The Anglo Boer War 1899-1902

THE BIG GUNS

of the

Boer War
By H Labuschagne

 ‘Am I a dog," he roared at David, "that you come at me with a stick?’ And he cursed David by the names of his gods. ‘Come over here and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and wild animals,’ Goliath yelled."

Still remember the story about David and Goliath? Remember how David approached the Giant of the Philistines when all the old battle-seasoned Israelite soldiers had been too mortally afraid to even come near the insulting giant?

Remember how disgusted Goliath was when his insults and challenges were answered not by a brave Israelitish soldier, but by a cheeky teenager armed with nothing but a stick or two? Well, as you might remember, things turned out a little different to what the giant expected...

Back in those days, Goliath must have been as tough a soldier as could be found anywhere. This was no weakling, for the champion from Gath sported a brass helmet and a massive coat of heavy mail, which weighed 57 kilograms! Furthermore, his legs and torso was protected by brass, and he wielded a massive spear as thick as a weaver’s beam, the iron spearhead of which weighed a cool 68 kilograms. Added to this, he also wore a large brass sword, and just to make extra sure, he had a shield-bearer at the ready with a humongous shield. A kind of modern-day Rambo, you could say and a mean man to mess with -- All the more so considering that he stood all of three metres tall!

Now, most of us know how the story ended. At the last moment, David, the young farm boy, rushed forward, and instead of dealing Goliath an ineffective blow with his stick, he coolly dispatched the hero by a single smooth pebble from a well-aimed shot of his sling. Not bad for a slingervel! To be fair, however, we have to admit that David had some specialized help from above. On a purely physical level, though, this little incident teaches us some important basic principles about military strategy. For one thing, it teaches us the value of surprising our opponents with a secret weapon – remember, Goliath thought David was only going to have a go at him with his stick. It also teaches us never to be too self-assured or to underrate our enemies – ever! I don’t know whether the slingshot had been a more technologically advanced weapon than the sword and the spear back in biblical times, but under those particular circumstances it certainly proved to be the weapon more suited for the occasion.

If we had to turn back the clock a little over a hundred years, we would see that Great Britain and the South African Republics were rapidly getting ready to make war on one another. The Boers had been ordering the latest and the best arms available since 1896, and this was no particular secret. The newspapers knew about it, and therefore the general public knew about it, and consequently the British secret service reported it. Somehow, however, one still gets the impression that when it finally did come to war, the British were still surprised by the Boer’s "secret" weapons – almost as Goliath had been...

Let it be known that anyone interested in building empires, had better be prepared to do a lot of fighting. Her Majesty’s armies certainly had been busy, for over the last fifty years or so, she had been involved in about 34 wars and military endeavors around the world, and had only known seven years of peace in all that time! The problem was that Queen Victoria’s armies had spent most of their time chasing after the less civilized peoples of her empires, and so might have been excused for having slightly forgotten that modern technology was the one factor which could make a three metre Goliath and a five foot David, truly equal on the battlefield.

Political propaganda has always made president Paul Kruger and his government out to be superstitious, primitive, bungling idiots, but being Boers they knew about weapons. For the last four years, commandant-general Piet Joubert had been systematically ordering the latest and the best in modern weapons from the various arms factories in England, Germany, France, Belgium and a few other odd countries. When the war finally broke out in the spring of 1899, England suddenly found herself confronted, for the first time in many years, by a European force of about 55,000 men who were armed with the best modern weapons that money could buy. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, but it nevertheless did.

Medium class artillery

Great Britain’s weapons were good. She had fantastically advanced weapons, and plenty of it, but she was hampered with out-of-date military strategies, inadequate training and some of her weapons were fast becoming obsolete. The Royal Garrison Artillery, for example, were still using old out-dated 40- and 45-pounder muzzle-loading howitzers of 8", 6,6" and 6,3 inch calibre! Their range was apparently in the region of 4,000 yards. Of course, against European armies, muzzle-loading guns were fast becoming useless, but apparently these pieces were in the process of being replaced by new breech-loading guns in 4", 5", 6", 8", 9,2", 10", 12", 13,5" and 16,25 inch calibres. There were also still muzzle-loading Armstrongs of 2 inch calibre and larger which were used by the mountain artillery...

The more successful and more popularly used guns, were the twelve- and fifteen pounder Armstrong breech loaders. These were modern and worked well. These two guns shared the same design, and differed chiefly in that the fifteen pounder weighed more, and could fire further than its younger brother. The fifteen pound Armstrong was of 3 inch calibre (7.62 cm), and was at that time the most effective standard field gun in the army. Total weight was just over 1,900 kg when fully kitted out. It was a nice heavy gun which with an effective range of around 4,100 to 5,600 yards, depending on whether shrapnel with a time fuse, or percussion bombs were used. These guns could deliver their 14 lb, 1 oz shells at a rate of 7 - 8 per minute.

The smaller brother 12-pounder Armstrongs weighed little over 1 ½ tons when fully kitted out, could be sited at 4,000 yards, and had a maximum range of 5,500 yards.

The British howitzer batteries used breech loading howitzers of five inch calibre, and these had a maximum range of 4,900 yards.

On the Boer side, there was a1lso a good number of nearly obsolete guns. The Free State, in particular, still used a variety of black-powder guns, and although these formed highly visible targets during the subsequent battles, they still performed remarkably well, and were used until late in the war. Some other veteran muzzle-loading guns that had seen action during the various native wars, were retired, but they nevertheless managed to acquire some rather interesting pieces from their various European suppliers. Together, the two republics had a collection of roughly 83 serviceable guns, and about 16 near-obsolete ones, together with about 37 machine guns. There was enough ammunition for quite a good-sized war, and if more was needed, the government had made provision by having put together a little ammunition factory for themselves.

LongTom1.JPG (25522 bytes)

A Replica of the Long Tom that the Boers used. All four the original Long Toms had been destroyed by the Boers in order to avoid them being captured.

From their friends in Germany, the Boers had acquired the lively Krupp rapid fire howitzer of 120mm calibre. It was an odd-looking, snub-nosed weapon, but an excellent hard-hitting gun nevertheless. The absurdly short and thick barrel was mounted very low on relatively small wheels which were rather wide apart for stability. The entire construction was extremely strong, yet, the weapon only weighed about a ton with all its accessories, and a full load of smokeless ammunition brought the weight up to close on two tons. The effect was that this gun could be camouflaged very easily, and that it could hurl 40 pound missiles over the prodigious distance of more than 5,600 metres! It was a very trouble free piece, which could be transported over very uneven terrain without capsizing, it demanded little attention, and proved to be an immensely powerful gun which could spread a particularly effective spray of shrapnel. The other remarkable thing, was that this howitzer was capable of actually outranging even the 15-pound Armstrongs of the British army. The only serious problem with this gun was a silly one which must have been the cause for much foul language among the Boer gunners. The problem was that it had the really nasty habit of hopping high into the air with each shot, and sometimes even upturn itself in the process! Imagine the frustration when such a heavy gun had to be turned back onto its wheels every now and again, while under heavy shrapnel fire from the enemy!

The other kind of Krupp was extensively used by the Free State. This conventional 75 mm Krupp field gun, was similar to the 75 mm rapid fire Krupp. It was popularly known as the "Free State Krupp." This baby could drop its projectiles about 5,700 metres far (nearly 3 miles), in the case of percussion. This gun was a pleasantly proportioned tool of war, which proved to be very trouble free in a mechanical way. The two serious failing was that these Krupps had a particularly short fuse on their shrapnel, which exploded at a range of only about 3,000 metres. The result was that these weapons could not effectively answer the British Armstrongs when it came to a shrapnel fight. The other problem was that these weapons used black powder, as opposed to the Transvaal’s cordite in the rapid fire Krupp, and of course, the white smoke puffs rarely failed to attract undue attention from British gunners. In fact, it is frequently mentioned that the Free State Krupps had been among the first guns to be silenced, and they also had to be moved more frequently as the British gunners discovered their positions and concentrated their fire upon it.

A nice British addition to the Boer arsenal, was the 75mm Naxim-Nordenfeld rapid fire gun. The wheels were spaced very wide apart at almost 1,5 metres, and this resulted in a very stable weapon on uneven terrain. One interesting innovation was that the 7 foot, 4 inch barrel could tilt from side to side, which made it possible to move the horizontal line of fire without moving the entire gun. The gun weighed just over a ton, and had a lovely range of about 7 kilometres. Furthermore, the ammunition proved to be of remarkable quality. Strangely enough, this gun seemed to have combined the good qualities of the Krupps and the Creusots, so that it resulted in a light but strong gun, with an impressive range and good stability.

Gun4,7.JPG (33946 bytes)

A photo taken in Durban. The first of these heavy 4,7" naval guns were initially taken from the ship HMS Terrible -- for use against he Boers and as a counter-measure against the fearful Long Toms.

The next successful and very popular Boer model was the 7,5 cm rapid fire Creusot field gun from Schneider in France. As with the Krupp, this model’s barrel was carried very low – in fact it was carried exactly at axle-level, this making the gun look a little like some crawling insect. The barrel was just a touch over eight feet in length, and could hurl its projectiles over an amazing 8,000 metres, or nearly five miles. This gun was also easy to conceal, very easy to maintain, required little cleaning, was extremely light, and amazingly powerful for such a deceptively small-looking weapon. Unfortunately these gun’s brakes and recoil system weren’t too successful, and consequently the guns had a nasty habit of rolling back without righting itself, with each shot. There also seemed to be some trouble with the ammunition, but on the whole, the low "Frenhcmen" as they were called, gave sterling service for over their entire lifetimes.

These guns were all classified as medium-class artillery. There was, however, also three models of light artillery in the Boer service. One was a Krupp rapid fire gun came in 37 mm calibre, the other was a Krupp rapid fire mountain gun of the same calibre, and a rather interesting little specimen known as the Vickers-Maxim of 37 mm. This last little devil became known affectionately, as the pom-pom, owing to the sound with which it would spew its belt-fed one-pound bombs in ack-ack fashion. The two 37 mm Krupps were more-or-less similar in design. They were very light (around 205 kg), and could be moved in an instant. The barrels could also swivel horizontally, and the two could deliver projectiles of between roughly one pound, and two pounds, at a distance of 3,300 to 4,000 metres, respectively.

These two were nice little weapons, but the Vickers-Maxim, or pom-pom was really in its own class. These little rapid firing guns were probably a transition between a machine gun and a true artillery piece, and in a way, the pom-pom was revolutionary. Initially, the British army didn’t think too much about it, but it didn’t take the Boers gunners long to convince their foes that the British army should place a large order for its own pom-pom guns! This cheeky fire mouth delivered 1-pound bombs with a machine gun-action at a sighting-range of around 3,500 metres, but the Boer gunners soon found ways to send them even further to 5,000 metre ranges -- for instance, by elevating the wheels and digging away the ground so that the barrel could be tilted higher. The barrel was water-cooled, and the gunners were protected, as was often the case with the two Krupp brothers, by a welcome steel armour plate around the barrel. A widely horizontally swivelling barrel ensured a very wide field of fire.

The nice thing about the pom-pom was that it proved to be a rather anonymous weapon. Being small, accurate, and firing smokeless ammunition, it was difficult to spot. Being light, it was admirably suited to the hit and run form of warfare that Boers favoured. Its big value was psychological though, for the pom-pom had a devastating moral effect on troops in close formation as it tore holes into their ranks in a regular and unceasing manner. Each little exploding bomb that missed, bore with it a promise that its buddy would be following within a second or two in order to fix the mistake. This knowledge must have upset the peace of mind of many soldiers!

The Big, BIG guns

So these were the medium and light artillery that was used. There was, however, a category that was even more interesting: the really heavy artillery! For some reason, it wasn’t thought that heavier artillery would be needed by the British – after all, heavy artillery was traditionally only really used to pound castles to pieces, and South Africa was short on castles at that point. This proved to be another little lesson. When it was finally discovered that the Boers could easily out-gun the British artillery, an interesting and highly innovative approach was used: the ship that had brought the much-needed reinforcements to the Natal front, was aptly called the HMS Terrible, and she happened to be carrying some rather formidable guns. The captain of the Terrible, captain Percy Scott, happened to be not only a man blessed with imagination and initiative, but also one of England’s best gunnery experts. He was sympathetic when he heard about the army’s plight, and soon a really interesting little scheme was cooked up between army and navy. The Terrible carried a selection of 4,7 inch naval guns, and 16 of these massive monsters were quickly removed and mounted onto sturdy carriages of wood and metal which had been hastily designed and built. These guns were so heavy that they had to be drawn by oxen. A selection of naval 12-pounders were also included in this scheme. It is interesting to note that these guns were manned by their naval gun-crews, and it must have been an unusual occurrence to find a lot of sailors fighting hundreds of miles away from the nearest ocean. The Boers soon learned to fear the dreadful 4,7's. Even the long-barrelled naval 12-pounders had very long ranges of 4,000 to 7,300 metres, and where their lyddite shells struck, they punched massive craters into the earth, ripping open Boer fortifications and entrenchments, and sending large rocks and boulders sky-high.

The grand prize for the king of the big guns, however, goes to the Boers. From Schneider in France, came the legendary 155 mm Creusot siege guns, popularly known as "Long Toms." These monoliths had originally been intended to protect the forts around Pretoria, but when the war started and the British blockade prevented gun orders from arriving, they were promptly sent to the fronts where they made themselves both feared and famous. Until that time, nobody had ever dragged larger artillery onto the open battlefield before. These enormous guns had barrels of 4,2 metres long and, amazingly, weighed nearly seven tons with the front gun carriage included – and that’s not even counting ammunition! These immensely heavy pieces were extremely difficult to move, but the Boers managed to haul them into the most astounding sites with the help 12, 16 or more oxen, together with dozens of human hands, ropes, picks and shovels. Long Tom could hurl a 98 pound lyddite shell over a stunning 9 kilometres, thereby easily outranging the best in the British army!

The author's grandmother standing next to a Long Tom replica where he father is expected to have fought. This gun stands on its original position on the Long Tom pass, between Sabie and Lydenburg in the eastern Transvaal.  The saddle on the far horizon, is where the gun's shells struck the British army as it came pouring across the mountains after the Boer commandoes. One shell crater is still visible. The knoll on the left is all that remains of the so-called "Devil's Knuckles."

It has been said that the Long Tom that was used to pound the besieged town of Ladysmith, took 30 seconds from the time that its white puff was sighted by a lookout, to when the heavy projectile slammed into the town. The story is also often told of how, on Christmas day, the Boers had shot a Long Tom shell off to Kimberley. Upon digging up the shell from the place where it had struck, the souvenir-hunters discovered, to their utter astonishment, a small token of the Boers’ unique sense of humour. The shell contained a Christmas pudding, neatly wrapped in a Union Jack, with the words: "Compliments of the Season," written on it! Another amusing tale is often told about this same Long Tom that bombarded Ladysmith so effortlessly. A party of daring besieged British solders had snuck out one night and managed to blow up old Long Tom near Gun Hill, by shoving a bundle of gun cotton down its throat and firing it off. To add insult to injury they then absconded with its sponges, the immensely heavy and all-important breech-block, and the gunsight, still sighted at 8,000 metres! The Boers had to send their heavy weight champion off to Pretoria, where the damaged part was cut off, and the barrel shortened. After that, this Long Tom became widely known as "The Jew!"

Unfortunately Long Tom used black powder, and so it was very visible, and had to be cleaned thoroughly at regular intervals. It was also so heavy that the gun mostly had to be mounted on a wooden platform, plus the barrel had to be hoisted into place after transportation with a very big block and tackle system. There was one interesting incident when a single Long Tom had to fight an artillery duel against the combined strength of all the naval guns on Swartkop, during the Battle of Vaalkrans, on the Tugela river in Natal. Time after time, the old heavy Frenchman was nearly blown away, but every time, as the British gunners thought that it had been silenced, it would suddenly lift its blackened muzzle and start spouting death at them again. This lasted the whole day long, until a lucky British gunner finally managed to drop a round right onto Long Tom’s powder supply. The entire waggon-load of black powder instantly went up with an earth shattering roar which blew both waggon and hillside sky high and left nothing but a gaping crater in the ground. For a long time the old gun then had to remain silent until new powder could be sent from Ladysmith. After that, the old boy merrily joined in the fight again, and a young Winston Churchill tells us that it very nearly blew the British commander in chief, Sir Redvers Buller, to the better hunting grounds when it planted one of its massive shells in the earth next to him!

The British also had a number of large siege guns, but these were so rarely used during the Anglo-Boer War that they deserve little mention at this time. There were also a few other very interesting specimens that the besieged British built themselves. In Kimberley, the indefatigable Cecil Rhodes had instructed his engineers to build a large gun, which they aptly christened "Long Cecil." Ladysmith brought forth their own invention, and in Mafeking, the plucky Baden Powell, had two made. One, known as "The Wolf," started off as a four inch steel pipe, which was turned into a splendid piece which could hurl an 18-pound shell over 4,000 yards! Then his men discovered an antique brass ship’s which served, of all things, as a gate-post on a farm. Some creative thinking was promptly applied, and soon it was resurrected and turned into a effective gun called "Lord Nelson." This trophy fired a solid ball of 10-pounds, which apparently took out an old Boer as they sent it skidding down one of the streets!

General Manie Maritz on the other hand, was less successful. Finding himself in need of an artillery piece with which to shatter a key blockhouse, he tried to manufacture one out of a steel telegraph pole and a charge of dynamite. Needless to say, his "gun" turned out to be a bomb, and he was lucky that nobody got hurt when the weapon shattered at its very first test shot!

So, unlike David, the Boers never managed to beat the giant that they were fighting. They did, however, give the giant a rough experience and it certainly was a much wiser giant, with a much-battered head, that retired from the battlefield in May 1902 when the war was finally over and peace came to South Africa once more.

 Bibliography:

Geskiedenis Van Die Tweede Vreiheidsoorlog in Suid Afrika, 1899-1902. Vol. I., Breytenbach, J.H., Die Staatsdrukker, Pretoria, 1973.

Halt! Action Front!, With Colonel Long at Colenso, Notes, Illustrations and Diagrams for use on a Tour of the Battlefield., Hall, D.D.

Oorlogsavonture van Genl. Wynand Malan., Pieterse, H.J.C., Nasionale Pers., Kaapstad., 1941.

The Boer War., Pakenham, T., Abacus., London., 1992.

The Great Boer War., Doyle, A.C., George Bell & Sons., London., 1900.