For those without any sort of military background, some of the nomenclature of the units which served in the Boer War can be a little bewildering. This is especially so, given that unit sizes / names have changed over time leading to yet more confusion. With this in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to do a quick summary of how the British infantry were structured during the Boer War.
An infantry battalion of the time (commanded then, as now, by a Lt. Colonel) was made up of eight companies (each commanded by a Captain). In theory, starting in 1888, one of these eight companies was trained, tasked and equipped as a ‘mounted infantry (MI) company’. Each company was divided into two half-companies (each commanded by a Subaltern), and in turn, each half-company was divided into two ‘sections’ of about 25–30 men (with each section commanded by a Corporal). It is worth noting, therefore, that a ‘section’ at the time was closer in size to a modern-day platoon, rather than a modern-day section of 8 men. As I mentioned, this can sometimes get a little confusing.
A battalion also fielded a band (who served as stretcher bearers in battle), a small Pioneer unit and, usually, a machine gun (Maxim) section.
As each company was 100–120 men strong, this meant a battalion was rather larger than it is today, at somewhere around 800–1000 men. Or, as Kipling so brilliantly put it: ‘800 fighting Englishmen, the Colonel, and the band’.
Though this photo dates from the Zulu War, rather than the Boer War, it nevertheless illustrates a battalion drawn up in its eight companies. The band is on the left.
After the Boer War, one of the outcomes of the 1903 Royal Commission was to restructure the battalion to a format of 4 companies, each divided into 4 platoons, each of which in turn was formed of 4 sections. It was found that the Lt. Colonel could better command four sub-units (ie. his companies) rather than eight, while his company commanders could also manage four sub-units (ie. their platoons) and so on. The restructuring also meant that Subalterns commanded smaller unit sizes than previously (ie. a platoon of c.30 men vs a half-company of c.50–60 men).[i]
Unlike in some other armies (and the British cavalry[ii]), a ‘Regiment’ was / is not an operational military unit in British infantry terms – it was (and remains) more of an administrative concept, with most (though not all) infantry regiments of the period having two regular (ie. full time) battalions, and usually two or occasionally three militia (ie. part time) battalions. These battalions were not, however, all brought together to fight as a ‘regiment’ in times of war. Instead, following the Childers Reforms of the 1880s, the idea was that one regular battalion of any given regiment would be overseas on deployment, with the other at home (acting almost as a recruitment / training depot), and that these would switch out every few years. The ‘paper’ establishments were given as 801 all ranks for the Home Service battalion and 1012 all ranks for the one on Foreign Service, though this was rarely the case in reality. In a war situation, reservists would be called back to the Colours to bring the regular battalions up to full strength – especially if the battalion on home service needed to be deployed overseas in an emergency (as was the case in the Boer War).
Operationally, the British army grouped (and still group) their infantry battalions into Brigades, which at the time of the Boer War were often made up of battalions from a similar area or of a similar heritage – eg. various Highland battalions, Fusilier battalions, Light infantry battalions or Irish battalions. At the time of the Boer War, a ‘standard’ Brigade was made up of 4 battalions, and 2 such Brigades formed a Division[iii]. The rank of Brigadier had fallen out of use prior to the Boer War, though was re-introduced during that conflict. This meant that one finds accounts of Brigades which were commanded by Colonels, Major Generals and (latterly) Brigadiers.
Unlike the vast Continental armies of the period which trained in large formations regularly, the British army threw Brigades / Divisions together on an ad hoc basis, using whatever battalions were in theatre, and attaching / detaching them on an almost daily basis on operations. As always with the British army, there were no hard-and-fast rules on any of this, and there are endless exceptions for every rule.
To take the operations in Natal from December 1899 to February 1900 as an example, the composition of the various Brigades under Buller’s command kept chopping and changing:
At Colenso, the 2nd Infantry Brigade comprised the 2nd Devonshires, 2nd Royal West Surrey Regiment (the Queen’s), 2nd West Yorkshires and the 2nd East Surreys. Later in the campaign, a portion of the East Surreys were detached and attached to the 4th (Rifle / Light) Brigade:
At Spion Kop / Twin Peaks, the 4th (Rifle / Light) Brigade was made up from the 1st Durham Light Infantry, 1st Scottish Rifles, 3rd King’s Royal Rifle Corps and 1st Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort’s Own), but later in the campaign was reorganised as follows: the 1st Durham Light Infantry, 1st Rifle Brigade, four companies of the Scottish Rifles and six of the 2nd East Surreys.
At Colenso, the 5th (Irish) Brigade consisted of the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 1st Connaught Rangers and the 1st Border Regiment. The Border Regiment was later detached and replaced by half a battalion of the Imperial Light Infantry. For the attack on the 23rd of February, during the Battle of the Tugela Heights, the Brigade was reinforced by the 1st Durham Light Infantry and the 1st Rifle Brigade, both detached from the 4th Brigade.
At the start of the Battle of the Tugela Heights, the 6th Brigade comprised the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers and 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers. By the end of the fortnight-long battle, it had been totally reorganized and was by then just three battalions strong comprising: the 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers (which was attached from the 5th Brigade).
At Spion Kop, the 11th (Lancashire) Brigade was made up of the 2nd Royal Lancaster Regiment, 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, 1st South Lancashire Regiment and the 1st York and Lancaster Regiment. By the end of the Battle of the Tugela Heights, the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers had been detached and replaced by six companies of the 2nd West Yorks.
I can only hope that I have not made all this as clear as mud.
[i] As an aside, it is perhaps worth noting that during the Boer War, senior commanders often thought in terms of companies, rather than the battalions; many accounts of battles talk of a commander using (eg) 3 companies from this battalion, 2 from that one, and another two from a third – rather than just sending a single battalion in its entirety, which would perhaps seem more logical to the modern reader.
[ii] In simple terms, a Cavalry Regiment was essentially equivalent to an Infantry Battalion. The sub-units of a Cavalry Regiment were Squadrons and Troops.
[iii] An Infantry Division would also include some cavalry (mainly for scouting), artillery and other support units.