What the British taught the Boers

Claiming that the Boers taught the British army everything from marksmanship to camouflage is a popular pursuit for those of a certain persuasion, but few ever take a moment to consider what the British (who, let us not forget, won the war) taught the Boers (who, despite all the propaganda, lost). For, though the British army’s post-war Royal Commission was far-reaching and exhaustive, if the forces of either side changed radically in the wake of the conflict, it was those of the Boer-dominated, independent South Africa, rather than those of Great Britain.

Sure, the British army juggled the composition of a battalion (changing from eight companies each of two half-companies, to four each of four platoons) after the Boer War but, by-and-large, a British unit at the start of the Great War in 1914 was not terribly different from those which started the South African War in 1899: despite the re-organisation of the companies within it, an infantry battalion was still roughly the same overall size and still commanded by a Lt. Colonel. Battalions were still organised into Brigades, which in turn were still organised into Divisions.
Furthermore, the men of a battalion in 1914 still carried essentially the same rifle and bayonet, and wore pretty much the same uniforms[i] and boots they had in 1899, while battalion support weapons were also still largely similar, still being variants of the Maxim machine gun.
The rank structure was the same as in the Boer War and fearsome RSMs, CSMs, and Colour Sergeants still stamped about, shouting at people. Drill, polishing boots and parades were still very much accepted as essential to maintain obedience, discipline and teamwork, while military law was still rigorously enforced and officers were still addressed as ‘Sir’ and saluted. All manner of ‘tribal’ traditions like kilts, bag-pipes, bugles, regimental mascots and the like were still very much part of the ‘ethos’ of the various regiments which comprised the British army.

In terms of tactics, it is often claimed (with such vigour, indeed, that no actual evidence seems to be required) that the British army only begrudgingly adopted marksmanship, fire-and-manoeuvre, camouflage and the like after being ‘taught’ these by the Boers. This is quite simply rubbish, however, as the British army had a long and impressive history in all these things decades prior to the Second Boer War – one can point to units as far back as Rogers’ Rangers, the Corps of Guides, and the Rifle units of the Napoleonic Wars, while the ground-breaking School of Musketry at Hythe had been established prior even to the Crimean War. Khaki uniforms had first been introduced in India as early as the 1850s, while fire-and-manoeuvre tactics had been practiced on the NW Frontier for years – and were successfully used from the very outset of the Boer War.
Any army worth its salt learns from every war it fights, so there is no doubt that the experiences of the Boer War placed a heightened emphasis on such training – but the reality is that British army had already been heading down that road for many years.

While a British battalion of the Great War was broadly similar to those which served in the Boer War, the South African units in the latter conflict bore virtually no resemblance to the chaotic, ill-disciplined, disorganised and essentially untrained Boer Kommandos of just 15 years previously.
After the Union of South Africa in 1910, former Boer Generals dominated the political scene, with Louis Botha elected as Prime Minister and Jan Smuts heading up the Defence Ministry (as well as, at various times, those of  Interior, Finance and Mines) of what was essentially an independent country. Despite these two old Boer Generals being in charge, all five of the ‘Permanent Force’ regiments of the new South African army (or, ‘Union Defence Force’) raised in 1912 were very much British in character – uniformed, well trained and highly disciplined mounted rifle regiments organised on the lines of British light horse units. Auxiliary Kommando units did also serve in SW Africa, though even these had been knocked into shape by then, with the chaos of men electing their officers (and picking which ones they served under) a thing of the past. Indeed, the South African units in that campaign were organised in Brigades in the British style, and the use of British army style attire and accoutrements in the wake of the Boer War is obvious:

Former Boer Generals, Botha and Smuts looking very dapper 1915


A rather portly General Botha, SW Africa 1915


South African troops in SW Africa 1915 bury a fallen comrade


Trooper of South Africa’s 5th Mounted Rifles (ILH), SW Africa 1915

More instructive still, however, is the South African Brigade[ii] which fought with incredible valour on the Western Front, winning eternal fame for their endeavours at Delville Wood in 1916 – an action almost universally recognised as the South African army’s finest hour.
First raised in 1915 by Botha and Smuts, the Brigade could not have been more dissimilar to the sort of forces they had commanded in the Boer War, instead being very much along British army lines. It comprised four battalions: 1st South African Infantry was formed from volunteers from Cape regiments, 2nd SAI from those from the Natal and the Orange Free State units, 3rd SAI from the Transvaal and Rhodesia, while 4th SAI was a ‘Scottish’ battalion drawn from the various émigré Scots units in South Africa and even boasted a pipe-band[iii]. Obviously, a ‘Brigade’ was not a traditional Boer unit, and neither were its constituent battalions, companies and platoons – this was not an amorphous rabble like the Boer War Kommandos which could be 500 strong one day, and 200 the next, as men came and went as they pleased. Equally, there was no Boer War Kommando-style compulsion for service – all the men in the South African Brigade were volunteers in the tradition of the British army,[iv] and were paid at British army rates rather than being expected to fight for free and to sustain themselves by looting. And just like in the British army of the Boer War, all men had to pass a rigorous medical inspection before being accepted.
Perhaps most instructive of all, rather than putting one of their allegedly ‘tactically brilliant’ comrades from the Boer War in charge, Botha and Smuts instead appointed a long-term professional career British army officer to command the Brigade. Born in Fulham, and with extensive active service in the Zulu War, Basutoland and, indeed, the Boer War, Brigadier Henry Timson Lukin CMG DSO, was about as close to the archetypal ‘imperial’ officer as it was possible to be[v]. As in the British Army, the battalions of the South African Brigade would be commanded by Lt. Colonels, while there would be distinctly ‘un-Boer’ appointments such as ‘Brigade-Major’, ‘Staff Captain’ as well as Adjutants, Buglers and Padres.

Indeed, and for all their alleged ‘incompetence’, the original officers of the Brigade were overwhelmingly men who had fought for the Empire during the Boer War – not their supposedly ‘tactically brilliant’ opponents. The Cape battalion (1st SAI), for example, was commanded by another long-serving British army officer, Lt. Colonel Dawson. Born in Brighton and commissioned into the Northumberland Fusiliers, Dawson had served in India and Malaya prior to the Boer War, in which he served in Robert’s Horse and then the newly formed paramilitary mounted police of the SA Constabulary. His company commanders were Captains Jowett, Miller, Jenkins and Burges.
The Natal / OFS battalion (2nd SAI) was commanded by Lt. Colonel Tanner. Born in the Cape, Tanner had served in the Natal Carbineers in the Boer War, taking part in the Defence of Ladysmith, before transferring to the Scottish Horse for service in the Transvaal and on the frontier of Zululand. The 2ic was Major Gee, with the Company commanders / 2ics being Captains Heenan, Walsh, Barlow, Clifford, Gray and Hoptroff.
The commander of 3rd SAI was Lt. Colonel Thackeray, ex-East Surrey Regiment and 11th Hussars who had fought in Matabeleland then served in the Boer War with the Southern Rhodesian Volunteers and was present at the Relief of Mafeking. He went on to serve in Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts during the Guerilla War. Major Hemming was 2ic and the Company commanders / 2ics were Captains Vivian, Medlicott, Jackson, McLachlan and Tomlinson.
The ‘Scottish’ Battalion (4th SAI) was commanded by Lt. Colonel Jones DSO. Born in Bristol, Jones had fought in the Boer War with the Welsh Regiment, winning his DSO in that conflict. The Company commanders were Captains Russell, Ross, Marshall and Clerk.

And if their officers were distinctly ‘Imperial’, the ‘composite’ make-up of their battalions also had a long history in the British army. 4th SAI, for example, comprised ‘A Company’ which was largely drawn from the Cape Town Highlanders, while ‘B Company’ was drawn from the 1st Transvaal Scottish and ‘C Company’ from the 2nd Transvaal Scottish. ‘D Company’ was from Natal and Caledonian Societies throughout South Africa.
This was remarkably similar to how the British army had raised composite units during the Colonial period. When the Camel Corps was raised for the Sudan Relief Campaign, for example, the Corps had been formed of four units, each raised from men drawn respectively from light cavalry regiments, heavy cavalry regiments, infantry regiments and Guards regiments. Similarly, the British MI regiment which served in Matabeleland in the 1896 rebellion was formed from composite squadrons drawn from different regiments of the army, comprising ‘English’, ‘Irish’, ‘Scottish’ and ‘Rifle’ Squadrons. In the early days of the Boer War, a ‘Composite Regiment’ was formed from ‘A’ Squadron of the ILH, 5th Squadron of the Natal Carbineers, the MI Company of the Dublin Fusiliers and the 60th MI Squadron.

Unlike the Boer Kommandos of the 1899-1902 war, the men of the South African Brigade were intensively trained in both England and France before going anywhere near the front – this despite many of the men being long-serving soldiers, large numbers of whom had fought in the Boer War or in the SW Africa campaign of 1915. It seems that by then Botha and Smuts had accepted that training was rather important and the traditional Boer method of just picking up your Mauser and getting on a horse was a good way to lose a war.

Also unlike the men of the Kommandos who simply turned up in their every day clothes, the soldiers of the South African Brigade served in British army uniform (with the Highlanders of 4th SAI wearing kilts) and carried the good old .303 rifle with 17” bayonet: cold steel which the Boers had never used and, indeed, had always been terrified of.
The rank structure was not the chaotic one of the Boers where a man could be a burgher one day and a general the next, with no way of anyone knowing quite who was who. It was, instead, the same as the British army with Privates, Lance-Corporals, Sergeants, Lieutenants, Captains etc, and with the appropriate badges of rank and due respect shown to NCOs and commissioned officers.

Indeed, as photos show, there really was no telling the South African Brigade apart from their British comrades-in-arms:

Men of the 4th SAI relax prior to the Battle of Delville Wood


Men of the South African Brigade, Western Front


Artist’s impression of the fighting in Delville Wood


Nancy the Springbok, regimental mascot for the 4th SAI


Jackie the Baboon, regimental mascot to the 3rd SAI

Though there are plenty today who like to pretend that the ‘Boer system’ in the 1899-1902 War was some sort of work of military genius, the reality is that both Botha and Smuts recognised its deep failings and moved to address them, adopting British methods, training, structure and equipment. On the Western Front, the raw courage and patriotism of the South African volunteers would have counted for little without the cohesion, training, discipline, drills, regimental esprit de corps and leadership that the Brigade gained by embracing British army methods; it was this, together with the very high quality of the recruits, that made the South African Brigade such a formidable unit throughout the Battle of the Somme and later.

And while Botha and Smuts were realistic enough to adopt the practices of the army that had defeated theirs, perhaps unsurprisingly no army in the world rushed to emulate the chaotic command structure and systems the Boers had used in the South African War. As much as it might enrage their voluble gaggle of latter day apologists, no strategists or military thinkers considered their utter lack of military discipline to have been a virtue, and no army copied their lack of uniforms and rank insignia. No army rushed to get rid of their bayonets so as to emulate the Boer method. No staff colleges considered the Boer attitude that training was unnecessary, or that orders were ‘optional’, to be the way forward in 20th Century warfare. No army chose to copy the Boer habit of abandoning positions whenever they felt like it, or the tendency of refusing to take part in attacks if there was the slightest possibility of danger.
Both sides learned from the war, but overwhelmingly it was the post-war, Boer-dominated, South African High Command which adopted the British methods – not the other way round. Don’t take my word for it: just look at the actions of Botha and Smuts.

And if the men of the South African Brigade were virtually indistinguishable from the British Tommies on the Western Front, how about these smartly turned out chaps from the South African Cape Corps, serving in Palestine in 1918:

Khaki uniforms, Lee Enfields, Bermuda shorts and Pith helmets… imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?


[i] Steel helmets (‘tin hats’) were, of course, introduced during the Great War, though not even the most deluded commentator can claim this was ‘taught’ to the British by the Boers

[ii] The official history of the South African military commitment to the Western Front was written by John Buchan in 1920. Buchan served in the Intelligence Corps during the Great War and is more famous for writing the novel, ‘The 39 Steps’

[iii] 4th SAI was lucky to have the most highly decorated officer of the Brigade. An outstanding horseman, Lt. Alexander Young VC had served in the Queens Bays and Dragoon Guards in India and the Sudan. He joined the Cape Mounted Police in 1899 as a Sgt Major and saw extensive active service in the Boer War, winning his VC in August 1901 in an action called Ruiter’s Kraal in which he led his men to rush some kopjes held by about 20 Boers. When they fled, Young galloped after them, shot one out of his saddle and captured their commandant.

[iv] All British / Imperial units of the Boer War were volunteers, as were all such units even in the first two years of the Great War. Unlike the vast Continental armies which had long been filled by conscripts of varying degrees of enthusiasm, the British army finally resorted to conscription only in 1916.

[v] Lukin would later be promoted to command the 9th (Scottish) Division

1 Comment

  • Brett Posted March 5, 2018 1:49 pm

    Most illuminating article.
    Thank you for this

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