Denial is not just a river in Egypt

The parallels continue between the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and Kruger’s invasions of British territory back in 1899. After an initial smattering of minor success, the Russians are being driven back, just as the invading Boers were, more than 120 years ago. Though their decision has proven to have been spectacularly ill-advised, some residents of the Ukraine chose to collaborate with the invaders, just as some (Dutch-speaking) British Subjects of the Cape Colony and Natal collaborated with Kruger’s invaders.

One such traitor, ‘evidently thinking that the Boers were going to be victorious, and would establish Dutch supremacy throughout the whole of South Africa, wrote to his neighbour—an English farmer—and offered him ten pounds for his large farm, at the same time pointing out that he would get nothing for it after the war was over, as it would be taken off him’.[1] Another turncoat was found to have acquired no less than five pianos, all looted from the houses of neighbouring farms.[2] Apart from a music-hire business, quite what he planned to do with them all is anyone’s guess.

Returning to the modern-day, reports state that as the Russian forces fled from Kherson, they ‘looted the main art museum and stole 15,000 works. They also stole a racoon, a llama, a wolf, a donkey and squirrels from the city zoo’.[3] What became of the poor old racoon is not recorded, though I imagine it has long-since been fashioned into some sort of Davy Crockett hat.

Few today like to admit that, as Kruger’s invaders also fled back from whence they’d come, they too were laden down with loot, having cheerfully plundered those areas of Natal they had seized and declared to be part of the South African Republic. Though it doesn’t please modern-day True Believers to hear it, the reality is that the commandos that streamed into British territory pillaged as they went and ransacked any farmsteads they came across[4] driving terrified refugees before them.

‘Boer women followed the commandos, with their waggons, joyfully loading up with food and furniture, a splendid shopping-spree with nothing to pay! The piled-up carts and waggons passed through Bethal, arousing feelings of pleasure from the townspeople.[5]

When the town of Dundee[6] was captured, the free-for-all looting spree that followed was so bad that the republican commander, Commandant-General Joubert[7], furiously attempted to demote the leaders of one of the commandos responsible.[8] Joubert had to back down, however, when the loot-laden men of the commando threatened to desert en masse if any action was taken against their leaders. Similarly, when Joubert tried to remonstrate with some Boers who had raided and pillaged a farm, they took the dressing-down light-heartedly, one admitting, ‘no one treated our Commandant in Chief very seriously’.[9]

Elsewhere, elements of the Piet Retief and Bethal commandos[10] sacked the village of Pomeroy, leaving it almost entirely destroyed as the Boer raiders ‘looted every building, and burned down the gaol, post-office, hotel, and sundry other buildings’.[11] The Boer capture of Weenen also saw the burghers indulging in a looting spree, loading their booty onto requisitioned wagons. They then smashed their way into the public houses[12] and went on the sort of riotous drunken bender that is possible only when someone else is supplying the booze.

Barely able to believe what the average burgher was capable of, military veteran and seasoned war reporter, Bennet Burleigh[13], recorded this ‘wild, criminal destruction of property’:

‘… the Boer was addicted to lifting cattle, confiscating forage, food and other articles belonging to private persons … he often wasted what he could not carry away, or pressed natives to ‘help themselves’. In this last raid of Joubert’s commando another stage has been reached. From Mooi River to Frere, not only has there been wholesale looting of cattle and all kinds of private property, but there have been repeated instances of wanton destructiveness. Judged by the canons of European or civilized warfare, the acts were those of brigandage, and the culprits, had they been caught red handed, deserved trial by drum-head court martial, and to be led out for execution.’

The diary of the Bishop of Natal, Arthur Baynes, is similarly peppered with accounts of the looting and wanton vandalism suffered by his flock. He writes of one stud farm where the invaders helped themselves to £15,000-worth of high-quality horses[15]—an enormous sum of money at the time. A few days later, the frustrated bishop angrily declared, ‘The Boers have been making free with my diocese and with all the farmers’ stock quite long enough.’[16]

After the Battle of Willow Grange, and in the face of increasing numbers of Imperial troops, Joubert and Botha gave up on the drive to the coast and decided to pull back to the Tugela. Though their force had, just a couple of weeks earlier, departed from their positions around Ladysmith with little encumbrance, they were to return absolutely laden with all manner of loot. The vast column of stolen goods was testament to the enthusiastic theft in which the Boers had blatantly engaged throughout their invasion of Natal. As the commandos trudged their way back north with their ill-gotten gains, Imperial forces missed a golden opportunity to pounce on them, a mix-up which almost caused a mutiny among the furious Natalian troops:

‘The commando had come out lightly equipped; it returned heavy with hundreds of wagons loaded with looted goods and chattels and droves upon droves of raided cattle, a great straggling procession. Here was opportunity for a swift stroke—the Composite Regiment
[17] took up position on the heights commanding a narrow defile about 10 miles to the west of Estcourt, through which the only available road passed, and as they were on the point of surprising the enemy and probably engaging them successfully, just such an opportunity as soldiers dream, the OC Mounted Troops arrived on the scene and refused to allow them to fire. The OC explained to the dismayed McKenzie [Major McKenzie of the Natal Carbineers, senior officer of the Composite Regiment on the spot], in hearing of some of the equally astonished troopers, that his instructions were not to engage, but merely to shepherd them back to Colenso. Remembering the ravaged farms, the troops bitterly, almost mutinously, watched the enemy straggle away with their loot unmolested.’[18]

Though it won’t please those who still cling to a comfort blanket of victimhood, Conan-Doyle noted that he later met numerous Orange Free State farmers who acknowledged that the suffering endured in their country had been ‘just retribution’ for what the Boers had inflicted on the people of Natal.[19]

Indeed, and despite the latter day National Party myths of it being ‘a war of independence’ (perhaps the only one in history where the nation in question was already independent, and was the one which started the war by invading their neighbours?), many burghers saw the invasion as an opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the colonists of Natal. An hotelier in Waterval Boven who lived through the war described the invaders in terms one is unlikely to read in many recent histories:

‘…this whole war has been nothing but a war of loot from the very start. Why, when the invasion of Natal began, the burghers looted every place they came to. Every man in the Federal army had his Cape-cart, drawn by two horses, and one or two nigger servants behind with two or three extra riding horses. Some of the men had two or three carts, and every one of them was piled and loaded down with loot.’

What is really entertaining, however, is that both aggressor states are still so passionately supported by online extremists who will scream that black is white, and up is down, desperate to deny anything that challenges their comforting fairy tales. One can just about understand what motivates the various (otherwise utterly unemployable) cyber-warriors who are paid to spread Moscow’s poisonous propaganda… what is less easy to grasp, however, is why some socially-inept political extremists still attempt to do the same when it comes to the Boer War.

The comparison between these two sets of pathetic keyboard heroes is remarkable and one can picture them, sitting alone in their vests and underpants, tapping away furiously to keep their preferred fictions alive, with both groups of fanatics equally desperate to deny reality. As the defeated Russian ramble fled ignominiously from Kherson, for example, one such Kremlin-sponsored nutter took to cyber-space to triumphantly declare to his half-a-million subscribers:

“Don’t panic. It has been a manoeuvre to move troops to prepared defensive lines… observers can see the ‘dragon’s teeth’ and fixed bunkers built into the left bank.”[21]

Even more ridiculously, and without any sort of financial inducement[22], Kruger’s modern-day fanbois indulge in similar flights of fancy, denial and utter delusion. I have been assured, for example, that – despite all evidence to the contrary – the Boers were not actually defeated at Modder River at all… oh no: having their right flank turned by the British 9th Brigade, which caused a goodly chunk of their men to run away, was – apparently – all part of the plan… which is why the rest slunk away under cover of darkness, abandoning their ‘impregnable’[23] positions. Just as ludicrously, I have been told that the Boers didn’t really want to capture Mafeking, Kimberley or Ladysmith, so the abject failures of their three famous sieges were also, apparently, all part of some sort of fiendishly cunning strategy. Similarly, the fact that Botha’s drive on Durban was thwarted and he had to flee back to the Tugela is also waved away as being part of some soft of unexplained (and inexplicable) masterplan too.

But I guess when one has rather stupidly hammered one’s colours to the mast of an undemocratic, extremist / racist and aggressively warlike regime, one is left with little option but to deny inconvenient reality in a desperate attempt to defend the indefensible. Self-respect, honesty and integrity are utterly alien concepts to these people, as they shamelessly twist themselves in knots, lying through their teeth in their increasingly ridiculous attempts to explain why their preferred invaders – be they Putin’s Russians, or Kruger’s Boers – are actually the heroic victims of the piece.


[1] Stott, The Boer Invasion of Natal, p.114

[2] Ibid, p.121

[3] The Telegraph, 14th November 2022

[4] Stott, p.40

[5] Currey, Vinnicombe’s Trek, p.143

[6] The invaders re-named Dundee, ‘Meyersdorp’ – so much for the self-serving rubbish about the poor, innocent Boers ‘only wanting to take up defensive positions, just over the border’. Is there any other invasion in military history which gets frantically explained away in such ridiculous terms?

[7] Commandant-General Piet Joubert (1831-1900). Joubert was a long-time political opponent of Kruger, and an out-spoken critic of his lunatic decision to start a war against the British Empire. He was thrown from his horse during the Boer drive towards Durban, and never recovered, dying from peritonitis a few months later

[8] Meintjies, The Commandant General, p.174

[9] Ibid, p.175

[10] Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, Vol. 2, p.301

[11] Stott, p.215

[12] Ibid, p.109

[13] Born Bennet Graham Burley (1840-1914), he later changed the spelling his surname to ‘Burleigh’. A Scotsman who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, Burleigh was hired by the Telegraph to cover the war in the Sudan in the early 1880s, and was the first to break the news of the failure of the Gordon Relief Expedition. He went on to cover both the Boer War and the later Russo-Japanese War

[14] Burleigh, The Natal Campaign, p.62

[15] Baynes, My Diocese During the War, p.86

[16] Ibid, p.92

[17] The Composite Regiment was formed from ‘A’ Squadron of the Imperial Light Horse (the rest of the regiment being stuck in Ladysmith), one squadron of the Natal Carbineers, a company of the Dublin Fusiliers Mounted Infantry and the 60th Mounted Infantry. The regiment numbered 450 all ranks, and was commanded by Brevet Major Hubert Gough—later General Sir Hubert Gough GCB GMCG KCVO, commander of the British Fifth Army in the First World War.

[18] Gibson, The Story of the Imperial Light Horse in the South African War, 1899-1902, p.144

[19] Conan-Doyle, The Great Boer War, p.218

[20] Unger, With Bobs and Kruger, p.336

[21] The Telegraph, 14th November 2022

[22] I doubt the AWB’s finances stretch to paying cyber-warriors to maintain Apartheid-era fictions

[23] Despite being defeated at both Belmont and Graspan earlier that month, the over-confident Boers had boasted to loyalists in the area that their trenchlines at the Modder River were ‘impregnable’ – ‘A Tiger on Horseback’. Phillips, p.42


  • Anthony Scott Posted November 15, 2022 10:43 am

    All very interesting Mr Ash but where is your evidence to support such wild claims? (apart from the 23 references you cite lol) Excellent piece Chris, regards Scottie

    • Bulldog Posted November 15, 2022 11:43 am

      Ha! Ha!
      That’s 23 more than the Defenders of the Myth ever bother to cite!

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