South Africa’s Boer Fighters In The Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 Part I
Editor’s Note: The July 2012 issue of ARMCHAIR GENERAL magazine features two articles about South Africa’s Boer fighters – the Great Warriors department spotlights 1880-1902 Boer Fighters and the issue’s LEADER article subject is Gen. Louis Botha, one of the most famous Boer war leaders and later South Africa’s first Prime minister. This web article (Part I of a scheduled two-part article) by Boer descendant Deetlefs du Toit, a member of South Africa’s parliament, a serious and thoughtful student of military history and a longtime subscriber to ARMCHAIR GENERAL magazine, enhances and expands the July 2012 magazine articles by providing a wealth of additional information.
- Subscribe to Armchair General Magazine
- Subscribe online and save nearly 40%!
This article is not intended to be biased toward either side in South Africa’s late-19th century Anglo-Boer wars and is not meant to be either “Brit-bashing” or “Boer glorification.” Instead, the purpose is to provide more detailed information for those interested in military history to learn about the forces, tactics, weapons, environment and operations of the Anglo-Boer conflict that was a defining event in South African history. There are plenty of books written on this conflict between “Boer & Brit,” including numerous eyewitness accounts – one notable example of these eyewitness accounts was written by a young British officer serving as a war correspondent, Winston Churchill, who used the book and his newspaper dispatches on his South Africa adventures to launch his political career. Readers, therefore, can find ample information about the campaigns and battles of the Anglo-Boer Wars in previously published books. I have endeavored in this article, however, to go beyond what one typically finds in books on the war and to provide readers more details on the experience of how the war was actually fought.
The main Anglo-Boer conflict, the 1899-1902 Second Boer War, took place at an important crossroads in military history. It occurred during a transitional period in warfare when modern rifles, machine guns and artillery – soon proven to be incredibly efficient killing machines – were being introduced. The impact on the battlefield of these new weapons, in the skilled hands of those who knew how best to use this newly-evolving firepower, was tremendous. Those commanders who stubbornly tried to cling to the battle tactics of previous wars (such as the 1861-65 American Civil War and the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War) were exposed as being worse than simply ignorant – they were criminally negligent.
Indeed, the situation in the 1899-1902 South African war seems analogous to where we find ourselves today, over a century later. For just one example, consider this: The Mauser-armed Boers’ long range marksmanship, delivered with unerring accuracy by a mobile and almost invisible warrior, created havoc in enemy ranks not unlike that inflicted by today’s missile-armed drones – both Boer bullets then and today’s drone-carried missiles now arrive suddenly, as if out of nowhere, and inflict a devastating impact on their unsuspecting targets.
LANDSCAPE AND CLIMATE
The landscape of South Africa is such that only cavalry units can operate effectively over the vast distances and survive in the formidable conditions. The British ever-increasing use of cavalry units, traitors/informers and native mercenaries made the struggle difficult for the Boers. In the end, however, it was the destruction of each and every Boer farm, the confiscation or killing of all livestock, and the concentration camps that forced the surrender.
The areas over which the war was fought were mostly summer rainfall areas and ranged from open highland veld (similar to prairie and steppe), African bushveld savannah (similar to southwest Texas), and large areas of semi-desert like the Southwestern United States. Weather conditions are similar to those areas mentioned in the USA. Summers are very hot, and winter nights are cold, but seldom lower than minus 10 degrees Celsius at the coldest places. Snow usually only falls on the mountains and high escarpments, but melts within a few days, or weeks, in the case of mountain ridges and peaks.
In the Karroo part of the Cape Colony, water is scarce, but can be found any day if you have someone with you who knows the area, which usually was the case. Escarpment dominated landscapes in the Karroo made movement tricky.
As noted in the July 2012 Armchair General magazine Great Warriors article, the basic Boer combat formation was the Kommando, composed of Boer fighters numbering from as little as a dozen to several hundred. The Kommando system was based on the following:
Organization: Each area or district had its own Kommando, and obviously the size of the area was related to the population of the area or towns and its responsibilities. The Kommando was a militia force created in the 1700’s primarily to protect an area and the populace and their assets against raiding native tribes. The name of the Kommando was usually taken from the largest town in the area (e.g. Carolina, Pretoria, Senekal). Every burger (i.e. citizen) between 16 and 60 was on standby with immediate notice to be ready to report within a few hours to an assembly point stated in the notice. The message usually was delivered by a dispatch rider to people on his list, then each one notified another few on their list, and so on.
Size: The Kommando was not restricted to a certain size. It could be anything from platoon size (12-30 fighters) up to a regiment (2,000) or a brigade (5,000). The size depended on the task (therefore a truly “task force” concept) and the commander’s rank usually reflected the Kommando’s size (although rank and size might often be mismatched, such as in the case of the young and brilliant General Wynand Malan who often commanded small raiding forces, and General Jan Smuts who commanded only 200-500 men in some raids into the Cape colony).
Arms and Means: Every burger had to have at least one horse with saddle, a rifle with a minimum amount of cartridges , and usually 7 days of provisions to be kept ready in case of call-up. By the late-1800’s Germany’s most modern Mauser bolt action rifle with 5-round internal magazine was imported when war loomed, and was widely used by Kommando members. Provisions consisted of Biltong (dried, salted meat but more bulky than American jerky) dried homemade biscuits, and coffee with sugar. Extras in the form of home brewed “Mampoer” (Moonshine) was optional but always present. Blankets and bedrolls were attached to the saddles or a group’s were put on a horse or mule drawn cart. Cattle-drawn carts or wagons as typically used in British troop columns, suitable to accompany foot-slogging infantry, were considered too slow for military operations based on the cavalry concept. The Boers had no infantry and all ranks were mounted. As the war progressed, Boer Kommandos armed themselves with English Lee-Metford rifles captured from British POW’s in large numbers. This became necessary as the resupply of ammunition from British stocks was very convenient. Boer mule-drawn artillery, acquired from France and Germany, proved superior to British artillery. Also popular was the 37mm Maxim-Nordenfeldt automatic belt fed “Pom-Pom” gun. However, the “Pom-Pom” became an impediment to fast movement as the Boers ran out of ammunition for these pieces — the guns were subsequently put out of commission to prevent them falling into British hands when the British became more mobile with large cavalry units.
Boer forces were 100-percent mounted – there were no infantry footsloggers – and therefore extremely mobile. A dismounted Boer would soon become a captured Boer. In fact, many Boers had extra horses. The mobility potential in terms of ratio of horses to riders (frontline troops) was therefore at least 150-percent or even 200-percent in cases of large Boer formations. These extra horses were tended to by the "Agterryers" (meaning back-riders) who were on their own horses and who hand-held the extra horses and tended the few wagons or light and mobile horse- or mule-drawn carts. The “Agterryers” consisted of trustworthy native servants and the young boys from the family ranging 12-16 year olds.
Horse losses were always suffered, but were replaced by acquiring them from farmsteads or capturing mounts from British troops. This “remount service” was conducted throughout the vast areas of the two Boer republics, the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (Transvaal), the Oranje Vrystaat (Orange Free State) and especially the British Cape Colony.
Boer long range marksmanship became legendary during the Anglo-Boer wars. When combined with the Kommandos’ unexcelled mobility, this resulted in the ponderous and slow-moving British columns being constantly confronted by a blizzard of deadly accurate, long range Mauser fire from an opposing Boer force that was nearly impossible to catch and too costly to close with without suffering heavy casualties. Boer marksmen more than compensated for superior British numbers.
The British were astounded that they were shot out of the saddle on a galloping horse, even from an extremely difficult side shot. However, Boers were used to taking a lead on a running antelope during a lifetime of hunting, so could accurately and consistently judge the speed of their target. Boers could expertly judge the terrain’s mirage and wind conditions, as well as distance, and thus compensate for bullet drift and bullet drop. In the veld, the prevailing conditions vary widely and to those who had not grown up in the region are extremely confusing, especially trying to judge distance. Only an experienced marksman, thoroughly familiar with the conditions and practiced from years of hunting on the veld, could put a bullet on target.
All Boers hunted from a very young age – boys were sent into the veld and told to come back with a small antelope or stay there until they did. Boer marksmanship was the result of pure basics: shooting skills learned from waiting in ambush for antelope to appear; stalking antelope; correct breathing and trigger control; years of practice; and knowing one’s rifle and its capabilities. And in the German Mauser – reliable, solid bolt action, 5-round magazine for rapid fire, and excellent bullet/cartridge combination – Boers possessed the era’s finest rifle in the world.
When necessary, Boers could also shoot accurately from the saddle (they were already used to hunting from horseback). In full gallop charges on an enemy position, usually on mounted troopers or infantry not entrenched, the Boers shot from the saddle at point blank range, often preferring to use the Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” semi-automatic pistol or captured British revolvers.
Memorable Shot: General Wynand Malan wrote an account about how he and his fellow officer, a certain Hugo from the town of Ceres, were watching a skirmish by their small Kommando against a British force readying a threatening envelopment. Then, on a small hill a long way off, a few British riders appeared, dismounted and began observing the situation with binoculars. Clearly, these were British officers, prompting Malan to remark: “It was a fine opportunity for a fine shot. Hugo did not wait to be invited twice and promptly set his Mauser’s sights on 1,000 paces, took aim and the shot rang out. A few seconds later, a commotion was visible on the hill and later we learned from captured troops that the very Colonel that was so bent on catching us, was shot through the thigh on that occasion.” Hugo’s ability to instantly and accurately judge distance and conditions – the steep bullet drop when firing at 1,000 paces would cause the bullet to miss if the distance was misjudged even by 100-150 meters – is a remarkable testament to legendary Boer marksmanship.
Even New Recruits Were Deadly Marksmen: Another Boer advantage was that even new recruits arrived in Kommandos as experienced, deadly marksmen. One young Boer joined Malan’s Kommando, arriving with only a horse and without a rifle. Malan writes: “He was handed another man’s rifle and asked to shoot at a few ‘Khakies’ sitting on their horses a long way off, at least 600 to 700 paces distant. The first two shots were a miss, but on the third shot the ‘Khakie’ fell from his horse. The recruit then promptly and in quick succession shot three more ‘Khakies’ from the saddle with the next three shots before they realized what was happening. I’ve never seen such marksmanship with another man’s rifle.”
LOGISTICS AND RESUPPLY
The “Agterryers” accompanying Boer Kommandos would today be called the “logistics tail,” and they were usually also fully armed for combat. The Boers did not have the sophisticated and cumbersome military supply system used by European armies. They never had the need for it. Since the Boers never had any grand strategic plan to fight a major land war against a large, modern force, their doctrine never made provision for a war against the British. Instead, they had to adapt as best as possible to the unfolding circumstances. From the beginning, it was a war of mobility, ad-hoc supply and generally no front line, except on the Natal front in the beginning and the sieges of major towns. To this end, the Kommando system was well suited.
As the war progressed and the Boer republics were eventually overrun by the much larger British forces, small British garrisons (usually at least a platoon) were placed in each town, and the conflict entered the guerrilla warfare phase. There was no front line. Numerous Kommandos of different sizes roamed the countryside and lived off the land, ambushing the enemy when they could, and avoiding pitched battles against their more numerous enemy. Boers became dependent on the farmsteads and the enemy for resupply.
After several weeks or a few months "on Kommando," the Kommando would break up into smaller units and head for home, usually a few days ride away (averaging 50 km a day), get fresh horses, biltong, biscuits, ammunition and see to the needs of the family. Sometimes even planting and harvesting of crops was done. The Kommando, after breaking up, frequently fought on their way to and back from leave excursions. The British were constantly engaging these groups, a very confusing situation to them as to the purpose of the Boers’ movement. The Kommando would then re-converge at a specified future date in a designated area (sometimes only being met by messengers from the parent Kommando as a security precaution), and then proceed with operations.
MOVEMENT AND ENGAGEMENT BATTLE
Kommandos moved over the veld across an extended area, having broken up into smaller units to enable scouting and avoid ambushes of large units. Dispatch riders moved between Kommando groups to meet at predetermined places and times to keep the columns informed. This movement technique also confused the enemy on the size and objectives of Boer forces. Hoof prints and cart tracks thus crisscrossed the veld over a vast area and totally confused the enemy as to actual Boer numbers and intentions. Kommando movement was a “planned chaos with a loose order.”
Kommandos would re-converge to fight. When making contact with the enemy, the battle would be brought to bear and the enemy surrounded and wiped out by a fast-moving cavalry pincer movement. In the case of engaging superior British forces on foot, the enemy was carefully fixed, surrounded by reinforcement from other mobile Boer units, and then shot to pieces, often by full gallop charges in the final rout. Boers expertly shot from the saddle at point blank range — which in the case of superior Boer marksmanship was anything under 100 meters. When engaging British mobile cavalry forces, a running battle usually ensued, with the enemy eventually led into a trap by "retreating" forces, a tactical deployment as old as the steppe.
Memorable Engagement – The Last British Cavalry Charge: On one memorable occasion described by the famous general Wynand Malan, his small detachment of less than 25 horsemen, including the single mule-drawn artillery piece, fought a leapfrogging running battle for at least six hours. In turn the Boer artillery piece and the horsemen would cover each other. On their tail was a brigade of 5,000 British horsemen ready to use the lance and sword. Accurate Mauser fire kept the cavalry at bay during the drawn-out pursuit lasting from early morning till after midday. Just when things turned ugly with the mules getting exhausted, the British force ran into the main Kommando’s trap. With commanders and scouts on a low ridge, a force of approximately 1,000 Boers dismounted in an extended line and faced the British cavalry, the well trained horses standing calmly a few paces behind their owners. The British, true to their spirit and hunger for the lance and sword cavalry charge – outdated since the Balaclava Charge of the Light Brigade and the American civil war – halted and “displayed a fine performance of lining up shiny squadrons” as Malan put it. With 5 bullets in each magazine, the Mausers waited. The British “shouted neat orders and the movement started” Malan described. The British were “at full gallop to the thunderous sound of 5,000 horses’ hoofs when the rattle of the Mausers started. There was complete pandemonium as rider-less horses got out of control and horses were shot from under their riders.” Amazingly, the British fell back and lined up again. A second charge was shot to pieces. The Boers then successfully and in good order broke off the engagement as from the ridge could be seen that the British cavalry brigade’s artillery was brought forward and a flanking movement was forming up.
FRONT LINE BATTLE
The Boers recognized that charging on horseback at entrenched infantry with rapid fire magazine-fed bolt action rifles capable of firing accurately at a large object like a horse over 1,000 meters was sheer folly. Why risk or waste your only means of transport and mobility? So the Boers fought dismounted most of the time. The youngsters, the old men or the servants kept the horses safely out of danger. Boers would also frequently break off engagements, to the British seemingly prematurely, but for a number of reasons. One was the preservation of the horses, to keep them out of harm’s way. Even a single bullet hitting a non-lethal place on a horse can doom a horse to the camp kitchen – and without his horse, consign the rider to a POW camp in Ceylon or St. Helena island.
Another reason was that the British outnumbered the Boers 10 to 1 and after their initial foolishness of mounting walking pace, headlong assaults on well hidden, often entrenched superior marksman second to none in the world, the British got clever and started to use the flanking movement especially on the open plains of the Boer republics.
The way in which the Kommando organized, reorganized and fought was truly a 100-percent cavalry war. The large numbers in which machine guns were employed subsequent to the Anglo-Boer war eventually led to armored warfare, with the same “cavalry” tactics.
NO BRITISH PRISONERS OF WAR
No prisoners could be taken, as the Boers had no means to keep them prisoner nor any place to hold and feed them – and Boer mounted Kommandos could not risk being slowed down with dismounted POWs. British prisoners were therefore relieved of their boots (going barefoot on the veld was a real immobilizer), rifles, ammunition and frequently pants (the one item of British uniforms that Boers could wear without being mistaken at a distance for the enemy and thereby risking getting a “friendly-fire” bullet through the head). Freeing British prisoners also had a negative effect on British forces’ performance in battle as it encouraged quick surrenders after British soldiers discovered that the Boers would immediately release them if captured – the choice between having to endure a blizzard of deadly Boer Mauser fire or quickly and safely surrendering was usually a “no-brainer.”
General Maritz once complained that he captured the same British soldier 3 times in one day and had to let him go each time. However, Maritz noted that his Kommandos profited from each capture since the British soldier was fully outfitted every time they caught him.
THIS ARTICLE WILL CONTINUE IN “PART II” TO BE POSTED AT A LATER DATE
About the Author: Deetlefs du Toit, MP, of Paarl, South Africa, has been a member of the South African parliament since 2009, serving on the committees for Public Accounts, Agriculture/Fisheries/Forestry, and Public Service & Administration. An Afrikaner, he grew up on a vineyard farm, graduated from Stellenbosch University (political science and business management & administration) and served in the South African Defence Force (SADF) in which he was a marksman and participated in various tactical deployments. His interests include shooting sports (target, black powder and military shooting), equestrian sports, mountaineering and swimming. He is an avid student of military history and of international political and economic affairs.