The 8th Brigade at Dundee

There is a certain type of person[i] who, desperate to justify the republican invasions of British territory which started the Boer War, will claim that this was only done because ‘the British were massing on the borders’. Not only is this patently untrue, but it also defies all logic: if the British were ‘massing on the borders’, how did the Boers manage to invade so deeply into British territory, annexing vast swathes of it? Still, it seemingly serves as a fig leaf to justify the aggression of the Boer republics in the minds of those who aren’t actually interested in historical reality.

With war appearing inevitable, local scratch forces were hastily raised in Mafeking and Kimberley, but – aside from half-a-battalion of the Loyal North Lancs which was rushed up to defend the latter[ii] – the only British army unit which had been moved even vaguely ‘near the border’ when the Boers attacked was the 8th Brigade[iii]. Buller’s defence plan had been to abandon northern Natal, pulling General White’s garrison back from Ladysmith to take up positions on the southern bank of the Tugela (shown on the map below, in purple). At the insistence of the Natal Government however, and very much against the wishes of the army command, the 8th Brigade had been moved up to Dundee to protect the strategically important coal mines there.

Despite all this, and the fact that Dundee is not on the border, this is nevertheless enough for the Apartheid-era propaganda machine (and every ‘useful idiot’ ever since) to pretend it was some mass troop movement, poised to invade the poor, innocent, defenceless republics.

Not only that, but a quick glance at the map above (and as indicated by the red arrow) will show that Dundee was sited at the terminus of a railway branch line. If the 8th Brigade was – as some lunatics frantically try to pretend – a ‘British army, massed on the border, poised to invade the republics’, why was it not deployed on one of the railway lines which actually entered either of the republics, as marked by the orange arrows? The railways were absolutely critical to supply any potential offensive move – as the old saying goes: ‘Amateurs study tactics, armchair generals study strategy, but professionals study logistics’. One would have to be mentally sub-normal to think that the deployment of the 8th Brigade to Dundee was in anyway an aggressive act.

What is more interesting still is what I read today, in a book called ‘Seven Months Under Boer Rule’, written by the Rev Bailey, who served as the Vicar at Dundee’s Anglican church at the time. On p.14 of his firsthand account of events, he explains that the last battalion of the 8th Brigade (the Irish Fusiliers) only arrived in Dundee on Monday the 16th of October – five days after the Boers declared war… supposedly because the wicked British were ‘massing on their borders’.

What’s really amazing is that anybody still believes this rubbish, and still faithfully spews it out on Quora, at braais every weekend, and even in certain self-pitying books about the conflict.


[i] ie. an idiot

[ii] Despite pleas for more artillery to defend the town, a battery of 12-pdrs in storage at Cape Town was not mobilised

[iii] A British infantry brigade of the period was formed from 4 battalions – ie. just around 4,000 men in total. It goes without saying that this is not, therefore, ‘an army’


  • Chris Posted December 5, 2020 10:39 pm

    May I suggest stumbling upon another “little-book”

    “Interfering in Politics: A Biography of Sir Percy FitzPatrick”
    Prof Andrew Duminy & Prof Bill Guest

    A deep history of the Transvaal / ZAR , Milner , the lead up to war , and the aftermath.
    One will learn a NUMBER of things. Almost in a way a revionist history
    That Smuts had conceived of the Guerilla war even before hostilities were declared
    How the peace was lost and how Het Volk came to power in the Transvaal
    So much more

  • Geoff Posted December 29, 2020 10:49 pm

    Looking for a fight?
    Why didn’t Britain call the bluff of the ZAR by agreeing to the terms of the ultimatum?
    b) “That the troops on the borders of this Republic shall be instantly withdrawn.”
    The only British forces anywhere near the ZAR borders was Penn-Symons force at Dundee, and they were in a militarily weak position anyway. As per your note above, Buller wanted the British force to deploy on the Tugela. The only other Imperial force was the garrison at Mafeking but that was made up of “colonials,” as were any units in Rhodesia. I am assuming that “this Republic” in the ultimatum refers to the ZAR so British forces on the border of the Orange Free State at Kimberly (only half a battalion in any event) would be excluded.
    c) “That all reinforcements of troops which have arrived in South Africa since June 1st 1899, shall be removed from South Africa within a reasonable time, … and this Government will, on compliance therewith, be prepared to withdraw the armed burghers of this Republic from the borders.”
    According the Hall Handbook of the Anglo Boer War, the British only had 2 cavalry and 6 ½ infantry units in South Africa prior to August 1899 and (according to my internet search) at least 1 cavalry and 4 of those infantry units were there prior to June 1st 1899 (and maybe more of them were).
    So, compliance with this question of the ultimatum means the removal of a very few units, in a time still to be specified, so there’s no immediate time pressure, but in doing so it results in the Boer commandos being withdrawn from the borders. That seems like a very cheap price to pay to disarm your opponent’s offensive power?
    d) “That Her Majesty’s troops which are now on the high seas shall not be landed in any part of South Africa.”
    At this point, there is the equivalent of one cavalry brigade and two infantry brigades en route to South Africa from various places, but mostly India. Britain knows it isn’t going to win any war with a force of this size. The “army corps” to win the war is still being mobilised and hasn’t even left the UK.
    It appears to me that the price of compliance to these questions of the ultimatum was not high, and it would force the ZAR back to the negotiating table.
    To the world at large, Britain could have demonstrated that it had no designs for conquest on the ZAR because it could have shown that compliance to the questions of the ultimatum actually meant only a small adjustment to its military deployments.
    On the face of it, the ultimatum appears perfectly reasonable and Britain’s failure to comply absolutely does imply that the ZAR was under threat of invasion, or at the very least, Britain wanted war.

    • Bulldog Posted December 30, 2020 5:36 am

      Thanks for the post, Geoff,

      It always strikes me as a little strange that, despite it being the Boers who issued an ultimatum, and then attacked and invaded British territory, there are many who claim this to be evidence that Britain wanted war.

      Kruger had been actively preparing for an offensive war against the British Empire since at least 1887; the gun-running and rabble-rousing of his well-funded Secret Service, and the ‘Bogus Conspiracy’ of May 1899 should leave no one in any doubt that this is exactly what was intended.

      And Kruger had already proved he had no interest in reaching a reasonable agreement to resolve the disenfranchisement of the Uitlanders in any case. Far from seeking to address the issue, when he met Milner at Bloemfontein, he unveiled a long list of things he wanted to talk about first:

      ‘President Kruger, in accordance with his custom, began on a number of side issues, instead of going straight to the point, thus employing the method, known to most of us who have had dealings with mistrustful and ignorant peasants. He raised among others the following questions: (1) Swaziland, which he wanted to annex; (2) The mobilization of the army; (3) The payment of the Jameson Raid indemnity; (4) The uitlanders’ petition; (5) The gold law; (6) The mining law; (7) The liquor law; (8) The tariff law; (9) The independence of the Republic; (10) The dynamite monopoly; (11) Arbitration on all disputed points; (12) British intervention in the internal policy of the South African Republic. And then, added Kruger, ingeniously, when all these matters have been disposed of, we can take up the question of franchise.’

      After the failed talks in Bloemfontein, Kruger’s Secret Service agents were busy sowing sedition in the Cape, and holding talks with various Bondsmen in British territory. In stark contrast, and while these secret talks were being held and armaments continued to flood into the Boer republics (Steyn returned from his leave taking with the High Commissioner to order Mausers and cartridges from Germany) the British Government and Her Majesty’s forces remained blissfully unprepared for, and oblivious to, the impending conflict. When a million rounds of Mauser ammunition destined for the Orange Free State arrived at Port Elizabeth on 8 July — obviously having been ordered several months before—the authorities in the Cape Colony made no effort to stop the consignment. William Schreiner, the Cape premier, later defended this by claiming he simply had no reason to anticipate war with the Free State. The officer commanding Her Majesty’s troops in South Africa, Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler , had also ‘been informed that there was no special reason to fear immediate war and was ordered to curtail long-authorized military expenditure’. Though the Rhodesian authorities asked the Imperial Government for arms, the War Office continued to cut down establishments.

      All rather odd if, as you suggest, Britain was keen for war. Indeed, after the war, one of the most remarkable findings of the Royal Commission set up to examine the lessons that could be learned from the conflict was that ‘no plan of campaign ever existed for operations in South Africa’.

      That an invasion was imminent was obvious to the Colonials in Natal, however: in the July of 1899, loyalist farmers in the area had become increasingly concerned with developments over the frontier; the veldt had been burned unusually early to encourage a speedy grass crop after the first rains and OFS farmers who normally grazed their livestock in Natal during the winter had driven them to safety behind the Drakensberg Mountains. By September, the colonial authorities in Natal reported that Transvaal Secret Service agents were spreading sedition among the ‘loyal natives’ and endeavouring to ‘set tribe against tribe in order to create confusion and detail the defensive forces of the colony’.

      A secret memorandum sent by Jan Smuts to the Transvaal Executive on 4 September suggests that all the negotiations had only ever been a time-wasting exercise in any case, and leaves one in no doubt as to the Imperial ambitions of the Boers:
      ‘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.’

      Kruger started sending his Commandos to the frontier of Natal on around 10 September, the intention, accordingly to the uniquely well-placed Michael Farrelly, being to ‘frighten the Imperial Government out of its supposed policy of pretence and bluster’.

      The ultimatum was drafted on 26 September, but 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 the ‘dreams of a Dutch Dominion throughout South Africa’. 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 had already mobilized on the 27th September. Its military took control of the nation’s railways on the 29th, and various telegraph wires were cut.

      On 2 October Kruger informed the Transvaal Volksraad that war was now inevitable. The next day, the Orange Free State mobilized and Kruger’s agents brazenly seized a gold shipment worth around £500,000. The burghers of both republics were now massed on their borders, the belligerent Transvaalers jeering at their more hesitant southern allies. Indeed, so widespread was the enthusiasm and lust for war in the ZAR that few risked speaking out against it. One who lived through it all remembered:

      ‘If you dared to lift up a voice against the powers that be, you would simply be torn to pieces, and vengeance wreaked upon your innocent wife and children … not one, but many, since declaration of war, have told me openly: ‘If you don’t come, we will take good care you don’t go anywhere else’ … Many of the Boers, I know, are hard against this war, but what can they do?’

      In contrast, Britain finally only started mobilising her reserves on 7 October – without these, the Home-based battalions were all woefully understrength. As you rightly state, the reinforcements being sent to South Africa were in no way enough to invade the Boer republics – because that was not the intention. They were being sent to defend British territory… which, being outnumbered by the invading Boers by almost 3:1, they only just about managed to do.
      As Hugh Rethman wrote in ‘Friends and Enemies’:

      ‘There was no question of Britain launching a military attack against the Boer Republics. She had made no preparations for any military campaign against them, indeed, she had made no adequate arrangements to defend the Cape Colony or Natal. Outside a small circle of people with relatives in South Africa, the British public did not care one iota what happened there. Their knowledge of the country was slight and probably limited to the fact that gold had been discovered in the Transvaal. Of the strategic importance of the South African colonies they knew nothing, and would never have condoned an unprovoked attack against those distant Republics. For all practical purposes it was the Boer Republics who would decide whether or not there would be war.’

      Given all the above, I cannot agree that, by embarrassingly acquiescing to the terms of Kruger’s Ultimatum, that Britain would have forced him back to the negotiating table. Britain had an obligation to defend her Colonies and Kruger had no right to demand HM forces to be withdrawn from them – all this would have done was made them easier targets for his invasions.

      Kruger’s ultimatum was no more ‘reasonable’ than modern-day Russia saying if NATO does not withdraw troops from Estonia, then they will invade. I cannot imagine many right-thinking people would say that, by refusing to be bullied into complying with such a demand, NATO would be to blame for such an invasion.

      Similarly, lets imagine that its 1982, and British Intelligence detects Argentina is assembling invasion forces, ready to strike the Falklands. In response, Britain looks to mobilise a frigate and ship-in an extra company of troops to defend the territory. Argentina then demands that Britain stop these plans immediately or they will invade. Are you suggesting that Britain should have meekly complied with this? Or that, if they didn’t, this would have would have made Britain entirely responsible for an invasion of the Falklands? Or, indeed, that any such demand from Argentina would have been ‘reasonable’, and that people would be trying to argue this in a hundred years time?

      The Boer War must be the only war in history where the side which declared war (a nation which had a system of government that made the later Apartheid regime seem positively liberal and benign), which invaded their neighbours, which looted and pillaged their way through the land they invaded, which annexed vast swathes of it, and renamed the towns they captured… still somehow enjoys the support of people who tie themselves in knots to pretend that they are, in fact – and against all the evidence – the poor, innocent victims of the piece.

  • Geoff Posted December 31, 2020 2:05 am

    Indeed the issue at stake, which you are at pains to point out in your books, is how did the side that declared war, invaded and annexed etc. manage to become the innocent victim that was “wronged”?
    So, I am using some “benefit of hindsight” to explore if is there an alternative history whereby the British Empire isn’t the bad guy. What could Britain have to done differently at the time (or afterwards) to change the narrative? Call Kruger’s buff on the ultimatum? It would appear to me that even at the time, it was only the countries of the British Empire that had any sympathy with Britain’s cause. Everyone else was backing the “plucky Boer” underdog? Was the war just simply a public relations disaster for the British Empire from which there was no escape?
    Did Britain and the ZAR ever discuss arbitration? Who would the arbiter have been? Couldn’t all of Kruger’s side issues been dealt with? For sure, Britain can say no deal on the ZAR annexing Swaziland, and Britain could use that to expose the ZARs expansionist ambitions’ which gets the ZAR to be the “bad guy” (I assume Swaziland had asked for British protection?). The other issues I know nothing about (I’ll have to read some books I suppose), but to my casual observation, all those other issues look like things that the ZAR has the right to decide for itself as a sovereign country without the British getting involved, which leads back to the ZAR being the side that’s being wronged.
    I accept your point that Britain wasn’t preparing for war in the early part of 1899. However, Britain got itself caught on the horns of a dilemma as that year went on over not wanting to make a false move that might show Britain as the “bad guy” precipitating war and the notion that the problems in Southern Africa would only be solved by war, so the ultimatum proved to be convenient. The army corps was only mobilised after the ultimatum was issued, as part of the narrative that Britain didn’t want to be seen to have started the war. However, the mobilisation had been planned for in advance, and the army corps was “on the seas” within two weeks which I assume was quick for 1899, so my view is Britain was “up for the fight” but just couldn’t find a workable narrative between the politicians that didn’t want to provoke anything and the soldiers who wanted to stop the Boers as quickly as possible by getting troops into the Cape and Natal.
    I have not read the Royal Commission on the lessons learned. So, you can correct me if I am wrong (or send me in its direction if it answers my statement below). I am under the impression that there was a plan which was to use the “army corps” to attack from the Cape Colony to Bloemfontein and hence onto Pretoria (and win the war). The Natal Field Force’s job was purely defensive to hold the Colony of Natal. The plan “went up in smoke” because Rhodes decided to place himself in Kimberly to defend his interests there, and General White messed up on “Mournful Monday” and got the Natal Field Force besieged, so instead of marching to victory, the army corps got distracted with relieving sieges instead.
    This discussion is all about the “narrative”. Britain lost the narrative on the Boer war, then and now, although I greatly admire your efforts to attempt to turn the tide. In the West, we are pathologically opposed to Russia, so Putin’s got a lot of work to do in advance if he ever plans on taking Estonia and winning the narrative. Maybe he’s reading Kruger’s biography for inspiration?
    On the Falklands, Britain won the war and the narrative. All the Falkland Islanders were pro Britain. However, Argentina was never going to be invaded. But there is an argument that that’s exactly what Britain did in the Boer war. Its colonies were invaded, but it then invaded the invaders countries and insisted on them joining the British Empire at the war’s end. Which leads me on to another “benefit of hindsight” option: When Lord Roberts arrives in the Cape, his plan is to eject the Boers from British territory but not actually invade the Boer republics. That firmly makes the Boers the “bad guys”. What was the point to the British advance into the Boer Republics because I can tell you that the narrative kicks off again, “The British invaded because they wanted the gold” etc.
    Roberts could have relieved Kimberly (still using his flank march idea), attempted to defeat Cronje’s army inside the Cape Colony, but having failed (he failed historically), French’s cavalry ride north to relieve Mafeking (not east to Paardeberg). Meantime, Buller’s replacement (Lyttleton?) fires up the Natal Army that relieves Ladysmith and drives the Boers out of Natal.
    Job done. Milner and Kruger are back at the negotiating table. This time Kruger’s got unhappy burghers from his defeated armies to contend with, and it’s the Kruger clique that have been responsible for the defeats that are doing the negotiating. The victorious British army IS now poised all along the borders. Steyn, De Wet and the Bittereinders have no influence. The “volk” have not been invaded.
    Moving on to the other issue: What was the point of insisting that the Boer Republics became part of the British Empire at the end of the war? Before the war, the British allegedly just wanted the Uitlanders to get a legitimate franchise. How did that become “you are all subjects of the British Empire” by the war’s end? Giving the Uitlanders the vote wasn’t a guarantee the ZAR would vote to become British, so why insist on it at the end of the war? I mean the Orange Free State was independent, with no Uitlanders before the war, so why did they have to become “British subjects”? You don’t have to answer. Is there a book I should read?

    • Bulldog Posted December 31, 2020 5:53 am

      Thanks for your comments, Geoff.

      You raise some very interesting points, and I fully agree that the common perception was / is that Britain was the ‘bad guy’… not that this means it was true, of course. As George Bernard Shaw observed:

      ‘During the war a curious thing happened in Norway. There, as in Germany, everyone took it for granted that the right side was the anti-English side. Suddenly Ibsen asked in his grim manner, ‘Are we really on the side of Kruger and his Old Testament?’… I saw that Kruger meant the 17th century and the Scottish 17th century at that; and so to my great embarrassment I found myself on the side of the mob.’

      I suppose it’s pretty natural to automatically support anyone who takes on the Big Dog; we see this phenomena today, with hordes of people who will unthinkingly take the side of whoever is against the USA, no matter the rights-and-wrongs of it, or however ghastly they are. Similarly, and though you say that Britain ‘won the narrative’ on the Falklands, there were many (even in Britain) who automatically took the side of Argentina, despite their blatant aggression.

      Could Britain have ‘spun’ things better in terms of the Boer War? Undoubtedly… but as we still see today, there are many who will frantically claim that the Boers were the poor, innocent victims (despite their blatant aggression), and then hammer and twist reality to fit that preferred narrative (if they even bother to do that). On the other hand, anyone who takes the time to read into the subject will see that there is much more to it that this preconceived idea, but few want to.

      You mention that ZAR was a sovereign nation, and that, therefore, British diplomacy to press for the rights of the Uitlanders makes Kruger’s regime the ‘wronged party’. One must remember, however, that the ZAR was not a fully independent state, as it was under the suzerainty of Britain. Furthermore, I doubt many would agree that Apartheid-era South Africa was the ‘wronged party’ due to the similar international pressure they came under to change their (actually much less restrictive) franchise laws. I also think it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that, because the ZAR was getting pressure to adopt a fair franchise system, that gives them the right to invade and annex their neighbours, and somehow still be seen as the wrong party.

      In terms of the British army stopping at the border, having liberated the land annexed by the invading Boers, this is a very interesting point and one I have thought about frequently over the years.
      From a military point of view, it would certainly have complicated matters: to have attempted to relieve Mafeking (and also liberate the enormous tracts of Bechuanaland annexed by the ZAR) without also pushing on into the Orange Free State, would have left British communications entirely reliant on the railway line which ran north, on the British side of the frontier of the OFS – a decidedly tenuous situation, if republican forces remained undefeated just a few miles to the east. Similarly, clearing northern Natal would have been very difficult indeed without the invading Boers being withdraw to defend on the other Front. As I mention in my books, the best service that the OFS could have provided to Kruger was to remain neutral throughout, as the most workable way to get to the ZAR was through their republic (that they didn’t, as Steyn admitted, is because they wanted to take the chance to snatch the Kimberley diamond mines from Britain’s Cape Colony).

      Even if it proved militarily possible to liberate British territory without invading the Boer republics, and other than to try and prevent being viewed as ‘the bad guys’ (by people who always will anyway), why should Britain have stopped at the borders of the republics? From a strategic point of view, to simply leave them there, intact, and ready to attack again whenever the fancy took them, was not an option, especially given that Britain’s over-riding concern was the defence of the RN base at the Cape.

      Though I fully agree that it is the commonly held ‘narrative’ of the war, it is always conveniently forgotten by those who like to claim Britain wanted to ‘steal the gold’ that no gold mines were ‘grabbed’ by the British government, that both republics were granted self-rule within a few years, and that the whole of South Africa was effectively given independence just 8 years after the end of the Boer War.
      Back in 1900, the French economist, Monsieur Guyot, pointed out the salient fact that was so often ignored at the time, and still is today:

      ‘[Britain’s critics are] perfectly well aware that England will derive no benefit from the gold mines, nor will she take possession of them any more than she has done of the gold mines of Australia. They are private property.’

      And as Conan-Doyle also rightly asserted, back in January 1902:

      ‘The gold mines are private companies, with shares held by private shareholders, German and French, as well as British. Whether the British or the Boer flag flew over the country would not alienate a single share from any holder, nor would the wealth of Britain be any way greater … how is Britain the richer because her flag flies over the Rand? The Transvaal will be a self-governing colony, like all other British colonies, with its own finance minister, its own budget, its own taxes, even its own power of imposing duties upon British merchandise … We know all this because it is part of our British system, but it is not familiar to those nations who look upon their colonies as sources of direct revenue to the mother country.’

      This suggests to me that facts don’t really seem to enter ‘the narrative’, so I guess it doesn’t really matter; whatever she did, Britain would always be (gleefully, unthinkingly) seen as the ‘bad guy’ by some… and to Hell with historical reality.

      Indeed, one could equally ask, if, having cleared the invaders out of the USSR, should the Red Army have stopped at the border of Germany in 1944? As they went on to invade Germany and, indeed, to retain control of a large chunk of it for another 40-odd years, why is it that ‘the narrative’ doesn’t say that this is proof Russia wanted a war all along, and was desperate to invade Germany?

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