The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

In the Beginning of the Second Boer War

When Boer War hostilities finally broke out in October 1899, the NSW Premier, Sir William Lyne, learnt that the NSW Lancers were returning from Britain via Cape Town.

A squadron had been training with the British Cavalry at Aldershot. With Premier Lyne's approval the 72-strong contingent disembarked in South Africa. Within a fortnight the Lancers were the first Australians into battle on borrowed horses at the inconclusive action at Belmont. There was essentially a hurried, incoherent British policy in gathering an expeditionary force to fight an organised and motivated mounted infantry fighting on it own terrain.

On 31 May 2017, 115 years after the Peace of Vereeniging (31 May, 1902), with statues of a patrol of four Australian Commonwealth Horse (organised and equipped as the Australian Light Horse would be when formed in 1903) was dedicated to the more than 1000 Australians who died in the fighting in South Africa.

As is pointed out in the Lancer's Regimental History there has always been at the beginning of operations "a great shortage of equipment. In this case there were no horses, khaki clothing or field equipment, that in possession of the squadron being unsuitable for the rough work They had no relevant maps ahead, a situation similar to the fall of Malaya and Singapore nearly half a century later.

"The first problem was dealt with in characteristic Australian fashion; a few miles inland, at Stellenbosch, the squadron was very soon to be found catching, riding and training about 70 Cape horses, mostly unbroken. These were seldom more than 1.4m tall, and ever afterwards were referred to as 'the guinea-pigs'. SSM (Squadron Sergeant Major) Robson (1.92m), tucked his legs up when the ground was rough."

Initially the Boers out-performed the British when it came to horsemanship and the Australian Waler (originally remounts for the Indian Army from NSW) had natural paces for the veldt and thrived better on the Karoo grass than the Irish horses of British mounted regiments.

Because of Britain's historic attitude to a standing army, it has always neglected Tommy Atkins in times of Peace.

Rudyard Kipling voiced it well:

"Yes, it's Tommy this, an Tommy that, an' spend less on defence,
But who walks the streets of Basra when the air is getting tense?
When the air is getting tense, boys, from Kabul to Kosovo
Who'll say goodbye to wife and kids, and shoulder pack and go?"

The Boer War is described by the South African historian, Bill Nasson, as a classic war of irony and illusion, in that those who brought it about did not get the war they had anticipated. It was a war of mis-judgement. The more optimistic of the Boers hoped to wrap things up before heavy British forces arrived. For their part many of those on the imperial side expected the colonial enemy to yield without too much of a struggle.

While the British blustered, the Boers prepared for war. In so many ways the Boers should have achieved far more in the first six months of the war.

Jan Smuts in 1906 stated "the Jameson Raid was the real declaration of war in the Great Anglo-Boer conflict . . . And that is so in spite of the four years truce that followed . . . {the} aggressors consolidated their alliance. . . and the defenders on the other hand silently and grimly prepared for the inevitable."

At a stroke Dr Leander Starr Jameson united the volk behind the Transvaal governments. The fumbling old president Oom Paul Kruger became the hero of the Raid and was to lead the Boers into war. The republics assembled the largest modern army seen in South Africa. Its backbone was the cream of the mounted militia. Physically tough, crack shots with advanced smokeless Mausers, formidable in the saddle and proud of their veldtcraft, these were good irregular soldiers, quick to the colours and high in confidence in 1899.

Kruger spent more than one million pounds to re-equip the Transvaal army. The Boers imported 37,000 Mausers from the Krupp factory in Germany. The Boers had ordered four of the latest 155mm heavy guns (Long Toms) from Creusot in France and six 75mm field guns. They bought 22 experimental 1-pounders (Pom-Poms) from Maxim-Nordenfeld in Britain and from Krupp four 120mm howitzers. In addition they had 33 75mm field guns of varying types, all modern.

Kruger transformed Transvaal's army and the burghers could mobilise in a week about 20 commandos armed with the most modern guns and rifles, an effective force of more than 25,000 fighting men; combined with their allies from the Orange Free State this represented 40,000. This was four times the size of the British garrisons in the colonies and became the largest modern army in the continent. And they were better armed than the British.

While the British slithered into war through the machinations of Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary for the Colonies and Alfred Milner, the scheming High Commissioner for South Africa, the Boers were vigorously organising and arming.

British military leadership was mired in petty jealousies among generals only tested in small colonial wars. They were amateurish. War was prepared according to Rayne Kruger in an atmosphere best conveyed by a quotation from the memoirs of Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood, describing his reforming zeal while in command of Aldershot, Britain's chief training base. He triumphantly produced a letter to him on his departure: "I thank you for all you have done, which is a very great deal, while at Aldershot for the Fox Hounds."

Britain spent hardly anything on its Intelligence Division. No information had systematically been collated from previous British experience in South Africa - the first Boer War and Majuba Hill only 18 years earlier. It could not comprehend the hit-and-run tactics of the citizen Boer army whose soldiers foreswore any uniform.

At the summit in the War Office was the Duke of Cambridge who had spent 39 years as Commander-in-Chief. He was served by Garnet Joseph Wolseley, Viscount Wolsely of Cairo and a Field-Marshal. His supporters formed the Wolsely ring. He had distinguished himself in fights before the Crimea and took soldiering very seriously. But, by the time he became Commander-in-Chief he was declining into senility.

The second Duke of Cambridge was opposed to all change and especially change in the purchase of commissions because he thought "however theoretically objectionable, it was worked favourably in the interests of the Services."

Also at the zenith of his military career was Lord Roberts, the popular victor of Kandahar in Afghanistan ('Bobs' the subject of a Rudyard Kipling's poem). He had returned to Britain in 1893, after 41 years service in the Indian Army. He was unemployed, opinionated, lobbying and on half pay and was to create a selection of senior officer supporters of his own, the Roberts Ring.

Also among these giants strode the well-connected Sir Redvers Henry Buller, who had been Quartermaster-General and then Adjutant-General. Like Roberts he had won the Victoria Cross and William Gladstone remarked that Joshua 'couldn't hold a candle to Redvers Buller as a leader of men'. Nonetheless, Buller always considered that he was ideally suited to be a field commander carrying out the orders of a creative strategist.

There was no central authority to grasp the challenges of threatened hostilities or respond with plans; no chief of the general staff, no general staff. The South African War tested the capacity of the invading British to adapt to demanding local fieldcraft conditions. They had the challenge of lengthy supply lines, long ranges, expansive fields of fire and a fierce light unknown in more temperate settings. It put great pressures on British military and importantly, financial resources.

The Boers were blessed with some able young leaders. Jan Smuts, 27, a Cambridge-educated, Afrikaner from the Cape became Attorney General.

Smuts had initially idolised Cecil Rhodes, the Cape of Good Hope Prime Minister, whose dream was a great white nation spanning South Africa from the Zambezi to the Cape. But Rhodes, very much the evil genius of the Boer War had supported the Jameson Raid and had to resign.

Smuts declared: "The man we had followed, who was to lead us to victory, had not only deserted us; he had . . . betrayed us."

One man understood the strength of the Boer position and the ill-prepared and inadequate state of British arms in South Africa - Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler, C in C South Africa and acting Governor, Cape Colony. He, however, was politically naive. He counselled caution but Milner characterised him as pro-Boer and he was ultimately sent home.

Britain, as in so many of her wars, was hesitant and uncoordinated in her response to the Boer ultimatum. Lord Roberts, later to be supreme commander in South Africa, said: "I was astonished beyond measure to hear of our utter unpreparedness . . . How this could have been permitted? And who is responsible for it?"

As Bill Nasson points out, previous British campaigns had invariably been short, with little need for large scale manoeuvring and complex communications. Most British generals had little experience of handling very large bodies of troops and instead of a standard system for the transmission of information between commanders and their subordinates there was a woolly space. South Africa is a journey 10,000 kilometres to battle ground about the size of Europe.

Meanwhile at the bottom, the general calibre of ordinary soldiers was not high, more like Wellington's "scum of the earth". The army had been handicapped by the wastage of trained soldiers through short-service enlistment. It could not compete with urban rates of pay. It had seen a contraction of its traditional sources of recruits - the rural population and the Irish.

Tommy Atkins was faced with weeks on a troopship, hours in poorly ventilated trains, days alongside unsanitary rivers and streams, and fatiguing marching and fighting across difficult, unfamiliar, featureless and dusty terrain.

The British managed to get themselves besieged in Mafeking in the north and Major General Sir George White, on the verge of retirement, was surrounded in Natal in Ladysmith, tactically a potential Dien Bien Phu, where the French were defeated in Vietnam.

Initially the Boers easily occupied Elandslaagte on the rail line just south of Dundee a public relations coup. They were hurled out a few days later.

The dying Major General Sir William Penn Symons was carried off fatally wounded from his frontal assault at Talana by his retreating troops to Ladysmith. Though the British had won this affray their losses were 546 to the Boers 140 and their confidence was severely dinted.

Later British cavalry did what they liked best to do, charged with lance and sabre (Arme Blanche) cornering the Commandos, who for once were unable to melt away. Only occasionally did the Arme Blanche prevail in South Africa.

This was to be the war of the mounted trooper, working in sections of four - one to hold the horses, the other three to go forwards armed on foot.

White made an attempt to breakout of Ladysmith but the British suffered a disheartening reverse when 800 mainly Irish soldiers were taken prisoners. Chamberlain angrily wrote to a Cabinet colleague: "On the whole I am terribly afraid that our War Office is as inefficient as usual."

Kimberley in the west, which housed the de Beers diamond industry, Cecil Rhodes, a hoard of money, coal, and stores, was put to the siege on 15 October 1899. It was ably commanded by Colonel Robert Kekewich of the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who was more harassed by Rhodes than the Boers.

British stratagem in the war was to be based on railway lines. Sixty-year-old Buller had been chosen to lead the saviour 47,000-strong Army Corps dispatched as hastily as possible to the Cape ports. Unusual for a commander he split his forces into three directing General Lord Methuen to relieve Kimberley and then Mafeking. Lieutenant-General Sir William Gatacre (nicknamed Backacher) was to hold the Central Front.

Black Week in December, 1899, truly emphasised Britain's ill-organised approach to subduing the Boers. The British had no clearly prepared or structured plan beyond a vague grasp that their forces would have to be deployed forward for a conquest of the Boer republics.

Gatacre forced-marched his troops to attack at Stormberg in the darkness before dawn despite the fact that he had been ordered not to do so. They unnecessarily attacked up the cliff faces of Kissieberg to be met by devastating Mauser fire. The muddled attack began to fail as quickly as it had begun and the troops struggled back saved only by the ineptitude of the Boers.

Methuen had expensive successes at Belmont (where Australian soldiers first fired their weapons in battle) and Graspan as he doggedly headed to relieve Kimberley. The Boers withdrew to fight another day. Later De La Rey had inspirationally entrenched his forced before the Modder river, the ground providing excellent concealment. The British lost 500.

There is a pipe tune, the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein - more a lament. And well there might be for the Highlanders lead by their indomitable and ill-fated Major-General Andy Wauchope suffered dreadfully. They were caught at dawn on the approach to the Modder River. As the brigade broke into fighting formation the Highlanders were assailed by vigorous fire from again an entrenched and unseen commandos. They fell to then ground to escape the fire, their kilts without sufficient kilt apron to cover their tartan backsides. They were riven by the deadly fire, the sun burn and fearsome ants. The British had to withdraw from Magersfontien.

Black Week was completed when Buller, determined to relieve Ladysmith, was met by General Botha in prepared positions at Colenso.

The British plan of attack was inept and disastrous. It was to see the death of Lord Robert's son, in a vain attempt to save the advanced and unprotected guns. The British lost 1130 men while the Boer, 40. The newspaper, the Cape Argus described it as "another Majuba" (the decisive defeat of the 1st BoerWar in 1880).

Black Week was the high-water mark of conventional Boer success and the downfall of Buller. He was to be superseded by Robert and Lord Kitchener. The British set about recovering.

The British with Australian Horsemen were to overwhelm the Boers but initially it was one disaster after another.

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By: Christopher Dawson

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