The Last Horseman - the conflict
It was never my intention to look over the shoulders of the towering figures who were the key players in this conflict: Cecil John Rhodes; General Sir Redvers Buller; and Field Marshal Frederick Lord Roberts, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Bob’, who had had resounding success in the campaigns in India. That Lord Roberts and Sir Redvers Buller were at loggerheads, and that military and political divisions between many of the commanders became entrenched during this conflict, had a negative impact on the execution of the war. Water and food was scarce – and in general terms so was the feeding of this vast army as supply lines were long and difficult to manage and often destroyed by the enemy.
The British Army were unprepared for guerrilla warfare. They were used to volley fire during their colonial wars, often against a poorly armed enemy; now they were faced by a determined group of men and women who fought for their homeland. The Boers were expert horsemen, accustomed to riding across vast tracts of countryside, and they often depended on their shooting skills to put food on the table. These ‘dirt farmers’, frontiersmen who scraped a living from the harsh land, formed themselves into commandos: groups of highly mobile fighters who could strike fast at the lumbering British. (The same term would be applied to shock troops used by the British in the Second World War.)
During the South African conflict the British soldiers had no bush- or fieldcraft and the generals often insisted their men advance on their enemy in closed order – virtually shoulder to shoulder. Boer marksmen with their German Mauser rifles – which had an effective range of two thousand metres and a five-round magazine whose ammunition used smokeless powder making it difficult to spot – made short work of many a brave British Tommy who had never heard of, let alone trained in, fire and manoeuvre. Onward they went against the guns until they could fight hand to hand and deliver a terrifying death to the Boers entrenched on hillsides and the rock-strewn kopjes. It was when the infantry scaled the heights and cavalry assaulted with lance and sword, that the ‘cold steel’ put the fear of God into the Boers. The soldiers of the British Army took their poor conditions in good spirits, as cheerful and philosophical as soldiers often are in any campaign, despite exercising a soldier’s right to moan. They looked out for each other and held regimental pride close to their hearts.
But the Boers had God on their side and German-made weapons, and for a while that seemed to make them invincible.