Book Review: From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reform of the British Army, 1902-1914

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by Spencer Jones

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. xviii, 290. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0806142898

Noted British historian Spencer Jones takes a look at how disaster in the field during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) transformed the British Army.

The late Victorian Army had amassed considerable success and experience in numerous colonial wars and expeditions, and when war with the Boer Republics of South Africa broke out in 1899, went to the fray with great confidence.  But opening rounds of the war were disastrous for the British.  The Boers were not a regularly trained or organized army.  Ignorant of “proper” tactics but armed with modern rifles, using five round clips and smokeless propellant, most Boers served in mounted communal militias called Kommandos, though there was a small “professional” artillery force, equipped with modern German and French field guns.  In the opening weeks of the war, the British suffered a series of humiliating and costly reverses. They found themselves fighting an invisible enemy, who shot from long range and with great accuracy.  British infantry could not compete with Boer riflemen either in marksmanship or tactics, while the Royal Artillery found itself outranged by Boer gunners, and at risk from Boer rifle fire, and British cavalry were too few in number and improperly trained for the irregular operations they encountered.  Even as the war unfolded, the British Army went back to school.  

Jones concentrates on the series of reforms initiated during the war and during the years that followed it, from 1902-1914.  A new rifle was issued for all , the “Short Model Lee-Enfield”, which would serve through World War II, while standards of musketry were transformed, and fire and movement tactics adopted.  Mounted riflemen came to the fore, using irregular tactics, and other reforms were adopted as well.  Perhaps most importantly, however, was that professionalism in the Officer Corps was encouraged, no longer was it sufficient for an officer merely to be brave, he had to think, while even NCOs and ordinary soldiers were expected to display higher levels of skill and initiative than had previously been demanded.  All this was very difficult given the conservative nature of the late Victorian and early Edwardian army.  But by 1914 the improvement in all branches of the British Army were readily apparent. 

Jones does an excellent job of explaining these developments, to which he has added a very good historiographical essay and a very detailed bibliography.   A volume in the University of Oklahoma Press series “Campaigns and Commanders”, From Boer War to World War is a an excellent read, and a valuable guide for those seeking further study.

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Our Reviewer:   Independent scholar Dan David, author of The 1914 Campaign: August-October, 1914 and numerous reviews and articles.  Formerly the manager of Sky Books International, he is a member of the Board of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, and chairman of the NYMAS Book Awards Committee.   

Reviewer: Dan David   


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