The Battle of Belmont and Graspan
War: The Boer War
Date: 23rd and 25th November
Place: North West of Cape Colony in South Africa.
Combatants: British against the Boers.
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
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
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 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.
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
from HMS Doris during the Boer War, headed by Major Plumbe of the
Royal Marines, killed at Graspan. Major Plumbe's body was watched
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
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
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
Arriving at Belmont station it was apparent that the Boers
were in position on the range of Belmont Kopje behind the road to
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.
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
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.
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:
- The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
- The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
- South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly