In one disastrous week, dubbed Black Week, from 10–17 December 1899, the British Army suffered three devastating defeats by the Boer Republics at the battles of Stormberg (690), Magersfontein (948) and Colenso (1,138), with 2,776 men killed, wounded and captured. The events were an eye opener for the government and troops, who had thought that the war could be won very easily.
The British government drastically changed their mindset after the Black Week disaster to the realization that the Boer war would not be an easy victory, and they undertook many changes in the military including military personnel, better mobilization, and better modernization in order to match and then surpass the Boer troops. Many different opinions arose in the United Kingdom. Although there were many doubters who criticized the overall justice of the British cause, the patriots who would end up volunteering, fighting, and winning this conflict were the majority. Following Black Week, the government called “for able-bodied men willing to abandon their homes and families and risk their lives to serve their country.” Even with this dangerous task, many still volunteered either for the regular army or for shorter enlistments.
These new volunteers served as a “new face, untainted by defeat and accusations of defeatism…to breathe life back into the campaigns and restore hope at home.” Other changes enacted by the British immediately following the Black Week disaster were the mobilization of two more divisions, the calling up of the army reserves, raising a force of mounted cavalry for better mobility, and most importantly by sending volunteers from home overseas which added more than one hundred thousand additional troops by the end of the war.
The biggest problem that the British troops had at the beginning of the war was the antiquity of their weaponry. The Boer troops had very advanced modern weapons, which helped them win battles where they were greatly outnumbered. One of the keys to success at the Battle of Colenso was the use of smokeless powder in their rifles, which hid their locations from the British troops returning fire. This was just one of the many ways in which the Boers had superior weaponry at the beginning of the war. The first of many reforms in the modernization of the British military following Black Week was with the cavalry.
With new, modernized troops came new tactics; only a few months after Black Week, one of the main cavalry divisions led a flanking march that ended with a victory. Besides equipping the cavalry with rapid-firing rifles instead of lances, the new British military doctrine also started using artillery as a defensive unit of the army, and saw innovation in the use of machine guns.
- Denis Judd and Keith Surridge, The Boer War (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 118.
- Stephen M. Miller, “In Support of the ‘Imperial Mission’? Volunteering for the South African War, 1899-1902,” The Journal of Military History, Jul 2005, Vol. 69, No. 3, in Jstor [database online], accessed November 9, 2009.
- Judd, The Boer War, 126.
- Stephen Badsey, “The Boer War (1899-1902) and British Cavalry Doctrine: A Re-Evaluation,” The Journal of Military History, Jan. 2007, Vol. 71, No. 1 in Jstor [database online], accessed November 9, 2009.
- Deborah D. Avant, “The Institutional Sources of Military Doctrine: Hegemons in Peripheral Wars,” International Studies Quarterly, Dec. 1993, Vol. 37, No. 4 in Jstor [database online], accessed November 9, 2009.
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