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Tailing the Boer--Australian mobile operations in the Boer War (1).

After 100 years of the Australian Army's existence it is possible to see the century of sacrifice in perspective. Several patterns are apparent and although they cannot be used as predictors they provide interesting comparisons:

* By the end of the Vietnam War, Australians had been on active operations somewhere in the world during half the years of the 20th century in commitment to the British Empire and Commonwealth, the United States, or the United Nations. (2)

* Major involvements occurred at roughly 20 year intervals in the first half of the century--South African War 1899-1902, First World War 1914-1918, Second World War 1939-1945--with a short gap before continuing in the second half of the century--Korean War 1950-1953, Vietnam War 1962-1973, Gulf War 1990-1991. Also, as the major age group of those who served was 21-30, this meant that some servicemen and women served in more than one war, and in many cases successive generations of the same families were called upon. (3)

* By about 1975 Australian battle-deaths totalled almost one fifth of those of the United States in the same period, from a population never more than about one twentieth as large. (4) The motivation for this disproportionate per capita sacrifice was ostensibly patriotism or the honouring of alliances, but possibly was an insurance policy against the threat of attack on Australia.

In the first half century the veterans of the early campaigns in each war were regarded as elites, perhaps because they were the first to enlist, had served longer, fought well and suffered much. Possibly their stories were better recorded, or censorship less strict, or their aims and achievements more easily understood. In the Second World War they wore the Africa Star, in the First World War the 1915 Star, and in the South African War most battle clasps on their Queen's South Africa medals (QSA).

After late 1900 no individual QSA battle clasps were awarded, and no Australian war correspondents remained to report the deeds of the later units in South Africa. It is with this latter aspect that this paper is concerned, in reference to the Australians at the outset of the tradition--the understating of the Australian achievements in the later or guerrilla phase of the last eighteen months of the Boer War.


There is a pattern in most British histories of the Boer War, dissecting it into a regular phase consisting of a series of major actions up to about December 1900, and thereafter a guerrilla phase of a year and a half which was presented merely as a confusing series of hit and run affairs. Conan Doyle, in The Great Boer War, said that his `treatment [of the guerrilla phase] may occasionally seem too brief but some proportion must be observed between the battles of 1899-1900 and the skirmishes of 1901-1902'. (5)

The large multi-volume histories reflect this. The Times History of the War in South Africa devoted one volume out of seven to the guerrilla phase, and Creswicke's South Africa and the Transvaal War one volume out of eight. When we look at the Boer accounts, however, it is interesting to note that they did not accept that they were guerrillas as their legal governments still existed, and De Wet's Three Years War and Reitz's Commando, for instance, give weight proportionate to time, ie for them there is no dissection into a regular war and a guerrilla war. (6)

This division is arbitrary in any case, as elements of guerrilla war emerged after the capture of Bloemfontein in March 1900, and aspects of regular war were not entirely absent after December 1900. Similarly, it is not correct to associate the regular war only with Lord Roberts and the guerrilla war only with Lord Kitchener.

Australian references also neglect the guerrilla war. The Preface to L M Field, The Forgotten War, says this: `If the war had ended in 1903 ... the deeds of those 3,000 [the first two contingents] might well have been remembered more vividly at home than they were when overlaid by the messier events of the next eighteen months': (7) This may be the reason why the guerrilla war has been neglected, but should not be an excuse to disregard it. As most Australian casualties occurred in the guerrilla phase, adoption of the standard British histories understates the value of their contribution, and because there was no Australian official history of the war, for many important actions we have only fragments or no detailed account at all.

In order to gain a fair idea of the value of Australian operations in this phase several important facts need to be highlighted:

* Whereas up to December 1900 most actions had taken place in the area of the Boer Republics or in the closely adjacent British territory, after December 1900 the character of the war changed, and in the guerrilla war the area of operations embraced the whole of southern Africa--from the Atlantic coast to Zululand and from Rhodesia to the southern Cape--and the British had to react to the widespread Boer initiatives.

* The area of operations in southern Africa across which the Australians served was perhaps 1,000 miles square compared to the area in France and Flanders where the AIF made its name in 1916-1918, a battlefield of perhaps 100 miles square.

* Further, because of such enormous distances it was necessarily a mounted war. In the campaign in Sinai and Palestine in the First World War in 1916-1918, the Light Horse were opposed by an enemy, largely infantry, fighting in foreign terrain, whereas the Australians in South Africa had to contend with probably the finest irregular mounted infantry in the world at that time, fighting on their own ground.

This clash of horsemen against horsemen is unique in Australian military history, and it seems odd that a nation of horse- and adventure-lovers, which had made legends of its bushrangers and had written ballads and tales about its drovers and stockmen, should not have tried more to perpetuate their deeds in their first experience of war. It is a paradox that their history had gone unrecorded, especially in view of the later emergence of the Digger as the folk hero.


In many ways the regular phase was a continuation of the early 19th century tradition of campaigning, whereas the guerrilla phase foreshadowed operations of the later 20th century, and, because there was no Australian official history of the war, some lessons may have had to be re-learned--the high ratio of troops to guerrillas needed in nonconventional operations; the difficulty in identifying an enemy who wore no uniform and who appeared to be a peaceful citizen on concealment of his weapon; and the problem of safe-guarding areas when subdued. The first led to calls for enormous numbers of troops; the second to the burning of farms from which men searching for weapons and finding none were nevertheless shot in the back when they turned to go; and the third to the establishment of blockhouse lines and the interning of non-combatants for their own protection as well as to deny the enemy a source of replenishment or intelligence.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the necessary employment of such tactics has obscured to some extent the real value of the later Australian units in matching the Boers in this phase and driving them out of British territory. One writer states that the `the commonest actions ... were looting Boer farms, destroying crops and houses, and sending women and children away to concentration camps'. (8) An examination of their casualty lists, however, shows that they suffered severe losses in actions against the toughest commandos across the course of the entire war.

Mounted operations were fast-moving, with many patrols and detachments ordered out on scouting or escort duties which do not attract mention in the histories. When, about December 1900, the commandos were sent into Cape Colony to draw off British forces from the beleaguered republics, foment rebellion and seek recruits from among the Cape Dutch, the British columns sought the highly mobile enemy, and the tracks of their movements resemble naval manoeuvres across the sea of grass which is the veldt. Because of the vast distances covered, it is not possible to make a pilgrimage to all the areas where Australians served in the guerrilla phase and most visitors seek out the less remote battle sites or the grave of Morant and Handcock.

Because the population of Dutch extraction in Cape Colony was nominally British the columns could not adopt the tactics of devastation and deportation employed in the republics, and the Boers were able to gain supplies, fresh mounts and intelligence from the sympathisers among their Afrikaner kin. The statement that Australians mainly looted farms, destroyed crops and houses, etc, is therefore not valid for the campaign in the Cape. Different tactics had to be used to subdue the enemy garrisons on the Orange River drifts, rapid response by rail, and relentless pursuit, although eventually blockhouse lines were built there also. Just as the measure of success in the republics became not battles won but a statistical exercise--attrition, numbers of enemy eliminated or captured, and livestock and bags of mealies confiscated--so in Cape Colony the measure of success was not major actions fought but the protecting of towns and railways, preventing Boer concentrations, driving the commandos away from centres of population, and forcing them back to their own lands.

To do this the British had to emulate the Boers in travelling light and fast in small columns exactly like commandos. Even so, there were often serious actions when the Boers cut out vulnerable British forces. Both sides still towed guns and it is too simplistic to write off the last eighteen months as merely hit and run actions. Also, men who had served in both the regular phase and the guerrilla phase said that the sporadic surprise attacks of the latter were far more terrifying than the more predictable actions of the former. The task called for men with bushcraft and horsemanship, tenacity and endurance, and ability to exist on meagre rations and little rest. The Australians proved that they deserved greater recognition for their achievements in this phase than as mere participants in skirmishes.


When the Bushmen units were being formed in early 1900, public contributions were sought to fund the Corps and in Victoria the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir John Madden, published an appeal, stating, `It is earnestly desired to put in the field a thoroughbred regiment of `men from the Snowy River', to show our enemies that they have no weapon that we cannot better, and that, if mobility is their strong point, they will have to keep moving till their hearts break before our stockmen leave tailing them ...'. (9) How prescient this was can be best illustrated by examples from the guerrilla phase.

The war had begun badly for the British with Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking besieged and a series of defeats during Black Week', mid-December 1899, but with the arrival of Lords Roberts and Kitchener and reinforcements, the Boers had been gradually forced to withdraw from the besieged towns; the Boer capitals, Bloemfontein and Pretoria, were captured; and the enemy pushed eastwards into the mountains until they were dispersed at the Portuguese East African border in September 1900. The war was thought to be over. President Kruger had departed into exile in October, and in November Lord Roberts had been replaced as Commander-in-Chief by Lord Kitchener, whose task appeared to be merely mopping-up.

The Boers thought differently, however, and at a meeting of leaders at Cypherfontein in the western Transvaal in October, resolved to invade Cape Colony and Natal again. In December General De Wet attempted to cross the Orange River but was prevented by pursuing troops and flooded drifts, although commandos under Hertzog and Kritzinger managed to do so at different places, hoping to arouse support from the Cape Dutch. With Boer forces at large in the Cape martial law was declared in the affected districts as Hertzog headed west and Kritzinger ventured south, the commandos disrupting rail and telegraph communications, occupying towns and terrorising rural populations.

Hertzog made his way towards Lambert's Bay on the Atlantic coast to meet an arms supply ship, but his scouts reported a British warship there instead. This was HMS Sybille and the Boers fired at it with their rifles and heard their bullets ricochet off its hull and later claimed to have fought the only naval battle of the Boer War. Ironically, a few weeks later the ship ran aground and became a total loss. (10)

Among the British forces rushed south to combat the threat was De Lisle's Corps (including New South Wales Mounted Rifles and Western Australian Mounted Infantry). They raced down the Cape Town railway to Piquetberg, and advanced to Clanwilliam where they were between Hertzog and the sea. With columns closing in Hertzog retraced his tracks. De Lisle pursued via Calvinia and Williston, some Australians undertaking the remarkable feat of climbing a narrow bridle path across the precipitous Roggeveld Range at night, but the Boers were able to keep ahead and DeLisle trekked to Victoria West to entrain north again. (11)


De Wet had succeeded in crossing the Orange in early February, followed by General Plumer's Bushmen from all the Australian colonies, and as he headed west, the Australians brought him to action at Wolvekuil, where they cleared him off a ridge with great dash. He crossed the western railway and turned north-west, then west, then northeast, the Australians clinging to his tail. Other columns continued to follow his presumed course into the Karoo, until a couple of Australian scouts from Plumer got a message through and the British force swung around to follow, although by then it was too late. (12)

By 19 February De Wet realised that Hertzog's expectation of a strong uprising was wrong and abandoned his invasion. On the 23rd, Australians took his guns at Read's Drift. He crossed the railway on the 24th, met Hertzog and was forced to seek a place to cross the flooded Orange on the 28th. Plumer's men were railed to Springfontein in the Orange Free State and fought with his rearguard near Fauresmith on 4 March. De Wet dispersed his men and the chase was abandoned at Petrusville, but this third De Wet hunt had defeated a serious threat to Cape Colony, largely due to the relentless pursuit by Plumer's Australians. They headed north to capture the last Boer capital, Pietersburg.

Kritzinger, meanwhile, had headed first to Stormberg, then south to Aberdeen and Willowmore and as far as Oudtshoom, near Mossel Bay. He also retraced his steps through the Midlands, as British forces, including Victorian Imperial Bushmen, hurried down from Rhodesia to Matjesfontein, patrolled the Sutherland District, where they were part of a defensive line from Sutherland to Clanwilliam, preventing the junction of Hertzog and Kritzinger, and protecting Cape Town.

Following De Wet's escape the area south of the Orange was subject to actions by minor guerrilla leaders from the Orange Free State as well as Cape rebels. Kritzinger and his commandants Scheepers, Fouche and Malan caused panic and disruption. Scheepers captured a detachment near Cradock. Kritzinger brought in more leaders including Lotter, Myburgh, van Reenan and Lategan. Following a bombardment, the Victorian Imperial Bushmen assaulted a position held by Malan's commando, forced Kritzinger back to the Zuurberg, north-east of Steynsburg, and operated in the Queenstown Dordrecht District before their departure for home.

They were replaced by 2nd Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen, who drove Scheepers out of the Cradock District. Kritzinger captured Jamestown in June, the Tasmanians climbing the Stormberg Range in the snow. Then with Gorringe's Flying Column, without wheeled transport, they harassed Myburgh and Malan. In their year in the Cape, the Tasmanians ranged from Camarvon to Barkly East.

The British troops in Cape Colony, under General French from June 1901, were able to be transferred rapidly in reaction to the sudden moves of the Boers, and the commandos were suffering severely in the drives and raids. Lotter was captured in September and Scheepers in October. Both were executed. Kritzinger was captured in December. A new force under General Smuts had crossed into Cape Colony in September and headed west, capturing the 17th Lancers at Modderfontein, but being driven away from the area of railways, to pose a new threat to Cape Town before heading north to invest O'okiep in the far north-west Cape in April 1902. French sent a column by ship to Port Nolloth to effect its relief and, when Smuts was recalled to attend the peace conference, the campaign in Cape Colony was virtually ended.

Also in September, General Botha had begun his planned invasion of Natal, and Australian units were rushed by rail to the far south-eastern Transvaal to bar his progress. From the Middelburg area came the 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles and the 5th-6th Western Australian Mounted Infantry, and from the Free State came the 5th and 6th Queensland Imperial Bushmen to thwart him in the mountains. Botha annihilated Gough's force at Blood River Poort, but was rebuffed in attacks on Forts Itala and Prospect, and decided to abandon his invasion attempt, to the relief of the colonists.


It may be wondered how the major Boer leaders were so often able to escape the pursuing columns: There are several explanations. The Boers were fighting in familiar territory, they had the benefit of local guides and the assistance of an intelligence network of natives and kinfolk, including sympathisers in British territory. They were more skilled at handling ox-convoys and were adept at mounting rearguards. They were saved on occasion by British lack of intelligence, by atrocious weather and by sheer good luck. When freed of transport the British columns matched them and captured several leaders. As one Australian Colonel said, `... when the Kelly gang were at large in Victoria four men were able to defy the whole Colony for eighteen months, [so it was] not difficult to see how the Boers were able to keep up the struggle for so long ...'. (13)

The guerrilla phase of the Boer War was highlighted with serious disasters to both sides but Hertzog, Kritzinger and De Wet had been driven out of Cape Colony, and Botha away from Natal. In all these strategic moves, as well as in operations in the republics, Australians had played an important part, and instead of writing down their achievements as `the messier events of the [last] eighteen months', or stating that their commonest actions were `looting Boer farms, etc', it seems fairer to remember that their ability at tailing the Boers helped secure the British colonies, and that without them the war would have been longer and costlier.

(1) Paper presented on 10 June 2000 at The Military Historical Society of Australia 2000 Seminar held at Canberra on 9-12 June 2000

South African War 1901-1902 2 years
First World War 1914-1918 4 years
Second World War 1939-1945 6 years
Korean War 1950-1953 3 years
Malayan Emergency 1950-1960 10 years
Indonesian Confrontation 1964-1966 3 years
Vietnam War 1962-1973 12 years

(3) For example, see statistics for AIF in A G Butler, The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, AWM, Canberra, 1943, Vol III, p 890.


South African War 274
WW1, 1914-18 53884
WW2, 1939-45 27073
Korea, Malaya, etc 319
Vietnam 423

United States of America

Spanish-American War 385
WW1, 1917-18 53402
WW2, 1941-1945 291557
Korea 33629
Vietnam 46397

Australians: Historical Statistics, 1987, pp414-416.

USA: Historical Statistics of the US, 1960, p735,
and US Information Service.

(5) A Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War, George Hell & Sons, London, 1902, p vii.

(6) L S Amery (ed), The Times History of the War In South Africa, 7 Vols, 1900-1909. Louis Creswicke, South Africa and the Traansvaal War, 8 Vols, 1902. Christiaan De Wet, Three Years War, London, 1902, see pp 281-282 re guerrillas. Deneys Reitz, Commando, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1983.

(7) Ken Inglis, Preface to L M Field, The Forgotten War, MUP, Melb., 1979.

(8) Bill Gammage, `The Crucible. The establishment of the Anzac tradition', in M McKeman and M Browne (eds), Australia, Two Centuries of War and Peace, pp 154-155.

(9) Sir John Madden, The Argus, Melbourne, 19 Jan 1900.

(10) H W Wilson, After Pretoria, Vol III, p280; D Reitz, op cit, p297.

(11) Wilson, op cit, Vol III, p 298.

(12) The Times History, op cit, Vol V, p 143.

(13) Peter Trew, The Boer War Generals, Sutton, UK, 1999 pp 13, 189; Argus, 6 Aug 1901.
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Author:Chamberlain, Max
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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