Concentration camps, barbed wire, machine-guns, guerrilla warfare, scorched earth tactics. The words could come from any journal of the Second World War. The names of some of the participants are also familiar: Winston Churchill, Kitchener, Sir John French, Mahatma Gandhi. Yet these names and men were involved in a much earlier conflict, one in which the world’s major global power fought against two tiny independent republics.
By 1899 Britain had painted her red empire across a quarter of the globe. From Canada to Cape Town, Antigua to Auckland, the multi-crossed Union flag flapped in pride. Victoria, the Queen-Empress cast her maternal gaze across the sea-lanes; slavery was nearly non-existent, trade was free and piracy squashed while her Royal Navy dominated the seas. Yet not everybody wished to exchange national independence for imperial security and in one corner of Africa the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State fought back against British attempts to annex them into the Empire.
This is not the place to argue the rights – if any – and wrongs of the annexation. This blog will look at the experiences of one of the British soldiers, Private Robert Brown of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, who fought in the initial stages of what proved to be a long, costly but ultimately victorious war.
Robert Brown came from a mining background in Fife, although many of his family were from Midlothian, south of Edinburgh. In common with the majority of Scottish private soldiers he was young, unmarried and fairly carefree. Unlike most men from the ranks he left a journal of his experiences.
After leaving their barracks in Ireland, they settled down in the troopship ‘some passing the time playing the cards, others draughts. . . twice a week we had a smoking concert also a boxing competition.’ Boxing was one of the methods by which the army was trained; it also helped the men maintain fitness levels and remove any frustrations.
Arriving on the 17th November 1899 after a three week voyage, they immediately ‘entrained. . . for De Aar. We got a harty send off from the natives at Cape Town. . . arrived at De Aar at 5 AM on the 19 November . . . After staying here for 7 days the order came for us to entrain for Orange River a welcome order for us we were beginning to think we were not going to see any fighting at all.’
The soldiers of Queen Victoria’s Army were always keen to get into action. Professional fighting men, they seemed to like to fight. Arriving at Orange River ‘we again took the train for Belmont. On the road up we saw the battlefield of Belmont and the smell from it was sickening.’
Belmont was one of the early minor British victories.
Joining the Highland Brigade of Methuen’s Division ‘it was 10 PM and the night was very dark. . .got to our ground where we piled arms and lay down after we had a drink of tea. We only had our Great coats so we had to make the best of it.’
Next morning, 28th November the Argyles were wakened at three in the morning and marched straight into the Battle of Modder River. ‘To se the way we advanced you would have thought we were having a field day in Aldershot. The men were chatting away to one another as if nothing was going on. I think the first think that brought us to our senses was a Boer shell bursting over our heads. . . the Boers seemed to have the range for we were being picked off one by one it was pittyfull to hear the wounded crying for stretchers and water.’
The British took cover for a number of hours. ‘After lying there for two or three hours more we got the order to cross the line and try and flank them. . . managed to turn the enemy’s flank and I must say when we got down to the river I was thankfull my lips were parched and my tongue was swollen. I was glad to dip my head into the water regardless of the bullets that was flying about. . . but the enemy soon scattered when we got over the river. . . we had been engaged about 14 hours – we lost 131 killed and wounded.’
The Boers withdrew and the British claimed a victory. ‘We had been starved for 2 day. . .we commandeered all the pigs and hens. . . it was great fun to see the highlanders running after the pigs and hens. . . I was surprised to se how light hearted we all were . . . but a soldier is well named as absent minded beggar.’
On the thundery night of the 10th December the Highland Brigade marched to attack the entrenched Boers at Magersfontein.’Everything went in our favour untill we got within about 150 yards from the trenches. . .there was a flash and report of a rifle and before we had time to realise what had happened it seemed as if hell had burst upon us.’
Faced with a fusillade of rifle fire from some thousands of the best marksmen in the world, the brigade went to ground. ‘An officer. . .was running about with no helmet I think he must have gone mad for he ordered 12 of us to advance along with him but we had not gone 50 yards when we had to turn back bearing 6 dead and wounded. . .the officer being among them we formed a fireing line. . .and advanced again.’
Once again the British lay before massed Boer riflemen. ‘We crept up to them within about 300 yards then we charged. I could not explain what sort of feeling came over me I think it was a half mad sort of feeling. . .I saw a Boer aiming at me. . .I don’t know how he missed me but I assure you I did not miss him. I managed to get him as he was turning to get out of the trench with my bayonet I shall never forget the look that was in that mans eyes.. .there was none of them escaped.’
Magersfontein was a defeat. ‘The poor Black Watch returned with only 600 men out of 1100 and the Seaforths had 380 killed and wounded. My regiment had 350 killed. . .the question was who was to blame I think that question could be answered.’
Major-General Hector, ‘Fighting Mac’ MacDonald took over the brigade. The son of a crofter, he had risen by sheer bravery from the ranks.
After a victory at Koodesberg the brigade ‘envaded the Free State. . .the road was bad and our waggons were breaking down . . .the watter also was very scarce. . . all felt done up but we just had to stick it.’
On the 18th February they were again in battle, this time at Paardeberg, where the Boers were in a waggon laager. ‘We were ordered to join the fireing line. . .we were very lucky we only got 20 knocked over. . .both my right hand man and left hand man were knocked over.’
On the 19th ‘the Boers put up the white flag to surrender so our Regiment was told off to go down to. . . take over the prisoners.’ However ‘we had only gone about 500 yards when the Boers started to fire at us. . .it had only been one of the many trichous tricks.’ On the 22nd ‘I had the pleasure of seeing our officers shareing the same hardships as ourselves.’ So the class system was alive, well and resented in Queen Victoria’s army. ‘About 8 Am 28th we had the pleasure of seeing Conge and about 4000 men surrender.’
After the victory of Paardeberg Private Brown marched with the Argyles as the British pushed the organised Boer army northward. He saw further action at Poplar Grove, Dryfontein and the Waterworks before he fell sick with ‘dysentry and enteric fever.’ In the 8th General Hospital he commented that ‘the men were dyeing like sheep. . .an average of 40 per day. . . I knew nothing for 7 days but after that . . .was sent down to Cape Town. I must give the highest praise to the Colert people on the road down. They treated us splendid. . .it showed how loyal they were to their Queen.’
Sent back to Great Britain, Brown did not fully recover until August. The final words in his journal were ‘I can say I am fit and ready to go out and fight for my country again if required.’
He was not required to.