A Lesson from the Boers | HistoryNet

A Lesson from the Boers

By Bruce I. Gudmundsson
Summer 1989 • MHQ Magazine

It was the Germans who, early in World War I, took the Boers’ open-order infantry tactics to heart.

The Boer War of 1899-1902 was a great shock to the military establishments of Europe. In engagement, hastily improvised bands of Boer irregulars defeated the large, well-drilled British forces sent to subdue them. These defeats could not be blamed on cowardice; the British soldier in South Africa fought the Boer as bravely as he had the Zulu 20 years before. Nor could they be attributed to differences in equipment; while Boers carried the excellent Mauser rifle, the British were armed with quick-firing artillery, machine guns, and all the other advanced paraphernalia of turn-of-the-century warfare. 

The problem, rather, was one of tactics. The British fought as platoons–large groups of 50 men or more who moved in single, densely packed columns and discharged volleys of rifle fire at targets designated by their commanding officers. The Boers, on the other hand, fought as individuals. Dashing from one piece of cover to another, crouching low to avoid detection, and at times even crawling, the Boer riflemen were generally invisible to their enemies. Once within a 1,000 yards or so of the British, the Boers fired, again as individuals, against the easily identified British platoons. The British were frequently reduced to firing volleys into a seemingly empty battlefield while subjected to a veritable hailstorm of Boer bullets.

This repeated humiliation at the hands of a frontier militia persuaded the British army to modify its tactics and training radically. Henceforth, every British soldier was to be trained as a marksman, able to move, use cover, select targets, and fire without orders, supervision, or even the comfort of a fellow soldier kneeling beside him. The British army however, was not the only one to have its tactical reputation tarnished by Boer insurgency. The tactics that had cost the British so many battles and so many casualties had been directly copied from then-current German tactics, and there were immediate repercussions in Germany.

Before reports from South Africa found their way into German newspapers, most German officers were satisfied that the tactics laid down by the Prussian Drill Regulations of 1888 were sound. Commanders, the Germans believed, should keep their troops close in hand lest they shirk their duty by failing to advance or fire. To keep all 80 men of an 1880s platoon–the smallest unit under command of a commissioned officer–within earshot of their commander, the Regulations required them to advance in a dense, boxlike column formation. So that the platoon commander might be able to control the column of fire as well as designate targets for volleys, the formation for firing was an equally dense line in which prone riflemen lay shoulder to shoulder. And so that the enemy might wilt in the face of the modern incarnation of the Furor Teutonicus, the same closely packed line would provide the formation for the final bayonet charge.

By the end of the Boer War, however, German military journals were full of articles warming of the impracticality of advancing in close order against an enemy armed with modern repeating rifles. As a substitute for for the action of massed platoons, the authors of these articles suggested that riflemen should imitate the Boers and patiently work their way forward in small groups and as individuals, using every fold in the ground for cover. By accurate fire rather than by the weight of their own bodies, these riflemen trained to fire as individual marksmen, would destroy the enemy’s will to resist.

The year 1902 saw the high point of German enthusiasm for “Boer tactics.” Infantry units of the Guard Corps held demonstrations in which the guardsmen crept rather than charged into mock battle. During the imperial maneuvers of 1902, German infantry was observed working its way toward the “enemy” in widely dispersed skirmish lines, each rifleman moving from one covered position to another as an individual. After a few months, however, interest in imitating the Boers waned. The Germans had discovered it was almost impossible for a platoon commander to control his unit when it was stretched out over 300 or so meters. It was even more difficult for the battalion commander to control his 12 platoons of riflemen when they spread out over 3,000 meters or more. By the Autumn of 1903, many German units had reverted to platoon columns as the chief attack formation.

With the waning of interests in Boer tactics, the training of infantrymen as individual stalkers and marksmen became limited to certain units. The surest havens for Boer-tactics enthusiasts in the German army were the 15 Jäger (light infantry) battalions. These units, made up largely of men from mountainous or forested regions (Jäger means “hunter”), profited from a tradition of individualistic combat that went back to the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), which predisposed their officers to Boer tactics.

When the Jäger units went to war in August 1914, their Boer tactics went with them. Other German units had to learn the value of tactics the hard way. Arnold Vieth von Golsenau, a Prussian regular lieutenant who served as a platoon commander in 1914, recalled that “the joint movements of such long lines were too schematic to permit any effective use of cover being made, and this fact was responsible for heavy losses. On account of this, we began to advance, even in the first battles, not in platoons, but in groups [of ten men].”

The attach of the German Forty-third Infantry Brigade on September 8, 1914, against Russian troops conducting a hasty defense near Gerdauen, in East Prussia, shows the difference that Boer tactics could make. The brigade, consisting of two regiments of three battalions each, attacked with four battalions in the front line and two in the second. Fifteen of the 16 companies in the first line advanced in open order, with half-platoons (20-30 men) formed in open skirmish lines moving as units. Of the 2,250 men in those 15 companies, 2,225 survived the attack. Meanwhile, the 16th company, commanded by a reserve officer who disobeyed the brigade commander’s order to advance forward in three dense platoon columns. Only half of his 150 men lived to see the end of the attack.

But by the time most German officers realized the value of these Boer tactics, the opportunity to put them to use was gone. The experience of the Fourth Army under Albrecht, duke of Württemberg, was a particularly tragic case of a unit failing to adapt in time. Late in October 1914, the duke issued a bulletin warning all his units to thin out their formations. By the time the bulletin reached the troops, however, they were already engaged in the trench warfare at the First Battle of Ypres (October 30 to November 24). During that battle, the young volunteers who made up the bulk of the Fourth Army hurled themselves a “thin red line” of British riflemen. The Germans, hastily trained to fight in dense platoons, were no match for British regulars who adopted the individualistic tactics of their former Boer enemies. The failure of the German army as a whole to adopt Boer tactics before the First Battle of the Ypres, ironically, meant that Boer tactics would never be of significant use to the Germans. Ypres was the last gap in a continuous wall of field fortifications being dug from the Swiss border to the North Sea. The German failure to break through at Ypres meant the closing of that gap. The war of movement gave way to a war of position. With the enemy protected by trenches, the rifle lost most of its value as an offensive weapon. As a result, Boer tactics dependent as they were on accurate rifle fire, were obsolete almost as soon as the German army adopted them. 

To be obsolete, however, is not necessarily to be worthless. Although their time had passed, Boer tactics made a significant contribution to the German war effort. German storm troop tactics, which developed during the three years of trench warfare that followed the First Battle of Ypres, were built around a number of weapons that had yet to be invented at the time of the Boer War–the flamethrower, the hand grenade, the light machine gun, the infantry gun (a direct-fire cannon), and the trench mortar. While Boer tactics emphasized long-range fighting, storm-troop tactics relied on close combat. Both Boer tactics and storm-troop tactics depended on the same human factors–soldiers capable of fighting as individuals, and officers wise enough to let their men loose on the battlefield.

It is thus not surprising that the German units and officers that excelled at storm-troop tactics were among those that had enthusiastically embraced Boer tactics during the pre-war period. The Jäger battalions provided some of the earliest and most successful storm-troop units. Captain Willy Martin Rohr, who is generally considered the “father” of storm-troop tactics, worked out their basic techniques while in command of a Jäger company during the winter of 1914-15. Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, whose 124th (Würtemberg) Infantry Regiment practiced Boer tactics in the opening French campaign of World War I, not only became and expert practitioner of storm-troop tactics in that world war but applied the same spirit to armored warfare of the next. 

Despite their effectiveness on the battlefield, German storm-troop tactics failed to win the First World War for Germany just as Boer tactics had failed to win the Boer War for the insurgent Afrikaaners. In both cases tactical excellence was rendered superfluous by direct strategic action–the starving-out of Germany by the British naval blockade and the roundup of Boer families in accordance with Britain’s concentration camp policy. Those grim facts notwithstanding, the influence of the Boer War on the way the First World War was fought remains an arresting case study in how armies learn (or fail to learn) from recent history. 

BRUCE I. GUDMUNDSSON, a military historian on the staff of the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, Va., is the author of Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army 1914-1918.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue (Vol. 1, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: A Lesson from the Boers

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