WHAT WAS IT LIKE?

How did the ordinary British soldier experience the Anglo-Boer War?

By H Labuschagne

The British soldiers thought that the Boer War would be over by Christmas. "The tea-time war," they called it. Many Boers too, thought that the War was going to be over quickly. "Ons gaan piesangs eet!" – "We’re going to eat bananas!" was the cry of many when the Boers invaded Natal.

Many expected that they would quickly teach the British another "Majuba of a lesson" and all return home before harvest time. But it didn’t work out quite like that!

The Anglo-Boer War turned out to be anything but a tea party. By the time that the dust had settled, nearly three years later, the Boer War had been the most bitter, cruel, and most savage war fought between white men since the Crimean war. But what was it really like? What was it like for the Boers and especially the Britons of old to fight in the Boer war? How did the fighting men experience life during those hard years and months? Much has been written about the large-scale events, but very little has been heard about the times and troubles that had to be endured on a personal level. Today not many people seem to really understand the tremendous hardship that had to be endured during this war.

A land of tremendous contrasts

The first thing that one has to realize is that South Africa is a land of tremendous contrasts. The British had fought extensively in India over the years, and also in the Sudan and various other places in Africa. South Africa, however, was completely different in most respects. The seasoned soldiers that were sent in from India found South Africa an extremely hard land in which to fight a war. Even the veteran and British national war hero that had seen much action in North Africa, general Horatio Kitchener, found South Africa a disturbing experience. In fact, he disliked the entire war operations in South Africa so much that he repeatedly stated the he could not wait to get away from the country. He even stated that he was disliking the country more and more as each day went by.

Blistering days and freezing nights

South Africa is beautiful. The country likes to play curious games with the emotions of both her people and her visitors. The flaming sunsets, the endlessly windswept plains, the majestic mountain ranges, the whispering winds, warm with the hint of tropical mystery – all of these tend to hopelessly capture the soul of anyone who has travelled the land. A magnificently beautiful country for tourists, but a bitterly hard country in which to fight a war. Much of the reason for this, lies in the climate. On average, South Africa has a particularly healthy climate. The rainfall, however, is generally very low. In the ancient old Great Karoo, for instance, the rainfall ranges between only 125 and 250 millimetres per year. On the great central plains, the rainfall can range from 500 millimetres to over a thousand millimetres per year. But the central plains are relatively high above sea level, and during winter night temperatures often plunge to well below freezing. When the cold fronts come sweeping in from the cold wastes of Antarctica, however, the high Drakensberg mountains and the Lesotho plateau are often covered with a white blanket of snow. As the winds play across the up to three and a half thousand metre mountains, the frigid air sweep across the desolate grasslands of the highveld, slicing through clothing, mittens and blankets with savage ferocity – only the soldiers never had mittens, and sometimes did not even have coats and jackets handy.

In summer, the same regions become sunbaked and the wide horizons dissolve in shimmering heat waves. During December, January and February, temperatures tend to hover in the high thirties, and in places, often peak at a blistering forty degrees Celsius or more. Many years the crops wither, streams dry up, and the grass becomes baked to a blue-green colour as the land desperately thirsts for rain. And then, when the rains finally do come, it often comes in raging torrents. Violent summer thunderstorms that pound the earth with large hailstones, which cause flash-floods in the desert regions, and drenches the earth in brutal fashion. In lower elevations, the grassy plains that could pass for prairie or Siberian steppe, gives way to miles and miles of bushveld. Very dry. Covered with Acacias and thorn trees. Very wild. A region where dangerous animals roam and where fever lurks in the steamy hot valleys. South Africa has always been a land of extremes, but this was the land which Great Britain had picked over which to fight a war in 1899.

A shilling a day – the price of a tot of whiskey

To the British soldiers, South Africa was anything but what they expected. The land, beautiful though it was, seemed inherently hostile. The culture shock for the thousands of soldiers who had come from the beautiful English landscape, the fresh hills of Scotland and the brilliant green of Ireland, must have been great. How they must have stared in disbelief at the unending miles of plains where horizons didn’t exist, but rather seemed to dissolve into eerie mirages which form a never-never dimension between earth and sky. They must have sensed that the war would be a great trial for them. Then, as the soldiers began to march across the north-eastern Cape and southern Free State, and officers began to fall off their horses from sunstroke, the men must have cursed themselves for ever having joined the army. Walking in columns consisting of several thousand men, and following endless lines of hundreds of supply waggons, drawn by thousands of four-footed animals, the dust chaffed their skins, clogged their lungs and noses and burnt their eyes. As the scorching days went by, the sun fried the skin of the faces, ears and noses of the tender white Anglo-Saxons. Huge, angry sun-blisters and painfully chapped lips made the men writhe in agony as they lay under the strange southern stars at night. Each day brought hunger, thirst and utter exhaustion. Was this what they had come to South Africa for? Was this what they had to endure for a salary of a shilling a day? – Why, this was merely the price of a tot of whiskey! As each day went by, the men’s feet began to blister, for the infantry had to walk most of the way. Each night saw hundreds and thousands of men, taking off their boots to pull their blood-soaked socks off and examine their wounds. In vain, the men hoped to find water in many of the dry river beds. How they must have prayed for rain to relieve the intense heat and to provide washing and drinking water. There was scarcely enough water for drinking, not to mention washing – and although the thirst was bad, the need for a wash seemed at times to be almost greater. The men lived and slept in one set of clothes. After weeks of marching they were beyond the meaning of the word "filthy." When the rains came, however, it was only to replace their current miseries with new ones...

Battling an unseen enemy

As the weeks and the months went by, more and more battles began to be fought. But for the Indian veterans, and those that came from North Africa, the change was startling on this arena too. Whereas both groups of professional soldiers had been used to fighting against poorly armed savages, they now found themselves matched against people remarkably like themselves. Men who fought with the most modern equipment that money could buy, and who fought with a bitter determination and a ferocity which they found frightening at times. Instead of encountering neatly organized armies who marched around in military columns and wore distinct uniforms, the soldiers found an entire nation which had gone to war in a very informal manner. No divisions, brigades and other fighting units. Only what would be loosely termed: "commandos." The commandos consisted of men between the ages of sixteen and sixty. Sometimes as young as eight, and sometimes as old as eighty or more. Instead of finding classic text-book battle situations in the style of Waterloo, the officers found only battles and skirmishes that bore little or no resemblance to anything they had been taught at Sandhurst and Aldershot. Why, the Boers did not even wear uniforms!

The most frustrating thing of all, however, was the fact that the enemy remained unseen for most of the time. Most of the time the cavalry hoped in vain to get a chance to charge the tightly-packed ranks of their enemy. In vain the infantry officers hoped to get a chance to storm the enemy in a heroic bayonet-charge, except in rather rare occasions. Instead, the Boers were forever hiding between the rocks and boulders of koppies, or hidden in the tall grass, the ravines, dongas, and sometimes in trenches. For ever there was sniping. The soldiers eventually had to become used to the dull thud and the sight of an officer toppling out of the saddle as an invisible sniper’s bullet found its mark. The enemy was constantly on the move. How many times did they storm the enemy’s positions, occupy them with great loss of life, only to see the enemy disappear across the horizon at the last moment? The frustration was intense as the British army pursued its enemies. Dozens of diaries mention that always there would be dust clouds on the horizon, but seldom could they catch up with the elusive Boers.

On top of it all, the battles tended to go seriously wrong in many instances. The officers soon found out that South Africa was going to prove to be the graveyard of many a military reputation. The British infantry moved slowly, while the enemy were all mounted – and most of them were some of the best horsemen in the world. Even when the army won their battles, it was frustrating to find that invariably the victory had come with enormous British losses, compared to those of the enemy.

The failure of lines of supply

Then there was the intensely troubling matter of supplies. Having fielded the biggest military expedition in decades, the army soon ran into serious troubles. With a supply line stretching back seven hundred kilometres and more to Cape Town, and ten thousand miles back to Britain, the logistics of keeping a massive army well fed, clothed and supplied, must have been horrendous. Mountains and mountains of war materials had to be loaded on slow, plodding ox-waggons and sent after the armies. These ox-waggons were drawn by spans of sixteen oxen. To drive them successfully required specialized knowledge, back-breaking hard work and loads of patience. And then the rains came once more...

Bicycles proved to be a surprisingly good medium of communication. Across rough terrain and long distances, bicycle reports often tended to reach their destination faster than reports could be conveyed by horse.

Torrential downpours and squelching mud

As the rains poured down, the British camps were quickly turned into squelching quagmires. At the same time the dusty plains were turned into sucking mud-holes. Near Ladysmith, general Buller’s immensely heavy 4,7 inch naval guns sank deeply into the mud. The ammunition waggons sank down up their belly blanks. The teams of oxen were doubled – even tripled. Steam tractors were added. They bogged down too. Finally, the powerful oxen simply tore the bogged-down waggons of wood apart. Day after day, the rains came down in torrential downpours such as many of the soldiers had never experienced in their lives before. But often there was no shelter for the soldiers. No tents. Often not even raincoats or blankets. With the supply waggons bogged down in the mud, all they could do was try to sleep in the rain and curse their luck, their officers and the war in general. In Natal, each afternoon brought more thunderstorms. Often with lightning that killed horses and cattle. The mornings would dawn bright and sunny – and as soon as the day warmed up, everything would start steaming in the unbearable heat, until the next thunderstorm came...

The supply system failed again and again, yet despite all of this, the army still seemed to perform miracles in moving mind-blowing quantities of stores to the fronts. Transport in general, was a big problem. Southern Africa simply had no proper roads. Often the roads were so impossible eroded, that the army had to search for alternative routes. It wasn’t a strange sight to see five ammunition waggons hopelessly stuck behind one-another in a vlei or marsh. Then an entire day would be wasted. The waggons would have to be unloaded, the teams of oxen doubled or triples, and the waggons would have to be dug out by hand. Sometimes even horses and oxen got stuck in the mud. Furthermore, in such a dry land, the officers found it intensely frustrating that they nevertheless still had to cross so many large rivers. At each one pontoons had to be erected, bridges repaired or built, and precious time wasted. Many times waggons capsized and men and animals were drowned.

A drenched British camp

The army finally realized that in order to successfully compete with the Boers, it would have to provide horses for its infantry. Eventually, nearly five hundred thousand horses would be shipped to the British army in South Africa. There three quarters of them would ultimately die and leave their bones to be picked by the greedy vultures and bleached by the merciless African sun. The War Office drained the national supply of horses, and had to import from as far as Argentina and Russia! For the now mounted-infantry, the horses brought little relief, though. As the season turned again, the searing heat and blinding rain of summer, gave way to the cold and drought of winter once more.

Marching and sleeping in winter rain

By this time, the armies were on the central highveld, busy driving the Boers towards Portuguese East Africa, or present-day Mozambique. Suddenly the landscape became very flat and almost totally treeless. As the cold winds came blowing in from the south, life became ever more miserable. Most South Africa days of winter are far too hot for coats and warm clothes, yet the nights become frigid. This made it extremely difficult for the soldiers to pack. Coats and blankets slowed them down, yet they vital at night. The soldiers had to learn how to collect dry cow-dung on the veld and use these to make small, very smoky fires on which to cook their food and try to stay warm. Often, the nights became a nightmare, for by this time the army in the field seldom used tents anymore. Between Pretoria and Witbank, the soldiers had to march in the cold winter rain with neither coats nor blanket. When night fell, there was no shelter. No fire. No way to keep warm. By morning, several men had died of cold and exposure... But this happened many times during the war. Sometimes it snowed. Once, in the Cape, it snowed so much that the tents collapsed. Sometimes sleet fell. The men learned to suffer and endure. Eventually, virtually not a single fence post or non-essential telegraph pole would be left on the entire highveld. The fighting men would have used everything for fire.

After a night march of 50 miles, both men and horses would simply collapse and fall asleep instantaneously, as this picture shows. Sometimes, both Boers and British soldiers became so tired during these night marches that they would sit and sleep in their saddles, occasionally to fall off as the horse stumbled.

But these were not the end of the British army’s miseries. The medical services of the army proved to be woefully inadequate. By the time that Lord Robert’s columns had reached Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State Republic, a massive proportion of the army was sick to the point of death. At the battle of Modderrivier the troops had drunk water contaminated by the corpses of dead Boers, horses and cattle. Dysentery was raging. Typhus fever was running uncontrolled, while enteric fever and other diseases were killing dozens of troops a day. The hospitals overflowed and thousands of troops died. The soldiers battled to stay healthy on a diet of army biscuits and bully beef. Eventually, far more soldiers would die of disease, than of wounds, bombs and bullets.

Love for the land – hate for the land

While some of the soldiers learned to deeply love the land, others came to hate it intensely. Everything about the land was foreign to them. The language was strange. They battled to communicate with their enemies and with the black tribes with whom they were dealing. They even found the topography of the land extremely baffling. What blew the British minds, was the fact that the landscape would appear completely flat for as far as the eye could see. Yet, when they tried to cross it, they would find that it was a continuous process of trekking uphill and downhill. The landscape always seemed bone-dry, yet there was always a waggons or gun that got stuck somewhere. The apparently flat landscape of the interior hid folds and valleys in which their enemies lurked. The armies were frequently lost and disorientated, and to top it all, they didn’t even have proper maps. If it hadn’t been for the fact that they had soon learned to use enemy traitors and blacks to guide them, the war might have turned out very differently.

The war becomes dirty

But there was more which made the lives of many soldiers miserable. By the end of 1900 the war was beginning to become dirty. By May of 1901 it was becoming something dreadful, and as the months passed, the situation only became worse. The elusive commandos continued to evade the British armies repeatedly. The war was draining the British money supply, and the end of the war was still not in sight. The soldiers began receiving orders that the homes and farms of their enemies had to be burnt, their livestock destroyed, and their families taken to concentration camps. For the first time, British soldiers found that they were now required to wage war not only against a fighting enemy, but also against non-combatant civilians: Women and children or old and helpless men and invalids. Initially some refused to assist in burning down the homes of civilians, but as time went by, the orders were fulfilled anyway. Within months, just about all the farms, homes, and non-strategic towns had been razed to the ground. The entire Free State and the Transvaal was a smoking, desolate wasteland. Some soldiers found pleasure in looting and destroying. Others could do little more than record their disgust in their diaries. Added to this, was the rumours that thousands upon thousands of the women and children were dying in concentration camps. "What was beginning to happen here?" some wondered. The war was fast becoming a nightmare.

Loneliness, boredom and extreme exhaustion

It was thought that these measures would break the Boer will and spirit, yet the war dragged on for month after weary month. Some regiments were sent back home. New ones came to take their place. In a desperate effort to catch the Boer commandoes, fast and lean columns were trained. These men would be supplied with the best possible horses. They would set out after dark, and make a forced march of fifty miles a night or more. This would mean at least 24 hours of intensely hard trekking. Often it would turn out to be 48 hours of having to stay awake continuously. During this time the men would stay in the saddle nearly all of the time. Both man and beast would eat only the barest minimum. After such an exercise, both men and horses would be utterly wasted. The bag grew, but the soldiers were worn out dangerously. Others had to guard bridges and blockhouses. This became an intensely dull and lonely task which taxed the soldiers’ morale heavily and bored the men to tears. Eventually the two Boer republics would be carved up into a system of fortified blockhouses lines, stretching over four thousand kilometres with eight thousand blockhouses to protect the barbed wire fences and railway lines. Each month was spent chasing after women and children, and the ever-elusive Boer commandoes. The massively expensive so-called "Great Drives," resulted mostly in disappointment.

A British fly camp--out in the open.

How much glory in victory?

When finally the war ended by the middle of 1902, it came as an intense relief to Boer and Briton alike. The land was ruined and the price of conquest had been mind-numbing. Great Britain’s treasury was bled white, and many of her soldiers were beyond the point of exhaustion. The war and costs had certainly gone way beyond the wildest expectations of anyone in England. Many soldiers could not wait to go home again. Yet, as they were railed back to the harbours and the familiar landscape passed before them, something tugged at the men’s hearts nevertheless.

Some chose to stay on and become settlers. Builders of the new nation which was already beginning to rise from the ashes of destruction. In fact, the man who had helped to start the war more than anybody else, Lord Miler, encouraged it. But the rest who eventually went home, went back as changed men. Africa is a jealous lover. She takes hold of people and stubbornly refuses to let go. She gets under one’s skin. She holds on to the mind, and engraves herself in one’s memories. For many decades after, the soldiers who had fought in the land of sunshine and open spaces, would think back about their long days of suffering. Remember their intense frustration. Remember Lady Africa’s stark beauty, her indescribable mystique and her mysterious charms. They would think about comrades lost, about new friends made, and about the shame and injustices of war. Certainly there was glory too, but the question is how much? The price of conquest had been extremely high. Perhaps too high.

As the trains rolled over the ancient landscape of Southern Africa, how many soldiers wondered after all had been said and done, whether it had all been truly worth it. The personal sacrifices of the British soldier in attaining this victory had been enormous. But did they count for very much? Who knows? They were simply soldiers in the service of Queen and country.

 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.

Die Natuurwonder van Suider-Afrika., Wannenburgh, A., C. Struik Uitgewers., Kaapstad., 1984

Copyright: H. Labuschagne. All rights reserved.