With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

The Boer Military System

The disparity between the British and Boer armies seemed to be so great at the time the war was begun that the patriotic Englishman could hardly be blamed for asserting that the struggle would be of only a month's duration. On the one side was an army every branch of which was highly developed and specialised and kept in constant practice by many wars waged under widely different conditions. Back of it was a great nation, with millions of men and unlimited resources to draw upon. At the head of the army were men who had the theory and practice of warfare as few leaders of other armies had had the opportunities of securing them. Opposed to this army was practically an aggregation of farmers, hastily summoned together and utterly without discipline or training. They were unable to replace with another a single fallen burgher and prevented from adding by importation to their stock of ammunition a single rifle or a single pound of powder. At the head were farmers who, perhaps, did not know that there existed a theory of warfare and much less knew how recent wars were fought and won. The means by which thirty thousand farmers of no military training were enabled to withstand the opposition of several hundred thousand well-trained soldiers for the greater part of a year must be attributed to the military system which gave such a marvellous advantage. Such success as attended the Boer army was undoubtedly the success of its system of warfare against that of the British.

Batttle of Dundee


The Boers themselves were not aware that they had a military system; at least, none of the generals or men acknowledged the existence of such, and it was not an easy matter to find evidences that battles were fought and movements made according to certain established rules which suggested a system. The Boers undoubtedly had a military plan of their own which was naturally developed in their many wars with natives and with the British troops. It might not have been a system, according to the correct definition of the term—it might have been called an instinct for fighting, or a common-sense way of attempting to defeat an enemy—but it was a matter which existed in the mind of every single citizen of the two Republics. It was not to be learned from books or teachers, nor could it be taught to those who were not born in the country. Whatever that system was, it was extremely rudimentary, and was never developed to any extent by the discipline and training which any system necessarily requires in order to make it effective. There was a natural system or manner used by the Boers when hunting for lion or buck, and it was identically the same which they applied against the British army. Every Boer was expert in the use of his rifle; he had an excellent eye for country and cover; he was able to tell at a glance whether a hill or an undulation in the ground was suitable for fighting purposes, whether it could be defended and whether it offered facilities for attack or retreat. Just as every Boer was a general, so it was that every burgher had in his mind a certain military plan fashioned after the needs and opportunities of the country, and this was their system—a sort of national as well as natural military system.

In the British army, as well as in the other modern armies, the soldier is supposed to understand nothing, know nothing, and do nothing but give obedience to the commands of his officers. The trained soldier learns little, and is supposed to learn little, of anything except the evolutions he is taught on the drill-grounds. It is presumed that he is stupid, and the idea appears to be to prevent him from being otherwise in order that he may the better fulfil his part in the great machine to which a trained army has been likened. The soldier is regarded as an animal of low mental grade, whose functions are merely to obey the orders of the man who has been chosen by beings of superior intelligence to lead him. When the man who was chosen in times of peace to lead the men in times of war meets the enemy and fails to make a display of the military knowledge which it was presumed he possessed, then the soldiers who look to him for leadership are generally useless, and oftentimes worse than useless, inasmuch as their panic is likely to become infectious among neighbouring bodies of soldiers who are equipped with better leaders. In trained armies the value of a soldier is a mere reflection of the value of the officer who commands him, and the value of the army is relatively as great as the ability of its generals. In the Boer army the generals and commandants were of much less importance, for the reason that the Boer burgher acted almost always on his own initiative. The generals were of more service before the beginning of a battle than while it was in progress. When a burgher became aware of the presence of the enemy his natural instincts, his innate military system, told him the best manner in which to attack his adversary as well as his general could have informed him. The generals and other officers were of prime importance in leading the burghers to the point where the enemy was likely to be found, but when that point was reached their period of usefulness ended, for the burghers knew how to wage the battle as well as they did. Generally speaking, the most striking difference between the Boer army and a trained army was the difference in the distribution of intelligence.

All the intelligence of a trained army is centred in the officers; in the Boer army there was much practical military sense and alertness of mind distributed throughout the entire force.

Mr. Disraeli once said: "Doubtless to think with vigour, with clearness, and with depth in the recess of a cabinet is a fine intellectual demonstration; but to think with equal vigour, clearness, and depth among bullets, appears the loftiest exercise and the most complete triumph of the human faculties." Without attempting to insinuate that every Boer burgher was a man of the high mental attainments referred to by the eminent British statesman, it must be acknowledged that the fighting Boer was a man of more than ordinary calibre.

In battle the Boer burgher was practically his own general. He had an eye which quickly grasped a situation, and he never waited for an order from an officer to take advantage of it. When he saw that he could with safety approach the enemy more closely he did so on his own responsibility, and when it became evident to him that it would be advantageous to occupy a different position in order that he might stem the advance of the enemy he acted entirely on his own initiative. He remained in one position just as long as he considered it safe to do so, and if conditions warranted he went forward, and if they were adverse he retreated, whether there was an order from an officer or not. When he saw that the burghers in another part of the field were hard pressed by the enemy he deserted his own position and went to their assistance, and when his own position became untenable, in his own opinion, he simply vacated it and went to another spot where bullets and shells were less thick. If he saw a number of the enemy who were detached from the main body of their own force, and he believed that they could be taken prisoner, he enlisted a number of the burghers who were near him, and made an effort to capture them, whether there was an officer close at hand or a mile distant.

No one was surfeited with orders; in fact, the lack of them was more noticeable, and it was well that it was so, for the Boer burgher disliked to be ordered, and he always did things with better grace when he acted spontaneously. An illustration of this fact was an incident at the fight of Modderspruit where two young Boers saved an entire commando from falling into the hands of the enemy. Lieutenant Oelfse, of the State Artillery, and Reginald Sheppard, of the Pretoria commando, observed a strong force of the British advancing towards a kopje where the Krugersdorp commando was concealed. The two men saw that the Krugersdorpers would be cut off in a short time if they were not informed of the British advance, so they determined to plunge across the open veld, six hundred yards from the enemy's guns, and tell them of their danger. No officer could have compelled the men to undertake such a hazardous journey across a bullet-swept plain, but Oelfse and Sheppard acted on their own responsibility, succeeded in reaching the Krugersdorp commando without being hit, and gave to the commandant the information which undoubtedly saved him and his men from being captured. Incidents of like nature occurred in almost every battle of the campaign, and occasionally the service rendered so voluntarily by the burghers was of momentous consequences, even if the act itself seemed trivial at the time.

A second feature of the Boer army, and equally as important as the freedom of action of its individuals, was its mobility. Every burgher was mounted on a fleet horse or pony, and consequently his movements on the battlefield, whether in an advance or in a retreat, were many times more rapid that those of his enemy—an advantage which was of inestimable value both during an engagement and in the intervals between battles when it was necessary to secure new positions. During the progress of a battle the Boers were able to desert a certain point for a time, mount their horses and ride to another position, and throw their full strength against the latter, yet remaining in such close touch with the former that it was possible to return and defend it in an exceedingly short space of time. With the aid of their horses they could make such a sudden rush from one position to another that the infantry of the enemy could be surrounded and cut off from all communications with the body of its army almost before it was known that any Boers were in the vicinity, and it was due to that fact that the Boers were able to make so many large numbers of captives.

The fighting along the Tugela furnished many magnificent examples of the Boers' extreme mobility. There it was a constant jump from one position to another—one attack here yesterday, another there to-day. It was an incessant movement made necessary by the display of energy by the British, whose thrice-larger forces kept the Boers in a state of continued ferment. On one side of the river, stretched out from the south of Spion Kop, in the west, to almost Helpmakaar, in the east, were thirty thousand British troops watching for a weak point where they might cross, and attacking whenever there seemed to be the slightest opportunity of breaking through; on the other side were between two and three thousand mounted Boers, jumping from one point to another in the long line of territory to be guarded, and repelling the attacks whenever they were made. The country was in their favour, it is true, but it was not so favourable that a handful of men could defend it against thousands, and it was partly due to the great ease and rapidity with which the Boers could move from one place to another, that Ladysmith remained besieged so long. The mobility of the Boers was again well demonstrated by the retreat of the burghers from the environs of Ladysmith. After the Krijgsraad decided to withdraw the forces into the Biggarsberg, it required only a few hours for all the many commandos to leave the positions they had held so long; to load their impedimenta and to be well on the way to the northward. The departure was so rapid that it surprised even those who were in Ladysmith. One day the Boers were shelling the town as usual and all the commandos were observed in the same positions which they had occupied for several months; the following day not a single Boer was to be seen anywhere. They had quietly mounted their horses by night and before the sun rose in the morning they were trekking north beyond Modderspruit and Elandslaagte, on the way to Glencoe. General Cronje's flight from Magersfontein was also accomplished with great haste and in good order, but what probably was the finest example of the Boers' mobility was the magnificent retreat along the Basuto border of Generals Grobler, Olivier, and Lemmer, with their six thousand men, when the enemy was known to be in great strength within several days' march of them. After the capture of Cronje at Paardeberg the three generals, who had been conducting the campaign in the eastern provinces of Cape Colony, were in a most dangerous position, having the enemy in the rear, the left and left front, the neutral Basuto land on the right front, and only a small strip of territory along the western border of the Basuto country apparently free of the enemy. The British were in Bloemfontein and in the surrounding country, and it seemed almost impossible that the six thousand men could ever extricate themselves from such a position to join the Boer forces in the north. It would have been a comparatively easy matter for six thousand mounted men to make the journey if they had not been loaded down with impedimenta, but the three generals were obliged to carry with them all their huge transport waggons and heavy camping paraphernalia. The trek northward was begun near Colesburg on March 12th, and when all the different commandos had joined the main column the six thousand horsemen, the seven hundred and fifty transport-waggons, the two thousand natives, and twelve thousand cattle formed a line extending more than twenty-four miles. The scouts, who were despatched westward from the column to ascertain the whereabouts of the enemy, reported large forces of British cavalry sixty and seventy miles distant, but for some inexplicable reason the British made no attempt to cut off the retreat of the three generals, and on March 28th they reached Kroonstad, having traversed almost four hundred miles of territory in the comparatively short time of sixteen days. Sherman's march to the sea was made under extraordinary conditions, but the retreat of the three generals was fraught with dangers and difficulties much greater. Sherman passed through a fertile country, and had an enemy which was disheartened. The three generals had an enemy flushed with its first victories, while the country through which they passed was mountainous and muddy. If the column had been captured so soon after the Paardeberg disaster, the relief of Kimberley and the relief of Ladysmith, it might have been so disheartening to the remaining Boer commandos that the war might have been ended at that time. It was a magnificent retreat and well worthy to be placed in the Boer's scroll of honour with Cronje's noble stand at Paardeberg, with Spion Kop and Magersfontein.

General Grobler


The Boer army was capable of moving rapidly under almost any conditions. The British army demonstrated upon many occasions that it could not move more than two or three miles an hour when the column was hampered with transport waggons and camping paraphernalia, and frequently it was impossible to proceed at that pace for many consecutive hours. A Boer commando easily travelled six miles an hour and not infrequently, when there was a necessity for rapid motion, seven and even eight miles an hour were traversed. When General Lucas Meyer moved his commandos along the border at the outset of the war and learned that General Penn-Symons was located at Dundee he made a night march of almost forty miles in six hours and occupied Talana Hill, a mile distant from the enemy, who was ignorant of the Boers' proximity until the camp was shelled at daybreak. When General De Wet learned that Colonel Broadwood was moving westward from Thaba N'Chu on March 30th, he was in laager several miles east of Brandfort, but it required only several minutes for all the burghers to be on their horses and ready to proceed toward the enemy. The journey of twenty-five miles to Sannaspost, or the Bloemfontein waterworks, was made in the short time of five hours, while Colonel Broadwood's forces consumed seven hours in making the ten miles' journey from Thaba N'Chu to the same place. The British column was unable to move more rapidly on account of its large convoy of waggons, but even then the rate of progress was not as great as that made by the trekking party of the three generals who were similarly hampered. It was rarely the case that the Boers attempted to trek for any considerable distance with their heavy waggons when they were aware of the presence of the enemy in the vicinity. Ox-waggons were always left behind, while only a small number of mule-waggons, bearing provisions and ammunition, were taken, and on that account they were able to move with greater rapidity than their opponents. Frequently they entered dangerous territory with only a few days' provisions and risked a famine of food and ammunition rather than load themselves down with many lumbering waggons which were likely to retard their progress. After fighting the battle at Moester's Hoek, General De Wet had hardly three days' food and very little ammunition with him, yet rather than delay his march and send for more waggons, he proceeded to Wepener where, after several days' fighting, both his food and ammunition became exhausted and he was obliged to lie idle around the enemy and await the arrival of the supplies which he might have carried with him at the outset of the trek if he had cared to risk such an impediment to his rapid movements.

One of the primary reasons why the Boer could move more rapidly than the British was the difference in the weight carried by their horses. The Boer paid no attention to art when he went to war, and consequently he carried nothing that was not absolutely essential. His saddle was less than half the weight of a British saddle, and that was almost all the equipment he carried when on a trek. The Boer rider and equipment, including saddle, rifle, blankets, and a food-supply, rarely weighed more than two hundred and fifty pounds, which was not a heavy load for a horse to carry. A British cavalryman and his equipment of heavy saddle, sabre, carbine, and saddle-bags, rarely weighed less than four hundred pounds—a burden which soon tired a horse. Again, almost every Boer had two horses, so that when one had been ridden for an hour or more he was relieved and led, while the other was used. In this manner the Boers were able to travel from twelve to fourteen hours in a day when it was absolutely necessary to reach a certain point at a given time. Six miles an hour was the rate of progress ascribed to horses in normal condition, and when a forced march was attempted they could travel sixty and seventy miles in a day, and be in good condition the following morning to undertake another journey of equal length. Small commandos often covered sixty and seventy miles in a day, especially during the fighting along the Tugela, while after the battles of Poplar Grove and Abraham's Kraal, and the capture of Bloemfontein, it seemed as if the entire army in the Free State were moving northward at a rate of speed far exceeding that of an express train. The mobility of the Boer army was then on a par with that of the British army after the battle of Dundee, and it was difficult to determine which of the two deserved the palm for the best display of accelerated motion.

A feature of the Boer system of warfare which was most striking was the manner in which each individual protected himself, as far as possible, from danger. In lion-hunting it is an axiom that the hunter must not pursue a wounded lion into tall grass or underbrush lest the pursuer may be attacked. In the Boer army it was a natural instinct, common to all the burghers, which led them to seek their own safety whenever danger seemed to be near. Men who follow the most peaceful pursuits of life value their lives highly. They do not assume great risks even if great ends are to be attained. The majority of the Boers were farmers who saw no glory in attempting to gain a great success, the attainment of which made it necessary that they should risk their lives. It seemed as if each man realised that his death meant a great loss to the Boer army, already small, and that he did not mean to diminish its size if he could possibly prevent it. The Boer was quick in noting when the proper time arrived for retreat, and he was not slothful in acting upon his observations. Retreating at the proper time was one of the Boers' characteristics, but it could not be called an advantage, for frequently many of the Boers misjudged the proper time for retreating and left the field when a battle was almost won. At Poplar Grove the Boers might have won the day if the majority of the burghers had remained and fought an hour or two longer instead of retreating precipitately when the individuals determined that safety was to be found only in flight. At Elandslaagte the foreigners under General Kock did not gauge the proper moment for retreat, but continued with the fighting and were almost annihilated by the Lancers because of their lack of discretion in that respect. The burghers of the Free State, in particular, had the instinct of retreating abnormally developed, and whenever a battle was in progress large numbers of burghers could be observed going in an opposite direction as rapidly as their ponies could carry them over the veld. The lack of discipline in the commandos made such practices possible; in fact there was no rule or law by which a burgher could be prevented from retreating or deserting whenever he felt that he did not care to participate in a battle. After the British occupation of Bloemfontein there was a small skirmish about eight miles north of that city at a place called Tafelkop which sent the Free Staters running in all directions. The veld seemed to be filled with deserters, and at every farmhouse there were from two to six able-bodied men who had retreated when they believed themselves to be in grave danger.

Foolish men attribute all the moral courage in the world to the soldiers of their own country, but nature made a wise distribution of that gift, and not all the Boers were cowards. Boer generals with only a few hundred men time and again attacked thousands of British soldiers, and frequently vanquished them. General Botha's twenty-five hundred men held out for a week against General Buller's thirty or forty thousand men, and General Cronje with his four thousand burghers succumbed to nothing less than forty thousand men and a hundred and fifty heavy guns under Field-Marshal Lord Roberts. Those two examples of Boer bravery would suffice to prove that the South African farmers had moral courage of no mean order if there were not a thousand and one other splendid records of bravery. The burghers did not always lie behind their shelter until the enemy had come within several hundred yards and then bowl them over with deadly accuracy. At the Platrand fight near Ladysmith, on January 6th, the Boers charged and captured British positions, drove the defenders out, and did it so successfully that only a few Boers were killed. The Spion Kop fight, a second Majuba Hill, was won after one of the finest displays of moral courage in the war. It requires bravery of the highest type for a small body of men to climb a steep hill in the face of the enemy which is three times greater numerically and armed with larger and more guns, yet that was the case with the Boers at Spion Kop. There were but few battles in the entire campaign that the Boer forces were not vastly outnumbered by the enemy, who usually had from twice to twenty times their number of cannon, yet the burghers were well aware of the fact and did not allow it to interfere with their plans nor did they display great temerity in battling with such a foe. When Lord Roberts and his three thousand cavalry entered Jacobsdal there were less than one hundred armed Boers in the town, but they made a determined stand against the enemy, and in a street-fight a large percentage of the burghers fell, and their blood mingled with that of those they had slain. Large bodies of Boers rarely attacked, and never resisted the enemy on level stretches of veld, not because they lacked courage to do so, but because they saw the futility of such action. After the British drove the Boers out of the kopjes east and north-east of Bloemfontein the burghers had no broken country suited to their particular style of warfare, and they retreated to the Vaal without much effort to stop the advance of the enemy. The Boer generals knew that the British were equipped with innumerable cannon, which could sweep the level veld for several miles before them and make the ground untenable for the riflemen—the mainstay of the Boer army.

Spion Kop


When they were on hills the Boers were able to entrench themselves so thoroughly that the fire of several hundred heavy guns made hardly any impression on them, but as soon as they attempted to apply those tactics on level ground the results were most disastrous. At Colenso and Magersfontein the burghers remained in their trenches on the hills while thousands of shrapnel and other shells exploded above and around them, but very few men were injured, and when the British infantry advanced under cover of the shell fire the Boers merely remained in the trenches until the enemy had approached to within several hundred yards and then assailed them with rifle fire. Trenches always afforded perfect safety from shell fire, and on that account the Boers were able to cope so long and well with the British in the fighting along the Tugela and around Kimberley. The Boers generally remained quietly in their trenches and made no reply to the British cannon fire, however hot it was. The British generals several times mistook this silence as an indication that the Boers had evacuated the trenches, and sent forward bodies of infantry to occupy the positions. When the infantry reached the Boer zone of fire they usually met with a terrific Mauser fire that could not be stemmed, however gallant the attacks might have been. Hundreds of British soldiers lost their lives while going forward under shell fire to occupy a position which, it was presumed by the generals, was unoccupied by the Boers.

There were innumerable instances, also, of extraordinarily brave acts by individual burghers, but it was extremely difficult to hear of them owing to the Boers' disinclination to discuss a battle in its details. No Boer ever referred to his exploits or those of his friends of his own volition, and then only in the most indefinite manner. He related the story of a battle in much the same manner he told of the tilling of his fields or the herding of his cattle, and when there was any part of it pertaining to his own actions he passed it over without comment. It seemed as if every one was fighting, not for his own glorification, but for the success of his country's army, and consequently there was little hero-worship. Individual acts of bravery entitled the fortunate person to have his name mentioned in the Staats-Courant, the Government gazette, but hardly any attention was paid to the search for heroes, and only the names of a few men were even chronicled in the columns of that periodical. One of the bravest men in the Natal campaign was a young Pretoria burgher named Van Gas, who, in his youth, had an accident which made it necessary that his right arm should be amputated at the elbow. Later in life he was injured in one of the native wars and the upper arm was amputated, so that when he joined a commando he had only the left arm. It was an extraordinary spectacle to observe young Van Gaz holding his carbine between his knees while loading it with cartridges, and quite as strange to see the energy with which he discharged his rifle with one hand. He was in the van of the storming party at Spion Kop, where a bullet passed completely through his chest. He continued, however, to work his rifle between his knees and to shoot with his left arm, and was one of the first men to reach the summit of the hill, where he snatched the rifles from the hands of two British soldiers. After the battle was won he was carried to a hospital by several other burghers, but a month afterwards he was again at the front at the Tugela, going into exposed positions and shouting, "Come on, fellows, here is a good chance!" His companions desired to elect him as their field-cornet, but he refused the honour.

Evert Le Roux and Herculaas Nel, of the Swaziland Police, and two of the best scouts in the Boer army, were constantly engaged in recklessly daring enterprises, none of which, however, was quite equal to their actions on April 21st, when the vicinity of Ladysmith had been in British hands for almost two months. The two men went out on patrol and by night crept up a kopje behind which about three hundred British cavalrymen were bivouacking. The men were twenty miles distant from their laagers at Dundee and only a short distance from Ladysmith, but they lay down and slept on the other side of the kopje, less than a hundred yards from the cavalrymen. In the morning the British cavalry was divided into three squads, and all started for Ladysmith. Le Roux and Nel swept down toward the last squad, and called, "Hands up," to one of the men in the van. The cavalryman promptly held up his hands and a minute afterward surrendered his gun and himself, while the remainder of the squad fled precipitately. The two scouts, with their prisoner, quickly made a detour  of another kopje, and appeared in front of the first squad, of whom they made a similar demand. One of the cavalrymen, who was in advance of the others, surrendered without attempting to make any resistance, while the others turned quickly to the right and rode headlong into a deep sluit. Le Roux shot the horse of one of the men before he reached the sluit, loaded the unhorsed man on one of the other prisoner's horses, and then pursued the fleeing cavalrymen almost to the city-limits of Ladysmith.

Major Albrecht, the head of the Free State-Artillery, was one of the bravest men in General Cronje's commando, and his display of courage at the battle of Magersfontein was not less extraordinary than that which he made later in the river bed at Paardeberg. At Magersfontein Albrecht and two of his artillerymen operated the cannon which were located behind schanzes twenty feet apart. The British had more than thirty cannon, which they turned upon the Boer cannon whenever one of them was discharged. After a short time the fire became so hot that Albrecht sent his assistants to places of safety, and operated the guns alone. For eight hours the intrepid Free State artilleryman jumped from one cannon to another, returning the fire whenever there was a lull in the enemy's attack and seeking safety behind the schanze when shells were falling too rapidly. It was an uneven contest, but the bravery of the one man inspired the others, and the end of the day saw the Boers nearer victory than they were in the morning. At Tafelkop, on March 30th, three burghers were caught napping by three British soldiers, who suddenly appeared before them and shouted, "Hands up!" While the soldiers were advancing toward them the three burghers succeeded in getting their rifles at their captors' heads, and turned the tables by making prisoners of them. There were many such instances of bravery, but one that is almost incredible occurred at the place called Railway Hill, near the Tugela, on February 24th. On that day the Boers did not appear to know anything concerning the position of the enemy, and James Marks, a Rustenburg farmer, determined to go out of the laager and reconnoitre on his own responsibility. Marks was more than sixty-two years old, and was somewhat decrepit, a circumstance which did not prevent him from taking part in almost every one of the Natal battles, however. The old farmer had been absent from his laager less than an hour when he saw a small body of British soldiers at the foot of a kopje. He crept cautiously around the kopje, and, when he was within a hundred yards of the men, he shouted, "Hands up!" The soldiers immediately lifted their arms, and, in obedience to the orders of Marks, stacked their guns on a rock and advanced toward him. Marks placed the men in a line, saw that there were twenty-three big, able-bodied soldiers, and then marched them back into camp, to the great astonishment of his generals and fellow burghers.