer War of 1899–1902 symbolized Britain’s towering imperial status, but at the same time exposed potentially crippling weaknesses in her military machine. The British public were told by their government that the war was being fought to protect the Uitlanders, a pro-British minority in the Transvaal, from Afrikaner tyranny. The Afrikaners of the Transvaal and Orange Free State believed that Whitehall, in support of the expansionist policies of Cecil Rhodes, had hatched a plot to strip them of their independence and subordinate them to the British Empire.

The opposing sides were, on the face of it, ludicrously unequal. Britain, arguably the greatest power in the world, her navy invincible and ubiquitous, her overseas trade colossal and her global influence all-pervasive, completely surrounded the Boer colonies. The war should have been over by Christmas, and might well have been had the British military not deceived itself as to its own strength and its enemy’s inabilities.

Britain put 448,000 troops into the field; the Boers could at no time call upon more than 70,000 men, and probably never had more than 40,000 on active service. Moreover, the Afrikaner forces were almost exclusively composed of civilians under arms. Only a small standing infantry force and their artillery was uniformed and the latter, according to the British, was unskilled in close-battery warfare. (Another self-deceipt, it was in fact Prussian trained and highly effective.)

The British forces, despite their numerical advantage in South Africa, had scarcely profited from their humiliation during the earlier Boer War. They possessed no general staff to plan and coordinate tactics and strategy, and a paltry £11,000 a year was spent on the maintenance of the Intelligence Division. The generals, most of whom still regarded brains as a dangerous commodity, saw the ‘ideal British battle’ as one invoving the frontal engagement of lightly armed natives, such as the Dervishes who had smashed themselves against the British lines at Omdurman in 1898. Kitchener, the victor of Omdurman, was later to complain in South Africa that the Boers would not ‘stand up to a fair fight’.

The British Army closed its eyes to the potential of mounted infantry. Ten per cent of the imperial troops in South Africa were admittedly mounted, but these were mainly cavalry who, although they carried carbines as well as sabres and lances, had little idea how to use them. Only later did the War Office listen to its self-governing colonies and accept their invitation to send units of experienced horsemen.

Deficiencies in British training and tactics were made apparent to all in the space of one week when three independent columns suffered bloody maulings at the hands of the Boers. Better leadership coupled with a greater respect for the enemy would have saved precious lives, but at that time the British still harboured the deceipt that the Boers, as soldiers, offered no greater potential threat than the Dervishes.

Attempts to relieve the sieges of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley met with disaster. The advancing columns were stopped at Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colenso and slaughtered. During the course of what became known as ‘Black Week’ the British Army sustained 7,000 casualties for the gain of no appreciable ground. Their maps were inaccurate, their compasses faulty, and in most instances their reconnaissance was non-existent.

So low was their regard for their Boer opponents that the officers in command ignored every basic rule of combat. During the Battle of Colenso Colonel Charles Long, an artillery officer with a great deal of military experience in India, supported by Brigadier Barton’s infantry, decided to charge the enemy with his twelve 15-pdr field guns and six naval guns. While nearly 5km from the enemy position he ordered his guns to gallop forward, leaving Barton’s covering infantry fire behind. When only 1,000m from the Boer position, and having left the naval guns 600m behind and the infantry a further 750m behind them, he ordered his guns to take post. They did so with all the precision and discipline of a regiment deploying on the parade ground at Woolwich and were slaughtered by the combined might of 1,000 Boer rifles.

At the same time Major General Hart, as brave a man and as great a fool as Long, ordered his Irish Brigade to advance in broad daylight shoulder-to-shoulder towards the Boer positions. Even when the Boer marksmen opened fire and the Irish began to take heavy casualties Hart refused to allow them to deploy into skirmishing order. By the time that Hart withdrew his brigade had suffered 532 dead and wounded, one of the most futile operations of the entire war in South Africa.

Only later did the British concede the worth of their enemy. They then introduced a series of new and wholly uncompromising tactics which, although they were to lead to victory, were to cause immense suffering among the civilian population which might have been averted had the British, at the beginning, not deceived themselves as to the military competence of the ‘armed farmers’ whom they were facing.

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