The Boer War of 1899-1902 doesn't often appear in airpower history. This may have something to do with the fact that it took place before the invention of the aeroplane, which I suppose is reasonable. But there are still interesting and even important connections and influences to be traced. Here are a baker's half-dozen.
- Airpower was actually used during the war, in the form of British observation balloons. The Royal Engineers deployed three balloon sections to South Africa; one was part of the besieged forces at Ladysmith while the others took part in many of the operations from Modder River to the advance on Pretoria, observing enemy troop movements and directing artillery fire. (In the photo above, British infantry are crossing the Zand while a balloon keeps an eye out for Boers.) The balloon sections seem to have been quite useful in the early part of the war, but less so in the later guerrilla phases, where the British tried to hem in the remaining Boer forces against their system of blockhouses and wire fences. It seems it was possible to make the balloons mobile by simply hitching them to a wagon, but obviously they had no independence of action and had to stick to where the main body of the troops were, which was usually where the Boer commandos weren't. Still, I wonder if anybody on the British side thought about bringing in lots of balloons to give the counterinsurgent forces eyes in the sky.
- The Boer War was, briefly, also a phantom airship, or rather phantom balloon scare. The Boers were initially quite worried about the British balloons, for which they had no counter. It was thought they might be used to float over Boer cities to drop bombs. In October 1899 the following telegraph message was sent from (actually, the source says received by, but that makes little sense) the Transvaal headquarters:
- A very high proportion of senior figures in the early RFC fought in the Boer War: David Henderson (who was in fact in charge of military intelligence in the guerrilla phase of the war), Hugh Trenchard, Frederick Sykes, for example. P. R. C. Groves and L. E. O. Charlton, two early RFC officers who later became well-known airpower pundits, also fought in South Africa (Charlton was wounded and received the DSO). I'm sure there would be others. I've noted a similar geographical funnel before, mostly for the same men as it happens, and the same explanations probably apply: they actively sought out opportunity and adventure (Groves and Charlton, at least, were both volunteers), which is the sort of person most likely to try their hand at a new (and dangerous, possibly career-ending) service. Also, flying was a young man's game, but the decade's span between the end of the Boer War and the formation of the RFC meant that men who had volunteered for South Africa while young (Sykes was 22 when he volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry) and had remained in the Army were beginning to reach ranks where they could be entrusted with serious responsibility. The other aspect to that is that the Army had expanded massively (relative to Victorian norms) to meet the needs of the war and then contracted again afterwards. Those who did hang around were likely to find themselves underemployed at various times and without prospects for promotion, and a new challenge like flying might appeal (Trenchard's biography bears this out). There are other possible effects of the Boer War which I'll come to presently.
- From the Boer side, Jan Smuts also fought in the war, as the leader of a commando which raided deep into the Cape Colony. His connection with airpower history is, of course, as that he was asked by David Lloyd George to formulate the Imperial War Cabinet's response to the Gotha raids in 1917. The resulting eponymous reports led to the formation of the RAF in 1918 (though Henderson helped with the writing too). Someone with Smuts' many talents probably would have risen to great prominence anyway (he was already Attorney General of the Transvaal Republic at the outbreak of war) but I think the combination of the military feats he performed during the war and the political leadership he displayed during the negotiations over the peace treaty and then the Union Treaty and made him something special in British eyes. So if not for the Boer War, Smuts might not have been present at the birth of the RAF.
- Getting into more speculative territory, I wonder if the economic warfare carried out by the British army against the Boers — burning farms, removing livestock, imprisoning civilians, in order to cut off the commandos from their sources of supply — influenced later airpower thinkers? Most of the theorising about economic warfare before 1914 came from navalists like Corbett, and there are definite continuities with airpower theory there. But a throwaway comment by Beau Grosscup in Strategic Terror: The Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment (London and New York: Zed Books, 2006), 22, that 'Trenchard was trained in the British military tradition of offensive economic warfare' (i.e. which informed his later advocacy of strategic bombing) got me thinking. My first thought was what tradition?? and as Grosscup has a fair bit of questionable history that's still my considered opinion. But if the Army did have experience with economic warfare which might influence its strategic thought, it would have to have beeen in South Africa, the only time it had fought something like a European economy since the Crimea. And, as noted above, Henderson et al all experienced the war against the Boers at first hand. Having said that, the economic strangulation of the Boers was only part of the answer: their morale remained strong and they kept fighting until well after their military position was hopeless. And the knock-out blow is all about breaking morale. Which leads me to the next point.
- The Boers engaged in terror warfare against the towns they besieged, Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley, by way of artillery bombardment. (I'm not making a moral judgement by using the word 'terror', and anyway the British killed far more civilians through neglect in the concentration camps.) Boer artillery was few in number, but they did have some heavy pieces, including the famous 'Long Toms'. These would periodically shell the besieged towns, generally causing few casualties but sometimes causing a great deal of fear. The bombardments had the greatest effect in Kimberley where it seems (I don't have figures, unfortunately) that a number of women and children were killed in the shelling. The defenders dug shelters, hid in the diamond mines, built their own artillery piece for counter-battery fire and even improvised a warning system (a lookout on a tower would wave a flag when he saw a puff of smoke from the Long Tom, then buglers would sound the alarm, giving civilians about 15 seconds to take cover). But Cecil Rhodes, who was in Kimberley during the siege, was not at all happy. He continually pestered military authorities about raising the siege, used his newspaper to spew venom at them for doing nothing, and even had to be restrained from physically assaulting the commander of the town's defences for delaying dispatch of yet another plea/threat to Kitchener. He had just been prevented from holding a town meeting criticising military inaction, essentially proclaiming that the town's morale was on the verge of collapse, when the relief column finally arrived. Of course, the food shortages were more important than the bombardment (Kimberley was under siege for 124 days). Still it seems to me that we have here a small-scale model of how, in some of its more genteel versions at least, the knock-out blow was supposed to lead demoralised citizens to force their government to do whatever it took to end the war.
- Finally, was NATO's air campaign against Serbia in 1999 a vindication of the victory-through-airpower theory? The Boer War says no! At least, that's the conclusion of Kieran Webb, 'Strategic bombardment and Kosovo: evidence from the Boer War', Defense & Security Analysis 24 (2008): 303-15. Here are the concluding two paragraphs:
Keegan’s argument that Kosovo was a turning point is not only countered by its rarity but also by the fact that similar circumstances had happened previously. Analysis from the Boer War found evidence of bombardment having a strategic effect at the Battle of Paardeberg in 1900. Here the leadership was susceptible to domestic pressure, and bombardment managed to minimise human casualties while it destroyed items of economic and personal value. The result was that the besieged Boers rejected the chance to escape when it was available to them and surrendered to the British even though they had not run out of food or ammunition.
Other battles fought during the Boer War could not be won by bombardment alone. Both Boers and the British managed to find ways to withstand enemy artillery and could be defeated only through the use of ground troops. Just as Kosovo was exceptional in its era, so was Paardeberg in its time.
Intriguing, but outside my area!
Here's an example of the sort of response that was received, in this case from Vryheid:
Airship with powerful light plainly visible from here in far off distance towards Dundee. Telegraphist at Paulpietersburg also spied one, and at Amsterdam three in the direction of Zambaansland to the south east.
Shots were fired at these supposed balloons or airships, and Transvaal apparently bought powerful searchlights from Germany to sweep the skies for them (although if that's true, it must have been done before the outbreak of war, because the British imposed an effective blockade on the Boer republics). The British balloons were nowhere near the Transvaal, so the Boers were seeing what they didn't want to see, so to speak. But lest it be thought that Tommy Atkins was too sober and rational to be afflicted with such visions, General Buller's men thought they were being followed by a light which appeared at dusk, which they called the 'Boer signal'. It was probably Venus. (Source: Nigel Watson, The Scareship Mystery: A Survey of Worldwide Phantom Airship Scares (1909-1918) (Corby: Domra Publications, 2000), 109-10.)
For an excellent overview of the Boer War which isn't unbalanced by an obsession with airpower, I recommend Denis Judd and Keith Surridge, The Boer War (London: John Murray, 2003).
Image source: Library of Congress.
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