With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

Appendix: The Strength of the Boer Army

The War Departments of the two Boer Governments never made any provision for obtaining statistics concerning the strength of the armies in the field, and consequently the exact number of burghers who bore arms at different periods of the war will never be accurately known. A year before the war was begun the official reports of the two Governments stated that the Transvaal had thirty thousand and the Free State ten thousand men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, capable of performing military duties, but these figures proved to be far in excess of the number of men who were actually bearing arms at any one period of the war. In the early stages of the war men who claimed to have intimate knowledge of Boer affairs estimated the strength of the Republican armies variously from sixty thousand to more than one hundred thousand men. Major Laing, who had years of South African military experience, and became a member of Field-Marshal Lord Roberts's bodyguard, in December estimated the strength of the Boer forces at more than one hundred thousand men, exclusive of the foreigners who joined the fortunes of the Republican armies. Other men proved, with wondrous arrays of figures and statistics, that the Boer army could not possibly consist of less than eighty or ninety thousand men.

The real strength of the Boer armies at no time exceeded thirty thousand armed men, and of that number more than one-half were never in the mood for fighting. If it could be ascertained with any degree of accuracy it would be found that not more than fifteen thousand Boers were ever engaged in battles, while the other half of the army remained behind in the laagers and allowed those who were moved by the spirit or by patriotism to volunteer for waging battles. As has been pointed out in other chapters, the officers had no power over their men, and consequently the armies were divided into two classes of burghers: those who volunteered their services whenever there was a battle, and those who remained in the laagers—the "Bible-readers," as they were called by some of the more youthful Boers. There were undoubtedly more than thirty thousand men in the Republics capable of bearing arms, but it was never possible to compel all of them to go to the front, nor was it less difficult to retain them there when once they had reached the commando-laagers. Ten per cent. of the men in the commandos were allowed to return to their homes on leave of absence, and about an equal proportion left the laagers without permission, so that the officers were never able to keep their forces at their normal strength.

The War Departments at Pretoria and Bloemfontein and the officers of the commandos at the front had no means of learning the exact strength of the forces in the field except by making an actual enumeration of the men in the various commandos, and this was never attempted. There were no official lists in either of the capitals and none of the commandos had even a roll-call, so that to obtain a really accurate number of burghers in the field it was necessary to visit all the commandos and in that way arrive at a conclusion.

Early in December the Transvaal War Department determined to make a Christmas gift to all the burghers of the two Republics who were in the field, and all the generals and commandants were requested to send accurate lists of the number of men in their commands. Replies were received from every commando, and the result showed that there were almost twenty-eight thousand men in the field. That number of presents was forwarded, and on Christmas day every burgher at the front received one gift, but there were almost two thousand packages undistributed. This was almost conclusive proof that the Boer armies in December did not exceed twenty-six thousand men.

At various times during the campaign the foreign newspaper correspondents—Mr. Douglas Story, of the London Daily Mail;  Mr. John O. Knight, of the San Francisco Call;  Mr. Thomas F. Millard, of the New York Herald, and the writer—made strenuous efforts to secure accurate information concerning the Boers' strength, and the results invariably showed that there were less than thirty thousand men in the field. The correspondents visited all the principal commandos and had the admirable assistance of the generals and commandants, as well as that of the officers of the War Departments, but frequently the results did not rise above the twenty-five thousand mark. According to the statement of the late Commandant-General Joubert, made several days before his death, he never had more than thirteen thousand men in Natal, and of that number less than two thousand were engaged in the trek to Mooi River. After the relief of Ladysmith the forces in Natal dwindled down, by reason of desertions and withdrawals, to less than five thousand, and when General Buller began his advance there were not more than four thousand five hundred Boers in that Colony to oppose him.

The strength of the army in the field varied considerably, on account of causes which are described elsewhere, and there is no doubt that it frequently fell below twenty thousand men while the Boers were still on their enemy's territory. The following table, prepared with great care and with the assistance of the leading Boer commanders, gives as correct an idea of the burghers' numerical strength actually in the field at various stages of the campaign as will probably ever be formulated:—

Date.Natal.Free StateTransvaalTotal.
  and Borderand Border 
November 1, 189912,00012,000 5,00029,000
December 1, 189913,00012,000 5,00030,000
January 1, 1900 13,00012,000 3,00028,000
February 1, 190012,00010,000 3,00025,000
March 1, 1900 8,000 8,000 7,00023,000
April 1, 1900 5,00010,00010,00025,000
May 1, 1900 4,500 9,000 9,00022,500
June 1, 1900   4,50016,00020,500
July 1, 1900   4,00015,00019,000

According to this table, the average strength of the Boer forces during the nine months was considerably less than 25,000 men. In refutation of these figures it may be found after the conclusion of hostilities that a far greater number of men surrendered their guns to the British army, but it must be remembered that not every Boer who owned a weapon was continually in the field.