Thursday, September 01, 2011

I read Deneys Reitz's book "Commando: A Boer Journal Of The Boer War"on my Kindle and now I'm reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book "The Great Boer War".  There's some interesting lessons to be learned there both from the war itself and from the two tellings of it by members of each faction involved.

Boer Guerrillas during 2nd Boer War
While the iconic image of this particular war (1899-1902 or the earlier conflict in 1880-1881) is the stolid Boer rifleman defending hearth and home from the British interlopers the truth is something a bit different.

We discovered in our reading that it was true that factions of the Boers had pushed for the second war and manipulated events to that end and so too, had factions within the British Empire.  The motivation was the immense wealth in the gold and diamonds within what is now South Africa and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia).

While I was aware of the "policy" of apartheid and that this had really begun early in the colonization of the Cape Colony/South Africa, I was not aware of the intense segregation of the Dutch and English colonists.  We might also note that while the English presented themselves as the world's light leading men from slavery, English interests worked with the Dutch to preserve apartheid until only recently.

What had really interested me for some years was the Boer military system.

The Boer 'commando' system evolved from the early defence system at the Cape. Each district was divided into three wards or more, with a field cornet for each ward and a commandant taking military control of the entire district.

The burghers elected these officers, including the commandant-general of the Transvaal. When mobilised, a burgher had to be prepared with his horse, rifle and 50 (later 30) rounds of ammunition and food enough to last for eight days, after which the government would provide supplies. Assembled burghers formed a 'commando'.

Except for the artillery and the police in the second Boer War, no uniforms were worn, the burghers preferring drab everyday clothes. The Boer force is the classic example of a citizen army, because virtually the entire white male population of the republics between the ages of sixteen and 60 was conscriptable for unpaid military service.

This apparently worked well for the first Boer war but it proved lacking during the later 1899-1902 war. Indeed, the British eventually overwhelmed the Boer forces with superior manpower, artillery and industrial capacity. Even though the Boers resorted to guerrilla action in order to continue the war they were combat ineffective once their capitals were captured. While the loose system of command and control enabled a rapid switch to guerrilla operations it was also the cause of several defeats and ill-chosen tactical and strategic decisions which resulted in the need for it. For example, the British were able to provide good, rapid and continuous medical care for their wounded (for that time period) while the Boers could not. Such was the disparity that it was normal for the Boers to abandon their wounded to the British knowing that they would receive care they couldn't provide.

This is readily apparent in the photo of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.  The soldiers are well supplied and there are a number of medical personnel caring for soldiers taken from the firing line.

From the beginning the Boers lost the initiative or failed to exploit weaknesses on the part of British forces.  While the Boers launched their pre-emptive invasion of Natal to exploit the known weakness in British manpower, they allowed themselves to be bogged down in the Seige of Ladysmith.  In effect, British forces in Ladysmith fixed the Boer forces so that there was sufficient time to bring in reinforcements through Cape Town.  There are a number of other vignettes which illustrate the Boer weaknesses (despite their excellent artillery gunners and the supposed advantage given them by their use of the charger fed Mauser rifles).  One of those is the Siege of Mafeking.

Baden-Powell (L) w/artillery built during siege
Commander of the British forces was Colonel Robert S. S. Baden-Powell (yes, the Boy Scouts' own Baden-Powell).  He was widely lauded as the "Hero of Mafeking" and promoted for his defense of the town.  However, for me, the lesson learned here is that Boer command and control wasn't up to taking this town defended mostly by other citizen soldiers but led by career British officers.  Military discipline and leadership won the battle here.  I think the lesson might well be applied to other circumstances as might be promoted by dissidents in diverse places.

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