Railways at the Boer War

The Boer War was another eminently preventable clash which started off with patriotic cheers, and ended with much soul searching about the state of the British Empire. At the turn of the century, the current Republic of South Africa was divided into four territories: Natal and the Cape Colony, which were British colonies, and two Boer republics, the Transvaal and Orange Free State. To the north, Rhodes had created the British South Africa Company, which became Rhodesia. South Africa had been initially colonized by the Dutch and Germans, but the British arrived in the early nineteenth century and tensions between the two groups were at the root of the Boer wars. In the first Boer War, which was small and was little more than a few skirmishes ending in one major battle where the Boers triumphed during the winter of 1880-81, the Boers had established their right to autonomy in the Transvaal, but the British refused to accept that the Boer republics could be fully independent states. Prior to the second Boer War the discovery of great mineral wealth – especially gold – in the Transvaal, which was largely exploited by British capital, had exacerbated tensions and the large British mining companies were concerned that Boer intransigence might threaten their interests.

The immediate casus belli was the British demand for voting rights for their citizens living in the Transvaal but the President, Paul Kruger, had prevaricated, postponing their eligibility for the franchise. A solution might have been found but for the bellicose nature of Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner in South Africa, who effectively sabotaged the peace negotiations. In truth, though, the long-standing hostility between the two colonizing forces in the country had been bubbling away for many years and it would have taken a concerted peace initiative on both sides to have prevented a war. Britain had long sought the establishment of control over the two Dutch colonies and saw Boer intransigence over the franchise as an opportunity to unify the whole of South Africa under the British flag. In fact, preparations for war had started early in 1899 with measures such as the establishment of the Department of Military Railways and the construction of ambulance and armoured trains in the railway yards of both Natal and Cape Town.

Girouard, now a major, was appointed as the head of the Department of Military Railways and, having read the numerous reports on the performance of the railways in the Franco-Prussian War, he was aware that the Germans had gained an advantage by having a clear administrative structure in contrast to the French muddle. The old question arose: who should be in charge of the railways, the military or the railway managers? Girouard knew the answer. He was aware that, left to their own devices, military commanders would, for example, insist on having trains steamed up and ready ‘just in case’, or require wagons to be unloaded while still on the main line, blocking it for other traffic. The military, in other words, had to be trained to understand the scope and limitations of the railways, and could not be allowed to be their master. Girouard immediately appointed a group of officers who would act as liaison between the military and the railway authorities, and, as Pratt puts it, ‘protect the civil railway administration from interference by military commanders and commandants of posts’. At the station level, officers were appointed who would be the sole liaison between the railway administration, the stationmasters, and the military, in order to prevent senior army personnel commandeering trains for their own purposes.

This structure was all the more important because the railways in South Africa were fairly basic affairs, all built to the narrow 3ft 6in Cape gauge and designed to accommodate light goods and passenger trains, rather than heavy military traffic. Moreover, the distances were huge. From Cape Town, the principal British base, to Pretoria, the Boer HQ which would be the ultimate objective, was over 1,000 miles and the roads were poor and unusable at times of heavy rain. A single-track railway line stretched from Cape Town on the southern coast through Kimberley and Bloemfontein through to Johannesburg and Pretoria, while a branch headed off from Mafeking towards Rhodesia. From Durban on the east coast there was another line through to Ladysmith which also eventually reached Johannesburg. These lines became the vital supply route for the Army as supplies to the forces at the front were sent from seaports, sometimes quite long distances, along the railway to a railhead and picked up by horse transport, and consequently the shape of the railway network in southern Africa determined the course of the war. For the British in particular – the Boers all had horses – the railway was the major means of transport for long distances, although there were times when the soldiers would march or ride while their supplies were taken by rail. It was inevitable, therefore, that the key battles took place in railway towns or in countryside easily accessible from the line. The British could only maintain their army using railway resupply and the various towns whose names reside in the memory through the prolonged sieges they suffered were important precisely because they were on the railway line. Many of the same cast of characters as in Sudan turned up in the Boer War: Churchill, Kitchener and Girouard, who was to prove to be a crucial figure, all played significant parts.

The war finally broke out in October 1899 and in its first phase the Boers captured large swathes of land in the two British colonies, including long stretches of the railway, and besieged three British garrisons at Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. Attempts by the British Army to relieve the sieges ended in a series of humiliating defeats and early in 1900 reinforcements had to be brought from Britain, creating a force totalling 180,000 men. The takeover of much of the railway in the British colonies by the Boers resulted in a shortage of stock, prompting the military to send immediate requests to Britain for extra locomotives and wagons. For their part, in the early stages, the Boers themselves rather ignored the railways, preferring to keep to their horses but proving adept at sabotaging lines used by the British.

In the second phase of the war, the British staged a fightback with expanded forces and here the railway was crucial as the army headed northwards to re-establish control over its own territory and then advance into the Boer states. The arrangements made in anticipation of the conflict came into play. Every day, all the Army’s requirements were collated through Girouard’s Department of Military Railways, which decided whether requests should be accepted or rejected. The number of wagons allocated for each department, such as hospital, ordnance or engineering, was calculated in great detail and nothing could move without a permit from Girouard’s department. A small group of soldiers carrying out a specific duty might be exempted but they would have to travel sitting higgeldy-piggeldy on the supplies. As Ernest Carter, a railway historian, concludes, this disciplined allocation of railway resources in the Boer War ‘proved conclusively that even a single line passing through enemy territory could be maintained in a serviceable condition sufficiently reliable to allow of a campaign being conducted at a point many hundreds of miles from a supply base’.

As the Boers retreated, they invariably destroyed railway facilities, making heavy use of dynamite, still a relatively new explosive first patented in 1867 and little used in intervening wars. It was the usual catalogue of mayhem, except that dynamite made the job of destruction far easier: bridges and long sections of track were blown up, railside equipment such as pumps and water tanks was destroyed, stations were flattened and huge obstructions were brought down by triggering explosions on the sides of railway cuttings. In response, the British created an organization of 20,000 men, a tenth of their overall strength, composed of a motley mix of soldiers, former railwaymen and local natives, to ensure the continued operation of the railways.

When the British Army began to invade the Boer republics, the Department of Military Railways spawned a separate organization, the Imperial Military Railways, both to repair and maintain captured lines in the two republics, and to operate them. The Afrikaners employed by these railways were unwilling to stay in their jobs under the British and therefore had to be replaced by soldiers and railwaymen from the Cape Colony and, later, also by local black workers.

As the British troops headed northwards, elaborate patrols were devised using armoured trains to protect the line, which was absolutely vital for the British advance. It was the first time that armoured trains were extensively and successfully operated in any conflict. The British had deployed them in Egypt, Sudan and India in the 1880s, using conventional rolling stock that was reinforced with steel plating and equipped with a few machine guns and sandbags for protection, and often pushing a light wagon at the front to detonate mines or limit the damage from obstacles left on the line. They were little more than armoured patrol vehicles, but during the Boer War far more sophisticated versions were developed.

Several had been built in anticipation of the war and ultimately twenty saw action on the South African railways. Their reputation was initially rather tarnished by the capture on 15 November 1899 of an early model carrying 120 men including, famously, Winston Churchill, who yet again had made sure that he was in the right place at the right time to see action. This time, he was a mere reporter, sending despatches to the Morning Post although at times he behaved as if he were still an officer in the British Army. Churchill recounts an early sortie with the train, which he describes as a strange machine, ridiculing it as ‘a locomotive disguised in the habiliments of chivalry. Mr Morley [John Morley, the leading opponent of the war] attired as Sir Lancelot would seem scarcely more incongruous.’ His first foray with the train passes off without serious incident but his second leads to his capture and a series of brushes with death.

Churchill’s train had consisted of a couple of sets of four vans, three of which were armoured, including one with a 7-pounder gun so old-fashioned that it was still loaded through the muzzle (‘an antiquated toy’, as Churchill described it), an ordinary wagon with a breakdown gang and a locomotive which, for protection, was in the middle of the train between the two sets of wagons. The patrol’s mission was to try to obtain information about the siege at Ladysmith and the state of the railway. At 5.30 a.m., the train crept out of Estcourt, thirty miles south of Ladysmith, and had reached Chieveley, about halfway to their destination, when Boer horsemen were spotted. Captain Haldane, the commander of the train, decided to beat a retreat but the train had fallen into an ambush. Round a curve, they saw a large troop of 600 Boers above them and bullets and shells started raining down on the wagons. The engine driver opened the regulator to accelerate out of trouble, which was precisely what the Boers had sought, as the train then ploughed at speed into a boulder they had laid on the tracks round a bend. Even though the train was notionally in the command of Haldane, it was Churchill who assumed control of the situation, or at least he did according to his account written for the Morning Post. He reports how he told the driver, who was a civilian and therefore anxious just to escape, that ‘if he continued to stay at his post, he would be mentioned for distinguished gallantry in action’, not an honour that was Churchill’s to bestow. Nevertheless, with such encouragement, the fellow ‘pulled himself together, wiped the blood off his face [and] climbed back into the cab of his engine’. Leaving Haldane to sort out the defence, Churchill organized the removal of the debris and the stone from the tracks, and ordered a group of men to push the broken wagon off the track. Despite being still under fire, they succeeded and the engine, minus the front group of trucks, which had become detached, gradually pulled away. All these efforts to escape proved, however, to be in vain because, as Churchill describes it, ‘a private soldier who was wounded, in direct disobedience of the positive orders that no surrender was to be made, took it upon himself to wave a pocket handkerchief.’ As a result, the men around him began to surrender and Churchill tried to run away. While Churchill criticizes the hapless fellow, the humble soldier’s action most likely changed history by ensuring the great man’s survival. Churchill had already run down the track with two Boers shooting at him, fortunately missing him on either side (‘two bullets passed, both within a foot, one on either side… again two soft kisses sucked in the air, but nothing struck me’), and had fortuitously, too, forgotten his Mauser pistol in the cab of the locomotive, and was therefore unable to shoot his pursuers. Without the private’s white handkerchief, it was probably only a matter of minutes before Churchill, who was behaving as a combatant rather than a newspaper reporter, would have been shot. After his capture, however, anxious to be released, he stressed his civilian role but to no avail and he was imprisoned in Pretoria, from where he escaped, regaining British territory by jumping goods trains like an American hobo.

Churchill’s armoured train was an early version, more lightly armed than its successors. Later types would be far more heavily protected and were successfully used on several occasions against the Boers. The armoured train became a far more sophisticated weapon, consisting of a locomotive in the middle, pushing armoured vans and wagons with various pieces of equipment for repairing lines. At the front, there was an open wagon fitted with a cow catcher – like US locomotives – both to sweep obstructions off the rails but also to explode mines, thereby saving the rest of the train, particularly the locomotive, from further damage. Behind the locomotive there was a heavily armoured wagon with usually a 12-pounder quick-firing gun or a couple of smaller ones. Each end of the train would be protected by armoured trucks containing soldiers armed with rifles and a machine gun. It proved a useful weapon. In one skirmish, the legendary Boer leader Christiaan de Wet, who had been instrumental in developing successful guerrilla tactics, often focussed on sabotaging the railway and disrupting communications by wrecking the telegraph wires, was for once caught napping when four armoured trains managed to cut him off from his wagons and he lost all his ammunition and explosives.

While armoured trains were occasionally used in offensives against entrenched Boer positions, for the most part they were deployed to patrol lines in an effort to prevent sabotage. They were also used rather like the cavalry to make reconnaissance trips and escort conventional trains. Nevertheless, as Churchill’s mishap showed, they were vulnerable to ambush and could not be deployed without their own protection force, usually in the form of cavalry reconnaissance teams who would check the line and the surrounding area but at times bicycles were used, too. These were remarkable contraptions developed in a Cape Town workshop by Donald Menzies, who experimented with various types. The basic version, which did see regular active service, involved two men sitting side by side, with the great advantage that they could ride and shoot at the same time, since, obviously, no steering was required as the wheels were flanged like those of all railway rolling stock. It could travel at up to 30 mph but was not stable at such high speeds and generally cruised at about 10 mph. Menzies also produced a huge eight-man version with four pairs of men pedalling side by side, but it was beset with difficulties as it was too heavy – 1,500lb with eight men aboard – and consequently was difficult to brake, made too much noise and caused violent shaking, and there is no evidence that it was actually used in combat situations.

The official report published after the war recommended that in the operation of armoured trains ‘it was important that the officer commanding the train should be a man of judgment and strong nerve… he had to be ever alert that the enemy did not cut the line behind him… and had to keep his head even among the roar which followed the passage of his leading truck over a charge of dynamite, and then to deal with the attack which almost certainly ensued’. Inevitably, having such strong-minded officers in charge of the trains led to clashes with the railway authorities as the armoured trains transcended the boundary between the military and railway. Girouard later complained that the officers commanding the trains frequently rode roughshod over the railway’s needs: ‘Armoured trains were constantly rushing out, against orders of the Traffic department, sometimes without a “line clear” message, and this caused serious delays to traffic.’ One can almost feel Girouard’s frustration as he continues: ‘In fact, instead of assisting traffic by preventing the enemy from interrupting it, they caused more interruptions than the enemy themselves.’ As Pratt put it, ‘civil railway officials were heard to say that attacks by the enemy are not nearly so disturbing to traffic as the arrival of a friendly General with his force’. Regulations were subsequently issued to ensure that the armoured trains, like all other traffic, deferred to the army officers whose job was to liaise with the railway authorities to ensure efficient use of the lines.

The armoured trains proved popular with the British and were a formidable weapon, causing panic among the enemy, as stressed by an officer who had served in them: ‘There is no doubt that the enemy disliked them intensely and that the presence of an armoured train had a great morale effect.’ The post-war report rather optimistically outlined seven uses for armoured trains, including obvious aspects such as reconnoitring, patrolling and protecting the rail lines, along with more adventurous ideas like ‘serving as flank protection to infantry’ and ‘attempting to intercept the enemy’. While for the most part this analysis overemphasized their usefulness, since armoured trains would play little role on the Western Front in the First World War, they would assume much greater importance on the more fluid Eastern Front and, in particular, would be crucial to the Bolsheviks’ victory in the subsequent Russian civil war. In the Boer War, they were used to best effect to counter guerrilla attacks, a role they would play numerous times again.

The armoured train was a natural development of the basic idea of mounting guns on trains, which, as we have seen, was first used in battle in the American Civil War. Such trains were a railway weapon, likely to be deployed in an offensive action, in contrast to armoured trains whose main purpose was to patrol an unstable area. The concept of using the railways to deploy large artillery guns had made considerable progress since the days of General Lee. In particular, the problem of aiming the guns had been solved to some extent by incorporating a turntable on the car, which enabled the gun to be rotated easily, and methods of dispersing the force of the recoil, using a specially constructed chamber, had also been developed, enabling guns to be fired broadside without toppling over or damaging the track. The French had used a couple of rail-mounted guns to defend Paris during the siege in 1871 and a unit of the Sussex Army Volunteers had experimented with putting a 40-pounder on a rail wagon. As a result of these developments, the British Army tried to make use of a pair of mobile guns built in the workshops of the Cape Government Railway during the Boer War. In the event they were little used in anger, principally because of the difficulties of bringing such unwieldy and slow vehicles within range of a battle site on a single railway track already heavily used by conventional traffic.

Once the advance into the Boer republics had started, the British expected to win the war within months as the superiority of their forces told – and back home the Tories won an election on this basis. The fighting was, however, prolonged for two years by the ability of the Boers to wage a destructive and effective guerrilla war with a small force, frequently targeting the railway and other transport links. The Boers’ guerrilla tactics were extremely difficult to counter since they were operating in their home terrain against an enemy unaccustomed to this style of fighting. The Boers, who were mostly farmers, were all experienced riders and excellent shots, with the result that even a small group of men could prove difficult for the less skilled British to defeat. In response the British became more and more ruthless, with a scorched-earth policy of astonishing cruelty that involved destroying the Boer farms and forcing the destitute women – the vrouewen who were at the centre of the Boer rural lifestyle – and children into camps. To force the Boers’ families off the land, livestock was slaughtered and crops destroyed, giving them no alternative but to leave their homes. The treatment meted out by the British to these refugees in what became the world’s first concentration camps was the cruellest aspect of the war, and, inevitably, to transport them they were herded into trains, prefiguring the similar German atrocity by forty years. The mortality rate in the camps was appalling, with 26,000 deaths, a quarter of those interned, and, most horribly, no fewer than half of those under sixteen perished. Women whose husbands were still fighting were singled out for harsh treatment by being given smaller rations. There was a series of separate camps in which 107,000 Africans were interned, but an accurate assessment of the death rate was never made. The terrible conditions endured by the Boer women and children caused a scandal back home which greatly increased opposition to the war.

Clearing the farms in this way was designed to break the will of the Boers and prevent them living off the land. Protecting the supply line, most importantly the railway, became the key strategy for the British. While the Boers continued to attack the railway lines during this third phase, the British engineers became increasingly adept at repairing such breaches. They would boast that a routine break in the tracks discovered by the dawn patrol would be repaired in general by 9 a.m. Of course, they had far more difficulty repairing the damage wreaked by the retreating Boers in their own territory, which caused long delays to the cumbrous British Army moving into the republics. However, the engineers became adept at restoring at least a limited service very quickly. During the course of their retreat northwards, the Boers destroyed more than 200 bridges, several more than a hundred feet in length. Yet for the most part services were restored within days by putting in a temporary line, often with steep gradients and sharp curves, over hastily constructed low-level bridges cobbled together with sleepers and rails. While these jerry-built constructions were at times washed away in wet weather or collapsed under the weight of heavy trains, they were vital in keeping the British line of communication intact.

As territory was won by the British, the railway lines had to be protected and land defended through a process of attrition. The railway was crucial to this strategy. Once the British established control over a section of track or a bridge, a chain of blockhouses was built alongside them to prevent attacks by Boer squads. Connected to each other by telephone and telegraph, they were sited so that one could be seen from the next, a maximum of three-quarters of a mile away. Huge quantities of barbed wire, a recent invention, were strung up between them and trenches and trip wires provided an additional obstacle to any Boers attempting to reach the railway. While proving very successful, the blockhouses required huge numbers of soldiers to man and protect them. By the end of the war some 8,000 of these blockhouses had been built next to the railways, along other key supply routes and across the veldt, demanding the services of 50,000 British soldiers and 16,000 Africans, probably twice the total number of Boers who were fighting in the final guerrilla phase of the war. The blockhouses were expensive, too – costing up to £1,000 each – and difficult to construct, taking about three months, but proved remarkably effective as in conjunction with the armoured trains they all but guaranteed the security of the railway line.

This tactic of containment and harassment worked, albeit slowly. The Boers eventually surrendered in May 1902, ground down by the gradual progress of the British through their territory, and with little room to manoeuvre as the soldiers in the ever-lengthening strings of blockhouses provided increasingly detailed intelligence on the whereabouts of the enemy. The Boers were harried and, unable to fight, forced into finally accepting peace terms which the British had offered several times previously. After lengthy negotiations, the Boer republics were incorporated into the British Empire a few years later, but the cost of dragooning the Boers into Britain’s fold had been high. Far from being the short conflict which the politicians expected, it turned out to be the bloodiest and most costly of Britain’s wars between 1815 and 1914.


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