Big Guns Of The Boer War

The Second Anglo Boer War centenary celebrations took place in 2001, and since then we saw a flow of new historical writings on the subject. These writings just illustrate how the great battle between the South African Boers (Burghers) and the British of more than a hundred years ago continue to exercise a fascination. The Anglo Boer war was not just another war. It was a war that happened in a very exciting time in our history, the beginning of the technological age. The most fascinating question of this war was probably how the 60,291 Boer Burghers (untrained, unskilled and undisciplined) could hold the 458,610 well trained soldiers of the British at bay for so long. The answer might lie in the fact that the British seriously underestimated the fire power of the BIG GUNS of the Boers.

The secret weapon of the Boers that made a big difference was the legendary LONG TOM. The 155mm Creosot gun, earned this nickname (given by the British) due to due to the long barrel and its long firing range. President Paul Kruger was not very pleased with this name, but it soon became a popular word on everybody’s lips and there was nothing he could do about it. Kruger imported these guns from Schneider & Co in Creosot (France) in 1886, mainly to serve as fortress guns to protect the city of Pretoria from enemy attacks.
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Each of the four Long Toms ordered was supplied complete with 8000 shells. This was an excellent fortress gun, because when elevated, the 94 lb (42,6 kg) shells could fired at a distance of about 11 000 yards (10 154 m), which was the longest range of any gun in use during that time. Each of the four guns received a name based on the name of the hill on which the fortresses were positioned, intended to defend the main approaches to Pretoria, namely Wonderboompoort, Klapperkop, Schanzkop, and Daspoort. Recoil goes hand in hand with a heavy firing power. To keep the big gun in position after a shot it had to be mounted on a special base plate with the brakes bolted down. Later during one of the wars the Boers used these pieces in action without a base plate, which send the gun running backwards for 40 meters. The Boers then realized that this was a good strategy to use when they need to retreat quickly.

When war broke out between Britain and the Boer Republics in September 1899, the Boer War Council worked out their careful plans to attack the British forces. They decided to attack the two main forces in Ladysmith and Dundee. It was only then that the council decided to send two Long Toms to the battlefront. These guns were certainly not designed as a field gun and the British nowhere nearly imagined to find themselves end up in a duel with these guns.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was the weight of these heavy guns, as each gun weighed nearly 7 tons. The ammunition of a Long Tom was just as heavy as the gun itself, weighing about 40kg each. It was beyond everybody’s imagination that these guns could be transported over rough terrain to the battlefield, and definitely not up a mountain. Twelve to fourteen oxen were required to pull these guns on level ground, and up to another twenty to forty oxen were required for steep angles or difficult terrain. But the Boers made a plan. They were initially transported by rail as far as possible and only later pulled by a carriage and oxen. These guns then arrived in Natal by rail during October 1899, and they were eventually dragged to the battle fields with great success and with the admiration of the British gunners.

Already during the first battles in Natal, the British forces realized that their own artillery were much inferior to the long range Boer guns. After the successes at Elandslaagte and Rietfontein, Joubert and the State Artillery were moving to Ladysmith across form Dundee, and the Free Staters were to the north and west. The two forces eventually united to attack General White in Ladysmith. The main difficulty that both armies experienced in this area was of course the geography. There are plenty of hills, up’s and down’s, with the Tugela river twisting through the area. To move the LONG TOMS was not easy, but they did it. To make things worse, they also had to reckon with an occasional thick blanket of mist that caused bad visibility, and then the regular rain, hail and thunderstorms. They even had to cross a river! This of course did not discourage the State Artillery and they reached the area of Ladysmith. The next challenge was to haul the heavy guns up the steep and slippery hills. Astonishingly the also succeeded with this operation, and the Boers soon occupied a few strategical positions on the hills around Ladysmith.