There has been a great deal of ignorant and unschooled commentary surrounding the War in Ukraine. One of my favourites was watching the ever-risible Professor Pretorius tie himself in knots in a desperate (frantic? pathetic?) attempt to pretend that, while the modern-day Russian invasion of someone else’s territory is bad, somehow the Boers’ invasion of someone else’s territory back in 1899 was (surprise, surprise) perfectly fine:
It is difficult to believe that anyone can be so unhinged as to excuse an invasion that happens ‘after a war had broken out’… when that very same invasion was precisely what started the war. Presumably – unless he is an utter hypocrite – the frazzled Prof also excuses the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, as it happened ‘after a war had broken out’?[i] Unlike the invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway etc, Germany formally declared war on the Soviet Union early in the morning of 22 June 1941[ii], and part of the declaration translates as:
“In view of the intolerable threat that arose at the German eastern border as a result of the massive buildup and preparedness of all armed forces of the Red Army, the German government considers itself compelled to immediately take military countermeasures”
All of which sounds remarkably similar to the excuses the Prof and his minions like to trot out to justify the Boer invasions of Natal and the Cape Colony – that despite there being no British military build-up on the borders of the republics. It goes without saying that no one should expect objectivity or even a passing knowledge of military matters from Pretorius, so – as amusing as he always is – it is usually best to leave him to wallow in his entertaining, self-serving, delusions.
Alas, however, he is not alone, and others – who really should know better – started making ill-judged comments and predictions even before the Russians attacked. It amused me, for example, to see the BBC, SKY News, CNN etc putting up graphics, showing Russia’s preponderance in tanks, men, planes etc, and thus predicting an annihilation of the Ukrainian forces. The fact that Russia has thousands of miles of other borders to guard didn’t seem to occur to these wide-eyed commentators, and there was no thought of what percentage of Russia’s (admittedly massive) forces could actually be brought to bear.
Just as importantly, very few commentators bothered to point out that, to be successful, an attacking force needs either to significantly outnumber the defending forces[iii], or else make up for this by having huge advantages in technology[iv], doctrine[v], air supremacy[vi], or some other factor[vii]. Lacking these things, the Russian invasions were – predictably enough for anyone who has studied military history – quickly fought to a standstill.
The parallels with the Boer War are obvious (except, apparently, to poor old Prof Pretorius). Exactly like the Russians today, the invading Boers back in 1899 managed to grab a sizable chunk of someone else’s territory, but other than that, achieved little else. Just like Putin’s Russians, the Boers proved embarrassingly incapable of taking defended towns, and their planned capture of Durban and other British ports was quickly shown to be well beyond their abilities. Again, just like the Russians today, with their ambitious objectives totally thwarted and proving to be ineffective at offensive operations, the invading Boers had no choice but to dig in and attempt to cling on to the land they had managed to grab.
What baffles me is that some of the same main-stream-media ‘experts’ who predicted a swift Russian victory back in early 2022, have recently switched to predicting that the much-talked-up Ukrainian counter-offensive will also achieve great things. With the forces they had available, and (thanks mainly to ‘Sleepy Joe’ Biden) still without any sort of air cover, I never believed that the Ukraine would make the huge breakthroughs that some were expecting. Reports talked of between 12 and 15 fresh, uncommitted brigades (9 of which were newly-equipped with western tanks and equipment) being ready for the counter-offensive – obviously direct comparisons aren’t terribly helpful, but this is a tiny number of troops when compared to fighting on the Russian Front in WW2, when a similar number of Corps[viii] might have been used along the same length of front instead. The western tanks that have been donated to Ukraine are certainly much more technologically advanced than their Russian counterparts, but by no means sufficiently so to make a truly decisive impact – especially given the relatively paltry numbers involved. Of course, if Germany and the perennially spineless EU had had their way, they would have even fewer.
The simple, undeniable reality – but one which is always conveniently ignored when it comes to the Boer War – is that, ever since the advent of magazine rifles, machine guns and smokeless powder, there has been an enormous advantage to the side holding defensive positions: and it makes little difference if these forces are Russian, Ukrainian… or Boers. Excited, self-congratulatory jabbering of incredible Boer marksmanship, and invincible Boer Generals, might make a certain type of person feel better about themselves today, but it is simply hot air; the military history of the last 130 years or so has shown time and time again that it is very easy for a relatively small number of well-dug-in men to hold off a much larger force.
Major Baden Baden-Powell (younger bother of the much more famous Baden-Powell), served in the Boer War with the Scots Guards, seeing action at Belmont, Graspan, Modder River, Magersfontein and other battles. In 1903, he wrote a thought-provoking book called ‘War in Practice’, which all those with a genuine interest in the Boer War should read.
In the chapter about ‘Defence’, Major Baden-Powell states that an ‘attacking force would seldom be in closer formation than that of a front line with intervals of about four paces between men, backed by two or three other such lines. It is unlikely that the attacking force would exceed at one time one man per yard of front, or, say, 2000 to the mile. The question of the relative strength of the defending force to ward off an attack is difficult to decide, considering how greatly it will vary with circumstances, but practical experience seems to show that troops well entrenched can certainly keep off a force of eight to ten times their number. This would imply that 200 to 250 men per mile should be usually sufficient to hold, at all events temporarily, a good intrenched (sic) position. But if the position be not very favourable, or has not been artificially improved, probably fully two or three times this number will be necessary. At Wepener the perimeter of the defences was over seven miles long. The garrison distributed in them would run about 200 to the mile. At Mafeking, the proportion was only about 100 to the mile’.[ix]
It is worth noting that, despite the comforting National Party myths, the Boers proved hopelessly incapable of capturing either Wepener or Mafeking (or, for that matter, Ladysmith and Kimberley).
Proving once again that Sun Tzu was ahead of his time, Major Baden-Powell illustrates this reality with various other examples, one of which being the successful British defence of Itala, where ‘the garrison of a little over 200 repulsed the Boers said to number from 1800 to 2000’.[x] The Major gives a list of other examples of small, but well-entrenched, Imperial garrisons holding off much larger numbers of Boers: Elands River, Kuruman[xi], Lichtenberg, Winburg, Ladybrand, Fort Prospect, Kaalfontein, Zuurfontein, Philippolis, Fauresmith, Sand River Bridge and O’okiep.[xii]
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule; in another example he uses, 3500 Boers, holding well-constructed trenches, were turned out of their positions by 8000 British troops at Modder River[xiii] – meaning that the Tommies triumphed that day, despite an advantage of only about 2:1. Numbers obviously matter, but troop quality will always be a factor, and poorly-motivated / ill-disciplined / chicken-hearted men cannot be guaranteed to hold entrenchments if facing courageous, professional, well-led troops.
Returning to the Ukraine, there is plenty of reason to doubt the motivation of the Russian forces but, unfortunately, intelligence reports assert that the invaders have:
“… constructed some of the most extensive systems of military defensive works seen anywhere in the world for many decades. These defences are not just near the current front lines but have also been dug deep inside areas Russia currently controls.”[xiv]
Just like Kruger’s Boers, the Russians are desperate to hang on to the land they have captured, and have dug defensive positions many miles deep across hundreds of miles of front – with some positions apparently up to 20 miles deep.
Though undoubtedly much more formidable than the Boer defence lines that the British smashed through during the second half of February and first half of March 1900, one must also remember that the British and the Boers had similar levels of technology, and none of the systems which help negate (at least to an extent) defensive advantage had yet been developed: the tank, IFVs, mortar smoke bombs etc.
In terms of numbers, the British counter-offensive enjoyed a rather better troop ratio than the Ukrainians currently do, though it was nothing like the ‘half a million men’ myth peddled by Apartheid-era propaganda[xv]. In reality, as late as 4 February 1900, almost four months after the Boer invasions, available Imperial strength in theatre was still was only marginally greater than the total Boer forces[xvi]: ‘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’.[xvii] The uncomfortable reality for the Defenders of the Myth is that Lord Roberts only had around 90,000 men available across the whole theatre[xviii] when he launched his devastating counter-offensive, which – in the space of just one month – forced the surrender of over 4000 Boers at Paardeberg, smashed through the Tugela Line defences, relieved Kimberley and Ladysmith, and captured Bloemfontein.
While I hope that the Ukrainians will, eventually, be able to prevail, and drive the Russians from their land, just as the British drove the invading Boers from theirs, I fear this is beyond them – which also illustrates the achievement of Lord Roberts and the British forces in early 1900. The magnitude of the task the Ukrainians face suggests to me that the war will stagnate into something of a stalemate, with vast areas of devastated Ukrainian territory retained by Russia. Time is not on Ukraine’s side either: unless the Russian economy completely tanks[xix], there is a Russian army mutiny, or a coup in Moscow which topples Putin, I suspect the lily-livered, snouts-in-the-trough bureaucrats of the EU – and the senile, pro-IRA occupant of the White House – will soon start pressuring Kiev to accept a ceasefire.
[i] The Germans commenced operations a couple of hours before the formal declaration of war, but so did the Boers, capturing a Natalian civilian train at Harrismith several hours before Kruger’s impudent deadline expired. The similarities between the regimes are remarkable
[ii] The fact that there had been a formal declaration of war was covered up by the USSR until 1989, as it mentioned the secret protocol to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact
[iii] eg. the USSR in the latter stages of WW2
[iv] eg. Desert Storm in 1991
[v] eg. Blitzkrieg in the opening campaigns in Europe in WW2
[vi] eg. the Western Allies in NW Europe in 1944/45
[vii] eg. the Falklands War of 1982, where the sheer quality and professionalism of the British forces defied the odds to shatter the much more numerous Argentinean invaders
[viii] ie. Perhaps 10 times as many troops
[ix] B.F.S Baden-Powell, War in Practice, p.62
[x] B.F.S Baden-Powell, War in Practice, p.63
[xi] Kuruman held out for 6 weeks despite the invading Boers outnumbering the police and volunteers who defended it by around 10:1. It only finally surrendered when the Boers brought up guns to bombard the village into submission
[xii] B.F.S Baden-Powell, War in Practice, p.56-57
[xiii] Fought on 28 November 1899 near the village of Ritchie (called Rosmead at the time), some 25 miles south of Kimberley, in today’s Northern Cape Province
[xiv] Centre for Strategic and International Studies
[xv] Myths still loyally and gleefully spewed out by the faithful today
[xvi] Total Boer forces amounted to 87,365
[xvii] Carver, The National Army Museum Book of the Boer War, p.54
[xviii] Maurice, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol. 1, p.443