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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.

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.

Winner: The Boers failed to take Kimberley, finally relieved by the advancing British forces.

British Regiments:
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 Lieutenant McClintock
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.

Account:
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
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
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 division.

Lord Roberts enters Kimberley after the lifting of the seige
Lord Roberts enters Kimberley after the lifting of the siege
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Follow-up:
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.

References:

  • 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 partisan volumes)