The British Expeditionary Force at the start of World War I was tiny by the standards of the other belligerent powers. Yet, when deployed to France in 1914, it prevailed against the German army because of its professionalism and tactical skill, strengths developed through hard lessons learned a dozen years earlier. In October 1899, the British went to war against the South African Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State, expecting little resistance. A string of early defeats in the Boer War shook the military’s confidence. Historian Spencer Jones focuses on this bitter combat experience in From Boer War to World War, showing how it crucially shaped the British Army’s tactical development in the years that followed. Before the British Army faced the Boer republics, an aura of complacency had settled over the military. The Victorian era had been marked by years of easy defeats of crudely armed foes. The Boer War, however, brought the British face to face with what would become modern warfare. The sweeping, open terrain and advent of smokeless powder meant soldiers were picked off before they knew where shots had been fired from. The infantry’s standard close-order formations spelled disaster against the well-armed, entrenched Boers. Although the British Army ultimately adapted its strategy and overcame the Boers in 1902, the duration and cost of the war led to public outcry and introspection within the military. Jones draws on previously underutilized sources as he explores the key tactical lessons derived from the war, such as maximizing firepower and using natural cover, and he shows how these new ideas were incorporated in training and used to effect a thorough overhaul of the British Army. The first book to address specific connections between the Boer War and the opening months of World War I, Jones’s fresh interpretation adds to the historiography of both wars by emphasizing the continuity between them.
The South African War – or Boer War – running from 11 October 1899 until 31 May 1902 –was the largest British military effort since the Napoleonic Wars. It was also the first time that large-scale, meaningful contributions were made to an active theatre of war by the self-governing colonies. This included formal contributions of around 20,000 troops from the Australian colonies which dwarfed all previous Australian military commitments. Just as the war was a watershed event for the development and professionalisation of the British Army from 1902-14, it was momentous for the self-governing colonies in Australia and elsewhere in social, political and most certainly in military terms. Letters from the Veldt sheds light on the activities of imperial military contingents – in which Australians served – during the Imperial march to Pretoria from May-September 1900, the successful conclusion of which marked the end of ‘conventional’ operations in South Africa and the beginning of the ‘guerrilla’ phase that would drag on until May 1902. A large proportion of colonial troops serving in South Africa at this point did so as part of the 1st Mounted Infantry Brigade. Despite their importance, the experiences of this brigade have not figured largely in existing any accounts of the Boer War. The brigade itself was composed of not only Australians, but Canadians, New Zealanders, and British regular and volunteer troops, and a scattering of ‘loyal’ South Africans. It was in many ways a microcosm of imperial military cooperation; an important part of the steady development of attitudes, expectations and shared experience which led to the formation in 1914 of a much larger expeditionary force. This account does not follow a standard pattern or format – there is no measured, steady traditional narrative. Rather, the experiences of the 1st Mounted Infantry Brigade, and the light they shed on many wider issues, are presented through letters written home by its British commander, Major General Edward Thomas Henry ‘Curly’ Hutton – himself a little-known yet key figure in the early history of the Australian military. Read within their context, the Boer War letters of Major General Edward Hutton offer a window not only into the course and conduct of the imperial advance to Pretoria, but also a lens through which to better understand a range of wider issues that framed his world – the world of Australian military history before the term Anzac was coined.