Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Lessons from the Boer War: Learned and Not Learned

Boer Irregulars at Ladysmith, 1899

By Major Jesse Burnette, U.S. Army

The Boer War (1899-1902) is yet another example of a war uninformed by much forethought about technology on the battlefield. The tightening grip of British imperialism over the South African Dutch settlers (referred to as Boers), whose ancestors had been in the area since 1652, can be cited as the bannered cause for war. The discovery of gold in greater South Africa served as the impetus for the British to increase their colonial efforts—annexing This print illustrates a battle in January 1871 between Prussian infantry (advancing from the left) and French forces (retreating to the right) in the Lisaine River valley with the Château de MontbĂ©liard in the distance. Transvaal in 1877—much to the dismay of the resident Boers. The first Boer War of 1880-1881 saw the Boers gain their independence under Transvaal’s first president, Paul Kruger; however, the British had successfully isolated the Boers from the Indian Ocean by surrounding them with British colonies. On 11 October 1899, the Boers responded by invading British Natal which the British met with alacrity, thinking the war would be over by Christmas.

Wars seldom go as planned, and the Second Boer War was no exception. Professor Fransjohan Pretorius of the University of Pretoria in South Africa described the ebb-and-flow nature of the war: At first, set-piece battles prevailed throughout the campaign. The Boers besieged Ladysmith in Natal along with Kimberley and Mafeking in the Cape Colony against staunch British relief efforts over five months. The Boers used their advanced knowledge of the terrain to ambush and defeat British forces at Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso by December 1899. However, Boer overt resistance crumbled when the British relieved Ladysmith, Kimberley, and other beleaguered garrisons. The British under General Lord Frederick Roberts had the Boers on the run. Many Boers  surrendered or were otherwise enticed to bandwagon with the British against Boer resistance, which selected the asymmetrical approach of attacking British supply lines. 

Lord Roberts’s infantry crosses the Zand River in South
Africa. Note the observation balloon in the background.

The guerrilla phase of the war pitted the British and the South African collaborators against the Boer “bitter-enders.” When General Herbert Kitchener succeeded Roberts as the British commander, he brought increasingly harsher methods. First, he instituted a deprivation policy to deny food and shelter to the bitter-enders, which entailed burning farms and crops. Second, and most controversial, Kitchener erected concentration camps to separate the guerrillas from their popular support. Both tactics eventually led to the war’s conclusion by 1902.

Britain’s lessons from the Boer War were mixed. On the one hand, the British overhauled their ability to wage a prolonged war with the creation of a chief of the general imperial staff along with enhanced organizational measures to both project and sustain a large force far from the British Isles in concert with increasing the sizes and numbers of the standard field guns  On the other hand, the central lesson from British setbacks during the war—that advances in modern weaponry favored the defender over the attacker—was discounted. Instead and counter-intuitively, the British doubled down on the decisiveness of the frontal attack and officially codified the tactic as the form of maneuver of choice in the 1912 Field Service Regulation. Nevertheless, it was high velocity and capacity, smokeless powdered rifles and machine guns used in concert with trenchworks that worked to the advantage of the defender, a fact that was replaced with the British myth that the Boers were simply better shots and more cunning than their British adversaries. The result was a more capable and empowered shepherd to lead the masses of ignorant sheep to the slaughter. 

Excerpted from: "From Appomattox to the Argonne: Appreciating a Changing World’s Impact on Readiness," Infantry, Summer, 2020

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