With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

The Composition of the Boer Army

A visitor in one of the laagers in Natal once spoke of a Boer burgher as a "soldier." A Boer from the Wakkerstroom district interrupted his speech and said there were no Boer soldiers. "If you want us to understand concerning whom you are talking," he continued, "you must call us burghers or farmers. Only the English have soldiers." It was so with all the Boers; none understood the term soldier as applying to anybody except their enemy, while many considered it an insult to be called a soldier, as it implied, to a certain extent, that they were fighting for hire. In times of peace the citizen of the Boer republics was called a burgher, and when he took up arms and went to war he received no special title to distinguish him from the man who remained at home. "My burghers," Paul Kruger was wont to call them before the war, and when they came forth from battle they were content when he said, "My burghers are doing well." The Boers were proud of their citizenship, and when their country was in danger they went forth as private citizens and not as bold warriors to protect it.

There was a law in the two republics which made it incumbent upon all burghers between the ages of sixteen and sixty to join a commando and to go to war when it was necessary. There was no law, however, which prevented a man, of whatever youthfulness or age, to assist in the defence of his country, and in consequence the Boer commandos contained almost the entire male population between the ages of thirteen and eighty years. In peaceful times the Boer farmer rarely travelled away from his home unless he was accompanied by his family, and he would have felt the pangs of homesickness if he had not been continually surrounded by his wife and children. When the war began it was not an easy matter for the burgher to leave his home for an indefinite period, and in order that he might not be lonely he took with him all his sons who were strong enough to carry rifles. The Boer youth develops into manhood early in life in the mild South African climate, and the boy of twelve and thirteen years is the equal in physical development of the American or European youth of sixteen or seventeen. He was accustomed to live on the open veld and hunting with his elders, and, when he saw that all his former companions were going to war, he begged for permission to accompany the commando. The Boer boy of twelve does not wear knickerbocker trousers as the youth of like age in many other countries, but he is clothed exactly like his father, and, being almost as tall, his youthful appearance is not so noticeable when he is among a large number of his countrymen. Scores of boys not more than twelve years were in the laagers in Natal, and hundreds of less age than the minimum prescribed by the military law were in every commando in the country. When Ladysmith was still besieged one youth of eleven years was conspicuous in the Standerton laager. He seemed to be a mere child, yet he had the patriotism of ten men. He followed his father everywhere, whether into battle or to the spring for water. "When my father is injured or killed, I will take his rifle," was his excuse for being away from home. When General De Wet captured seven cannon from the enemy at the battle of Sannaspost two of the volunteers to operate them were boys aged respectively fourteen and fifteen years. Pieter J. Henning, of the Potchefstroom commando, who was injured in the battle of Scholtznek on December 11th, was less than fifteen years old, yet his valour in battle was as conspicuous as that of any of the burghers who took part in the engagement. Teunis H.C. Mulder, of the Pretoria commando, celebrated his sixteenth birthday only a few days before he was twice wounded at Ladysmith on November 9th, and Willem Francois Joubert, a relative of the Commandant-General, was only fifteen years old when he was wounded at Ladysmith on October 30th. At the battle of Koedoesrand, fifteen-year-old Pieter de Jager, of the Bethlehem commando, was seriously injured by a shell while he was conveying his injured father from the field. With the army of General Cronje captured at Paardeberg were no less than a hundred burghers who had not reached the sixteenth year, and among those who escaped from the laager in the river-bed were two Bloemfontein boys named Roux, aged twelve and fourteen years. At Colenso a Wakkerstroom youth of twelve years captured three English scouts and compelled them to march ahead of him to the commandant's tent. During one of the lulls in the fighting at Magersfontein a burgher of fifteen years crept up to within twenty yards of three British soldiers and shouted "Hands up!" Thinking that there were other Boers in the vicinity the men dropped their guns and became prisoners of the boy, who took them to General De la Rey's tent. When the General asked the boy how he secured the prisoners the lad replied, nonchalantly, "Oh, I surrounded them." These youths who accompanied the commando were known as the "Penkop Regiment"—a regiment composed of school children—and in their connection an amusing story has been current in the Boer country ever since the war of 1881, when large numbers of children less than fifteen years old went with their fathers to battle. The story is that after the fight at Majuba Hill, while the peace negotiations were in progress, Sir Evelyn Wood, the Commander of the British forces, asked General Joubert to see the famous Penkop Regiment. The Boer General gave an order that the regiment should be drawn up in a line before his tent, and when this had been done General Joubert led General Wood into the open and introduced him to the corps. Sir Evelyn was sceptical for some time, and imagined that General Joubert was joking, but when it was explained to him that the youths really were the much-vaunted Penkop Regiment he advised them to return to their school-books.



When a man has reached the age of sixty it may be assumed that he has outlived his usefulness as a soldier; but not so with the Boer. There was not one man, but hundreds, who had passed the Biblical threescore years and ten but were fighting valiantly in defence of their country. Grey-haired men who, in another country, might be expected to be found at their homes reading the accounts of their grandsons' deeds in the war, went out on scouting duty and scaled hills with almost as much alacrity as the burghers only half their age. Men who could boast of being grandfathers were innumerable, and in almost any laager there could be seen father, sons, and grandsons, all fighting with equal vigour and enthusiasm. Paul Kruger is seventy-five years old, but there were many of his burghers several years older than he who went to the frontier with their commandos and remained there for several months at a time. A great-grandfather serving in the capacity of a private soldier, may appear like a mythical tale, but there were several such. Old Jan van der Westhuizen, of the Middleberg laager, was active and enthusiastic at eighty-two years, and felt more than proud of four great-grand-children. Piet Kruger, a relative of the President, and four years his senior, was an active participant in every battle in which the Rustenburg commando was engaged while it was in Natal, and he never once referred to the fact that he fought in the 1881 war and in the attack upon Jameson's men. Four of Kruger's sons shared the same tent and fare with him, and ten of his grandsons were burghers in different commandos. Jan C. Van Tander, of Boshof, exceeded the maximum of the military age by eight years, but he was early in the field, and was seriously wounded at the battle of Scholtznek on December 11th. General Joubert himself was almost seventy years old but as far as physical activity was concerned there were a score of burghers in his commando, each from five to ten years older, who exhibited more energy in one battle than he did during the entire Natal campaign. The hundreds of bridges and culverts along the railway lines in the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and Upper Natal were guarded day and night by Boers more than sixty years old, who had volunteered to do the work in order that younger men might be sent to localities where their services might be more necessary. Other old Boers and cripples attended to the commissariat arrangements along the railways, conducted commissariat waggons, gathered forage for the horses at the front, and arranged the thousands of details which are necessary to the well-being and comfort of every army, however simple its organisation.

Among the Boers were many burghers who had assisted Great Britain in her former wars in South Africa—men who had fought under the British flag, but were now fighting against it. Colonel Ignace Ferreira, a member of one of the oldest Boer families, fought under Lord Wolseley in the Zulu war, and had the Order of the Commander of the Bath conferred upon him by the Queen. Colonel Ferreira was at the head of a commando at Mafeking. Paul Dietzch, the military secretary of General Meyer, fought under the British flag in the Gaika and several other native wars.

It was not only the extremely old and the extremely young who went to war; it was a transfer of the entire population of the two Republics to the frontiers, and no condition or position was sufficient excuse to remain behind. The professional man of Pretoria and Johannesburg was in a laager which was adjacent to a laager of farthest-back veld-farmers. Lawyers and physicians, photographers and grocers, speculators and sextons, judges and schoolmasters, schoolboys and barkeepers—all who were burghers locked their desks and offices and journeyed to the front. Even clergymen closed their houses of worship in the towns and remained among the commandos to pray and preach for those who did the fighting. The members of the Volksraads, who brought on the war by their ultimatum, were among the first in the field, and foremost in attacking the soldiers of their enemy. Students in European universities, who hastened home when war-clouds were gathering, went shoulder to shoulder into battle with the backwoodsman, the Boer takhaar. There was no pride among them; no class distinction which prevented a farmer from speaking to a millionaire. A graduate of Cambridge had as his boon companion for five months a farmer who thought the earth a square, and imagined the United States to be a political division of Australia.



The Boer who was bred in a city or town good-naturedly referred to his country cousin as a "takhaar"—a man with grizzly beard and unkempt hair. It was a good descriptive term, and the takhaar was not offended when it was applied to him. The takhaar was the modern type of the old voortrekker Boer who, almost a hundred years ago, trekked north from Cape Colony, and after overcoming thousands of difficulties settled in the present Boer country. He was a religious, big-hearted countryman of the kind who would suspect a stranger until he proved himself worthy of trust. After that period was passed the takhaar would walk the veld in order that you might ride his horse. If he could not speak your language he would repeat a dozen times such words as he knew, meanwhile offering to you coffee, mutton, bread, and all the best that his laager larder afforded. He offered to exchange a pipe-load of tobacco with you, and when that occurred you could take it for granted that he was your friend for life. The takhaar was the man who went to the frontiers on his own responsibility weeks before the ultimatum was sent, and watched day and night lest the enemy might trample a rod beyond the bounds. He was the man who stopped Jameson, who climbed Majuba, and who fought the natives. The takhaar was the Boer before gold brought restlessness into the country, and he was proud of his title. The fighting ability of the takhaar is best illustrated by repeating an incident which occurred after the battle of Dundee when a large number of Hussars were captured. One of the Hussar officers asked for the name of the regiment he had been fighting against. A fun-loving Boer replied that the Boers had no regiments; that their men were divided into three brigades—the Afrikanders, the Boers, and the Takhaars—a distinction which carried with it but a slight difference. "The Afrikander brigade," the Boer explained, "is fighting now. They fight like demons. When they are killed, then the Boers take the field. The Boers fight about twice as well and hard as the Afrikanders. As soon as all the Boers are killed, then come the takhaars, and they would rather fight than eat." The officer remained silent for a moment, then sighed and said, "Well, if that is correct, then our job is bigger than I thought it was."

The ideal Boer is a man with a bearded face and a flowing moustache, and in order to appear idyllic almost every Boer burgher, who was not thus favoured before war was began, engaged in the peaceful process of growing a beard. Young men who, in times of peace, detested hirsute adornments of the face allowed their beards and moustaches to grow, and after a month or two it was almost impossible to find one burgher who was without a growth of hair on his face. The wearing of a beard was almost equal to a badge of Boer citizenship, and for the time being every Boer was a takhaar in appearance if not in fact. The adoption of beards was not so much fancy as it was a matter of discretion. The Boer was aware of the fact that few of the enemy wore beards, and so it was thought quite ingenious for all burghers to wear facial adornments of that kind in order that friend and foe might be distinguished more readily at a distance.

Notwithstanding their ability to fight when it is necessary, it is doubtful whether twenty per cent of the Boer burghers in the commandos would be accepted for service in any continental or American army. The rigid physical examinations of many of the armies would debar thousands from becoming regular soldiers. There were men in the Boer forces who had only one arm, some with only one leg, others with only one eye; some were almost totally blind, while others would have felt happy if they could have heard the reports of their rifles. Men who were suffering from various kinds of illnesses, and who should have been in a physician's care, were to be seen in every laager. Men who wore spectacles were numerous, while those who suffered from diseases which debar a man from a regular army were without number. The high percentage of men unfit for military duty was not due to the Boer's unhealthfulness, for he is as healthy as farmers are in other parts of the earth. Take the entire male population of any district in Europe and America and compare the individuals with the standard required by army rules, and the result will not differ greatly from the result of the Boer examination. If all the youths and old men, the sick and maimed, could have been eliminated from the Boer forces, eighty per cent, would probably have been found to be a low estimate of the number thus subtracted from the total force. It would have been heartrending to many a continental or American general to see the unmilitary appearance of the Boer burgher, and in what manner an army of children, great-grandfathers, invalids, and blind men, with a handful of good men to leaven it, could be of any service whatever would have been quite beyond his conception. It was such a mixed force that a Russian officer, who at the outset of the war entered the Transvaal to fight, became disgusted with its unmilitary appearance and returned to his own country.

The accoutrement of the Boer burgher was none the less incongruous than the physical appearance of the majority of them, although no expensive uniform and trappings could have been of more practical value. The men of the Pretoria and Johannesburg commandos had the unique honor of going to the war in uniforms specially made for the purpose, but there was no regulation or law which compelled them to wear certain kinds of clothing. When these commandos went to the frontier several days before the actual warfare had begun they were clothed in khaki-coloured cloth of almost the same description as that worn by the soldiers whom they intended to fight. These two commandos were composed of town-folk who had absorbed many of the customs and habits of the foreigners who were in the country, and they felt that it would be more warlike if they should wear uniforms made specially for camp and field. The old Boers of the towns and the takhaars looked askance at the youth of Pretoria and Johannesburg in their uniforms, and shook their heads at the innovation as smacking too much of an anti-republican spirit.

Like Cincinnatus, the majority of the old Boers went directly from their farms to the battlefields, and they wore the same clothing in the laagers as they used when shearing their sheep or herding their cattle. When they started for the frontier the Boer farmers arranged matters so that they might be comfortable while the campaign continued. Many, it is true, dashed away from home at the first call to arms and carried with them, besides a rifle and bandolier, nothing but a mackintosh, blanket, and haversack of food. The majority of them, however, were solicitous of their future comfort and loaded themselves down with all kinds of luggage. Some went to the frontier with the big, four-wheeled ox-waggons and in these they conveyed cooking utensils, trunks, boxes with food and flour, mattresses, and even stoves. The Rustenburg farmers were specially solicitous about their comfort, and those patriotic old takhaars practically moved their families and household furniture to the camps. Some of the burghers took two or three horses each in order that there might be no delay or annoyance in case of misfortune by death or accident, and frequently a burgher could be seen who had one horse for himself, another for his camp utensils and extra clothing, and a third and fourth for native servants who cooked his meals and watched the horses while they grazed.

Without his horse the Boer would be of little account as a fighting man, and those magnificent little ponies deserve almost as much credit for such success as attended the campaign as their riders. If some South African does not frame a eulogy of the little beasts it will not be because they do not deserve it. The horse was half the Centaur and quite the life of him. Small and wiry, he was able to jog along fifty and sixty miles a day for several days in succession, and when the occasion demanded it, he was able to attain a rate of speed that equalled that of the ordinary South African railway train which, however, makes no claims to lightning-like velocity. He bore all kinds of weather, was not liable to sickness except in one season of the year, and he was able to work two and even three days without more than a blade of grass. He was able to thrive on the grass of the veld, and when winter killed that product he needed but a few bundles of forage a day to keep him in good condition. He climbed rocky mountain-sides as readily as a buck, and never wandered from a path by darkest night. He drank and apparently relished the murky water of mud-pools and needed but little attention with the currycomb and brush. He was trained to obey the slightest turn of the reins, and a slight whistle brought him to a full stop. When his master left him and went forward into battle the Boer pony remained in the exact position where he was placed, and when perchance a shell or bullet ended his existence, then the Boer paid a tribute to the value of his dead servant by refusing to continue the fight and by beating a hasty retreat.

In the early part of the campaign in Natal the laagers were filled with ox-waggons, and, in the absence of tents which were sadly wanted during that season of heavy rains, they stood in great stead to the burghers. The rear half of the waggons were tented with an arched roof, as all the trek-waggons are, and under these shelters the burghers lived. Many of the burghers who left their ox-waggons at home took small, light, four-wheeled carriages, locally called spiders, or the huge two-wheelers or Cape-carts so serviceable and common throughout the country. These were readily transformed into tents, and made excellent sleeping accommodations by night and transport-waggons for the luggage when the commandos moved from one place to another. When a rapid march was contemplated all the heavy waggons were left behind in charge of native servants with which every burgher was provided.

It was quite in keeping with their other ideas of personal comfort for many Boer burghers to carry a coloured parasol or an umbrella to protect them from the rays of the sun, and it was not considered beneath their dignity to wear a woman's shawl around their shoulders or head when the morning air was chilly. At first sight of these unique spectacles the stranger in the Boer country felt amused, but if he cared to smile at every unmilitary scene he would have had little time for other things. It was a republican army composed of republicans, and anything that smacked of the opposite was abhorred. There were no flags or insignia of any kind to lead the burghers on. What mottoes there were that expressed their cause were embroidered on the bands of their slouch-hats and cut on the stocks of their rifles. "For God and Freedom," "For Freedom, Land, and People," and "For God, Country, and Justice," were among the sentiments which some of the burghers carried into battle on their hats and rifles. Others had vierkleur ribbons as bands for their hats, while many carried on the upturned brim of their hats miniatures containing the photographs of the Presidents.

Aside from the dangers arising from a contact with the enemy and the heart-burns resulting from a long absence from his home, the Boer burgher's experiences at the front were not arduous. First and foremost he had a horse and rifle, and with these he was always more or less happy. He had fresh meat provided to him daily, and he had native servants to prepare and serve his meals for him. He was under no discipline whatever, and he could be his own master at all times. He generally had his sons or brothers with him in the same laager, and to a Boer there was always much joy in this. He could go on picket duty and have a brush with the enemy whenever he felt inclined to do so, or he could remain in his laager and never have a glimpse of the enemy. Every two months he was entitled to a ten days' leave of absence to visit his home, and at other times during the first five months of the war, his wife and children were allowed to visit him in his laager. If he was stationed along the northern or western frontiers of the Transvaal he was in the game country, and he was able to go on buck-shooting expeditions as frequently as he cared. He was not compelled to rise at a certain hour in the morning, and he could go to bed whenever he wished. There was no drill, no roll-calls, nor any of the thousands of petty details which the soldiers of even the Portuguese army are compelled to perform. As a result of a special law there was no work on Sundays or Church-holidays unless the enemy brought it about, and then, if he was a stickler for the observance of the Sabbath, he was not compelled to move a muscle. The Boer burgher could eat, sleep, or fight whenever he wished, and inasmuch as he was a law unto himself, there was no one who could compel him to change his habits. It was an ideal idle-man's mode of living and the foreign volunteers who had leaves of absence from their own armies made the most of their holiday, but in that respect they did not surpass their companion, the Boer burgher.

The most conspicuous feature of the Boer forces was the equality of the officers and the men, and the entire absence of any assumption of superiority by the leaders of the burghers. None of the generals or commandants wore any uniform of a distinctive type, and it was one of the most difficult problems to distinguish an officer from the burghers. All the officers, from the Commandant-General down to the corporal, carried rifles and bandoliers, and all wore the ordinary garb of a civilian, so that there was nothing to indicate the man's military standing. The officers associated with their men every hour of the day, and, in most instances, were able to call the majority of them by their Christian names. With one or two exceptions, all the generals were farmers before the war started, and consequently they were unable to assume any great degree of superiority over their farmer-burghers if they had wished to do so. General Meyer pitched quoits with his men, General Botha swapped tobacco with any one of his burghers, and General Smuts and one of his officers held the whist championship of their laager. Rarely a burgher touched his hat before speaking to an officer, but he invariably shook hands with him at meeting and parting. It is a Boer custom to shake hands with friends or strangers, and whenever a general visited a laager adjoining his own, the hand-shaking reminded one of the President's public reception days at Washington. When General Joubert went from camp to camp he greeted all the burghers who came near him with a grasp of the hand, and it was the same with all the other generals and officers. Whenever Presidents Kruger and Steyn went to the commandos, they held out their right hands to all the burghers who approached them, and one might have imagined that every Boer was personally acquainted with every other one in the republics. It was the same with strangers who visited the laagers, and many a sore wrist testified to the Boer's republicanism. Some one called it the "hand-shaking army," and it was a most descriptive title. Many of the burghers could not restrain from exercising their habit, and shook hands with British prisoners, much to the astonishment of the captured.

Another striking feature of life in the Boer laagers was the deep religious feeling which manifested itself in a thousand different ways. It is an easy matter for an irreligious person to scoff at men who pass through a campaign with prayer and hymn-singing, and it is just as easy to laugh at the man who reads his Testament at intervals of shooting at the enemy. The Boer was a religious man always, and when he went to war he placed as much faith in prayer and in his Testament as in his rifle. He believed that his cause was just, and that the Lord would favour those fighting for a righteous cause in a righteous spirit. On October 11th, before the burghers crossed the frontier at Laing's Nek, a religious service was conducted. Every burgher in the commandos knelt on the ground and uttered a prayer for the success and the speedy ending of the campaign. Hymns were sung, and for a full hour the hills, whereon almost twenty years before many of the same burghers sang and prayed after the victory at Majuba, were resounding with the religious and patriotic songs of men going forward to kill and to be killed. In their laagers the Boers had religious services at daybreak and after sunset every day, whether they were near to the enemy or far away. At first the novelty of being awakened early in the morning by the voices of a large commando of burghers was not conducive to a religious feeling in the mind of the stranger, but a short stay in the laagers caused anger to turn to admiration. After sunset the burghers again gathered in groups around camp-fires, and made the countryside re-echo with the sound of their deep, bass voices united in Dutch hymns and psalms of praise and thanksgiving.

Whether they ate a big meal from a well-equipped table, or whether they leaped from their horses to make a hasty meal of biltong and bread, they reverently bowed their heads and asked a blessing before and after eating. Before they went into battle they gathered around their general and were led in prayer by the man who afterwards led them against the enemy. When the battle was concluded, and whether the field was won or lost, prayers were offered to the God of battles. In the reports which generals and commandants made to the war departments, victories and defeats were invariably ascribed to the will of God, and such phrases as "All the glory belongs to the Lord of Hosts who led us," and "God gave us the victory," and "Divine favour guided our footsteps," were frequent. When one is a stranger of the Boers and unacquainted with the simple faith which they place in Divine guidance, these religious manifestations may appear inopportune in warfare, but it is necessary to observe the Boer burgher in all his various actions and emotions to know that he is sincere in his religious beliefs and that he endeavours to be a Christian in deed as well as in word.

The Boer army, like Cromwell's troopers, could fight as well as pray, but in reality it was not a fighting organisation in the sense that warfare was agreeable to the burghers. The Boer proved that he could fight when there was a necessity for it, but to the great majority of them it was heartrending to slay their fellow human beings. The Boer's hand was better adapted to the stem of a pipe than to the stock of an army rifle, and he would rather have been engaged in the former peaceful pursuit had he not believed that it was a holy war in which he was engaged. That he was not eager for fighting was displayed in a hundred different ways. He loved his home more than the laagers at the front, and he took advantage of every opportunity to return to his home and family. He lusted not for battle, and he seldom engaged in one unless he firmly believed that success depended partly upon his individual presence. He did not go into battle because he had the lust of blood, for he abhorred the slaughter of men, and it was not an extraordinary spectacle to see a Boer weeping beside the corpse of a British soldier. On the field, after the Spion Kop battle, where Boer guns did their greatest execution, there were scores of bare-headed Boers who deplored the war, and amidst ejaculations of "Poor Tommy," and "This useless slaughter," brushed away the tears that rolled down over their brown cheeks and beards. Never a Boer was seen to exult over a victory. They might say "That is good" when they heard of a Spion Kop or a Magersfontein, but never a shout or any other of the ordinary methods of expressing joy. The foreigners in the army frequently were beside themselves with joy after victories, but the Boers looked stolidly on and never took any part in the demonstrations.