A Cloud of Falling Stars

By early 1902, the forces of De Wet and Botha were little more than fugitives, doing their best to avoid the relentless sweeps of Kitchener’s flying columns and no longer able to mount significant operations. Taking care to avoid anything that resembled a strategically valuable target, Smuts had embarked on a fairly pointless ‘invasion’ of the more desolate parts of the Cape Colony, meaning that De la Rey’s commando in the Western Transvaal was the main thorn in British flesh.

At the head of about 3,000 motivated men, De la Rey carried out the successful attack of an (empty) convoy at Yster Spruit on 25 February 1902. Even more spectacularly, on 7 March, he then pounced on one of the hastily formed columns sent to try and run him down, overwhelming the much smaller force cobbled together by Lord Methuen at the Battle of Tweebosch.

What had De la Rey achieved, though? What was his actual aim? As stated in the History of the War in South Africa, and however much his escapades might please his modern-day hero worshippers, they were aimless, it not, indeed, essentially pointless:

‘Tweebosch sent the star of De la Rey, which after much wavering [wavering which is totally overlooked by his fanboys today] had been for some time in the ascendant, up to its zenith. The Western Transvaal was now in extreme danger, if not of being reconquered by the Boers, at least of being rendered uninhabitable for the conquerors. One deliberately chosen depot, Wolmaranstad, had been already evacuated; all others wide of the main lines, especially Lichtenburg, were in danger either of attack or of isolation, for it was unsafe to move a convoy whilst such a hornet was on the wing. Yet, for the warning of those who base their hopes on defeating invasion on a last resort to guerrilla fighting, it cannot be too strongly pointed out that De la Rey, with all his brilliant successes, had scarcely so much as checked the sweep of the scythe which was moving down his country. His feats, like those of Botha at Bakenlaagte, of De Wet at Roodewal and Korn Spruit, were nothing more than tactical and local annoyances, rockets which fell harmless almost as soon as they had dazzled. In them was none of the irresistible influence of some great but possibly noiseless strategic accomplishment, giving a momentum to a campaign which a hundred such affairs such as those at Yzerspruit [Yster Spruit] or Tweebosch could not stir either forward or backward. Recalling events not long past for a since instance, what had De Wet’s sparkling capture of Waterval on February 15th, 1900, weighed against Field-Marshal Lord Roberts’ intent of herding Cronje’s commandos into the fatal bed of the Modder? It has not been the duty of the writer to point morals except by the narration of the facts; his space is limited, and the lessons of engagements, skirmishes, tactics and strategy in the war in South Africa are as innumerable as they are generally easily deduced. The greatest lesson of the campaign is, however, brief enough to be more than once insisted upon – that the nation which is robbed of or divests itself of broad military purposes, long conceived and long prepared, and leans instead upon the patriotism of irregulars and the delusive brilliance which so often illuminates their warfare, is about to vanish from its high place none the less surely because it sinks amid a cloud of falling stars’.[i]

Which is a very flowery way of saying: ‘pulling off the occasional spectacular might impress wide-eyed arm chair historians a hundred years later, but it was never going to impact the steady British march to victory’.
De Wet’s ‘victory’[ii] at Waterval is given as an example, and, though it took place before the conflict descended into Guerrilla War, it really does illustrate the point perfectly: while Roberts had a well thought out, meticulously planned and coherent strategy to win the war, the best De Wet et al could do, even at that stage, was nip at his heels a little. Of course, True Believers will squeal that this is because the British ‘massively outnumbered’ the Boers (their go-to excuse for pretty much everything) but this is simply not the case; on 4 February 1900, almost 4 months after the war was started by Krugers’ crackpot invasions, and just before Roberts devastated the republicans in the west and Buller broke through in Natal, the numbers of imperial forces in theatre was hardly impressive:

‘the effective strength of fighting men in Cape Colony, exclusive of the seven militia battalions and the garrisons of Mafeking and Kimberley, was 51,900’. In Natal, it was: ’34,830, of whom 9,780 were in Ladysmith’.[iii]

This should be compared to the 87,000-odd republicans who came and went from their armies as they saw fit throughout the conflict, but who were always a threat. Despite the comforting myths that it took ‘millions’ of British troops to win the war, these are hardly overwhelming numbers, especially given that the republicans were holding formidable defensive positions at the end of manageable lines of supply. Roberts, on the other hand, had to detach large numbers of his men to protect his rather more tenuous supply lines (guarding not only against raids from the Boer forces themselves, but also mindful of the possibility of rebels in the Cape Colony), and still to gather enough men to break through the Boer defences. One should always remember the 3:1 rule-of-thumb needed for a successful attack – a reality totally overlooked by the likes of Pakenham.

So, at the risk of greatly upsetting True Believers, it certainly wasn’t ‘sheer numbers’, which Roberts had on his side – it was a solid grip of strategy, and a focused determination to follow through on it. While De Wet was delighting his modern-day armchair fan-boys by studiously avoiding the advancing cavalry and infantry divisions, and instead targeting a wagon column at Waterval (a feat which had absolutely zero impact on the campaign), Roberts’ men were surging forwards to cut off Cronjé’s entire force – delivering a shattering blow to the republican war machine and relieving Kimberley to boot. After Cronjé’s surrender at Paardeberg, the result of the war was never in doubt.

But what could the Boer Generals have done differently? Well, ultimately, nothing – attacking the greatest Great Power of the Age was an act of intergalactic stupidity. But as soon as it became clear that the British were not simply going to give up their possessions in South Africa, the republican leadership should have realised the war was lost and surrendered – as some of the rather more enlightened ones wished to do as soon as Bloemfontein and Pretoria were captured. Instead, with no thought of an attainable war-winning strategy in mind, and blessed with a truly insane belief that the Almighty would intervene at some point, the bitter-einders decided to fight on in a pointless and unwinnable guerrilla war. All they actually managed to achieve was to drag South Africa through a couple more years of misery and tragic loss of life – despite the ‘cloud of falling stars’ which continues to entrance some today.


[i] History of the War in South Africa, Vol.4, p. 271

[ii] In reality, the 500-strong escort fought off De Wet’s 1,000-strong commando, though the Boers managed to kill or drive off 800 of the 1,600 oxen used to pull the wagons

[iii] Hall Handbook of the Boer War, p.79

Add Comment

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