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Second Boer War

British Tradition
British Cavalry
The Artillery
The Aftermath




The British Army and the Second Boer War


The Disaster at Koornspruit: Driverless Teams Stampeding

 “ Such was the day for our regiment
Dread the revenge we will take.
Dearly we paid for the blunder-
A drawing-room General’s mistake

Why weren’t we told of the trenches?
Why weren’t we told of the wire?
Why were we marched up in column
May Tommy Atkins enquire….” [1]


When the Staff College was established at Camberley in 1858, one of its main purposes was to remedy the appalling deficiencies that had been revealed during the Crimean War (1853-1856), ‘Tested by a major engagement the Wellingtonian army had been found wanting.’[2] Although the British army became stimulated by a profound interest in its previous campaign, it also went off at a tangent and, after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 turned its attention to the strategy and tactics of the Prussian General Staff Commander, Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke (1800-1891) to the exclusion of all others. In particular it almost totally ignored some of the fundamental changes brought about by events in the American Civil War (1861-1865). The annual outpourings from the publishing house of Gale and Polden of Aldershot, after 1870, gave particular attention to such battles as Mars-la-Tour, Gravelotte and Sedan,[3] and even though Sir Garnet Joseph (later Viscount) Wolseley, in his work, ‘The Soldier’s Pocket Book’ (1869) stressed the importance of preparing for war in time of peace,[4] it really only considered home defence, the army still being happy with its role in campaigning against natives and tribesmen.

British commanders had indeed learnt the lessons of the Crimean War, and could adapt themselves to battalion and regimental columns manoeuvring in jungles, deserts and mountainous regions; what they failed to comprehend was that when they came up against the Boers all their tactical and technical skills were of little use because they had entirely failed to comprehend the trench fighting and cavalry raids of the American Civil War. In 1899 all arms of the British service went to war with what was to prove antiquated tactics, and in some cases antiquated weapons.[5]

The Creousot Field Gun 'Long Tom'.

What the Boers presented was a new approach to warfare. The average Burghers who made up their Commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working life in the saddle, and because they had to depend on both their horse and their rifle they became expert light cavalry and skilled stalkers and marksmen. They could make use of every scrap of cover, from which they could pour in a destructive fire using their modern Mausers. They also had around one hundred of the latest Krupp field guns, all horse drawn and dispersed among the various Commando groups, and their skill in adapting themselves to first-rate artillerymen shows them to have been a versatile adversary.[6]

They also had no problems with mobilisation, since the Presidents of the Transvaal and Orange Free State simply signed decrees to concentrate within a week and the Commandos could muster between 30-40,000 men.[7] They do not appear to have kept any regular muster roles and they habitually falsified their casualty returns; however at the height of the war they probably had around 50,000 men in the field, many of which were Dutch rebels from Natal and Cape Colony who were considered to be poor fighting stuff compared with the solid Boer from the Republics.[8] The main thing is, that it was the latter who fought the British army in the opening stages of the campaign, and who gave Britannia a very bloody nose.


[1] From the ‘Battle of Magersfontein’, verse by Private Smith of the Black Watch December 1899. Quoted in, ‘Thomas Pakenham’s, ‘The Boer War’, page 115

[2] ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army’. Page 184

[3] McElwee.William, ‘The Art of War’, page 214. McElwee also says that the firm of Gale and Polden had well over one hundred thousand books on military history in stock at the turn of the century page 335

[4] ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army’, page 194

[5] Carver, Field Marshal Lord, ‘The Boer War’, Page 259-262

[6] Pakenham. Thomas, ‘The Boer War’, page 30

[7] Ibid, page 56

[8] McElwee.William. ‘The Art of War’, page 215



Copyright © 2004  Graham Morris. 
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