Monday 12th of August 2002 03:53 PM 
Railways in the Boer War
Please note:
the following is excerpted from A Potted History of Railways. It is not my own work and I do not claim copyright to any part.
Full references will be posted in the near future.

The South African War was the arena in which new techniques in military railways were evolved by the British Army. Railway courses at the School of Military Engineering had been held for several years and the first Manual of Military Railways had been published in March 1889. A Railway Control Service had been formed initially at Chatham in 1896, to provide Railway Staff Officers, who acted as liaison officers and controllers between railway operators and force commanders. With the benefit of this more professional attitude to training and preparation, and the experience of the Sudan a few years earlier, British Army Railway units were to acquit themselves well.

In October 1899, war was declared between the Boers and the British, after years of worsening relations between the two sides. The Boers achieved quick successes, laying siege to several key locations. The British Army presence had been built up to 50,000, including three Regular railway companies which had been deployed to South Africa, keen to show what they could do. The 2nd Battalion the Cheshire Regiment deployed, and several local railway units were also raised, including a railway pioneer regiment for repairing sabotage damage.

Initially the British forces under General Redvers Buller advanced in three columns, two of which, to Kimberley and Bloemfontein, were supplied by rail. In January 1900, Lord Roberts was appointed as C-in-C over Buller, and he decided to concentrate on the line of the River Modder and then strike east to Bloemfontein, using the railway as the principal resupply link. He appointed Kitchener as his Chief of Staff, but the latter was to prove a mixed blessing.Kitchener set about reorganising the Army's transport support haphazardly, breaking up and merging animal transport units - so much so that they at one stage almost became rebellious and ineffective. However, he also identified that rail communications were vital, and appointed Girouard, now Lieutenant Colonel, as Director of Railways, reporting directly to himself. Girouard's 'Imperial Military Railways' eventually had a strength of 18,000.

Girouard's first task was to repair the railway line across the Orange River leading to Orange Free State. It was impossible to secure the whole length of line, and Boer sabotage almost jeopardised the entire plan. Roberts beat the Boer forces under General Piet Cronje and in March took Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State. Roberts captured Johannesburg on May 31 and Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, on June 5. Upon these defeats, President Kruger fled to Europe, and Roberts, believing the war to be won, returned to England in January 1901. Rail transport was used to the maximum - by August 1900, 177,000 men, 86,000 animals and 500,000 tons of freight had been moved by rail.

Greater tonnages would have been moved but for the need to run armoured trains to counter the guerrilla tactics of the Boers, who had refused to accept defeat. Winston Churchill, then correspondent of the Morning Post, was captured during a Boer attack on one of these, but subsequently escaped.
Armoured trains proved a mixed blessing as army commanders frequently deployed them with no disregard for railway safety or operational efficiency. Kitchener, as the new C-in-C, was both ruthless and innovative. He initiated concentration camps to intern Boers and their families, and had lines of fortified blockhouses erected (some 8,000 in all), to dominate tracts of land, protect key assets, such as railways, and generally disrupt Boer movement. Fighting continued into 1902 and it was not until May that Boer leaders signed the Treaty of Vereeniging. The settlement provided for the end of hostilities and granted self-government to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as colonies of the British Empire. Britain agreed in turn to pay a 3 million indemnity for rehabilitation, and granted amnesty and repatriation to Boer soldiers who pledged their loyalty to the British monarch.

In the course of the Boer War, British losses totalled about 28,000 men. Boer losses were about 4000 men, plus some 20,000 civilians who died from disease in concentration camps. The British Army had again won a campaign largely supported by rail lines of communication but despite this, and the efforts of Major General Sir Percy Girouard to establish a peacetime centre for railway units, at the end of the War, the three Regular railway companies returned to England without any firm plans for their employment.
South Africa was to retain its military railway expertise, providing troops for service with the Allies in Europe in the First World War, and it also continued to hold and operate both armoured and ambulance trains for home service as late as the Second World War.

Hospital Trains
It was not until the South African War of 1899-1902 that the first British Hospital Trains were constructed. Three types of trains were used at the beginning of the War. The first, of which there were 7, was for lying patients and had a full complement of medical staff. The second type were improvised trains of commercial rolling stock for the less-seriously wounded, and the third consisted of special ambulance coaches distributed around the railway system and attached as required to scheduled passenger trains.

The first fully purpose-built British Hospital Train for home use was supplied in 1900, funded by charitable institutions: the Princess Christian Hospital Train was named after HRH Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, who organised the fund raising. The War Department (WD) provided ambulance coaches based at the Royal Victorian Hospital, Netley, in 1900, to convey wounded arriving by hospital ship at Southampton.Casualty evacuation by rail was now universally accepted as the best military solution and ambulance trains (as they had now been termed) were included in the British contingency plans for an "Overseas Contingency Force" of 1907. Despite this, no trains had actually been built by the outbreak of war in 1914, and so frames to carry stretchers were hurriedly assembled and despatched to France to be fitted into goods trucks.


This site designed and maintained by Bowler Hat Design
All enquiries to
All rights reserved - 1996-2002, except content in the Public Domain.
No unauthorised copying or use of site material.



Further Reading

Girouard, E.P.C. History of the Railways During the War in South Africa, 1899-1902. London: HMSO, 1903. DT935G57.

Great Britain. Royal Commissions. Detailed History of the Railways in the South African War, 1899-1902. Chatham: Royal Engrs Inst., 1904. UC315G71D47.

Schofield, G.P. Report on Steam Road Transport in South Africa. London: HMSO, 1903. UC345G71S36.