Untapped Tussles: The First Boer War

For students of Victorian military blunders, the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal is something of a gold mine. Two years after Ntshingwayo Khoza’s impi made famous Isandlwana, and nineteen years before Botha’s Boers ensured Spion Kop would never be forgotten, near a mountain pass called Laing’s Nek, a force of poorly-led British redcoats suffered a series of defeats so shocking they effectively ended a war.

(In computer wargaming development an understandable fixation with A-List ding-dongs – Waterloo, Gettysburg, Bulge and the like – means a slew of singular scraps with considerable ludological potential remain unsimmed. In Untapped Tussles, a sporadic THC column, I draw attention to some of these snubbed battles and conflicts in the hope of sowing seeds. Casting about for an interesting theme for your next martial offering? Read on.)

In the mid 1870s, no informed British politician could look at a map of Southern Africa without a twinge of anxiety. While the strategically significant Cape Colony wasn’t in immediate peril, in its pink neighbours Natal, Griqualand West, and Basutoland, there was constant tension between locals and European settlers. More worrying was the situation north of the Vaal River. Fractious yet vulnerable, isolationist yet disunited, the thinly populated Boer-run Zuid-Afrkaansche Republiek (ZAR) regularly clashed with the African communities on its nebulous borders. London believed the troublesome ‘Transvaal’ capable of destabilising the entire region.

To real-life Victoria players such as Gladstone and Disraeli, the solution was obvious. A stable and biddable southern Africa could best be achieved through Canada-style confederation. With a single strong hand on the tiller instead of several weak ones, other colonial powers could be kept at arm’s length and precarious relationships between settlers and the indigenous population carefully stewarded. The snag, of course, was that, left to its own devices, there was no hope of the Transvaal signing on the dotted line (Even the British colonies weren’t keen on the idea of federation). If the dream of a South African federation was to come true, Britain would have to dispense with niceties like diplomacy and international law.

On the morning of April 13th, 1877, the 800,000 inhabitants of the ZAR – only around 40,000 of whom were Boers – woke to find themselves within the British Empire. In clear contravention of the Sand River Convention*, Disraeli’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Carnarvon had annexed the Transvaal. If the republic hadn’t been riven by political infighting, almost bankrupt, and recently humiliated on the battlefield at the time, this audacious geopolitical hijacking might well have sparked an instant rebellion. In fact, Boer indignation took three and a half years to mature into violent resistance.

* In 1852 Britain had pledged never to interfere in the affairs of the Transvaal. By failing to abandon Inboekstelsel, a form of indentured labour little different from slavery, the Boers also breached the Convention.

By December 1880, the ZAR’s disempowered movers and shakers had realised that deputations and petitions were never going to restore their independence. Irked by imperial tax collectors (the farmers of the Highveld even resented paying their own government taxes) and emboldened by the British Army’s patchy performance in the Anglo-Zulu War, the disgruntled Boers reconstituted their parliament and elected three doughty ex-presidents to lead a provisional government. On December 16, the triumvirate issued a proclamation announcing the restoration of the ZAR, and established a temporary capital in Heidelberg, a village midway between Pretoria and the border of neighbouring Natal.

One of the reasons Heidelberg was chosen was because it lacked a British garrison. Seven of these dotted the Transvaal. Possessing neither the artillery pieces or reserves of rifle ammunition necessary to assault the garrisons, the rebels planned to starve them into submission with blockades. They realised that Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, Commander-in-Chief of Natal and the Transvaal, would attempt to lift the sieges using a relief force sent from Natal, but hoped to repulse that force before it crossed the border.

Colonel Lanyon, the Pretoria-based colonial administrator who had failed to read the writing on the wall in the run up to war, managed the conflict’s opening stages with similar ineptitude. Against the advice of his military counterpart, Colonel Bellairs, who recommended that the colony’s 1800 scattered and outnumbered redcoats be promptly concentrated in Pretoria, he dispatched troops to Potchefstroom to deal with unrest there, before committing to half-hearted redeployments elsewhere. Bellairs would get his field force in the capital, but no outpost, however vulnerable, was to be completely abandoned.

Of the columns that left the provincial garrisons bound for Pretoria after receiving Lanyon’s orders, none were more naively led than the one which set out from Lydenburg. A week in the assembling, and delayed on the road by rain-swollen rivers, Lt. Col. Anstruther’s convoy consisted of around 250 men of the 94th Regiment, plus 35 slow-moving wagons and their drivers. Despite warnings sent by Bellairs, Anstruther – a veteran of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Pedi wars – skimped on scouting and allowed his men to mingle with apparently friendly Boers en-route. When disaster struck here on 20 December, the regimental band was playing at the head of the column, “some of the men alongside the waggons had disembarrassed themselves of their rifles”, and the lids of reserve ammo boxes were screwed down.

The Bronkhortspruit ‘ambush’ was, initially at least, surreally polite. Before opening fire, the 300 ambushers revealed themselves, and dispatched a messenger bearing an ultimatum (“Any forward movement will be taken as a declaration of war”). When Anstruther informed the messenger that he had no intention of turning back, the line of ZAR irregulars dashed forward, going prone or dropping to a crouch about 130 paces from the road. “Murderous fire” swiftly eliminated most of the British officers and NCOs, and immobilised the majority of the wagons. Disorganised and exposed, the convoy fought gamely for 10-15 minutes before the badly-wounded Anstruther, realising the situation was hopeless, ordered his men to surrender. The first ‘battle’ of the First Boer War was over. Roughly two-thirds of the ambushed were killed or wounded. The ambushers claimed to have only lost two men during the action.

While the bloodbath at Bronkhortspruit might make a memorable movie sequence, it’s not, for obvious reasons, promising material for a tactical wargame scenario. For clashes better suited to battle simulation we need to fast-forward five weeks, and head south-east into the northern tip of Natal.

By late January, 1881, Colley had assembled a relief force and, spurning a more circuitous but potentially easier route into the Transvaal, marched it north towards Laing’s Nek, a strategic pass in the Drakensberg Mountains. Comprised of just 1500 men (Urgency, other commitments, and concerns about provoking a region-wide race war* limited its size) the ‘Natal Field Force’ was woefully short of mounted troops (191) and a little light in the artillery department too (Four 9-pdrs, two 7-pdrs, two Gatling guns, and three rocket tubes). However, its gifted** commander was confident he had enough firepower, experience, and professionalism at his disposal to best the army of bumpkins occupying the ‘nek’.

* The British frequently used African levies when fighting in the region (7000 of the 17000 colonial troops involved in the Anglo-Zulu War were African) but were unwilling to use them against white settlers in the Transvaal in case it alienated the region’s Afrikaners.

** On paper. Colley, a member of a coterie of officers known as the ‘Ashanti Ring’, had fought in the Second Anglo-Chinese War, and graduated from Camberley with the highest marks ever obtained.

Although the battlefield – rising ground bordered on three sides by a horseshoe of steep hills – favoured the defenders, and the Boers had numbers on their side, Colley probably did have sufficient resources at his disposal to prevail at Laing’s Nek. What ultimately doomed him and the Natal Field Force to failure was the three-pound hunk of gristle under his pith helmet.

The battle was mismanaged from the start. Instead of advancing under the cover of darkness and launching the attack, with the element of surprise, at daybreak, the ‘Rooibaadjes’ left their camp after breakfast and assembled in full view of the enemy. Rather than taking on the key enemy positions on the nek itself, Colley decided he would turn the Boers’ left flank – an ambitious tactic that required his men to scale two intimidating hills under withering fire, then mount bayonet charges near the summits.

Poorly supported by artillery, the dual assaults were rushed and badly synchronised. Mounted infantry stayed in the saddle too long. Infantry remained in columns when common sense and training manuals dictated looser linear formations. Staff officers confused things by supplanting regimental officers… the mistakes were numerous and, for 84 soldiers of the Queen, fatal. Undone by their own tactics, and taken aback by the cool efficiency and excellent marksmanship of the Boers, British troops eventually turned tail and hurried back the way they’d come.

If the defeat at Laing’s Nek laid bare Colley’s limitations as an attacker, the next sizeable engagement of the campaign – Ingogo – proved he also wasn’t much cop at spontaneous defence or operational planning. After the setback at the pass, the NFF had retired to their camp, a few miles away, to lick wounds and strengthen defences. Reinforcements – troops diverted on their way back from India – were en-route from the coast and it seems likely Colley was waiting for these to arrive before having another bash at breaking into the Transvaal.

Thanks to scouts roaming deep inside Natal, Boer commander, Piet Joubert, had an excellent grasp of the situation. Realising that surprising the reinforcements on the road would be preferable to facing them in pitched battle, he sent Smit – the architect of the Bronkhortspruit ambush – and 300 men, south into the NFF’s rear. It wasn’t long before the presence of this commando disrupted Mount Prospect Camp’s slender supply line. Cavalry patrols might have solved Colley’s problem, but our hero had too few mounted infantry to organise them, so chose another tactic.

Early on the morning of February 8, a small convoy of ambulance wagons and mail carts set out from Mount Prospect bound for Newcastle. Not far behind them tramped a column of 240 infantry, 38 cavalry, and four guns led by Colley. He was convinced an escort of this size would persuade any would-be bushwhackers to keep their distance. Not for the first or last time, he’d underestimated the feistiness of his foe.

At around midday, having left a small detachment on its north bank, the column crossed the Ingogo River via two rocky drifts and ran into Smit’s men. Warnings provided by a screen of vedettes ensured the British had sufficient time to take defensive positions on the edge of a triangular plateau. Watching the redcoats shake out into skirmish lines and rush to deploy their 9-pdrs, less confident and dynamic combatants, might have hesitated. Because the Boers boldly pushed forward, concentrating fire on the vulnerable field guns and horses, and forcing their opponents to extend their lines again and again to avoid being flanked, they quickly gained the upper hand. That traditional grognard comforter, high ground, proved a mixed blessing for the men of the 3/60th Rifles. Silhouetted against the sky on the rim of ‘Schuinshoogte’, the grubby pith helmets of Colley’s troops were relatively easy targets for Smit’s sharpshooters. One British bonnet recovered after the battle had been holed half-a-dozen times.

Unwilling to countenance the bayonet charges that some of his officers desired (having witnessed the failure of such charges against unsuppressed and dispersed enemies at Laing’s Nek, his reluctance was understandable) but with no alternative ideas for injecting mobility into a painfully passive defence, the cool-under-fire Colley decided that a nocturnal withdrawal was his best/only option. Rain-sodden, cold, hungry, and thirsty*, the beleaguered Brits hung on until nightfall, then undertook a stealthy five-hour journey Smit believed impossible due to the in-spate Ingogo. Although the Boers felt somewhat cheated when, the following morning, they discovered that their adversaries had slipped away, the successful escape did little to assuage Colley’s burgeoning feelings of despair. Since leaving Newcastle in December, the NFF had lost 25% of its strength and achieved precisely nothing.

* Anticipating a short “demonstration of force”, Colley hadn’t brought water or ration carts on the sally.

In London, bad news from the front, fears of the Boer rebellion spreading to other colonies, and distractions in Ireland, had dulled the Cabinet’s appetite for the Transvaal War. Eleven days after Ingogo, Colley received a telegram forbidding him to “…march to the relief of the garrisons or occupy Laing’s Nek”. He was ordered instead to present the government’s peace proposals* to the ZAR’s ruling triumvirate. To a once-fêted career soldier just one victory away from restoring a tattered reputation, this was a development as heartbreaking as it was humiliating. The khaki-clad ‘Indian Column’ had almost reached Mount Prospect. In a few days’ time Colley would have everything he needed to trounce his tormentors. Doves in the Cabinet were about to inflict “a deep and permanent injury on the British name and power in South Africa” an injury he was in a position to prevent, if he played his cards cagily.

* Gladstone’s government was happy to agree to the Boers’ main demand – the setting up of a Royal Commission to look into the question of ZAR independence.

While grudgingly opening peace negotiations, the commander of the demoralised and diminished NFF quietly planned his crowning achievement. In advance of the imminent arrival of the Indian Column, Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, KCSI, CB, CMG would capture Majuba Hill, the mountainous protuberance that loomed over Laing’s Nek from the west. This show of strength would either* convince the Boers that their hold on the pass was untenable, or help a reinforced NFF turn the enemy’s flank in the pass below in the days that followed.

* Quite what was in Colley’s mind, nobody knows.

Around four hundred men participated in the gruelling night ascent. By the time the last climber had scrambled onto the roughly triangular mountaintop, limbs were aching, stomachs were rumbling, and dawn was beginning to break. Sunrise revealed a previously unnoticed area of the complicated summit forcing Colley to stretch and realign his already disorganised (units had intermingled during the climb) defensive perimeter. During those crucial first few hours of daylight, the weary redcoats failed to scout the mountaintop properly, entrench, or build redoubts – mistakes that would cost them dear in the fighting to come.

From their lofty vantage point the mountaineers had excellent views of the Boer positions in an around Laing’s Nek. What they didn’t have was as any weapon capable of menacing those positions. Deemed too difficult to transport up the hill, the artillery pieces that might have lent meaning to Colley’s “I’m-the-king-of-the-castle” escapade were all back in Mount Prospect Camp.

At around 5.45 a.m., the burghers manning the defences and dozing in the laagers north-east of Majuba heard shots and shouts of “Come up here, you beggars!”. Looking up, they saw the new lords of Majuba waving fists and Martini-Henrys at them from the summit. Alarm – surely this was the prelude to an artillery bombardment or another attempt to take the nek! – transformed into something steelier when the British failed to back up the bravado with action.

By 9:00 a.m. hundreds of skirmishers, coordinated by the capable Smit, were picking their way up the rocky slopes. While the younger, fitter Boers clambered, the older ones provided covering fire. Colley’s failure to properly scout the mountaintop and customise his defences accordingly, allowed the ascenders to exploit numerous areas of dead ground on their way to the summit. When an unobserved avenue of advance wasn’t available, the Boers pushed on using fire and movement tactics far ahead of their time.

The positions of the kilted 92nd Highlanders on the north and north-eastern sides of the summit were the first to be threatened. Appreciating the danger his thinly spread troops were in, their young but experienced senior officer, Lieutenant Hamilton, made repeated trips to his HQ requesting reinforcements. The calls fell on deaf ears. When a desperate Hamilton sought out Colley for a third time round-about midday, he found him asleep. By the time the roused Major General finally acknowledged the seriousness of the situation, and released some of his reserve, the situation in the north was irrecoverable. Having lost control of a crucial knoll, the Highlanders were weathering close-range enfilade fire.

The northern section of the British perimeter collapsed, reforming – after some desperate rallying efforts by officers – along a rocky ridge a couple of hundred metres further south. It wasn’t long before skilful Boer flanking manoeuvres rendered this new bulwark useless and left the men in the heart of the British position dangerously exposed.

“The uproar at this time grew appalling. Commands of the officers, the crash of shot, the shrieks of the wounded, all helped to aggravate the din. Boers were fast climbing the mountain sides, and the troops, worn out and almost expended, were beginning to lose the spirit of discipline that hitherto had sustained them. The officers stepped forward boldly, sword in one hand and revolver in the other, but to no purpose. Only an insignificant number of men now responded to the command.” (South Africa and the Transvaal War – Louis Creswicke)

The game was up. Those who could flee over the summit’s southern fringe, did so. Those compelled by duty, compassion, or more prosaic factors to remain amongst the smoke, chaos, and corpses, either died alongside their duffer of a CO, or finished up in field hospitals or as POWs. By the time the rifles fell silent over half of Colley’s mountain men were either either dead (92) or wounded (134).

While history is littered with accounts of costlier defeats, very few armies have ever been on the receiving end of a drubbing as statistically stark as the one inflicted on the British Army at the senseless Battle of Majuba Hill. Of the 400 to 500 Boers who swarmed up ‘Spitskop’ on 27 February 1881, astonishingly only one was killed, and just five were wounded. Perhaps this eye-wateringly lopsided butcher’s bill is one reason why computer wargame crafters have shunned the final battle of the First Boer War. The casualty figures – figures superior Boer marksmanship and tactics don’t fully explain – suggest a crushing Boer victory was a foregone conclusion.

To a contrarian combat orchestrator like myself, Majuba’s strange stats actually make it a more attractive candidate for ludologisation. For years I’ve been itching to examine, through play, questions like “What if Colley had used Majuba as a diversion for a second assault on Laing’s Nek?”… “What if his party had managed to manhandle artillery onto the summit?”… What if they’d entrenched and reconnoitred properly on their arrival?” I’m convinced the mountaintop, dotted as it was/is with tactically significant ridges, koppies, hollows, and clefts, was defensible. A high-quality wargame with an accurate 3D recreation of that singular battlefield at its core, couldn’t fail to reveal ways in which Colley’s unimaginative defensive arrangements might have been improved.

It’s not hard to picture a broader Transvaal Rebellion wargame too. The British player scheming to relieve their hard-pressed garrisons with one eye on the WWEM (Westminster War Enthusiasm Meter). The Boer one, fretting about their artillery deficiencies while doing their utmost to arrest the northward progress of a Natal Field Force that, only on the lowest difficult setting – ‘Colley’ – would be handled by the CPU with historical incompetence. Assuming South African asymmetric wargame specialist Johan Nagel doesn’t have a First Boer War title on his To Do list, and a digital port of Hill of Doves is out of the question, the best hope of a Colley-em-up may be Wars Across The World. The British Army’s most calamitous campaign (?) is perfect WatW material.

5 Comments

  1. Tim’s writing is always a delight, and frequently introduces me to new words.

    I will admit though the Google image search results for ‘vedettes’ were something of a surprise.

  2. I remember the first time I watched the excellent “Breaker Morant” thinking there was real wargame potential there. Now of course I realize that’s the Second Anglo-Boer war.

    Really, for decades now I’ve been wanting someone (anyone!) to make a particular partisan focused wargame that’s all about sabotage, raids, and disappearing into the wilderness with desperately low supplies. I’m fairly agnostic to the setting, but I want that “slowly scraping by” feel. Imagine something like Valkyria Chronicles with a real world setting and proper logistics.

  3. I had previously looked into the topic of a Boer War, but that had been years ago. And after reading Tim´s wonderful article, I actually had to check to find out if it had been the First or the Second. It had been the Second, after all. But it was eerie how many of the details seemed so very familiar. Right down to the ill-advised struggle for bleak mountain plateaus.
    I hope we will see a follow-up to this article.

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