“Massing on the (other side of the) border”

‘In every war a certain number of cliches spring up based on impressions at the time, which offer a facile explanation of events and which also pander to national sentiment and the self-esteem of its great national leaders. But with the passage of time and as it becomes possible to study what went on on “the other side of the hill”, where the situation was often very different from what we imagined, we see clearly how mistaken were the popular beliefs, which we then accepted unquestioningly.’
The Battle of France 1940, Colonel Goutard

Given that the Boer War started on 11 October with a Boer invasion of British territory, it is remarkable that so much attention is given to the fact that Britain tried to rush reinforcements to South Africa immediately prior to her territory being invaded. In stark contrast, what was happening on the other side of the border rarely gets much focus, and is instead cunningly skated over by the True Believers – such is their desperation to blame the British for being invaded. It would similar to writing a history of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, but focusing entirely on the defensive deployments of the Red Army prior to being attacked, while studiously ignoring the build-up of Wehrmacht and SS formations on the other side of the frontier.

But let’s not get caught up in the laughable, yet still much-loved, National Party-approved version of the Boer War. Instead, we shall turn our attention to what the Boer republics were doing, and how they had spent the previous months and years preparing their invasion.

Though you wouldn’t know it from reading Pakenham, the general scheme of attacking the British and driving them from Southern Africa was formulated long before Kruger launched his invasions in October 1899. As I have mentioned in other articles, the real starting point of the Boer War can be traced to the Secret Conferences held in Bloemfontein way back in mid-1887 – long before the Jameson Raid, or Sir Alfred Milner turned up on the scene. At these talks, the members of the Orange Free State delegation were astounded by the Transvaal’s insistence of joining them in an offensive alliance – the only possible target of which could have been the British Empire. As one of the OFS delegation, John Fraser, recalled:

the South African Republic desired nothing more nor less than the offensive and defensive alliance which, in my opinion, would have been a breach of the Convention of the 23rd February, 1854, by virtue of which we held Sovereign Independence. That independence would have been imperiled thereby, and ourselves made sharers in the animosity cherished against the British Government, which appeared very clear to me during the conference in Pretoria in June, 1887’.[1]

Despite Kruger’s efforts, it wasn’t until March 1897 that the Orange Free State’s newly elected President Steyn[2] signed the offensive alliance which the much more statesmanlike Jan Brand had rejected ten years earlier. John Fraser remained bitterly opposed to the treaty, stating that it put the Orange Free State at the mercy of the Transvaal, supported a government that was shamefully corrupt, and jeopardized the friendly relations the Orange Free State had previously enjoyed with Great Britain.[3] He was to be proven correct on all points.

With his long-hoped-for offensive alliance finally in place, things started moving more quickly for Kruger – perhaps even a little too quickly. British army Intelligence reported the Transvaal’s Commandant-General, Piet Joubert, stating that invasion plans had been drawn up with the help of a German staff officer as early as March 1898,[4] though the Transvaal was anxious to defer war for two or three years, in order to add to its armaments and to give its Secret Service agents more time to arrange a general rising in Cape Colony.[5] Even as Kruger pretended to negotiate with Milner in Bloemfontein in May 1899, President Steyn was ordering vast quantities of ammunition, and the coal mining companies based in Newcastle and Dundee approached the Natal Ministry concerned about their vulnerability to a Boer invasion.[6] Loyalist farmers in the area were also becoming increasingly concerned with developments over the frontier;[7] Orange Free State farmers who normally grazed their livestock in Natal during the winter had driven them to safety behind the Drakensberg Mountains, and the veldt had been burned unusually early to encourage a speedy grass crop after the first rains. [8]

Also in May 1899, sensational news broke in the European press of a British plot to seize power in Johannesburg. Echoing the Jameson Raid, the dastardly scheme apparently involved a group of Imperial officers smuggling arms into the town, snatching the fort, and holding out for the arrival of troops from Natal. The arrest of these plotters was trumpeted by the Transvaal Government and reported across the world, and every effort was made to foster the suspicion that the British had been behind a treacherous attack on the South African Republic,[9] thus ramping up tensions to breaking point.

That such a nefarious plot is completely overlooked in most modern accounts might surprise readers, but the reason this ‘smoking-gun’ is totally ignored is that it was a false-flag, put-up job, dreamed up by Kruger’s spooks – and thus does not suit the preferred narrative of Boer innocence and victimhood. In reality, the main players in what became known as the ‘Bogus Conspiracy’[10] were Chief Detective de Villiers, Kruger’s youngest son, Tjaart, and Commissioner of Police Schutte. The so-called conspirators were all members of the Transvaal Secret Service,[11] though a Mr Nicholls, a respectable miner (who had talked about raising a corps to defend the town) was slung in gaol. Nicholls was initially refused access to a legal advisor and his letters to the British Agent and the American Consul went undelivered for some time. The Transvaal Republic’s chief detective swore an affidavit that Nicholls—together with two other men, Tremlett and Ellis—was guilty of high treason, despite the fact that he was entirely innocent and the other two were actually in cahoots with the chief detective to stitch up Nicholls.[12]

This was nothing less than a blatant attempt to turn international opinion against the British, whip up the people of the Transvaal in readiness for war, heighten tensions in the region, and justify an attack on Natal—one newspaper described it as the kind of affair ‘got up in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III, for the purpose of striking terror’.[13]

As this amateurish plot was playing out, British army Intelligence reported that a joint invasion of Natal and advance on Ladysmith by the forces of both Republics was contemplated in June 1899[14]. It would seem that this was not deemed practical, however, as the timing of Kruger’s invasion hinged upon the end of the South Africa winter, when new grass would grow to feed the horses of the invading Boers – meaning he had little choice but to defer his crackpot Crusade until October, when the veldt would be carpeted with fresh herbage.[15]

Plans continued apace, however. The frontiers were everywhere carefully watched by Kruger’s forces, while his Secret Service agents were busy in all the border districts, securing promises of armed help from disloyal farmers. Artillery and ammunition were ordered from Europe in frantic haste.[16] Or, as a young Winston Churchill put it, ‘Cannon, ammunition, rifles streamed in from Holland and Germany in quantities sufficient not only to equip the population of the two Boer Republics, but to arm a still larger number of the Dutch race throughout the Cape Colony.[17] British army Intelligence agreed with this assessment, reporting that, way back in early 1898, the Transvaal Volksraad attempted to buy: ‘…60,000 obsolete Werndl rifles[18] from the Austrian Government … the surplus is intended to arm the disloyalists from Cape Colony and Natal.[19] Nothing terribly ‘defensive’ about any of that.

On June 23, the Orange Free State Volksraad voted for increases to its artillery. On 8 July, 500 cases of ammunition, the first of many other such consignments, were sent down to Bloemfontein from Pretoria, and on the same day, another million rounds and 500 rifles were landed at Port Elizabeth, also destined for Bloemfontein.[20] Amazingly, the authorities in Britain’s Cape Colony made no effort to stop the shipment. William Schreiner, the Cape premier, later defended this by claiming he simply had no reason to anticipate war with the Free State. Another enormous consignment of ammunition arrived at Lourenço Marques [21] on August 15. Rather sportingly, it was delayed by the Portuguese authorities in order to give the British an opportunity of stopping its passage, but – incredibly, if we are meant to believe the National Party fairy tales that London was busily planning an invasion – the British authorities allowed it to pass through at the end of the month.

The carefree and lackadaisical attitude to the growing threat from the republics was despite the fact that, ‘in June it became evident that the vague designs of the Boer Governments against Natal, of which the British Intelligence department had had cognizance in the previous year, were taking definite shape, and that, at any rate, so far as the Transvaal forces were concerned, the eastern colony would probably become the main object of their attack. The only British reinforcements immediately available were, therefore assigned to that colony. On the Cape side it was manifest that the determining factor was the attitude of restless elements within the colony itself. It was known that secret agents from the Transvaal had, during the past two years, visited many parts of the colony, and that arms had been distributed by those agents.’[22]

Nevertheless, and contrary to the Apartheid-era myths of the nasty British bully, champing at the bit to start a war, the complacency and complete lack of preparation on the other side of the frontier was astounding. The commander-in-chief of Her Majesty’s troops in South Africa, Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler[23], had ‘been informed that there was no special reason to fear immediate war and was ordered to curtail long-authorized military expenditure’.[24] Butler would later reject a proposal from a delegation of leading Johannesburg uitlanders to raise a regiment of volunteers, dismissing them with the telling phrase: ‘England is not preparing for war, even if the Transvaal is preparing.’[25] Fortunately, these men were not the sort to take ‘no’ for an answer; instead, and just in time, the regiment was formed in Natal, and named The Imperial Light Horse. Additionally, though the Rhodesian authorities asked London for arms, the War Office continued to cut down establishments.[26]

Another part of the ever-active Transvaal Secret Service’s work was the sponsoring of various dissident Irish republicans in southern Africa[27]. Months before the war, British army Intelligence reported that these troublemaking traitors had been sent over the borders to test the loyalty of the Imperial garrison’s Irish regiments and to foment mutiny. These endeavours were entirely unsuccessful.[28] Other operations involved gun-running to potential rebels: a Cape hotelier wrote to his friend Sir Bartle Frere,[29] urgently warning him that Mausers had been smuggled into the Cape Colony and distributed as far south as Paarl.[30] Several years earlier, a party of young Afrikaners, and a few British-born colonials, had been dispatched to the Cape, ostensibly on a cycling holiday, but in reality on an intelligence gathering exercise, the aim being to test the loyalty of the Cape Dutch. Significantly, this quaint sounding mission convinced the anti-British faction in Pretoria that it could rely on the majority of the Cape Boers[31]. Indeed, pro-Kruger newspapers all over the subcontinent talked of ‘Boer opinion’ as though it were a national movement, while the Dagblad, a free Dutch-language newspaper with loyalist sympathies, was boycotted and even condemned by the Afrikaans clergy in the Cape.[32]

The Orange Free State’s agents were also busy over in Basutoland, and reports were spread through native workers that ‘the Boers would soon be the undisputed masters of southern Africa’.[33] So much for the bizarre, though currently trendy, idea that the republican invasions which started the war were in some way ‘defensive’.[34] These Free State agents also approached one dissident Basuto chief, Joel Molapo, and agreed a deal whereby a 500-strong commando would be sent to aid him against his half-brother, the pre-eminent pro-British chief, Jonathan.[35] These two had been in conflict for almost 20 years, and so the Boer agents implemented their time-honoured tactic of supporting one faction against the other. It was well known to Jonathan that Joel was in close contact with several farmers over the border in the Orange Free State and he became very alarmed when it emerged that Boer agents had supplied Joel’s rebels with Mausers. It was this latest bout of republican intrigue and gun-running that drove Jonathan to declare his unconditional support for the British Government.[36]

Transvaal Secret Service agents attempted similar tactics in Bechuanaland prior to the war. In July 1899—a time at which we are meant to believe poor old Kruger was desperate to concede anything for peace—King Khama received a visit from a certain Petrus Viljoen who attempted to turn him against the Imperial Government. Khama, always a loyal friend to the British, sent him off with a flea in his ear, declaring, ‘You must not think you can frighten me, and my people, with your war talk. You must know that I am a son of the white Queen. I do as they instruct me. If I find you in my country, I shall help to drive you out’.[37]

Meanwhile, the fall-out of Kruger’s farcically inept ‘Bogus Conspiracy’ plot continued. The unfortunate Mr Nicholls, who was kept in gaol from 18 May to 25 July,[38] now faced some serious irregularities during his trial. The British agent in Pretoria came under pressure from the Transvaal State Attorney to make as little of the case as he could, ‘so as to prevent insinuations as to the British Government being bandied about in a Court of law’. Milner, having absolutely nothing to hide, ignored this pressure and stated that far from wishing to hush-up the matter, he wanted it dealt with the fullest of publicity.[39] The British Agent duly appointed a very capable lawyer and, despite the Transvaal Secret Service’s best efforts, the case was eventually thrown out on 25 July.

One witness later signed an affidavit stating that Tjaart Kruger had offered him £200 to lie in court and claim that the conspiracy had been hatched by the British Government and the uitlanders.[40] This embarrassingly cack-handed plot was widely reported,[41] and would have brought down most governments – but Kruger’s was not a normal regime. The hapless Secret Service agents / Keystone Cops and various other Transvaal officials were not reprimanded in any way, and no apology was made to the British Government or to Mr Nicholls. Some in South Africa were left with no doubt that the plot was evidence of Kruger’s determination to force a war on the British.[42] If, on the other hand, the British were (as Apartheid-era propaganda wanted us to believe) desperate to provoke war with the Transvaal, nothing would have been easier than to have sent an ultimatum demanding a public apology, an indemnity for Mr Nicholls, and the immediate dismissal of all those involved in the Transvaal Secret Service and police.[43] Needless to say, no such bellicose communique was sent.

By the September of that year, 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’.[44] On the 4th of September, the Boers were almost ready to launch their invasions, and Jan Smuts sent the following secret memorandum to the Transvaal Executive: ‘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.[45]

More worrying still, Kruger started to dispatch his commandos to the border early that month. Michael Farrelly[46], the brilliant Irish barrister who worked at the heart of Kruger’s government in the years immediately prior to the war, recalled the mobilisation of these forces as the point of no return: ‘Understanding, so well as I do, the series of evasions and devices the kaleidoscope succession of supposed offers of franchise really were, I could not find patience to attempt to summarize them, but that it is alleged even by some people in England that the faulty diplomacy of the Imperial Government caused the war. There was no faulty diplomacy on the British side after the conference at Bloemfontein … if anything, it was too patient. As I have shown, war was forced on the Afrikander leaders by the veldt Boer. But it was they who sent the veldt Boer to the border; and there would have been no war if they had agreed to treat the uitlander as a political equal.[47]

As Farrelly stated (not that you will see it mentioned in most modern accounts), Kruger’s crackpot government genuinely believed the ordering of these Boer commandos to the Natal frontier, would ‘frighten the Imperial Government out of its supposed policy of pretence and bluster’.[48] In truth, it was the start of national mobilisation: as we are always reminded, the commandos were civilians, only called up at time of war – they were not professional paid troops, and had to leave their jobs, farms and businesses. The calling out of these men thus could not be done on a whim. What is more, and as Farrelly suggests, once they were mobilised, they could not sit on the border forever, and felt entitled to be ‘paid’ in loot for their commando service – loot which could only be grabbed if Kruger launched his long-planned-for invasions.

On 27 September, Kruger sent a telegram to Steyn to say:

“English troops already at Dundee and Biggarsberg [ie. nowhere near the border], and will probably take up all the best positions [ie. those well inside British territory] unless we act at once. Executive Council unanimous that commando order should be issued to-day. We beg you will also call out your burghers. As war is unavoidable we must act at once, and strongly. The longer we wait the more innocent blood will be shed through our delay. We don’t intend to have Chamberlain’s note, [ie. the Ultimatum / declaration of war] with your amendments re Convention, telegraphed to you till burghers are at or near borders, and till you have been informed that the English Government has acted contrary to last part thereof. We are justified in crossing border. Plan of campaign follows.”[49]

In reality, the deployment of British troops to Glencoe / Dundee – which had not even been completed by the time the Boers invaded – was done to defend the important coal fields there. Sending a brigade away from the main force at Ladysmith was very much against the wishes of the army, and done due to the pressure applied by the Natal Government. Indeed, when Sir George White arrived in Natal to take command, he wanted to withdraw the brigade back down to Ladysmith[50], but instead yielded to the demands of the Governor, who reasoned:

‘Now that we were there, withdrawal would, in my opinion, involve grave political results, loyalists would be disgusted and discouraged ; the results as regards the Dutch would be grave, many, if not most, would very likely rise, believing us to be afraid, and the evil might very likely spread to the Dutch in Cape Colony; and the effect on our natives, of whom there were 750,000 in Natal and Zululand, might be disastrous. They as yet believe in our power—they look to us—but if we withdraw from Glencoe they will look on it in the light of a defeat, and I could not answer for what they, or at all events a large proportion of them, might do’.[51]

Sure enough, the Transvaal mobilised on the 27th – although, as we have already seen, that process had already started to an extent many weeks earlier. Two days later, Kruger’s military took control of the republic’s railways, and various telegraph wires were cut.[52] Down in the Orange Free State, however, and perhaps belated realising just how intergalactically stupid it would be to attack the British Empire, President Steyn appears to have suffered from cold feet at this point: ‘weak creature that he was, he now began to waver and hesitate on the brink of a war which a show of firmness on his part could have averted, but which if begun should have been begun with decision and promptitude’.[53] Kruger sent him another telegram on the 29th, badgering him and chiding him for thinking that peace was still possible.[54]

Unfortunately for all involved, Steyn buckled under Kruger’s pressure, the Orange Free State mobilised on 3 October, and their forces were quickly added to those of the Transvaal which had been ‘massing on the border’ for some time. And as claims of ‘massing on the border’ are a perennial favourite of the True Believers, let’s take a moment to see exactly who actually was ‘massing’ at that point, and where.

In Natal, as we have seen, the bulk of the British army forces (indeed the biggest concentration of Imperial forces in South Africa as a whole) were at Ladysmith[55] – which was a long-established garrison town, and nowhere near the border – with only the 8th Brigade still in the process of deploying up to Glencoe / Dundee to defend the coalmines there.[56] Though one could conceivably argue that Dundee was vaguely ‘near the border’, it was by no means a deployment which suggested any sort of aggressive intent: the railway branch line ended at Dundee, meaning that any invasion mounted from there could not be adequately supplied. Furthermore, as we have seen, the deployment of the 8th Brigade was completely against the wishes of the British High Command, and was an entirely defensive move insisted upon by politicians. Either way, it only comprised about 4,000 men, and was not even in place by the time the Boers invaded.

Over on the other side of the border, the republican forces assigned to the invasion of Natal – their ‘main effort’ as it were – comprised three distinct formations. The largest of these was under the personal command of General Joubert, the Transvaal’s Commandant-General, and was concentrated at Zandspruit and Wakkerstroom Nek, in immediate proximity to the northern apex of Natal. It included the Krugersdorp, Bethel, Heidelberg, Johannesburg, Boksburg and Germiston, Standerton, Pretoria, Middelburg, and Ermelo commandos, the Transvaal Staats Artillerie, and small Irish, Hollander and German corps of adventurers / mercenaries. The total strength of this force was about 11,300 men. Its armament included 16 field guns and three 6-inch Creusot ‘Long Toms’. This formation was thus roughly equivalent in size to a British division[57].
On the eastern border of Natal, facing the British force at Dundee, lay the Utrecht, Vryheid, Piet Retief and Wakkerstroom commandos, under the leadership of General Lukas Meyer; this detachment numbered about 2,870 men. In size, it was thus rather smaller than a British brigade.
To the West, a Free State contingent, some 9,500 strong (ie. just less than a British division), and consisting of the Vrede, Heilbron, Kroonstad, Winburg, Bethlehem and Harrismith commandos, occupied Botha’s, Bezuidenhout, Tintwa, Van Reenen’s, and Olivier’s Hoek passes. The republican forces, to whom the task of conquering Natal had been assigned, amounted therefore at the outset of war to about 23,500 men, all of whom were, in the favourite phrase of the Defenders of the Myth, ‘massed on the border’.[58]

The map below (which also shows local Natalian forces[59], not just British army) might give a better impression, and should leave the open-minded reader in no doubt which side was ‘massing’ on the border:

With such small numbers of regular British troops in theatre, and the primary focus being to counter the threat to Natal, none could be spared for the defence of Rhodesia or the Bechuanaland Protectorate. This left the fate of these enormous territories entirely in the hands of locally-raised units, auxiliaries, police and volunteers. At Mafeking, the indomitable Baden-Powell had only the hastily-raised Protectorate Regiment[60] (447 strong)[61], a number of Rhodesian police troopers, and some volunteers[62], to hold off about 7,000 Boers who were (in the time-honoured phrase of the True Believers) ‘massing on the border’. The republican invasion force consisted of the Potchefstroom, Lichtenburg, Marico, Wolmaranstad and Rustenburg commandos, who, together with a company of Scandinavian adventurers / mercenaries, had been concentrated close to the western border. General Piet Cronje was in supreme command on this front, with his two principal subordinates being Generals Snyman and De la Rey.[63]

Down in the vast expanse of the Cape Colony, by the end of September, the British army occupied a weakly-held, and widely-scattered, string of military posts, stretched out as best it could to defend the north of the territory – with one eye on an invasion from the Orange Free State, and the other on a potential insurrection[64]. In the minds of the True Believers, this spreading out of their paltry forces in penny packets, mainly well back from the frontier, somehow counts as the wicked British ‘massing on the border’, but was, as anyone with any sort of military background and / or a brain would realise, actually the exact opposite of this.

Back in the real world, this meant that Kimberley, Orange River Station, De Aar, Naauwpoort, and Stormberg were each held by just half a battalion of regular infantry, and a section of engineers – and what is more, anyone who is capable of reading a map will quickly grasp that De Aar, Naauwpoort and Stormberg were nowhere near the border. Six puny 7-pdr RML screw guns had also been rushed up to Kimberley (where there were also local forces available to defend the town), and the small garrisons at the Orange River Station, Naauwpoort and Stormberg each had a pair of antiquated 9-pdr RML guns,[65] and a company of mounted infantry. Behind this thinly-held, and widely-spaced line, there were no regular troops whatsoever in the Colony, other than half a battalion and a handful of garrison gunners in the Cape peninsula.[66] Luckily, on 7th October, the 1st Northumberland Further Fusiliers landed at Cape Town, and were sent off on the 10th to De Aar – the day before the Boers invaded. A wing of the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers left Stellenbosch by train for the same destination on the 9th.

Again, and for the benefit of those who struggle to read the map below (which shows the placement of the British army’s scattered battalions, plus the locally-raised Protectorate Regiment up in Mafeking), the key railway junction of De Aar was about 70 miles from the border with the Orange Free State:

On the other side of the frontier, however, things were rather different. The capture of Kimberley was assigned to Free State forces comprising the Fauresmith, Jacobsdal, Bloemfontein, Ladybrand, Boshof and Hoopstad commandos, the first two of these corps being assembled at Boshof and the remainder at Jacobsdal. Their total strength was about 7,500 men; additionally, a Transvaal detachment, about 1,700 strong, composed of the Fordsburg and Bloemhof commandos, was concentrated at Fourteen Streams, ready to join hands with the Free Staters[67]  – taking the force to roughly the equivalent of a division.

And these were not the only republican forces ‘massing on the border’ at that time; the Philippolis, Bethulie, Rouxville, and Caledon commandos, under the orders of Commandants Grobelaar, Olivier and Swanepoel, were assembling at Donkerpoort, Bethulie, and a little to the north of Aliwal North. These four commandos, with an approximate strength of 2,500 burghers, threatened the virtually undefended Cape Midlands. Other detachments, amounting in all to about 1,000 men, were watching the border of Britain’s Basutoland. Up in the extreme north of the Transvaal, about 2,000 Waterberg and Zoutpansberg burghers were stationed at the drifts across the Limpopo River, threatening Rhodesia. In addition to all that, a small guard had been placed at Komati Poort to protect the railway to Delagoa Bay, while the Lydenburg and Carolina commandos, about 1,600 strong, under Schalk Burger, garrisoned the recently-snatched territory of Swaziland. Thus, including the police and a few other detachments left to guard Johannesburg, about 48,000 burghers were under arms at the outbreak of war.[68]

And so it was that, after much planning, stock-piling, gun-running, rabble-rousing, espionage, intrigue and, yes, ‘massing on the border’, Kruger was poised to embark upon his lunatic Crusade. On the 11th of October, the old troglodyte unleashed his commandos on their invasions and looting sprees, sending them to drive deep into Natal (and other British territories) to capture his Afrikaans Empire, ‘from the Zambesi to the Cape’. And though today, some illogically prefer to pretend the Boers were the innocent victim of the piece[69], and spew out made-up rubbish about ‘taking up defensive positions, just over the border’, their intentions were actually very well-known at the time. As General Maurice recorded, in the Official History,

‘The exertions of ten special service officers despatched to South Africa three months earlier had ensured the acquisition of accurate information as to the enemy’s mobilisation, strength, and points of concentration. Sir George White’s appreciation of the situation was, therefore, in conformity with the actual facts. The main strength of the enemy had been concentrated for an invasion of Natal. The President hoped that it would sweep that colony clear of British troops down to the sea, and would hoist the Vierkleur over the port of Durban.
Small detachments had been told off to guard the Colesberg, Bethulie, and Aliwal North bridges and to watch Basutoland. On the western frontiers of the Transvaal and the Free State, strong commandos were assembling for the destruction of Baden-Powell’s retaining force at Mafeking and for the capture of Kimberley. Both Kruger and Steyn aimed at results other than those achieved by the initiatory victories of 1880-1. They cherished the hope that the time had come for the establishment of a Boer Republic reaching from the Zambesi to Table Mountain; but, for the accomplishment of so great an enterprise, external assistance was necessary, the aid of their kinsmen in the south, and ultimately, as they hoped, an alliance with other Powers across the seas.
The authorities at Pretoria and Bloemfontein realised fully that, though they might expect to have sympathisers in the colonies, active co-operation on any large scale was not to be counted on until successes in the field should persuade the waverers that, in casting in their lot definitely with the republican forces, they would be supporting the winning side. The conquest of Natal and the capture of Kimberley would, it was thought, suffice to convince the most doubtful and timid.
As soon, therefore, as the British troops in Natal had been overwhelmed and Kimberley occupied, the Boer commandos in the western theatre of war were to move south across the Cape frontier to excite a rising in that colony. A situation would thus be created which, as they calculated, would lead to the intervention of one or more European Powers, and terminate in the permanent expulsion of all British authority from South Africa’

So while the Defenders of the Myth studiously ignore the elephant in the room, and instead focus entirely on the British shipping in a few battalions to reinforce their diminutive garrison at the last moment, that, dear reader, is what was going on over on the other side of the border. Or, as our friend Colonel Goutard might have put it, that’s what Kruger was up to on “the other side of the hill”, where the situation was often very different from what we imagined, we see clearly how mistaken were the popular beliefs, which we then accepted unquestioningly.

How remarkable that there are still people today who are so resolute in their determination to stick to these mistaken popular beliefs – beliefs which they still accept unquestioningly.


[1] Fraser, Episodes of my Life, p.145-147

[2] Martinus Theunis Steyn (1857 – 1916). Born in Winburg, Steyn qualified as a lawyer and served as the last President of the Orange Free State, replacing F.W. Reitz who had, in turn, taken over from Jan Brand on his death in 1889

[3] Cook, The Rights and Wrongs of the Transvaal War, p.95

[4] War Office, Military Notes on the Dutch Republics of South Africa, p.52

[5] Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.2, p.120

[6] Atkins, The Relief of Ladysmith, p. 3

[7] Amery, Vol.2, p.120

[8] Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War, p.60

[9] Amery, Vol.1, p. 301

[10] Needless to say, the Bogus Conspiracy is completely ignored by Pakenham, Nasson, Le May etc etc

[11] Amery, Vol.1, p. 302

[12] The Spectator, 23rd September 1899

[13] Ibid

[14] War Office, Military Notes on the Dutch Republics of South Africa, p.52

[15] Amery, Vol.2, p.120

[16] Ibid, p.121

[17] Churchill, The Boer War, p.226

[18] Presumably these were M1867 Werndl–Holub rifles. A single-shot breechloading rifle which was adopted by the Austro-Hungarian army in July 1867

[19] War Office, p.15

[20] Amery, Vol.2, p.120

[21] In Portuguese East Africa, now known as Maputo, capital of Mozambique

[22] Maurice, History of the War in South Africa, Vol.1, p.40

[23] Even by the rather unpleasant standards of the day, General Butler was noted for his anti-Semitism. He made it clear that his sympathies lay with Kruger’s racist regime, rather than what he viewed as a vast cabal of scheming Jewish capitalists up in —as he crassly termed it—‘Jewburg’. His wife, Lady Butler, was the famous painter

[24] Walker, A History of Southern Africa, p.478

[25] Gibson, Story of the Imperial Light Horse in the South African War 1899-1902, p.17

[26] Walker, p.481

[27] Irish nationalists were drawn to Kruger’s Crusade like flies to shit, and not just those already based in southern Africa. As early as 1896, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police’s Special Irish Branch reported that a stream of nationalist agitators was leaving for the Transvaal.

[28] War Office, p.14

[29] Major Sir Bartle Compton Arthur Frere, 2nd Baronet (1854–1933), son of the more famous Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, 1st Baronet (1815–84) of Zulu War fame.

[30] Frere, Letters from an Uitlander, p.21

[31] Blackburn & Caddell, Secret Service in South Africa, p.131

[32] Frere, p.20

[33] Warwick, Black People and the South African War, 1899–1902, p.58

[34] The first ever ‘defensive invasions’ in military history?

[35] Warwick, p.55

[36] Ibid, p.65

[37] Schmitt, The Bechuanaland Pioneers and Gunners, p.69

[38] Worsfold, Lord Milner’s Work in South Africa, Chapter V

[39] The Spectator, 23rd September 1899

[40] Amery, Vol.1, p. 302

[41] The Age, 8 August 1899, The Spectator, 23 September, and many others

[42] Currey, Vinnicombe’s Trek, p.134

[43] Amery, Vol.1, p. 303

[44] Conan Doyle, p.61

[45] Roberts, Salisbury, Victorian Titan, p.734

[46] If you genuinely want to learn about the Boer War, I recommend that you read Farrelly’s ‘The Settlement After the War’. Interestingly, despite being written by a highly educated, well-placed, and pretty much impartial, observer in the middle of Kruger’s government, this is completely over-looked as a reference by the True Believers. I am sure we can all guess why

[47] Farrelly, The Settlement After the War, p.214

[48] Ibid, p.213

[49] Amery, Vol.1, p.358-9

[50] Maurice, Vol.1, p.46

[51] Ibid, p.47

[52] Guyot, Boer Politics, p.115

[53] Amery, Vol.1, p.358

[54] Ibid, p.359

[55] 2 regular cavalry regiments, four regular and one local artillery batteries, 4 regular infantry battalions, three local light horse units, an RE company, and various other support and local units

[56] Maurice, Vol.1, p.46

[57] On paper, a British infantry division of the period was 11,000 strong (some 8,000 of whom were infantry), with 18 guns

[58] Maurice, Vol.1, p.49

[59] The Durban Light Infantry held Colenso, the Natal Royal Rifles held Estcourt, and the Umvoti Mounted Rifles were at Helpmakaar. Off the map, much further to the south, the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the newly-formed Imperial Light Horse were at Pietermaritzburg. All in all, a very strange way to (ahem) ‘mass on the border’

[60] This recently-formed regiment was still training, and was by no means the equivalent of a British regular battalion. When the Protectorate regiment’s 447 soldiers were listed by their previous professions, they included ‘26 farm-workers, 16 carpenters, 16 decorators, 18 diggers, twelve engine drivers, eleven storemen, twelve masons, ten electrical engineers; and among the others two jockeys, two vets, one tripe dresser, one male nurse, one florist, one hair dresser, one riding master and several musicians’

[61] Jeal, Baden-Powell, p.217

[62] In terms of artillery, Baden-Powell had just four obsolete muzzle-loading 7-pounders. Even as the Boers were poised on the border, it was still as though no one in the Cape was ready to accept the reality of war and hence a battery of 12-pounders remained in storage in Cape Town despite Baden-Powell’s pleas for guns

[63] Maurice, Vol.1, p.50

[64] Ibid, p.41

[65] RML stood for ‘Rifled Muzzle Loader’ – these were obsolete guns by that stage, and had been withdrawn from frontline RA service back in 1878. Breech-loading field pieces had since superseded muzzle-loaders

[66] Maurice, Vol.1, p.42

[67] Ibid, p.50

[68] Ibid, p.50

[69] The Boer War must be the only war in history where some deluded souls genuinely believe that the side that started it was the victim, that invasions of someone else’s territory were ‘defensive’, and that any defeats their preferred side suffered were actually victories. More amazingly still, is that certain so-called academics frantically push this self-pitying agenda

[70] Maurice, Vol.1, p.48


  • Niall Beazley Posted April 15, 2024 10:57 am

    As always an excellent pocket history of the lead up and massing at the border by the Boer forces. Clearly there can be no doubt that much of what is written and talked about in South African history avoids many of the realities concerning those that started the war and those that finished it! A good read, thank you, Chris.

  • Stephen Hunt Posted April 21, 2024 9:48 am

    Jan Smuts sounds quite an unpleasant man, not only due to his links to the killing of blacks during the war but also his reference to us being the hated race.

    All the more surprising is that in later years he came to be regarded as an elder statesman of the British Empire.

  • meurig Posted April 22, 2024 9:18 am

    Great maps, brings the facts to life in a way words fail to penetrate.

    Similar maps of ZAR wars against the Africans and territorial ambitions would be useful too.

    • Bulldog Posted April 24, 2024 6:39 am

      Thanks Meurig.
      I agree that maps have the power to convey something much better than words. If one reads a paragraph saying that the British had half-a-battalion at De Aar or whatever, it doesn’t really mean much, until one can see how that fits into the vastness of South Africa… and just how far these tiny and scattered garrisons were from the border.

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