Friday, November 21, 2014

The War to End All Bores


I've been re-reading Packenham (among others) on the Boer War these past couple of weeks.

I think I have my head around the main features of the early war.

* The relative deadliness of the beaten zone - both in it's depth and in the volume of fire that could be laid down. In my mind, getting killed in a battle by missile fire is more the outcome of a lethal accident pretty much throughout history, but one that becomes more and more likely as we get closer to our own - doubtless charming - modern age.
* The difficulty that may be encountered in locating an enemy who is well concealed both by design and by the use of smokeless powder. We begin to see the emergence of the 'empty battlefield'. The relative ineffectiveness of artillery due to this issue.
*Entrenchment. Let me simply cite Magersfontein for the correct use of this expedient and Spion Kop for it's incorrect application.
*Communication was a liberating and a limiting factor I feel. Easy to disrupt and hard to maintain, the telegraph allowed improved comunication at the strategic level, but at the operational level, I believe it encouraged generals to believe they could command from the rear.
*Infantry tactics. It took more than a few disasters, and I cite again the battle of Magersfontein and the experience of the Highland Brigade who got themselves trapped 400m before the Boer lines in quarter column and were shot to pieces as they tried to deploy, before the British started to adopt open order and fire-and-movement tactics.
*Poor tactical reconaissance. Would the Highland Brigade have had it's terrible experience otherwise? Would Hart have stuck his head in the noose if he's known the trap he was walking into at Colenso? Indeed, would Long have ridden his guns into rifle range of the Boers that same fatal day? Tactical reconaissance was lacking at this time.

More as it gells. Any input would be more than welcome.


Ross Mac said...

I tend to think of Black Week as early Middle war at best. If you look at Elaandslagge (sp!) and Glencoe and even Belmont, these battles refute all claims that the British were not trained in open order tactics and didn't use them till taught.

It has been pointed out elsewhere that the Magersfontein thing was an attempt to repeat the successes of Tel El Kebir and Belmont by a night march followed by deployment into extended line for a dawn attack. Would have worked if the Boers hadn't learned quicker and had been where they were supposed to be.

The artillery on both sides was less effective than it might have been at first but it was still of good effect if more moral than physical, especially the Lyddite (HE).

Scouting was definitely an issue, esp before they brought the Colonials in.

Wireless sets down to company level would certainly have been helpful. Pity they hadn't thought to invent them.

I think the ability to shoot straight at long ranges was even more important than the beaten zone. One of the first (and few?) wars where aimed fire really counted. Hence the need for concealment and drab uniforms. Beaten zones dn't care if they see you or not.

One thing I keep running across is the visibility in the clear dry air of SA which allowed accurate shooting at extreme ranges with the new rifles. A feature that does not appear again in later wars. Incidently, from reading Boer memoirs, even the Rednecks had some pretty good shots in the ranks.

A fascinating conflict.

Bloggerator said...

Hi Ross,

Thanks for the long reply.

I have taken another closer look at Magersfontien and it was as you suggest an attempt to replicate the night approach on the position at Tel el Kebir. First light found them short of thir position however and Wauchope decided to press on in close formation until the Boers started on them.

Thankyou for pointing me at Elandslaagte. It's an interesting battle where, as you say, open order was used very sucessfully. I should like to try it some time as the forces involved look very acheivable. I think that Willie figures even include a General Kock.

Agreed, this is a most fascinating period.


Stryker said...

I agree that Elandslaagte would be an excellent action to recreate as a game. It was reading about it in my copy of "History of The British Army" (Young&Lawford) as a teenager that has inspired a life long interest in the conflict.

Somehow though I have never gotten around to playing it as a wargame. The trouble really is a lack of decent figures (a bit like the Crimean war) although the Willie figures and Jacklex are nice.

I look forward to seeing you paint up a Boer war force!