I was browsing some of Jeff Cooper’s commentaries and found this which dovetails nicely with the current subject. Enjoy!
In studying into the background material for the forthcoming Babamkulu Enterprise in Africa next year, I have gone rather deeply into the two startling British reverses in 1881 at Laing’s Nek and Majuba Hill. (We plan to visit the sites next May.) These two incidents took place on adjoining terrain within three days of each other and point to lessons which should have been learned a century ago, but still have not got across to many people who should know about them.
Consider the “butcher’s bill.” At Laing’s Nek the British attacked a Boer defensive position at a crest of a saddle (nek is what we would call a saddle in the American West) with about 450 men, following a small but violent artillery preparation. They were repulsed with a loss of 150 dead – against 14 for the Boers. On the occasion immediately following, the British seized Majuba Hill by means of a night march involving something over 500 soldiers. In the morning, they were thrown off the hill by a Boer force of about the same size. In this action the British lost 280 dead, including their commanding general. The Boers lost one man, plus another who died some days later of his wounds.
Now, just what was going on here? This was a rifleman’s war, and the people on both sides used personal weapons of about the same character – breech loading single-shots using large-caliber black-powder cartridges rather similar to the American 45-70. In the first instance, the British were attacking and they were smashed. In the second instance, the British were defending and they were also smashed. Wherein lay the advantage? Odd as it may seem, it is my opinion that this tremendous disparity in efficiency derived from the fact that the British were soldiers and the Boers were civilians.
The British troupers were “soldiers of the Queen” from the Kipling period in India. They dressed well, marched well and did not lack for courage. What they did not do was shoot well. They were given pretty good guns and they were taught to load them, shoot them, and maintain them, more or less by the numbers, but being taught to shoot on the range in the military is not the same as being brought up with a rifle.
The Boers were by no means soldiers. They were pioneer farmers and the sons of farmers. They were reluctant to slaughter their own livestock when the countryside provided them with unlimited game. Their ammunition was always scarce and hard to come by. They had learned from childhood to hit what they shot at – every time. They shot to put meat on the table, and they shot on Sunday afternoons for prizes. Across the board, they may have been the finest body of marksmen ever fielded by any nation at any time. Their marksmanship was practical marksmanship, such as I have been endeavoring to teach throughout the latter half of my life. They seemed to have understood fully the basic rule of the rifleman, which is only hits count. (Funny how that principle was brought back to us from Grenada and Panama.)
The British had organization, discipline, resupply, signals and some artillery support. The Boers had their rifles, their horses, their biltong and their skill. They had no uniforms and they had only the vaguest sense of organization. The British regarded them as a bunch of uncouth, ignorant, illiterate peasants who could never stand up to the might of the British Empire.
And see the results! Using approximately equal weapons, the civilians shot the soldiers to pieces – on both offense and defense.
The lessons that ought to be learned here, I think, are three. First, men fight their very best when they fight to defend their homelands against a foreign invader. Second, when it comes to imparting of skill the public sector can never equal the private. Third, marksmanship is an art to be cultivated rather than a commodity to be issued.
And, just think of it, the British never complained to the media about being outgunned!