The following text is taken from Chapter I of Maurice's History of the War in South Africa, entitled 'The Military system of the Transvaal'.
THE SUCCESSES OF THE BOERS—TO WHAT ATTRIBUTABLE—THEIR SYSTEM OF WAR MODELLED ON THAT OF THE KAFFIRS AND HOTTENTOTS; PECULIAR ADVANTAGES OF DUTCHMEN OVER NATIVES—NEW DEFENSIVE AND OFFENSIVE TACTICS—BOER MOBILITY—THE MILITARY STRUCTURE—DISCIPLINE — MOBILISATION — TRANSPORT — FOOD SUPPLY— ARTILLERY—ARSENAL — THE FREE STATE—ESTIMATE OF BOER STRENGTH—THE PRESENT GENERATION
THE war which began in 1899 between Great Britain and the Boer Republics was the outcome of causes which it is not the object of this book to discuss. It is enough to say that after long and unavailing negotiations the catastrophe was hastened by Mr. Krugers ultimatum, and by the irruption of the Boer army into Natal. Before describing the operations of the subsequent campaign, it is necessary to consider the main points of the Boer military system, the initial advantages which our enemies possessed, and the state of our own preparations at the outbreak of hostilities. Of all the phenomena which have aroused the interest of soldiers during the past half-century there have been none more startling than the sudden rise of the military power of the Transvaal. That a population of some 200,000 souls [This includes the Free State Dutch.], for the most part devoid of regular military organisation, should have succeeded in baffling and defeating sixty or seventy thousand fine troops, devotedly led and eager to win, is a fact not altogether to be explained away by bad strategy, insufficient preparation, and unfavourable local conditions. Brave as we knew the Boers to be, deadly marksmen as they had proved themselves at Majuba and Laing's Nek, few professional men, either in this country or on the Continent, thought them capable of conducting large operations. Nor can we safely attribute their success to foreign guidance. The ablest strategist will fail if his troops are deficient in martial instinct, in that kind of knowledge which, when gained in actual war, is called experience, but which can be kept alive in peace by a vigorously held tradition and by favouring conditions of country and habit of life. Assuredly the Boer has engrained in his nature an aptitude for war unsurpassed by any other people. Not without a large share of self-reliance, judgment, and, above all, inherited principles of action, could a nation of peasants, however courageous and skilled in the use of the rifle, have accomplished what the Boers accomplished in the first three months of the war. It is worth while, then, to glance briefly at their past history and at the. origin and development of the system of warfare which they have so admirably turned to account.
It is hardly necessary to remark that military annals present no exact parallel to the Great Trek and to the subsequent struggles of the Dutch farmers. The exodus of a European people into a wilderness inhabited by tribes fiercer and more militant than the American Indians, the gradual conversion of the settlers to the native modes of warfare, and the final adoption of these to modern conditions, stands alone in recent times. In North America, where the conquest of the Indians by the whites warrants a comparison, the immigration neither took place so suddenly nor on so large a scale. The Red Man, too, lacked the headlong courage of the Zulu and the ceaseless perseverance and fortitude of the Hottentot. The brief and bloody raids along the Indian frontier rarely exhibited the same exterminating energy as the wars which the Boers, hemmed in on three sides, waged against Dingaan, the Basutos, the Matabele, and the other tribes whom the need of expansion or of self-defence impelled them to attack or resist.
The characteristics of Boer warfare early disclosed themselves. At first they seem to have clung to the protection of their laagers ; but they soon saw the advantages of bolder methods, and learnt to meet
their cruel and subtle adversaries upon more than even terms. A recent German writer,1 who has had especial occasion to study the question, thus summarises this newer development:—
"The Military History of South Africa shows that the conduct of war as practised by the Hottentots and Bushmen was gradually adopted by all new-comers, first by the Kaffirs, then by the Boers, and finally by the other whites, and that the change of armament," the transition from bow and arrow to spear and firearms, found scarcely anything to alter in their system of tactics. These tactics were borrowed entirely from the hunting experiences of the Hottentots." [Kriegs fuhrung in Siid Afrika," by Major C. v. Frangois, commandant in German South-West Africa.]
While the same writer admits that this people borrowed something from the Boers, he seems to make it clear that the latter owed still more to the natives. The more unpleasant aspects of Boer fighting were plainly due to this source. The disregard and the open abuse of the formalities of European war by the rougher elements of the Transvaal army were but an illustration of the native principle that the enemy must be destroyed regardless of honour or mercy. The Hottentot, whose base was his laager, and who was influenced only by his anxiety for what it contained, held the annihilation of the opposing laager and its defenders to be the sole object for which war was waged. The conditions of civilised war are different, and for the most part our enemy has conformed to its formalities, but it is no injustice to the Boers to say that the more ignorant of them remained somewhat under the influence of the cruel and unscrupulous lessons which they had learned while raiding and being raided by the natives.
In matters of pure tactics, according to Von Francis, the Boer methods were a still closer imitation of those employed by the Hottentots. His remarks so admirably describe the offensive side of our enemy's system that we quote his paragraph in extenso :—
"When about to fight, the Hottentots separate themselves into detachments of from five to twenty men. The detachments approach the enemy in a thin line of skirmishers—each sharpshooter twenty paces and more from the next—and making a most careful use of the ground, endeavour to outflank and to surround him. The bodies held in reserve are invariably used against the flanks of the enemy. This formation is taken up with the greatest rapidity. The detachments in rear execute their movements on horseback at full gallop. Characteristic of the formation are the immense frontages occupied by few men. As a result, losses are diminished, firing is easier, especially against an enemy who remains massed or is so weak that he allows himself to be surrounded. It further facilitates their withdrawal and retirement. Generally they look upon a body of European troops as a savage and very dangerous wild beast against which they must take up secure positions, and at which they must shoot very carefully from different sides, so that he may not know whence the shots come or against whom to turn. By brute force, says the Hottentot to himself, no success is attainable, but it is easily so by the use of wile and cunning."
The description of the Hottentot defensive was equally applicable to the Boers before they were allowed time to turn hills into forts. The exigencies of war caused changes in their offensive tactics also. Their assaults occasionally partook of a more desperate character, though their failure, however necessary from a general point of view they might have been, proves that the skirmish and the 44 surround" are better suited to an irregular system. The great and obvious weakness of the Boers as soldiers was their helplessness in front of strong and resolutely held positions.
In their own style of combat they were unsurpassed. The dominating qualities of the European had made their copy of native models infinitely more formidable than the original. To the craft, quickness, and patience of the savage they added the steady nerve, the unbending courage, and the religious fanaticism of the Huguenot.
"Fierce, poor, content, ungovernably bold"
were the early Transvaalers, and their descendants have inherited many of their sterner virtues. In the wild days of early settlement all had to learn the trade of war, and the lessons of that early training were
never forgotten. Confident in their shooting powers, mounted on horses as tough and wiry as themselves, and quick to utilise every advantage of ground—the Boers were probably still the finest light horse in the world. Effecting by shot more than regular cavalry achieve by lance and sword, more enduring than the disciplined squadrons of Europe, they could also hold a position with the cool obstinacy of veteran footmen in the face of the most appalling fire. Only when their opponents were near enough to use the bayonet were they forced to retreat. Then for the first time shock tactics came into play, and the irregulars, without the necessary cohesion, and unequipped for hand-to-hand fighting, yielded before the unwavering and irresistible rush of British infantry.
The degree of mobility shown by the Boers naturally varied greatly according to the operation of the moment. In sudden manoeuvres over distances within the zone of immediate supply—by which we mean the limits to which horse and man may range without recourse to baggage-trains and other encumbrances—they possessed all the advantages of horsemen. But their transport was inadequate for long marches at a distance from their base, as was shown in the advance into Natal. Their movements under such conditions were no faster than, often not as fast as, those of a large body of regular infantry. Our own immobility in the earlier part of the struggle freed them from the necessity of swift and sustained marches in the presence of a strong and ready enemy.
The most remarkable and interesting personality among the leaders of the Boers was Commandant-General Joubert. The story that he was a native of Louisiana and fought in the American Civil War is incorrect. He was born in Cape Colony in 1831, and was a descendant of the Huguenots who fled to Holland. As a child of six he accompanied the farmers who first trekked over the Cape frontier. His people traversed the Karoo and the territory which is now the Orange Free State, and entered the then almost uninhabited country of Natal. The boy, upon whom this migration made a great impression, was seven years old when the heaviest disaster which had befallen the Boers took place—the massacre by the Zulus of Piet Retief's party of sixty-seven souls. A few months later, on December 16th (a date ever afterwards solemnly observed by the burghers as Dingaan's Day), the whites in a great battle totally destroyed Dingaan's army.
In 1847 the Jouberts moved from Natal into a region now part of the Transvaal. After serving on several commandos, young Joubert took part in 1852 in real fighting against Sechel6. The farmers, commanded by Field Cornet, now President Kruger, were victorious after a six hours' combat. In this year Joubert married. His wife, who accompanied him on all his campaigns, distinguished herself more than once in the fighting with the Kaffirs, and had a considerable influence on Joubert's political career. From 1853 to 1877 the future Commandant-General lived quietly on his farm, and was a kind of attorney, and afterwards a magistrate.
During the Presidency of Mr. Burgers Joubert was elected to the Chair of the Volksraad. As its head he had an interview with Sir T. Shepstone, in which he declined to support the proposed British annexation of the country. When the Union Jack was hoisted at Pretoria he refused an appointment from the Queen's representative. Afterwards when called upon to take the oath of allegiance he would not do so, and became a leader in the agitation for the withdrawal of the British sovereignty. Joubert left his country for the first time when he went to England in 1878 as a member of the second deputation which tried, unsuccessfully, to get the act of annexation annulled. The farmers refused to pay taxes to the British officials, and a great meeting was held at Paardekraal (where there is now a commemorative monument) at which Kruger, Pretorius, and Joubert were elected Triumvirs—the last named being also designated Commandant-General.
The first shots between the Republicans and the British troops were exchanged on December 16, 1880. The British reverses at Potchefstroom and Bronkhurst Spruit followed. At the latter place we had sixty-five killed and ninety-one wounded against seven Boer casualties. General Colley was next defeated at Laing's Nek (British loss, eighty-three killed, 111 wounded; Boer loss, fourteen killed and thirty wounded) and the Ingogo. On December 27th Majuba Hill was carried, the presence of the British on the eminence being first detected by Mrs. Joubert. The Boers, who numbered 154, had one killed and six wounded. Of the British force there were five officers, including General Colley, and eighty-six men killed, eight officers and 125 men wounded, and six officers and fifty-one men were taken prisoners. These figures are interesting as confirming to some extent the extraordinary skill with which the Boers evade heavy losses. The peace negotiations were now resumed and the Republic was recognised.
The year after Joubert was again in the field against a Kaffir chieftain. The wars against Malaboch and Magato came later. As a general, Joubert was famous for the care he took of his men and an avoidance of what has been called u military grand stand tactics." His cleverness procured him the nickname of "'Cute Piet." In May, 1883, he was elected Vice-President and Commandant-General, with Kruger as President, and they were re-elected in 1888, 1893, and 1898. Joubert stood against Kruger for the Presidency several times, and was credited with holding more Liberal views than "Oom Paul."
Though the organisation of the Burgher Army had been regulated and developed since the days when the old Vortrekkers set forth to find a promised land, its general characteristics at the beginning of the war were the same. The Republic primarily meant the subjection of the different bodies of emigrants to one government. The fighting men of each band of settlers used to assemble at the call of their leaders, going " on commando" when and where required. This commando system still survived, but according to the arrangement devised by General Joubert it had become territorial, the Transvaal being divided into seventeen districts, each of them supplying a commando varying in numbers and efficiency. The limits of each district and field cornetcy were settled by the higher authorities. Within them the Commandant and the Field Cornet were invested with large powers and responsibilities. All white men between sixteen and sixty years of age, and all dependable natives, were liable to service, the latter being employed as labourers, spies, runners, and team-drivers. The Commandant, chosen by the enfranchised burghers of the district, held office for five years. He was intended to lead the commando in war, and preside over the affairs of the district in peace. The chief executive officer, however, was the Field Cornet. He carried out the mobilisation, served out arms, and kept the burgher-lists. He was elected by the burghers of the wards, and held office for the same time as the Commandant. In peace he assisted in the administration of justice and the execution of the laws. In war he bore the rank of captain, and commanded the men of his cornetcy. There were several cornets to each district, and they were supported by assistants in times of pressure. A system, under which the same officers discharged the duties of military commander and civil administrator, was obviously a form of military despotism. Lieutenants, sergeants, and corporals were elected after mobilisation, the latter being charged with such camp duties as were not performed by individuals, but no absolute rule can be laid down, as the whole organisation was in a high degree haphazard and irregular.
The principle of election, probably the best that could under the circumstances be devised, had at least a precedent in the armies of revolutionary France. Though incompatible with really strict discipline, it generally ensures the choice of a fairly capable man, and may result in the discovery of brilliant talent. It can hardly be said, however, that in the Boer army " la carri&re £tait ouverte aux talents." Local prejudice, the limitations of birth, and frequent corruption, all of which appeared to hold a considerable place in the conservative Transvaal, were not generally favourable to upstart genius. It is difficult to speak definitely of the discipline. Certainly Mr. Raes book, " Malaboch," does not give the idea of exact orders or prompt obedience. In one instance, in front of Mafeking, the Boer leader admitted that he could not control his men. But gross insubordination there could not have been. " There was very little discipline or method in the camp," wrote a Times correspondent of the Pretoria commando in October, " but plenty of willingness and a natural instinct for doing the right thing, which served very well in its place." This very fairly describes one side, perhaps the most important side, of the Boer soldier.
On the other hand, the general was probably very dependent upon public opinion. The burghers criticised loudly. Though ready enough to follow their leaders in action and to carry out his plans at the moment of crisis, any cessation of active operations gave opportunity for an expression of views, which could hardly fail to influence the judgment and will of the commander. While this failing did not diminish the fighting powers of the force, it might seriously affect the general plan. It is possible, for instance, that the wasteful attack upon Kimberley was undertaken in deference to popular hatred of Mr. Rhodes.
The Boer mobilisation was carried through with great rapidity. Mounted men rode round the farms warning the inmates, and the call was promptly answered. Horses were caught, rifles and ammunition collected, the waggon filled with a supply of food and other necessaries, and within an hours time, perhaps even less, the males of the family were hastening to the rendezvous, sometimes accompanied by their women. The principle of commandeering private property was pushed to its logical extreme. Horses were taken out of the shafts, stores ransacked, and carts seized. The fighting man was allowed as much baggage as he chose. In old days every one was expected to furnish his own rifle and horse, and to bring a certain quantity of food, varying in proportion to the length and importance of the expedition. When his ammunition was exhausted the Boer would * sometimes leave the front and go to buy more in the neighbouring towns. At the beginning of the present war, however, the ample provision of Mauser and Martini rifles and the other stores massed at Pretoria enabled the Government to supply a large part of the burghers with arms, ammunition, food, forage, mackintoshes, tents, and blankets. Of late years a regular cartridge allowance was issued at stated intervals, as Dr. Jameson knew. Such a plan is calculated to introduce uniformity of armament as well as sufficiency of ammunition, but a sum of money often takes the place of cartridges, the receiver buying the kind his rifle required. It is probable that all the burghers ended by using weapons recognised by the Government, private or purchasable supplies having soon been exhausted.
The miscellaneous collection of carts, horses, mules, and oxen which accompanied a commando was not so unwieldy as might be supposed. Each man looked after his own beasts and baggage, and orders were carried out with fair punctuality and little straggling. A laager was about as mobile as an ordinary transport column. The Boers, like other nations more accustomed to the sun than to milestones, reckon distance by hours. As a rule the waggons followed at the interval of an hour's riding; that is to say, about six miles behind. Like the game they have gradually exterminated, the Boers travel furthest by night, forty miles without waggons being no uncommon distance. Usually the laager was very safely placed, its security being all-important. To irregular troops a general point dappui is more necessary than to regulars. It helps to keep such a corps together, and its capture after a defeat probably entails the dispersion of its owners. The lack, too, of a second line of transport makes the loss of the domestic waggon much harder to replace. But the Boer's horse was yet more precious. Dismounted he was demobilised. His safe retreat was endangered and his offensive power destroyed.
Want of food was constantly reported to be troubling the Boers. There is no reason, however, to believe that this was really serious. The local knowledge and general resourcefulness of the farmer, the quantities of biltong with which he was furnished at home, and of which he could carry a good supply on his saddle, and the abundant crops of his still unwasted country, sufficed—especially when supplemented by requisitions —to keep him in the field. Mr. Kruger had plenty of foodstuffs at his disposal. The difficulty was to convey them regularly to the fighting line.
While a review of the military system of the Transvaal would be incomplete without a reference to the volunteers raised in the towns, these corps cannot be regarded as specially important in the history of the war. Their organisation was not indigenous, and though fairly efficient, they were in no way equal to the burghers. Their ranks included men of all nations and were formed largely of infantry, the shopkeeping element probably predominating. The Pretoria corps, for instance, had a strength of eight hundred infantry and two hundred cavalry. It served creditably in the Swazi campaign.
The greatest advance made by the Transvaal since the days of Majuba was its recognition of the scientific side of war. The discovery of gold and the consequent increase of wealth made possible a supply of war-material whose size and value we appreciated only too late. Pretoria was fortified, an arsenal founded, and enough mechanical plant collected for the casting of field guns, the repair of heavier pieces, and the manufacture of explosives. While the burghers still formed the real strength of the army, they had been stiffened by the introduction of a corps of artillery, organised upon foreign models and managed by foreign officers. Hopes were raised that, as in the case of the Mahrattas, the endeavour to conform to European ideas would cripple the efficiency of their light horsemen. The result was a totally contrary one. Their tactical mobility proved as remarkable as ever, and peculiar circumstances enabled them to use heavy guns as they were never employed before. How large the artillery force was at the beginning of the struggle cannot be stated with certainty. In June, 1899, the English Gvpernment was informed that the Transvaal Republic possessed sixteen 15-centimetre Creusot guns (6-inch "Long Toms"), twenty-one 37-millimetre automatic guns, nine 75-millimetres plus eleven more introduced in September, and four 47-inch howitzers—sixty-one pieces in all. Adding to these twelve 75-millimetre guns belonging to the Free State and eighteen of various antiquated patterns in the possession of the Transvaal in 1891, we have a total of ninety-one available in October, 1899. Later consignments arriving via Delagoa Bay probably raised this number to a far higher figure. Many reports were current regarding the personnel of this force. The higher officers, such as Albrecht and Schiel, were Germans; the rank and file a mixture of all, nations. Boers were the nominal commanders, but all the technical work was done by the foreigners. When the campaign opened the new arm was not popular with the country burghers. The Times correspondent wrote that when the Pretoria commando was told off to escort the guns the disgust was great and general. Few probably regretted the innovation later. The foresight and boldness of the Transvaal Government was amply rewarded. Rarely in the course of a few years had a so-called pastoral people developed such fighting power.
In the Orange Free State, where the military system resembled in all essential points that of the Transvaal, the same massing of armament had long been in progress. A few years ago its artillery was far superior to that of its sister Republic, its officers being entirely Germans. The burghers themselves did not show the marked inferiority to their northern cousins as was so confidently predicted. Doubtless they were less immured to war at the commencement, but the rawness wore off, and in the fight they displayed throughout the stubborn qualities of their race in just as high a degree as the Transvaalers.
The most reliable estimate of the Boer armies we at present possess is that given out in Parliament, which was based on the reports of the Intelligence Department. It is as follows :—
June, 1899. 1. Transvaal.
Burghers liable to service .... 29,279
Trained Artillerymen ............... 800
Police ....................................... 1,500
2. Orange Free State Burghers ........ 22,314
3. Cape Colony Dutch, estimated at .... 4,000
4. Foreigners... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... . 4,000
The Government deducted from the total 2,000 Free State burghers as probably unfit to serve. The Cape Colony Dutch perhaps numbered many more than 4,000, but in any case estimates of 80,000 and 100,000 appear exaggerated. The enemy's mobility multiplied them in a most distracting fashion. We think ourselves justified in saying that at the outbreak of hostilities—that is to say, before the last reserves had reached the front and the influx of Cape rebels had become a serious factor—the troops immediately disposable did not exceed 45,000, of which probably 30,000 entered Natal.
Whatever the debt which the enemy owed to foreign generalship, the fact remains that the execution of plans was entrusted to the Boer leaders and their resolute followers. It was said before the war began that the burgher had deteriorated. Only in so far as it referred to that new phenomenon in the Transvaal, the town-bred man, is this statement appreciably true. Obviously the storekeeper could not compare in either endurance, knowledge, or powers of riding and shooting with the countryman whose father, if not he himself, was bred up in the time of stress and danger, and whose life was passed in warfare and hunting. Of these older men, too, there were still many in the Boer ranks, the non-commissioned men, so to speak, who were the backbone of the whole. Some there were still who, like Joubert and Kruger, remembered the days of the Trek. The younger men were not less hardy than their fathers. They were still far enough removed from the enervating influences of civilisation, and their chief amusement was rifle-shooting. In the Transvaal cartridges were sold in every store ; a hundred were as welcome as a box of cigars in England. The demand for rifle ammunition was constant, arid firing at marks may almost be said to have taken the place occupied by billiards in Europe. But there were stronger spurs to warlike* prowess than love of the rifle. Every Boer had been reared under the dictates of a severe and narrow-religion, whose outward expression is an intensified form of patriotism. He was taught to regard his race as a peculiar people, to hate and despise the Englishman, and to live in the remembrance of his own strange and triumphant history. His political ideal was assertion of the national superiority and independence, hopes which he had been taught to believe could best be realised by means of the old national weapon, a steady rifle and an active horse. So environed and prejudiced, it would have been wonderful if he had neglected to cultivate, even though with limited opportunities, the system and training which brought honour and victory to his fathers.