Military history


JUST AS SOME of the major commanders and protesters of the First World War came onstage well before it began, so too did one of the war's key weapons. It made a spectacular early appearance the year after Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

The site was Omdurman, in the Sudan, the vast African territory whose inhabitants, in London's eyes, did not understand their proper role, which was to be loyal subjects of the British Empire. Under a militant Muslim leader, Sudanese Arabs had overrun an occupation force and beheaded the British general who led it. Thirteen years later, in 1898, Britain sent a large body of troops up the Nile to the Sudan under the command of legendary Major General Sir Horatio Herbert Kitchener, who had served in various corners of the empire, from Palestine to Cyprus to Zanzibar, and whose mission now was to teach the Sudanese their place, once and for all.

An adventurous young soldier with this force was peering through his binoculars at a hillside, crossed by what he thought was a defensive barricade of tree branches. "Suddenly the whole black line ... began to move. It was made of men, not bushes.... We watched, amazed by the wonder of the sight, the whole face of the slope become black with swarming savages. Four miles from end to end."

Marching toward him from Omdurman, the headquarters of the Sudanese, were some 50,000 troops carrying spears, swords, horns, drums, and antiquated rifles. "The whole side of the hill seemed to move. Between the masses horsemen galloped continually; before them many patrols dotted the plain; above them waved hundreds of banners, and the sun, glinting on many thousands of hostile spear-points, spread a sparkling cloud."

The witness was 23-year-old Winston Churchill, who was both correspondent for the London Morning Post and an officer in Kitchener's forces. As the scion of a well-placed family, he was, of course, in the cavalry. With the decisive battle about to begin, "standing at a table spread in the wilderness, we ate a substantial meal," he wrote. "It was like a race lunch before the big event."

The future prime minister was hardly the only ambitious Briton who had lobbied hard to be here for the showdown—or who ate well while awaiting glory. Consider a youthful major named Douglas Haig. Before setting off across the Sudanese desert, he had asked his sister to send him from home "jams, tinned fruits, cocoa, vegetables, haddock in tins, tongue, biscuits, some hock and a bottle or two of brandy," all of which, along with extra silk underwear, Haig would transport by the three camels that were at his disposal, along with four horses, a donkey, a goat (for milk), a cook, a valet, and various servants to look after the animals.

Haig came from a Scottish family famous for its whiskey distillery; funds from that fortune ensured that he would never have John French's money problems. Like French, he was on horseback from his early years, keeping two horses and a full-time groom while at Oxford and later becoming a member of the British national polo team. Entering the army, he soon acquired a reputation as a short-fused martinet who displayed no lack of imperial pride. "I am not one," he would declare later in life, "who is ashamed of the wars that were fought to open the markets of the world to our traders." It was at a cavalry camp in India that Haig first met French, nine years older, senior in rank, and in personality his opposite, for Haig was puritanical, incapable of small talk, and as stiff as the high collar of his dress uniform. Nonetheless, in an army laced with networks of patrons and protégés, he had a keen eye for strategic friendships.

Although French was now stuck at a post back in England, Haig had used family connections to win himself a place at Omdurman, where he was eagerly awaiting his first taste of combat. An hour after dawn on September 2, 1898, the day following Churchill's first sight of them, the Sudanese launched a frontal attack on the British position. Over their jibbahs, loose robes with colored patches, some of them wore chain mail and they outnumbered the British Empire troops by nearly two to one. But as British fire tore into the Sudanese line, the bloodshed was immense—and nothing was more devastating than the latest models of Hiram Maxim's machine gun.

For decades, military inventors had been struggling to make an effective rapid-fire weapon, but the results had been cumbersome in the extreme: generally a gunner had to turn a crank, and, to keep a single barrel from overheating, a series of them fired in succession—one early model had 37 barrels, another 50. Only in 1884 had Maxim finally perfected the first such gun that was both single-barreled and fully automatic: it used the energy of its own recoil to eject each spent cartridge and pull the next one into place—and it kept shooting as long as a soldier squeezed the trigger. A jacket of water, refilled as the liquid boiled away, kept the barrel from getting too hot. The Maxim could fire 500 rounds a minute.

No one was watching the Sudan fighting more closely than Britain's major imperial rival, Germany. "The enemy went down in heaps," wrote a German newspaperman with the British forces, "and it was evident that the six Maxim guns were doing a large share of the work." Indeed, thanks to the Maxims, in a few hours the British were able to fire an extraordinary 500,000 bullets at the hapless Sudanese.

It was a historic slaughter. When the Battle of Omdurman was over later in the day, some 10,800 Sudanese lay dead on the desert sand beneath a brilliantly clear sky. At least 16,000 more had been wounded, and were either bleeding to death or trying to drag themselves away. The British lost only 48 dead. A Union Jack was raised, the assembled empire troops gave three cheers for the Queen, and General Kitchener wept as a regimental band played "Abide with Me."

Britain's wars, the jubilant victors at Omdurman expected, would continue to be just such lopsided victories—or massacres, as a dissenter like Charlotte Despard might say—against poorly armed Arabs, Africans, and Asians. This assumption, and the confidence that weapons like the Maxim gun would always give Britain superiority, underlay a sort of ecstasy about battle that shines through the writing of this period. Lord Wolseley, army commander in chief at the time of Omdurman, wrote of "the rapture-giving delight which the attack upon an enemy affords. I cannot analyse nor weigh, nor can I justify the feeling. But once experienced, all other subsequent sensations are but as a tinkling of a doorbell in comparison with the throbbing of Big Ben."

Both the British and Germans had already experienced that rapture while wielding Maxim guns to deadly effect elsewhere in Africa. This, to Europeans, seemed the machine gun's logical use: "It is a weapon," declared the Army and Navy Journal,"which is specially adapted to terrify a barbarous or semi-civilised foe." No one imagined that either British or German soldiers would ever find themselves in the role of Sudanese Arabs, experiencing their own Omdurmans in the very heart of Europe.

The next war was clearly going to be quite far from Europe. For even as Kitchener's Maxims were swiftly mowing down the Sudanese, Britain's relentless imperial march was running into unexpected problems at the other end of the African continent. The war about to begin there would be the country's last before 1914. In ways no one understood at the time, it would offer additional glimpses of the great cataclysm ahead. And among the actors would be several destined to play major roles in fighting—or resisting—the world war to come.

With its temperate climate and fertile river valleys, the southern tip of Africa had attracted Europeans for several hundred years, and immigrants from Holland, Britain, and elsewhere had wrested a large expanse of land from the indigenous inhabitants. By the late nineteenth century, what today is South Africa was divided into four parts: two British territories, Natal and the Cape Colony—which included vastly lucrative diamond mines—encompassed all the coastline and much of the interior, while inland were two landlocked autonomous states, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, which lay across the Vaal River and so was known as the Transvaal. These two territories were controlled by Boers, descendants of early European settlers, whose language derived from seventeenth-century Dutch. After some decades of friction, the British had been content to leave the Boers alone, for their wide stretches of empty veldt seemed to offer few enticements for conquest.

Everything had changed in 1886, however, when at the small town of Johannesburg an itinerant prospector stumbled upon a rock that turned out to be an outcrop of the world's largest underground deposit of gold ore. This staggeringly rich lode extended downward thousands of feet into the earth and spread for more than a hundred miles sideways under the Transvaal plains. Fortune hunters from Europe and North America flocked to Johannesburg, at first living in tents. On their heels came builders, merchants, brewers, distillers, pimps and prostitutes, and the tiny settlement was swiftly transformed into a large city with gaslit streets. Within a dozen years, this patch of dry grassland was producing one-quarter of the world's gold, and, exasperatingly for the British, the Transvaal controlled it all.

At first Britain hoped that mere demography would conquer the Transvaal, since most of the gold-rush miners and deep-level mining companies were British. It was unthinkable that the Transvaal's black majority would ever have the right to vote, and so surely it would be just a matter of time before the new immigrants outnumbered the Boers. Then they could elect a government that would bring the Transvaal into the empire—and in the process reduce taxes on the mining barons. To the total frustration of London, however, the republic's president, Paul Kruger, a man of great bulk, enormous jowls, and a fringe of white beard, denied the new immigrants full citizenship. That Britons had a right to rule other people seemed the most obvious of global truths, but that uncultured farmers led by an ugly-looking man said to believe the earth was flat should rule over Britons seemed outrageous. In 1897, the year of the Diamond Jubilee, the British government turned to one of the brightest stars in the imperial firmament to deal with the stubborn Boers.

Sir Alfred Milner was only 43—young to be appointed high commissioner to South Africa, in effect the British viceroy for the region. He had, however, already proven himself one of his country's most versatile administrators, and, at this moment of greed for gold, his imperial idealism provided a much-needed gloss of lofty purpose. "It is the British race which built the Empire," he typically proclaimed, "and it is the undivided British race which can alone uphold it.... Deeper, stronger, more primordial than material ties is the bond of common blood."

Milner was a man of driving ambition, in part to regain a lost family position on the steep British class ladder. His grandfather had been a major general and colonial governor, but his ne'er-do-well physician father failed to establish a successful practice in England and had to take a job teaching English in Germany, where Milner was born and spent part of his childhood. He never completely lost the trace of a German accent, and secret embarrassment about this may help explain his fierce, almost religious devotion to the "British race."

That he seemed to have no woman in his life gave an air of mystery to this austere, stern-looking man with a long, somber face and high forehead. Hard-driving and supremely efficient, he was once described by Churchill as "the man of no illusions." Unknown to almost everyone, however, he kept an aspiring actress, Cécile Duval, as a mistress for almost a decade, maintaining her for some £450 a year in South London and slipping away with her for secret boating, cycling, and card-playing holidays. He sometimes stayed at her home, but never she at his. Evidently because she was not of the right class, he seems never to have introduced her to any of his friends.

Milner served in high government positions dealing with finance and taxes, at home and in colonial Egypt. He earned a reputation for being able to quickly absorb the information in a complex mass of documents and for effortlessly understanding numbers—a balance sheet for him, an admiring aide once said, was "as lucid as a page of print." Milner was the ideal colonial civil servant, equal parts technocrat and prophet of empire, and both the British government and the mining magnates thought him the perfect man to bring the arrogant Boers into the empire where they obviously belonged. Queen Victoria gave him a personal sendoff from Windsor Castle, and some 140 dignitaries threw him a farewell dinner at the Café Monico in Piccadilly Circus, where he replied to effusive toasts by vowing to do his best as "a civilian soldier of the Empire." Then, he recorded in his diary, he went "to Brixton ... to see C." He wrote three words, crossed them out, and finally scribbled them in the margin: "to say goodbye."

The brisk, purposeful man who settled into Government House, his official residence in Cape Town beneath the brow of the city's famous mountain, faced a huge challenge. Successfully bringing the Transvaal and its gold under British rule would be an imperial coup of the first order, but it would not be easy. Although European opinion accepted the conquest of Africans as normal, it would never tolerate the overt seizure of African territory controlled by white people.

Meanwhile, a growing rivalry in Europe began to shadow events in southern Africa. The Transvaal was importing rifles from Germany, which had itself jumped into the great race for African land, staking out several colonies. To the fury of the British public, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent the Transvaal's President Kruger a telegram congratulating him on maintaining his independence. With Germany making friendly overtures like this, Milner had no time to waste. For two years, he crisscrossed the southern end of the continent by train, wagon, and horse, tending his realm while negotiating with Kruger, whom he privately referred to as "a frock-coated Neanderthal." Demands, ultimatums, and refusals volleyed back and forth. Far more hawkish than the cabinet members who had dispatched him from London, Milner craved a war, as a "great day of reckoning" that would settle for good the "great game between ourselves and the Transvaal for the mastery of South Africa." Could the Boers, he wondered, somehow be manipulated into firing the first shots? As he put it to the colonial secretary in a letter marked VERY SECRET that left Cape Town with the weekly mail ship, "Will not the arrival of more [British] troops so frighten the Boers that they will take the first step and rush part of our territory?" By doing so, "they would put themselves in the wrong and become the aggressors."

While impatiently awaiting war, Milner allowed himself a few relaxations: cycling, hunting for jackals, and archery, which he practiced on the lawn of Government House. He also took solace from a new arrival in Cape Town, Rudyard Kipling. In his early thirties and already a best-selling poet, novelist, and journalist, the writer sensed that South Africa was the next battleground for the expansion of the British Empire, and so had come for the first of what would be several lengthy visits.

Both Kipling's grandfathers had been Methodist preachers, and there was an almost evangelical fervor to his celebration of imperialism and to some of the countless phrases he added to the language, from "east of Suez" to "the white man's burden." Born in India, he later worked there as a newspaper reporter, spending long hours in the British army barracks in Lahore. Absorbing soldiers' stories, he had come to relish feeling part of a small elite of bold, resourceful Britons—weeks away from home by ship and, when Kipling was born, out of reach by telegraph—carrying out the lonely task of governing a vast population of Indians. There was "no civilizing experiment in the world's history," he said, "at all comparable to British rule in India." In the nobility of this work he could believe fully because, as George Orwell wrote of him after his death, the poet never acknowledged "that an empire is primarily a money-making concern." Although India was unusually free of wars during his time as a journalist there, no one has ever written more lovingly and sympathetically about the British soldier than this man with his distinctive thick spectacles, heavy eyebrows, and bushy mustache, who never served in uniform.

Kipling was the last great writer in English whose work was equally beloved across the class spectrum; privates and generals alike knew many of his seductively melodious poems by heart. In the seamless universe of his writing, adventurous schoolboys turned into brave soldiers, loyal natives were always grateful for British rule, and the magnificent empire was untroubled by any undercurrents of dissent. Although well read in English, French, and Latin, and friendly with many of the leading writers of the day, Kipling nonetheless preferred the company of army officers, of bold empire builders like the business tycoon Cecil Rhodes and America's Theodore Roosevelt, of men willing to provoke war for what they believed in, like Alfred Milner. He and Milner hit it off and would remain fast friends the rest of their lives.

New detachments of troops sent from England at last had the effect Milner wanted. Seeing that hostilities with Britain were inevitable, the two Boer republics decided that their best hope was a series of swift attacks before yet more British troops arrived. And so, on October 11, 1899, to Milner's delight, they declared war. In London, British politicians were equally happy that their enemy had been maneuvered into appearing the aggressor. Another cabinet member wrote to the colonial secretary: "Accept my felicitations."

Slaughters like Omdurman aside, what today we call the Boer War was Britain's first in nearly half a century, and the public greeted it almost as if it were a continuation of the Diamond Jubilee. Everyone expected Milner's War, as some referred to it, to be gloriously won by Christmas. As a bonus, this decisive victory would send a strong warning to Germany, just then launching an ominous shipbuilding program to double the size of its navy.

British officers talked of combat as so much sport. Men ordered to advance against Boer positions, called "beaters," were to flush the quarry from their hiding places as in pheasant hunting. A captain in the Imperial Yeomanry declared that chasing Boer horsemen across the veldt was "just like a good fox hunt." The first British commanding general in South Africa, the paunchy, double-chinned Sir Redvers Buller, ordered his soldiers not to be unsportsmanlike "jack-in-boxes" who ducked after standing up to fire their rifles.

The war, however, failed to unroll like the good hunt it was supposed to be. A succession of Boer ambushes and humiliating British defeats left the public stunned. Even more shocking, Rhodes, the richest man in the British Empire, who had grandly gone to the Cape Colony diamond center of Kimberley to tend to the protection of his mines, was trapped there, along with some 50,000 civilians and 600 British troops, when the Boers surrounded the town. From Rhodes's luxurious quarters in the town's red-brick Sanatorium hotel and spa, which he owned, he managed to send an angry message to Milner in Cape Town: "Strain everything. Send immediate relief to Kimberley. I cannot understand the delay."

Because Kimberley produced 90 percent of the world's diamonds, breaking the siege was a top priority. As a British force fought its way closer to the town, in the vanguard were cavalry detachments, followed by supply wagons, artillery, and a cart that unreeled telegraph wire as it rolled along. Joyfully in command, reclaimed by war from a cloud of scandals past and now a general, was John French.

At his side as chief of staff, fresh from Omdurman, was his old friend from India days, Major Douglas Haig. The two had left England for South Africa on the same ship, and when French saw that Haig had not been allocated a cabin, he invited Haig to share his own on the top deck. As usual, French was in financial trouble, this time having speculated unwisely on South African gold stocks. Although it was almost unheard of for a commanding officer to be in debt to a subordinate, French borrowed a hefty £2,000 from Haig, the equivalent of more than $260,000 today, to stave off angry creditors.

On February 15, 1900, French's scouts finished reconnoitering the last enemy stronghold between his troops and the besieged Kimberley, fortified positions held by some 900 Boer soldiers on two ridges about three-quarters of a mile apart. Then, surrounded by snorting horses, the jangle and creak of boots and spurs, and the smell of saddle leather, the impetuous general gave the order that all cavalrymen dreamed of: Charge!

Successive waves of shouting British troopers in tall sun helmets galloped up the gently rising valley between the two ridges: first the lancers with pennants flying, their khaki-clad chests crisscrossed by diagonal straps, proud swordsmen next, horse-drawn artillery in the rear. French himself led the second wave of troops. It was a bold move, and it worked. Some 3,000 cavalrymen suffered fewer than two dozen casualties. "The feeling was wonderfully exciting, just as in a good run to hounds," said a British officer. "An epoch in the history of cavalry," enthused the London Times history of the war; the Boer foot soldiers "availed nothing against the rushing speed and sustained impetus of the wave of horsemen.... This was the secret French had divined."

There was, however, less to this rushing speed and sustained impetus than met the eye. To begin with, the Boer defenders on these ridges had no machine guns. Also, in the scorching Southern Hemisphere summer the British horses charging across the bone-dry veldt raised such masses of dust that Boer marksmen couldn't see a thing, and most of them fired too high. Only after the great dust cloud slowly dissipated did the bewildered Boers realize that the cavalry had thundered past them almost entirely unscathed. Most important, the Boers had neglected to use something that was quite plentiful in South Africa and which, a decade and a half later, would prove the simplest and most effective defensive weapon of all time.

Between their two ridges they had not strung any barbed wire.

Press descriptions of the cavalry charge were so exhilarating that millions of Britons ignored the fact that it wasn't exactly a classic dash that overran terrified enemy soldiers; rather, the charge was between two groups of dust-blinded Boer troops who were unharmed by it. Not a single cavalryman's sword or lance was bloodied. But no matter: when word reached the London stock exchange, applause burst out and the price of South African gold mine shares shot up; at a murder trial in Liverpool, when the judge broke into the proceedings to announce that Kimberley had been relieved, jury and spectators erupted in cheers.

"The Cavalry—the despised Cavalry I should say—has saved the Empire," the petulant Haig wrote to a friend. "You must rub this fact into the wretched individuals who pretend to rule the Empire!" For both French and Haig, the relief of Kimberley made their reputations and immeasurably advanced their careers. Particularly impressed were Germany's military observers on the scene, who were watching the combat closely, suspecting that someday soon they might be fighting these very commanders. "The charge of French's cavalry division was one of the most remarkable phenomena of the war," a German general staff report said, adding that "its staggering success shows that, in future wars, the charge of great masses of cavalry will be by no means a hopeless undertaking even against troops armed with modern rifles."

Germans and British alike were thinking of this war on the African plains as a rehearsal for a larger conflict. But it was not just about cavalry where they missed the mark, for they failed to pay attention to the machine gun. This was still thought of as a weapon mainly useful against large frontal attacks by Africans, Arabs, or other "natives." Both Boers and British had a small number of Maxim guns but, mounted on 400-pound carriages with steel-rimmed wheels nearly five feet high, they proved difficult to maneuver and were seldom used.

Although the war was not yet over, everyone on the British side was glad to have a victory to celebrate, no one more so than the bellicose Rudyard Kipling. He was the figure every nation waging a war of aggression sorely needs: the civilian celebrity who honors the warriors. Everywhere he went in South Africa he was wildly cheered by soldiers who knew his stories that celebrated their derring-do and his poetry that made music of their slang. At one banquet honoring his friend Milner, he made an ironic toast to the Boer leader Kruger, "who has taught the British Empire its responsibilities, and the rest of the world its power, who has filled the seas with transports, and the earth with the tramp of armed men." For several years now, Kipling had been sprinkling his prose and poetry with anti-German barbs. He believed this war would do "untold good" for his beloved British tommies, preparing them for the inevitable clash with Germany. The Boer War, said a character in a story he wrote at the time, was "a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon."

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