With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

The Army Organisation

When the Boer goes on a lion-hunting expedition he must be thoroughly acquainted with the game country; he must be experienced in the use of the rifle, and he must know how to protect himself against the attacks of the enemy. When he is thus equipped and he abandons lion-hunting for the more strenuous life of war the Boer is a formidable enemy, for he has combined in him the qualities of a general as well as the powers of a private soldier. In lion-hunting the harm of having too many men in authority is not so fatal to the success of the expedition as it is in real warfare, where the enemy may have less generals but a larger force of men who will obey their commands. All the successes of the Boer army were the result of the fact that every burgher was a general, and to the same cause may be attributed almost every defeat. Whenever this army of generals combined and agreed to do a certain work it was successful, but it was unsuccessful whenever the generals disagreed. If the opportunity had given birth to a man who would have been accepted as general of the generals—a man was needed who could introduce discipline and training into the rudimentary military system of the country—the chances of the Boer success would have been far greater.

Electing an officer


The leaders of the Boer army were elected by a vote of the people in the same manner in which they chose their presidents and civil officials. Age, ability, and military experience did not have any bearing on the subject except in so far as they influenced the mind of the individual voter. Family influences, party affiliations, and religion had a strong bearing on the result of the elections, and, as is frequently the case with civil authorities in other countries, the men with the best military minds and experience were not always chosen. It was as a result of this system that General Joubert was at the head of the army when a younger, more energetic, and more warlike man should have been Commandant-General. At the last election for Commandant-General, Joubert, a Progressive, also received the support of the Conservatives, so that two years later he might not be a candidate for the Presidency against Paul Kruger. In the same manner the commandants of the districts and the field-cornets of the wards were chosen, and in the majority of the cases no thought was taken of their military ability at the time of the election. The voters of a ward, the lowest political division in the country, elected their field-cornet more with a view of having him administer the laws in times of peace than with the idea of having him lead them into a battle, and in like manner the election of a commandant for a district, which generally consisted of five wards, was more of a victory for his popularity in peace than for his presumed bravery in war. The Boer system of electing military leaders by vote of the people may have had certain advantages, but it had the negative advantage of effacing all traces of authority between officers and men. The burgher who had assisted in electing his field-cornet felt that that official owed him a certain amount of gratitude for having voted for him, and obeyed his orders or disobeyed them whenever he chose to do so. The field-cornet represented authority over his men, but of real authority there was none. The commandants were presumed to have authority over the field-cornets and the generals over the commandants, but whether the authority was of any value could not be ascertained until after the will of those in lower rank was discovered. By this extraordinary process it happened that every burgher was a general and that no general was greater than a burgher.

The military officers of the Boers, with the exception of the Commandant-General, were the same men who ruled the country in times of peace. War suddenly transformed pruning-hooks into swords, and conservators of peace into leaders of armies. The head of the army was the Commandant-General, who was invested with full power to direct operations and lead men.

Directly under his authority were the Assistant Commandant-Generals, five of whom were appointed by the Volksraad a short time before the beginning of hostilities. Then in rank were those who were called Vecht-Generals, or fighting generals, in order to distinguish them from the Assistant-Generals. Then followed the Commandants, the leaders of the field-cornets of one district, whose rank was about that of colonels. The field-cornets, who were in command of the men of a ward, were under the authority of a commandant, and ranked on a par with majors. The burghers of every ward were subdivided into squads of about twenty-five men under the authority of a corporal, whose rank was equal to that of a lieutenant. There were no corps, brigades, regiments, and companies to call for hundreds of officers; it was merely a commando, whether it had ten men or ten thousand, and neither the subdivision nor the augmentation of a force affected the list of officers in any way. Nor would such a multiplication of officers weaken the fighting strength of a force, for every officer, from Commandant-General to corporal, carried and used a rifle in every battle.

When the officers had their men on the field, and desired to make a forward movement or an attack on the enemy, it was necessary to hold a Krijgsraad, or council of war, and this was conducted in such a novel way that the most unmilitary burgher's voice bore almost as much weight as that of the Commandant-General. Every officer, from corporal to Commandant-General, was a member of the Krijgsraad, and when a plan was favoured by the majority of those present at the council it became a law. The result of a Krijgsraad meeting did not necessarily imply that it was the plan favoured by the best military minds at the council, for it was possible and legal for the opinions of sixteen corporals to be adopted although fifteen generals and commandants opposed the plan with all their might. That there ever was such a result is problematical, but there were many Krijgsraads at which the opinion of the best and most experienced officers were cast aside by the votes of field-cornets and corporals. It undoubtedly was a representative way of adopting the will of the people, but it frequently was exceedingly costly. At the Krijgsraad in Natal which determined to abandon the positions along the Tugela, and retire north of Ladysmith the project was bitterly opposed by the generals who had done the bravest and best fighting in the colony, but the votes of the corporals, field-cornets, and commandants outnumbered theirs, and there was nothing for the generals to do but to retire and allow Ladysmith to be relieved. At Mafeking scores of Krijgsraad were held for the purpose of arriving at a determination to storm the town, but invariably the field-cornets and corporals out-voted the commandants and generals and refused to risk the lives of their men in such a hazardous attack. Even the oft-repeated commands of the Commandant-General to storm Mafeking were treated with contempt by the majority of the Krijgsraad who constituted the highest military authority in the country so far as they and their actions were concerned. When there happened to be a deadlock in the balloting at a Krijgsraad it was more than once the case that the vote of the Commandant-General counted for less than the voice of a burgher. In one of the minor Krijgsraads in Natal there was a tie in the voting, which was ended when an old burgher called his corporal aside and influenced him to change his vote. The Commandant-General himself had not been able to change the result of the voting, but the old burgher who had no connection with the council of war practically determined the result of the meeting.

The Krijgsraad was the supreme military authority in the country, and its resolutions were the law, all its infractions being punishable by fines. The minority of a Krijgsraad was obliged to assist in executing the plans of the majority, however impracticable or distasteful they might have been to those whose opinions did not prevail. There were innumerable instances where generals and commandants attended a Krijgsraad and afterward acted quite contrary to the resolution adopted by the council. In any other army such action would have been called disobedience of orders, with the corresponding punishment, but in the Boer army it amounted to little beyond personal animosity. According to Boer military law an officer offending in such a manner should have been arraigned before the Krijgsraad and tried by his fellow officers, but such occurrences were extremely rare.

One of the few instances where a man was arraigned before a Krijgsraad for dereliction of duty was after the enemy succeeded in damaging one of the "Long Tom's" around Ladysmith. The artillery officer who was in charge of the gun when the dynamite was exploded in its muzzle was convicted of neglect of duty and was disgraced before the army. After the battle of Belmont Vecht-General Jacob Prinsloo, of the Free State, was court-martialled for cowardice and was reduced to the rank of burgher. It was Prinsloo's first battle, and he was thoroughly frightened. When some of his men came up to him and asked him for directions to repel the advancing British force Prinsloo trembled, rubbed his hands, and replied: "God only knows; I don't," and fled with all his men at his heels.

Two instances where commandants acted contrary to the decisions of Krijgsraad were the costly disobedience of General Erasmus, at Dundee, and the still more costly mistake of Commandant Buis at Hlangwe. When the Boers invaded Natal and determined to attack the British forces then stationed at the town of Dundee, it was decided at a Krijgsraad that General Lucas Meyer should attack from the east and south, and General Erasmus from the north. General Meyer occupied Talana Hill, east of Dundee, and a kopje south of the town, and attacked General Penn-Symons's forces at daybreak. General Erasmus and the Pretoria commando, with field pieces and a "Long Tom," occupied Impati Mountain on the north, but when the time arrived for him to assist in the attack on the enemy several hundred yards below him he would not allow one shot to be fired. As a result of the miscarriage of plans General Meyer was compelled to retire from Talana Hill in the afternoon, while the British force was enabled to escape southward into Ladysmith. If General Erasmus had followed the decision of the Krijgsraad, and had assisted in the attack, there is hardly any doubt that the entire force of the enemy would have been captured. Even more disastrous was the disobedience of Commandant Buis, of the Heidelberg commando, who was ordered to occupy a certain point on the Boschrand, called Hlangwe, about February 19th. The British had tried for several weeks to drive the Boers from the Boschrand, but all their attempts proved fruitless. A certain commando had been holding Hlangwe for a long time, and Commandant Buis was ordered to take his commando and relieve the others by night. Instead of going to Hlangwe immediately that night he bivouacked in a small nek near by, intending to occupy the position early the following morning. During the night the British discovered that the point was unoccupied and placed a strong force there. In this manner the British wedge was forced into the Boschrand, and shortly afterwards the Boers were obliged to retreat across the Tugela and secure positions on the north bank of the stream. Of less serious consequence was General De la Rey's refusal to carry out a decision he himself had assisted in framing. It was at Brandfort, in the Free State, several weeks after Bloemfontein was occupied, and all the Boer generals in the vicinity met in Krijgsraad and voted to make a concerted attack upon the British force at Tafelkop, midway between Bloemfontein and Brandfort. Generals Smuts and Botha made a long night trek to the positions from which they were to attack the enemy at daybreak. It had been arranged that General De la Rey's commando should open the attack from another point, and that no operations should begin until after he had given a certain signal. The signal was never given, and, after waiting for it several hours, the other generals returned to Brandfort only to find that General De la Rey had not even moved from his laager.

When the lower ranks of officers—the field-cornets and corporals—disobeyed the mandates of the Krijgsraads, displayed cowardice or misbehaved in any other manner, the burghers under their command were able to impeach them and elect other officers to fill the vacancies. The corporals were elected by the burghers after war was begun, and they held their posts only so long as their behaviour met with the favour of those who placed them in authority. During the first three months of the war innumerable changes of that nature were made, and not infrequently was it the case that a corporal was unceremoniously dismissed because he had offended one of his men who happened to wield much influence over his fellows in the commando. Personal popularity had much to do with the tenure of office, but personal bravery was not allowed to go unrewarded, and it happened several times in the laagers along the Tugela that a corporal resigned his rank so that one of his friends who had distinguished himself in a battle might have his work recognised and appreciated.

However independent and irresponsible the Boer officer may have been, he was a man in irons compared with the Boer burgher. The burgher was bound by no laws except such as he made for himself. There was a State law which compelled him to join a commando and to accompany it to the front, or in default of that law to pay a small fine. As soon as he was "on commando," as he called it, he became his own master and could laugh at Mr. Atkins across the way who was obliged to be constantly attending to various camp duties when not actively engaged. No general, no act of Volksraad could compel him to do any duty if he felt uninclined to perform it, and there was no power on earth which could compel him to move out of his tent if he did not desire to go. In the majority of countries a man may volunteer to join the army but when once he is a soldier he is compelled to fight, but in the Boer country the man was compelled to join the army, but he was not obliged to fight unless he volunteered to do so. There were hundreds of men in the Natal laagers who never engaged in one battle and never fired a shot in the first six months of the war. Again, there were hundreds of men who took part in almost every one of the battles, whether their commando was engaged or not, but they joined the fighting voluntarily and not because they were compelled to do so.

When a Krijgsraad determined to make or resist an attack it was decided by the officers at the meeting how many men were needed for the work. Immediately after the meeting the officers returned to their commandos, and, after explaining to their burghers the nature and object of the expedition, asked for volunteers. The officer could not call upon certain men and order them to take part in the purposed proceedings he could only ask them to volunteer their services. It happened at times that an entire commando of several hundred men volunteered to do the work asked of them, but just as often it happened that only from one-tenth to one-twentieth of the burghers expressed their willingness to accompany the expedition. Several days after the Spion Kop battle General Botha called for four hundred volunteers to assist in resisting an attack that it was feared would be made. There were almost ten thousand men in the environs of Ladysmith at that time, but it was with the utmost difficulty that the four hundred men could be gathered. Two hundred men came from one commando, one hundred and fifty-three from another, twenty-eight from a third, fifteen from another, and five from another made a total of four hundred and one men—one more than was called for.

When Commandant-General Joubert, at his Hoofd—or head-laager at Modderspruit, received an urgent request for reinforcements he was not able to order one of the commandos that was in laager near him to go to the assistance of the fighting burghers; he could only make a request of the different commandants and field-cornets to ask their men to volunteer for the service. If the men refused to go, then naturally the reinforcements could not be sent, and those who were in dire need of assistance had the alternative of continuing the struggle alone or of yielding a position to the enemy. The relief of Ladysmith was due to the fact that Generals Botha, Erasmus, and Meyer could not receive reinforcements from Commandant-General Joubert, who was north of Ladysmith with almost ten thousand men. Botha, Meyer, and Erasmus had been fighting for almost a week without a day's intermission, and their two thousand men were utterly exhausted when Joubert was asked to send reinforcements, or even men enough to relieve those from fighting for a day or two, but a Krijgsraad had decided that the entire army should retreat to the Biggarsberg, and Joubert could not, or at least would not, send any burghers to the Tugela, with the result that Botha was compelled to retreat and abandon positions which could have been held indefinitely if there had been military discipline in the commandos. It was not always the case that commandants and generals were obliged to go begging for volunteers, and there were innumerable times when every man of a commando did the work assigned to him without a murmur.

During the Natal campaign the force was so large, and the work seemed so comparatively easy that the majority of the burghers never went to the firing line, but when British successes in the Free State placed the Boers on the defensive it was not so easy to remain behind in the laagers and allow others more willing to engage in the fighting. General Cronje was able to induce a much larger percentage of his men to fight than Commandant-General Joubert, but the reasons for this were that he was much firmer with his men and that he moved from one place to another more frequently than Joubert. Towards the end of General Cronje's campaign all his men were willing to enter a battle, but that was because they realised that they must fight, and in that there was much that was lacking in the Natal army. When a Boer realised that he must fight or lose his life or a battle, he would fight as few other men were able to fight, but when he imagined that his presence at the firing line was not imperative he chose to remain in laager.

Thaba Nchu


There were hundreds of burghers who took part in almost every battle in Natal, and these were the individuals who understood the frame of mind of some of their countrymen, and determined that they must take upon themselves the responsibilities of fighting and winning battles. Among those who were most forward in fighting were the Johannesburg police, the much-despised "Zarps" of peaceful times; the Pretoria commando, and the younger men of other commandos. There were many old Boers who left their laagers whenever they heard the report of a gun, but the ages of the great majority of those who were killed or injured were between seventeen and thirty years. After the British captured Bloemfontein, and the memorable Krijgsraad at Kroonstad determined that guerilla warfare should be followed thereafter, it was not an easy matter for a burgher to remain behind in the laagers, for the majority of the ox-waggons and other camp paraphernalia was sent home and laager life was not so attractive as before. Commandos remained at one place only a short time, and there was almost a daily opportunity for a brush with the enemy. The war had been going on for six months, but many of the men had their first taste of actual war as late as that, and, after the first battle had been safely passed through, the following ones were thought of little consequence. When General Christian De Wet began his campaign in the eastern part of the Free State there were hardly enough men left in the laagers to guard them properly when battles were in progress, and in the battles at Sannaspost, Moester's Hoek, and Wepener probably ninety-nine per cent. of his men took part in every battle. In Natal the real fighting spirit was lacking from the majority of the men, or Commandant-General Joubert might never have been wiped aside from the path to Durban; but months afterward, when the burgher learned that his services were actually needed, and that, if he did not fight, he was liable to be captured and sent to St. Helena, he polished his Mauser and fought as hard and well as he was able.

The same carelessness or indifference which manifested itself throughout the early part of the Natal campaign with regard to the necessity of assisting in the fighting was evident in that all-important part of an army's work, the guarding of the laagers. The Boers did not have sentries or outposts as they are understood in trained armies, but they had what was called a "Brandwacht," or fire-guard, which consisted of a hundred men or more who were supposed to take positions at a certain distance from the laagers, and remain there until daybreak. These men were volunteers secured by the corporal, who was responsible to his field-cornet for a certain number of men every night. It was never made compulsory upon any one to go on Brandwacht, but the duty was not considered irksome, and there were always as many volunteers as were required for the work. The men on Brandwacht carried with them blankets, pipes, and kettles, and, after reaching the point which they were to occupy during the night, they tethered their horse to one of their feet and made themselves comfortable with pipe and coffee. When the enemy was known to be near by the Brandwacht kept awake, as a matter of personal safety, but when there seemed to be no danger of attack he fastened his blankets around his body and, using his saddle for a pillow, slept until the sun rose. There was a mild punishment for those who slept while on this duty, and occasionally the burgher found in the morning that some one had extracted the bolt of his rifle during the night. When the corporal produced the bolt as evidence against him in the morning and sentenced him to carry a stone or a box of biscuits on his head the burgher might decline to be punished, and no one could say aught against his determination.

The Boer scouts, or spies as they called them, received their finest tribute from Sir George White, the British Commander at Ladysmith. In a speech which he delivered at Cape Town, Sir George said—

"All through this campaign, from the first day the Boers crossed the frontier to the relief of Ladysmith, I and others who have been in command near me, have been hampered by their excellent system of intelligence, for which I give them all credit. I wish to goodness that they had neglected it, for I could not move a gun, even if I did not give the order till midnight, but they knew it by daylight next morning. And they had their agents, who gave them their intelligence through thick and thin. I locked up everybody who I thought could go and tell, but somehow or other the intelligence went on."

The Boer was an effective scout because he was familiar with the country, and because his eyes were far better than those of any of the men against whom he was pitted. The South African atmosphere is extraordinarily clear, and every person has a long range of vision, but the Boer, who was accustomed to the climatic conditions, could distinguish between Boer and Briton where the stranger could barely see a moving object. Field-glasses were almost valueless to Boer scouts, and few of them were carried by any one except the generals and commandants, who secured them from the War Department before the beginning of the war. There was no distinct branch of the army whose exclusive duty it was to scout, and there was even greater lack of organisation in the matter of securing information concerning the movements of the enemy than in the other departments of the army's work. When a general or commandant felt that it was necessary to secure accurate information concerning the enemy's strength and whereabouts he asked for volunteers to do the work. Frequently, during the Natal campaign, no scouting was done for days, and the generals were absolutely ignorant of everything in connection with the enemy. Later in the campaign several scouting corps composed of foreign volunteers were organised, and thereafter the Boers depended wholly upon the information they secured. There was no regulation which forbade burghers from leaving the laagers at any time, or from proceeding in any direction, and much of the information that reached the generals was obtained from these rovers over the veld. It was extremely difficult for a man who did not have the appearance of a burgher to ride over the veld for more than a mile without being hailed by a Boer who seemed to have risen out of the earth unnoticed. "Where are you going?" or "Where are you coming from?" were his invariable salutations, and if the stranger was unable to give a satisfactory reply or show proper passports he was commanded, "Hands up." The burghers were constantly on the alert when they were on the veld, whether they were merely wandering about, leaving for home, or returning to the laager, and as soon as they secured any information which they believed was valuable they dashed away to the nearest telegraph or heliograph station, and reported it to their general or commandant. In addition to this valuable attribute the Boers had the advantage of being among white and black friends who could assist them in a hundred different ways in securing information concerning the enemy, and all these circumstances combined to warrant General White's estimate of the Boers' intelligence department, which, notwithstanding its efficiency, was more or less chimerical.

In no department or branch of the army was there any military discipline or system, except in the two small bodies of men known as the State Artillery of the Transvaal and the State Artillery of the Free State. These organisations were in existence many years before the war was begun, and had regular drills and practice which were maintained when they were at the front. The Johannesburg Police also had a form of discipline which, however, was not strict enough to prevent the men from becoming mutinous when they imagined that they had fought the whole war themselves, and wanted to have a vacation in order that they might visit their homes. The only vestige of real military discipline that was to be found in the entire Boer army was that which was maintained by Field-Cornet A.L. Thring, of the Kroonstad commando, who had a roll-call and inspection of rifles every morning. This extraordinary procedure was not relished by the burghers, who made an indignant protest to General Christian De Wet. The general upheld the field-cornet's action, and told the men that if all the officers had instituted similar methods more success might have attended the army's operations.

With the exception of the instances cited, every man was a disciplinary law unto himself, when he transgressed that law no one would punish him but his conscience. There were laws on the subject of obedience in the army, and each had penalties attached to it, but it was extremely rare that a burgher was punished. When he endured discipline he did it because he cared to do so, and not because he feared those who had authority over him. He was deeply religious, and he felt that in being obedient he was finding favour in the eyes of the Providence that favoured his cause. It was as much his religion as his ability to aim unerringly that made the Boer a good soldier. If the Boer army had been composed of an irreligious, undisciplined body of men, instead of the psalm-singing farmers, it would have been conquered by itself. The religion of the Boers was their discipline.