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My general was shot in the water bottle, so you can imagine what it was like for us.
- General Lyttelton's batman on the fighting at Wynne Hill.
The Anglo-Boer War (or, then, the Boer War; the South African War; the Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, and so on) was in many respects a new kind of war. Technologically, it saw the first use of some of the generation of weapons that are still with us today - automatic handguns, magazine-fed rifles, and machine guns - and the last use, in an organized military sense anyway, of a relic of 14th century warfare - the cavalry lance. In the moral sense, the Anglo-Boer War, while not inventing such concepts, also saw the first large-scale use of concentration camps for non-combatants, and the most prolonged period of guerilla warfare against a "victorious" army by the elements of the "conquered" nation's military. Lastly, it has been widely acknowledged that the Anglo-Boer War provided the British army with an important lesson in modern warfare, especially in the sense of knowing how to proceed when faced with well-armed and highly skilled enemy marksmen. Without this experience, it is certain that the Great War (1914-1918) would have been a very different affair.
In what follows, I intend to cover the following areas:
This essay is not intended as a general guide to the Anglo-Boer War. Hence, it is assumed that the reader is moderately familiar with the causes of the war and its conclusion, and the focus will lie on examining why the war took the form it did, and how this form was shaped by the weapons and tactics with which it was fought.
Three areas of advance stand out when discussing the development of small arms in the last few decades of the 19th Century. These milestones are smokeless gunpowder, the magazine rifle, and the self-indexing (self-loading) breech action.
Smokeless powder, first used in the French Lebel rifle in 1886, cannot be underestimated in terms of the effects it had on modern warfare. Anyone who has seen recreated battles of the Napoleonic Wars or American Civil War will appreciate that gigantic clouds of smoke are thrown up by a squad of men firing even a single volley. This smoke, produced as the black-powder charge of the weapon was ignited, would completely obscure the target and coat the workings of the firearm in burnt residue. This, in turn, meant two things. Firstly, that the bore and workings of the firearm had to be intentionally manufactured to be less than a perfect fit (to allow for the fouling caused by the residue, which would otherwise cause the weapon to jam); and secondly, that between the clouds of smoke and the loosely-machined weapons, that individual marksmanship was assumed to be under a severe handicap. Military forces of this era got around these problems by formulating battle strategies that revolved around devastating volleys delivered at close range, followed by a bayonet charge; when the entire squad fired at point-blank range, the mere weight of projectiles meant that some hits were bound to be achieved.
Smokeless powder changed the status quo for three reasons; firstly, the absence of fouling meant that weapons could be machined precisely without having to leave a tolerance for residue. This meant that infantry rifles, for instance, could be made more accurate. Secondly, without the obscuring effect of the back-powder charge, aimed shots could be made one after the other, with no deterioration of accuracy. This also meant that sharpshooters - firing from cover or across a large distance - could no longer be spotted simply by the plume of smoke issuing from their weapons. This phenomenon was to have a particularly noticeable effect during the Anglo-Boer war, as we shall see later. Thirdly, smokeless powder was far more efficient during ignition; whereas black-powder weapons could rarely propel bullets faster than 450 meters per second, projectiles fired using smokeless powder could achieve speeds of up to 1200 meters per second.
This had great ramifications for the range and accuracy of small arms, as faster bullets have a flatter trajectory and thus a larger "dangerous space" (the area along a bullet's trajectory where its path might strike a standing man). Additionally, higher-velocity projectiles tended to cause more disabling wounds through the process of hydrostatic shock. To sum up, therefore, the advent of smokeless powder had made small arms more accurate, more dangerous, and had increased their effective range significantly.
The advent of the bolt action magazine-fed weapon can, likewise, not be underrated as a significant development in firearm technology. Infantry rifles holding several shots were by no means a new phenomenon; as early as 1836, Samuel Colt had developed a rifle which held six shots in a revolving cylinder. This school of thought continued into the 1860's, with the introduction of the Henry rifle (the ancestor of the famous "Winchester" of the Wild West). The Henry, and its descendants, used the tubular magazine concept; that is, that the rounds were held nose-to-base, in a row, in a cylinder running along the underside of the barrel, and were fed into the breech by the action of a hand-operated lever. The French Lebel rifle mentioned previously also followed this pattern. However, except in the case of the Lebel, tubular-magazine weapons were never adopted wholesale by Continental armies; even the doughty Winchester was confined to action in the Turko-Russian wars of 1887-1888. The box-magazine concept was first developed somewhat later in 1879 by James Lee (of Lee-Enfield and Lee-Metford fame). The box-magazine held four or five rounds in a spring-loaded box under the breech, and was quick to load. The bullets, held together by a metal frame called a "clip" or "charger"; this frame was inserted, along with the bullets, down through the breech into the magazine, and was ejected as the last round fired.
This, then, allowed a soldier to make five or more aimed shots, without pausing or having to stand to reload, in the time that it would have taken him to fire one shot, aimed or otherwise, using the muzzle-loading percussion-cap weapons that the magazine rifle replaced. The implications of this change for infantry tactics are obvious; it meant that long-range shooting could be conducted with more speed, more precision and more effect than ever before.
The third area of advance was the development of the self-indexing breech - in more accessible terminology, the breech action which makes it possible for a weapon to automatically load rounds into the breech; in effect, to become an automatic or machine gun.
Multi-barreled machine guns of the type invented by John Gatling in 1862 had become common in the years leading up to the Boer War, but by 1899 these cumbersome weapons had been replaced by single-barrel, belt-fed machine guns such as the Colt-Browning Model 1895 and the Vickers-Maxim. As early as 1869 it had been known that machine guns could duplicate or even exceed the effects of aimed volley fire. At one test, held in Germany in 1869, a cumbersome Gatling gun showed better results over a minute of continuous firing at paper targets over 800 yards than a company of 100 riflemen firing aimed shots. Machine-guns, therefore, had become highly effective tools of war, and by 1899 their use had become embedded in military strategy. In addition, as can be seen in the example above, they multiplied the amount of firepower that a small force could bring to bear in a firefight several times over. As would be demonstrated again in the Great War, machine guns excelled at sweeping open ground and laying down suppressive or harassing fire over trench lines; their use in the Anglo-Boer War was to be both in the offensive and defensive theatres of the war, as will be discussed later.
These three technological advances, coming as they did between 1870 and 1890, were still relatively new on the battlefield; one must remember that, prior to the invention of the metallic cartridge (what we today know as a "bullet"), infantry weapons had remained remarkably similar for over 200 years. Most senior troopers in the British army would have been trained using single shot rifles of more primitive design (the Martini-Henry and Snider rifles); the Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield rifles only having been introduced in 1888 and 1895 respectively. Worse still, what veterans there were in the British force had never faced an enemy armed with modern weaponry before. The reception which lay in wait for them in the veldt was to come as a shock to Tommy and tactician alike.
An Armstrong 12lb. gun
A Boer 6" 'Long Tom'
A Maxim-Nordenfeld "Pom-Pom"
A Boer testing a .303 Maxim machine gun
As a regular army, the British force followed a more standard pattern in terms of equipment. Primarily, their infantry weapons were the Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield rifles. Lee, a Canadian of Scots descent, toured Europe in 1880, provoking interest in his idea from several nations including the Danish, and eventually convinced the British Ordnance Bureau to adopt his system. Combined with the Metford rifling system, the subsequent weapon was named the Lee-Metford; in 1888, its magazine capacity was upgraded to eight rounds of .303 caliber (7.69mm). Various features of the Lee-Metford meant that it weathered the abuse of soldiering less well than these other rifles; for this reason it was upgraded in 1895 to its sturdier incarnation - the Lee-Enfield. Apart from some changes in breech architecture and rifling, these two weapons were very similar, and can be treated as one weapon for tactical analysis.
The adoption of the Lee series ran simultaneously with the development of two other significant firearms of the period; the Mauser, which was developed in 1888 and refined in 1898, and the Danish Krag-Jorgenson. These two weapons were used extensively by the Boers, and provided them with equivalent firepower to the British; the Mauser used slightly heavier bullets (.317 caliber, or 7.92mm) and fast-moving (777 m/s compared to 607 m/s) than the Lee-Metford, with a subsequent increase in the potential severity of wounds inflicted. Additionally, the Mauser had more slightly elaborate sights; graded out to 2000 meters compared to the 1829 meters of the Lee-Metford, this meant that the Mauser was more likely to perform better at long-range shooting than the Lee-Metford.
The infantry were also equipped with the 12-inch sword bayonet. This fearsome weapon was itself a relic of the days of musketry; its presence on a weapon which could be fully reloaded in a matter of seconds was an indicator of the degree to which British tactical thought had not yet fully grasped the impact of the magazine rifle. Weighing over a pound (15 ounces), it must have been cursed by many a over-burdened British soldier; however, its psychological impact was, as was no doubt intended, great. When the cry of "Fix Bayonets!" was heard, several accounts describe Boer surrender as an immediate consequence. The same can be said of the famous cavalry lance. Lancers, while also equipped with the Lee-Enfield carbine, were feared in close quarters, primarily because of the terror value associated with being skewered by their lances.
It should be noted that while uniformity was the general watchword regarding British armaments, that this was not the case in all circumstances. The Canadian forces, for instance, were armed differently, many with weapons of American manufacture such as Colt .45 revolvers (which were the standard side arms of the US at that time), as well as Lee-Enfields.
|Boer small arms, on the other hand, varied considerably. Mauser, Martini-Henry and Krag-Jorgenson (shown alongside) rifles were all employed, as well as a variety of personal hunting rifles and other weapons. An excerpt from a British army surgeon's diary shows that Boer forces also used shotguns; this is entirely likely, given that Boer recruitment advised burghers to bring their own " Rifle, ammunition, Horse, saddle and bridle, [and] food for eight days" to their mustering point. Rural as the Boer population was, it is unlikely that every man had access to a rifle of sufficient caliber as to be useful; many, then, would have brought whatever they could lay their hands on. A similar pattern has been seen wherever armies have been raised from local populations; most notably, in the American War of Independence. The governments of the Boer Republics also purchased weapons in bulk from overseas nations, in particular Germany. Some efforts were made to distribute these weapons among the troops, although most were held in reserve for arming sympathetic rebels in captured territories. It is likely that the nature of the Boer force, with its emphasis on marksmanship which had been learnt through experience and not as the result of training, precluded the adoption of a standard rifle. Throughout the war, of course, and especially during the guerilla phases where resupply was no longer a possibility, many Boers took to using captured British weapons. Ammunition for these weapons could be stolen or captured, and although the weapons themselves were less than ideal for the natural born marksman, they were better than none at all.|
|Another popular weapon, on
both sides of the war, was the German-made Mauser Model
1896 self-indexing automatic pistol, also known as the
"Broomhandle". This pistol, which became the
mainstay of many a World War 2 action movie for its
outlandish appearance, carried ten 7.63mm rounds in its
magazine, thereby almost doubling the number of bullets
available to the bearer compared to the normal six-shot
Webley pistol. While this weapon may have seen limited
use on the field of conventional battle, it was no doubt
present in many raiding parties, and as a side arm.
In terms of artillery, the Anglo-Boer War was the first to make use of automatic light artillery. The "Pom-Pom" was a converted Maxim machine gun used widely by the Boers. It fired a 1-pound, percussion-fused shell. This weapon was the precursor to the tracked 20mm "Tank killers" of the Second World War, and its main use was against enemy emplacements and fortifications, as well as for use against locomotives and armoured carriages.
First-hand accounts describe the Pom-Pom as being very effective; standard artillery, mostly, could still be avoided by quickly taking cover in the interval between the flash indicating the firing of the shell and its arrival. The Pom-Pom, on the other hand, could keep up a continuous stream of fire, to devastating effect.
In terms of more conventional artillery, the British started out fairly badly equipped; initially, only a small artillery contingent could be fielded, and initial confrontations with Boer forces led to many pieces being overrun or "shot free" (all crewmen killed), and then captured. This was often the case when bad arrangement of forces in the case of a mobile enemy led to units becoming isolated from one another. Common British artillery pieces were the 12 and 15 pound field guns, which had a range of around 5000 yards, and 5-inch howitzers which could hurl a 50 pound shell over the same distance. The British also fielded naval cannon in their desperation, stripped from the cruisers Terrible, Powerful, Monarch and Doris. These weapons had longer ranges than the other British guns (up to 10 000 yards for the 4.7 inch guns). Home-made artillery pieces were also employed during the sieges of Mafeking and Kimberley; these rose to a level of renown far beyond the reach of their possible effectiveness. British cannon were often loaded with lyddite shells. This high-explosive compound was more effective than standard high explosive, and was used to terrible effect in several artillery engagements later in the war, when British artillery sections had been filled out and more guns had been shipped to the South African theatre of operations.
Boer artillery, on the other hand, was composed largely of guns imported from the massive arms factories of Krupp and Creusot. The Pom-Pom has already been mentioned above; for heavier shelling, the Boers relied on 75mm field guns. These outranged the British Armstrong guns by a significant margin; indeed, initially, the effect of Boer artillery under the direction of the Staatsartillerie, seems to have been most impressive. Smurthwaite quotes from the diary of Brevet-Lieutenant Colonel SH Rawlinson as follows:
" 6.15 a.m. the 4.7 Naval gun began firing at Long Tom who was battering us a good deal. The Naval 12 pounders also opened fire but they could not get the right range and dropped very short indeed sometimes the enemy 6" gun shot beautifully. Put two shells right alongside the 4.7 gun and one of these landing a foot to the right of the right gun support took off poor Egerton's leg at the knee, smashing also his other foot "
The Boers also had several massive 115mm Creusot field guns which fired 88-pound high explosive shells. Aptly named "Long Toms", these weapons have passed into the realms of popular myth, ranking with the "Big Berthas" of the Great War. What is certain, though, is that with an effective range of over 11 000 yards, these huge guns could out-range any field artillery the British possessed.
Unfortunately, these guns became bogged down at the various siege points of the war, and from then on the growing strength of the British artillery meant that it was British guns, not Boer, that held sway on the battlefield. At the battle for Wynne Hill in February 1900, the Boer defenders could only muster eight guns, against which the British deployed fifty. Additionally, the British were often able to float observation balloons with which artillery fire could be directed; this was a luxury not available to the Boer gunners.
Thus, as the British armies grew in strength, and engagements began to be fought more on a squad level, the use of artillery by the Boers was to come almost to a complete halt.
Appraisals of tactics in the Anglo-Boer War must give a certain bias to Boer initiative; if there is an overall theme to the cut-and-thrust of the war it is one of "Boer movement, British response". Initially, at least, this was partly the result of sound tactical thinking on the part of the Boer generals, and partly the result of the precarious British starting position in the war. Britain had massive military and economic resources, which when brought to bear on the two Boer republics could have no result but victory. The only chance for the Boers was to strike quickly, and to cut off the British lines of re-supply from England - namely, the ports. As a strategy, this counted on the fact that when war was declared, Boer forces actually outnumbered British forces by a slight margin. This meant that the British were forced by circumstance into a holding strategy - to meet the Boer invasions of the Cape Colony and Natal, contain them, and if possible turn them back.
In addition, several features of British military theory of the time relied on attacking the enemy formation rather than position, by flanking movements with mounted infantry, cavalry charges against emplacements, and so on; this had worked well in the gigantic set-piece battles of the Crimean and Napoleonic Wars. However, against an entrenched enemy whose positions were invisible (due to the lack of gunsmoke), concealed (as in the case of the battle of Magersfontein, where Cronje used concealed trenches to decimate a British advance) or highly mobile, this strategy was completely ineffective. The technological advances in firepower discussed previously meant that it was effectively impossible to break an entrenched line by infantry assault over open ground.
Time and time again, British advances against Boer trenches ground to a halt between 500 and 800m from their objectives due to the highly accurate rifle fire being directed against them. The initial inferiority of British artillery in terms of range meant that counter-battery fire in support of the infantry was impossible without risking the loss of the guns. In contrast, Boer tactics were focused on possession of position; kopjes which provided a good line-of-sight onto attackers were picked in advance (in the case of defensive engagements), or taken as a matter of priority (in the case of offensive engagements). From these vantage points, the Boers could wreak havoc on the British forces below. When their positions became threatened, the highly mobile Boer forces would simply move away, usually to another set of pre-prepared defences. Another Boer tactic involved marking out ranges, using white stones, prior to a British attack; with the aid of these distances, they could adjust their rifle and artillery fire and increase its effectiveness. "Stay clear of officers and white rocks", new British troops were told.
The Boer forces, then, seemed to hold all the aces. They were better equipped, led by men of higher caliber and more proven experience, and better accustomed to veld fighting than their opponents. Additionally, the British were having to lean the rules of modern warfare as they struggled along, instead of starting the war with any coherent idea of what to expect or how to accomplish victory. Many British troops expressed concern that the Boers might not fight at all; thus, once war did begin, they were completely on the wrong foot. The armies that were sent out to check the Boer invasion were soon completely routed and put to disorderly retreat. However, after defeating the British at Modder River (28th November), Stormberg and Magersfontein (11th December) and Colenso (December 16th), the Boer advance ground to a halt outside the towns of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. A case in point was the battle of Nicholson's Nek outside Ladysmith. Although it ended in an almost-complete rout for the British forces, many Boer leaders (De Wet among them) felt that a grievous error had been made by allowing the British to withdraw at all. It was held by these mean that merely turning the British columns meant that the Boer forces could do little but besiege Ladysmith, which meant that continuing the push to the coast was impossible.
Reitz, present at the battle, describes this error thus:
" I heard one of them exclaim, 'My God; look there!' and turning round we saw the entire British force that had come out against us on the plain that morning in full retreat to Ladysmith. Great clouds of dust billowed over the veld as the troops withdrew, and the manner of their going had every appearance of a rout. There were about 10 000 soldiers, but General Joubert had far more than that number of horsemen ready to his hand, and we fully looked to see him unleash them on the enemy. I heard Christian de Wet mutter, 'Los jou ruiters; los jou ruiters' ['Release your cavalry'] but the Commandant-General allowed this wonderful opportunity to go by, a failure that cost us dear in the days to come."
Later, Reitz describes how when his subordinates implored him to press his attack, Joubert had quoted an old proverb to them, saying "When God holds out a finger, don't take the whole hand". This cautious attitude, as Reitz points out, has no place in a war, especially a war in which speedy victory is vital to avoid complete defeat.
At the famous siege of Mafeking, too, a tiny and under-equipped garrison was able to tie up a sizeable proportion of the Boer forces, despite bring out-gunned, out-manned, and completely surrounded. Why did the Boers allow this vital moment of strategic advantage to pass?
It is important to examine the First Anglo-Boer War of 1881 for the answer to this question. At the heart of the speed with which the British agreed to signed was the degree to which the 'Boer Problem' seemed to be a thorny issue in which there was no incentive for the British to become involved. To the Boers, however, this must have seemed to indicate that the British tended to fold in the face of quick, decisive attacks by a determined enemy. It cannot be doubted that Boer attacks in the opening months of the war were bold and decisive; but one must wonder whether the Boer strategy of taking the ports was a real aim or just a rallying cry. It seems more likely that the Boers expected another quick British capitulation, followed by "peace on honourable terms". When this was not forthcoming, even after "Black Week" (11-15 December 1899), it is understandable that the Boer offensive began to stagnate. They had, in the final analysis, tried to bluff the British into backing down, but by slackening the pace of their advance, they had made the success of such a gambit impossible. In addition, the lack of incentive for British commitment had vanished as the riches of the Witwatersrand had blossomed; this alone, in retrospect, should have alerted the Boers to the fact that the British would not be as squeamish this time.
As time went by and the strength of the British presence in South Africa increased, and with it the number of heavy guns available to support infantry attacks, the Boer lines began to buckle and fall. In a mere six months the victories won so easily by the Boers in the initial phases of the war had all been lost; in early 1900, both Bloemfontein and Pretoria fell. At the battle of Donkershoek, shortly thereafter, the strong British artillery presence forced General De la Rey to withdraw from a position where the ill-fated British cavalry section had been surrounded and was slowly being annihilated.
The message was clear; Boer marksmanship and courage were no longer the main forces on the battlefield. By this stage, it is possible to say that the Anglo-Boer War was, in fact, over. This view would, of course, be strongly contested by the thousands of men who spent the next two years either engaged in guerilla warfare against the occupying British, or in mostly fruitless sweeps through the veld hunting the Boers, to say nothing of those unfortunates who were interned, and who died, in the British concentration camps. However, this is the inescapable conclusion that must be reached. The Boers would never field a force in a conventional battle of the scale that was common in the first year of the war; the Boer commandos had been split to the four winds with little in the way of heavy weapons or supplies, and this limited their effectiveness drastically. Reitz describes encountering several of these ragged groups of rebels during this phase; most seemed most concerned with simply evading capture, rather than striking any kind of blows against the British. Notable exceptions, of course, were present. Commandant De Wet had managed to keep a fighting force of several thousand men together and relatively active in the Free State, and Smut's abortive plans for the re-invasion of the Cape Colony and Natal had left him with around 3 000 partially assembled men in these areas. However, what could be accomplished with these forces? Acts of terrorism, train-wrecking and ambushes, but little else. It was eventually put to these bittereinders that, having lost the war, they should now surrender and attempt to "win the peace"; prolonged struggle, it seemed, was pointless. British occupation was now too firmly entrenched to be removed by force, even if force could be brought to bear in sufficient quantities - which it couldn't.
The war had finally been lost.
" the smokeless, long-range, high-velocity, small-bore magazine bullet from rifle or machine gun - plus the trench - had decisively tilted the balance against attack and in favour of defence."
Only thirteen years separate the Anglo-Boer war from the Great War, and there are many similarities between the two conflicts. Further advances in weaponry had much the same effect on the outdated armies of France, Austria, and other European nations as they had on the British in the Anglo-Boer War. However, in the Anglo-Boer War, one can only marvel at how quickly the cards were all on the table. Within six months of the commencement of hostilities, the eventual victor became all too apparent; from then on, it was simply a matter of time. This is not, of course, to make light of the Boer achievements; they resisted the full might of the greatest colonial power in the world for three years, and for a brief and amazing time, it even looked as if they might win.
It is highly tempting to play at conjecture regarding such a "war of reverses"; what if Joubert had pressed his attack at Colenso? What if Mafeking or Ladysmith had fallen? This alone is evidence of the degree to which the war seems, on inspection, to have been a long shot which almost came off. However, it is unlikely that any string of Boer successes could have resulted in victory. As Queen Victoria said when she was inflicted of the crushing defeats her troops had suffered during 'Black Week', "There is no one depressed in this house. We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist." .
Such was the British attitude to the war - they would stay until "Kroojer" and his "scruffy band" were vanquished, no matter how long it took. They could afford no other course of action - the eyes of the world, and of their old rival, Germany - were on the goldfields of the Rand, and if the Crown did not possess them, someone else would. That it took three years to accomplish, as well as the deaths of thousands of civilians, is a as much of a testament to human greed and mercilessness as it is to the more heroic virtues of determination and duty.
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