The Laager

The laager or fort made from wagons and as practised by the Voortrekkers and Americans alike became an impressive weapon and probably reached its zenith in this country as a defensive means at the battle that is still revered by many Afrikaners, “that being the Battle of Blood River”. The system was however often used by the Transvaal as well as the Orange Free State for the rest of the 19th century.

The Orange Free State used the first to use the laager in their wars against the Basuto, the first occasion being in 1858 a mere four years after the republic had gained its independence. After a succession of raids by the Basuto into the OFS, its president Mr Boshof called up the Commando’s and declared war on its neighbour. Two Commando’s under the leadership of Commandant- General Weber took to the field and set up two laagers, using them as bases from which they were able to reconnoitre and eventually attack the enemy.

Both the Matabele as well as the Zulu had been unable to find a way to counter the laager and had paid dearly for this, however the Basuto were another proposition altogether as unlike the Matabele and the Zulu the Basuto were not infantry or foot soldiers but like the Boers themselves horsemen and had also learnt to use the firearm with consummate skill. The Boers therefore were not facing assegais or spears but a well armed foe.

The Basuto also used the mountains that they had fortified as there bastions which the Free State commandos would have to subdue should they want to gain the upper hand and win the war, the Basuto also had a cunning leader in the guise of Moshesh. Having easily beaten the Matabele and the Zulus, the first Basuto war would turn out to be a frustrating experience for the Boers with the cut and thrust of the campaign being in the Basuto’s favour, on one occasion 8000 mounted Basuto’s with firearms attacked the laager under the command of Commandant Senekal at Koranaberg and came close to overwhelming it. The first Basuto war was to die out without much being achieved by the Boers. The Basuto on the other hand were buoyed and encouraged by their successes and instead of being scared of entering the OFS in fact stepped up their raids stealing cattle and by 1865 were venturing deep into Free State territory. This became too much for President Brand and he declared war against the Basuto, raising an army of close to 1600 men that were split into 4 separate commando’s under the overall command of General Fick. Fick’s aim was to capture Moshesh’s stronghold of Thabo Bosia, but first the smaller strongholds in the outlying areas had to be taken.

Learning lessons from the first war the Boers set up their laagers and fortified them as best they could with stone or earthen walls, this allowed the Boers to leave smaller groups of men behind to defend the laagers while using as much firepower as possible to take strongholds that had been identified as problem areas. After many difficulties and a number of skirmishes against the Basuto Fick was able to set up a laager at the base of Thaba Bosia leaving 600 men to defend it. Fick then took the rest of his force (by now well over 1500 men) to storm the mountain fortress. The task was given to Louw Wepener who was killed during the initial attack and with that the commando fell back in confusion. Fick after deliberating with his council decided that the mountain was to well defended and could not be taken by force, a decision was then made to besiege the fortress and hopefully starve the defenders out

It was around this time that the Z.A.R decided that it also wanted in on the action and sent 800 men under the command of Paul Kruger to assist in the war, at Naauwpoort were Kruger and his men laagered he was attacked by chiefs Slangaal and Letsoena who managed to penetrate the laager and kill 5 men before they were driven back. Back at Thabo Bosia the conditions for the Basuto were taking a turn for the worse with their animals dying and the tribe short of food, but before the siege could succeed the Free State Forces in a typical lack of discipline got bored and went home, Fick due to lack of bodies was forced to lift the siege. Later that year a commando took to the field again and began systematic attacks of Basuto strongholds in Korannaberg and Viervoet, at the Transvaal laager at Cathcart’s drift was attacked and while the attack was repelled they had also had enough of what was essentially siege warfare and wanted to go home. By 1866 another attempt was made to take Thabo Bosia but found that 3 sites he had set up during the initial siege were occupied by Moshesh’s forces. With a stalemate looming again Moshesh sued for peace and President Brand was only to happy to agree.

The Peace however was in fact just a truce and in 1867 war broke out again, with the Free State hoping to once and for all end the impasse. The Boers decided to embark on as war of attrition, something they themselves would experience years later when the British used the same tactics in the Second Boer war. The Boers set about burning crops and kraals and taking whatever livestock there was. A central base was set up and this was made up of a wagon laager were the wagons were set up in a triangle with cannon on each corner. Slowly but surely the Basuto strongholds were reduced and was only a matter of time before Thaba Bosia was again put under siege. Moshesh understood that his time was limited and approached the British, who annexed the kingdom and passed on its administration to the cape Colony. The British were to find out what the Boers already knew and that was the Basuto where a handful and not easy to rule a mere 4 years after the annexation a rebellion broke out under the leadership of Letsie (who had taken control of the Sotho nation after Moshesh’s death)

Sir Charles Clarke was given the job of capturing Thaba Bosia and had a force of 1600 men and forty wagons , his troops being supported by a commando of 800 Boers. Like the Commando’s before he set up a laager, placed cannon, dug trenches and fortified were he could. Like the past it soon became apparent that Thabo Bosia could not be taken and after a few skirmishes were neither side lost of gained any territory, Letsi sued for peace and this was granted, in january of 1881 the war officially ended with the Basuto not having been defeated, the Cape gave Basutoland back to England and the Basuto wars were at an end.

The Boers still had a number of years of fighting ahead against black tribes were the laager was used and in 1878 when the British annexed the Transvaal they inherited the war against Sekukuni. A Colonel Rowland was sent with 500 men to put an end to this war, this was not to be and it took a major effort under the command of General Wolseley to defeat Sekukuni. While the British were having problems in the Transvaal with the Bapedi in Natal the Zulus were stirring and an ultimatum was sent to Cetewayo to stop or Zululand would be invaded.

Lord Chelmsford commanded the expedition that crossed the Tugela in 1879 immediately splitting his forces into 3 columns , the main column of some 1900 soldiers , the main column of some 1900 soldiers under Chelmsford’s personal command crossed at Rorkes Drift and made there way to Isandhlwana, despite being warned by Piet Uys that they should use the laager system when stopping for the night he was laughed at and told ‘the British army did not need the advice of a farmer” Even with a 100 or more wagons in his column He made no attempt to form a laager to protect his position. To make matters worse Chelmsford took 1000 men and moved ahead leaving the balance of troops at Isandhlwana, who feeling that the Zulu’s would be an easy fight made no attempt to form a laager, dig trenches or set up a defensive perimeter, this lack of military tactics or discipline would cost those men and the Empire dearly.

On the 22nd of January 1879 15 000 Zulus swamped the camp and while the British troops fought bravely, they had no chance and as a result over 826 men and officers died that day, Zulu casualties are estimated to have been close to 3000 men lost. An invasion of Natal by the strong Zulu force was only stopped due to the stand at Rorkes Drift were 100 men stood up to the might of the Zulu army. You would have thought that the British would have learnt their lesson , but that was not the case and a mere two months later men of the 80th division who had come to re-inforce the invading army were attacked and not having set up a adequate laager had 63 of their men killed. The British eventually beat the Zulu, but it was the use of the British square against men charging them with stabbing spears rather than the use of laagers.

History has proved that even when the British did use the laager they were not very good at setting it up, this point is probably best demonstrated when soon after the 1st Boer war had broken out in 1880 and a column of 34 wagons and 300 men set out for Pretoria from Lydenburg and due to the fact the Commanding officer Lt Colonel Anstruther was unable to set up a laager in time he and his force were nearly wiped out by a Boer attack. While the Boers understood that the laager was a great defensive tool against black tribes only armed with spears against an enemy who possessed cannon there was no defence and a laager would only be able to be used as a camp. Due to this realization the laager played nearly no part in the First Boer war. During 1881 – 1895 the commandos were called out 5 times to take part in campaigns against African chiefs and during this period the laager was used mainly as a base, the only attack recorded on a laager during that period was that of Chief Mamper of the Bapedi in 1882, this attack was repulsed by General Joubert.

The final public act of the laager was the second Boer war of 1899-1902 and while the British did not learn from the lesson of the laager in that they did not want to use it, the Boers also did not learn as they refused to abandon this method of warfare. The Boers realised that the wagon itself was no match against modern weapons and it was not that they wanted to use the laager as a means of defending a position it was more the fact that the Boer was so used to his wagon, it was his, it carried his supplies and hesitated to go to war without it.

When the war broke out in 1899 its estimated there were some 21000 Boers on the Natal border in laagers and another 16000 on the OFS front with approximately 1200 wagons. As can be imagined so many wagons reduces the striking ability of any force and it also interferes with the speed of which an army can advance, wagons were able to travel about 35kms per day. Wagons also made the men feel like they were more at home than at war, some of the men even brought their wives with them to the front, although this practice was not condoned by higher authorities. It is fact that it took the Boer forces 17 days to reach Ladysmith because of the wagons that followed them and the town was put under siege by establishing laagers around the town, this pattern was copied at Kimberly as well as Mafeking. Each laager grew due to the arrival of families and a sort of party atmosphere prevailed and due to this the Boers chance of a quick invasion to knock the wind out of the British before reinforcements could arrive was lost.

Perhaps the action that ensured that the ox wagon would be used for no other means other than transport was the surrender of Cronje and 4000 Boers at Paardeberg. After a change in tactics by Lord Roberts who abandoned the railway lines and managed to outflank the Boers, Cronje and his council decided that they needed to withdraw but not without the wagons, this sealed their fate due to the fact he and his forces were limited as to where they could withdraw to due to the lack of speed they could withdraw. Cronje and his forces were surrounded and while he made a determined stand, days of shelling, the lack of food and water as well as hygiene problems led to his surrender and the beginning of the end of the Boer cause.

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