Remarkable similarities color the army recruitment from the United States during the Vietnam conflict and British recruitment into the Boer Wars. Prospects themselves often had little few prospects. Vietnam recruited both from suburbia’s and ghettos, but suburban kids often found deferments and so the ranks were often comprised largely of inner city youth. The British infantry that was inducted during the Boer wars were in contrast mostly rural poor or urban poor. There were few middle class British kids wearing the Queen’s colors and deploying across the ocean to one of Britain’s colonies. The infantry fighting in the Boer Wars were often Scots from the Highland areas, the equivalent to Appalachia in the US. Or they were Irish youth caught in spirals of urban poverty and destitution.
The officers of course originated from another solar system. The British officer corps was mostly the sons of Britain’s ample upper crust hierarchy. Starched and ironed off whites festooned with medals and ribbons, the British officers in the Boer Wars were dandies who comported themselves with a typical cult-like aplomb. They were trained to keep tight discipline in the ranks. The men they commanded often could not read or write, but saw service in the British military the only proximity they would ever have with something bigger than themselves. You might be poor as church mice in Manchester’s moribund factory district, but as a member of the Expeditionary Force, you might brush up against something global and famous and important. And as long you fought, you would be cared for.
This was most certainly the case for the kid from the South Bronx who ended up in Da Nang. Service was better than the streets. Service in the United States Army in the 60s and 70s promised Be All You Can Be. That often meant a recruit would serve and come home with job skills. And when he came back home, he could go to college as well. The British Army was the most powerful military force in the world at the turn of the nineteenth century. So a deployment aboard a British troop ship might be an adventure that a poor Catholic from Dublin might otherwise never have.
In the case of the Boer conflict the officers did a poor job of inculcating anything other than close quarter advance. Marksmanship skills were lacking. The British force in South Africa won mostly as a blunt stick of overwhelming numbers and superior technology. Perhaps it was the beginning of the end of the British Empire, evinced when units around the world were beginning to lose their hold on subjects that only twenty years earlier British troops would have vanquished with ease. The Boers were in fact a citizen army. They trained their whole lives in the brush of South Africa, they knew how to shoot, they knew how to ride, they knew the lay of the land and they were highly motivated. The Boers were Calvinists who strongly held to belief s of self-sufficiency. They all served in the Boer Army and they all provided their own weapons and equipment. When they couldn’t, the Boer government, flush with cash from gold mines in Witwatersrand provided everyone who couldn’t afford one, a rifle. The Boer militia fighter carried a German bolt-action 7mm Mauser.
The Mauser was an extraordinary rifle. It was a long-range weapon that could effectively hit targets miles away. The 7mm cartridge carried enough muzzle velocity to knock a man backwards and dead before he hits the ground. The rifle accepted a seven round spring-loaded clip. The cartridge also had a smokeless powder, so whilst fighting during the day the shooter’s position was not compromised by the shot. The Boer’s were remarkable marksman. They consistently killed people at 1200 yards.
The British in the 19th century were a lot like the Romans in the third century AD. Military expeditions were often off to crush uprisings and mundify the Queen’s protectorates of insurgencies. British Army veterans in the late twentieth century remembered the Zulu Wars, the Indian Mutiny, the Boxer Rebellion, the Sudan and the Afghan War. To this group of British soldiers, the foray into Boer territory was just another foreign rebellion to be put down, even if this time the insurgents were white.
Like the Americans in Vietnam, the British came up against a formidable opponent in the disciplined Boer infantryman and in typical fashion, the British decided that the only way to stop the Boers was with the full weight of the Empire. By 1900, almost a half million British military personnel would pass through the South African theater of battle. With over a fifth of the world’s gold coming from South Africa and new diamond mines found all the time, you can bet that the pressure to invest troops here and stabilize the region grew considerably.
Sources: History Channel, Wikipedia, BBC, http://angloboerwarmuseum.com