|Category: Boer War
Boers' Worst Enemies
John Brown for Military History Magazine.
and Historic Medal struck in silver in 1901 in the Netherlands to
promote the cause of the Boer Republic as it fought for its life in the
closing days of the Boer War with Britain. It is 34mm in diameter. The
obverse features the Dutch in battle against the forces of The Spanish
Habsburg Empire in their 80 year war of Independence the 16th and 17th
centuries. The reverse flips forward to the 1899-1901 Boer War against
Britain and shows a Boer Farmhouse razed in a billowing fire. The
propaganda pitch is obvious: the British are barbarians invading and
burning down farm houses of hardworking Dutch settlers. The Dutch legend
translates, as close as I can get it, to read: IT IS BETTER FOR TO FIGHT
FOR THE FATHERLAND (obverse) THEN A BAPTISM AND PRETENDED PEACE AND BE DECEIVED
BY THE ENGLISH IN AFRICA (reverse).
not regular soldiers, Australian Lancers, Mounted Rifles, Bushmen and
other colonials from Down Under gave the Boers reason to worry.
the Boer War began on October 12, 1899, Australia was still a collection
of separate British colonies with a total population of less than 4
million on a land mass nearly as large as the United States. When each
colony immediately offered troops for the war, the War Office in London
didn't want unskilled, probably unreliable colonial volunteers. But the
British government, facing criticism of its policies and actions in
southern Africa from America and most European countries, chose to
regard the offers from the Australian colonies as a mark of Empire
solidarity, overrode the War Office and accepted the offers. Shiploads
of soldiers and horses set sail from Australia for the Cape of Good
first contingents arrived in South Africa in November 1899; they
continued arriving throughout the war until more than 16,000 soldiers
had been transported to the Cape. They were not regular soldiers,
though; they were militia, part-tithe soldiers with anything from 36 to
80 of hours training or drill a year, depending on the colony they came
arrived in small units, since the British government stipulated that the
units should consist of about 125 then, with no more than a single
captain and three subalterns to each one. If more than one unit carne
from a single colonial force, these could be commanded by a major. The
Aussies came under such names as the New South Wales Lancers, New South
Wales Mounted Rifles, Queensland Mounted Infantry, Queensland Bushmen,
South Australian Mounted Rifles, South Australian Imperial Bushmen,
Victorian Bushmen, Western Australian Mounted Infantry, Tasmanian
Bushmen, and Australian Commonwealth Horse. Ill-trained as soldiers,
they would probably not have lasted very long in a conventional war
against regular, disciplined troops.
Boers, however, were fighting an unconventional war, one to which the
Australians adapted easily and in which they were able to make a
contribution quite out of proportion to their numbers. Like the
colonial-steeped Boers themselves, the Australians were mostly
countrymen, used to the bush, to living rough and living off the land
when necessary, able to find their way day or night in any kind of
country, and familiar with horses and guns from an early age.
volunteers for the war came from among Australians living and working in
southern Africa. Some joined units such as the South African
Constabulary, whose Australian James Rogers was awarded the Victoria
Cross for bravery. Others joined irregular units such as that formed by
the Australian Walter D. "Karri" Davis, the Imperial Light
Horse of South Africa. All units, wherever they came from, were
dispersed among British units, under British command.
war began badly for the British. Before the war was a month old, Boer
General Pieter A. "Piet" Cronjé had led a large force of
horsemen out of the Transvaal and laid siege to Mafeking; Orange Free
State forces had laid siege to diamond rich Kimberley; and General Petrus
Jacobus "Piet" Joubert and his 15,000 horsemen had defeated
General Sir George White's Natal Defence Force at Laing's Nek, defeated
him again a week later at Talana Hill, and by November 2 had laid siege
And then came "Black Week," when between
December 10 and 17 the Boers defeated the British at Magersfontein,
where the British suffered 1,000 casualties; at Stormberg, where they
lost 100 casualties and 600 prisoners; and at Colenso, where General
Buller's force took 1,200 casualties in an unsuccessful attempt to
relieve Ladysmith. Buller--General Sir Redvers Buller--was commander in
chief of all forces, but now the British government decided he had to
the first day of January 1900, meanwhile, 200 Australians of the
Queensland Mounted Infantry, with a supporting group of Canadians and
British, mounted an attack on a Boer camp on Sunnyside Kopje, one of the
low hills near the Vaal River west of Kimberley. While the Canadians and
British held the Boers' attention with a frontal attack, the
Queenslanders moved in from the flank, using cover as they moved from
ridge to ridge, until they were in position to launch a surprise attack
on the Boers. The Boers retreated, leaving 30 dead and 41 prisoners and
a large supply of food and weapons.
The Queenslander casualties were two
dead and two wounded. In another action, on January 16 at
Slingersfontein, a Boer commando (group) of 400 attacked a small hill
where 20 men of the Western Australian Mounted Infantry were positioned.
The Australians, constantly moving in the scrub and rocks, beat off
attack after attack from sunrise to sunset, at which time the Boers
finally withdrew. These small successes were given much publicity,
drawing attention to the unorthodox fighting tactics of the colonial
Buller's replacement arrived in mid-January 1900. He was Field Marshal
Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Baron of Kandahar. He brought with
him General Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener as his Chief of Staff.
realized immediately that this was no conventional war and that vast
changes would have to be made if he was to defeat the Boers. A much more
mobile army was needed, and different tactics. The Australian horse
soldiers already were working successfully against the Boers, an example
of what was needed. Roberts began putting every man he could on
horseback and concentrating his forces at Enslin near the Modder River
for an invasion of the Orange Free State.
General Buller was still in the field. Disobeying his commander in
chief's order to stay put, he crossed the Tugela River into Natal--and
there he was badly beaten by the Boers at Spion Kop and at Vaal Kranz.
He blundered deeper into Natal.
concentrating his own forces at Enslin, Roberts sent Maj. Gen. John
French in a wide, flanking move toward Kimberley, as if intending to
relieve the diamond town. French's forces, in addition to British
cavalry regiments such as the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Scots
Greys, included the New South Wales Lancers, Queensland Mounted Infantry
and New South Wales Mounted Rifles. Then Roberts himself moved with
massive force across the Modder – taking with him 30,000 infantry,
7,500 cavalry, 3,600 mounted infantry and 120 guns, and a transport unit
of 4,000 drivers, 11,000 mules and 9,600 oxen.
sent Lord Methuen's 1st Division along the rail line leading to
Kimberley to convince Boer General Piet Cronjé that this was the main
assault and that he should hold his forces at Magersfontein to oppose
it. With Cronjé taking the bait, Roberts ordered General French's
British and Australian horsemen to avoid Magersfontein and spearhead the
drive on Kimberley.
drove hard for the Modder River, where a large Boer force was in
position. On one of that summer's hottest days French's cavalrymen and
mounted infantry raced nonstop for the Modder. It was so hot, horses
pulling the guns died in their traces. The cavalrymen and infantrymen
trotted alongside their horses to give them some relief, with dead and
dying horses littering the back trail. Even 21 of the men died on the
march. But the Boers were completely surprised and hastily retreated,
leaving their supply wagons behind.
Bloemfontein to Johannesburg
forces caught up with French and they moved on toward Kimberley
together. Cronjé, however, had moved 1,000 Boers, with field guns, into
positions in the hills overlooking the pass that led to Kimberley. The
only alternative for the British was a long march around the hills, a
march inviting harassment and attacks by Boer horsemen and fire from the
guns in the hills. Roberts sent French and his British and Australian
horsemen into the pass.
down, sabers swinging, mounted infantry shooting from the saddle, they
charged so fast the Boer gunners could not alter range quickly enough to
keep up with them. The Boer riflemen also were beaten by the speed of
the charge and the clouds of dust kicked up by the horses' hoofs.
Reinforcements followed the charge, and the Boers slipped away. The
horsemen rode on into Kimberley, raising a siege that had lasted 124
day French could find only 2,000 horses that could possibly be ridden.
Mounting some of his cavalrymen and his Australians, he set off after
Cronjé, who was making for Bloemfontein. Hampered by the slowness of
his supply wagons and the women and children in his column, Cronjé
reached the Modder River at Paardeberg Drift, and there French, followed
by some of Roberts' force, caught up with him.
The Boers dug in. General
Christiaan de Wet and his commando arrived to help Cronjé, attacking
and skirmishing around the British force. The Australians were sent out
to contain them while the main force concentrated on Cronjé. He held
out for eight days, then surrendered with 4,000 fighting men on February
Natal, General Buller had captured Hlangwane, a dominant height
southeast of the Tugela River, and advanced on Ladysmith. The Boers
waited for him at Pieter's Hill. True to form, Buller sent in his troops
in massed attack. They were saved by the Natal Carbineers and the
Imperial Light Horse, each unit including Australian volunteers. Those
rescuers broke through the Boer lines--but only after 1,900 of Buller's
troops were dead or wounded. Ladysmith was relieved on February 28, and
Buller at last was sent back to England.
next on Bloemfontein, Roberts caught up with Boer commander Christiaan
de Wet, who made a stand at Dreifontein Kopjes (the Hills of the Three
Springs). The Ist Australian Horse dismounted and went into the assault,
keeping low in the long grass and shooting as they moved while artillery
fired over their heads. In the face of this implacable advance, the
Boers took flight on their horses, although scene of their guns
continued firing until the riders of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles
and Queensland Mounted Infantry charged on horseback and silenced them.
The Aussies then went after de Wet, but he disappeared in the dark
army moved on to Bloemfontein, where the hills around the town were
thick with Boer riflemen, machine-gunners and artillerymen, but when he
began shelling their positions they faded away. The army stayed in
Bloemfontein for six weeks. A quarter of the army was ineffective
because of an epidemic of enteric fever, from which more than a thousand
died. The horses were in such terrible condition that the soldiers shot
them in batches of 100. Replacement horses arrived from Argentina, but
they were mostly of poor quality--and wild. The Australian bushmen were
given the job of breaking them, and dazzled the British with their
on the veldt, Boer commandos were still skirmishing and attacking. At
Sannah's Post, not far from Bloemfontein, three squadrons of British
cavalry, two Royal Horse Artillery batteries and some infantry were
guarding a large convoy of supplies when de Wet struck with 2,000 men
and field guns. In a fast, savage fight, 19 British officers and 136 of
their men were killed or wounded and 426 taken prisoner. Seven guns were
lost and the whole of the convoy.
got his army moving again, 45,000 men, 11,000 horses, 120 guns and 2,500
wagons. Spearheading it was Maj. Gen. Ian Hamilton's division, which
included a brigade commanded by Maj. Gen. "Curly" Hutton and
mostly made up of colonials-New Zealanders, Canadians, and mounted
infantry from all the Australian colonies. On May 5, the brigade came up
against Boer positions at Coetzee's Drift on the Vet River. The Boers,
estimated at 1,000, occupied positions along the riverbank while
artillery covered them from a hill behind.
Royal Horse Artillery softened up both positions, then the New South
Wales Mounted Rifles dismounted and went into the attack. Under heavy
fire they pushed the Boers back from the river bank and, after another
bombardment of the hill, joined Queenslanders and New Zealanders in
clearing the hill. The division moved on.
young reporter riding with the division, Winston Churchill (yes, the
future World War II Prime Minister), described how the soldiers lived
off the flocks of sheep they drove with them and off chickens and
anything else they could find to eat on the deserted Boer farms, while
nearly every day there was Boer rifle fire from the front, the flanks or
the rear. "This," he wrote, "made us conscious of the
great fighting qualities of these rifle armed horsemen of the
May 1900, a column of Hussars commanded by Colonel Bryan Mahon and a
column commanded by Colonel Sir Herbert Plumer (which included
Australians) galloped across the border from Rhodesia and relieved
Mafeking. Colonel Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (later the
founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides), who had commanded during the
siege, reviewed the relieving forces. In Natal the last Boer resistance
was crushed at Glencoe and Dundee, and on May 24 the Orange Free State
was annexed as a colony of Britain.
Australians leading his spearhead, Roberts now advanced on Johannesburg
in the Transvaal. And holding a line on the Klip River south of
Johannesburg was Boer General Louis Botha.
the New South Wales Mounted Rifles drew Boer fire as a diversion, the
Queenslanders crossed the river and held fast on the other side. Next
day, the rest of Ian Hamilton's division crossed the river under heavy
fire, and the Australians then raced on to Johannesburg. The first unit
entering the city apparently was a troop of South Australian Mounted
Infantry commanded by Lieutenant Peter Rowell. It was May 30.
next marched on Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, which he
occupied on June 4. The president of the Orange Free State, Marthinus
Steyn, Commando Commandant Marthinus Prinsloo and the elusive Christiaan
de Wet had all been in the city, but they abandoned it with all their
forces when Roberts' army came close.
Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers
army went after them. New South Welshmen and West Australians caught up
with the Boer rear guard in the mountains east of the city at Diamond
Hill and attacked with bayonets. They captured the rear guard's
positions, but the main force kept moving and managed to get away.
was, however, only a matter of time. The Boers, for all their bush
skills, could not long evade the huge number of British, Australian,
Canadian and other troops searching the mountains for them. Before long,
Commando Commandant Prinsloo and 4,000 Boers were rounded up.
so, the Boers were still not beaten. Boer commandos roamed the veldt
attacking outposts and supply lines and disappearing to turn up
somewhere else to fight again.
early August, a force of 150 Queensland Mounted Infantry, 100 New South
Wales Bushmen, smaller numbers of Victorian and Western Australian
Bushmen and 75 Rhodesians under command of a British officer, a Colonel
Hore, were sent to guard a huge consignment of stores at the Elands
River Post. They arrived at the post after a running fight with Boers
front a commando of 2,500 to 3,000, commanded by General Jacobus "Koos"
de la Rey, and quickly improvised a defensive position out of ox wagons
and boxes and bags of stores.
The commando surrounded the post and
during the next two days poured 2,500 artillery shells into it from the
hills around. Nearly all of the 1,500 horses, mules and oxen were killed
or died of wounds from the shelling, but the troop casualties were very
light, since the men burrowed into the rocky ground and stayed down.
After the second day the bombardment eased, probably because the Boers
realized they were destroying the stores they badly needed, but they
kept up intense rifle and machine-gun fire.
the day, the defenders lay motionless in their holes in the ground, but
at night they came out. Some ran the gauntlet of fire to bring water
from the river, while others repaired shattered defenses and dug deeper
holes and others went out into the darkness looking for Boer field-gun
and machine-gun positions, which they attacked loudly with grenades or
silently with knives and bayonets. Many sleeping Boers and even
wide-awake sentries lost their lives in this night stalking and attack.
A Boer who had been at Elands River wrote: "For the first time in
the war, we were fighting men who used our own tactics against us. They
were Australian volunteers and though small in number we could not take
their position. They were the only troops who could scout our lines at
night and kill our sentries while killing and capturing our scouts. Our
men admitted that the Australians were more formidable opponents and far
more dangerous than any other British troops."
August 8, de la Rey, under a flag of truce, advised the Australians that
the whole area was in Boer hands and there was no hope of relief for the
post. He offered safe conduct to the nearest British garrison if they
would surrender. It was that, or destruction by his artillery. The offer
was refused, and the bombardment began again. On the 12th, de la Rey
sent another offer of honorable surrender, to which Colonel Hore
replied: "Even if I wished to surrender to you--and I don't--I am
commanding Australians who would cut my throat if I accepted your
the truce a messenger got through the Boer lines and made it to Mafeking,
where he reported that the force was still holding out at the Elands
River; it had not surrendered or been taken as was believed at
headquarters. General Lord Kitchener himself led a column in relief.
When the Boers saw it approaching they withdrew, and the column marched
into the post in the afternoon of August 16. Looking about him,
Kitchener remarked: "Only colonials could have held out and
survived in such impossible conditions."
Transvaal had now all but fallen, and like the Orange Free State, it was
annexed as a colony of Britain.
war had passed through two phases. In the first phase of some three
months, British forces of mainly foot soldiers led by incompetent
generals were besieged or defeated by highly mobile Boer mounted
infantry. It was a period of bloody fighting in which the only real
battles of the war occurred. The second phase was the British offensive,
during which British and colonial troops, vastly outnumbering the Boers,
smashed and dispersed the Boer forces and annexed their two states. But
the war was by no means over.
There were still strong Boer commandos at
large, led by experienced and successful leaders such as Koos de le Rey,
Jan Smuts, Danie Theron, Christiaan de Wet and others. The British held
the cities and towns, but a vast amount of territory was left to the
commandos, which now broke into smaller groups and began a guerrilla
war, intercepting telegraph messages for intelligence, infiltrating
bases, making lightning raids on posts and convoys, and sabotaging rail
and road communications.
captured British uniforms, Boers of one command rode into a British
cavalry post and opened fire, killing or wounding more than 70 troopers.
They took supplies and arms and drove off all the horses. After that
success, they often wore British uniforms to get close enough to kill.
For greater killing power, they used dumdum and expanding bullets. The
Boer soldier only needed to hide his rifle to become a farmer again.
Many were the times when British soldiers searching farms for weapons
were shot in the back by a farmer who had reached for his hidden rifle.
And many were the times they were fired on from under a flag of truce.
When the Boers went into action, almost every civilian in the area was
ready to provide them with intelligence, food, shelter, medical help and
Marshal Roberts put into action his plan to combat this situation. The
map of South Africa was marked in squares to show where "protected
areas" would be established. On the ground, blockhouses were built
in the squares, each within rifle shot of the next, and barbed wire was
strung between them, enclosing the veldt in an interlocking system of
armed squares. Then, one at a time, the squares were cleared of Boer
guerrillas, and the occupants of farms and settlements were concentrated
in camps, their homes and crops destroyed, their wells poisoned, and
their livestock slaughtered or driven off. Outside these "protected
areas," however, the war went on more savagely than ever.
the end of November, Roberts handed over command to Kitchener and
returned to England. Kitchener intensified the clearing of
"protected areas" and by the end of the year some 26,000
square kilometers of the Transvaal and north Orange Free State and
10,000 square kilometers around Bloemfontein had been declared free of
Boer fighting men.
Australians took part in this scorching of the South African earth, and
many more were in the columns searching the veldt for Boer guerrillas,
while others were fighting with irregular units. Under a variety of
names, irregular units had existed since the beginning of the war, and
now they mush-roomed. They were used mainly on the outer edges of the
war, where there was little control. The irregulars fought, as did the
Boers themselves, giving and expecting no quarter. One such unit,
working in the rough country north of Pietersburg, called the Spelonken,
was the Bushveldt Carbineers. It was a unit of tough Australians,
British and South Africans. One of its officers was Lieutenant Harry
"The Breaker" Morant.
Morant was born in England and arrived in Australia in 1885. His
background in England remains a mystery, but he was a well-spoken,
charming young man who settled easily into a bushman's life, working on
cattle and sheep stations from Queensland to South Australia. He became
well-known for his remarkable horsemanship and for his verse. He rode as
if he and a horse were one; he could get a horse to do anything it was
possible for a horse to do, and he could break the wildest of horses.
This skill earned him the nickname "The Breaker," which he
used to sign the verses, bush ballads, satirical odes and lyrical love
poems he wrote for publication in district newspapers and across
Australia in the periodical called The Bulletin.
landed at the Cape in February 1900 with the South Australian Mounted
Rifles. He was said to be an efficient soldier, skilled in moving and
fighting in rough country. When his one-year enlistment ended, he went
on leave to England, where he became friends with a Hussar officer,
Captain Frederick Hunt. Both returned to the Cape to take commissions in
the newly formed Bushveldt Carbineers. A few months later, in the deadly
guerrilla war being fought in the Spelonken, Hunt was killed and
apparently mutilated. For Morant the war became a vendetta.
a patrol, Morant stopped and questioned a Dr. Heese, a German missionary
who later reported that in one of the wagons with the patrol were the
corpses of eight Boers. Shortly afterward, Heese was found shot dead.
Six officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers, including Morant, were
arrested by the British and charged with looting, manslaughter and the
murder of the missionary.
the six, the commanding officer of the Carbineers was reprimanded and
sent back to Australia. The second, the unit's intelligence officer, had
finished his military term and was no longer subject to military law,
and the third, a regular British officer, was cashiered. The other
three, Lieutenants Harry Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton, were
sentenced to death, although none was ever found guilty of the murder of
the missionary. Witton's sentence was afterward commuted to life
imprisonment; he spent four years in English jails before a petition
secured his release and return to Australia.
his court-martial, Morant argued that the killing of prisoners and
wounded was common to both sides and that it was, in fact, done on
orders from above. The only rule in the Spelonken, he said, was
"rule 303" (.303 was the caliber of the British military
rifle). None of his arguments was accepted, and on February 27, 1902, he
and Handcock were taken before firing squads of British soldiers.
Refusing a blindfold, Morant called to his squad, "Shoot straight;
don't make a mess of it." Then the rifles cracked, and Breaker
Morant, bushman, balladist, horsebreaker, soldier, passed into
Boers were still carrying out successful and bloody raids, but the war
was going against them. The system of blockhouses and barbed wire was
having a telling effect, and no help was forthcoming from the various
countries that nominally supported the Boer cause. Then, in April 1902
at Rooiwal (formerly Roodewal), the Red Valley, occurred the last action
of any consequence of the war, when 1,200 Boer horsemen charged 1,500
British soldiers armed with bayonets, backed by field guns. The charge
was broken, the Boers suffering heavy casualties. A week later peace
delegates from both sides met in Pretoria
article was written by John Brown and originally published in Military
History Magazine in October 2001.John Brown is a Queenslander by
residence and once served as Papua New Guinea's acting ambassador to