500,000 men… against hedgehogs and turtles!

The sheer delusional stupidity and ignorance of True Believers is always amusing, but a couple of them recently took things to new heights of entertainment.

On one of the various Boer War Facebook echo chambers, a fellow Jopie de Beer made this moronic pronouncement:

Of course, Lord Kitchener’s objective was certainly not to ‘raze all farms and homes in the Transvaal and Free State’ – that is a totally ridiculous claim, and something that Jopie just made up to make things sound worse. Furthermore, Jopie completely omits the uncomfortable reality that, when Lord Kitchener proposed to have all farms declared off limits at the Middelburg Conference in February 1901, it was General Louis Botha who refused. Kitchener had said that he would stop his troops from burning farms as long as the Boers stopped using them as bases and—more importantly—stopped burning farms themselves:

‘I told him that if he continued such acts I should be forced to bring in all women and children, and as much property as possible to protect them from the acts of the burghers. I further enquired if he would agree to spare the farms and families of neutral or surrendered burghers, in which case I expressed my willingness to leave undisturbed the farms and families of burghers who were on commando, provided they did not actively assist their relatives.’

Botha was not going to give up his favourite method of subjugating and terrorising his own people, however, and rejected Kitchener’s proposal out of hand:

‘I am entitled by law to force every man to join, and if they do not do so, to confiscate their property and leave their families on the veldt.’

When Kitchener asked him how best he could protect the surrendered burghers and their families, Botha callously declared:

‘The only thing you can do is to send them out of the country, as if I catch them, they must suffer.[i]

Of course, historical reality is simply ignored by people like Jopie when it gets in the way of their much-cherished Apartheid-era myths, so it is little wonder that he also lies through this teeth about Lord Kitchener having ‘nearly 500,000 men’ at his disposal. We all know this is one of the favourite myths that the True Believers love to tell one another, but it is complete nonsense, and is only ever said to explain away the rather awkward fact that the (ahem) ‘invincible’ Boers lost.

One will often hear ignorant people announcing that it took ‘half a million’ British troops to beat the Boers, but not only is this figure inaccurate, those who toss it about demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of military matters. It is perfectly true to say that 448,435 Imperial personnel served during the Boer War,[ii] but utterly untrue to suggest that the British ever had anything like that number in South Africa at any one time: there was an ongoing cycling of units and personnel.

In contrast, the 87,365 confirmed republicans did not ‘switch out’ after tours of duty. They might have decided to give up the fight, laid low for a while, or been shot or captured, but contingents certainly didn’t cycle through the theatre in the way that Imperial regiments did. Claiming that the British Army fielded an army ‘nearly half a million strong’ in South Africa artificially inflates the Imperial total, and it is as inaccurate as saying that Britain fielded an army of 100,000 men in Afghanistan in the modern era—something like that number may have ended up serving there over the course of the conflict,[iii] but there were only 10,000 to 12,000 Brits in the theatre at the same time. Similarly, though some 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War, their peak commitment was just 7,672: only a complete fool would ever claim that Australia fielded a ‘60,000-strong army’ in Vietnam.

It must also be remembered that this 448,435 (which, for the benefit of those who struggle a little with maths, is 51,565 shy of half a million) includes all the police units from Natal, the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the Cape, and Rhodesia; and the 8,511 officers and men of the South African Constabulary which was formed after the conquest of the two republics. Also included are the thousands of part-timers who served in the town guards, district mounted troops,[iv] and various other auxiliary units across southern Africa.[v]

Indeed, the very suggestion that Great Britain could send an army ‘half a million’ strong to South Africa is simply ridiculous. Though it suits some to pretend that the British Army was some gargantuan Behemoth in 1899, it was actually shrinking at the height of the Imperial period, and was almost laughably tiny when compared to those of continental rivals – the Kaiser famously declared that, if the British army landed in the Continent, he would send a police man to arrest them. As much as it pains some today, the simple fact is that the British Empire was not held by military might; in 1870 all British troops had been removed from Canada and Australasia, leaving the defence of these colonies totally in the hands of locally raised forces.[vi] Other than India, the British Army was only expected to provide garrisons in small, strategic spots, usually coaling stations, such as Mauritius, Hong Kong, and Singapore. This reduction of British troops serving overseas from 49,650 to 23,941 prompted an overall reduction in the size of the army.[vii]

The 1893 Army Handbook gives a theoretical figure for the standing British Army of just 227,300 men,[viii] of whom 148,500 were infantrymen and 19,500 cavalrymen.[ix] While the Royal Artillery accounted for some of the remainder, many thousands of others were in non-teeth arms: engineers, pioneers, bandsmen, clerks, signalers, balloon companies, railway and transport companies, medical and veterinary units and so forth. 108,000 soldiers were based in the United Kingdom, 68,000 in India and the rest were scattered across the Empire in garrisons, the largest of which were in Malta (7,500) and Gibraltar (5,000).[x]

Ignoring this salient fact, back in the day, the National Party approved ‘historian’ of the war, J.H. Breytenbach, took a very different line – and one which was clearly intended to please his political masters. In his Apartheid-regime-approved True Believer’s Bible, Breytenbach shamelessly played to the peanut gallery, desperately keeping the comforting myths alive by ludicrously claiming that the British had 1,053,865 soldiers under arms (a large majority of whom would be available for service in South Africa, apparently)[xi] and that this enormous number did not even include those in Uganda, British East Africa, British Central Africa, and Somaliland. All very damning at first glance, until one realizes that what Breytenbach did was to take a list of every single man who might have at one time worn any sort of uniform across the entire British Empire, and then disingenuously claim that these were ‘available for service in South Africa’.

Rather surprisingly—given that he was supposedly an esteemed academic whose opinions are so willingly gobbled up by Pakenham et al—what Breytenbach neglected to tell his readers is that the list he worked from contained not only the entire British Army including reserves, militia, and yeomanry, but also such things as the entire Indian army and reserves, the army of the Princely State of Hyderabad, the Canadian navy and police, the New South Wales navy and police, every member of the rifle clubs in Queensland and South Australia, the cadet force in Tasmania, volunteer militia men in the Falkland Islands and St. Helena, and the entire police forces of the West Indies, Fiji, West Africa, Cyprus, and Malaya.[xii] This is the sort of fantastical nonsense which is still regurgitated to try and explain away the republican defeat. The only surprise is that Breytenbach forgot to include the elite stormtroopers of the Salvation Army, or the trained killers of the Boys Brigade, in his lunatic computations.

Back in the real world, and though Imperial forces in southern Africa peaked at around 230,000 for a brief period,[xiii] for the majority of the guerrilla war, Kitchener had a total of between 195,000 and 200,000 men[xiv] under his command, a figure which included regulars, locally raised militia units, police, and the part-timers of the yeomanry regiments. About a tenth of Kitchener’s army—20,000 men—was unavailable at any given time due to sickness or leave.[xv]

Worse still, such was the massive commitment to protecting his lines of communications and garrisoning towns for fear of rebellion that only about 22,000 troops were available for the flying columns and, of these, only 13,000 were in combat units.[xvi] Indeed, manpower shortages led to Kitchener having to reduce the garrisons of many blockhouses first from eight to six, and then down to only four men.[xvii]

But while I have heard plenty of slack-jawed people peddle the ‘500,000 men’ nonsense over the years, I have never heard anyone come up with rubbish about the British army murdering hedgehogs and reptiles – so at least that surreal nonsense gave me a chuckle. And as for Jopie’s claim that, after their defeat, the ‘noble’ Boers transformed the former-republics into a ‘haven for both people and animals’, presumably he doesn’t include black people in that statement – or is he really completely unaware just how terribly they were treated by his heroes? Does he have no idea that the defeated Boers opposed any plans to extend a colour-blind franchise across the former republics? And has he really not heard of something called ‘Apartheid’, which the ‘resilient inhabitants’ he so admires established just a generation or so later? Or maybe Jopie really means: ‘a haven for humans who are the same colour as him’.

As is so often the case, others were quick to pile in, keen to show that they knew even less about the war (and South African history) than Jopie does, with the unfailingly epic buffoon, Andries Pretorius, announcing:

Unfortunately for Andries this – like everything else I have ever seen him declare – is completely at odds with historical reality. As much as it clearly upsets poor old Andries and other such fanatics, the very fact that, after stupidly starting the war by invading their neighbours, the ‘noble’ Boers had to resort to terrorism, is precisely because they were so swiftly militarily defeated by ‘a Victorian super power’.

Still, nothing as inconvenient as what actually happened will ever stop clowns like Jopie and Andries hammering away on their little drums of self-pity. Historical reality and facts will never stop them clinging to their National Party fairy tales of endless Boer victories, and millions of hapless Tommies, blundering about the veldt. And now, just when you didn’t think they could get any more laughable and ridiculous, the thick-headed faithful have even started telling one another than these Tommies spent a couple of years murdering hedgehogs and turtles.


[i] Martin, The Concentration Camps: 1900‒1902: facts figures, and fables, p.8

[ii] Maurice & Grant, The History of the War in South Africa, 18991902, Vol.4, p.674

[iii] As of 2009, the BBC reported that the total number who had served there was 71,560

[iv] These units were formed in some 125 locations. By mid-1901 around 6,000 South Africans were serving in the town guards and district mounted troops of the Cape Colony. These part-timers were called upon as needed to defend their settlements from raiding bittereinders. They served in khaki, were issued Lee-Enfields, and, if killed in action, were buried with full military honours

[v] WO126/145 to WO126/163

[vi] The Army Handbook of the British Empire, 1893, p.9

[vii] Ibid, p.57

[viii] Ibid, p.15

[ix] If reserves and militia were called out the British Army could be expanded to 337,300. 52 battalions (1,032 men per battalion) were stationed in India, thirteen in the Mediterranean and tropics, and five in Egypt. This larger figure should be compared to the three-million-strong army that Germany could mobilize, France’s four million, and the mind-boggling ten million which could readily be fielded by the Russian army

[x] Carver, The National Army Museum Book of the Boer War, p.13

[xi] Breytenbach, Geskiedenis van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog 1899–1902, Vol.1, ch.1

[xii] Maurice, The History of the War in South Africa, 18991902, Vol.1, p.89–95

[xiii] Warner, Kitchener: The Man Behind the Legend, p.123

[xiv] Ibid, p.131

[xv] Lee, To the Bitter End, p.137

[xvi] Carver, p.202

[xvii] Hamilton, The Happy Warrior, p.187


  • Peter Dickens Posted June 17, 2024 6:56 pm

    Both Mr Andries Pretorius and Mr Jopie de Beer seem to have reached new levels of stupidity. Clearly neither of them have seen all the photos prior to the South African War 1899-1902 which show the complete deforestation and environmental damage caused by the advent of large scale farming and hunting in the two Boer Republics. Yet to them: environment damage = British, Apartheid = British, Slavery = British … Pretorius at the best of times starts to sound like Sanjeev Bhaskar ‘Mr. Everything comes from India’ in Goodness Gracious me – it’s really that comical in these Boer War groups.

    • Bulldog Posted June 17, 2024 7:24 pm

      Despite – or, rather, because of – his abject ignorance and fanaticism, Andries Pretorius provides me with a great deal of entertainment. Jopie is new to me, but seems so blinkered, biased and outrageously ill-educated that he is bound to provide a bit of comedy going forward.

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