The Siege of Kimberley
War: The Boer War
Date: 14th October 1899 to 15th February 1900.
Place: Northern Cape Colony in South Africa on the border
of the Orange Free State.
Combatants: British and South African colonial troops
against the Boers.
Commanded: The British garrison was commanded by Colonel Kekewich of
the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, assisted (or impeded) by Cecil
Rhodes, against General Cronje.
Size of the armies: 1,624 British troops against a varying
besieging force of Boers, around 6,500 with several guns.
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.
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.
Winner: The Boers failed to take Kimberley, finally
relieved by the advancing British forces.
Royal Garrison Artillery: 23rd Company with six 7 pounder mountain
guns commanded by Major Chamier
Royal Engineers: 1 section of 7th Field Company commanded by
Army Service Corps company commanded by Captain Gorle
Headquarters and 4 companies of the 1st Battalion Loyal North
Lancashire Regiment commanded by Major Murray.
Diamond Fields Artillery: six 7 pounder guns commanded by Major May.
Diamond Fields Horse commanded by Major Rodger.
Kimberley Regiment commanded by Colonel Finlayson.
Lying in the North West of Cape Colony on the western border
with the Orange Free State, Kimberley was the centre of Cecil
Rhodes’ De Beers diamond mining empire.
Rhodes was a major player in the slide to war between the two
Boer republics and Britain and a colossus on the South African
political scene. As war became imminent Rhodes moved from Cape Town
to Kimberley, forcing the commander-in-chief to send Lieutenant
Colonel Kekewich with half his battalion of the North Lancashire
Regiment to defend the town, that would otherwise have been left to
the advancing Boers.
The obligation to relieve Kimberley, stridently demanded by
Rhodes, hamstrung the actions of the British in the West, although
not to the extent that the need to relieve Ladysmith dictated
Buller’s strategy in Natal.
Colonel Kekewich: commander
of the Kimberley garrison
A capable and resourceful officer, Kekewich found he had nothing
like the free hand enjoyed by Baden-Powell in Mafeking. Kimberley
was De Beers; with most of the garrison made up of De Beers
employees. The essential resources of the town were controlled by De
Beers and therefore by Rhodes. Rhodes dictated the course of the
defence as much as did Kekewich.
On 14th October 1899 the Boers invaded the northern Cape Colony
and invested Kimberley beginning the siege.
George Labram, chief engineer at De Beers and a key member of the
garrison until his death, provided many services: a water supply
from the mine, building a gun in the De Beers workshops, “Long
Cecil”, and an armoured train and manufacturing ammunition.
On 6th November 1899 the Boers opened their bombardment of the town.
On 21st November 1899 Lord Methuen began his march north from
Orange River to relieve Kimberley. The garrison noticed groups of
Boers from the besieging force leaving for the South to reinforce
their brothers on the Modder River. Cronje left to command the
Transvaal forces opposing Methuen.
On 25th November 1899 the garrison launched a sortie on Carter’s
Ridge to the South West of the town, attempting to capture the Boer
artillery established on the high ground. The attack was a limited
success, catching the Boers by surprise but failing to take any of
the guns. Kekewich attempted a repeat attack trying again for the
guns on 28th November 1899. He directed the officer commanding the
assault, Lieutenant Colonel Scott-Turner, only to attack the
position if it was lightly held. The attack was maintained in spite
of the heavy reinforcements the Boer had introduced, killing
Scott-Turner and many of his men.
The siege continued with the garrison anxiously noting Methuen’s
progress north up the railway line towards Kimberley. On 11th
December 1899 Methuen suffered the severe reverse of Magersfontein,
destroying the prospects of early relief for the town. Rhodes
showered Buller with hysterical complaints.
In the new year of 1900, Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener arrived in
South Africa with substantial reinforcements, taking over the
command in chief from General Buller.
General French's Cavalry Division galloping across the Veldt in
the rush to relieve Kimberley
On Wednesday 7th February 1900 the Boers opened fire on Kimberley
with one of the Creusot Long Tom guns. The bombardment caused panic
in the population, provoking a lengthy crisis between Rhodes and
Kekewich. One of the casualties in the first days of the bombardment
was Labram, killed by a shell.
Kimberley was relieved on 15th February 1900 by General French’s
spectacular gallop across the Veldt with his Cavalry Division. This
dramatic action caused the loss of a high proportion of the cavalry
horses, overloaded and unused to the conditions, leaving the Cavalry
Division seriously weakened.
On his arrival, acting on Rhodes’ prompting, French sacked
Kekewich as the garrison commander, before leaving with his
The lifting of the siege of Kimberley had little impact on the
progress of the war, other than to reduce significantly the number
of mounted troops available to Lord Roberts, following French’s rash
gallop across the Veldt (likened to the progress of a torpedo).
Rhodes was released to make himself a nuisance on a wider stage; but
his influence was significantly reduced by his involvement in
bringing about the disastrous war.
- 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