‘Casualty aversion’

At the risk of stretching the comparison to breaking-point, there continue to be interesting parallels between Putin’s ongoing invasion of the Ukraine, and Kruger’s invasion of British territory back in 1899. Both embarked upon their ‘crusades’ in the firm belief that they would achieve their aims easily, totally under-estimating their opponent[i]. Instead, both invasions bogged down in the face of determined resistance and their much-vaunted forces did not live / have not lived up to expectation.  

The Russian army has just about managed to extract their battered formations from the (brainless) attempt to take Kiev, and is now attempting to focus on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine – as it surely should have done from the very start. After the hammering their forces have taken over the first two months of the conflict, however, even this is not really achieving much, with Western Intelligence analysts reporting demoralised Russian troops are now displaying ‘casualty aversion’[ii] – a polite euphemism for a distinctly un-Red-Army-like trait[iii].

Though the Red Army’s victories of the Second World War were mainly achieved at the expense of horrific loss of life, one can perhaps understand why – after the maulings they have endured over the last couple of months – Putin’s punch-drunk, gun-shy forces appear to have swung to the other extreme, and are now not prepared to take any sort of risks. But, put simply, this is not how towns are taken, defences are breached and wars are won. Indeed, this new-found determination not to expose themselves to danger means that the Russian forces are unlikely to attain any sort of meaningful breakthrough, and one can see the situation degenerating into a fairly static affair, not dissimilar to much of the Iran / Iraq War of the 1980s.

Back in 1899, Kruger’s invading forces also exhibited a distinct tendency toward ‘casualty aversion’. In the main, and in stark contrast to the dauntless and disciplined Tommies, the Boers were loath to put themselves in personal danger; just as Putin’s forces have been held off (so far) by the stalwart defenders of Mariupol, so Kruger’s ‘casualty averse’ invaders proved totally incapable of defeating the plucky garrisons of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley. Even tiny Kuruman held out for six weeks against odds of 10:1, only finally surrendering when republican artillery was deployed.

Despite the nonsense some people prefer to believe today, the Boer tendency towards ‘casualty aversion’ rendered it almost impossible for the republicans to effectively mount an assault, as was reported in the post-war Royal Commission:

‘The Boers had certain qualifications which gave them great superiority in defence, but they had also certain weaknesses, chiefly due to want of discipline, which rendered their defence weak in one respect, and made them almost powerless in the attack. While their mobility, elasticity, and intelligence made it safe for them to trust to individual initiative for the prompt strengthening of a threatened spot, their general discipline was not good enough to allow of an orderly movement to a flank of a large body in the stress of battle, and thus our flank attacks were rarely opposed. Again, the feebleness in attack allowed us to hold a front with a handful of men, who would have been powerless against such a counter attack as might reasonably be expected from European troops.’[iv]

Another post war commentator summed up Kruger’s men thus:

‘The military qualities of the Boers, like those of Cromwell’s men, were useful but not showy. They came by instinct and not by acquisition, and they cannot be sufficiently accounted for as the outcome of experience in the pursuit of game on the veld. They were neutralized partially by characteristics the reverse of military. The Boers were not remarkable for personal courage. If there had been in the Boer Army a decoration corresponding to the Victoria Cross it would have been rarely won or at least rarely earned. There is scarcely an instance of an individual feat of arms or act of devotion performed by a Burgher. On the few occasions when the Boers were charged by cavalry they became paralysed with terror. They were incapable of submitting themselves to discipline, and difficult to command in large numbers. They could not be made to understand that prompt action, which possibly might not be the best under the circumstances, was preferable to wasting time in discussing a better with the field cornets. They were subject to panics and, for the time, easily disheartened: and their sense of duty was not conspicuous. The principles of strategy were unknown to them, their tactics were crude, and with the exception of a very few who had fought in 1881, they were without experience of the realities of war.’[v]

Indeed, weeks before the first shot was fired, many Boers failed to live up to their modern-day reputation as gallant patriots, eager to lay down their lives for their (ahem) ‘independence’[vi]. Commandant (later General) Ben Viljoen was tasked with raising the Johannesburg Commando in September 1899, but quickly found that the burghers dreamed up all manner of excuses to avoid commando service – thus taking ‘casualty aversion’ to a whole new level. When Viljoen moved to the front on the 29th, he only had 400 men instead of the 750 he had counted on.[vii]  Similar reports came from other towns in both republics, and the Transvaal Government went as far as to set up a special commandeer commission to ‘root out the burghers who were in hiding’.[viii] Before long, there were cases of Boers at the front trying to get medical certificates issued to get away on home leave — a practice referred to by their more stout-hearted comrades as ‘bangsiekte’ (fear-sickness). Others took the more rather more drastic route of self-inflicted wounds.[ix]

Even when they were not in the face of the enemy, there was still a good chance that panic might spread through the undisciplined and nervous federal forces:

‘One night before they came to the positions they took up, at Polfontein, about eight o’clock in the evening, the Boers were being harangued by the predikant. He was in the middle of his sermon when a stampede of horses took place. The noise of the horses’ feet sounded as if a charge of cavalry was coming on, the burghers raised a shout ‘heir kom de Engelsh’. Clergyman and congregation fled helter skelter to their wagons. Some could not find their rifles, others under the wagons, calling on the name of the Lord to deliver them from the enemy. One man, he told me, whom I know well, and a great warrior in his own estimation, clinging on to the wagon wheel, could not hold his rifle he was in such a shivering funk, calling for some whisky to steady his nerves. A young fellow he saw with an iron pot on his head, another instead of putting the cartridge into the magazine of his rifle was trying to push it down the muzzle.’[x]

If this sort of unseemly panic occurred when the British were nowhere near, one can imagine just how ineffective the Boers were when it came to launching attacks: a Boer night assault on British defences at Lancaster Hill near Vryheid on 11 December 1900, for example, quickly settled down to a lengthy exchange of long-range fire. Despite initially taking the defenders by surprise, the federals showed absolutely no inclination to press home their advantage and — on encountering barbed wire and machine-gun fire —were loath to make any close assaults. The death of just one burgher, a C. G. Gunter, in their attempt on the Maxim gun, was enough to give his comrades second thoughts. Gunter’s death, ‘though one of only two confirmed Boer fatalities in the entire battle, severely shook the Boers and resulted in a marked reluctance to press home their attacks’.[xi]

Another example is the Defence of Mahlabatini[xii], fought on 28 April 1901. Despite initially ambushing a small police patrol, a 150 strong Boer force was ultimately driven off by just three NCOs and 19 troopers of the Natal Police. Though holding an advantage of about seven to one, the burghers showed little inclination to leave cover for the several hours during which the battle raged, and eventually pulled back having lost eleven men killed. So incensed were the ‘gallant’ bittereinders at their defeat, that they shot their black scouts for having led them into such an ‘unequal’ battle.[xiii]

There were exceptions, of course; some of the republicans who attempted to assault Wagon Hill in January 1900 did so with great bravery and determination — but even this was overshadowed by the fact that thousands of their comrades did not bother to join in, or did so only with half-hearted reluctance[xiv]. This ‘casualty aversion’ / cowardice contributed to the failure of the attack, and led to animosity between the various commandos.

The situation was similar over on the western front. In May 1900, Mafeking’s besiegers opted for a last-ditch effort to storm the town before an Imperial relief column arrived – something they might have been better served attempting 200 days earlier. The plan called for a feint which would cover the main attack by a Commandant Eloff at the head of 700 republicans. Eloff’s force would then push through some native villages and overwhelm Baden-Powell’s garrison – that was the theory at any rate. The reality was rather different, however, with the somewhat chaotic preparations for the attack recorded by one despondent Boer in a letter home:

‘There is also a movement on foot to storm Mafeking one of these days. Volunteers have been called for, but with the exception of the Uitlanders [foreign volunteers / mercenaries] under Commandant Eloff, the call has not been responded to at all. It may be that all will be ordered to go, but that is hardly likely as our Burgers are not given to obeying orders when they are in conflict with their own personal views.’[xv]

Sure enough, few of the burghers had any interest in such a dangerous scheme, and in the event, Eloff could only persuade 240 to join him.[xvi] The assault was launched on 12 May but was quickly contained and pinned by a vigorous counter-attack. The Boers surrendered, having sustained 60 casualties and 108 taken prisoner. Baden-Powell’s losses were just twelve dead and eight wounded.

Towards the end of the war some bittereinders began to conduct mounted charges against Imperial positions—an exceptionally courageous act, though usually a fruitless and costly one too. However admirable, such examples of republican selflessness and gallantry were very much the exception to the rule. The American scout, Major Burnham[xvii], was a veteran of the Plains Indian Wars and both Matabele wars. He served the Empire in the Boer War and recorded first-hand experiences of the failings of the Boer system of war:

‘The Boer was never willing to sacrifice his personal property for the common good, neither would he instantly and implicitly obey the orders of his commanders. He was a shining example of the ultra-individualistic idea, which is both a fault and a virtue. In the early days of the war, it was almost impossible for the Boer commander to extract obedience from his men. Every project of any importance had to be talked over and argued about at length that the moment for its successful execution often passed.[xviii]

Orders were routinely ignored, or considered optional or advisory. For example, the burghers were ordered to sleep in the perimeter trenches around the time that Colonel Plumer’s relief force was reported to be in the vicinity of Pitsani having moved southward from Lobatsi. One Hermann Eugen Schoch, a land surveyor from Rustenburg, wrote on 8 March 1900:

‘The first night I did it, but when I found that only very few had obeyed I took the precaution on the second night to have a look around first, and when I saw that nobody took any notice of the order I quietly went to bed in the house and have done so ever since.’

A fort had been constructed between the laager and Mafeking, and Schoch’s brother, Victor, who had been home on leave in Rustenburg, was assigned to this fort. Schoch, who was extremely bitter about the whole war and very anti the republican leaders, wrote on 26 April 1900:

‘I have not seen Victor since the day of his arrival. They seem to be having rather uncomfortable times down there. They threatened to go out on strike, and abandon the fort if they did not get reinforcements at once. There are, however, none available just now so they will just have to get on as best they can… The order and discipline is something grand; it is really a wonder we have not come to grief yet!’[xix]

Curiously, even the Boers’ ill-disciplined individualism is today held up by Defenders of the Myth™ as being some sort of an advantage over the ‘unthinking automatons’ of the British Army. But – at the risk of burst their comforting bubble of ignorance – the harsh reality is that successful armies are not built from individuals who do as they please, when they please, or – as Putin’s forces are demonstrating today – those who are disinclined to expose themselves to danger.

Deneys Reitz described the chaotic set-up within the commandos:

‘Each commando was divided into two or more field-cornetcies, and these again were sub-divided into corporalships. A field-cornetcy was supposed to contain 150 to 200 men, and a corporalship nominally consisted of 25, but there was no fixed rule about this, and a popular field-cornet or corporal might have twice as many men as an unpopular one, for a burgher could elect which officer he wished to serve under.’[xx]

Despite the myths still peddled today, this unruly free-for-all was far from effective. Time after time, the independent-minded, and, let’s be charitable, ‘casualty averse’, burghers refused to join assaults or took it upon themselves to abandon outlying or exposed positions. Others simply disappeared when it suited them and pickets went to sleep or wandered off. With little in the way of formal military discipline, the reluctant burgher would simply vanish when he had had enough. In March 1900, for example, the men of the Jacobsdal Commando were expressly forbidden to go on leave, but many simply disappeared and took the chance to surrender to the British and take the Oath of Neutrality.[xxi]

As the tide turned against them, whole units simply came and went, vanished or re-appeared on a whim. In early June 1900, an exasperated General Smuts wrote:

‘The Rustenburg Commando with its 2,000 men almost entirely disappeared, and it was a pleasant surprise to us afterwards to hear that some 130 burghers under Assistant-Commandant Caspar du Plessis had refused to surrender, and were marching eastwards in order to effect a junction with the main Boer forces under General Louis Botha.’[xxii]

General Viljoen’s reminiscences also dispel the highly popular belief that the federal armies were blessed with far better junior officers than Sandhurst could produce:

‘The Boer officers can be divided into two classes—the brave and the cowardly. The brave officer fights whenever he gets the chance, whereas his chicken-hearted brother always waits for orders and makes elaborate plans to escape fighting. It is quite easy in the Boer Army to succeed in the course adopted by the latter class, and it is not infrequently occurred that the Boers preferred this class of officer to his more reckless comrade, for they argued — ‘we like to serve under him because he will keep us out of danger’.’[xxiii]

With troops who came and went as they liked, and who had no interest in leaving cover in a fire fight, or disappeared whenever a dangerous mission was so much as whispered about, and with junior officers who made ‘elaborate plans’ to avoid combat, it proved impossible for the republican generals to coordinate their attacks: commanders could never be sure how many of their men would deign to turn up. Orders were ignored when looting opportunities presented themselves and, by the time of the guerrilla war, many of the so-called commandos were little more than lawless gangs of bandits.[xxiv] All in all, it was a state of affairs that would quite simply have been absolutely unthinkable in the British Army.

It is, of course, right and proper that commanders should not be profligate with the lives of the men under their command, but – as Putin’s forces are reminding us – troops which are ‘casualty averse’ will struggle to ever achieve much.


[i] Scoble & Abercrombie, p.246; Currey, p.133; Farrelly, p.263; Burleigh, p.1; Burne, p. 105; and countless others. For more details, see Chapter 5 of Kruger’s War

[ii] Daily Telegraph, 4 May 2022: Vladimir Putin’s military cupboard is bare by Colonel Richard Kemp

[iii] Perhaps we shall see a return to the old Soviet-era tactics of placing political commissars with machine guns behind the attacking troops, ready to shoot down any who dare to retreat

[iv] Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa, Vol. 2, p. 288

[v] Butler and Tanner, A Handbook of the Boer War, 1910, Chapter 1

[vi] When discussing the Boer War, for some reason the word ‘independence’ is usually used to describe: ‘continued inept minority rule by a corrupt, racist, self-appointed master-race’

[vii] Grundlingh, The Dynamics of Treason, p. 20

[viii] Grundlingh, The Dynamics of Treason, p. 21

[ix] South African Military History Society, Military History Journal, Vo.8, No.6, December 1991

[x] Lane, The War Diary of Burgher Jack Lane, 1899‒1900, p. 5

[xi] South African Military History Journal Vol. 10, No. 4, December 1996

[xii] The village of Mahlabatini is in Zululand about 30 miles north of Melmoth

[xiii] Holt, The Mounted Police of Natal, p. 171

[xiv] Carver, The National Army Museum Book of the Boer War, p. 67

[xv] South African Military History Society, Military History Journal, Vo.8, No.6, December 1991

[xvi] Carver, The National Army Museum Book of the Boer War, p. 152

[xvii] Frederick Russell Burnham DSO (1861–1947) was a larger-than-life American scout, outdoorsman, and oil prospector. Born in a Lakota Sioux Indian Reserve in Minnesota, Burnham was taught field craft by the Indians as a child. He would go on to serve Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company during the Matabele Wars, narrowly escaping the fate of the rest of the Shangani Patrol. He famously introduced Baden-Powell to field craft and earned the title: ‘Father of Scouting’ during the Second Matabele War. Burnham was in Alaska when Kruger launched his crackpot invasions, but Lord Roberts summoned him to act as his Chief of Scouts upon his appointment as Commander-in-Chief in South Africa.

[xviii] Burnham, Scouting on Two Continents, p. 277

[xix] South African Military History Society, Military History Journal, Vo.8, No.6, December 1991

[xx] Reitz, Commando, p. 21

[xxi] Grundlingh, The Dynamics of Treason, p. 23

[xxii] South African Military History Society, Military History Journal, Vo.8, No.6, December 1991

[xxiii] Viljoen, My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War, p. 276

[xxiv] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol. 4, p. 468

1 Comment

  • Dr Antony Bader Posted May 4, 2022 9:21 am

    Incredibly accurate, intelligent and articulate and with the wry humour shown by Mr Ash in all of his musings

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