War: The Boer War
Date: 5th February to 28th February 1900.
Place: The Tugela River, Northern Natal in
Combatants: British against the Boers.
General Sir Redvers Buller against General Botha.
Size of the armies: 20,000 British against between 4,000 to 8,000 Boers, as they returned to their commandos.
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.
British Royal Navy 4.7 inch guns bombard Boer positions during the battle of Pieters Hill
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: Finally the British.
The British Order of Battle:
Cavalry (Earl of Dundonald)
1st Royal Dragoons
Bethune’s Mounted Infantry
Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry
South African Light Horse
Imperial Light Horse
Imperial Light Infantry
Second Division under Lieutenant General Sir C. F. Clery
2nd Brigade (commanded by Major General Hildyard)
2nd East Surreys
2nd West Yorks
2nd Queen’s West Surreys
4th Brigade (commanded by Major General Lyttelton)
1st Rifle Brigade
1st Durham Light Infantry
3rd King’s Royal Rifles
2nd Scottish Rifles (the old 90th Light Infantry)
Squadron of the 14th Hussars
7th, 14th and 66th Batteries, Royal Field Artillery (less 10 guns lost at Colenso)
5th Irish Brigade (commanded by Major General Hart)
1st Inniskilling Fusiliers
1st Connaught Rangers
1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers
1st Border Regiment
6th Fusilier Brigade (commanded by Major General Barton)
2nd Royal Fusiliers
2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers
1st Royal Welch Fusiliers
2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers
Squadron 14th Hussars
63rd, 64th and 73rd Batteries Royal Field Artillery.
Fifth Division (Lieutenant General Sir Charles Warren)
10th Brigade (commanded by Major General Coke)
2nd Dorset Regiment
2nd Middlesex Regiment
Eleventh Brigade (commanded by Major General Woodgate)
2nd King’s Royal Lancaster Regiment
2nd Lancashire Fusiliers
1st South Lancashire Regiment
1st York and Lancashire Regiment
19th, 20th and 28th Batteries Royal Field Artillery.
2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers
2nd Somerset Light Infantry
61st Battery (Howitzers)
Natal Battery with 9 pounders
Battery of six Royal Navy 12 pounders
4th Mountain Battery
4.7 Inch Royal Navy guns
British cavalry crossing the Tugela River by the pontoon bridge in its
second position during the Battle of Pieters Hill
In October 1899 Lieutenant General Sir Redvers Buller found arrived in South Africa as the new British commander-in-chief against the Boers.
Buller was an old South Africa hand and had urged that until reinforcements arrived for the outnumbered garrison, the British troops should remain well back out of reach of the invading Boer armies.
The stop gap commanders in chief, Major General Sir Pen Symons and Lieutenant General Sir George White ignored this advice; in Symons case taking the outnumbered British force across the Tugela into the northern tip of Natal; followed by White’s failure on taking over with the death of Symons to pull the force back swiftly enough in the face of the Boer invasion of Natal.
The Boers engulfed White’s troops in the town of Ladysmith and the siege began.
All freedom of movement was lost to Buller who incurred the overwhelming obligation of relieving the British troops in Ladysmith; it being inconceivable that they surrender.
Buller’s task was to force the Boer positions on the banks of the Tugela and fight into Ladysmith; no easy undertaking in the face of thousands of determined Transvaal and Orange Free State nationalists, well entrenched on the river banks and hills, armed with modern artillery and magazine rifles that they used with great expertise.
View of Pieters Hill from south of the Tugela River showing lines of British infantry
moving up the hill towards the Boer trenches on the crest
Buller’s first attempt to force the Tugela positions came to grief at Colenso on 15th December 1899; his second notoriously defeated at Spion Kop on 24th January 1900.
Buller’s third attempt was at Val Krantz, on the left flank of the Boer positions around Spion Kop, beginning in the early hours of 5th February 1900.
The British long range naval guns shelled the line of kops on the far bank of the Tugela while the Lancashire Brigade demonstrated across the river at Potgeiter’s Drift.
The real attack force, Lyttelton’s Fourth Brigade, crossed by a pontoon bridge at Munger’s Drift a mile to the East of Potgeiter’s and headed for Val Krantz, the hill a the bend in the river.
The deliberate slowness with which Buller permitted Lyttelton’s force to begin the attack and the sight of the single pontoon bridge being assembled at Munger’s Drift gave the Boers ample warning that the true line of assault was up onto Val Krantz.
The battalions of the Fourth Brigade, comprising 1st Durham Light Infantry, 3rd King’s Royal Rifles,1st Rifle Brigade and 2nd Scottish Rifles (the old 90th Regiment), with the 2nd Devons from Hildyard’s brigade, scaled Val Krantz driving the Boers from the lower slopes of the hill and coming under heavy fire from the surrounding higher positions. The initial plan was for Hildyard’s Brigade of 2nd East Surreys, 2nd Queen’s West Surreys, 2nd Devons, and 2nd West Yorkshires to cross the Tugela immediately after Lyttelton and storm Green Hill. The cavalry brigade would then cross and make for Ladysmith followed by Hart’s brigade. But the ever hesitant Buller lost all confidence in the attack as Lyttelton crossed and cancelled the order to Hildyard to cross the river, leaving Lyttelton to make the assault alone.
The Boers, only some 1,200 in number, were led by Viljoen in a spirited defence of Val Krantz, while the Boer rifle and artillery fire built up from the surrounding hills. The Boers were in considerable difficulty. The spectacular success of Spion Kop, reminiscent of the Boer victory on the hilltop in the First Boer War, Majuba Hill, persuaded many of the Boers, including General Botha, that the British would now sue for peace, as they had in 1881 and they had gone home. Hurrying back in the face of the threat of a further attack by Buller they arrived during the days of Val Krantz and afterwards.
Buller’s reaction to the stiffening resistance was to order Lyttelton to abandon the attack and retreat. Lyttelton ignored the order and called for reinforcements.
Lyttelton urged Buller in particular to bring more troops across the
river and attack Doorn Kloof, the hill position on his right flank.
But Buller convinced himself the Boer positions were too strong to
be forced. The most Buller would risk was to reinforce Lyttelton
with Hildyard’s brigade.
At dawn on 6th February 1900 the Boer artillery began a heavy bombardment with guns that had been brought up during the night.
Lyttelton and other generals urged Buller he had to commit more troops and expand the position by attacking Doorn Kloof. A council of war was held but Buller could not be persuaded to take the risk. On the Thursday night the operation was abandoned and the British troops withdrew across the Tugela River, ending the battle known as Val Krantz.
The British suffered 400 casualties and Buller attracted the nicknames of “the Tugela Ferryman” and “Sir Reverse Buller.”
Buller’s fourth and final attack across the Tugela began on 12th February 1900 further east at Colenso. A force of Byng’s South African Light Horse assaulted Hussar Hill, which they took. Buller arrived and ordered the hill to be abandoned, the whole force retiring to the base at Chievely.
On 14th February 1900 Buller resumed the attack, taking Hussar Hill again. From there the offensive assumed an unstoppable momentum. The British troops moved from hill to hill pushing back the despondent Boers (their morale sinking at the news of defeat from in the West). The hills of Cingolo, Monte Cristo and finally Hlangwane were taken, forcing the Boers back across the Tugela. Buller, ever cautious, failed to launch his troops in a pursuit of the retreating Boers.
The next stage involved the inevitable attack across the Tugela. Buller decided to launch the assault west of Colenso, although this was on the ground covered by the disastrous Colenso battle.
In the lull as Buller decided on the next move and the pontoon bridge was laid across the Tugela the eccentric General Warren had his bath assembled and stripped naked to take a wash. He did it, he claimed, to amuse the troops. Buller arrived during the proceedings.
The artillery moving up to the river, a heavy bombardment was opened on the Boer positions in the hills to the north of the Tugela. Buller’s infantry crossed the river and began an assault on the string of hills along the bank of the river from West to East, called Horseshoe, Wynne’s and Innskilling Hills. Casualties were high and there was little success.
Barton's brigade storm the Boer positions on the crest of the hill
On 27th February 1900 the pontoon bridge was moved to a position further east along the river and the army launched an attack across the Tugela on the hills leading to Ladysmith. In the final fighting of the battle Barton’s Brigade captured Pieter’s Hill, Norcott’s 4th Brigade (Norcott had taken over from Lyttelton who now commanded the Division) moved to relieve Hart on Inniskilling Hill and Kitchener’s 11th Brigade took Railway Hill. The Boer positions crumbled and they retreated in some confusion towards the border, joined by the Boers from the siege lines around Ladysmith. Ladysmith was relieved the next day and the Boer invasion of Natal was brought to a close.
Casualties: This extended period of fighting cost the British around 3,000 casualties, 500 of them suffered by Hart’s brigade during the attack on Inniskilling Hill. The Boers probably suffered around 1,500 casualties.
The attack across the Tugela by Barton’s, Norcott’s and Kitchener’s brigades is described as the one occasion when Buller behaved as a general; committing his forces in strength in a co-ordinated attack. This period of inspiration was soon over leaving the old Buller, timid and a pray to self-doubt. As the Boer army broke up in retreat Dundonald and other generals urged Buller to unleash his cavalry in pursuit. That it was a golden opportunity is confirmed by Denys Reitz in his book “Commando”. Buller unwilling to assume any risk refused. White attempted to launch his cavalry and horse artillery after the retreating Boers but the troops and horses broke down within a few miles from malnourishment.
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:
Books solely on the fighting in Natal:
For a view of the fighting in Natal from the Boer perspective: