The Noise Before Defeat

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat

Sun Tzu

Though today trumpeted as ‘Great Generals’ by the likes of Pakenham, the Boer commanders embarked on a war of conquest against the pre-eminent power of the age, and suffered a defeat which was as inevitable as it was obvious. For a latter-day writer to declare them as ‘Great Generals’ tells us a lot about the person making the claim, and confirms his utter lack of knowledge in all matters military.

When thinking of the conventional phase of the war, few would deny that on a tactical level and in the right circumstances, the Boers were a formidable foe: that is not to say their commanders were tactically astute, per se, but the men of a Kommando were generally well armed, often good shots, and understood the value of trenches and camouflage. Where they were weaker on a tactical level, however, was in having a very disorganised command structure, an almost complete lack of discipline and an extreme loathing to leave the safety of their trenches. This, together with the tendency of their much-vaunted commanders never to retain any sort of reserve, meant that they rarely were able to move troops around on the battlefield in response to British attacks.
On a tactical level, the Boers were therefore a very one-dimensional foe: their skillful use of ground and entrenchments, together with their often impressive individual marksmanship, meant that they had a reasonable chance of fighting off a frontal assault. But a lack of understanding of tactics / formal training often meant there was no thought of a ‘Plan B’ – essentially, no way for them to react if the British did not play ball.

Fought in November, 1899 – at a time when the prevailing myth would have us believe the Boers were thrashing the hapless Brits at every turn – the Battle of Modder River provides an excellent example of this.

Kimberley highlighted in red

After being driven from their positions at Belmont and Graspan, the republican invaders had withdrawn and dug in once again, this time near the village of Rosmead, where a railway bridge spanned the confluence of the Modder and Riet Rivers. Boasting to locals that their position was ‘impregnable’, the Boers were determined to defend the crossing and prevent the relief of Kimberley.

The ‘resort’ of Rosmead on the Modder River in happier times – just 20 miles south of Kimberley it was a popular destination for days out. Note that the river presents a formidable obstacle

Nominally under the command of Cronje, though with De la Rey exercising a great deal of influence, around 3500 Boers held the position. On the morning of the 28th of November, 1899, the British 1st Division[i] pushed forwards towards the river, using the railway line as their axis of advance: the 9th Infantry Brigade[ii] were on the left, and the Guards Brigade[iii] on the right.

Initially, things went reasonably well for the Boers: the advance of the two British Brigades was halted by a hail of rifle fire delivered from well-concealed positions. Even this was by no means perfectly executed, however, as the jittery indiscipline of the Boers caused them to open fire far too early[iv], meaning the Tommies went to ground around 1000 yards from the Boer trenches. The result was that, while they were unable to move forwards, the British infantry were also not pinned in a killing zone taking devastating losses: a grave tactical error, caused by the nervousness and indiscipline of the Boers.
Thereafter events quickly began to show up a distinct lack of tactical nous on the part of De la Rey and Cronje. With the republican trap sprung prematurely due to their lack of discipline, both British Brigades were able to try and work their way round on their respective flanks. Though the reserve battalion of the Guards Brigade was unable to make any progress due to the unfordable Riet River on the British right, over on the left, the 9th Infantry had rather more luck. As the day wore on, the Tommies were able to make slow but steady progress on their left flank, methodically clearing the republican positions on the southern bank and inching their way towards the Modder River.

There was little the Boer Generals so celebrated by Pakenham et al could do to counter this threat to their right, as (rather incredibly) they had not thought to retain any meaningful reserve – an absolute bloody howler which would see even the greenest officer cadet torn apart at Sandhurst. To make matters worse, De la Rey and Cronje had sited the bulk of their guns in the centre and on their left flank (ie. the British right) – despite this flank being protected by two rivers, one of which was unfordable as the Guards had discovered. Logically, therefore, the preponderance of guns should have been deployed on their more vulnerable right.
If a British commander had somehow found himself in a similar position, he would have simply ordered one or more of his batteries to move to the threatened flank (read the blog article about the Battle of Wagon Hill to see how aggressively the British used their batteries in a defensive action) but this was simply not an option for the republicans – no Boer gun crew was ever going to limber up, leave the safety of their camouflaged emplacement and move into harm’s way.

The Guards exchanging long range fire with the Boers, with neither side achieving much

It was a baking hot day, with the mercury reaching 108°F and the sun beating down relentlessly. All along the position, the Boers were happy to remain hidden and blissfully immobile in their trenches, safely taking shots at the stalled battalions 1000 yards to their front and probably feeling things were going rather well. But over on the British left, elements of the 9th Brigade had finally made it to the Modder River, waded through the water and managed to seize the small village of Rosmead[v]  on the northern bank. With no reserves to mount a counter-attack, there was quite simply no way the ‘Great Generals’ could respond to this. The flank of the republican defenses had been turned, and the Free State contingent under Prinsloo started running away[vi] – leaving the others very much in the lurch. The rest, despite the furious protestations of De la Rey at a council of war / krygsraad / committee meeting that night, had no choice but to withdraw under cover of darkness, yielding the field (and the river crossing) to the British. Though the courage, resolve and sheer-bloody mindedness of the Tommies of the 9th Brigade was admirable, the republican defeat at Modder River was largely due to the tactical limitations and failings of the Boers.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders cross the Modder, turning the flank of the Boer position

Again, a comparison with the Battle of Wagon Hill is worthwhile. In that action, as previously noted and in stark contrast to the way the republicans used their guns, the hard-pressed British used their artillery aggressively, moving two batteries out of cover so as to flay the assaulting Boers. Equally, with only a portion of their forces committed to holding the outer defence line at Wagon Hill and Caesar’s Camp, the Imperial commander was able to feed reserves forward as needed, responding to – and countering – the moves of the Boers. And finally, at Wagon Hill, the British were ultimately able to clear the assaulting republicans with a devastating bayonet charge by fresh reserve troops, driving the last of the attacking Boers away in disorder; how De la Rey must have wished he’d been able to unleash a similar bayonet charge against the exhausted, bedraggled members of the 9th Brigade who had just struggled through the river and were clinging onto the village of Rosmead by their finger-tips. Any meaningful counter-attack would surely have driven them back, winning the day for the republicans – but with no reserves and with the burghers loathe to leave the safety of their trenches, this was simply not an option available to De la Rey.

The main tactical weakness of the Boers was that they were an army of individuals. While a given burgher might well have been a brilliant marksman, and a fine horseman with excellent field craft skills[vii], they did not operate effectively as a cohesive unit in the way the Imperial forces did. When the Boers were manning trenches and fighting off a frontal attack, this deficiency was largely nullified – sitting in a trench and loosing off shots at advancing troops requires little in the way of tactical gumption, after all. But when the republicans were called on to mount an attack – or, even in a defensive action, as soon as a flank was threatened, or they were required to move position – the wheels would tend to fall off.

This individualism even extended to the republican artillery in that they were generally employed as single guns (rather than operating as batteries) and were utilised as little more than a long range sniper. In stark contrast, and though saddled with an inferior field piece, the Royal Artillery used their guns much more daringly and effectively, firing as part of an integrated plan, providing cover for infantry attacks / withdrawals, and even developing the concept of the ‘creeping barrage’ during the Battle of the Tugela Heights.

62nd Battery, RA, had travelled 32 miles in eight hours, but rushed to take part in the action at Modder River as soon as they heard the sounds of battle

Despite these glaring flaws in their military system, the Boers were nevertheless still a formidable foe at a tactical level in the right circumstances. On an operational and strategic level, however, so poorly conceived and executed were their notions of driving the British from South Africa, that they were only able to make ‘noise before defeat’ – a defeat which was inevitable the moment they invaded British territory.

Firstly, the Boer ‘High Command’ really was a case of management by committee, with more Chiefs than Indians, no clear overall supreme commander, a hazily-defined and ever-changing command structure and constant bickering between the forces and Generals from the two republics –a bickering which sometimes saw their respective Presidents having to send telegrams to resolve issues as minor as telling a certain Kommando that, yes, they do actually have to occupy a certain hill top.
Generals were often only ‘nominally in command’ or else part of a multi-headed beast – examples include the Botha-Meyer-Joubert triumvirate all sort of being in command at the Tugela line, and the De la Rey-Cronje combo (with long-distance interference from President Steyn) which was sort of in command at Modder River. Whereas Imperial commanders issued orders and their subordinates obeyed, in the republican armies, an instruction could simply be ignored or, at best, considered as an opening offer in protracted negotiations. Every decision was something to debated back-and-fore, or argued over at a krygsraad, meaning there was little of the dynamism and decisiveness which, for example, an experienced campaigner like Lord Roberts brought to the table.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the Boer Generals showed little ability or inclination when it came to following a plan, or acting in a cohesive strategic fashion. General Joubert, who was nominally the commander-in-chief of the Transvaal’s forces, for example, plodded slowly forward into Natal, when he should have been slicing forwards with great haste before Imperial reinforcements arrived – though to be fair to Joubert, he knew the whole invasion was a massive mistake, so his complete lack of enthusiasm was perhaps understandable. Also, with the invading republicans not able to concentrate their forces on an operational level, the outnumbered Imperial garrison was able to engage the superior numbers of Boers piecemeal, defeating them first at Talana Hill, then again at Elandslaagte.
Indeed Talana provides an excellent example of the glaring failings of the republicans on an operational level. General Erasmus’s 2,000 Boers sat serenely on Impati Hill while British troops attacked and drove General Meyer’s 3,000-strong force off nearby Talana Hill. With no effective command structure, there was no one to order Erasmus to support Meyer, so instead he decided discretion was the better part of valour, and did nothing, leaving Meyer to his fate. Were a British divisional commander to find himself in a similar position, with one of his brigades under sustained heavy attack, he would have ordered his other brigade(s) to reinforce or counter-attack. In contrast, each republican force essentially operated independently of the others – rather than working as integral components of a strategic, or even operational, plan.
Even after their defeats at Talana and Elandslaagte, the failure of the Boers – with all their advantages in numbers and mobility – to prevent Yule safely withdrawing the 8th Brigade from Dundee to Ladysmith beggars belief and, again, highlights their lack of ability at an operational / strategic level.

Similarly, on the Western Front at the start of the war, Cronje was happy to settle into the comfortable –if totally unsuccessful – siege of Mafeking, aimlessly tying up around 6,500 of his men when instead they should have been pushing into Cape Colony, in the hope of sparking a rebellion. De la Rey implored him to leave ‘no more than 1000 Boers’ to screen the town while the rest pressed on, but Cronje was having none of it. Amazingly, when Cronje finally bowed to pressure from Kruger and moved south to try and block Methuen’s advance, the man he left in command of the besieging forces, Snyman, was even less dynamic.
Later in the war, after the British had captured Bloemfontein, General De Wet was off doing whatever he wanted with a sizeable chunk of the rapidly disintegrating republican army; this would have been bad enough, but was made even worse as he also showed a total lack of strategic understanding. Ignoring the chance he had to use his powerful Commando to strike at Roberts’ vulnerable supply lines, he instead set off on a pointless private crusade to destroy the small garrison holding the meaningless village of Wepener – something he then failed miserably to do. His lack of any sort of strategic vision infuriated even Kruger, who questioned what on earth De Wet was doing wasting his energies on Wepener, when the whole Boer position was collapsing in the north. The notion of a British Major-General glibly ignoring orders from High Command and instead setting off on a private jolly of his own volition is impossible to even conceive of.

With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that the whole strategy of the republicans in October 1899 was deeply flawed from the outset, with no appreciation of where their main effort should be directed. The largest portion of the republican forces invaded Natal (and, even then, at a sloth-like pace, with the burghers more interested in looting than fighting the Tommies), while other units were pushing out in all directions, wasting their energies against the likes of Rhodesia, Bechuanaland and Zululand.
Though Griqualand West was invaded at the beginning of the war, Cape Colony proper – the only logical target for Kruger’s crusade – was not invaded until the 1st November: fully three weeks into the conflict. This was an inexplicably senseless delay: the only way the republicans could ever possibly have won the war was to screen Natal, direct their energies into invading the Cape and hope to spark a mass rebellion by the large numbers of Afrikaners there. Though many today frantically attempt to excuse the Boer aggression as being ‘pre-emptive attacks’, unleashed before some sort of mythical British invasion force did the same to them, the fact that the republicans did not launch their invasion of Cape Colony until three weeks into the war rather gives a lie to this Apartheid-era, revisionist nonsense.

Instead, if there was indeed any sort of ‘main effort’ in the hap-hazard republican strategy, it was Joubert’s invasion of Natal – a staunchly loyal, fiercely pro-British Colony which, unlike the Cape, was never going to rise in pro-Boer rebellion, was small enough to allow Imperial forces to be reasonably concentrated and which was quickly being reinforced. Even had, by some miracle, the invaders made it all the way to Durban, there was simply no way they could ever logically have hoped to seize that city – protected as it would have been by the massive firepower of the Royal Navy.

Of course, there are some today who (for reasons known only to themselves) like to pretend that the point of the Boer invasion of Natal was never to capture that colony at all, and was instead somehow ‘defensive in nature’, aimed only at ‘occupying defensive terrain, just over the border’. Quite where this critical ‘defensive terrain’ was is, of course, never specified, and neither is it ever explained exactly what was ‘defensive in nature’ about using the greater part of the republican forces to march into someone else’s territory, annex it, re-name the towns they took, and indulge in a free-for-all mass looting spree. More to the point, this claim is refuted by the statements of the republican Generals who commanded the invasion and is simply a ludicrous post-facto justification. Indeed, it is only possible to even attempt to peddle it thus is because the enterprise failed so miserably.

If, as his latter-day apologists desperately claim, Kruger’s intentions were ‘defensive in nature’, starting a war by invading neighbouring territory in every direction is a very odd way to go about it. If his intentions were defensive (which they most certainly were not) then he committed an even bigger strategic blunder: starting the war by invading and annexing Imperial territory meant that the Boer republics lost a good deal of sympathy, even from the self-loathing hand-wringers of the British Left. By attacking Great Britain, the republics also lost any slim hope they might have had of receiving significant support from any of the other Great Powers[viii]. Worse still, Kruger’s blatant aggression galvanized the Empire into action, with thousands of volunteers from the Dominions keen to help defend Natal and the Cape Colony.

Let us be charitable for a moment, and pretend that, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, poor old Kruger really did only act out of fear of a British invasion being launched at any moment. If this had been the case, then his best strategy would have been to instruct the Orange Free State to remain neutral. The most logical route for this hypothetical Imperial invasion force was through the OFS, along the axis of the railway line from Cape Town to Johannesburg, via Bloemfontein – essentially the route of the N1 motorway today. However, the British had no quarrel with the OFS whatsoever, and, if the notion that Great Britain was about to launch an unprovoked invasion of the Transvaal is hopelessly far-fetched, the idea that they would flagrantly breach the neutrality of a friendly state to do so is truly ludicrous.
With the route up ‘the N1’ thus off the table due to Orange Free State neutrality, this would have meant the mythical / non-existent invasion force would have little choice but to attack the Transvaal from Natal – through the lofty (and easily defendable) peaks of the Drakensbergs. To supply an army of perhaps 150,000 men[ix] by means only of the one highly vulnerable railway line which twisted and turned its way up through the mountains would reduce even the most resourceful logistician to tears.

Instead, buoyed by a lunatic notion that The Almighty would aid his ‘Chosen People’ in their crusade, Kruger attacked the greatest of the Great Powers, confident of driving the hated ‘Rooinek’ into the sea and establishing the long-dreamed of ‘Afrikaans republic of South Africa stretching from Table Bay to the Zambezi’. With no concept whatsoever of strategy, and able to employ only the most one dimensional of tactics, however, the only thing the Boers ultimately achieved was to cause a lot of noise before their defeat.


[i] Commanded by Lt. General Lord Methuen, 1st Division comprised of the 9th Infantry Brigade and the Guards Brigade, supported by the 75th and 18th Batteries Royal Artillery and some RN guns. Four guns of the 62nd Battery RA famously arrived during the battle and went straight into action. The 9th Lancers and a small unit of Rimington’s ‘Tigers’ were the Division’s only mounted troops

[ii] Commanded by Major General Pole-Carew, 9th Infantry Brigade comprised the Northumberland Fusiliers, Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and elements of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

[iii] Commanded by Major General Colvile, the Guards Brigade comprised one battalion each of the Grenadier and Scots Guards, and two battalions of Coldstream Guards

[iv] This would also happen at Colenso a couple of weeks later, preventing that battle being a complete disaster for the British

[v] Today, the village is called ‘Ritchie’ and is in Northern Cape Province

[vi] Though today some of the more deluded ‘True Believers’ try to pretend that Modder River was not actually a Boer defeat, in the real world, the flight of the Free Staters caused a diplomatic spat between the two republics, with Kruger firing off a thunderous telegram to President Steyn of the OFS

[vii] Despite post-war propaganda, by no means all were however

[viii] Not that any of the other Great Powers could have interfered militarily in South Africa due to the Royal Navy’s absolute command of the oceans. It is just about conceivable that Russia might have used it as an excuse to threaten Britain’s position in India – though even this is incredibly far-fetched and was probably beyond their means logistically

[ix] Pre-war imperial intelligence estimates reckoned on needing to deploy an army of 200,000 men to South Africa in the event of war against the republics. Assuming the OFS remained neutral, this might have been reduced somewhat

1 Comment

  • Brett Posted June 5, 2018 7:39 am

    So enlightening. Excellent article

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