One of the most cherished myths about the Boer War is that the British army was hopelessly ‘hidebound by tradition’, whereas the clever old Boers (who, so the myth goes, outclassed them in every action) used the most up-to-date tactics. Like most of the ‘established’ version of the Boer War, however, there is very little truth in this – however pleasing a fantasy it might be for some.
If any of the various arms of the British Army could be expected to be hidebound by tradition, it would surely have been the cavalry. Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, it is clear that the days of mass cavalry charges were drawing to a close by the end of the 19th Century. At the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, the advent of machine guns, magazine rifles and – perhaps most of all – barbed wire, had all helped negate the impact of the sabre or lance armed horseman, no matter how courageous they may have been. And it was not just warfare which had changed: geography played a part too, with potential battlefields in Europe and America much more likely to feature built-up areas and be criss-crossed with fences, thus depriving the cavalry of the open ground they had enjoyed in previous years.
In 1910, Erskine Childers[i] wrote War and the Arm Blanche, a highly critical account of the British cavalry’s performance during the Boer War. In particular the book lampooned their supposed obsession with the lance and sabre – cold steel which tradition held to be essential for instilling the ‘cavalry spirit’ of aggression. Though Childers was not a professional soldier, and certainly not a cavalryman,[ii] War and the Arm Blanche was given a degree of gravitas by the fact that Lord Roberts penned the foreword. It is an interesting work, focusing on the practical problems faced by the cavalry as warfare moved into the age of the magazine rifle, the machine gun and the ‘empty battlefield’—things which no right-minded person would dispute—and criticizing ‘the cavalry’ in contrast to both the mounted infantry (MI) and the republican units.
At the time of the Boer War, British cavalry training still placed a lot of emphasis placed on charging to contact with lance or sabre—just as there was still a lot of emphasis on the bayonet charge in infantry training[iii]—but Childers was nevertheless wrong to suggest that the British cavalry had been standing still in terms of weapons and tactics. By the time of the Boer War, all cavalry soldiers carried firearms in addition to their more traditional steel weapons,[iv] and even the lancer regiments had switched from pistols to carbines before the war. Though Childers made the unsubstantiated claim that the cavalry men were ‘poor shots’,[v] for many years all cavalry recruits had undergone similar target practice training to the infantry during their basic training, and also did annual refreshers.[vi] Each cavalry regiment was also obliged to send an officer and a sergeant to the Musketry School at Hythe each year.[vii]
General French, arguably the best cavalry commander of the war and a firm believer in the ‘cavalry spirit’ which the use of cold steel instilled, wrote: ‘Cavalry soldiers must of course learn to be expert rifle shots’,[viii] but understandably warned that this should not be at the expense of their horsemanship and other cavalry skills.
Childers’ criticism of the equipping of the cavalry with carbines rather than rifles is not unreasonable, as the shorter ranged carbines were completely outclassed by the Mausers of the Boers. This decision had little to do with ‘tradition’, however, and rather more to do with the practicality of equipping a cavalryman: modern-day British Army tank and helicopter crews are equipped with the L22 carbine version of the SA80 assault rifle for similar reasons.
Tactics had also evolved prior to the Boer War. In response to facing enemies equipped with modern rifles, British Army cavalry tactics had started moving away from the old ‘boot-to-boot’ of myth long before the Boer War. Army doctrine declared that, against an enemy who was:
‘…scattered in skirmishing line, or has in some way been disorganized, the [cavalry] attack is to be made in loose order.’
Against a formed, close order enemy, doctrine specified that close order charges should still be used, but that every advantage should be made of terrain to take the enemy by surprise, and that attacks from different directions should be employed if possible. Furthermore, any close order charge was to commence in loose order, and only close up to impact on the enemy.[ix]
Childers rightly pointed out that precious few significant cavalry charges had been made in the Boer War, and that the conditions that permitted one to be attempted (let alone have it succeed) in the age of magazine rifles were very rare. As well as requiring relatively open and firm ground to gallop across, by 1899 the enemy also needed to be scattered, broken or routing, else a cavalry charge was tantamount to suicide[x]—but again, the fact that the cavalry did not attempt many charges during the war rather defeats the thrust of his argument and suggests that the cavalry had accepted that times had changed. Indeed, far from being determined to mount cavalry charges willy-nilly, cavalry troopers were deployed in all manner of other roles: reconnaissance and scouting (both of which were traditional roles for light cavalry in any case), and fighting dismounted alongside the infantry.
In the right circumstances and launched against the right target, however, a cavalry charge remained a very potent tactic, and one cannot point to a single significant charge attempted by the British cavalry during the war which failed. It should also be remembered that the impact on morale of the charge at Elandslaagte—one of the few major charges of the war—was undoubtedly enormous on the republicans, and far outweighed the actual casualties the 5th Lancers and 5th Dragoon Guards inflicted in that frenzied few minutes. They turned a retreat into a panic-stricken rout and after Elandslaagte, no Boer wanted to hang around long enough to be ridden down by a cavalry charge – so it is not unreasonable to suggest that this was a factor in their premature abandonment of their positions. The sheer terror the republicans held of a cavalry charge was arguably as big a factor as the charge itself.
The man who had led the British to victory at Elandslaagte, the aforementioned General French[xi] and his Assistant Adjutant General, Haig[xii], were pulled out of Ladysmith just before the Siege, getting out of the town on one of the last trains. French was then placed in command of the forces in the yawning gap between the main troop concentrations in Natal and those on the Western Front: what might be termed the Cape Midlands or the Colesberg area. From November 1899 to January 1900, French —supposedly a stick-in-the-mud cavalry officer —commanded an out-numbered, hastily cobbled together force, made up of elements of several regular cavalry regiments with horse artillery, supported by MI, colonial mounted riflemen and infantry. With this, he was tasked with covering hundreds of miles of territory – and yet managed to thwart the invading Boers, despite their enjoying an initial numerical advantage of 2:1.[xiii] To his credit, Childers admits that French’s handling of his small force was a:
‘complete success… Aggression, perpetual but never rash, was the keynote of his action… His system was to harass, surprise, impose upon the enemy constantly, with forays, reconnaissances, and stratagems’.[xiv]
Childers’ argument however is that, as French’s cavalry essentially acted as mounted infantry throughout the Colesberg campaign, this proved that the age of the sabre was finished—which is a reasonable enough point. Another way to look at it, however, is that, far from being stuck in the past and obsessed with cold steel, the British cavalry were using appropriate tactics right from the very outset of the war; and given what French’s achieved, it is also fair to say they did rather well.
Following his success in the Cape Midlands, General French was summoned to the western front by Roberts to command a division comprising three cavalry and two MI brigades.[xv] It was this Cavalry Division which French would lead in easily the most dashing operation of the entire war.
By early 1900, the Boer invasions had been halted, but the initial imperial counter offensives had been stopped in their tracks and the republicans still retained vast swaths of Imperial territory. Worse still, the three towns of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking all remained under siege and the clock was ticking. Lord Roberts had arrived in theatre to take command, however, and brought with him a life time’s worth of military experience.
Roberts would initially focus his attention on the Western Front, where, in December 1899, Lord Methuen had failed to breakthrough General Cronje’s position at Magersfontein to relieve Kimberley. Roberts would not be hurried into any more premature, piecemeal attacks, but would rather take the time to build up his forces before unleashing his war-winning offensive. The relief of Kimberley (and, with it, the destruction of Cronje’s force) would be his first goal, and Roberts thus ordered Lord Methuen – commanding 1st Infantry Division – to act only on the defensive while he prepared his offensive.
Undetected (or simply disregarded) by the enemy, an enormous stockpile of supplies was gathered at Graspan, a little to the south of 1st Division’s position, ready to support the long-awaited thrust toward Kimberley. By clever use of troop movements, and the issuing of false orders which he knew would be intercepted, Roberts also convinced the Boers that his counter-stoke, when it came, would be on the central front around Colesberg, not in the west. The republican high command was duly fooled with President Steyn ordering General de Wet to redeploy the Free State commandos from the Magersfontein defences to the Colesberg area. Though de Wet refused, railway records later showed that 1,500 burghers were indeed redeployed to the Cape Midlands between 25 January and 8 February 1900.[xvi] From 28 January to 12 February, however, Roberts was assembling his forces at the Graspan camp, not in front of Colesberg.
Roberts also issued a set of ‘Notes for Guidance in South African Warfare’, the pertinent section as far as this discussion is concerned was as follows:
CAVALRY AND MOUNTED TROOPS
Every endeavour should be made to save them [cavalry horses] as much as possible, for unless this is done they cannot be expected to last through a lengthened campaign. The men should dismount on every available opportunity, if for a few minutes only at a time, and, on the line of march, it will be advantageous for them to occasionally lead instead of riding their horses. Horses should be fed at short intervals, and not allowed to be kept too long without water. A sufficiency of grain is necessary to enable horses to withstand hard work, but they will never keep in condition unless they have an ample supply of hay or some bulky equivalent.
On the line of march scouting must be carried out by the mounted troops in the most searching manner, in front and on both flanks. All high ground should be visited and, whenever practicable, horsemen should ride along ridges and hills. As soon as parties of the enemy are observed the mounted troops (after sending back word to the commander) should make a considerable detour round the position occupied by the Boers, endeavour to estimate their numbers, and to ascertain where their horses have been left. They should also see whether, by threatening the Boers’ line of communication, they would not be forced to fight on ground unprepared for defence.[xvii]
Leaving Methuen’s 1st Infantry Division to mask the Boer positions at Magersfontein, Roberts concentrated two other newly formed infantry divisions, the 6th (Kelly-Kenny) and 7th (Tucker) at Graspan for his master stroke. The most important component, however, was the new Cavalry Division under French. It was this unit which would lead the way, dashing east and then north to cut off Cronje’s force at Magersfontein, paving the way for the infantry to follow. The relief of Kimberley would then be assured.
Modern-day myths frantically assert that the British only won because they had ‘like, half a million men there, man’, but this is simply nonsense which was made up later to explain away the Boer defeat. In fact, Roberts only had 40,000 men available – a number which included Methuen’s 1st Division, which would take no part in the move, and Colvile’s 9th Division, which was still forming. Talk of ‘divisions’ is always a little misleading in the Boer War too: on paper, French’s Cavalry Division should have boasted 8,500 horsemen: in reality, he started with only 4,000 and seven batteries of horse artillery.
Lord Kitchener made clear the importance of the job they were being entrusted with:
‘The cavalry must relieve Kimberley at all costs … If it fails, neither I nor the field marshal can tell what the result on the Empire may be’.
Addressing the officers of the Cavalry Division on the 10th of February, 1900, Lord Roberts himself emphasised the role the cavalry would play, and the fear they instilled in the Boers:
‘I am going to give you some very hard work to do, but at the same time you are going to get the greatest chance cavalry ever had … You will remember what you are going to do all your lives, and when you have grown to be old men, you will tell the story of the relief of Kimberley … The enemy are afraid of the British Cavalry, and I hope when you get them out into the open you will make an example of them’.
The next morning, Roberts’ great flanking move began. Led by the slouch-hatted troopers of Rimington’s Tigers[xx], French’s Cavalry Division set off in an easterly direction toward the farm of Ramdam. From there and over the following days, French would continue east, striking toward Waterval Drift on the Riet River before turning northward past Jacobsdal to seize Klip Drift on the Modder River.[xxi] The plan called for the 6th and 7th Infantry divisions (the 9th Division was still forming) to follow the cavalry at intervals and hold these drifts while French pushed on to relieve Kimberley, simultaneously cutting off Cronje’s force at Magersfontein which was to be destroyed in detail. Rather like the paratroopers at Market Garden in 1944, the cavalry was tasked with bursting through enemy-held territory to capture and hold the river crossings on an extremely tight schedule due to the limited supplies they could carry. It was as audacious as it was brilliant.
Rather than attacking any enemy forces the division encountered, French detached troops to screen them and pressed on. It was no cake walk, but the speed of French’s advance seemed to take the federals by surprise. One drift was seized before the Boers in the area could react to defend it, so instead they did what they could to re-take it:
‘Taking advantage of thick cover, however, the attack was repulsed, after a very hot half-hour, during which Captain Majendie was shot dead, and the passage was made good, a battery being crossed to command the plain on the north bank, and a most excellent start had now been accomplished.’[xxii]
By the 13th French’s cavalry were closing in on the drifts over the Modder River. By means of a feint toward Klip Kraal Drift a few miles farther east, French threw the Boers off balance before striking toward Klip Drift, his real objective. The burghers holding Klip Drift were taken completely by surprise and fled, abandoning their laager. French took this critical crossing at the cost of just three men wounded. The cost in horses was much higher, however: 500 of the wretched beasts were unable to continue and 40 died of exhaustion on the march.[xxiii]
The situation would have been much worse had the cavalry not captured a large and well stocked federal camp, an incident which rather gives a lie to the modern myth of the Boer armies being made up of simple farmers who were in no way prepared for the war:
‘The Boer camp was in our hands, with all its stores, tents and appurtenances, a good many wagons and the oxen of the wagons captured by Lord Airlie. The ovens were full of fresh bread, smoking hot, and there was even a considerable supply of luscious fresh fruit, pears, peaches, and grapes. We began to reach the conclusion that the stories of an imperfectly organized Boer commissariat which had prevailed so early in December had very little foundation in fact.’[xxiv]
As the Cavalry Division paused to await the arrival of the infantry who would secure the crossing at Klip Drift, and—just as importantly—fodder for the horses, Cronje dithered at Magersfontein, some ten miles to the west. Initially, he sent de Wet with just 450 men to drive back the British cavalry[xxv] which, unsurprisingly, de Wet proved completely unable to do. He did manage to send a panic-stricken message to Cronje, however, informing his commander that French’s force was 40,000–50,000 strong. De Wet, who had the benefit of writing his own (self-serving, and self-pitying) history of his part in the war, later claimed to have known exactly what French’s aim was, though this is by no means borne out in his actions or the orders he gave at the time.[xxvi]
Seemingly unable—or unwilling—to believe what he had been told by those who had fled Klip Drift, and not grasping the severity of the position he was now in, Cronje still dismissed French’s thrust as a mere feint. Cronje’s inactivity may well have been inspired by a bizarre arrogance: he cheerfully informed the Austrian military adviser, Count Sternberg, that the British forces threatening his flank were ‘only cavalry—who we shoot and capture’.[xxvii] Despite the much-vaunted mobility of the Boer commandos, Cronje showed no inclination to leave his fortifications on the Magersfontein ridge and so completely surrendered the initiative to Roberts and French.
A series of hills to the north and east of Klip Drift was held by republican forces, as was a ridge which stretched away to the west toward Cronje’s main position at Magersfontein. Between these, however, was a long valley about a mile wide which pointed almost directly toward Kimberley. On the morning of the 15th, French’s horse artillery engaged the republican guns defending this valley and, considering it his best chance to break through the enemy defences, he ordered his division to advance through it at a ‘fast gallop’. This charge was covered by both his horse artillery batteries and the guns of Kelly-Kenny’s newly-arrived 6th Infantry Division.[xxviii] The Boers, both on the high ground and in the valley, opened fire as best they could, but were fairly ineffective against the charging horsemen. The dust, open order and considerable British artillery support all worked against the republicans and, led by the 9th and 16th Lancers, the horsemen swept up the valley like a latter-day charge of the Light Brigade.
One witness described it vividly as:
‘…[a] spectacle such as no man of this generation had ever witnessed, or probably will probably witness ever again—some 3,000 cavalry charging a set position defended by guns and strongly held by concealed riflemen. Led by the 16th, who had been in advance, and who inclined sharply to their left, the 9th taking ground to their right, and forming the first line, then came the Second Brigade—the Households, 10th Hussars, and 12th Lancers, whilst Porter’s Brigade—the Carabineers, Greys and 6th Inniskillings, and Australians formed the third line, with the Rimington Guides and Mounted Infantry thrown in.
The onset was made at a hand-gallop, and the Boers, with their usual quickness of perception, didn’t wait with their guns for the issue, but were off with them like a shot… One held one’s breath, expecting to see a whole squadron moved down by shrapnel or case, but though the rattle of the Mauser was continuous, our men swept on. The dust rising under the horses’ feet was punctuated with little spits kicked up by rifle bullets, and to the crackle of the Mauser was added the reverberating thunder of some 12,000 hooves…
But now as the connecting ridge was approached the firing instead of redoubling itself, began to die out. Only on the left, whither the 16th had directed their charge, on the advanced ridge itself where the Boer guns had been, did it still continue; the three Boer guns had gone instantly as our lancers began to gallop, but a body of Boer riflemen, rushing to their horses, which had been hidden in a depression of the hills, found that a lucky shell from one of our guns had killed some forty outright; their riders therefore, reduced to the primitive means of locomotion known as Shanks’ pony, continued to fight the ridge against the advancing lancers… the Boers, who, having then emptied their magazines, promptly put up the white flag, but our men were too close for this to avail. The main Boer position, though evacuated more promptly, was in such difficult ground that their forces had by no means cleared it when our squadrons swept over the nek, and our men galloped into the flying burghers, who jettisoned everything they could cast away in the effort to escape, carrying off, nevertheless, a few ugly wounds.’[xxix]
The officer commanding the right-hand squadron of the 16th Lancers recorded the charge in his diary that evening:
‘I had no room to form line till near the top. We then advanced under a shower of screeching bullets. It was most unpleasant but very exciting. Directly we were on the top the fire ceased and the Boers began to bolt on their ponies. The only ones we speared with lances were those whose horses had run away and were on foot. These fellows shot at us till we were 100 yards off and then pulled out a white rag in hope of having their lives spared. We killed them all. The lances seemed to knock them over stone-dead.’[xxx]
The few Boers who, due to the unfortunate loss of their horses, were still in the valley when the cavalry (particularly the 16th Lancers) hit home, were ridden down, speared, or taken captive. Remarkably, British losses in the action were just two killed and 17 wounded,[xxxi] though the losses in horses were much more severe: the 16th Lancers alone lost 60, some of which were shot, but most of the poor beasts simply collapsed from exhaustion.[xxxii] Nevertheless, the way to Kimberley lay open, and that evening French rode into town to be met by the mayor.[xxxiii] More important even than the relief of Kimberley, however, was that Cronje’s force at Magersfontein was now all but cut off.
French’s cavalry action at Klip Drift was greatly admired, with The Times History declaring:
‘The charge at Klip Drift marks an epoch in the history of cavalry … the quick insight that prompted it, the instantaneous decision that launched it against the enemy, the reckless dare-devil confidence that carried it through … the thin line of unseen riflemen, with its wide gaps covered by converging fire, which had proved so unapproachable to the slow, short-winded foot soldier, availed nothing against the rushing speed and sustained impetus of the wave of horsemen.’[xxxiv]
Captain Foster of the Royal Horse Artillery recorded the charge in his diary:
‘General French decided to risk a bit & make a dash up a plain about two miles broad with all his cavalry … the move was entirely successful and it was a grand sight to see line after line of cavalry galloping as hard as they could for five miles up the plain. Kopjes lined both sides of the plain & the Boers blazed away from either side but we soon cleared them out … the Lancers had managed to spear some 20 odd Boers.’[xxxv]
Technically, as many critics of the cavalry were at pains to point out, it was not really a cavalry charge as such: it was aimed, not at shattering an enemy force but at breaking through a weak point in the enemy line. Indeed, had the republicans strung just a few strands of wire across the valley floor or stuck to their positions with a bit more courage, it might all have ended differently. In a letter to Colonel Lonsdale Hale, Haig—who was always quick to criticize a lack of reconnaissance by others—admitted it was only by sheer luck that the charge did not blunder into unseen obstacles: ‘[the] ground rose from the river, so we could not see whether there were wire fences or not’.[xxxvi] Whether it was technically a charge or not, and whatever fortune favoured those bold horsemen, it was still a brilliant example of dash, determination and courage.
Perhaps not surprisingly, however, Pakenham’s allegedly ‘definitive’ account of the war takes a very different view of the action to these military experts, dismissing it as a ‘quite unnecessary dash to self-destruction across the veldt’. It is difficult to reconcile this statement with the facts, however: had French not acted as he did, there is little doubt that the Boers would have moved blocking forces into his path, thus preventing the relief of Kimberley—which was the whole point of the exercise. It is also illogical to claim that the ‘charge’ was responsible for any such ‘self-destruction’ in any case, given that it accounted for just six and a half minutes of French’s several day long sweep round the federal flank.
Indeed, French’s march as a whole had been the most dynamic and resolute move of the war to date. Modern writers tend to pour cold water on his achievements, pointing out that by thrusting forward so quickly, he exhausted his horses. But this is to completely misunderstand the point: if French hadn’t driven his division on, he would not have achieved his objectives, and Cronje would have been able to send men from the Magersfontein fortifications to set up blocking positions at Klip Drift. It doesn’t make sense to criticize other Imperial commanders for plodding forward at a snail’s pace, and also to criticize one when he acts with flair, drive, and dash; besides, the horses were not sacrificed in vain.
Cronje’s reaction to this coup de main was a mixture of disbelief and panic. When his military adviser Colonel Villebois-Mareuil (known to all as the ‘French Colonel’) advocated a counter-attack to let the majority of his force escape, Cronje rejected this.[xxxvii] One witness recorded:
‘It appears to me that the General has lost his head and seems as helpless as a little child. Now is the time he should show his generalship, at all events keep a little order and discipline, and make his people face the music. They are spanning in like blazes already, seem not to know where to go, instead of the General giving some definite orders, he is going about like a beaten dog with his tail between his legs. He got us into this hole and should, at all events, have some plan formed to get us out.’
The republicans finally began to react but they did too little too late. Not eager to take on the fighting Tommies who were bursting forward,[xxxviii] de Wet instead contented himself with attacking a supply column at Waterval Drift.[xxxix] While the 500-strong escort held their own against de Wet’s 1,000-strong force, the Boers managed to drive off or kill 800 of the 1,600 oxen being used to move the British supplies forward. Rather than slow the advance, however, Roberts simply ordered that the supplies be left where they were and pressed on.[xl] The republican garrison was driven out of Jacobsdal[xli] on the 16th and, unnoticed by Lord Methuen, Cronje finally abandoned the Magersfontein defences the following day, also managing to slip past Kelly-Kenny’s slow-moving 6th Infantry Division.
Cronje’s rearguard was harried by Imperial mounted infantry all the way, however, and later that day the head of the fleeing column was intercepted by French’s cavalry as they attempted to cross the Modder River drifts to safety. Such was the suffering endured by French’s horses on his flank march that, when he was ordered to move back from Kimberley to block Cronje, he could only muster 1,500 men and twelve guns. Nevertheless, French rushed this scratch force south-east in time to catch Cronje’s men crossing Vendutie Drift. The Royal Horse Artillery’s 12-pounders opened up on the leading Boer wagons as they picked their way across the river, causing panic and disorder. Many of the Boer oxen and horses, outspanned and waiting on the far bank, bolted.[xlii] Again, when he should have attacked to repulse French, Cronje dithered. With another 2,000 Boers in the area, he outnumbered French by three to one, but instead chose to dig in on the riverbanks near the drift at Paardeberg. Cronje’s decision to entrench rather than break out was undoubtedly the wrong one, but it was probably the only one available to him. Though formidable in defence, the Boers were a fairly one-dimensional army; as one British officer observed:
‘The Boer is a very practical sort of man, and, although he can be as brave as anyone else if he thinks it worthwhile, does not seem to get any pleasure out of being shot at, and generally thinks out for himself the best way of avoiding that condition at the moment. Finding himself in a tight corner, therefore, his first idea was to put his body in a safe place, and his second was to make that place as poor a target for our guns as possible.’[xliii]
By the following morning, as Cronje’s men dug in, both the 6th and 9th Infantry divisions had arrived on the scene to seal the deal. Rather than bombarding the Boers into submission with artillery, Kitchener (temporarily standing in for Roberts) made the remarkable decision to storm Cronje’s position that afternoon, an infantry attack which ended in predictable and costly failure. While Kitchener’s determination to assault Cronje’s position at Paardeberg seems peculiar, he was resolved not to let victory slip through his fingers and allow Cronje to escape, or to give the numerous other Boer forces in the area any opportunity to break through and rescue him.
Calmer heads quickly prevailed, however, and Roberts returned to command, ordering that the Boers entrenchments should be bombarded by artillery directed by an observer up in a balloon.[xliv] It was an indiscriminate means of bringing the battle to a close, and the thousands of non-combatants huddled in Cronje’s laager suffered along with the menfolk. However, it is often (conveniently) forgotten that, before opening the bombardment, Lord Roberts offered Cronje the chance to let his women and children pass through the Imperial lines to safety. It is hardly Roberts’ fault that this was refused.[xlv]
The Cavalry Division was soon in action again, driving off an attempt by de Wet to break through to Cronje on the 21st. Another such effort, led by Commandant Steyn, was broken up by the guns of 81st Battery, RA. So heavy was the bombardment that Steyn was forced to abandon his own guns, only recovering them after nightfall.[xlvi] Over the next few days the Imperial infantry tightened their stranglehold on Cronje’s position, nudging their trenches forward. On the night of the 26th/27th some of Roberts’ Canadian troops pushed their saps to within just ninety yards of the Boer lines. When day broke on the 27th —Majuba Day—Cronje surrendered his entire command.
One witness gave very precise numbers for the haul of prisoners captured:
‘2,507 Free Staters and 1,141 Transvaalers, exclusive of the wounded, doctors, and commissaries. The total number surrendering was 4,027. There were very few horses indeed alive, no cattle at all and 120 wagons uninjured, beside a number partially burnt or damaged. The four 12½-pounder Krupps were all without breech pieces, the one Maxim disabled, but the pom-pom was sound except for the water-jacket, which was penetrated and rendered incapable of rapid firing. There were between six and seven thousand Mausers (a large quantity had also been destroyed in the burning wagons)[xlvii] and over a million rounds of ammunition.’[xlviii]
Paardeberg was the most devastating defeat of the war, and would not have happened without the dash and dynamism of the Cavalry Division. Even Erskine Childers was forced to concede that, when tasked to block Cronje’s escape from the Magersfontein position, French’s small force[xlix] ‘performed this mission with skill, tenacity and complete success, using fire-tactics and bluff to impose upon a force nearly four times their superior’[l]—which rather suggests that the marksmanship and training of the cavalry were up to scratch, and that their carbines, though by no means as good as rifles, were clearly far from useless.
Though they continued to do good work as the war slipped into the guerrilla phase, the relief of Kimberley and the capture of Cronje’s force at Paardeberg was the cavalry’s finest hour of the conflict. Could MI have done the job just as well? We shall never know, but it is unlikely they would have charged through at Klip Drift in the way the cavalry did, and more probable they would have dismounted to engage the Boers with their rifles – turning a swift, dynamic, irresistible thrust into a slow and steady skirmish action, and giving plenty of time for the republicans to react.
And in the many situations when charges with cold steel were not appropriate, even their fiercest critic conceded that the cavalry had adapted to the new type of warfare very quickly:
‘Textbook regulations as to the duties appropriate to different categories of mounted troops vanish like smoke under the irresistible logic of experience. There soon ceases to be any practical field distinction between regular Cavalry and regular Mounted Infantry. Both alike must do the same duties, alike relying on the union of the firearm and the horse.’[li]
The cavalry continued to adapt throughout the war; when the Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons) arrived in South Africa, their first move was to dye their famous grey horses less distinctive browns and greens,[lii] which must have made for a rather incongruous sight. The Lancer regiments had begun the war armed with their traditional weapons, as indeed had the front-rank men of other, sabre-armed, cavalry regiments. After a few months, however, this cumbersome cold steel had largely been substituted with rifles or carbines.[liii] The switch became official in October 1900, with Kitchener’s order adding: ‘The rifle will henceforth be considered the cavalry soldier’s principal weapon.’[liv] When the colonel of the 5th Lancers complained, he was informed his men could either keep their lances and remain in camp, or abandon the weapon and stay in action. One should not be too quick to dismiss the colonel as a stick-in-the-mud reactionary, however, as he may well have had a point—several other officers, including Sir John French, observed that the Boers held a deep dread of lances, and their removal from service seems to have been received with relief by the bittereinders.
The debate about the future of the cavalry continued after the Boer War, but even as forward a thinking an officer as Major (by then, Brigadier) Rimington extolled the virtues of lances at the post-war Royal Commission, stressing how ‘formidable’ a row of charging lancers look to the enemy, while Major General Brabazon somewhat bizarrely recommended a switch to ‘battleaxes or tomahawks’. Interestingly, after being withdrawn during the Boer War, the lance was re-introduced in 1909 and was thus used in the opening battles of the Great War. Indeed, the late Professor Richard Holmes notes that the cavalry – thanks, in part, to ‘the cavalry spirit’ – performed very well in the Retreat from Mons in 1914, and then – fighting dismounted – in the Battle of First Ypres[lv].
The start of the 20th Century was undoubtedly a period of great change in warfare and the end of the era for traditional cavalry was certainly looming large. Until the advent of the armoured car, however, mounted troops remained the fastest moving units on the battlefield, and thus they remained essential for tasks such as covering flanks, reconnaissance, exploitation and pursuit.
It is easy to mock supposedly outmoded weapons and tactics with the benefit of over a hundred years’ worth of hindsight, but also one must admit the cavalry were nevertheless highly effective units and that they played a major part in the British victory in South Africa. To say they were worthless and outdated on the strength of their only performing a handful of significant charges ignores everything else they brought to the table, and also the reality of what the war became: a protracted guerrilla war against an elusive foe was never likely to involve mass cavalry charges of yore. A modern equivalent to this argument would be to say the days of the Main Battle Tank are over because we haven’t fought mass, El Alamein-style, tank actions against the Taliban, or the days of the RAF are over as it hasn’t engaged in Battle of Britain-style dog fights with an ISIS air force. The charge was just one of the strings of the cavalry’s bow and one should not be blinded by it: no one would consider that the infantry were pointless because they only mounted the occasional bayonet charge.
It is also fallacious to insinuate that the British cavalry were some sort of amusing anachronism at the time. A comparison with the French army is enlightening; one may contrast the pragmatism adopted by British cavalry units even prior to the Boer War to the fact that the French army began the First World War with twelve regiments of cuirassiers—sword-armed horsemen who rode into battle wearing metal breast plates and plumed helmets like knights of old.[lvi]
It should also be remembered that, despite the stereotypical images of mud, trenches and massed machine guns, the Great War saw numerous successful ‘old fashioned’ cavalry charges. While the US cavalry finally dropped the sabre in 1934, many nations, including Poland, Japan, Italy,[lvii] and the USSR, all fielded sizable numbers of sabre-armed cavalry during the Second World War.
[i] Robert Erskine Childers DSC (1870–1922), born in London, Childers joined the City Imperial Volunteers shortly after the Boer War began, and saw a limited amount of service in South Africa. He would later famously write ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, a novel which warned about German militarism prior to the Great War, before turning against the land of his birth and becoming an extremist Irish Nationalist. He was executed by firing squad during the Irish Civil War. He is not to be confused with Hugh Childers, of the Childers Reforms
[ii] Childers served as a gunner with the CIV
[iii] The author was taught bayonet fighting in the British army of the 1990s—a seemingly long-redundant skill, but one which was widely considered to promote aggression and a fighting spirit
[iv] Childers, War and the Arm Blanche, p. 21
[v] Childers, War and the Arm Blanche, p. 51
[vi] Grierson, Scarlet into Khaki, p. 179
[vii] Grierson, Scarlet into Khaki, p. 180
[viii] Childers, War and the Arm Blanche, p. 22
[ix] Grierson, Scarlet into Khaki, p. 146
[x] As noted earlier, as well as vastly increased defensive fire, one of the factors which limited cavalry charges in Europe was the increased use of fences and of built up areas being more commonplace than in the past. This was less of a factor in South Africa, but it only took a few well-placed strands of wire to prevent a charge even being attempted
[xi] Later, Field Marshal John Denton Pinkstone French, 1st Earl or Ypres, KP, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCMG, ADC, PC, (1852-1925). Though born in Kent, French was from one of the many Anglo-Irish families which dominated the high command of the British army of the period. He initially joined the Royal Navy, before transferring to the army in 1870. Prior to the Boer War, French had seen service in the Gordon Relief Expedition of 1884. After the Boer War, he would go on to serve as Chief of the Imperial General Staff before being forced to resign due to his support for the Ulster Protestants in the Irish Home Rule debates. He would nevertheless command the BEF at the start of the Great War
[xii] Later Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE (1861-1928). Haig would later command the BEF to victory in the Great War and die a national hero. He was later reinvented as a buffoon / butcher by various self-loathing leftwing academics in the 1960s
[xiii] Childers, War and the Arm Blanche, p. 88
[xiv] Childers, War and the Arm Blanche, p. 87
[xv] Rather astoundingly, and disregarding all the available evidence, at one talk I gave, I was assured by one gentleman that the Boers ‘gave French such a bloody nose [during the fighting on the Central Front], that the British had to withdraw him and give him the command of the Cavalry Division’. A strange reward for getting ‘a bloody nose’, I would suggest, it was yet another example of twisting the facts to suit the myth
[xvi]Maurice, Vol. 1, p. 435
[xvii]Maurice, Vol. 1, p. 448
[xviii] Maurice, Vol. 1, p. 437
[xix]Holmes, p. 87
[xx]An irregular corps of scouts raised by Major Rimington
[xxi]Selby, p. 167
[xxii] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 74
[xxiii]Holmes, p. 89
[xxiv] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 80
[xxv]Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 17
[xxvi]Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 23
[xxvii]Sternberg & Henderson, p. 159
[xxviii]Holmes, p. 90
[xxix] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 86
[xxx] The Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 1816–1919, Volume 4, p. 135
[xxxi]Holmes, p. 91
[xxxii] The Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 1816–1919, Volume 4, p. 135
[xxxiii] Selby, p. 173
[xxxiv]Maurice & Grant, Vol. 3, p. 394
[xxxv]Carver, p. 95
[xxxvi] Mead, The Good Soldier, p. 115
[xxxvii]Lane, p. 98
[xxxviii] Selby, p. 174
[xxxix]Holmes, p. 93
[xl] Selby, p. 175
[xli]Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 79
[xlii]Holmes, p. 95
[xliii]Colvile, p. 42
[xliv] Selby, p. 185
[xlv] Fuller, The Last of the Gentleman’s Wars, p. 6
[xlvi]Selby, p. 181
[xlvii] Almost twice as many rifles as burghers—one is left to ponder who all the ‘extras’ were intended for?
[xlviii] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 98
[xlix] With the horses of the Cavalry Division exhausted after relieving Kimberley, French could only scrape together 1500 troopers and two batteries of RHA guns to block Cronje’s retreat
[l] Childers, War and the Arm Blanche, p. 117
[li] Childers, War and the Arm Blanche, p. 168
[lii] Stevens, p. 378
[liii] Wilson, p. 79
[liv] Jones, S., p. 174
[lv] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French
[lvi] Delperier, Louis, Les Cuirassiers 1845–1918, p. 60–70
[lvii] In August 1942 on the Russian Front, a 700-strong, sabre-armed Italian cavalry regiment successfully charged and shattered a much larger Soviet force near the village of Isbuscenskij. This is often claimed to have been the last true cavalry charge—though there are many rival claimants for this accolade