The closing months of 1899 saw the British Empire embroiled in a grave military crisis in South Africa. Britain had become involved in war with the Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, whose forces invaded British territory in October and made rapid progress against a poorly prepared opposition. They besieged the garrisons of Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking, and then, in ‘Black Week’ in mid-December, inflicted three successive defeats on British troops – at the battles of Stormberg, Magersfontein, and Colenso.
This was a stunning series of reverses. British troops had been caught off guard by a nation of farmers whose skills they had seriously underestimated. It was in part a question of numbers. Until reinforcements could be shipped to Africa, British forces were outnumbered by more than two to one. The Boers were also excellent marksmen and riders, who knew the terrain and made skilful use of natural cover. Rather than being organised as a traditional army, they formed highly mobile volunteer militia bodies, known as ‘commandos’, in which each man brought his own horse and rifle. They were passionately committed to defending their independence. As relations with Britain deteriorated in the run-up to war, they also had the foresight to purchase the latest artillery from Europe.
Faced with this evidence of failure, the British government decided to relieve the luckless man on the spot, Sir Redvers Buller, of his command. In his place arrived two generals with a proven track record of success in colonial warfare. They knew and respected each other, but had never before campaigned together. In South Africa, they would forge a professional partnership that was to turn the tide of conflict.
The making of a partnership
The senior figure, 67-year-old Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, had come to prominence in the Second Afghan War 20 years earlier. He had occupied Kabul and then, following an epic 300-mile march, relieved the garrison at Kandahar. This exploit made Roberts a household name in Britain, embodying the martial values of the late Victorian empire. In an 1893 poem, written in the dialect of the private soldier, Rudyard Kipling celebrated ‘Bobs’ as a ‘pocket-Wellin’ton’, admired by his men and the wider public.
Yet Roberts’ career ambitions remained oddly unfulfilled after Afghanistan. He spent an unusually long period – eight years in total – as commander-in-chief in India, but was denied further promotion when he returned to Britain. His frustration can be traced to the internal politics of the army high command. He was an outsider to the dominant group of senior officers who owed their allegiance to the commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley. They had served their apprenticeship in Africa, whereas the faction associated with Roberts was known as the ‘Indian ring’.
Nonetheless, Roberts wanted one more field command before retirement. With Anglo-Boer relations worsening, he knew that South Africa offered a possible opening for him. He first offered his services to the War Office as early as March 1896, and had already worked out his strategy. He also knew the man he would choose as his chief of staff. That was Horatio Herbert Kitchener, a soldier who on the surface appeared very different from himself.
The Sudan was for Kitchener what Afghanistan had been for Roberts. In a campaign lasting from 1896 to 1898, he defeated the Mahdist resistance movement there through a combination of ingenuity, ruthlessness, and superior firepower. An engineer by training, he overcame the formidable logistical challenges of the hostile desert environment by building a railway and using river steamers to move troops and equipment. The expedition culminated in the crushing victory of Omdurman and the assertion of Anglo-Egyptian authority over the Sudan. It also gave rise to stories about Kitchener’s harshness towards subordinates and his brutal treatment of enemies – ‘more like a machine than a man’ in the words of journalist G W Steevens.
In appearance and personality, Kitchener offered a marked contrast to Roberts. Eighteen years younger, Kitchener towered over the 5-foot 4-inch ‘Bobs’. A forbidding, solitary individual, he was the opposite of the genial family man under whom he was to serve. Where Roberts possessed an intuitive grasp of warfare, the intense Kitchener was a meticulous planner. Yet the pair had much in common. Both came from Anglo-Irish military families and shared a dedication to the British imperial cause. They were highly ambitious and prepared to use elite connections in pursuit of appointments – Roberts cultivated the Conservative War Secretary Lord Lansdowne, while Kitchener had links with the family of Prime Minister Salisbury.
In many ways, the pair complemented each other. Roberts’ experience was well matched by Kitchener’s single-minded sense of purpose. It was made clear from an early stage that, should Roberts die or become incapacitated, Kitchener would succeed him as overall commander. The younger man instinctively deferred to the celebrity to whom he had attached himself. He was never a conventional chief of staff, in the sense of a full-time executive figure who translated his commander’s ideas into practical plans. Rather, he acted as Roberts’ right-hand man and troubleshooter, sometimes directing operations in person. There was no professional staff system, as had been established by now in several other European armies. Instead, a British field commander was served by a handful of personal assistants who ran errands and handled paperwork.
The challenge and the plan
Roberts and Kitchener arrived on the RMS Dunottar Castle at Cape Town, capital of the Cape Colony, in January 1900, with British fortunes on the battlefield still at a low ebb. It had been a miserable sea voyage for the field marshal, who had received news shortly before leaving Southampton of his only son’s death from wounds at Colenso, the final battle of the Black Week. Some observers speculated whether this blow, combined with his age, might make Roberts less than effective.
The strategy devised by Roberts was designed to take advantage of the growing size of British forces – more than 180,000 men were now available – and to exploit emerging signs of Boer weakness. He had always intended to carry the war into the heart of Boer territory, aiming to seize the capitals of the two republics. But on hearing that the diamond-mining town of Kimberley was in danger of falling, he modified the plan to make relief of the beleaguered garrison an immediate priority. His forces would then move eastwards to seize Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, before targeting Pretoria in the Transvaal. Roberts calculated that by doing so he would force the Boers to give battle in unfavourable circumstances.
It was important not to be bound exclusively to the railways, which would make troop movements too predictable. Mobility was vital given the vast distances to be covered over the South African veld – from the border of Cape Colony to Pretoria it was more than 500 miles. To counter the Boer horsemen, who were excellent at fighting from the saddle, Roberts expanded the number of mounted infantry units. They were supplemented by a cavalry division under Sir John French. To serve these new formations, some 12,000 horses were imported from Britain, Argentina, and the colonies, rather than alienating the local farming community through large-scale requisitioning of animals.
For someone who had not commanded in the field for 20 years, Roberts was remarkably innovative. He was immensely practical, doing his best to rectify the shortage of maps and placing a new emphasis on reconnaissance, communication, and the use of cover. Given the lethal nature of Boer musketry at long range, he also insisted that his troops avoid close-order formations, so that they were less exposed to enemy marksmanship over the open ground of the veld.
Not all Roberts’ innovations were wholly successful. His decision to create a centralised transport system, replacing the existing regimental and brigade-based organisation of ox-wagon and mule-cart companies, was controversial. It worked reasonably well in the first, conventional phase of the war, up to the capture of the Boer capitals. But when the Boers resorted to guerrilla warfare, it had to be broken down again, and a version of the old, decentralised arrangement recreated.
Nonetheless, ‘Bobs’ inspired the loyalty and confidence of his troops. The small, white- moustached, khaki-clad commander, with his little forage cap, cut an unassuming figure as he rode among his troops. He worked hard in his unremarkable field headquarters – a covered wagon with an awning under which he wrote his reports and despatches. A mobile telegraph line, spooled out from behind a cart, gave him contact with subordinate commanders and with his political masters in London.
In the first phase of the campaign, Roberts’ forces succeeded in outflanking Boer general Piet Cronje at Magersfontein, south of Kimberley. French’s cavalry division lifted the siege and, on 17 February, they caught up with Cronje’s force at Paardeberg on the Modder River. The Boers were heading eastwards towards the safety of the Orange Free State, but their progress was slowed by a shortage of horses and the presence of women and children travelling in ox wagons.
With Roberts ill at the time, Kitchener assumed command, hastening to the scene and launching a costly frontal assault on the enemy positions. Concealed Boer fire from entrenched positions on the river banks compensated for their opponents’ numerical superiority. It was a readily defensible position, the ground covered with trees and bushes and pockmarked by ravines, the approaches an open space that could be swept by rifle-fire. In the space of 24 hours, the British suffered 1,300 casualties, while some 300 Boers were killed or wounded.
Meanwhile, Boer guerrilla leader Christiaan de Wet captured a commanding hilltop a few miles away. He tried to open up an escape route for the beleaguered force – the only real chance that Cronje would have to extricate himself. From his vantage point, de Wet could see the effects of the British artillery, ‘belching forth death and destruction, while from within [the Boer encampment] at every moment, as each successive shell tore up the ground, there rose a cloud – a dark-red cloud of dust.’
Cronje should have ordered an evacuation at this point, but he refused to do so. Brave though they were, his fighters realistically began to question their chances of success. They were, after all, volunteers who weighed up their prospects before each battle, and they could not ignore the fact that they were outnumbered more than two-to-one by some 15,000 British troops.
By now, Roberts was well enough to take command in person. He decided to press home the attack. Cronje unwisely turned down his offer of a safe passage for Boer families, and as the siege progressed, physical conditions steadily deteriorated. The river was in flood following heavy rains. The defenders faced sickness and exhaustion, as well as a relentless artillery bombardment. Horses and wagons, caught in the open on the banks of the Modder, were blown to pieces. Unable to relieve his trapped compatriots, de Wet withdrew to save his own men.
Aided by the deployment of additional 5-inch howitzers and quick-firing 1-pounder pom-pom guns, the British advanced closer to the Boer positions. Bowing to the inevitable, Cronje finally surrendered to Roberts after ten days of fighting. An often-reproduced photograph shows the heavily bearded Boer general holding his horse’s reins as he faces the diminutive, ramrod-straight figure of his adversary. The two sides had suffered about 350 casualties each. More significantly, some 4,000 Boer fighters – equivalent to 10 per cent of their army’s strength – were taken prisoner at Paardeberg. It was the first real British victory of the war, and its last set-piece battle – a triumph of brute force and superior numbers rather than of tactical ingenuity.
Taking the Boer capitals
Paardeberg was a severe blow to Boer morale, but the war was far from finished. The British advance on Bloemfontein was now blocked by some 14,000 Orange Free State forces occupying high ground close to the Modder at Poplar Grove, 50 miles from the city. Roberts decided on a frontal infantry assault, sending his cavalry around the Boers’ left flank to cut off their line of retreat. The manoeuvre was temporarily held up by Boer rifle-fire but ultimately proved successful, with the enemy retreating in disorder.
The British victory was, however, incomplete. Both Boer presidents, Marthinus Steyn of the Free State and Paul Kruger of the Transvaal, had been present but were allowed to escape. This was partly a consequence of poor staff work, which meant that Roberts’ orders were not properly communicated. In addition, the cavalry’s mounts were in poor condition. Caring for thousands of horses in a semi-desert environment proved a continuous challenge.
Boer forces rallied at Abrahams Kraal, but succeeded in delaying the occupation of Bloemfontein by only a day. Its surrender in mid-March provided Roberts with a base for his onward movement towards Pretoria, but it also brought new problems. The arrival of 50,000 soldiers led to hopeless overcrowding of the small state capital, resulting in the first of several deadly outbreaks of enteric fever or typhoid. Although Roberts cared more for the welfare of his men than most generals of his time, he was unsuccessful in guaranteeing an adequate supply of clean water. The result was that losses from disease exceeded those in combat – the last time that this occurred in the history of the British army.
Another problem was the outbreak of a Boer revolt in Cape Colony, which threatened Roberts’ lines of communication. He sent Kitchener to deal with the uprising, which he achieved by sending flying columns on forced marches. By now Redvers Buller, who had been demoted to a regional command in Natal, had finally lifted the siege of Ladysmith. This allowed his forces to join the advance into the Transvaal. But progress was slowed by the Boers’ adoption of more tightly disciplined and fast-moving tactics, as their mobile units were stripped of cumbersome baggage wagons and younger, more effective fighters were recruited.
Roberts began this final movement across a broad front in early May, steadily pushing the Boers back. By the end of the month, he had occupied Johannesburg, followed a week later by the ultimate prize of Pretoria. The defeat of the main Boer force under Louis Botha at Diamond Hill, east of the city, allowed the British to consolidate their hold on Boer territory. By now President Kruger had fled into exile, formal government in both republics had collapsed, and all key towns and rail links were in British hands. The Orange Free State was formally annexed to the British Empire in May, followed by the Transvaal in October.
War against the people
At the end of November 1900, Roberts handed over his command to Kitchener and, lionised by the British press and public, returned home. He mistakenly believed that the war was virtually over except for ‘police action’ against a handful of remaining Boer units. His achievement in the space of nine months had been remarkable. But in moving towards Pretoria, Roberts had missed the opportunity to close off the eastward route to the sea, which unintentionally threw a lifeline to continuing Boer resistance. Large numbers of the enemy remained at large, able to move at will over the open spaces of the veld.
The war dragged on for almost two more years, as Boer commandos waged a desperate guerrilla struggle against the army of occupation. They struck unexpectedly at strategic points, ambushing British units and living off the land, disappearing as quickly as they had appeared. It was a style of warfare well-suited to the individualistic nature of the Boers. The aim was to harass and exhaust the invaders, and force them to come to the negotiating table.
Kitchener’s style of command bore the mark of his controlling personality. Working initially without a chief of staff, he finally acquired one for the last six months of the war. This was Ian Hamilton, who was sent from London by Roberts to assist his isolated successor. Kitchener took responsibility for the British response in the last phase of the war, although his policies owed a great deal to practices established in partnership with Roberts. The conflict now turned into a ruthless war against the civilian population, which blackened the empire’s image in the eyes of liberal and humane opinion, both in Britain and beyond.
The destruction of Boer farms is popularly associated with Kitchener, and he undoubtedly extended and toughened the policy. ‘Every farm’, he wrote, ‘is an intelligence agency and a supply depot so that it is almost impossible to surround or catch’ the enemy. But the policy originated in the early months of 1900, when Roberts was still in charge. En route to Bloemfontein, British troops had burned the homesteads and fields of Boers who were on commando.
The aim was to cut off the fighters’ sources of support and to demoralise them by leaving their families without food and shelter. Roberts personally ordered the devastation of de Wet’s farm. The first concentration camps, where Boer civilians were detained, had also appeared before Roberts left South Africa.
Burning farms was arguably counter-productive from a military perspective. Many fighters remained on active service because they no longer had a home base to which to return. Wives often urged their men to continue the fight, tolerating hardship as preferable to submission. A British captain privately questioned the policy, writing that by burning a combatant’s farm and making his family homeless, ‘we are only making him a roving desperado consumed with hatred’.
Timeline: Lord Kitchener
Born into an army family in Ireland
Commissioned into the Royal Engineers
Sirdar (commander-in-chief) of the Egyptian army
Leads the reconquest of the Sudan
Chief of staff to Roberts, then overall commander in South Africa
Commander-in-chief in India
Proconsul of Egypt
Appointed War Secretary on outbreak of World War I
Drowned on a secret wartime mission to Russia
Timeline: Lord Roberts
Born into an army family in India
Wins the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny
Makes his reputation in the Second Afghan War
Commander-in-chief of the British army in India
Commander in South Africa, with Kitchener as chief of staff
Commander-in-chief of the British army
Dies while visiting Indian troops in France
Tightening the noose
Under Kitchener’s leadership, the war against the guerrilla fighters intensified. Armoured trains patrolled the railway lines. Each one was equipped with a 12-pounder quick-firing gun, machine-guns at each end, and later on a powerful searchlight. Although susceptible to ambush, they were more heavily armed as the war progressed, and made a strong impression on the enemy.
The British also constructed a system of fortified blockhouses, made of stone, concrete or corrugated iron, and connected by belts of barbed wire and telephone lines. Almost 9,000 of these simple structures, each one with a small garrison, had been constructed by the end of the war. The network criss-crossed the veld, protecting supply lines and dividing the land into a series of compartments, within which mounted columns were deployed to hunt down the Boer raiders.
In practice, however, the broken terrain made it harder than expected to pin down the guerrilla bands. The elusive enemy had superior knowledge of the country, and frequently escaped under cover of night. Kitchener extended the scorched-earth policy that had been used sporadically under Roberts. The increased scale of the farm-burning created an unparalleled humanitarian crisis. Homeless Boer families were herded into the concentration camps. Overcrowding, inadequate supplies, and lack of sanitation caused the deaths of an estimated 27,000 people, mostly women and children.
The tragedy caused an outcry in Britain, heightened by the publicity following a visit by the tireless welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse. ‘When is a war not a war?’, asked Liberal Party leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in June 1901, answering his own question: ‘When it is carried out by methods of barbarism in South Africa.’ Belated improvements brought down the death rate by the beginning of 1902, but, to his critics, the horrors of the camps had confirmed Kitchener’s reputation for callous indifference.
Kitchener was unrepentant, blaming much of the suffering on poor Boer hygiene and neglect, and insisting that military necessity justified the camps. In the short term, the policy may well have served to stiffen resistance. Although heavily outnumbered by now, the guerrillas proved remarkably resilient, continuing to launch attacks and even capturing a British general, Lord Methuen.
In the longer run, the policy of internment undermined the Boer war effort. With the number of fighters in steep decline and provisions in short supply, attrition was at last beginning to take its toll on the Boers. Peace talks finally opened in April 1902, in which Kitchener proved unexpectedly conciliatory and respectful towards his beaten adversaries. The war formally came to an end with the Peace of Vereeniging at the end of the following month.
War hardware: the Mauser and Lee-Enfield rifles
At the start of the conflict, some British units were still using the older Lee-Metford rifle. Unlike the Mauser and Lee-Enfield, with their modern smokeless propellant, it used outdated black powder that gave away its user’s position. As the war dragged on, however, the Boers ran short of 7mm Mauser ammunition, and they turned increasingly to captured British rifles.
After South Africa, both Roberts and Kitchener had more than a decade of active life ahead. Loaded with honours on his return to Britain, Roberts was appointed commander-in-chief, a post he held until its abolition four years later. Even then he did not truly retire, campaigning as president of the National Service League for compulsory military service and warning of the growing threat from Germany. Fittingly, he died shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, succumbing to pneumonia at the age of 82 while visiting Indian troops stationed in France.
Kitchener spent seven years as commander-in-chief of the British army in India before returning to govern Egypt and the Sudan. He was on leave in Britain at the outbreak of the First World War, when he was suddenly called upon to join the Cabinet as Secretary of State for War. He correctly predicted the length and severity of the struggle against Germany, and was successful in recruiting and training volunteer armies for the Western Front. But his dislike of teamwork made him a difficult Cabinet colleague. In June 1916, the 65-year-old Kitchener was drowned on a confidential mission to Russia after his ship, HMS Hampshire, struck a mine off the Orkneys. It was appropriate that this enigmatic individual should die in service, his loss at sea giving rise to numerous ill-founded conspiracy theories.
How are we to assess the two men’s contribution to winning the Anglo-Boer War? Theirs was a far-from-flawless performance. They never fully addressed the logistical challenges of campaigning, and they arguably missed opportunities to shorten the war. The brutality of the farm-burning and internment policies remains a blot on their record. But in 1900 they were the best available commanders. The enemy they faced was more formidable than any other who defied the empire in its series of 19th-century ‘small wars’. Both Roberts and Kitchener possessed qualities of decisiveness and a willingness to think and act boldly in the face of multiple difficulties. With all their failings, they overcame the daunting problems they inherited on arrival in South Africa and laid the foundations of eventual victory. •
Graham Goodlad has taught history and politics for more than 30 years and is a regular contributor to MHM.
Rodney Attwood, Roberts and Kitchener in South Africa, 1900-1902 (Pen and Sword, 2011).
Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979).