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A Handbook of the Boer War

The military qualities of the Boers


Boer leaders, like their great prototype Cromwell, owed much of their success to their novel and skilful use of mounted troops. The European conception of the functions of mounted troops had been stereotyped for some time; Cavalry screens an advancing army, prevents the enemy observing its dispositions, acts as its eyes and ears; and so forth. It is true that Great Britain had already for at least a generation employed Mounted Infantry in colonial wars; but the innovation had never been approved of on the Continent, where it was regarded as a cheap and inefficient British substitute for Cavalry.

Yet the famous postscript "unmounted men preferred,"[2] which was affixed to the acceptance of the help proffered by the Australian Colonies, shows that at first the power of mounted troops acting not as the eyes and ears of an army, but as a mobile and supple "mailed fist," was not understood. In ten weeks, however, the tune changed, and it was "preference given to mounted contingents."

When the grand operations were over, the enemy's chief towns occupied, and the lines of communication fairly secure, the necessity for mounted troops became still more apparent. The Boers saw that it was useless for them to campaign at large. They took to _guerilla_, and restricted themselves generally to independent horse raids against which foot troops were powerless. Gradually the proportion of horses to men in the British columns

rose, until practically all the combatants were mounted, and at last the Cromwellian principle that the best military weapon is a man on a horse was fully accepted.

The military qualities of the Boers, like those of Cromwell's men, were useful but not showy. They came by instinct and not by acquisition, and they cannot be sufficiently accounted for as the outcome of experience in the pursuit of game on the veld. They were neutralized partially by characteristics the reverse of military. The Boers were not remarkable for personal courage. If there had been in the Boer Army a decoration corresponding to the Victoria Cross it would have been rarely won or at least rarely earned. There is scarcely an instance of an individual feat of arms or act of devotion performed by a Burgher. On the few occasions when the Boers were charged by cavalry they became paralysed with terror. They were incapable of submitting themselves to discipline, and difficult to command in large numbers. They could not be made to understand that prompt action, which possibly might not be the best under the circumstances, was preferable to wasting time in discussing a better with the field cornets. They were subject to panics and, for the time, easily disheartened: and their sense of duty was not conspicuous. The principles of strategy were unknown to them, their tactics were crude, and with the exception of a very few who had fought in 1881, they were without experience of the realities of war.[3]

If in the month of September, 1899, an impartial military critic in a foreign Ministry of War had been directed to draw up an appreciation of the situation and to forecast the course of the impending struggle, he would probably have expressed himself somewhat as follows:--

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