South Africa’s Boer Fighters In The Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 Part II
Editor’s Note: Deetlefs du Toit of South Africa continues his in-depth examination of Boer Fighters in the Anglo-Boer Wars in this second part of his article. As in Part I of his article, du Toit provides more detailed information to enhance and expand upon ARMCHAIR GENERAL print magazine’s GREAT WARRIORS and LEADER articles in the July 2012 issue. South Africa’s Boers were mainly farmers who were descendants of the region’s original Dutch settlers. However, when Imperial Britain invaded their country in the late-19th century, the Boers took up arms to defend their homes and families and fiercely oppose British imperialism during two major conflicts: the First Boer War (1880-81) and Second Boer War (1899-1902).
Please click here to read Part 1.
SCORCED EARTH AND CONCENTRATION CAMPS
After suffering severe setbacks fighting the Boers in direct combat (see Part I of this article), the British eventually changed their strategy to one targeting the Boers means of subsistence and support by adopting a ruthless scorched earth policy. When the entire ZAR and Orange Free State were destroyed in a scorched earth campaign by the British – killing all livestock and burning the lands and farmsteads – the only source of Boer resupply became the enemy. More than 50,000 farms were destroyed. The elderly, women and children that had up to then lived on the farms, were forcefully removed under terrible circumstances and placed in “concentration” camps in which many died from disease, starvation and appalling conditions.
A British woman, Emily Hobhouse, was instrumental in the efforts by a section of the British public who became aware of the true conditions in the concentration camps to alleviate the suffering. She is considered as the greatest female hero in Afrikaner history, although not an Afrikaner herself. She is honored by being buried at the monument (Vrouemonument in Bloemfontein) to the women and children who died in the concentration camps. Many native Africans were also put into concentration camps by British forces and they experienced similar suffering.
Living Off the British: Since the logistical and resupply basis of the Boer Kommando system was the farmsteads (as the British had occupied the Boer towns), once the farmsteads were destroyed Boers were forced to capture supplies from the British (called "Khakies" by their Boer opponents, the name referring to the British uniforms’ Khaki color). Frequent Boer raids on supply trains and depots were mounted, and gradually more and more Boers were armed with Lee-Metford rifles and ate British “Bully Beef” (tinned meat rations) or whatever British stocks could offer. In the British colonies of Cape Colony and Natal, the people were British subjects, and regardless of their language (Afrikaans or English) or race (European or African) the British army could not destroy their farmsteads and farms. This made the very large Cape Colony a tempting target and convenient base of supplies for Boer Kommandos. The Natal colony, however, was not suitable for Kommando raids since it was sandwiched between the kingdom of Zululand and the Drakensberg mountain escarpment, profound barriers to mounted operations. A few passes and access routes existed between the Boer republics and Natal that could easily be blocked by a few British battalions, and would result in the Boer raiders there being cut off. Ammunition, firearms, horses and basically all means to wage war were acquired from captured British columns or enemy logistical bases in almost every town and village.
“FRONTIER” CONDITIONS BRED TOUGH MEN AND HARDY HORSES
Although not militaristic by nature, a lifetime spent living on the African veld under extremely adverse conditions made Boers tough, hardy, independent and inured to the hardships that they faced on campaigns during the war. Long hunting trips by horse and sometimes cart, and frequent overnight work in the saddle tending to cattle and hunting down predators in all weather and terrain conditions made the Boers tough. Isolation on farms far from towns bred innovation and developed independent skills, much like all frontier people all over the world. Many Boer townsfolk were equally tough, hardy and independent.
Boer Horses: South Africa’s “frontier” environment and severe conditions required that the Boers’ horses be exceptionally hardy. The type of horses were called "Boerperd" (literally farmer’s horse), nowadays a breed but in those days the same mixture of types that one would have found on an American Civil War battlefield, although with one principal type dominating. Heavier horses like plough horses or cart horses were not used. These larger work horses were obviously not fast enough to propel Boer Kommandos nimbly across the veld and their larger size made them too heavily dependent on fodder. Although the Boers had a variety of mixed breeds, one principal type dominated — a mix of English Thoroughbred and Arabians (numerous in South Africa at the time of the war) and nowadays known as Anglo- Arab. Many English Thoroughbreds had been brought to South Africa after the British takeover of the Cape Colony in 1805-06, while quite a few Arabians were acquired from trade with the Middle East and North Africa. The English Thoroughbred of that time was actually quite tough and when bred with the Arabian resulted in a horse with long endurance. The resulting mixed breed was fast, nimble, strong with good endurance and was used for riding, hunting, sport and light farm work.
Of course, everything was used that could carry a man reasonably well, but what became known as the Anglo-Arab horse breed proved the most useful and popular. However, it took quite some investigation into the numbers of different horse breeds that came into South Africa over the centuries as well as poring over contemporary surviving descriptions for researchers to derive the breed’s bloodlines. But, it is now generally accepted that mainly English Thoroughbred and Arabian blood were in the veins of the average "Boerperd" at the time of the Boer war. My grandfather, who lived in the time when horses were being replaced by automobiles, was full of praise for the Thoroughbred- Arab breed — so by that time it must have been the first choice. Speed, power and endurance were valued and that breed had them all.
A Horse Named “Very Nice”: Captured British horses were carefully selected. General Wynand Malan once relieved a British officer of his horse which, according to Malan, was a first class horse. Malan promptly named it “Very Nice.” One can presume that was likely the General’s comment to the British officer when Malan took possession of it. “Very Nice” served Malan well and outpaced many a pursuing British “posse,” as well as catching many a hapless “Khaki” trying to escape capture. Unfortunately, and like countless other horses caught up in the fighting, “Very Nice” did not survive the war as Malan did.
THE DANIE THERON VERKENNERSKORPS [RECONNAISANCE CORPS]
Undoubtedly, the Danie Theron Verkennerskorps was the best Kommando of all the Boer forces. The unit was under the leadership of Captain (later Kommandant) Danie Theron, the founder of the unit, until his death on Gatsrant outside Krugersdorp. All members were volunteers and selection criteria was strict. The purpose of this unit was to act as a reconnaissance screen for the larger Kommandos. They frequently fought skirmishes with British forces trying to capture or trap the larger Kommandos, such as the one led by the legendary General Christiaan de Wet. De Wet was never captured by the British, and was considered by his British opponents to be the greatest Boer guerrilla commander of the war.
Soon called Theron Verkennerskorps, or TVK, the unit grew in numbers, especially from “Cape Rebel” volunteers, and became the backbone of many Kommandos that executed numerous successful operations. Eventually, however Theron’s corps broke up into smaller units as the war progressed, and even the larger Kommandos became smaller as the fighting dragged on. Some of these units were commanded by very able and brave officers who led from the front and later rose to the rank of Kommandant or General, such as Wynand Malan, Manie Maritz, Gideon Scheepers and others.
“JOINERS,” BRITAIN’S AFRICAN TROOPS AND CAPE REBELS
Both the British and the Boers augmented their fighting forces or “recruited” individuals or groups to surreptitiously aid their respective causes with local civilian residents or from the native African population that had not yet been directly involved in the war.
“Joiners”: Boers who became spies and informers for the British were derisively called “Joiners” (since they had “joined” the British) by loyal Boers. Their motivation for betraying their fellow Boers varied: some wanted British pay; some benefitted by being given farms confiscated by the British from Boer fighters; others were out to settle old scores against personal enemies fighting in Boer ranks; many did so out of desperation to save their families (women and children) from certain death in British concentration camps where thousands were dying. Whatever their motivation, their British service resulted in “Joiners” being despised and shunned after the war, including the prohibition for Boer women marrying into “Joiner” families. Although some “Joiners” moved to larger towns and cities in an effort to get “lost in the crowd,” most “Joiners” carried the traitor stigma for the rest of their lives.
Britain’s Native African Troops: Considered especially outrageous by Boers was the British use of native African troops (serving for pay or other inducements), particularly due to the manner in which Britain used the Africans. To preserve British troop strength for the “fighting war,” the British typically used their native African troops behind the lines to round up Boer families (as well as rounding up many native Africans working for Boers or simply “caught in the middle” of the war) and transport them to the squalid concentration camps in which thousands of women and children – Boers and native Africans alike – died or suffered terrible hardship. During these forcible round ups of civilians, numerous outrages and frequent instances of brutality by African troops occurred – including many contemporary accounts of “molestation” of Boer women (“molestation” being the Victorian era code word for rape and sexual abuse). Inevitably, this bred an enduring legacy of ill-feeling and resentment between Boers and native Africans that only exacerbated already strained race relations.
Cape Rebels: While the British used “Joiners” and native African troops to support their operations, the Boers proved adept at recruiting “British subjects” to aid their cause, in particular Boer residents of Britain’s Cape Colony. However, since Boers living in the British Cape Colony were technically British subjects, those that helped Boer fighters were considered traitors by the British. When caught, these “Cape Rebels” could be shot by firing squad or hanged. Many did pay the ultimate price; but many more were never caught or managed to keep their true identity and anti-British activities secret. The “Cape Rebels” were invaluable for supporting Boer raids into the Cape Colony, serving as guides, contacts, messengers, couriers and as combat volunteers.
Both Generals Malan and Maritz considered the “Cape Rebel” Boers amongst their bravest and best soldiers. Most of them were young and willingly subjected themselves to the officers’ discipline. They came from almost all of the towns in the Cape Colony, so the raiding Kommandos were kept well informed of the areas they were operating in and knew which farmers and people could be trusted.
INTELLIGENCE NETWORK IN THE CAPE COLONY
The Boers had a very good intelligence network, absolutely vital during the Anglo-Boer War’s guerrilla warfare phase. Farms in the Cape Colony were an important source of information, food, shelter and even replacement horses. Many horses were “loaned” and later returned on the next excursion, replaced by a fresh set of horses.
Many non-combatant Boer farmers and their families in the Cape Colony had to play a double role. There are many examples of these Cape Colony Boers, caught in the middle between warring Brit & Boer, feeding the British and British collaborators with “reliable” information about Boer forces in the area – of course leaving out essential details. Thus, these Boer secret supporters could aid the Kommandos while avoiding being targeted by the British. As apparently “loyal” British subjects, the Cape Colony Boers could claim that they were “forced” by the Kommandos to feed them and to give up their horses “at gun point.” As long as they “reported” these activities (usually a day too late for the British to do anything about it) there was little proof that they were being disloyal or acting contrary to British interests.
The African native population living on farms and in settlements was in many cases either intimidated or bought by the British to report on Boer movements. This presented the Boers with a major problem since the information provided could lead to Boer Kommandos being cornered. African natives caught by the Boers spying for the British were frequently shot out of hand, as it was considered that “this was not their war” and they should stay out of it.
THE BOERS’ FOREIGN VOLUNTEERS
Many foreigners, including Irish, Scots, French, Germans, Swedes, Russians and many other nationalities, fought on the Boer side during the war. A substantial number of these foreign volunteers came from among the large foreign population living and working in the “Rand” (Witwatersrand where gold was discovered and subsequently drew many foreigners to work the mines and support the industries arising around them). However, a large number of foreign volunteers also came directly from their native countries to join the Boer cause.
BLOCKHOUSES, BARBED WIRE AND RAILWAYS
Eventually, British forces fighting the war numbered more than 500,000 and this large force allowed the British to establish numerous garrisons and strong points at key locations. Typically, the British would erect sturdy “blockhouses” of various descriptions and types of construction on the outskirts as well as inside of all the towns occupied by the British. They were placed to mutually protect one another and were built sturdily enough to withstand the fire of the small arms with which Boer Kommandos were armed.
Since British trains were frequently attacked and railways were often blown up by Boer raiders, railway lines were also covered by blockhouses over the complete length of the line and erected within shooting range of one another — usually about 400 to 800 meters apart, depending on the topography of the area. Additionally, strategic passes, railway bridges over rivers and dry riverbeds along railway lines, and important roads were protected by substantial blockhouses. These blockhouses were really small forts of three to four stories high and garrisoned by up to a platoon of British troops.
Railway lines divided the countryside into sectors and were heavily protected by barbed wire between the blockhouses. Barbed wire entanglements were anchored horizontally 6-12 inches from the ground to provide a barrier against horses. These barbed wire entanglements often were more troublesome than the blockhouses themselves.
Both Generals Manie Maritz and Wynand Malan wrote that they frequently attacked blockhouses successfully and occupied towns for short periods. Accurate Boer covering fire was aimed at the blockhouses’ small shooting ports — resulting in head shots or wounds from ricochets inside the blockhouses — while Boer assault teams stormed the blockhouses using home-made “bombs” made from dynamite to get the enemy out or to surrender.
BRITISH TACTICS CHANGE
With their overwhelming advantage in numbers, it is not surprising that the envelopment became the favorite British maneuver after the hard lessons they had learned from their foolhardy charges into the barrels of the Boers’ Mausers. This was countered by the outnumbered Boers by extremely rapid and accurate rifle fire into the vanguard of these enveloping wings for as long as possible. Then, the Boers would fall back and repeat the process.
At the end of the day, the Boers would vanish into the night and the British would have suffered a disproportionate number of casualties.
LUCK, BLUFF, UNIFORMS AND NARROW ESCAPES
Boer eyewitness accounts are filled with stories of incredible luck, incidents of bluffing themselves out of a sticky situation or bluffing the British into a tight spot.
Daring Horse Stealing Raid: In one daring raid in broad daylight, Wynand Malan and a few riders proceeding at a walking pace, rounded up approximately 200 unsaddled British horses while the British were resting under the trees after lunch time. Apparently Malan and his men were not recognized as Kommando members and were mistaken for collaborators or British riders, not expecting Boers to be so cheeky as to do such a thing.
Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Apparently, the British had trouble recognizing Boer riders when they acted “British,” like riding into a British patrol encampment while talking English to each other. Many Boers were fluent in English, and some Kommandos even had Irish and Scottish volunteers with them. Such a British patrol would then be held up at point blank range by a few Boers and the British troops’ weapons, horses and uniforms taken.
In the war’s final two years, Boers wore such a mix of private clothing (their original “going to war” attire) and captured British uniforms (practical replacements for Boer clothing “used up” in hard campaigning), that the British frequently mistook Boers for their own “colonial troops” or for British collaborators, as they were dressed the same. The “uniforms” confusion was further prompted by the dress adopted by British troops as the war dragged on. The British realized that the practical broad-brimmed hats worn by the Boers were much better protection in the sunbaked veld than the hot and cumbersome pith helmets they were issued. Therefore, the British khaki uniform jacket was the single visible item of clothing that distinguished combatants at a distance (apart from smaller accoutrements, such as ammunition bandoliers). However, since the Boers frequently wore British khaki jackets, there are some reports of captured “Boers wearing khaki” being shot for wearing “British uniforms.”
Narrow Escape: Stories abound about narrow escapes — of horses shot from under their riders more than once in a single day for example — but none seems as incredible as the narrow escape from what seemed certain death of General Wynand Malan. Late in the war as General Jan Smuts and others were at peace talks taking place in the north, Malan and his Kommando were raiding in the eastern part of Cape Colony 1,000 kilometers to the south. A few days before the end of the war, while fighting in an ambush his Kommando had sprung on British troops, Malan was shot cleanly through the chest from armpit to armpit. The bullet passed just above his heart yet missed all vital arteries and other vessels. His shoulders and arms were not hit at all, indicating that his arms must have been raised holding a rifle in the shooting position while his raised arms exposed his armpits on both sides. Heavily wounded but remaining conscious, Malan was removed from the battlefield and later brought to the British for medical treatment. The British doctor who treated Malan was astounded. He considered Malan the luckiest man of the whole war, as the doctor had never seen a man not killed instantly or die within a few moments after a shot through that part of the body. Yet, incredibly, after a few weeks Malan was back on his feet.
The peace – the Treaty of Vereeniging — was signed on May 31, 1902, thus ending the Second Anglo-Boer War with a British victory. However, Malan was not sent to a POW camp.
AN UNFORTUNATE BOER WAR LEGACY
In addition to Imperial Britain defeating the independent Boer republics and adding southern Africa to its global empire, the 1899-1902 Boer War had unintended and dire political consequences for the future of South Africa. Before the war, the different racial groups throughout the entire region lived separately in more or less their own lands — these consisted of the two Boer republics, the two British colonies and various native African kingdoms. At that point, there were some treaties in place between groups, but the situation was far from ideal and many differences among the races existed.
Unfortunately, during the Boer War – fought between what were essentially two European nations, Boer and British — native African volunteers and mercenaries were pulled into this conflict, largely on the side of the British who had greater powers of persuasion and much more money to foot the bill. During and after the war this led to great animosity between Boers and native Africans, a fact that has been frequently overlooked by historians. Additionally, the increase in mining and industrialization made the situation worse and fomented even more Boer resentment by prompting a huge migration of African labor. After the Boer War, in 1910 all the lands within the boundaries of South Africa were thrown together — the “eggs became scrambled,” so to speak, in a unitary state of four provinces with various African tribal trust lands created within these provinces. Once scrambled, the omelet could not be unscrambled.
In the political dispensation that followed in the wake of the establishment of The Union of South Africa on May 31, 1910 the native African population was left out of the political arena completely (although the mixed-race group in Cape Colony was included, as it had been before). The large native African majority, however, was simply a political dilemma for which neither Boer nor Brit had an answer. The 1913 Land Act was another mistake that made an unfortunate situation even worse.
The rest is history and the official policy of Apartheid – strict segregation of the races – established in 1948 was a misguided effort by Afrikaners, as a minority in a unitary state who had lost their independence during the Anglo-Boer war, to regain it sometime in the future. Afrikaners at that time argued that this could not be done by giving the vote to another majority.
Independence from Britain eventually came, again on the symbolic date of May 31, this time in 1961. But, the Apartheid system – essentially a legacy of the Boer War — was kept in place. However, the injustices of such a system could not endure indefinitely. The world changed and so, eventually, did South Africa. However, one is left to ponder how the Afrikaner’s history would have been different if there had been no Anglo-Boer war, and what policies might have evolved that would have ensured independence for all of the inhabitants of a small nation.
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.