The garrison, the reinforcements and ‘massing on the border’

One of the favourite squawks of the True Believers – even, indeed, from so-called academic ones – is that the poor old, totally innocent, Boers were ‘forced’ to invade Natal and the Cape Colony because the dastardly scheming Brits were ‘massing on their borders’.

This is, like pretty much everything else they claim, complete nonsense. I thought it would be interesting to show just how few troops the British army had in theatre at the time the National Party myths assure the Faithful that Britain was desperate to start a war.

On the 1st of August 1899 – ie. many weeks after Kruger and Milner had held their completely unproductive talks in Bloemfontein – the British army garrison in the South African colonies was:

5th Lancers
18th Hussars

13th Battery Royal Field Artillery
67th Battery RFA
69th Battery RFA

No.10 Mountain Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery[i]
No.14 Company, Western Division, RGA
No.23 Company, Western Division, RGA[ii]

1st battalion[iii], Liverpool Regiment
1st battalion, Leicestershire Regiment
1st battalion, Loyal North Lancs
2nd battalion, Royal Berkshires
1st battalion[iv], Kings Royal Rifle Corps
2nd battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers

There were obviously locally-raised / part-time units, but in terms of the regular British army, that was it, and these troops were split between the Cape, and Natal / Zululand[v]. Just two regiments of cavalry, six battalions of infantry and a few guns scattered across the entire region. Not even enough troops to form two brigades in the field.

The True Believers love to pretend that Milner was absolutely desperate to start a war and used the Bloemfontein talks to push this (completely made-up) agenda. If there was any truth in this claim (which there isn’t), perhaps the Defenders of the Myth could explain why there were so few British troops in the region?

Diplomatic efforts continued throughout August, with Kruger doing his normal and never giving a straight answer or conceding to anything reasonable. Something that was agreed upon in a meeting would suddenly be withdrawn[vi] – anything to drag things out until the Boers were ready to invade.

With tensions rising, and the Government of Natal feeling vulnerable, small numbers of additional troops were finally dispatched to bolster the tiny garrison:

1st battalion, Manchesters (embarked at Gibraltar on 23rd August, arrived 20th September)
1st battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers (embarked from GB on 24th August, arrived 16th September)

On the 4th of September, the Boers were almost ready to launch their invasions, and Jan Smuts sent the following secret memorandum to the Transvaal Executive:

‘South Africa stands on the eve of a frightful blood-bath out of which our Volk shall come … either as … hewers of wood and drawers of water for a hated race, or as victors, founders of a United South Africa, of one of the great empires [rijken] of the world … an Afrikaans republic of South Africa stretching from Table Bay to the Zambezi.[vii]

Keen-eyed readers will note that he doesn’t mention ‘taking up defensive positions, just over the border’ – that self-serving nonsense was only dreamt up much later, by Apartheid-era apologists for Kruger’s invasion. Back in the real world, and sure enough, around the 10th of September[viii], Kruger started deploying his commandos to the border with Natal (actually, Amery notes this deployment started in ‘late August’, but I am being charitable). One should bear in mind that these were not professional, standing troops: calling up the commandos could not be done on a whim and was very much the act of mobilising a nation for war.

As much as it upsets True Believers (including certain blinkered History Professors), it was only after Kruger’s mobilisation of his commandos to the border that significant (though far from overwhelming) numbers of reinforcements were dispatched to the theatre. The second batch comprised:

5th Dragoon Guards[ix]
9th Lancers
19th Hussars

The three cavalry regiments mentioned above all embarked from India between 21st September and 8th October (ie. around 2-4 weeks after Kruger’s men started mustering at the border), arriving between 5th and 25th October.

21st Battery RFA
42nd Battery RFA
53rd Battery RFA

These three batteries embarked from India between 17th and 19th September, arriving in theatre between 2nd and 5th October.

18th Battery RFA
62nd Battery RFA
75th Battery RFA

The above mentioned batteries embarked from Great Britain on the 28th of September, and arrived between the 25th and 30th of October.

1st battalion, Gloucestershires
1st battalion, Devons
2nd battalion, Gordon Highlanders
2nd battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps

The four battalions mentioned above all embarked from India between 18th and 24th September, arriving between the 5th and 13th of October.

The following five battalions were rushed to South Africa from various locations, all embarking between 16th September and 2nd October, and arriving between 7th and 26th October:

1st battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers (from Great Britain)
1st battalion, Border Regiment (from Malta)
1st battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers (from Egypt)
2nd battalion, Rifle Brigade (from Crete)
2nd battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (from Mauritius – half of the battalion had been deployed earlier)

Looking at the embarkation dates of these troops, one will note that none of the second batch of reinforcements were mobilised until after Kruger moved his commandos to the border.

It is also noteworthy that the Kruger clique drafted an ultimatum on the 26th September, but – fortunately for the people of Natal – disagreement with the Orange Free State and a lack of transport meant this was not issued immediately. The ‘cowardice’ and ‘stupidity’ of the reluctant Orange Free State Volksraad was infuriating to the firebrands of the Transvaal, and threatened to derail their ‘dreams of a Dutch Dominion throughout South Africa’.[x]

After much persuasion and ‘lubrication’ from the Transvaal, the Orange Free State Volksraad finally voted to go to war—but only by the narrowest of margins. Nevertheless, the ZAR mobilized on the 27th September.[xi] Its military took control of the nation’s railways on the 29th, and various telegraph wires were cut.[xii] Tens of thousands of uitlanders had fled Johannesburg in the weeks before the war, and thousands more were now expelled.

On the 2nd of October, Kruger informed the Transvaal Volksraad that war was now inevitable.[xiii] The next day, the Orange Free State mobilized and Kruger’s agents brazenly seized a gold shipment worth around £500,000. Many thousands of burghers from both republics were by then massed on their borders, the belligerent Transvaalers jeering at their more hesitant southern allies.[xiv]

Despite that fact that war now seemed imminent, it was not until the 7th of October that Britain finally began to mobilize her reserves,[xv] without which most regiments were woefully understrength. This was in itself a lengthy process and these men would take several weeks to be transported to the theatre.

The much-delayed Boer ultimatum was finally sent to the British Colonial Office on the 9th of October. An initial version was written by F.W. Reitz[xvi], but then ‘tidied up’ and greatly expanded by Abraham Fischer. It was thus a verbose and waffling manifesto, but nevertheless a remarkable communication. Giving a hint that the war had nothing to do with ‘independence’ and everything to do with building a Boer-dominated empire in southern Africa, the ultimatum declared that the Transvaal was acting ‘in the interest not only of this Republic, but also of all South Africa’.[xvii] The demands of the ultimatum were so outrageous that its authors must have known the British could never agree to them. Indeed, one commentator declared that it would have been ‘rejected with scorn by Montenegro’[xviii] — it was more an outright declaration of war than a true ultimatum.

On the 11th of October – the day the impudent ultimatum expired and thus war was declared by the republics – President Steyn of the Orange Free State announced to his burghers that he was plunging his republic into a war to challenge Britain’s position as the ‘Paramount Power’ in South Africa.[xix]

Never a man to use one word when 50 would do, Reitz went even further in one of his trademark rants:

‘Brother Afrikaners! The Great Day is at hand! The God of our fathers will be with us in our struggles … Has the British Government been a blessing or a curse to his sub-continent? Brother Afrikaners! I repeat, the day is at hand on which great deeds are expected of us! WAR has broken out! What is it to be? A wasted and enslaved South Africa, or—a Free, United South Africa?[xx]

So there we have it. All it takes is an understanding of the time line, and an open mind, to realise that no British troops were ‘massed’ on the borders. As we have just seen, not only were there were hardly any such troops in South Africa, but the few units that were in theatre were scattered in penny packets, or holding positions well away from the frontier – a frontier which was around 1,500 miles long. Just four companies[xxi] of the Loyal North Lancs were, on the 20th of September (ie. 10 days after the Boers started mustering on the border), rushed north to defend Kimberley from attack. The only other small garrison (also a half-battalion) anywhere near the frontier was defending Orange River Station. Similarly sized garrisons were strung out, holding De Aar, Naauwpoort, and Stormberg, but these junctions were all around 50 miles from the border. Anyone with any semblance of a military background will appreciate that this scattering of troops was – in reality – the very opposite of ‘massing’.

Indeed, and completely contrary to the much-loved myths and excuses, it was actually the Boers who, from 10th September, began mustering on the borders, ready to launch their invasions. Significant (though, in truth, only barely adequate) numbers of British army reinforcements only started to be rushed to South Africa after that[xxii], as the chart / timeline below should make clear:

It really is that simple, so why, one wonders, do certain people keep repeating the same, tired old National Party myths?


[i] The Royal Garrison Artillery was a very short-lived branch, being formed in June 1899 and re-amalgamated with the Royal Field Artillery in 1924. The RGA was very much the ‘technical’ branch of the artillery, and crewed Coastal, Fortress and Siege batteries. In the bizarrely eccentric ways of the British army, the RGA also manned mountain gun batteries

[ii] Though a Heavy Gun battery, No.23 Company RGA manned 7-pdr ‘pop-guns’ throughout the Siege of Kimberley

[iii] At the time, virtually all regiments had regular 1st and 2nd battalions. The idea was that, at any given time, one would be overseas, and the other would be at home in the UK

[iv] Being the British army, there were, of course, exceptions to the above rule: the KRRC had four regular battalions

[v] The Army and Navy Gazette, 1899

[vi] Farrelly, The Settlement after the War, p.216

[vii] Roberts, Salisbury, Victorian Titan, p.734

[viii] Farrelly, p.213

[ix] This unit was impacted by an outbreak of Anthrax

[x] Buttery & Cooper-Key, Why Kruger Made War Or Behind The Boer Scenes, p.16

[xi] Cook, The Rights and Wrongs of the Transvaal War, p.241

[xii] Guyot, Boer Politics, p.115

[xiii] Guyot, p.115

[xiv] Walker, A History of Southern Africa, p.486

[xv] Cook, p.241

[xvi] Francis William Reitz, Jr. (1844 – 1934). Born in Swellendam in the Cape, Reitz was a lawyer who held various positions of high office, including being a member of parliament of the Cape Colony, the Chief Justice and fifth State President of the Orange Free State. He was the State Secretary of the South African Republic when Kruger started the Boer War, and would later serve as the first president of the Senate of the Union of South Africa

[xvii] C.9530, No.53

[xviii] Farrelly, p.222

[xix] Cd.43, p.139

[xx] Cd.43, p.191

[xxi] At the time, a battalion had 8 companies, so this was only half a battalion

[xxii] All dates for mobilisation of troops from the Royal Commission of the South African War, 1903, appendix 5


  • James Grant Posted April 9, 2024 5:06 pm

    Do these idiots ever provide any references that the British were massed on the border? Or its just some rubbish they made up, and now they all like to believe it?

    • Bulldog Posted April 9, 2024 5:50 pm

      Very much the latter, Mr Grant – it’s not a claim they can provide supporting references for, as it is simply untrue. Either they just made it up, or else they are fooled by the ultimatum Kruger sent, of which Conan Doyle said:

      the terms in which it was drawn were so impossible that it was evidently framed with the deliberate purpose of forcing an immediate war. It demanded that the troops upon the borders of the republic should be instantly withdrawn, that all reinforcements which had arrived within the last year should leave South Africa, and that those who were now upon the sea should be sent back without being landed. Failing a satisfactory answer within forty-eight hours, ‘the Transvaal Government will with great regret be compelled to regard the action of her Majesty’s Government as a formal declaration of war, for the consequences of which it will not hold itself responsible.

      So because Kruger’s declaration of war used a claim of (very small numbers of) British troops (holding scattered defensive positions) on the border to excuse Boer aggression, this seems to have been not only accepted as Gospel by the True Believers, but further exaggerated, and reinvented as ‘massing’ of troops. In reality, when talking about British army troops, only those at Kimberley and Orange River Station were near the border (of the OFS, not the Transvaal), and they were defended by just four companies each. Other than that, there was only the locally-raised regiment based at Mafeking, tasked with defending the borders of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

      So, yeah – they basically just made it up, and keep repeating it. Anything to keep the myths alive.

  • Dennis Walters Posted April 11, 2024 4:07 pm

    Hi Chris, I’m afraid that you left off the most important regiments, the Royal Engineers. In June 1899 only one regiment, the 29th Fortress Company was stationed at Cape Town, while the 23rd Field Company sailed for SA on 10 June, followed by the 7th Field Co and 8th Railway Co in July. The 23rd Field Co with one section of the Telegraph Battalion and the 2nd Balloon Section were sent to Ladysmith. Later the following regiments, the 20th, 31st, 42nd, & 45th Fortress Companies were sent to SA. By 1st December 1899 the total force of Royal Engineers in SA were 151 officers and 3,279 NCO’s and Sappers. Without these troops Lord Roberts would have had great difficulty advancing from Bloemfontein. Ref. “History of the Corps of the Royal Engineers”, Vol III, by Col Sir Charles Watson RE.

    • Bulldog Posted April 11, 2024 4:27 pm

      Mr Walters,
      You are absolutely correct to point this out, and my apologies! Thanks for adding these notes.
      I think, however, we can agree that the handful of RE companies that were in-country when Kruger started mobilising his men to the frontier were not ‘massing on the borders’!

  • Stephen Hunt Posted April 11, 2024 7:44 pm

    Thanks Chris for an excellent and informative piece. I was always led to believe that the victors got to write the history of a war. In which case the Afrikaaners have managed to out “spin” us by a country mile. So thank you for debunking the myths so beloved by the likes of the Broederbonders and Ossewabrandwag.

    I have just finished reading your excellent Atlas of the Boer War and I will post a review on Amazon shortly. I have now started reading “The Battle of France 1940” by Colin A Goutard. It was written in 1958 and challenged the accepted notions at the time of France’s defeat in 1940, ie superior German armour. And I will leave the last word to Col Goutard,

    “In every war a certain number of cliches spring up based on impressions at the time, which offer a facile explanation of events and which also pander to national sentiment and the self-esteem of it’s great national leaders. But with the passage of time and as it becomes possible to study what went on on “the other side of the hill”, where the situation was often very different from what we imagined, we see clearly how mistaken were the popular beliefs, which we then accepted unquestioningly.”

    Clearly some of your critics would benefit from understanding this, so keep up the good work.

    • Bulldog Posted April 12, 2024 5:23 am

      Mr Hunt, thanks for your kind words, and I look forward to seeing the review on Amazon.

      While the old saying is that ‘history is written by the victors’, I think there is also a long tradition of the ‘plucky loser’ being able to spin their defeat into a glorious and glamorous endeavour… just look at the Jacobites, or the Confederate States for example.

      Despite being a corrupt, violently racist and utterly ghastly state which started the war by invading their neighbours, the Transvaal shamelessly attempted to spin themselves into being some sort of noble and defiant (and entirely innocent) victim… and some blinkered fanatics still choose to believe this fantasy.

      Excellent quote from Colonel Goutard.

  • Chris Posted April 12, 2024 11:43 am

    Jan “slim” Smuts – a VERY “dark horse”
    The perfect “chameleon” hand picked and cultivated at a young age
    Much like Mandela and then later Ramaphosa

    One wonders why his 1890 essay on Customs for the J B Ebden essay competition was not chosen to be awarded first prize ?

    JUNE 1 8 8 6 – M A Y 1 9 0 2
    Professor of History at the Australian National
    University, Canberra
    Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Cape Town


    4 Essay [1891] Box D
    An excerpt (pp. 41-48) from an essay entitled South African Customs
    Union written in 1890 for the J. B. Ebden prize offered by the Univer-
    sity of the Cape of Good Hope. The essay did not win the prize but was
    highly commended. (See 14 b.) MS. of 58 foolscap pages in Smuts’s
    handwriting, signed Philomesembrias.

    This subject had been prescribed. It was topical, for South African
    politics at that time turned largely upon the conflicting customs and
    railway interests and policies of the two inland Boer republics and the
    two maritime British colonies. Smuts clearly found it congenial. He
    wrote at length, no doubt at too great length, but with sincerity and
    force. He built his whole essay upon the conviction which was also to
    be the foundation of his statesmanship—* the fact that South Africa is
    one.’ The excerpt below (4) sums up the arguments for unity and shows
    a mature and detailed grasp of the actual political situation in 1891. The
    preparation and writing of this essay had been for Smuts a highly
    educative exercise. It had taught him, he said, how to master intellectual
    material and use it and, more important still, ‘ I owe to it the birth of
    my political consciousness.’

    [SMUTS]”The general maxim in the particular case of South African
    policies and interests is this: no policy in any Colony or state is
    sound, which does not recognize, and frame its measures as
    much as possible in accordance with, the fact that South Africa
    is one, that consisting as it does of separate parts, it yet forms
    one commercial and moral unity”

    The person that DID win the prize for that essay is now long forgotten
    I wonder what nuggets of wisdom HIS winning essay contained ?

  • Niall Beazley Posted April 12, 2024 12:24 pm

    An excellent revision of the lead up to the real Boer War history Chris, thank you.

    • Bulldog Posted April 12, 2024 12:33 pm

      Thanks Mr Beazley
      The funny thing is that it’s not really a revision as such – all this information was available and accepted for years, until the National Party propaganda machine started working its magic, and the British Left leapt gleefully (and unthinkingly) onto the anti-British bandwagon. In truth, those strange bedfellows are the ones who ‘revised’ history – I am merely setting the record straight, and mainly reference documents, accounts and histories from the early 1900s.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *