The popular myth of the Boer War (ie. basically, that the Boers were the innocent victims, desperate only to be left in peace until they were invaded by millions of rapacious Tommies who couldn’t shoot straight and thus lost all the battles, but somehow won the war by, like, you know, cheating and stuff… oh and, err, genocide or something) is primarily spread by a Rogues Gallery of violently anti-British ‘historians’. The South African tourism industry, however, also seems resolutely determined to do its bit to keep this Apartheid-era narrative alive – which is especially bizarre, given that so many visitors to South Africa (and especially the battlefields) are from the UK.
I try to get out of Johannesburg as often as possible to visit historical sites and battlefields[i], and, while planning such excursions, never fail to be amused by things one can read on the websites of some lodges. Cheetah Ridge Lodge in Natal’s excellent Nambiti Game Reserve, for example, offers visitors the chance to visit the nearby Elandslaagte Battlefield, ‘one of the few, yet costly, British tactical victories’ the Tommies managed to attain the war, apparently:
On reading this rather surreal claim, I wrote to the Lodge and provided them a list of some other British victories: Talana Hill, Belmont, Graspan, Modder River, Paardeberg, Wagon Hill, Cannon Kop, Wepener, Tugela Heights, Brandwater Basin, Botha’s Pass, Poplar Grove, Driefontein, Diamond Hill, Belfast, Bothaville, Frederikstad, Tiger Kloof Spruit, Bothwell Farm, Itala and Fort Prospect, Wildfontein, Rooiwal etc, not to mention various other defensive actions at the sieges of Mafeking, Ladysmith and Kimberley and those fought during the sweeps conducted in the guerrilla war. The Lodge management acknowledged my email and said they would ‘look into this’, but the website still remains un-revised.
Similarly, the website for Platrand Lodge mentions the nearby Battle of Wagon Hill but – seemingly doing everything possible to play down the inconvenient reality that the Boers were defeated there – claims that 424 Imperial troops were killed, against only 50 Boers who lost their lives.
These figures are hogwash, as in reality 175 Imperial troops were killed at the Battle of Wagon Hill. Desperate to prove some sort of point, however, the writer cunningly added in the figure for those wounded (249), thus inflating the total to give a very false impression. This is very sneaky indeed, or, to put it another way: blatant lying.
And the number given for Boer fatalities is just as wrong. Even the ‘official’ Boer figures were 64 dead and 119 wounded, though as always these should be taken with a pinch of salt, and their total number killed was doubtless significantly higher than this. The KRRC reported finding 99 Boer corpses in front of their positions, for example, while Conan-Doyle noted: ‘80 dead bodies were returned to them from the ridge alone, while the slopes, the dongas, and the river each had its own separate tale. No possible estimate can make it less than three hundred killed and wounded, while many place it at a much higher figure’ – though these figures also cannot be assumed to be 100% reliable. But why, one wonders, were the numbers for those wounded on the British side added to the number killed, but the same not done in respect to republican wounded? My email to the Lodge on this subject remains answered.
These are bad enough, but there is so much bunkum on the Spion Kop Lodge website that it is actually difficult to know where to begin. We are treated, for example, to the old chestnut that:
This sort of thing is no doubt comforting reading to some of a certain political mindset, but it is far from accurate. The war did not last three years, of course, and Britain did not ‘march into it’ – their territories were invaded by the Boers. There is little or no evidence to suggest that ‘Britain’ thought the war would ‘over by Christmas’. Sure, it’s a handy little glib ‘throwaway’ line to chuck out at a braai, but the reality is that pre-war British military intelligence estimates concluded that 200,000 men would need to be fielded in the event of war with the republics – rather more than the 20,000 the British army had in theatre when Boers attacked.
As a Boer invasion of Natal and the Cape began to seem inevitable, far from thinking it would be a quick and easy victory, the rather diminutive British army took the precaution of mobilising their reserves for the first time in a generation. By the time the Boers did indeed start the war, Britain had begun shipping out their largest expeditionary force since the Napoleonic Wars – larger even than that sent to the Crimea for war against Russia – hardly evidence that anyone thought it would be a cake walk.
It would obviously take a long time to move troops to South Africa and, though the initial Army Corps was dispatched quickly, additional troops (the arrival of which still would get the numbers nowhere near the 200,000 mark) took much longer to mobilise. The 5th Division and an additional brigade of Artillery was only ready to start shipping out on the 11th of November, while the 6th Division only started mustering for deployment on the 2nd of December – this, it should be noted, was prior to the defeats of Black Week and would have been a strange thing to do if everyone assumed the war would be over by Christmas.
Quite exactly who it was that (allegedly) claimed things would be over by Christmas is never actually stated when this remark gets tossed out. No doubt one could find a quote from some random captain or junior MP who, after a few too many whisky and sodas, claimed the war would all be over quickly. But that can hardly be considered to be HM Government’s position on it, let alone that of the senior commanders on the ground.
The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joe Chamberlain, for example, noted his fears that any war against the republics would be ‘the most costly, unsatisfactory and difficult of all the little wars which we could possibly undertake’ and ‘A war in South Africa would be one of the most serious wars that could possibly be waged. It would be in the nature of a civil war. It would be a long war, a bitter war, and a costly war, and it would leave behind it the embers of a strife which, I believe, generations would hardly be long enough to extinguish’. Not much evidence of over-confidence there and – funnily enough – no mention of Christmas, either.
Sir George White arrived in Natal just prior to the war to organise the defence of that colony. It would seem that a quick and easy Imperial victory was the furthest thing from his mind, and instead he reckoned the British army ‘had 20,000 too few troops to defend their territory in South Africa and feared they might have to ‘reconquer it from the sea’’.
Before the Boer invasions, General Buller was equally realistic and had counseled against trying to hold northern Natal at all against the superior numbers of republicans: unfortunately he was overruled by the Natal government for political reasons. As the Boers massed on the frontier, Buller demanded additional troops be sent, stating: ‘We are in a very uncomfortable military position—if the Boers are bold … they have now a chance of inflicting a serious reverse upon us in Natal.’
Over on the western front, Lord Methuen was also not assuming things would be over by Christmas, writing to his wife just ten days into the war to tell her that he would be away for ‘six months at the minimum’.
And if none of the senior officers on the ground boasted of winning the war by Christmas, then neither did Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley, the Commander in Chief of the British army, no less. Just prior to the Boer invasions, he stated: ‘We have committed one of the greatest blunders in war, namely, we have given the enemy the initiative. He is in a position to take the offensive and, by striking the first blow, to ensure the great advantage of winning the first round’.
Indeed, if anyone seemed sure of a quick victory, it was the Boers: Gregorowski, the Chief Justice of the Transvaal, rather arrogantly claimed it would only take a fortnight to defeat the British – he clearly thought it would all be over by Halloween, let alone Christmas. Only slightly less optimistically, in November 1899, Botha boasted that the Vierkleur would soon fly over Durban[ii]. F.W. Reitz was equally upbeat as the Boers invaded British territory, with one visitor reporting he had ‘no doubt as to the final victory of the Boers, of which he was so convinced that he would not even allow the possibility of the fortunes of war changing’. President Steyn of the Orange Free State was described by a Hollander as having ‘commenced the war with a firm trust in God, and the most gross negligence’, an opinion echoed by Deneys Rietz: ‘our leaders underestimated the magnitude of the task on which they were embarked’.
The average burgher started the war with little or no respect for the British Tommies, and most seemed absolutely certain of a quick and effortless victory. One resident of the Transvaal was surprised that: ‘…the people were not only perfectly willing to go to war, but that they absolutely wished for it.’ He was told by one burgher: ‘‘we look on fighting the English as a picnic. In some of the Kaffir wars we had a little trouble, but in the Vryheids Oorlog [the first Boer War] we simply potted the Rooineks as they streamed across the veldt in their red jackets, without the slightest danger to ourselves.’ They had the utmost contempt for Tommy Atkins and his leaders, many of them bragging that the only thing that deterred them from advocating war instanter was the thought that they would have to kill so many of the soldiers, with whom individually they said there was no quarrel.’
Another boasted: ‘One of us shall drive three score, and five a thousand drive …’ while one Bethal resident recalled the mood when the town’s commando rode off to join the invasion: ‘[the Commando] rode out in the early morning, in all kinds of clothes, with saddlebags slung over the front of their saddles, all full of hope and big talk of driving the Rooineks into the sea.’
A reluctant burgher confided in his diary of the wild over-confidence of his comrades: ‘The Afrikaner Bond has poisoned the mind of the uneducated Transvaal Boer, with its papers and pamphlets, and lies they circulate. The ordinary Transvaal Boer believes it is impossible for any nation to beat them… The crowd are talking very big and from their talk Cape Town and Durban will be their first stopping place!!’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most cocksure / deluded of them all was President Kruger himself, a man so far off the reservation as to be utterly convinced that the Almighty would lend a helping hand, thus assuring the Boers an easy victory. In one of his trademark rants, he declared that similar divine intervention had helped guarantee their victories of the First Boer War and against the Jameson Raiders:
‘They aimed thousands of shells and balls at us, while we only shot with rifles; and how wonderfully was the course of the bullets ordered! Three of us fell, while the enemy had hundreds killed and wounded. And who ordered the flight of the bullets? The Lord! He spared us then, to prove that He rules all things. The Lord will also protect you now, even if thousands of bullets fly around you … I will say once more that the Lord will guide us.’
The Spion Kop Lodge website then goes on to claim that:
Which battle of the Falklands War, one wonders, does this writer think was bigger than the Battle of the Tugela Heights? Whereas the Battle of the Tugela Heights saw Buller commanding half-a-dozen infantry brigades and a mounted brigade[iii] in a fortnight of non-stop fighting, the biggest battles of the Falklands War (Goose Green, Wireless Ridge, Two Sisters, Mount Longdon and Tumbledown) featured only reinforced battalion groups on the British side, and none lasted more than 24 hours.
Perhaps this writer thinks that ‘The Falklands War’ was a single battle? Even if that is his bizarre take on reality, in total, Britain only mobilised two brigades for the Falklands War (3 Commando Brigade and 5 Infantry Brigade – just eight battalions[iv] plus supporting troops), compared with the seven brigades which fought at Tugela Heights: so even that surreal angle on it would be nonsense.
To take just one more of the website’s many ridiculous claims, the writer then pronounces:
This really is the pièce de résistance in the farrago of ahistorical nonsense peddled by this website. Even assuming the writer meant ‘up to that point in history’ (surely even he cannot be so demented as to think the Boer War was more costly to Britain than the two World Wars?), the claim would still be total claptrap: the British lost over 310,000 men[v] in the Napoleonic Wars – ie. only about fifteen times as many as in the Boer War.
And it’s not just privately owned Lodges which bend over backwards to spread the myth of Boer martial brilliance and British utter ineptitude: generic tourism and ‘information’ (ahem) websites also do their bit. The website for the town of Bothaville in the Free State (www.bothaville.info), for example, claims that the battle fought near there was ‘a rare defeat’ for de Wet:
Presumably this writer didn’t consider his defeat at the Siege of Wepener significant, or the beating he took at Poplar Grove on the 7th of March, 1900 – an action which was more of a panic-stricken rout than a battle, with the Boers fleeing as soon as imperial cavalry threatened their flank, as described by one contemporary account:
‘De Wet had been for at least ten days preparing the position from which he was ready to defy the whole British Army. He had, in fact, abandoned it on the mere approach of the Cavalry Division; he had not only abandoned it, but had only narrowly escaped from it with his guns and his transport wagons, and these last got off at the expense of a considerable portion of their loads, and only by the devoted bravery of a small part of his force.’
Just three days later, he was defeated again, this time at Driefontein, a battle little talked of today, but which saw severe losses for de Wet’s men. One war correspondent summed up the bloodshed: ‘…the Boer loss was heavier than either side had (so far as was known) suffered up to that date. We buried 170 Boers on the two ridges, and 42 were later found and buried on the nek where our guns had caught them in retirement. Our loss in actual killed at Magersfontein amounted to 171, at Colenso to 135.’ A local farmer also claimed that many more bodies were left unburied.
Rather shamelessly, De Wet did his best to absolve himself of all responsibility for the latest fiasco, placing the blame squarely on his burghers: ‘once more panic seized them; leaving their positions, they retreated towards Bloemfontein, now again only a disorderly crowd of terrified men blindly flying before the enemy’.
And it is not just this string of defeats in the conventional war which seem to have escaped the notice of the writer of this website, as he also seems to be unaware that de Wet came a cropper yet again at Frederikstad the month before his ‘rare defeat’ at Bothaville. Equally, the writer seems unaware (perhaps conveniently so?) of de Wet’s loss against Major Sladen’s small force near the farm of Graspan in June 1901, or in that he was defeated yet again that December – this time at Tiger Kloof Spruit by the Imperial Light Horse. Of course, all these beatings pale into utter insignificance compared to his greatest folly: the farcical, tragi-comical invasion of the Cape which was an unmitigated disaster from start to finished, ending in total defeat. As much as it clearly upsets some people to admit it, there was certainly nothing ‘rare’ about de Wet losing a battle.
www.wheretostay.co.za also throws historical reality to the winds to join in the propaganda offensive, gleefully claiming that 4000 British troops died in the various attempts to relieve Ladysmith:
In reality, there were four major actions fought in the relief attempt – well, more like three-and-a-half really, as Val Kranz was a very limited affair. Imperial fatalities at these actions were: Colenso c.131, Spion Kop c.243, Val Kranz c.30 and the fortnight-long Battle of the Tugela Heights c.426. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to compute that these numbers add up to c.830[vi], not 4000. Sure, there were also minor skirmishing actions and the like, but the notion that these added another 3170 fatalities is utterly nonsensical. It is yet another case of someone (either sneakily, or through abject ignorance) trying to pretend that all imperial casualties were fatalities.
www.SA-Venues.com is another offender, though their preferred method is to use weasel words, rather than out-and-out lies. The website’s description of the history of Barkly-West, for example, assures us: ‘the ‘dorp’ has quite a history. The first major diamond rush of the 1870s happened here, and the town was initially called Klip Drift (as in the famous brandy), which is Dutch for ‘stony ford’ or stony place on a river – it lies on the Vaal. It has had many names – Parkerton briefly, and even Nieuw Boshof when the Boers moved in during the Anglo-Boer War.’
Claiming that the Boers ‘moved in’ paints ever such a benign picture of what was, in reality, an armed invasion and annexation. Would one state, for example, that ‘the Germans moved in’ to France in 1940? Or the ‘the Iraqis moved in’ to Kuwait in 1990?
Disappointingly, and though there are some good ones, even many of the battlefield guides one encounters in Natal seem keen to spread these sort of myths and I have heard endless nonsense from such self-appointed experts over the years. I’ve been assured, for example, that the British wore red at Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, that Penn Symons’ force at Dundee was ‘like a UN peacekeeping force, based in the Transvaal’, that the British army in South Africa was half-a-million strong, that the officers in the Boer War were ‘all useless because they all bought their commissions’ and that the Tommies were only trained to fire in volleys. Needless to say, this is all rubbish – though it is good fun to call these chaps out on their claims and watch them huff and puff.
Of course, it is just about possible that all these endless mistakes are genuine errors, and utterly harmless gaffs. The sharp-eyed reader will have noticed, however, that in every case the error is in favour of the Boers and to the detriment of the British: whether it is downplaying clear-cut Imperial victories, white-washing republican aggression, or – most weirdly of all – pretending the Boer War was the biggest war in British military history.
Alas, from experience gained over many years of staying in battlefield lodges and listening to various battlefield guides spew forth their diatribes, I have to advise would-be visitors to take what they read or hear from such sources with a sizeable pinch of salt.
[i] Never let it be said I don’t know how to show a girl a good time
[ii] Botha’s boast may surprise those who believe the rubbish peddled by some modern-day writers who like to pretend that the conquest and annexation of Natal was never the aim of the poor, innocent Boers, ‘who only ever wished to be left alone’
[iii] Buller had six infantry brigades: 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th and 11th plus Dundonald’s small Mounted Brigade
[iv] 40, 42 and 45 Commandos Royal Marines, 2nd and 3rd battalions Parachute Regiment, 2nd Scots Guards, 1st Welsh Guards and 1st Battalion, 7th Duke of Edinburgh’s own Gurkha Rifles. A Royal Marine ‘Commando’ is a battalion-sized unit. It should also be noted that the battalions in 1982 were significantly smaller than those of the Boer War.
[v] The British Army lost 219,420 men killed, and the Royal Navy another 92,386. Like in the Boer War, disease was the main killer in the Napoleonic Wars
[vi] These numbers do vary very slightly depending upon the source one believes – the issue of men subsequently dying of wounds sustained in a given action is often one of the factors in such minor discrepancies.