Counter Offensives: 1900 and 2023

All the talk from Ukraine at the moment is of the much anticipated ‘Counter Offensive’. Back in 1900, the Boers found themselves in a similar position to that of Putin’s invading Russians today; a few months earlier, the Boer republics (with spectacular stupidity) attacked and invaded British territory, but – just like the Russians in Ukraine – had quickly been fought to a standstill, their pre-war arrogance, boasts of swimming in the Indian Ocean, and claims of martial brilliance all exposed as so much hot air. Kruger must also have been rather miffed that the Almighty of the Old Testament had not shown up in support as expected, and thus no thunderbolts had been flung at the Imperial troops.

The parallels with Ukraine in 2023 continue: with Kruger’s invasions defeated and halted on all fronts, and with Imperial forces pouring into the theatre, attention turned to when and where the British army would launch their counter-offensive to drive the invaders out, and end the war.

It is not surprising that the republicans had held the initiative for the first few months of the war: their superiority in numbers and mobility had left the Imperial forces dancing to their tune and, largely, fighting battles where it suited the Boers to fight them. With the arrival of Lord Roberts, however, this changed. The day after he disembarked in Cape Town, Roberts sent the following telegram to Lord Methuen, who was in command on the Western Front:

‘I have come to the conclusion that I must ask you to act strictly on the defensive, and as it may be even necessary for me to withdraw a portion of your force, you should consider how your line of entrenchments could be sufficiently reduced to enable you to hold the position with two, instead of three, brigades, and possibly with one or two batteries and one regiment of cavalry less than you have at present. Your request for four of the siege 4.7-in. guns will be complied with, and when these reach you, you will doubtless be able to make your position practically impregnable.’[1]

There would be no more piecemeal attacks or half-baked attempts to break through the Boer defences: Roberts would spend the next month planning and preparing for his attack, and doing so in complete secrecy. Just like the Ukrainians today, the operational security around Roberts’ counter-offensive was impressive, with the invaders left clueless as to the position of fresh formations, and where the counter-stoke(s) would be made.

Roberts’ preparations were undetected (or simply disregarded) by a complacent enemy, and an enormous stockpile of supplies was gathered near Graspan, ready to support a thrust toward Kimberley. By use of clever troop movements and the issuing of false orders which he knew would be intercepted, Roberts convinced the Boers that his offensive, when it came, would be on the Central Front around Colesberg, not in the west, or Natal. 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 Colesberg. Though de Wet refused, railway records later showed that 1,500 burghers were redeployed to the central front between 25 January and 8 February 1900.[2] From 28 January to 12 February, however, Roberts was assembling his forces at the Graspan camp, not in front of Colesberg.

As the Ukrainians today have spent time to raise, equip, and train new formations for their counter-offensive, Roberts also ensured he had a reasonable number of Imperial troops in theatre before pulling the pin. A colonial division was raised from South African loyalists and more regular infantry units were converted to mounted infantry. More artillery was arriving at the front, and ammunition stocks were increased. After the surprise of facing them in Boer hands, forty-nine Vickers-Maxim pom-poms had been bought and rushed to South Africa. Roberts also overhauled the transport system and set about reorganizing the running of the railways.[3]

General French was summoned by Roberts to command a cavalry division comprising three cavalry and two mounted infantry brigades.[4] It is worth noting that, while moving up to join the division and long before the descent into guerrilla war, men of the 1st MI Brigade (under Colonel Hannay) were given a reminder of the sort of enemy they were fighting; a Boer in ‘clerical dress’ led some of his troops down to a water source—and straight into an ambush.[5]

In addition to the mounted troops, there were also two infantry divisions available: the 6th under Kelly-Kenny and the 7th (Tucker), with a third, the 9th (Colvile), being formed.[6] Including Methuen’s 1st Infantry Division[7] (comprising the Guards and the 9th Infantry brigades) which was left to screen the Magersfontein defences and thus would not play an active part in the offensive, the total force was about 40,000 strong. Cronje remained blissfully unaware of all this as he sat at Magersfontein, cheerfully convinced that his men could repulse any frontal assault. Despite the modern take on the conflict, however, the force Roberts commanded was by no means overwhelming; indeed, on 4 February, Roberts sent a telegram to the War Office, to point out the continuing paucity of forces available in South Africa.[8]

As well as reorganizing his command, establishing a supply depot and deceiving the enemy regarding where his knockout blow would be delivered, Roberts took the time to reinforce the lessons of the conflict thus far. Various ‘Notes for Guidance in South African Warfare’ were issued for each of the fighting arms:

As it is desirable that full advantage should be taken of the experience gained during the past three months by our troops in South Africa, the following notes are issued for the guidance of all who may find themselves in command of a force (large or small) on service in the field. We have to deal with an enemy possessing remarkable mobility, intimately acquainted with the country, thoroughly understanding how to take advantage of ground, adept in improvising cover, and most skilful in the use of their weapons.

Against such an enemy any attempt to take a position by direct attack will assuredly fail. The only hope of success lies in being able to turn one or both flanks, or what would, in many instances, be equally effective, to threaten to cut the enemy’s line of communication. Before any plan of attack can be decided upon, the position must be carefully examined by reconnoitring parties, and every endeavour must be made to obtain all possible information about it from the people of the country. It must, however, be remembered that the position ostensibly occupied is not always the one the Boers intend to defend; it is often merely a decoy, a stronger position in the vicinity having previously been prepared upon which they move rapidly, and from which they can frequently bring a destructive fire to bear upon the attacking line. Their marvellous mobility enables them to do this without much risk to themselves, and also to be in strength at any point of the position that may be seriously threatened.

It follows, therefore, that our object should be to cripple the mobility of the Boers, and to effect this, next to inflicting heavy losses on the men themselves, the surest means would be the capture or destruction of their horses. When the extreme rifle range from the position is reached (1,500 to 1,800 yards) by the advance troops, or before, if they find themselves under artillery fire, all column formations must be given up, and, when advancing to the attack of the position infantry must be freely extended, even on occasions, if necessary, to six or eight paces, the front and both flanks being well covered with scouts. This extended formation will throw increased responsibility on battalion and company commanders. The objective aimed at, therefore, should be carefully explained to them. They should be allowed to make use of any opportunity that may offer to further the scheme, on the distinct understanding that no isolated acts are attempted, such as might endanger the general plan. During the attack commanding officers must be careful not to lose touch with the troops on their right and left, and they should, as far as possible, ensure their co-operation. Every advantage should be taken of cover, and battalion and company commanders should look out for and occupy positions from which they would be able to bring an enfilading fire to bear upon the enemy. The capacity of these officers will be judged by the initiative displayed in seizing rapidly every opportunity to further the general scheme of attack.

An essential point, and one which must never be lost sight of, is the power of endurance of the infantry soldier. If infantry soldiers (carrying as they do a considerable weight on their backs) are called upon to march a longer distance than can reasonably be expected from men in a normal state of health, or if they are injudiciously pressed as regards the pace, they will necessarily commence to feel the strain before they reach a point where their best energies are required to surmount the difficulties which lie before them. If at such a period a man feels exhausted, moral deterioration and the consequences to our arms which such deterioration entails, must readily supervene.[9]

It is difficult to think that this was anything other than eminently sensible. The gunners and mounted troops got similarly good advice:

As a general rule the artillery appear to have adapted themselves to the situation, and to the special conditions which present themselves in a campaign in South Africa. The following points, however, require to be noticed:

  1. At the commencement of an action artillery should not be ordered to take up a position until it has been ascertained by scouts to be clear of the enemy and out of range of infantry fire.
  2. When it is intended to take a position with infantry the preparation by artillery should be thorough and not spasmodic. Unless a strong force of infantry is pushed within 900 yards of the position, the enemy will not occupy his trenches and the guns will have no target. It is a mere waste of ammunition also to bombard an entrenchment when the infantry attack is likely to be delayed, even for a short time. To be of real value the fire of the guns should be continuous until the assault is about to be delivered.
  3. The expenditure of ammunition is a matter which can only be regulated by the circumstances of the moment; officers commanding should, however, always bear in mind that the supply of artillery ammunition in the field is necessarily limited.
  4. It is of great importance that artillery horses should be kept fit for any special effort. They are not easily replaced, and it is the duty of artillery officers to represent to the commander of the column whenever they consider that their horses are being unduly worked, as regards either pace or distance.


Similarly with cavalry horses. Every endeavour should be made to save them 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.[10]

Many other communications followed, detailing such things as how infantry should take the opportunity to dig in whenever they could, suggesting methods of improving ammunition supply to the forward troops, and addressing the problem of how to retain ‘grip’ of troops advancing in the newly adopted, ultra-extended order. Roberts was not a man to leave anything to chance.

Motivated by their various self-pitying agendas, some prefer to claim that the British only won because they massively outnumbered the Boers, but this is simply not the case. The outnumbered garrisons of Natal and the Cape Colony had checked the Boer invasions and indeed even driven them back. It was only in early February that Roberts had collected and organized a large enough force to mount a determined offensive. Most importantly, Roberts finally had enough mounted troops and transport to allow him to leave the critical railway lines. Nevertheless, the numbers of Imperial troops were in no way overwhelming: far from Roberts having the ‘half a million’ British troops many claim today, total Imperial forces in southern Africa (including those bottled up in Kimberley and Ladysmith) at the beginning of Roberts’ counter-offensive were only around 90,000[11] with some of these units still forming. Talk of ‘divisions’ and ‘brigades’ is also misleading. On paper, for example, French’s Cavalry Division should have boasted 8,500 horsemen: in the event, he only had 4,000 and seven batteries of horse artillery.[12]

The shortage of water was another huge problem for Roberts. The Orange Free State in mid-summer is a hot and dusty place, and the lack of water would force the British to keep their units well-spaced as they advanced, which went a long way to negating any numerical advantage.

On 11 February Roberts’ great flanking move began as—led by the slouch-hatted troopers of Rimington’s Tigers—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.[13] The plan called for the 6th and 7th Infantry divisions (the 9th Division would join the advance when it had finished forming) to follow the cavalry at intervals and hold these drifts while the cavalry 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 Cavalry Division encountered, French instead 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.’[14]

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.[15]

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 perception 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.’[16]

As the Cavalry Division paused to await the arrival of the infantry which 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[17] which unsurprisingly de Wet proved completely unable to do. He sent a panic-stricken message to Cronje, informing his commander that French’s force was 40,000–50,000 strong. De Wet, who had the benefit of writing his own 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.[18] 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 Count Sternberg that the British forces threatening his flank were ‘only cavalry—who we shoot and capture’.[19] Despite the much-vaunted mobility of the Boer commandos, Cronje showed no inclination to leave his fortifications on the Magersfontein ridge and so 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 artillery engaged the Boer 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 artillery of Kelly-Kenny’s newly arrived 6th Infantry Division.[20] 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 who witnessed it 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.’[21]

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 Boer 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.’[22]

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,[23] 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.[24] Nevertheless, the way to Kimberley lay open, and that evening French rode into town to be met by the mayor.[25] 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 saying:

‘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.’[26]

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.’[27]

Technically, as many 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 determination, it might all have ended differently. In a letter to Colonel Lonsdale Hale, Haig—who was quick to criticize a lack of reconnaissance by others—admitted, it was 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’.[28] 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 (ahem) ‘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 pull back from the Magersfontein fortifications and 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; and the horses were not sacrificed in vain.

Cronje’s reaction to this coup de main was a mixture of disbelief and panic, and when his military adviser Colonel Villebois-Mareuil (a highly decorated French mercenary officer, often known simply as ‘the French Colonel’) advocated a counter-attack to let the majority of his force escape, he rejected this.[29] 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,[30] de Wet instead contented himself with attacking a supply column at Waterval Drift.[31] 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.[32] The republican garrison was driven out of Jacobsdal[33] 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, nevertheless, harried by Imperial mounted infantry all the way. 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.[34] 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 enough 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.’[35]

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 attack which ended in predictable and costly failure. While Kitchener’s determination to assault Cronje’s position at Paardeberg seems peculiar, it must be compared to the dithering and indecision that marked other battles. Kitchener 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 to order that the Boers entrenchments should be bombarded by artillery directed by an observer up in a balloon.[36] 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. It is often 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.[37]

An attempt by de Wet to break through to Cronje on the 21st was driven off by French’s cavalry. Another led by Commandant Steyn was broken up by the 81st Battery, RA. So heavy was the bombardment that Steyn was forced to abandon his guns, only recovering them after nightfall.[38] 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)
[39] and over a million rounds of ammunition.’[40]

And even as Roberts was smashing and encircling the republican forces that had attempted to invade the Cape, there was also no respite for the invaders of Natal. On the 14th of February – just three days after Roberts’ great flanking move commenced in the west – the much-maligned Buller unleashed his troops to fight the Battle of the Tugela Heights to the south of Ladysmith. Over the course of the next fortnight, and in actions more akin to those of the Great War than a Colonial War, Buller steadily and inexorably drove Botha’s invasion forces from position after position, relieving Ladysmith on 27 February.

I have my doubts, but we can only hope that the Ukrainian Counter Offensive is as successful as the British one was, and that the invading Russians are driven out just as decisively as the invading Boers were.


[1] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol. 1, p. 433

[2] Ibid, p. 435

[3] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, p. 82

[4] 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, and just yet another example of twisting the facts to suit the myth.

[5] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 73

[6] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol. 1, p. 437

[7] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, p. 85

[8] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol. 1, p. 443

[9] Ibid, p. 445

[10] Ibid, p. 448

[11] Ibid, p. 443

[12] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, p. 87

[13] Selby, The Boer War: A study in cowardice and courage, p. 167

[14] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 74

[15] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, p. 89

[16] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 80

[17] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol. 2, p. 17

[18] Ibid, p. 23

[19] Sternberg & Henderson, My Experiences of the Boer War, p. 159

[20] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, p. 90

[21] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 86

[22] The Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 18161919, Volume 4, p. 135

[23] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, p. 91

[24] The Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 18161919, Volume 4, p. 135

[25] Selby, The Boer War: A study in cowardice and courage, p. 173

[26] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol. 3, p. 394

[27] Carver, The National Army Museum Book of the Boer War, p. 95

[28] Mead, The Good Soldier, p. 115

[29] Lane, The War Diary of Burgher Jack Lane, 1899‒1900, p. 98

[30] Selby, The Boer War: A study in cowardice and courage, p. 174

[31] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, p. 93

[32] Selby, The Boer War: A study in cowardice and courage, p. 175

[33] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol. 2, p. 79

[34] Holmes, The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French, p. 95

[35] Colvile, The Work of the Ninth Division, p. 42

[36] Selby, The Boer War: A study in cowardice and courage, p. 185

[37] Fuller, The Last of the Gentleman’s Wars, p. 6

[38] Selby, The Boer War: A study in cowardice and courage, p. 181

[39] Almost twice as many rifles as burghers—one is left to ponder who all the ‘extras’ were intended for. The whole ‘defensive invasion’ / ‘poor, innocent victims of British aggression’ myths so favoured by certain South African ‘academics’ really do look utterly ridiculous as soon as one scratches the surface

[40] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 98

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