I recently enjoyed an entertaining exchange of view with an entertainingly fanatical True Believer / Defender of the Myth, so I thought it might be interesting to explore the mindset of one who adopts such a position. Why, for example, do such people feel the need to passionately defend Kruger’s regime – a regime even more racist and unpleasant than the later Apartheid government? What is it about their psyche that makes it so vital for them to pretend that the Boers were the innocent victims of the piece? And why is it so important to them to passionately (if ludicrously) claim that every single Boer defeat was actually a stunning victory?
We shall probably never know the answers to these questions, but let’s try and unpack some of the rubbish this particular True Believer spewed out. We shall see how – in his bizarre world view – every Boer defeat was actually a victory, every British victory was secretly a defeat, and sieges which fail to take towns (not to mention invasions which are stopped, fizzle out, and are driven back from whence they came) are nevertheless still somehow completely successful… but only when the Boers do them.
Anyway, our latest discussion (which alas, has ended after he threw a tantrum and stormed off, possibly to attend an AWB rally) occurred after this chap decided to try and convince me that the Boers thrashed the pants off the British in every single engagement of the war. To support his point, he rather foolishly decided to use the examples of Modder River, and the Sieges of Ladysmith, Mafeking and ‘Kimberly’ (as he insisted on spelling it) – which was more than little peculiar.
When I pointed out to him that – given that the Boers were defeated at Modder River (after previous defeats at Belmont and Graspan), and lost all three sieges – these were perhaps not the best examples he could have used, this lit the blue touch paper, and off he went in full (and highly entertaining) Defender-of-the-Myth-mode.
Scarcely able to control himself, this fellow stated he couldn’t believe that I would mention Belmont, Graspan and Modder River as, in his strange interpretation of events, these were actually all stunning Boer victories. To ‘prove’ this, he claimed that the Boers ‘retreated undefeated’ from their positions, and then squealingly proclaimed that Belmont can only have been a British defeat, as it didn’t raise the siege of Kimberley.
So, before we move on to the rest of his nonsense, let’s examine these lunatic claims.
The map below the battles fought as Lord Methuen’s Division fought their way towards Kimberley. Belmont is in the bottom left corner:
Around 2,000 Boers had taken up a blocking position near Belmont Station and were driven from these defenses by Lord Methuen’s Division. To a True Believer like this buffoon, however, being driven from these defences was all part of a cunning masterplan, this despite the following:
Methuen’s cavalry strength was insufficient for a proper pursuit, but Imperial mounted troops nonetheless managed to capture a laager that had been abandoned in the panic:
‘It seemed evident, from the number of wagons and the amount of clothing and stores left behind and littered in every direction, that the Boers had not expected to be shifted nearly so suddenly as they were. There were heaps of provisions, quantities of coffee tied up in small bags, sugar, rice, biltong … there were waggons loaded, or half-loaded, with old chests and boxes, and many heaped about the ground … we also found a lot of abandoned ammunition, shell and Mauser.’[i]
As well as 50 prisoners, the haul was over 100 horses, 64 wagons, sizable amounts of ammunition, and large herds of sheep and cattle with forage.[ii]
As for his lunatic claim that Belmont was a British defeat as ‘the Siege of Kimberley was not raised as a result’, this ignores the inconvenient fact that Belmont was fought some 50 miles from Kimberley. What possible result at Belmont, one wonders, would have meant that the Siege of Kimberley would have been ended? Even had the entire Boer blocking force at Belmont been killed – without a single Tommy being even injured – the Siege of Kimberley would not have automatically been raised.
Belmont was just one of a series of battles fought by Lord Methuen’s Division in the campaign to relieve Kimberley. His men fought their way north, breaking through republican positions first at Belmont, and then, a few days later at Graspan, and then again at Modder River. To pretend that any of these battles were not victories because they did not prompt the instant relief of Kimberley is every bit as farcical as saying the Russians lost the Battle of Kursk because it didn’t result in the immediate capture of Berlin. Such are the pathetic and embarrassing mental gymnastics the Defenders of the Myth have to indulge in to keep their self-pitying fantasies alive.
The next bit of ‘logic’ my increasingly frazzled correspondent treated us to was that Modder River was a British defeat because:
‘Field Marshal von Paulus surrendered at Leningrad. The Russians won because the Germans surrendered. Methuen did not win at the Modder because Cronje did not surrender (as he later surrendered at Paardeberg). The Enemy did not ‘run away’, but withdrew to a pre-determined position (Magersfontein)’.
There is so much wrong with this statement, that one struggles to believe he was serious (or sober?) when he frantically tapped it out.
For a start, Paulus (not ‘von’ Paulus) surrendered the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, not Leningrad, but we have long known that historical reality is of little importance to Defenders of the Myth.
Secondly, the Boers at Modder River did indeed run away[iii] – the British 9th Infantry Brigade turned the Boer right flank (ie, the British left), forded the river, and put the Free State contingent on that flank to flight[iv].
Thirdly, Magersfontein was not a ‘pre-determined position’ at all. In reality, after being driven from their positions at Modder River, the Boers withdrew to Spytfontein, some way to the north, and started to dig in there. It was only after much cajoling by De la Rey that General Cronjé was eventually persuaded to leave Spytfontein and instead defend the Magersfontein position: work to dig-in there only started on the 4th
of December – some 6 days after Modder River.
And lastly, and most ludicrously, the notion that a battle is only a defeat if the enemy force surrenders is complete and utter rubbish. If this, made-up, standard was indeed the case, then the British were not defeated at either Colenso or Magersfontein – who knew!? Indeed, by these standards, Magersfontein was actually a crushing victory for Lord Methuen, and General Buller romped home to victory a few days later at Colenso! … oh wait, no – maybe the lies and nonsense of the True Believers only apply to Boer defeats?
My correspondent’s strange, self-pitying, revisionism also extended to Siege warfare. He proudly asserted that, rather than all three of the famous Boer War sieges being utterly fruitless and ending in Boer defeat, they – like every single battle of the war, apparently – were actually yet more evidence of Boer brilliance, and can be held up as shining examples of this. The ‘logic’ (if one can call it that) he provides for this declaration was that:
‘The Boers did not have the European approach to sieges. They did not see it as necessary to ‘take’ the towns. Actually, such investments were a convenient way to hold hostile forces down while they operated freely throughout the territory. It would be more useful in modern terms to consider them prison camps which the inmates ran (& provisioned) themselves.’
Though spouting such rubbish clearly helps him feel better about himself, it is obviously completely at odds with the facts. If one takes Mafeking, for example, the Boers initially committed some 6,000 – 8,000 men (with ten guns) to capture the town. Aside from Baden-Powell and a handful of officers, there were no regular British troops in Mafeking, and the town was instead defended by the men of the hastily-raised Protectorate Regiment, some BSAP mounted police and a town guard – only perhaps 1,000 men in total, many of whom were auxiliaries. Though the republican besieging forces dwindled as the war went on, the notion that it was a work of strategic genius to use over 6,000 Boers to ‘imprison’ just 1,000 Imperial troops is ridiculous.
Seeking to excuse their abject failure to capture Ladysmith, Mafeking or Kimberley, my correspondent claims that the Boers didn’t really want to take the besieged towns – but this self-serving nonsense is torpedoed by the fact that they made several attempts to storm them. For example, Joubert was fearful of continuing the invasion of Natal leaving a sizable Imperial force intact at Ladysmith, and so the Boers endeavoured to rush the town on the 9th of November 1899:
‘The assaulting republicans learned the hard way that occupying trenches and sniping from hilltops is a great deal easier than advancing over open ground and storming prepared positions, and they suffered heavily. Though this cannot be verified and is probably an extreme exaggeration, several hundred were reported killed against British losses for the day of just thirty killed and wounded. It is certainly infeasible that their losses were not ‘very much more severe’ than those of the defending khakis. To make matters worse, many burghers simply decided not to join the attack in the first place,[v] leading to the usual recriminations, accusations and counter-accusations. Once again, the federals had proved that they were a highly individualistic bunch with little or no semblance of military discipline. This flaw was less evident when they were fighting from defensive positions, but was cruelly exposed whenever they were called upon to advance to contact’.
After spending two months licking their wounds, and despite the wild claims of this most crazed of True Believers, the Boers tried again on the 6th of January, 1900, when they attempted to storm the Imperial positions on the ridge to the south of the town:
‘A bombardment was unleashed on all parts of the perimeter and in an action now known as either ‘Caesar’s Camp’ or ‘Wagon Hill’, 4,000 Boers (2,000 from each republic) were tasked with storming Imperial positions on the southern defences of the town. Though the assault was pressed with vigour and courage at that point of the perimeter, the overall plan was poorly coordinated with many Boers simply refusing to take part, or doing so very half-heartedly. A diversionary attack on Observation Hill was quickly broken up, with the Boers, including young Deneys Reitz, fleeing in confusion[vi] and leaving a score of dead in front of the Imperial trenches. On the main objective of Bester’s Ridge, however, the fighting raged all day’.
The action only ended that evening when the assaulting Boers were finally routed by a bayonet charge delivered by three companies of the Devons. There is no doubt they had suffered terribly in their failed attempt to take the town:
‘Though it is, as usual, difficult to determine the accurate casualty figures suffered by the Boers during the action, the Standard and Diggers News later devoted six full length columns to listing the federal killed and wounded.[vii] Whatever the exact number, there can be little doubt the republicans suffered dreadfully at Wagon Hill, with the cream of the besiegers wiped out. After the battle, the British assisted the Boers to recover their dead who had been left behind, ‘as each succeeding hero was brought down—they were heroes—the Boers wrung their hands and owned that we had killed their best.’[viii]
Quite how this inconvenient reality fits with the fantasy that the Boers ‘never wanted to capture the town’ is not explained by my True Believer friend, and nor could it be… as he simply pulled it out of his arse.
Which brings us to my correspondent’s last nonsensical assertion: that the Boer invasions of British territory were successful, because they captured a bit of Imperial territory before getting kicked out a few months later. By this standard, the German invasion of the USSR in WW2 was a stunning success; just like the Boers some 40 years earlier, they also grabbed a sizable chunk of someone else’s territory before they were fought to a standstill and, a couple of years later, driven back over the border into their own country. So, if the Boer invasions were – in the fevered mind of a Defender of the Myth – successful, then the German invasion of the USSR must have been one of the greatest successes in history? Funny that no one else seems to view it in that way.
Using ‘the True Believer method’, we have already ‘proven’ that Colenso and Magersfontein were – in spite of all logic and evidence to the contrary – actually British victories, so I thought it might be fun to apply the same nonsensical standards to some battles of WW2. By applying ‘the True Believer method’ to them too, we can prove beyond all doubt that military historians have been wrong for decades!
For example, El Alamein might be foolishly regarded as the first great British land victory over the Germans in WW2, but ‘the True Believer method’ proves otherwise, as it was actually a brilliant GERMAN victory! You see, the Germans didn’t actually want to hold their positions, they weren’t all captured, and the ‘pre-determined plan’ had always been to flee to Tunisia – therefore, it was actually a cut-and-dried German victory! Incredible!
D-Day is considered by some naïve types to have been a hugely successful series of landings on the coast of Normandy, but it was – according to ‘the True Believer method’ – actually a crushing GERMAN victory! Don’t you see? The Allies didn’t take Berlin that day, so it was a huge and undeniable victory for the Wehrmacht!
Even those who have studied WW2 for years still labour under the misconception that the Siege of Leningrad was an abject defeat for Germany… but all you have to do is apply ‘the True Believer method’, and it is miraculously transformed into a stunning victory for Hitler’s Army Group North! Sure, the Germans never actually took the City… despite spending years bombarding it, trying to starve the inhabitants into submission, and fruitlessly storming it… but what most people don’t know is that this was all part of the plan – you see, they didn’t WANT to capture it, so, once again, it was actually a massive GERMAN victory!
Of course, it is easy to perpetuate notions of Boer invincibility and British ineptitude when you simply make things up, and apply utterly nonsensical standards; that way, even the most blatant of Boer defeats can be magically transformed into a crushing victory, and all British victories can (however ludicrously) be reinvented as devastating defeats. Facts, logic and history count for nothing with these people: all that matters is that the myths are preserved, so the True Believers can sleep soundly at night, wrapped in their cosy comfort blankets of delusion.
Quite why they need the emotion crutch which ignoring historical reality provides is beyond me, and perhaps one for a trained psychologist.
[i] Phillips, A Tiger on Horseback: The Experiences of a Trooper and Officer of Rimington’s Guides—The Tigers During the Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902, p. 24
[ii] Danes, Cassell’s History of the Boer War, 1899–1902, Vol. 1, p. 240
[iii] Miller, Lord Methuen and the British Army, p. 110
[iv] Selby, The Boer War: A Study in Cowardice and Courage, p. 95
[v] Chalmers, Bombardment of Ladysmith Anticipated, p. 58
[vi] Selby, The Boer War: A Study in Cowardice and Courage, p. 135
[vii] Jacson, The Record of a Regiment of the Line, p. 76
[viii] Sharp, The Siege of Ladysmith, p. 67