‘The highest form of Generalship…’

A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.
– George Orwell

The lingering impact of National Party propaganda still convinces a lot of people that, despite being untrained gifted amateurs, the republican Generals of the Boer War proved to be a class above the ‘bumbling arrogant fools’ who commanded HM Forces. Like most of the much-cherished Apartheid-era myths, these boasts have been repeated so relentlessly that few bother to even query them… though the fact that these ‘unbeatable’ Boer Generals were, indeed, beaten, should give the rather more intelligent observer pause to question these self-congratulatory claims.

To explore this a little further, let us consider the Boer invasion of Natal in 1899. I have selected this particular campaign as it was the republican ‘main effort’, and fought at the very start of the conflict, commencing the moment that Kruger made his insane decision to declare war on the Greatest of the Great Powers of the Age. It was thus waged at a time when the republican forces held every advantage: in numbers, in mobility, in position, and in preparedness, so there can be none of the normal far-fetched excuses for Boer defeat[1]. Given that, and given how incredible the Boer Generals are always claimed to have been, the campaign should have been an absolute cakewalk… and yet the inconvenient reality (for the Defenders of the Myth, at least), is that the invasion quickly fizzled out, bogged down, and ended in complete failure.

To examine why the invasion was defeated, perhaps it is worth referring to the great Chinese Military Strategist, Sun Tzu[2], who made the following observation:

The highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans, the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field, and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

Apparently the translation to the word ‘baulk’ doesn’t quite convey the full meaning and emphasis of the original, but the concept is to always ‘frustrate / foil / upset’ the plans of the enemy, and implies constant aggression and counter-attacks, and the retention of the initiative. Anyway, and with the semantics out of the way, let’s take each of Sun Tzu’s four points in turn, and compare them to the unsuccessful Boer invasion of Natal.

Luckily for Kruger, the first point was largely irrelevant when he started the war, as – despite the Apartheid-era myths of Boer victimhood that some still gleefully wallow in today – Britain had no plans for war with the republics, and thus the republican Generals didn’t really have much to ‘baulk’. Few of those in command in Natal had taken the prospect of invasion seriously and, despite the Boers massing on the border, not even the most basic defensive steps had been made, and no Imperial units were deployed to hold Natal’s mountainous frontiers with the Transvaal and Orange Free State:

‘…no passes were mined, tunnels blocked or bridges blown up. The railway line was left intact.’[3]

The regimental historian of the Imperial Light Horse recorded this insanity:

‘The blunders were all part of the tragic lack of preparations for the campaign and the direct results of crying ‘Peace! Peace!’ when there was no peace.’[4]

As late as 22 September, Sir George White had a requisition for expenditure on transport refused[5] and, even as the Boers were streaming over the frontier, such was the sheer disbelief with which the invasion was greeted, that the incredulous troopers of the Natal Mounted Police were ordered not to fire on the invaders unless they were themselves fired upon.[6]

The 1903 Royal Commission into the Boer War highlighted this failing as one of its primary findings: quite simply, there was no plan in place for war with the Boers, let alone one to invade either of the republics. Furthermore, and as an editorial in The Spectator thundered in the August of that year, the post-war report was actually so damning as to be,

‘surely one of the most amazing documents to which a General can ever have had to sign his name. Not only had there been no preparation for the Boer War, but there had been no preparation for any war of any kind whatever. Every arrangement that was made seems to have been made on the supposition that the British nation, even three weeks before the Boer commandos marched into Natal, was about to enjoy the blessings of eternal peace.’

Indeed, even Kruger’s arch-cheerleader, the passionately anti-British Thomas Pakenham, begrudgingly admits this awkward truth. Desperate as always to keep the myths alive, however, and only after hundreds of pages where he disingenuously suggests the exact opposite, he buries the admission in ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ style.

We shall return to this point later, however.

With regard to the second point: the invading Boers completely failed to ‘prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces’. Despite the Imperial garrison of northern Natal being divided between Dundee and Ladysmith, the 8th Brigade managed to retreat south from the former town after defeating the invaders at the Battle of Talana Hill[7], and was thus able to concentrate with the main force at Ladysmith. This was achieved thanks to two more battles fought by troops of the Ladysmith garrison which successfully kept the invaders away from the retreating brigade[8]. For all the advantages they enjoyed in terms of numbers and mobility, the Boer commanders proved incapable of coordinating their forces and were unable to cut off and destroy the brigade. Furthermore – and perhaps understandably – their men were far more interested in enjoying a looting binge than facing the Tommies again[9].

Thirdly, as already mentioned, the Boers had been beaten in the field at Talana Hill, then again – even more convincingly – at Elandslaagte. A few days later, they were also thwarted in a well-fought holding action at Rietfontein. Though it gets little attention in many histories of the war, Joubert described the thrashing at Elandslaagte as: ‘a total defeat as great as has ever yet befallen the Afrikaner volk’.[10] In all three of these battles, it should also be noted that it had been the British who had attacked, thus it was they who had taken the decision whether or not they would fight the actions; even the later British defeat at Lombard’s Kop[11] was a failed attack. Again, Sun Tzu’s third option of ‘attacking the enemy in the field’ was therefore not acted upon by the (ahem) much-admired Boer Generals. On the contrary, one could argue that, even at that precarious point in the campaign, it was actually the commanders of the (significantly outnumbered) Imperial garrison who grasped the initiative at an operational level.

Sun Tzu’s fourth point is possibly the most interesting. Rather than pushing on and slicing deep into Natal to make the most of their advantage in numbers before Imperial reinforcements arrived, the Boer commanders instead surrendered their significant advantage in mobility, and tied up the bulk of their forces in the lengthy – and ultimately totally unsuccessful – Siege of Ladysmith[12]. While not literally a ‘walled city’, the ‘Aldershot of the South’ was nevertheless a well-garrisoned and stoutly-defended town, and proved far too tough a nut for the invaders to crack.

This should not be surprising; so sure was Sun Tzu that sieges were a bad idea, that he added the following supplemental advice on the topic, advice that Joubert et al really should have read:

The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more. The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.

Of course, mantlets[13] and the like were obsolete by the time of the Boer War, but the point is still well made: conducting a successful siege takes a long time, slowing down the momentum of an invasion and buying precious breathing space for the rest of defending forces. Furthermore, prosecuting a siege requires significant military engineering and plenty of logistical support, and – worst of all – they tend to be meat-grinders. As regards the futility of launching assaults on well-prepared positions, and as Sun Tzu would have told them, both of the attempts the Boers made to storm Ladysmith (the attack on the 9th November 1899, and the Battle of Wagon Hill, fought on 6th January 1900) ended in costly defeat.

Due to his outspoken opposition to Kruger’s insane war of conquest[14], Louis Botha had started the war in the ranks as an ordinary burgher. Such was the chaotic command structure of the republican forces, however, that he was promoted to replace the ailing Joubert[15] after the Boer drive towards Durban had ended in failure, and the invaders had retreated back to the Tugela River line[16]. Despite being described by Pakenham as a ‘great General’[17] (not that Pakenham would recognise such if he tripped over one) he also ignored Sun Tzu’s first rule: ‘The highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans’. While Buller is mocked by latter-day armchair Generals for not immediately breaking through the formidable Tugela line defences, Botha is – surprise, surprise – given a pass despite sitting back, and completely handing the initiative to his opponent.

For all Botha’s later reinvention as a military genius, and despite the wild claims that the Boers invented the concept of special forces[18], no efforts were made to strike at Buller’s logistical tail, and there were no raids and counter-attacks to keep him on his toes. Instead, Buller was pretty much left in peace to build up his forces as and where he wished in different positions along the front, and to attempt his much-derided breakthroughs at the place and time entirely of his choosing. The much-lauded Boer Generals did nothing to ‘baulk his plans’ – it was just a case of sitting back, reading the Old Testament, and hoping for the best… a policy which (more by luck than judgement) may have worked at first, but which inevitably came a cropper at the Battle of the Tugela Heights. Just as Sun Tzu would have predicted.

The words of another great military thinker perhaps sum up President Kruger’s complete brain-fart – the act of utter stupidity which plunged South Africa into a war he had no chance of winning:

‘No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.’
Von Clausewitz[19]

Despite the myths of the Boers being led into action by an elite cadre of self-taught Alexanders, Rommels and Wellingtons, and as much as it upsets True Believers to accept it, the reality is that Kruger’s invaders were commanded by Generals blessed with no understanding of strategy, and with a fondness for leadership by committee. With no coherent plan of how to conduct the war and trusting almost entirely to Divine Intervention, the crackpot Boer invasions of British territory were doomed from the beginning. By jauntily attacking the British Empire, Kruger and his claque of Flat Earthers had clearly taken leave of their senses.

It is amusingly bizarre that there are still some today who – for reasons known only to themselves – refuse to accept that.


[1] Needless to say, Defenders of the Myth will nevertheless frantically dream up all manner of farcical excuses, such is their ‘head in the sand’ desperation to keep their precious Apartheid-regime version alive

[2] Sun Tzu (allegedly c.544BC – 496BC), is claimed to be a Chinese General to wrote ‘The Art of War’, though some historians claim that ‘Sun Tzu’ was not one person at all, and that the book was a compilation written by a school of military theorists. Either way, and whoever wrote it, ‘The Art of War’ is accepted as a masterpiece on strategy and has been frequently cited and referred to by generals and theorists since it was first published, translated, and distributed internationally. It remains influential to this day, and is frequently cited in connection not only in matters of military strategy and warfare, but also in other competitive fields such as espionage, geopolitics, business, and even sport

[3] Kruger, R., Goodbye Dolly Gray: The Story of the Boer War, p.74

[4] Gibson, The Story of the Imperial Light Horse in the South African War 1899-1902, p.42

[5] Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa, Vol.2, p.143

[6] Burleigh, The Natal Campaign, p.9

[7] Fought on 20 October 1899

[8] Elandslaagte (21 October 1899) and Rietfontein (24 October 1899)

[9] Selby, The Boer War: A Study in Cowardice and Courage, p.66

[10] Pakenham, The Boer War, p.169

[11] Also known as Nicholson’s Nek, the action was fought on 30 October 1899

[12] Needless to say, the Siege of Ladysmith was not an aberration; on the other Fronts, other Boer Generals also happily settled into the similarly pointless, and similarly unsuccessful, sieges of Kimberley, Mafeking and Wepener

[13] Mantlets were ancient / medieval-era portable wooden walls which were used to protect besieging sappers and troops from arrows. The word continues in use today, in the phrase ‘gun mantlet’ which describes the armour plate near the gun barrel on tanks from around WW2 to the present day

[14] Churchill, The Boer War, p.250

[15] Petrus Jacobus Joubert (1831 – 1900), known as Piet Joubert or Slim Piet, served as Commandant-General of the South African Republic from 1880 to 1900. He was thrown from his horse at the end of November 1899 during the attempt to push on to Durban, and died a few months later from the injuries he sustained

[16] True Believers like to pretend that the Boers only invaded Natal to ‘take up defensive positions, just over the border’… a claim which completely ignores historical reality, and which is only trotted out for political reasons, and in an increasingly desperate attempt to preserve the fiction that the invading Boers were (somehow) the innocent party

[17] Pakenham, The Boer War, p.457

[18] https://www.chrisash.co.za/2017/12/02/tomato-tomahto-commando-kommando/

[19] Major General Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780 – 1831), was a Prussian officer and military theorist who saw extensive active service in the Napoleonic Wars. He had been writing ‘On War’, his masterpiece on the philosophy of war, since 1816, but died of cholera in 1831. His widow edited and published his magnum opus posthumously the following year


  • Colin Posted September 13, 2023 9:12 am

    Precise and very informative . Your summary should be adopted by any school that claims integrity with an interest in educating the pupils on their own history

    • Bulldog Posted September 13, 2023 10:42 am

      Alas, knowing the utter crap taught by History Departments in South Africa, this will never happen – various old fossils are determined to keep their fantasies alive a bit longer.

  • James Grant Posted September 13, 2023 10:45 am

    One of your very best, Mr Ash! Love the way you point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes… where as these other buggers won’t dare tell the truth. What are they so bloody afraid of?

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