When is an offensive, not really an offensive?
Well, according to many writers on the Boer War, when it is conducted by republican forces.
In his otherwise rather good ‘The Boer War: Direction, Experience and Image’, John Gooch reckons:
The Anglo-Boer War can be divided into four main phases. The first main phase involved the Boers‘ limited offensive (11—31 October 1899). The second main phase (also known as the Buller phase) involved the first (unsuccessful) British (counter—) offensive (31 October 1899—10 February 1900). The third main phase (also known as the Roberts phase) involved the second (relatively successful) British (counter—) offensive (11 February – 29 November 1900) …. And, of course, Gooch’s fourth phase was the Guerrilla War, to which I have no disagreement.
So, according to this, there were three types of offensive in the Boer War – a ‘limited one’, an ‘unsuccessful one’, and a ‘relatively successful’ one.
It is difficult to know exactly what was ‘limited’ about the Boer Offensive which started the war – its achievements, perhaps – but certainly not its aims. Indeed, it can only possibly be reinvented as having been ‘limited’ because it failed so miserably in the face of stalwart resistance from the out-numbered and unprepared imperial garrison. In which case, one could equally declare the German invasion of the Soviet Union to have been a ‘limited offensive’, in that it too failed to achieve its aims… but would any historian really ever describe it thus?
If, by describing the Boer attempt to drive the British from Southern Africa as ‘limited’, Gooch actually means ‘unsuccessful’ then why, one wonders, does he not just say so? After all, he happily uses the word ‘unsuccessful’ to describe the first British offensive? Why not also claim that too was ‘limited’?
It would seem a little odd to describe this second or ‘Buller phase’ as ‘unsuccessful’ – it was certainly a lot more successful than the opening offensive by the Boers in that, during that period, Imperial forces halted the Boer invasions, and threw them backwards. Indeed, it was during the ‘Buller phase’ that the invading Boers were forced back to Magersfontein and the Tugela River line – both of which they were then able to defend.
It is also mind-boggling why the ‘Roberts phase’ was, according to Gooch, only ‘relatively successful’. Given that, between the dates mentioned, Roberts’ forces captured 4000 Boers at Paardeberg, drove the Boers invasion forces out of Natal and the Cape Colony, captured both republican capitals plus Johannesburg, relieved all three besieged towns, and then captured another 4000 Boers at the Brand Water Basin it is unclear just how much more successful Roberts could possibly have been.
Gooch is not alone in downplaying the Boer offensive. Pakenham goes out of his way to explain away the aggression of the republics and heap all the blame on the British, and on Lord Milner in particular, assuring his spell-bound readers that the Boers’ war aims were ‘more limited than Milner … could ever have grasped’[i] He then goes on to state that half the Boer invaders were ready to go home and the other half were ready to ride to Durban – neither of which in any way supports his claims regarding the invading republicans’ aims and objectives.
As is his wont, Nasson shamelessly ties himself in various knots to avoid admitting that the Boer invasions were in any way aggressive. Even though he cheerfully admits that Reitz and Smuts both declared the aim to be ‘a Free, United South Africa, an ambitious national Afrikaner republic stretching from the Zambesi to Table Bay’,[ii] he then simply dismisses this as presumably having been said for a bit of a laugh. And while Nasson devotes much attention to Smuts’ plan to invade Natal and capture Durban[iii] he still tries to assure his readers that ‘On the Boer side, the war which came was entirely defensive’ and then ties himself in even more knots by saying, ‘even if the chosen method of defence would be the invasion of British colonial territory, it was widely understood to be a defensive enterprise.’
This is every bit as ridiculous as saying that Germany’s chosen method of defence in 1914 was to invade Belgium.
With tedious predictability, Professor Fransjohan Pretorius can always be relied upon to spout the self-pitying version of the war made popular during the Apartheid era. It is thus hardly surprising that he frantically tries to take the ‘limited offensive’ / ‘defensive invasion’ fallacy even further, dutifully claiming that:
“The Boer high command sent forces to four fronts in order to halt the expected British invasions – the Natal front in the wedge where the Natal, Free State and Transvaal borders met and where the bulk of the two hostile armies were positioned opposite one another; the extensive southern front where the Free State adjoined the Cape Colony and which extended from Barkly East in the east, through Aliwal North, Bethulie and Norvalspont along the Orange River to a point past Philippolis and Colesberg in the west; the western front (equally difficult to defend) where the Free State and the Transvaal adjoined the Cape Colony and the Bechuanaland Protectorate, from Hopetown in the south, past Magersfontein, Kimberley and Vryburg to the north of Mafeking; and the northern front in the northwestern and Northern Transvaal where British attacks from Rhodesia across the Limpopo had to be countered. With the outbreak of hostilities[iv] the bulk of the British troops had not yet arrived in South Africa, giving the Boer forces the opportunity to take the initiative in the offensive[v]. The objective of the Boer command was to isolate or wipe out the British forces threatening the republics on their borders, and to occupy suitable positions in enemy territory where the Boer forces could halt the advance of British reinforcements moving up from the coast.”
Quite where these ‘suitable positions’ were is, of course, not specified by the Professor, and neither does he deign to explain why such ‘suitable positions’ could only be found in ‘enemy territory’. Why, one wonders, could they not just defend their own borders against this mythical British invasion? The reason the Professor neglects to address these points is obvious: he is desperate to maintain the post-war fiction of the Boers being the innocent victims of the piece.
The reality is that there was only one ‘hostile’ army in South Africa in early October 1899 – that of the republics: the Imperial forces in theatre were paltry in comparison and not massed on the borders as the Professor suggests. The Boers invaded British territory in every direction, annexing the land the seized, looting whatever they fancied, re-naming those towns they captured, implementing their racist laws and establishing tax collection systems. Their stated aim was to capture Durban[vi], the Kimberley diamond fields[vii] and the Cape[viii], drive the hated Rooinek into the sea, and establish an Afrikaans Empire from the Zambesi to the Cape.
This was most certainly not a ‘limited’ objective, and was by no means done merely to occupy ‘suitable positions’ just over the border.
Not even a True Believer like Pretorius can deny that Boer invasion forces pushed south almost as far as Mooi River in Natal (marked below in orange) before retreating, encumbered with wagon loads of looted plunder, in the face of the imperial reinforcements which had been rushed to South Africa. Would the Professor really have us believe that Boers invaders still had not come across any ‘suitable positions’ to defend despite rampaging on a looting spree 75 miles into Natal? And why, one wonders, did the invaders feel the need to annex the land they had grabbed, and re-name the towns they’d captured, if all they wanted to do was dig in on ‘suitable positions’ to repel a hypothetical imperial invasion? Why did another prong of the republican forces which invaded Natal push their way to Pomeroy, looting and burning that settlement and only finally being stopped at the Tugela by the Umvoti Mounted Rifles? (again this area is marked below in orange on the right)
Indeed, though oft-spouted, the nonsense about the poor, innocent Boers only ever wanting to take up ‘defensive positions, just across the border’ falls apart under any sort of scrutiny. Neither Pretorius nor anyone else ever troubles themselves to explain where these supposedly crucial positions were. In Natal, the Tugela line cannot possibly have been the mythical ‘suitable positions’. Boer forces – full of boasts about capturing Durban and of running the Vierkleur up over the harbour[ix] – pushed well south of the Tugela before retreating about 35 miles back to the Tugela line (after the Battle of Willow Grange and in the face of imperial reinforcements). The Tugela position is marked on the map above in blue.
Likewise over on the Western Front, we know the mythical ‘suitable positions’ cannot possibly have been the Magersfontein position (marked in blue, below) as Boer invasion forces were thrown back to Magersfontein (after being defeated at Belmont, Graspan and Modder River – all marked in orange):
So where exactly were the ‘suitable positions’ of which Pretorius chatters? Don’t expect an answer to that simple question, however, as they simply did not exist. The whole fallacy was invented retrospectively and then pushed by self-serving Apartheid-era propagandists to excuse the blatant aggression of the republics, the object being to reinvent themselves as the victims of a war they so obviously started. What is truly amazing is that this rubbish has eagerly been lapped up by the gullible, the unthinking, and those of a rabidly anti-British persuasion ever since.
If the aim was to occupy these mythical (or, let’s be honest, ‘made-up’) ‘suitable positions’, why, one wonders, did the republicans dilly-dally until November the 1st before invading the Cape Midlands? This is the area which the Professor describes above as ‘the extensive southern front’ and which he seems to think was ‘difficult to defend’[x]. Though the Professor tried to convince his readers that the poor old Boers would have to ‘defend’ a line from ‘Barkly East in the east’, he cunningly neglects to mention that Barkly East (marked with a red arrow on the map below) was actually well inside Britain’s Cape Colony, about 40 miles from the border.
As the town thus did not belong to them (before they invaded and annexed the district) and was nowhere near their territory, we shall never know why Pretorius claims the Boers had to worry about defending a line starting at Barky East. It would be a little like someone excusing a North Korean invasion of the South by frantically squawking that they needed to defend a line from ‘Seoul in the west to…’
Indeed, as the map clearly shows, the entirety of the southern border of the Orange Free State was formed by the Orange River – which is about as ‘suitable’ a defensive position as one could hope for. Quite why the Professor thinks leaving this natural barrier and invading (and annexing) parts of Cape Colony was the best way to ‘defend’ the republic remains a mystery. Either way, if the sole aim of the poor, down-trodden, misunderstood republicans was merely to occupy ‘suitable positions’ to defend (more suitable, remember, than one of South Africa’s largest rivers), why did they not do so immediately, rather than waiting for three weeks?
Railways would be absolutely fundamental for the support of any (hypothetical) Imperial invasion force, and yet as the map shows there were only two railway bridges over the Orange River on the Southern Front (marked with yellow arrows – the thin red lines being railways), at Bethulie and Norval’s Pont. Anyone who was genuinely interested only in defending on this front would have blown these bridges and dug in along the river – not hung about for three weeks, then gaily invaded and annexed British territory to the south.
On the left of the map above, one can see another railway (which went up to Kimberley and thence Rhodesia) which also crossed the Orange River, further to the west near Hopetown (marked with an orange arrow). This railway did not branch off into either the Orange Free State or the Transvaal however, and was thus of less use in terms of supporting any hypothetical invasion of either republic. If the sole object of the Boers had been to defend the frontier, however, the bridge where this railway crossed the Orange could still have been targeted by a republican raiding force – and without the need to annex the land for hundreds of miles around it, indulge in a free-for-all mass looting spree, or change the names of any towns the raiders managed to capture.
Equally, if the version of events which the Professor is trying to push has even an iota of truth in it, why did Boer forces invade, loot and annex parts of Zululand?
The trading post at Mhlatuze was targeted and a magistrate’s office at Ingwavuma was burned down. These were followed up by the seizing of the whole Ingwavuma district (marked by the orange circle in the top right of the map above) by a 400-strong commando.[xi] A quick glance at the map would convince any rational person that this aggression had nothing to do with adopting ‘suitable positions in enemy territory where the Boer forces could halt the advance of British reinforcements moving up from the coast’ – reinforcements advancing inland from what port, exactly? Along which railway, exactly?
The republican invasion and seizing of Ingwavuma was nothing less than blatant violent expansionism at the expense of a neighbouring territory – for a Professor of History not to be able (or willing) to identify it as such is as concerning as it is ridiculous.
Further republican raids were launched against the trading posts at Rorke’s Drift and Vaant’s Drift, both of which were looted. When a small force of Colonial Scouts was moved into the area to deter further raids, the Boers responded by invading and occupying the districts of Nquthu and Nkandla in western Zululand (both marked above with orange circles). True to form, these captured districts were formally annexed to the South African Republic and placed under the control of two veldkornets who supervised the collection of a hut tax. One of this duo, Veldkornet van der Berg, even boasted to the Zulus of Nkandla that ‘the Boers intend to crown Dinuzulu king over the whole native population, and there would be only two kings in the whole of the land—Paul [Kruger] over the whites, and Dinuzulu over the blacks.’[xii]
Even the most hare-brained Kruger apologist would struggle to claim that any of these raids, invasions and annexations were designed to occupy ‘defensive terrain just over the border’ to block a purely hypothetical Imperial threat. They were merely the latest acts of a campaign of violent expansionism against their black neighbours which the Transvaal had been waging for more than a generation.
And if the annexations of parts of Zululand do not fit the Professor’s preferred myth, the Boer invasion and annexation of British Bechuanaland completely shatter it. In mid-November 1899, Commandant Visser, at the head of a 700-strong force, attempted to take the tiny settlement Kuruman (marked below by a red arrow). His initial attempts were beaten off by the 80-strong scratch force of Police and volunteers who mustered to defend the village[xiii], and Visser was sent another 300 men to help him subdue the place. It was only after six weeks of siege, and the arrival of republican artillery, however, that Kuruman was finally surrendered to the invaders on the 1st of January 1900.
How, we might ask, does this fit in with the Professor’s ludicrous version of events? Does Pretorius really think a British invasion force was somehow going to teleport into the middle of the Kalahari Desert and invade the republics via the one-horse-town of Kuruman? Would the Professor have us believe that the Boers invaded (and annexed) British Bechuanaland, and laid siege to Kuruman for 6 weeks, so as to ‘halt the advance of British reinforcements moving up from the coast’? If so, one is left wondering if he has ever seen a map of South Africa. Indeed, the Professor’s version of the war is so far removed from the truth, and so frantic in its desperate attempts to pretend that the Boers were the wronged party, as to be nothing less than pitiful.
Perhaps peddling this nonsense helps Pretorius sleep at night, so we shall leave him to the cosily comforting fantasies of his alternative reality and instead return to the relative sanity of Gooch’s model. On balance, and given everything mentioned above, it would seem to be rather more accurate to redefine his first three phases of the Boer War thus:
1. The (unsuccessful) republican offensive aimed at capturing Southern Africa (11—31 October 1899) which was fought to a standstill by the imperial garrisons and thus failed to achieve its objectives
2. The strategic stalemate (31 October 1899—10 February 1900) where the front lines essentially stabilised, the British Empire built up her forces and the republicans dug in to defend the land they had annexed
3. The (successful) Roberts offensive (11 February – 29 November 1900) which, after the arrival of significant Imperial troops in theatre, saw the Boer armies quickly shattered on all fronts, Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking all relieved, both republican capitals captured, and Kruger flee South Africa
[i] Pakenham, The Boer War, p.168
[ii] Nasson, The War For South Africa, p.66
[iii] Ibid, p.109
[iv] Or, to put it another way, ‘when the republics attacked and invaded British territory’
[v] Well, of course ‘the bulk’ of British forces had not yet arrived in October 1899 – they were sent after the Boers started the war by attacking British territory. The Professor’s statement is every bit as ludicrous as saying ‘in 1990, the bulk of American and British troops had not yet arrived in the Middle East, giving Saddam’s forces the opportunity to take the initiative in the offensive against Kuwait’ or ‘in 1982, the bulk of the British forces had not yet arrived in the South Atlantic, giving the Argentinean forces the opportunity to take the initiative in the offensive against the Falklands’. His obsession with explaining away blatant republican aggression is laughable
[vi] Stalker, Ch. 9
[vii] Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, Vol. 2, p.123
[viii] Lane, The War Diary of Burgher Jack Lane, 1899‒1900, p.49
[ix] None other than General Louis Botha – the man who commanded the push towards Durban – assured Kruger that the flag of the Transvaal would soon fly over the harbour. Limited Offensive?
[x] in that he says the western front was ‘equally difficult to defend’
[xi] Warwick, Black People and the South African War, 1899-1902, p.82
[xii] Ibid, p.85
[xiii] Commanded by Major Bates of the Cape Police, Kuruman’s impromptu garrison consisted of a few police officers backed by loyalist volunteers, both white and coloured