Great Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, Part I: Triumph of the Boer and his Mauser Rifle 1895-1900

The Second Anglo-Boer War, or Second Boer War of 1899-1902, brought the British Empire into conflict yet again with the Afrikaner-Boers, the European pioneers of South Africa, who sought independence from England for their brother-nations, the Orange Free State and Transvaal republics. Led by an aging Queen Victoria, Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa, and Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary, and a slew of regular army generals, the British land forces looked to establish commonwealth control over the Boer republics, utterly rich in diamond and gold mines, the colonial importance of South Africa was paramount to the military and political spheres in London throughout the years leading up to conflict, 1896-1899.

Remembered today as one of the last major colonial conflicts of the 19th century, the Great Anglo-Boer War, named so rather heroically by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (b.1859-1930), left dead 22,000 British soldiers and lead to the deaths of close to 30,000 Afrikaners, most of whom were either women, children, or the elderly. It left dead an unknown number of native Africans, though this number is assumingly in the tens of thousands as well.

The guerrilla campaign which begins with a defeat of conventional Boer forces in 1900-1901, digresses into a campaign of seek & destroy with the bitter-ender Boer guerrilla’s evading Lord H.H. Kitchener on the wide open veld (grassland) of South Africa and Natal.

Boer's armed with German made 1896 Mauser rifles posing behind a small mortar

Afrikaners, Uitlanders, and the Gold Disaster

Afrikaners or Boers (Dutch for farmers) are the modern-day descendants of the predominately Dutch and German settlers who came to South Africa after Jan van Riebeck settled Cape Town beginning in the year 1652. Over time the Afrikaners formed their own unique culture and language, amalgamating their mixed heritage and adopted place of birth into a pioneer culture not unlike that of American Mormon pioneers of the 1840’s and 1850’s. First under Dutch colonial rule and after the Napoleonic age, under British rule, the fiercely independent Afrikaners hated even the most lax colonial/imperial oversight.

Their desire to breakaway from British authority was a key factor in the beginning of the Great Trek of 1838, a mass migration of Boers from the Natal and Cape Colonies over the Orange River and onto the open veld of South Africa. These Voortrekkers (pioneers) settled in the fertile valleys between the Umzimvubu and Tugela rivers, given to them in a treaty with the Zulu [1]. Soon after signing the agreement, over 300 Voortrekker’s and their leader Piet Retief were massacred by the Zulu impis in an act of treachery.

A hastened commando was assembled by the new trek leader Andries Pretorious to combat the Zulu and avenge their former chief. A large force of Zulu warriors fell upon these Boer party days later where at the Battle of Blood River, an estimated 3,000 Zulus fell to only 3 wounded Boers, if the Afrikaner-Boer histories of the battle can be fully believed. The Boer’s defensive structure involved their wagons being lined up in a circle, creating the basic laager formation. Shielded from Zulu spear attacks, the Boers picked off their opponents with their flintlock muskets. The Battle of Blood River marked only the beginning of close to one hundred years of Anglo-Boer-Zulu conflict for South Africa.

Prior to the start of the Second Anglo-Boer War, major Afrikaner-Boer conflict is contained to the First Anglo-Boer War of 1880-1881. A brief event in relation to other significant conflicts  in British military history during the 19th century, the First Anglo-Boer War ended quickly with a British defeat at  the Battle of Majuba and the eventual confirmation of the Boer republics autonomy in 1881. The right to self government; excluding foreign policy which would be handled by Britain, was fought for and won by the Afrikaner-Boers, the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State, which were independent nations under Boer rule.

South Africa circa 1896-1899

A lull in combat followed the end of the First Boer War; most native tribes such as the Zulu had been driven from the veld or pacified. The exception being the continuation of Xhosa Wars (1779-c.1879), the so called ‘Kaffir’ conflict at the Frontier of the Cape colonies. Peace would not last for long in the South Africa territories when the largest gold mine ever discovered was found 30 miles outside Pretoria in the Transvaal Republic.

Popular period depiction of the Boers during the First Anglo-Boer War

Foreigners flocked to the British Cape Colony and Boer Republics to seek their fortune in gold, spitefully called uitlanders by the Boers, they would play a crucial role in the British decision to annex the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State in September of 1899. The despised uitlanders created the perfect solution to the British problem as to how to gain control of the many diamond and gold mines in South Africa. Perhaps embodying the quintessential uitlander is Cecil Rhodes, who besides being one of the wealthiest men of the period is the prime minister of the Cape Colony in 1890 [2].

In 1895 he and many other foreigners believed British annexation would come yet again if cries for franchise were left unheard. Added support from the British Colonial sphere in the realization of a British Africa from “Cape to Cairo” led to the plotting of the Jameson Raid in 1896. Rhodes confidant Dr. Leander Jameson led the failed coup; his mercenary army were killed, scattered, or captured before they could disrupt Boer communications and seize power in the Transvaal, utterly defeated, and a personal embarrassment to Rhodes publicly.

Jameson Raid, December-January 1895-1896

Diplomatic talks began between the Boer Republics and Britain but it was soon realized that war would be inevitable. Lead by President Paul Kruger (b.1825-1904) and the Orange Free State president, M.T. Steyn (b.1858-1916, the Boers refused to grant rights to the uitlanders regardless of the British insistence on the issue. This tough stance on the uitlander franchise had its desired effect and by the beginning of the conflict in October 1899,over 45,000 foreigners had left the Colonies for England or their respective home countries.

Logistics and the Weapons of the Anglo-Boer War

With only 60 artillery pieces in country and maybe 20,000 men, reinforcements from all over Britain’s empire, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Pacific and Asian colonies and protectorates, were needed and quickly. Excitement over the war had led to a large boom in recruitment numbers from these said commonwealth and colony states-slogans such as “Avenge Majuba!” were common and there was no shortage of War Fever in England. Almost all the Commonwealth countries (Canada, New Zealand, and Australian) sent infantry and cavalry, both enlisted and volunteer battalions. 47,000 men assembled under General Sir Redvers Buller (b.1839-1908) in England and were to deploy soon for South Africa. Some of the more famous units would be called to service. Fusiliers, Highlanders, Hussars, and Dragoons were just a few of the units under Redvers’ command. Supplies of all kinds are now being shipped daily from England for the 6,000 mile journey to Cape Town. The horse would be the most important mode of transportation for both sides, as most infantry would mount upon arrival.

General Redvers Buller, VC 28th March, 1879: Hero of the 1879 Zulu War (also in South Africa) having fought bravely at Hlobane, Kambula, and the Wars' last battle at Ulundi

Likewise the transportation of horses and mules to South Africa would be the most daunting task for the British quartermasters. The amount of horses and mules brought by the British to South Africa was well over 770,000, of those about 2/3 perished during the conflict [2]. Disease and the lack of suitable drinking water would cause many British deaths and hamper the early war effort greatly.

Fifth Royal Irish Lancers regiment during the Second Boer War

With the introduction of the Lee-Metford rifle in 1888 the old British service rifle the Martini-Henry and Martini-Enfield began to be phased out of active military use. Though it fired an obsolete black powder cartridge compared to its more advanced predecessor the Lee-Enfield, the Lee-Metford was a better gun still just not in comparison to the Boer's German made Mauser. The Lee-Enfield Mark I had been developed but not widely distributed to British foreces until 1920. It was a weapon however that would be distributed with early success at the tail end of the Second Boer War[4]. The rifles used by the Boer commandos were the advanced 1896 Model Mauser which was arguably the best rifled weapon systems in the world at the time. Many other Boers fought with the older Gewehr 1888 which were purchased years before the Second Anglo-Boer War.

 Gen. Jan Smuts (b.1870-1950) leaning on his Mauser

The key advantage that the Mauser had over the Lee-Metford was the five round internal magazine, a revolutionary feature that would be standard feature of most infantry rifles in the 20th century. This feature meant quicker reloading and firing for the burghers, proving invaluable for Boer marksmen firing from concealed positions. Prized for its accurate sights it could kill from well over 2,000 feet and was really a deadly weapon of war in the hands of the Boers who were experts in marksmanship from hunting game in South Africa, most from time they were age twelve or so.

When a Boer commando was formed fathers and their sons answered the call

In the weeks leading up to the war Boer Commandant-General Piet Joubert foolishly bought over 30,000 Martini-Henry rifles leftover from the first war with England. Luckily President Kruger placed another order for 37,000 Mausers at the cost of one million dollars, paid entirely with profits from the gold mines. The Mauser became the only state issued piece of equipment for burghers from both Boer republics and would serve their commandos for as long as ammunition was available.

The War Begins

With the official start of the Second Boer war on 11 October 1899, both sides waited for the first shots to be fired across the grasslands and hills of South Africa. 38,000 burghers were in the field ready for battle, a battle they would have to wait to fight for almost two weeks. The Boer forces looked to attack Natal on one front from the northwestern edge and then go further west to defeat the only standing British army (in October 1899) in South Africa, at either Ladysmith or Dundee. Planning for the invasion was tough in the early stages of the war since the British controlled nothing and had yet to really make their presence felt anywhere on the veld. The unity and military consolidation that both the Transvaal and Orange Free State in this early period was paramount to the Boers early effort against the British. Both realized that one republics’ destiny was inextricably linked to the other.

Boer militia units were called kommandos or commandos; each district in the Boer Republics had their own commando. Consisting of all able bodied men in the district, these men called burghers left their farms in order to maintain Independence for the Afrikaners. These commandos were flexible fighting units of between 150 to 300 men, originally created in order to defend from Zulu attacks and Bantu raids during the ‘Kaffir Wars.’ Burghers were required to bring a rifle, pony, and enough supplies for several days of riding. Each commando also elected a commandant to lead the unit. The first actions of the Boer commandos including small hit-and-run raids inflicted on the precious railway lines around the Natal and Cape Colonies in mid-October-December 1899. The subsequent Boer invasion of Natal sets up a series of battles in the first major theater of the war.

'Boors in the Veld' armed with Mausers

On the 20th of October 1899 the Utrecht and Wakkerstroom commandos, aided by the Staatsartillerie (state artillery), the artillery division of the Orange Free State and Transvaal, occupied the kopjes (hills) around Talana. The nearby British force under Major-General Sir W. Penn-Symons quickly returns artillery fire onto the Boer position. The Staatsartillerie, the only professional division of Boer origin, fired many effective shells from their powerful 120 mm Krupp howitzers also bought from the German Empire. As the shelling decreased the order was given to take the Boer position and the charge up the hill began. Leading were the Irish and Dublin Fusiliers as well as The Gordon Highlanders.

Many troopers were killed by accurate Boer riflemen from their concealed positions on the hilltop as they charged. The Highland units made particularly good targets due to their red and green kilts, and suffered many killed and wounded. At the climax of the short battle Major-General Penn-Symons was severely wounded by an artillery shell, dieing just as the hill was taken. The exhausted British could not pursue the fleeing Boers, as the action of taking the hill was relatively bloody, 41 killed and over 450 missing and wounded. Costly “victories” like Talana would plague the British in the first two years of the conflict.

The Black Week, December 1899: three great defeats of the British Army

The disastrous week in December 1899 known as “Black Week” tested the ability of the British Army to adapt to Boer guerilla tactics. When the British infantry drove the Boers from a hillside they were unable to catch their quick escapes on horseback. The quality of the Boer artillery fire also confounded the British, in the battle for Ladysmith the Boers bombard the city with ‘Long Tom’ an aptly named long range artillery piece, while the British inside Ladysmith had virtually no working artillery pieces to fire back with. Forced to flee up a nearby kopje the British eventually surrender to the Boers. This victory caused great elation in the Boer republics and proved yet again that these farmers could equal and even surpass the British soldier in fighting prowess. The capture of Ladysmith is significant in how many British surrendered (1,000) to such small Boer force ill equipped and short of supplies themselves.

General Sir Redvers Buller, awarded the Victoria Cross fighting the Zulu as an cavalry officer in 1879, arrived in South Africa the day after the surrender of Ladysmith and immediately set out to stop the insurgency of the Boers into the Cape colony. He orders Lieutenant-General Paul Methuen to relieve the siege of Kimberly, leaving other divisions to guard the Cape Colony and southern Natal. Methuen’s march in relief to Kimberley is disastrous from the start; Boer hit-and-run attacks plague the advance especially crossing the Modder River.  A 2,000 man commando with 6 guns camped along a series of kopjes near a path in Rooilaagte are waiting for the British. Lead by perhaps the most brilliant general of the conflict Koos De la Rey, a veteran of the First Boer War.

Gen. Koos de La Rey, right, in the Western Transvaal c.1899

When a staff officer suggested to Methuen they try and outflank the Boers, he dismissed the idea, instead favoring a frontal assault. He replies “My good fellow, I intend to put the fear of God into these people.” Dug in along a series of hills, the Boers continuously pick off the British down below like “deer” as one officer who survived described the battle later recounted[5]. Almost all the officers carrying an unsheathed sword or wearing a shiny belt buckle were shot during the frontal assault on the hills that day. Casualties are almost 50 percent for Methuen’s force when they vacate the field before just night fall.

With the eventual flight of the Boers from the hills, Gen. Methuen waited for reinforcements before attempting to move any further towards Kimberley to spare his men further death by Boer snipers. When Methuen continued marching on the 11th of December 1899, he fell upon heavily entrenched Boer positions at Magersfontein. The Boers had spent the previous day digging trenches along the property of Magersfontein Farm and preparing for what they probably expected would be a heavy assault accompanied by cavalry, artillery, and light infantry.

Charge of the Black Watch at Magersfontein

Black Week 1899
A British war balloon sent up to scout, failed to see the barbed wired [6] as well as the many artillery pieces which the Boers possessed scattered throughout the property. This lack of knowledge led to disaster for the British precipitating the “Black Week” for the British fighting-man in South Africa. Magersfontein was a disaster for Methuen’s soldiers, in particular the Highland regiments who lead the charge on almost every front. They suffered grievously for their bravery, of the 971 total British casualties, 338 were Highlanders. Among those killed was Major-General Andrew Wauchope of the ‘Black Watch’, 3rd Brigade, shot by a Boer sniper in the opening minutes of the battle as he led his men from the front.

Major General Andrew Wauchope (b.1846-1899), a veteran of many Imperial campaigns of the 19th century, including the Gen. Wolseley's Gold Coast campaign in 1875, served Kitchener's army at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

With a similar disaster at Stormberg Junction the previous day and another terrible loss at Colenso for General Buller, Britain was in a panic to resolve conflict, especially when the details of Buller’s defeat came on the heels of Black Week. Those three defeats in those three days of December shook the foundation of the British military leadership; indeed it rocked the British land forces culture itself. The Battle of Spion Kop in January of 1900 had a similar result. The horrors there visible in the many photographs taken of the dead British infantry, pilled high in the trenches where they feel dead or dieing. These trenches would serve as their tomb. 1700 British casualties, 383 dead from Boer bullets, including Major-General Woodgate, the third Major-General killed in combat since the start of the war in October.

Buller was mortified by the carnage inflicted at Colenso under his command as well as the resounding defeat the Boers inflicted on him personally. Major change comes to the South Africa war front with the arrival of Field Marshall Frederick Roberts (b.1832-1914) and Lord H.H. Kitchener (b.1850-1916), the hero of Omdurman in 1896, begins a slow change in British doctrine (strategy, campaign aims) and tactics. Kitchener’s efforts, from the Battle of Paardeberg in late February 1900 and on, marked essentially the end of the first phase of the British armies’ effort in South Africa.

The guerrilla tactics employed by the Boers are extremely effective against the formal deployment of British soldiers, as their accurate shooting was in the conventional war of 1899-1900. The sporadic attacks launched on the railways were a constant strain on British manpower and resources throughout the Cape from the wars beginning to its end. British and Commonwealth troop numbers had slowly risen during this inter-bellum period with close to 90,000 men and 300 guns currently available in country to the British high command in early 1899.

By February 1900 there were over 180,000 troops in South Africa as both Roberts and Kitchener looked to travel across the Modder River and bring relief to the sieges of the Cape, ending Boer resistance at whatever the cost to man or beast. Kimberley, of course, remained a priority for relief due to its many diamond mines and the dire struggle of the defenders within the town, including none other than Cecil Rhodes himself.

[1] Farwell, Byron The Great Anglo-Boer War,
    Published in 1976

[2] The Great Anglo-Boer War

[3] Welsh, William “Cunning Ambush At Sannah’s Post” Military Heritage
    15 April 2010

[4] Barthorp, Michael  The Anglo Boer Wars: The British & Afrikaners 1815-1902
     Published in 1987

[5] The barbed wire was most likely the farms property and not by Boer defensive design.


  1. Your information on the British Lee Metford rifle is incorrect... The Lee Metford had a 10 round magazine loaded via stripper clips... you are referring to the Martini-Enfield, the single shot rifle that proceeded the Martini-Henry... The Martini-Enfield fired the same .303 round as the Lee Metford and later Lee Enfield designs

  2. whoops. Ok. I'll amend text where necessary. Thanks!

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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