War: The Boer War
Date: 23rd and 25th November 1899.
Place: North West of Cape Colony in South Africa.
Combatants: British against the Boers.
Generals: Lieutenant General Lord Methuen against Commandant J. Prinsloo at Belmont and Koos de la Rey at Graspan.
Size of the armies: 8,000 British against 2,000 Boers from the Transvaal and the Free State.
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The Boer War was a serious jolt for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in volleys controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops fighting in close order. The need for tight formations had been emphasised time and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with stabbing weapons were easily kept at a distance by such tactics; but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers armed with modern weapons.
In the months before hostilities the Boer commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles and a number of modern field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot. The commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into a fighting force through a strong sense of community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover there might be. The preponderance were countrymen, running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the war, an important edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of magazine rifles. Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism “Through God and the Mauser”. With strong fieldcraft skills and high mobility the Boers were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers and foreign volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the rest of the army.
Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.
After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority, spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British forces that regularly outnumbered them.
British tactics, little changed from the Crimea, used at Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of winning battles against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake; Buller; Methuen, Roberts and Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to winkle Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of infantry assaults; with the same disastrous consequences as Colenso, Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.
Some of the most successful British troops were the non-regular regiments; the City Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who more easily broke from the habit of traditional European warfare, using their horses for transport rather than the charge, advancing by fire and manouevre in loose formations and making use of cover, rather than the formal advance into a storm of Mauser bullets.
Uniform: The British regiments made an uncertain change into khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer War, with the topee helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments in Natal devised aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By the end of the war the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers; the danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious emblems of rank emphasised in several engagements with disproportionately high officer casualties.
The British infantry were armed with the Lee Metford magazine rifle firing 10 rounds. But no training regime had been established to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon. Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were little taught. The idea of fire and movement was unknown, many regiments still going into action in close order. Notoriously General Hart insisted that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in Aldershot. Short of regular troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who brought new ideas and more imaginative formations to the battlefield.
The British regular troops lacked imagination and resource. Routine procedures such as effective scouting and camp protection were often neglected. The war was littered with incidents in which British contingents became lost or were ambushed often unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war was followed by a complete re-organisation of the British Army.
The British artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little training in the use of modern guns in battle. Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.
The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.
Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on special carriages accompanying the cavalry.
The memorial in Devonport to the Royal Marine and Royal Navy casualties
from HMS Doris during the Boer War, headed by Major Plumbe of the
Royal Marines, killed at Graspan. Major Plumbe's body was watched over
by his Jack Russell terrier for 6 hours until he was found.
Winner: The British.
Royal Horse Artillery: G and P Batteries.
Royal Field Artillery: 18th, 37th, 62nd and 75th Batteries.
Royal Engineers: 7th Field Company
Royal Army Medical Corps: 19th Field Hospital.
Army Service Corps
The Naval Brigade comprising Royal Navy and Royal Marines Light Infantry.
The Guards Brigade (Major General Colville)
3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards.
1st and 2nd Battalions, Coldstream Guards.
1st Battalion, Scots Guards.
9th Brigade (Major General Pole-Carew)
1st Northumberland Fusiliers: now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Manchester Regiment: now the King’s Regiment.
2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry: now the Light Infantry.
2nd North Lancashire Regiment: now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.
2nd Northamptonshire Regiment: now the Royal Anglian Regiment.
Lord Methuen’s task with his division was to force his way north up the railway to raise the Boer siege of Cecil Rhodes’s diamond town, Kimberley.
Methuen moved off from his forward base on the Orange River, with the Naval Brigade, the Guards Brigade, the 9th Brigade, the 9th Lancers, 2 batteries of artillery and Rimington’s scouts.
Arriving at Belmont station it was apparent that the Boers were in position on the range of Belmont Kopje behind the road to the North.
Methuen directed the Guards Brigade to advance by way of a night approach march up to the Boer positions. Delays caused by agricultural fencing and defective maps found the Guards well short of the line of Kopjes at dawn; the Boers opening fire on the exposed lines of Guardsmen stretching across the open ground at the bottom of the hillside. The 9th Brigade also found themselves in open veldt when dawn broke.
The two brigades launched their attack from the open ground up onto the hills under heavy rifle fire from the Boers entrenched on the crest.
The Boers did not wait for the final bayonet attack, hurrying away down the far hillside to where their ponies were tethered and riding back to the next line of kopjes, pursued for some distance by a small force of 9th Lancers and Mounted Infantry.
Following the battle for Belmont the Boers fell back to the next station on the line, Graspan, where the fighting was similar in pattern. The Boers occupied positions on the neighbouring kopjes and were this time assaulted by the Naval Brigade with the 9th Brigade. Again the infantry advanced across open country and stormed the Boers’ hilltop positions, a small force of 9th Lancers and Mounted Infantry giving chase to the Boers as they cantered away across the veldt on the far side of the hill line, inflicting some casualties.
The way was now open for Methuen to reach the Modder River; within striking distance of Kimberley.
Casualties: British casualties at Belmont were 200 and at Graspan 197. Boer casualties at each battle are unknown but are thought to have been slight.
Follow-up: Methuen marched his force up to the Modder River, where the Boers had assembled in strength by drawing off burghers from the siege lines around Kimberley and Mafeking. There Methuen fought the battles of Modder River and Magersfontein.
The conduct of the small Naval Brigade in storming the Boer hill top position at Graspan attracted considerable attention in the British Press. The public imagination was particularly taken by the Jack Russell of Major Plumbe from the Royal Marines found guarding the body of his dead master on the embattled hillside.
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be: