The Anglo Boer War 1899-1902

THE MARKSMEN

of the

Boer War
By H Labuschagne

The black sakabula seemed to mock them where it sat bobbing up and down in the tall tamboekie grass. The first marksman’s bullet had missed it clean. The second marksman used a high-powered rifle which was more accurate. His shot came closer, but it was still a miss. The third marksman took his time, but when he fired, the sakabula hadn’t even noticed how death had sped past it.

Then the tall old man with the cane who had been watching the boys all along, moved closer and said: "Gee hier!" – "Hand it over!"

Through the thick lenses of his old-fashioned gold-rimmed glasses, he took careful aim – offhand. The shot came so quickly that it took the boys by surprise. He had hardly aimed at all! When they looked back, however, it was only to see a small puff of black feathers drifting away in the breeze. The old man smiled thinly as he handed back the rifle to the astonished marksmen, without a word. The boys still needed to learn how to shoot like proper Boers...

It was my father who told me this story. He was was one of the marksmen, and only a teenager at the time. His cousins formed the balance of the party. They had all grown up on farms. They could all ride and shoot like only an Afrikaner farm boy knew how. And they were all excellent marksmen...

The old man was my great-grandfather. He was tall, thin, always wore thick glasses, and had to walk with two canes. What makes this tale remarkable is that when he shot the sakabula, he was already deep into his eighties! He probably hadn’t seriously fired a gun in years, but when the marksmen couldn’t do it, he did! – Oh, and by the way, sakabula is the Zulu name for the familiar long-tailed black widow bird. Had it been just an old man’s luck? Just old skills acquired after a lifetime of hunting and controlling vermin on his farms? Mmm. Perhaps. Perhaps there was something else, though. Great-grandfather was a Boer War veteran. He had been a Bitter-Ender with the Wakkerstroom commando when he was a young man. He had fought in the tremendous battles on the Tugela at the turn of the century, where he had fired his Mauser at the enemy until he could smell the wood around the barrel – seared by the almost glowing hot barrel. He had sniped and shot at the "khakis" at extreme ranges on the highveld for the remainder of the war. I have thought about this incident many times, and after having researched the War thoroughly, I’ve come to the conclusion, that after three years of fighting like the Boers had to, a man would have learned to shoot – and damn well too!

When the sweet-looking elderly duo, old President Kruger and Queen Victoria, with their respective governments decided to give a war back in 1899, everybody came. To the spectator, the faces of the men from both armies would have looked identical. As soldiers, however, these armies different tremendously. Great Britain’s soldiers had seen action against various third world countries, and had largely been trained in the traditional European manner of warfare. The generally accepted idea about a war was that the armies would execute various manoeuvres, occupy a few key points of strategic value, after which they would meet somewhere – preferably in a nice open field where everybody could see everybody else nicely. The opposing sides would more-or-less face each other, perhaps move around for a bit, line up their artillery batteries, and then the field-Marshall would draw his sword and declare the proceedings opened. Soldiers and gunners on both sides would fire precisely-regulated volleys during which they would point their guns and muskets at the closely packed ranks of the enemy – exactly as they would have practised it during training. Meanwhile the cavalry might chase some soldiers around as well. After a while, one side would scatter or crumble; one side would win the battle or the war; the bigwigs would get medals; and everybody would go home until the next time. A few generals would become famous, have towns and places named after them, perhaps be rewarded with a title, and have their pictures painted. A few others would retire in disgrace. That’s what most British officers had been expecting, at least...

The Boers, however, had virtually no regular army. They hadn’t had any formal military training, except for the experience of a few wars against local tribes over the years. Most of them, however, had depended on their marksmanship for a long time. In a country full of hard to kill- and dangerous game, where a flintlock or muzzle-loader would give you one shot only, one learned to shoot very, very carefully indeed! Men who had to depend on successful hunting in order to survive or derive an income, made a point of learning to shoot well. Add to that the tremendous cost of ammunition and powder, plus the unpredictable nature of their ancient weapons, their short ranges, and so forth, and one can begin to understand why accuracy had become something very important to the Boers of old. Naturally, in order to place the best shot, a hunter would have camouflaged himself, and tried to get undetected as close to his quarry as possible. These were the same attitudes with which the Boers approached the same war.

Some idea as to the skills of the Boer marksmen, may be had from an observation made by the famous ivory hunter, Charles Baldwin, who wrote: "The flasks were never off the table, and the day invariably wound up by target-shooting, at which the Dutch are great adepts. A yokeskey at 100 yards, or a bottle, was frequently the mark, and sometimes the crack shots called for Eau de Cologne flasks, short, squab little things, no higher than a wine glass, and looking uncommonly small at 100 yards, which were, notwithstanding, frequently smashed." This might not seem overly impressive, until one realizes that this had been written during the days when muzzle-loader were still the standard tools of the trade. No wonder the Boers became crack shots when modern technology finally brought high-quality modern rifles to them!

In historical retrospect, it strikes us as silly that two forces with such different concepts regarding war, should have clashed the way they did. Right from the beginning, the war took on a totally different colour to what the British army had expected. Imagine their disappointment when, instead of massing their fighters in orderly ranks and squaring up so that the duel could be finished, the Boers declined to show themselves at all! At Colenso the battle raged all day long, and despite their heavy losses, most of the disciplined troops never even saw a single Boer! Even at Magersfontein the Boers did the most unusual thing: They actually hid in the ground! – "Could someone please check the manual to see whether trenches are allowed in a war?"

Even the Boer artillery remained mostly unseen, cleverly hidden away in the hilltops.

"What the hell was going on here?" the puzzled British generals from Aldershot and Sandhurst wondered. "Who changed the rules?"

And this was basically the war where new rules concerning stealth became written in the manuals of warfare. From then on, the British army gradually began to concentrate on the new need for stealth and marksmanship. War had definitely changed a lot by that time. Many Boers were still armed with old black powder rifles. Trusty Martini-Henry’s which had seen action in the first Boer War, and so on. Most, however, had been issued with ultra-modern, high-powered Mauser rifles. Likewise, the British army also soon converted to the Lee-Enfield and later the Lee-Metford, which were roughly very similar in many respects. Largely gone were the days of close combat, for with these weapons, troops soon found that they could strike at each other from far away. These magazine rifles were light, extremely accurate, and the bullet had rather a flat trajectory. Consequently, firing could be done at around 400 metres before the sights had to be raised, on the Mauser, and shots could be exchanged at a distance of about 2,000 metres or so, with unprecedented accuracy – and if you had to, you could go much further than that if you knew how to shoot on instinct. Even the artillery could now shoot at massive distances from three to nine kilometres or more!

An Orange Free State Mauser

It can therefore be imagined what an excellent marksman could have done with such fine tools of warfare. It has long been maintained that the Boers had been among the best marksmen in the world at that time. That all of them were world class shots, is however, a myth, for hardly five years previously, many combatants didn’t even own their own firearms when they were called up to show their teeth during the famous Jameson Raid! It can be accepted, though, that the majority of them had been very good shots indeed. The British army hadn’t concentrated much on marksmanship during their military training, and their best shots came mostly from the ranks of the colonials who joined the war. Among them, were several highly accomplished sportsmen, hunters and farmers, which undoubtedly would have been in the same league as the Boers, but they were definitely in the minority.

Lets have a look at some examples to illustrate the kind of marksmanship that could be found in the war around the turn of the century. General Wynand Malan described an interesting scene in his book "Oorlogsavonture van gen. Wynand Malan," during which he mentions that one of his best marksmen and officers, Judge Hugo, could shoot away the head of a korhaan at eighty paces. Not bad, considering that it would have been factory-loaded, military ammunition. General Malan himself, seemed to have been a crack shot. He stated his preference to use his Mauser "broomhandle" pistol as his weapon of choice at close range, and from several incidents, the reader comes to the conclusion that he must have been a particularly deadly shot with it.

The fact that this Judge Hugo, must have been a good shot, can also be seen from an incident near Prince Albert, in the Little Karoo. Here, Malan invited the Judge to pick off a horseman at long distance. The judge quickly flipped up his sights to the 1,000 metre mark, and took careful aim. The shot sounded and all hell broke loose on the distant koppie. It later turned out, that Hugo had managed to hit Malan’s old arch-enemy, a very angry fellow called Colonel Doran, neatly in the leg.

All right, so Malan and Hugo must have been good shots under their circumstances. But what about the rest of the Boers? Perhaps the answer is given best in the words of a chap named Atkins, who had spent some time as a war-correspondent in South Africa. Writing on his way back to England, he wrote that: "Before the war the colonists told us that the Boer was a coward and could not shoot.

‘The old Boer may have been able to shoot’ they said, ‘but he practised on big game, and there is not much big game left now. The young Boer cannot shoot.’

They continued to say that after a couple of months in the field the Boers would fly incontinently home.

Now there never was a greater misjudgement of a national character, and when the shock of realisation came there was a natural, indeed inevitable, tendency on the part of Imperial officers to rush to the other extreme...

They (the Boers) are brave and their quickness in judging distances – in other words, of finding the range – is a lesson to riflemen or gunners of the world. People say the gunners are Germans. Well, there may be Germans among the gunners, as there may be French and Scandinavians, and Russians and Irish; but I say that most of these gunners must have had a long experience of this country.

To have the range absolutely at the second shot in this dancing, deceptive atmosphere is beyond the scope of the simple imported European gunner..." The Road to Infamy. Owen Coetzer.

During the first Anglo-Boer War, at the famous Battle of Majuba Hill, the old Boers had taken a lot of head shots. At the Battle of Spioenkop, on the Tugela river, the younger Boers did the same. Afterwards, it was particularly interesting to note that a large percentage of the fallen soldiers had head- and right-shoulder wounds, as the Boers had picked them off between the rocks. However, a good number of head-shots amongst the Boers, have also been described, attesting to some recently improved British marksmanship.

There was another interesting little incident, which goes to show that there were some foreigners that must have been equally good shots. A Russian nursing sister by the name of Sister Sophia Izedinova, described how one of her fellow-countrymen had displayed his remarkable marksmanship. Travelling by train with some Boers to Bloemfontein one day, the Russian Colonel Evgeny Maximov happened to find himself getting the cold shoulder from his fellow passengers. The Boers were curious to find out what the Russian colonel’s mission was, and he replied that he was a war correspondent. The Boers were not impressed that a competent Russian soldier should waste his time writing reports when he could do some useful work fighting. At one point, the Boers noted some springbok far out on the plains. At once it was decided that a shooting contest would be held to see who could hit a springbok. Try as they might, not one of the Boers could hit a single running springbuck from the moving train. After all, one of those present, reported the distance to be about eight hundred hards! Finally, Maximov asked for the loan of a rifle, and flipping up the sights, he calmly squeezed off. To the Boer’s astonishment, the Russian’s bullet found its mark, and the springbok immediately went down! It deserves to be said that Colonel Maximov was right there, summarily invited to join the Boer’s commandos. He eventually did too, and distinguished himself by having been promoted to the position of a fighting general in the Boer army. A lucky shot to hit a running springbok from a moving train at eight hundred yards? Undoubtedly so, but a damn good shot nevertheless!

One of my favourite examples of war marksmanship, however, comes from another incident, described by General Malan. After a planned attack on the Karoo town of Hanover had been thwarted by the British, he soon found himself in a position where he could give battle to his pursuers. At that point, a young Cape recruit who had no rifle, started pestering Malan for a rifle, explaining as he did, that he was a particularly good shot. Malan, who had no rifles to spare, finally grew tired of youngster’s nagging, and eventually lent the chap another man’s rifle. Calmly the fellow then asked Malan what he wanted him to hit in order to demonstrate his skills.

General Wynand Malan in later years.

Malan pointed to a British officer, 600 paces away: "Do you see that horseman?" he asked. "Take him out!"

Calmly the young man took careful aim, but as he fired, the dust went up next to the officer. Missed. Unconcerned, the man loaded again, and took another shot. Again he missed. At the third shot, however, the officer neatly folded out of the saddle. Malan then describes how this unknown burgher calmly took out three more officers, with three rounds! What might have happened if Malan should have been able to observe the man longer, is impossible to say, though, for the British soon enveloped the Boers in some shrapnel. This caused the raw, young sharpshooter with no previous battle experience, to quickly hand back the rifle, saying that Malan could now try again! This neat display of marksmanship is further complimented by the fact that the young man had accomplished this with a borrowed rifle with which he must have been totally unfamiliar!

Sniping remained a constant part of the war until it’s end in 1902. There was sniping at the besieged soldiers in Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. Constant sniping at British columns on the highveld. Sniping at blockhouses. Sniping at artillery. Sniping, sniping, and more sniping until, according to British sources, the soldiers grew totally accustomed to it. There have been various other incidences which described some really fine marksmanship during the Anglo-Boer War, and with the advance of better weapons, better ammunition, and with more emphasis on training, military sniping has evolved into something far more impressive than these examples. One cannot fail to wonder, however, whether there has ever been a time when such a high percentage of marksmen had been grouped together in one single army as during the turbulent years of the Boer War...

Incidentally, great-grandfather gave another display of his marksmanship which was perhaps even more impressive. Down in the Pongola river, there used to live a large old crocodile who had grown exceedingly cunning in his ways. For a long time he had been hunted, but such was his remarkable eyesight and luck, that nobody could ever get him. It is said that one day, Grandfather came across a group of young men who were trying to shoot this crocodile from the top of a cliff. It was said that the distance was 300 to 400 hundred yards, at which distance even a particularly large crocodile must surely have appeared as little more than a speck. Again failing to strike anywhere near the saurian beast, it was decided to give Grandfather a turn. Grandfather used his old 9.3 × 62 Mauser, about which he used to say: "Son, with this rifle I seldom missed!"

Grandfather adjusted his spectacles, took his aim, held his breath and squeezed. According to those who were present, the little bullet hit the giant lizard right in the brain and sent him on the road to the happy hunting grounds before he even knew it. Now, I will be the first one to admit that any hit at a target the size of a golf ball at 300 – 400 yards – with iron sights and store-bought ammunition – is more luck than anything else. Without a significant amount of skill, however, the luck factor soon becomes so overpoweringly important as to approach the impossible. After much thought about this subject, and having considered all things, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the Boers knew how to shoot! 

 Bibliography:

African Hunting., Baldwin, C., African Hunting Reprint Series., Volume 4., Books of Zimbabwe., Bulawayo., 1981.

A Few Months with the Boers The War Reminiscences of a Russian Nursing Sister., Izedinova, S., (Translated: C. Moody). Perskor., Johannesburg, 1977.

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

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