Small Wars: Reviewing Tactics

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The First Boer War, also known as the First Anglo-Boer War, the Transvaal War or the Transvaal Rebellion, was a war fought from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881 between the United Kingdom and the South African Republic.

The first major battle of that war was fought near the river and town of Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December 1880.

Six officers and 246 men of the 94th Regiment of Foot, 12 men from the Army Service Corps and 4 from the Army Hospital Corps marched down a road toward Pretoria. The British were armed with the Martini-Henry rifle, firing a .577 caliber bullet (short chamber boxer cartridge). They were unconcerned about reports of Boer farmers who were in the area and who intended to stop them.
Standard doctrine for the British Army in that time period was to form ranks and fight a defensive battle, which began in excess of 600 yards as the enemy offered itself up for slaughter. The Martini Henry was effective against massed formations at that distance. The heavy bullets were man-killers. Volley firing provided maximum firepower to the front.
The Boers were farmers, not soldiers, and were accustomed to hunting game. They did not volley fire, they aimed, and ammunition was precious. They didn’t stand up to fight, like black Africans and Arabs with spears did. They fired from a prone position, making every single bullet count. 
The Boers, who fielded roughly equal numbers, politely asked the British 94th to turn and march back the way they had come from, unmolested. LTC Philip Anstruther refused (if he’d agreed to those terms he would have been cashiered for cowardice). The Boers opened fire at 12:30 pm. A quarter of the British command fell within the first ten seconds of fire. Within fifteen minutes most of the officers were killed or wounded, and the horses and oxen pulling the covered wagons at the front and rear of the column were killed, preventing any movement. 156 British soldiers were killed or wounded, with the rest taken prisoner. Reported Boer casualties were two killed and five wounded. Those casualties took place after the British officially surrendered and the Boers were moving forward to accept the surrender (a fact oft omitted). Colonel Anstruther was himself wounded during the fight and died six days later on the 26th of December following the amputation of one of his legs.
The Boer farmer, needing his firearm for hunting and defending his homestead, bought the best weapon he could obtain, afford, and which was then available locally. He brought his own ammunition to the fight and he likely assembled/loaded the cartridges himself (hand-loads). He wore comfortable clothing that blended into the landscape. The British infantry wore red jackets with crossed white ammunition belts that gave the Boers a perfect point of aim. Boer commandos traveled by horses owned by the farmers. The British marched with bands. The clash of cultures did not favor the British.


The following rifles were available in South Africa in 1880, and are mentioned in the various catalogues issued by the dealers at that time:
Spencer Carbine: Breech-loading magazine carbine (AMERICA) 
Winchester Model 1876: Breech-loader (AMERICA) 
Martini-Henry: Falling-block, single action, breech-loading rifle (GREAT BRITAIN) 
Westley Richards: Falling-block, single-action, breech-loading rifle (GREAT BRITAIN) 
There were other, older rifles. that were available and may have been in use, such as the old Snider Enfield, but for the most part the weapons used by the Boers and the British were equal.

Of course, after the first few battles, there were plenty of British rifles and lots of ammunition to distribute to the farmers who may have been fighting with less than modern weapons. Thus the King’s army began to be killed by bullets made in Birmingham.


Following the total destruction of the first battalion (which was a stain on the regimental colors, which the Boers seized), the 94th Regiment of Foot was merged with the 88th Regiment of Foot to form “The Devil’s Own” Connaught Rangers, and it’s barracks were moved from Glasgow, Scotland to Ireland. 
In fairness to the foolish Lieutenant Colonel Anstruther and his high command (equally foolish), ego and hubris often overrides common sense. This pattern repeated throughout the First Boer war and led to military disaster after disaster for the British Army, culminating in a military defeat at Majuba Hill. At Majuba, the Boers defeated a British mixed force defending a hilltop at the cost of 1 Boer killed and 5 wounded.

The British press excoriated the Boers for not standing in a straight line and advancing on the British Army’s defensive position to be slaughtered. The Boer Commando had a different take on things. The key to victory was marksmanship, learned by every Boer male from the time he could lift a rifle. Private firearms ownership was illegal in Britain and they did not have the same tradition in place.

This is an expanded video which includes the video above as the British Army punishes Boers, who were just a bunch of farmers, not professional soldiers.

8 thoughts on “Small Wars: Reviewing Tactics

  1. There have been great moments in the fabled annals of British military history. The 1st Boer War was not one of them.

  2. During the Second Boer War, the British got a bit smarter and while the men were off fighting, they put their wives and children into concentration camps. About 26,000 died of starvation and disease. That more than direct military action brought an end to the fighting. Though the British press avoided covering that aspect of the war, it was an even more gloomy page in British military history. I realize that the practice of taking and starving hostages was successful, but a scant twelve years later, during World War One, the Germans ran a very successful African military campaign against the British, propped up by hatred against what the Brits had done.

  3. I'm not quite sure what military genius thought it was a good idea to face the enemy by lining up in bright red uniforms, shoulder to shoulder, three ranks deep and expect the other side to do likewise. I suspect some Brit had something to do with it. Or maybe a French guy.

  4. I think that it worked fine so long as you had modern arms and ammunition to support the square and the enemy did not. At the Battle of Abu Klea (where the Madhists broke a square), the square was supported by one Gardner Gun, manned by the Royal Navy and had a couple of artillery pieces manned by the Royal Army – and it broke, but reformed.

    As you understand, armies are always preparing to fight the last war and things change. In the case of the British there was a standard of bravery that didn't match the combat tactics of battalion sized Boer sniper units. Forming a skirmish line wearing red coats when you can't see the enemy and can't shoot the enemy, didn't work out. By the time World War One broke out they'd scrapped the red uniforms but the tactics remained the same until they'd lost corps (literally) to Maxim guns and modern artillery.

  5. Shades of Lexington and Concord all over again. Obviously they didn't learn, or 'forgot' what they'd learned a hundred years earlier!

  6. Exactly…the concept that wretched common folk couldn't stand up to soldiers was rooted in hubris and a failure to read history. And the Boers humiliated them in the same way as American colonists had.

  7. I wasn't going to mention BW2, but now that you have, Kitchener was a notorious degenerate. Small comfort to the women and children he killed.

  8. British soldiers were notoriously good fighters. There generals had a more sullied reputation. Woolsey, Kitchener, Montgomery, Alexander, Lord Chelmsford, etc. They were all eccentric and spent a lot of lives needlessly.

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