The Boer War in airpower history

Roberts' men crossing the Zand

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

    Balloons -- Yesterday evening two balloons were seen at Irene, proceeding in the direction of Springs. Official telegraphists instructed to inform the Commander in Chief about any objects seen in the sky.

    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.)

  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!

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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22 thoughts on “The Boer War in airpower history

  1. Bob Meade

    Thanks. Good information Brett.

    There are about 5 or 6 photographs of these observation balloons in the Australian War Memorial, Brett. Search for "balloon" in the South Africa conflict.

  2. 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?

    Hew Strachan makes the point in his essay in Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden in 1945 that because of its nineteenth century colonial campaigns (of which I suppose the 2nd Boer War was the last) Britain entered the aviation age with long experience of thinking about warmaking as an assault on the enemy's social and economic system as well as its armies. Distinctions between combatants and non-combatants in imperial wars had often been blurred.

  3. Erik Lund

    Contributions, exactions, bombardments.... it all sounds like eighteenth century warfare to me. ("Of course it does, Erik. May be you should take a lie down now?"

  4. I saw this post title and immediately thought of the Balloon Factory, but then my writing is currently Farnborough-centric! JW Dunne was a subaltern in the Boer War, and was invalided back before he started his aircraft experiments at the Factory.

    On a wider front, the dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war led to all sorts of investigations into military institutions; IIRC Haldane's reorganisations of British military aeronautics were inspired by some of these, and of course the whole structure of the Army (BEF+Territorials) was a post-1902 reorganisation.

  5. Post author

    I saw this post title and immediately thought of the Balloon Factory

    Your insight serves you well.


    The problem with that (and with my own suppositions in this post) is that the early airpower intellectuals don't seem to refer to the Army's colonial experience as justification. The early RFC was about observation, which is very much in line with the RE balloon corps tradition. And the knock-out blow stuff didn't really appear until the middle of WWI, by which time there was plenty of other experience to draw upon. So we can surmise but we cannot prove.

  6. Two random comments:

    The title in no. 2 above (The Scareship Mystery: A Survey of Worldwide Phantom Airship Scares) reminds me of Thomas Pynchon's strange Against the Day.

    We saw a version of no. 6 in the Franco-Prussian War with Bismarck's insistance on the Paris bombardment. Or take Sherman trying to make the South howl in the U.S. Civil War.

  7. The problem with that (and with my own suppositions in this post) is that the early airpower intellectuals don’t seem to refer to the Army’s colonial experience as justification.

    Perhaps the point is not that there was any conscious appeal to those experiences amongst theorists, but that the experience of non-traditional colonial warfare nonetheless created a set of unspoken assumptions, a mental space, in which the possibility of attacking a society rather than an army could be imagined.

  8. Post author


    Well, that makes two Pynchon novels I'll have to read someday.

    Interestingly, I think the Civil War experience left more of an impression on the British than did the siege of Paris, despite the latter being closer in space and (as the years passed) in time.


    True, but that's the problem with unspoken assumptions: evidence for their influence is lacking. I'd probably expect at least some contemporaries to make the connection themselves, particularly those who had been involved in colonial campaigns and air control (Charlton, I'm looking at you). But I don't recall coming across such.

  9. Chris Williams

    There's one possible analogy between colonial and continental warfare which has already been explored. From memory, Ellis's _Social History of the Machine Gun_ argues that teh stoopid Brits were too racist to read their own colonial experience of Maxim-gunning other people over to the prospect that Proper People might one day maxim-gun them.

    I caricature, but from my massively limited knowledge of what the British Army thought about machine-guns vs horses before WW1, I think that Ellis was wrong.

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    Yes, and the Boers had a few Maxims and also some modern artillery pieces which gave the British a lot of trouble. They really would have to have been very stupid indeed not to wonder how that might scale up when facing a modern European army, and as Jakob notes there were a lot of post-1902 army reforms and lessons-learned type thinking going on.

    Is Ellis worth reading, despite that?

  12. Erik Lund

    What bothers me about Ellis is that it's all a red herring. It was quick-fire artillery, starting with the French 75.
    The effects of weapons like these on the battlefield so dwarfed the heavy machine gun that it is no wonder that no-one invested much time and effort in following the difficult technical story of the machine gun's transition to smokeless powders in 1900--10.
    And his inability to distinguish between heavy machine guns and the truly tactically transformative light machine gun is unhelpful, but understandable given that he wants to have a chapter about the Thompson gun, as who wouldn't.
    Shorter me: More attention to QF artillery and LMGS, pls.

  13. Chris Williams

    I agree, Erik - although I think that the repeating rifle itself was the other game-changer: it meant that you couldn't rush the guns, either.

    And yet shorter me: rifle grenades pls. I watched the newly-restored _Battle of the Ancre_ (it's the rest of the Battle of the Somme, after day 10. The bit the British 'won', in other words) the other week. Loadsa tanks, but also quite a few rifle grenades.

  14. Apropos MGs: I read Paul Cornish's Machine Guns and the First World War a while ago, which was fairly interesting; ISTR that he covers the move to smokeless powder, as well as the various MGs both heavy and light used in the war by the combatants. He also discusses the use of heavy MGs in the indirect fire mode, which was something I'd never seen described in detail.

    My main disappointment with the book was that Cornish talks a fair bit about material culture in the introduction (I think he may have done a PhD thesis on MGs?) but he doesn't really follow it up.

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    I've deleted a comment from this thread, which is something I rarely do (except for those made by spambots, of course). It was somewhat off-topic, and somewhat tendentious, both of which I probably would have allowed. But then I realised it was also an unacknowledged advertisement for the author's own book: that is to say, somewhat spam as well. That was the last straw.

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