With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

Foreigners in the War

In every war there are men who are not citizens of the country with whose army they are fighting, and the "soldier-of-fortune" is as much a recognised adjunct of modern armies as he was in the days of knight-errantry. In the American revolutionary war both the colonial and British forces were assisted by many foreigners, and in every great and small war since then the contending armies have had foreigners in their service. In the Franco-Prussian war there was a great number of foreigners, among them having been one of the British generals who took a leading part in the Natal campaign. The brief Graeco-Turkish war gave many foreign officers an opportunity of securing experience, while the Spaniards in the Hispano-American war had the assistance of a small number of European officers. Even the Filipinos have had the aid of a corps of foreigners, the leader of whom, however, deserted Aguinaldo and joined the Boer forces.

There is a fascination in civilised warfare which attracts men of certain descriptions, and to them a well-fought battle is the highest form of exciting amusement. All the world is interested in warfare among human beings, and there are men who delight in fighting battles in order that their own and public interest may be gratified. It may suggest a morbid or bloodthirsty spirit, this love of warfare, but no spectacle is finer, more magnificent, than a hard-fought game in which human lives are staked against a strip of ground—a position. It is not hard to understand why many men should become fascinated with warfare and travel to the ends of the earth in order to take part in it, but a soldier of fortune needs to make no apologies. The Boer army was augmented by many of these men who delighted in war for fighting's sake, but a larger number joined the forces because they believed the Republics were fighting in a just cause.

The Boer was jealous of his own powers of generalship, and when large numbers of foreigners volunteered to lead their commandos the farmers gave a decidedly negative reply. Scores of foreign officers arrived in the country shortly after the beginning of hostilities and, intent on securing fame and experience, asked to be placed in command, but no request of that kind was granted. The Boers felt that their system of warfare was the perfect one, and they scoffed at the suggestion that European officers might teach them anything in the military line. Every foreign officer was welcomed in Pretoria and in the laagers, but he was asked to enlist as a private, or ordinary burgher. Commissions in the Boer army were not to be had for the asking, as was anticipated, and many of the foreign officers were deeply disappointed in consequence. The Boers felt that the foreigners were unacquainted with the country, the burgher mode of warfare, and lacked adroitness with the rifle, and consequently refused to place lives and battles in the hands of incompetent men. There were a few foreigners in the service of the Boers at the beginning of the war, but their number was so small as to have been without significance. Several European officers had been employed by the Governments of the Republics to instruct young Boers in artillery work—-and their instruction was invaluable—but the oft-repeated assertion that every commando was in charge of a foreign officer was as ridiculous as that of the Cape Times  which stated that the British retired from Spion Kop because no water was found on its summit.

The influx of foreigners into the country began simultaneously with the war, and it continued thereafter at the rate of about four hundred men a month. The volunteers, as they were called by the burghers, consisted of the professional soldier, the man in search of loot, the man who fights for love of justice, and the adventurer. The professional soldier was of much service to the burghers so long as he was content to remain under a Boer leader, but as soon as he attempted to operate on his own responsibility he became not only an impediment to the Boers, but also a positive danger. In the early stages of the war the few foreign legions that existed met with disaster at Elandslaagte, and thereafter all the foreign volunteers were obliged to join a commando. After several months had passed the foreigners, eager to have responsible command, prevailed upon the generals to allow the formation of foreign legions to operate independently. The Legion of France, the American Scouts, the Russian Scouts, the German Corps, and several other organisations were formed, and for a month after the investment of Bloemfontein these legions alone enlivened the situation by their frolicsome reports of attacks on the enemy's outposts. During those weeks the entire British army must have been put to flight scores of times at the very least, if the reports of the foreign legions may be believed, and the British casualty list must have amounted to thrice the number of English soldiers in the country. The free-rein given to the foreign legionaries was withdrawn shortly after Villebois-Mareuil and his small band of Frenchmen met with disaster at Boshof, and thereafter all the foreigners were placed under the direct command of General De la Rey.

The man in search of the spoils of war was not so numerous, but he made his presence felt by stealing whatever was portable and saleable. When he became surfeited with looting houses in conquered territory and stealing horses, luggage, and goods of lesser value in the laagers he returned to Johannesburg and Pretoria and assisted in emptying residences and stores of their contents. This style of soldier-of-fortune never went into a battle of his own accord, and when he found himself precipitated into the midst of one he lost little time in reaching a place of safety. Almost on a par with the looter was the adventurer, whose chief object of life seemed to be to tell of the battles he had assisted in winning. He was constantly in the laagers when there was no fighting in progress, but as soon as the report of a gun was heard the adventurer felt the necessity of going on urgent business to Pretoria. After the fighting he could always be depended upon to relate the wildest personal experiences that camp-fires ever heard. He could tell of amazing experiences in the wilds of South America, on the steppes of Siberia, and other ends of the earth, and after each narrative he would make a request for a "loan." The only adventures he had during the war were those which he encountered while attempting to escape from battles, and the only service he did to the Boer army was to assist in causing the disappearance of commissariat supplies.

The men who fought with the Boers because they were deeply in sympathy with the Republican cause were in far greater numbers than those with other motives, and their services were of much value to the federal forces. The majority of these were in the country when the war was begun, and were accepted as citizens of the country. They joined commandos and remained under Boer leaders during the entire campaign. In the same class were the volunteers who entered the Republics from Natal and Cape Colony, for the purpose of assisting their co-religionists and kinsmen. Of these there were about six thousand at the beginning of hostilities, but there were constant desertions, so that after the first six months of the war perhaps less than one-third of them remained. The Afrikanders of Natal and Cape Colony were not inferior in any respect to the Boers whose forces they joined, but when the tide of war changed and it became evident that the Boers would not triumph, they returned to their homes and farms in the colonies, in order to save them from confiscation. Taking into consideration the fact that four-fifths of the white population of the two colonies was of the same race and religion as the Boers, six thousand was not a large number of volunteers to join the federal forces.

The artillery fire of the Boer was so remarkably good that the delusion was cherished by the British commanders that foreign artillerists were in charge of all their guns. It was not believed that the Boers had any knowledge of arms other than rifles, but it was not an easy matter to find a foreigner at a cannon or a rapid-fire gun. The field batteries of the State Artillery of the Transvaal had two German officers of low rank, who were in the country long before the war began, but almost all the other men who assisted with the field guns were young Boers. The heavy artillery in Natal was directed by MM. Grunberg and Leon, representatives of Creusot, who manufactured the guns. M. Leon's ability as an engineer and gunner pleased Commandant-General Joubert so greatly that he gave him full authority over the artillery. Major Albrecht, the director of the Free State Artillery, was a foreigner by birth, but he became a citizen of the Free State long before the war, and did sterling service to his country until he was captured with Cronje at Paardeberg. Otto von Lossberg, a German-American who had seen service in the armies of Germany and the United States, arrived in the country in March, and was thereafter in charge of a small number of heavy guns, but the majority of them were manned by Boer officers.



None of the foreigners who served in the Boer army received any compensation. They were supplied with horses and equipment, at a cost to the Boer Governments of about L35 for each volunteer, and they received better food than the burghers, but no wages were paid to them. Before a foreign volunteer was allowed to join a commando, and before he received his equipment, he was obliged to take an oath of allegiance to the Republic. Only a few men who declined to take the oath were allowed to join the army. The oath of allegiance was an adaptation of the one which caused so much difficulty between Great Britain and the Transvaal before the war. A translation of it reads—

"I hereby make an oath of solemn allegiance to the people of the South African Republic, and I declare my willingness to assist, with all my power, the burghers of this Republic in the war in which they are engaged. I further promise to obey the orders of those placed in authority according to law, and that I will work for nothing but the prosperity, the welfare, and the independence of the land and people of this Republic, so truly help me, God Almighty."

No army lists were ever to be found at Pretoria or at the front, and it was as monumental a task to secure a fair estimate of the Boer force as it was to obtain an estimate of the number of the foreigners who assisted them. The Boers had no men whom they could spare to detail to statistical work, and, in consequence, no correct figures can ever be obtained. The numerical strength of the various organisations of foreigners could readily be obtained from their commanders, but many of the foreigners were in Boer commandos, and their strength is only problematical. An estimate which was prepared by the British and American correspondents, who had good opportunities of forming as nearly a correct idea as any one, resulted in this list, which gives the numbers of those in the various organisations, as well as those in the commandos:—

Nationality.In Organisations. In Commandos.
French300 100
Hollanders400 250
Russian100 125
Germans300 250
Americans150 150
Italians100 100
Scandinavians100 50
Afrikanders  6,000
     Total in Organisations1,650  
     Total in Commandos  7,025
     Grand Total 8,675 

The French legionaries were undoubtedly of more actual service to the Boers than the volunteers of any other nationality, inasmuch as they were given the opportunities of doing valuable work. Before the war one of the large forts at Pretoria was erected by French engineers, and when the war was begun Frenchmen of military experience were much favoured by General Joubert, who was proud of his French extraction. The greater quantity of artillery had been purchased from French firms, and the Commandant-General wisely placed guns in the hands of the men who knew how to operate them well. MM. Grunberg and Leon were of incalculable assistance in transporting the heavy artillery over the mountains of Natal, and in securing such positions for them where the fire of the enemy's guns could not harm them. The work of the heavy guns, the famous "Long Toms" which the besieged in Ladysmith will remember as long as the siege itself remains in their memory, was almost entirely the result of French hands and brains, while all the havoc caused by the heavy artillery in the Natal battles was due to the engineering and gunnery of Leon, Grunberg, and their Boer assistants. After remaining in Natal until after the middle of January the two Frenchmen joined the Free State forces, to whom they rendered valuable assistance. Leon was wounded at Kimberley on February 12th, and, after assisting in establishing the ammunition works at Pretoria and Johannesburg, returned to France. Viscount Villebois-Mareuil was one of the many foreigners who joined the Boer army and lost their lives while fighting with the Republican forces. While ranking as colonel on the General Staff of the French army, and when about to be promoted to the rank of general, he resigned from the service on account of the Dreyfus affair. A month after the commencement of the war Villebois-Mareuil arrived in the Transvaal and went to the Natal front, where his military experience enabled him to give advice to the Boer generals. In January the Colonel attached himself to General Cronje's forces, with whom he took part in many engagements. He was one of the few who escaped from the disastrous fight at Paardeberg, and shortly afterwards, at the war council at Kroonstad, the French officer was created a brigadier-general—the first and only one in the Boer army—and all the foreign legions were placed in his charge. It was purposed that he should harass the enemy by attacks on their lines of communication, and it was while he was at the outset of the first of these expeditions that he and twelve of his small force of sixty men were killed at Boshof, in the north-western part of the Free State, early in April. Villebois-Mareuil was a firm believer in the final success of the Boer arms, and he received the credit of planning two battles—second Colenso and Magersfontein—which gave the Boers at least temporary success. The Viscount was a writer for the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Correspondant, and La Liberté, the latter of which referred to him as the latter-day Lafayette. Colonel Villebois-Mareuil was an exceptionally brave man, a fine soldier, and a gentleman whose friendship was prized.

Lieutenant Gallopaud was another Frenchman who did sterling service to the Boers while he was subordinate to Colonel Villebois-Mareuil. At Colenso Gallopaud led his men in an attack which met with extraordinary success, and later in the Free State campaign he distinguished himself by creditable deeds in several battles. Gallopaud went to the Transvaal for experience, and he secured both that and fame. After the death of Villebois-Mareuil, Gallopaud was elected commandant of the French Legion, and before he joined De la Rey's army he had the novel pleasure of subduing a mutiny among some of his men. An Algerian named Mahomed Ben Naseur, who had not been favoured with the sight of blood for several weeks, threatened to shoot Gallopaud with a Mauser, but there was a cessation of hostilities on the part of the Algerian shortly after big, powerful Gallopaud went into action.

The majority of the Hollanders who fought with the Boers were in the country when the war was begun, and they made a practical demonstration of their belief in the Boer cause by going into the field with the first commandos. The Dutch corps was under the command of Commandant Smoronberg, the former drill-master of the Johannesburg Police. Among the volunteers were many young Hollanders who had been employed by the Government in Pretoria and Johannesburg establishments, and by the Netherlands railways. In the first engagement, at Elandslaagte, in November, the corps was practically annihilated and General Kock, the leader of the Uitlander brigade, himself received his death wounds. Afterward the surviving members of the corps joined Boer commandos where stray train-loads of officers' wines, such as were found the day before the battle of Elandslaagte, were not allowed to interfere with the sobriety of the burghers. The Russian corps, under Commandant Alexis de Ganetzky and Colonel Prince Baratrion-Morgaff, was formed after all the men had been campaigning under Boer officers in Natal for several months. The majority of the men were Johannesburgers without military experience who joined the army because there was nothing else to do.

The German corps was as short-lived as the Hollander organisation, it having been part of the force which met with disaster at Elandslaagte. Colonel Schiel, a German-Boer of brief military experience, led the organisation, but was unable to display his abilities to any extent before he was made a prisoner of war. Captain Count Harran von Zephir was killed in the fight at Spion Kop, and Herr von Brusenitz was killed and Colonel von Brown was captured at the Tugela. The corps was afterward reorganised and, under the leadership of Commandant Otto Krantz of Pretoria, it fought valiantly in several battles in the Free State. Among the many German volunteers who entered the country after the beginning of hostilities was Major Baron von Reitzenstein, the winner of the renowned long-distance horseback race from Berlin to Vienna. Major von Reitzenstein was a participant in battles at Colesburg and in Natal, and was eager to remain with the Boer forces until the end of the war, but was recalled by his Government, which had granted him a leave of absence from the German army. Three of the forts at Pretoria were erected by Germans, and the large fort at Johannesburg was built by Colonel Schiel at an expense of less than £5,000.

John E. Blake


The Americans in South Africa who elected to fight under the Boer flags did not promise to win the war single-handed, and consequently the Boers were not disappointed in the achievements of the volunteers from the sister-republic across the Atlantic. In proportion to their numbers the Americans did as well as the best volunteer foreigners, and caused the Government less trouble and expense than any of the Uitlanders' organisations. The majority of the Americans spent the first months of the war in Boer commandos, and made no effort to establish an organisation of their own, although they were of sufficient numerical strength. A score or more of them joined the Irish Brigade organised by Colonel J.E. Blake, a graduate of West Point Military Academy and a former officer in the American army, and accompanied the Brigade through the first seven months of the Natal campaign. After the exciting days of the Natal campaign John A. Hassell, an American who had been with the Vryheid commando, organised the American Scouts and succeeded in gathering what probably was the strangest body of men in the war. Captain Hassell himself was born in New Jersey, and was well educated in American public schools and the schools of experience. He spent the five years before the war in prospecting and with shooting expeditions in various parts of South Africa, and had a better idea of the geological features of the country than any of the commandants of the foreign legions. While he was with the Vryheid commando Hassell was twice wounded, once in the attack on Caesar's Hill and again at Estcourt, where he received a bayonet thrust which disabled him for several weeks and deprived him of the brief honour of being General Botha's adjutant.

The one American whose exploits will long remain in the Boer mind was John N. King, of Reading, Pennsylvania, who vowed that he would allow his hair to grow until the British had been driven from federal soil. King began his career of usefulness to society at the time of the Johnstown flood, where he and some companions lynched an Italian who had been robbing the dead. Shortly afterward he gained a deep insight into matters journalistic by being the boon companion of a newspaper man. The newspaper man was in jail on a charge of larceny; King for murder. When war was begun King was employed on a Johannesburg mine, and when his best friend determined to join the British forces he decided to enlist in the Boer army. Before parting the two made an agreement that neither should make the other prisoner in case they met. At Spion Kop, King captured his friend unawares and, after a brief conversation and a farewell grasp of the hand, King shot him dead. King took part in almost every one of the Natal battles, and when there was no fighting to do he passed the time away by such reckless exploits as going within the British firing-line at Ladysmith to capture pigs and chickens. He bore a striking resemblance to Napoleon I., and loved blood as much as the little Corsican. When the Scouts went out from Brandfort in April and killed several of the British scouts, King wept because he had remained in camp that day and had missed the opportunity of having a part in the engagement.

The lieutenant of the Scouts was John Shea, a grey-haired man who might have had grand-children old enough to fight. Shea fought with the Boers because he thought they had a righteous cause, and not because he loved the smell of gunpowder, although he had learned to know what that was in the Spanish-American war. Shea endeavoured to introduce the American army system into the Boer army, but failed signally, and then fought side by side with old takhaars all during the Natal campaign. He was the guardian of the mascot of the scouts, William Young, a thirteen-year-old American, who was acquainted with every detail of the preliminaries of the war. William witnessed all but two of the Natal battles, and several of those in the Free State, and could relate all the stirring incidents in connection with each, but he could tell nothing more concerning his birthplace than that it was "near the shore in America," both his parents having died when he was quite young. Then there was Able-Bodied Seaman William Thompson, who was in the Wabash  of the United States Navy, and served under MacCuen in the Chinese-Japanese war. Thompson and two others tried to steal a piece of British heavy artillery while it was in action at Ladysmith, but were themselves captured by some Boers who did not believe in modern miracles. Of newspaper men, there were half a dozen who laid aside the pen for the sword. George Parsons, a Collier's Weekly  man, who was once left on a desert island on the east end of Cuba to deliver a message to Gomez, several hundred miles away; J.B. Clarke, of Webberville, Michigan, who was correspondent for a Pittsburg newspaper whenever some one could commandeer the necessary stamps; and four or five correspondents of country weeklies in Western States. Starfield and Hiley were two Texans, of American army experience, who fought with the Boers because they had faith in their cause. Starfield claimed the honour of having been pursued for half a day by two hundred British cavalryman, while Hiley, the finest marksman in the corps, had the distinction of killing Lieutenant Carron, an American, in Lord Loch's Horse, in a fierce duel behind ant-heaps at Modder River on April 21st. Later in the campaign many of the Americans who entered the country for the purpose of fighting joined Hassell's Scouts, and added to the cosmopolitan character of the organisation. One came from Puget Sound in a sailing vessel. Another arrival boldly claimed to be the American military attaché at the Paris Exposition, and then requested every one to keep the matter a secret for fear the War Department should hear of his presence in South Africa and recall him. On the way to Africa he had a marvellous midnight experience on board ship with a masked man who shot him through one of his hands. Later the same wound was displayed as having been received at Magersfontein, Colenso, and Spion Kop. This industrious youth became adjutant to Colonel Blake, and assisted that picturesque Irish-American in securing the services of the half-hundred Red Cross men who entered the country in April.

Of the many Americans who fought in Boer commandos none did better service nor was considered more highly by the Boers than Otto von Lossberg, of New Orleans, Louisiana. Lossberg was born in Germany, and received his first military training in the army of his native country. He afterwards became an American citizen, and was with General Miles' army in the Porto-Rico campaign. Lossberg arrived in the Transvaal in March, and on the last day of that month was in charge of the artillery which assisted in defeating Colonel Broadwood's column at Sannaspost. Two days later, in the fight between General Christian De Wet and McQueenies' Irish Fusiliers, Lossberg was severely wounded in the head, but a month later he was again at the front. With him continually was Baron Ernst von Wrangel, a grandson of the famous Marshal Wrangel, and who was a corporal in the American army during the Cuban war.

When one of the four sons of State Secretary Reitz who were fighting with the Boer army asked his father for permission to join the Irish Brigade, the Secretary gave an excellent description of the organisation: "The members of the Irish Brigade do their work well, and they fight remarkably well, but, my son, they are not gentle in their manner." Blake and his men were among the first to cross the Natal frontier, and their achievements were notable even if the men lacked gentility of manner. The brigade took part in almost every one of the Natal engagements and when General Botha retreated from the Tugela Colonel Blake and seventy-five of his men bravely attacked and drove back into Ladysmith a squadron of cavalry which intended to cut off the retreat of Botha's starving and exhausted burghers. Blake and his men were guarding a battery on Lombard Kop, a short distance east of Ladysmith, when he learned that Joubert was leading the retreat northward, and allowing Botha, with his two thousand men, to continue their ten days' fighting without reinforcements. Instead of retreating with the other commandos, Blake and seventy-five of his men stationed themselves on the main road between Ladysmith and Colenso and awaited the coming of Botha. A force of cavalry was observed coming out of the besieged city, and it was apparent that they could readily cut off Botha from the other Boers. Blake determined to make a bold bluff by scattering his small force over the hills and attacking the enemy from different directions. The men were ordered to fire as rapidly as possible in order to impress the British cavalry with a false idea of the size of the force. The seventy-five Irishmen and Americans made as much noise with their guns as a Boer commando of a thousand men usually did, and the result was that the cavalry wheeled about and returned into Ladysmith. Botha and his men, dropping out of their saddles from sheer exhaustion and hunger, came up from Colenso a short time after the cavalry had been driven back and made their memorable journey to Joubert's new headquarters at Glencoe. It was one of the few instances where the foreigners were of any really great assistance to the Boers.

After the relief of Ladysmith the Irish Brigade was sent to Helpmakaar Pass, and remained there for six weeks, until Colonel Blake succeeded in inducing the War Department to send them to the Free State, where these "sons of the ould sod" might make a display of their valour to the world, and more especially to Michael Davitt, who was then visiting in the country. When the Brigade was formed it was not necessary to show an Irish birth certificate in order to become a member of the organisation, and consequently there were Swedes, Russians, Germans, and Italians marching under the green flag. A half-dozen of the Brigade claimed to be Irish enough for themselves and for those who could not lay claim to such extraction, and consequently a fair mean was maintained. A second Irish Brigade was formed in April by Arthur Lynch, an Irish-Australian, who was the former Paris correspondent of a London daily newspaper. Colonel Lynch and his men were in several battles in Natal and received warm praise from the Boer generals.

The Italian Legion was commanded by a man who loved war and warfare. Camillo Richiardi and General Louis Botha were probably the two handsomest men in the army, and both were the idols of their men. Captain Richiardi had his first experience of war in Abyssinia, when he fought with the Italian army. When the Philippine war began he joined the fortunes of Aguinaldo, and became the leader of the foreign legion. For seven months he fought against the American soldiers, not because he hated the Americans, but because he loved fighting more. When the Boer war seemed to promise more exciting work Richiardi left Aguinaldo's forces and joined a Boer commando as a burgher. After studying Boer methods for several months he formed an organisation of scouts which was of great service to the army. Before the relief of Ladysmith the Italian Scouts was the ablest organisation of the kind in the Republics.

The Scandinavian corps joined Cronje's army after the outbreak of war, and took part in the battle of Magersfontein on December 11th. The corps occupied one of the most exposed positions during that battle and lost forty-five of the fifty-two men engaged. Commandant Flygare was shot in the abdomen and was being carried off the field by Captain Barendsen when a bullet struck the captain in the head and killed him instantly. Flygare extricated himself from beneath Barendsen's body, rose, and led his men in a charge. When he had proceeded about twenty yards a bullet passed through his head, and his men leapt over his corpse only to meet a similar fate a few minutes later.