The British Army: The Boer War & Tactical Developments

Research Paper Title

The Influence of the Boer War (1899-1902) on the Tactical Development of the Regular British Army 1902-1914.


This thesis examines the influence of the Boer War 1899 – 1902 upon tactics and training in the regular British Army 1902 – 1914. The work argues that several key lessons drawn from South Africa became the tactical cornerstones for infantry, artillery and cavalry throughout the pre-First World War period and shaped the performance of the B.E.F. during the early battles of 1914. The experience of combat against well armed opposition in the Boer War prompted the British Army to develop improved tactics in each of the three major service arms. For example, infantry placed new emphasis on dispersion and marksmanship; cavalry improved their dismounted work and reconnaissance skills; and artillery adopted methods of concealment and strove to improve accuracy and co-ordination. Across the army as a whole, the experience of combat lead to an overall downgrading of the importance of drill and obedience, replacing it instead with tactical skill and individual initiative. In addition, the thesis also examines the impact of the Boer War upon overall British Army doctrine and ethos.

The process of reform prior to the First World War was marked by wide ranging debates upon the value of the South African experience, and not all lessons drawn from the conflict endured, with tactical restructuring being further complicated by changes of government and financial restrictions. Nevertheless, key lessons such as dispersion, marksmanship, concealment and firepower were ultimately retained and proved to be of great value during initial clashes against the Germans in 1914. Additionally, the Boer War caused the British to place new emphasis upon overall training of the individual, allowing advanced tactical skills to be inculcated more easily than had been possible in
earlier years.

However, the short duration of the conventional period of the Boer War meant that there was less opportunity to derive operational lessons for future employment. Furthermore, the colonial policing role of the British Army and the likelihood of small scale deployments meant that developing an operational doctrine was of less immediate value than ensuring flexibility and tactical skill. This meant that the British Army took a somewhat skewed developmental path in the 1902 – 1914. The process of reform ultimately produced a highly adaptable force that was tactically skilled, but which was ill-prepared for the operational complications posed by large scale deployment.

While the Boer War was the principal factor in driving reform during the 1902 – 1914 period, there were additional influences at work, including examples from the Russo-Japanese War 1904 – 1905 and various ideas drawn from the armies of the continent. However, this thesis argues that while these outside influences contributed to ongoing debate, they did not offer any particular fresh ideas and were therefore of less importance than the Boer War in shaping British Army development.


Influence of the Boer War (1899-1902) on the Tactical Development of the Regular British Army 1902-1914 (Jones, 2009)


Jones, S. (2009) The Influence of the Boer War (1899-1902) on the Tactical Development of the Regular British Army 1902-1914. Doctoral Thesis. Available from World Wide Web:…/Jones_PhD%20thesis.pdf. [Accessed: 17 July, 2015].


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