Baden-Powell as Commanding Officer
of the South African Constabulary
From a painting by Harold Speed
From: William Hillcourt with Olave Baden-Powell,
Baden-Powell: The Two Lives of a Hero, 1964

Chapter VIII. The South African Constabulary
Part One.

Reception at Cape Town—The Constabulary in War—Difficulties of Organisation—Quick Training for the Men—Practical War Training—Our Distribution—Uniform—Remounts.

"I want you to see me without delay regarding formation of Police Force for Transvaal, Orange River Colony, and Swaziland."

Such was the bombshell which, on the 28th of August, 1900, was burst upon me in a telegram from Lord Roberts at Belfast (Transvaal) just as I had taken over command at Nylstrom of a force of all arms with which I was to operate, in the Northern districts.

Accordingly "without delay" I handed over my newly acquired command to Colonel Plumer (the late Field Marshal), who at the time commanded its Rhodesian contingent. He was succeeded in that capacity by Colonel Godley (now General Sir Alexander Godley).

sac01.jpg (53683 bytes)
Dress and Equipment of the S.A.C.

We had that day restored railway communication with Pretoria, having utilised the line and rolling stock as far as Pienaars River, where the bridge had been blown up by the enemy. But as there was no locomotive on this section of the line we employed oxen to haul the trains, while my Scots Guards brother, who had become Railway Staff Officer, used a railway trolley for his work which he fitted with a mast and sails!

On my way to Belfast I roughed out on a half-sheet of paper my ideas for a Police Force, whose strength was computed according to the area, population,: white and native, mining centres, and cities involved. These met with Lord Roberts’ approval.

A few days later I was on my way down country to see Lord Milner, the High Commissioner, at Cape Town, since the Police as a civil force would be under his direction.

It was a long railway journey in those days of blown-up bridges, all-night stoppage, broken lines and "deviations"; but I utilised the time in planning out my scheme in fuller detail on several sheets of paper, with estimates of personnel, ranks, equipment, food, horses, transport, training, distribution, duties, finance, medical staff, housing, etc. etc.

For passing the time on a long journey try planning a police force; it beats jig-saws and crossword puzzles all to fits.


On the journey down country I met with a wonderful experience. At several places where the train stopped there were large lines of communication camps, and the men crowded around the train to cheer. At one place they swarmed into the carriage itself to shake hands, and then that happened similar to what happened to me later on in Russia.

A sudden mania seemed to break out among the crowd and every man seemed to want to give me something as a memento. It might be a pipe or a matchbox, an old knife, money, anything the man happened to have about him, and one dear fellow, funding his pockets empty, tore from his breast his only possession, a medal ribbon. I have it still—a great treasure—bless him, whoever he was I

The day before I was due to reach Cape Town I got wind of an unnerving ordeal which I should have to go through. The Mayor and Corporation were going to meet me at the station. In order to avoid this I telegraphed on to Government House, where I was to report myself, that I was unfortunately delayed and might not arrive until a day or two later.

This, I knew, would be passed on to the Mayor, who would then postpone the reception till at least the following day, and meantime I should slip in unnoticed and "unreceived."

So, when my train drew into Cape Town station, I happily rolled up all my small kit, ready to walk to Government House, with an eager eye to bath and breakfast. But— Goodness, what was this ? The platform was a swaying mass of humanity, overflowing on to the roofs of neighbouring trains, all cheering and waving.

I have but a confused memory of what followed. I believe that a tiny space was cleared in which the Mayor was able to greet me with a short speech, and then I was bundled off, on the heads of a roaring mass, out of the station into the sunlight of Adderley Street. I do remember that two excellent fellows seized hold of my breeches pockets on either side to prevent my money from falling out, and in this way I was marched—more or less upside down—through Cape Town, all the way to Government House. There I was carried past the bewildered sentry and was at last deposited with a flop in the hall.

The butler, hastily summoned from his pantry, appeared on the scene to find a dishevelled, dirty, khaki-clad figure standing there, with a roaring mob outside the door. He, naturally, looked upon me for the time as a truculent leader of a revolution.

But a British butler is nothing if he cannot be dignified even in the worst crisis, so he sternly demanded what I wanted. I was at a loss. I realised that I was not expected there until the following day and that Government House had not passed on my message to the town. All I could think of to blurt out at the moment was—"Could I have a bath, please?"

Lord Milner approved my scheme and I returned to Pretoria to get it going. I was really glad to have the job, since, long before the war, I had served in South Africa and had formed friendships with the South African Dutch It was therefore distressing to kind myself in the held against them. Now it was going to be my duty to help in pacifying the country and to be once more in friendly touch with them.


Difficulties of Organisation

On the 22nd of October, 1900, the Constabulary came officially into being, but previous to that date we had already collected a scratch staff and a number of officers and men from various units in the field, and we also took over the small local police contingents which had been organised as a temporary measure under General Ivor Maxse.

The original undertaking with Lord Roberts in September, 1900, was to have a force of ten thousand mounted men prepared by the middle of 1901 to take over the police duties of the country.

I was to be allowed to draw on the Army for officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, up to a certain percentage, and for horses, transport, clothing, food, equ1pment, hospital treatment, etc.

All very nice but almost from the very first these undertakings began to fail.

My great need, of course, was specially qualified organising officers. But those I asked for, such as Godley, Alderson, Rimington, Kekewich, Pulteney and others, could not be spared. Colonel John Nicholson, late 7th Hussars, was the one that I wanted in particular as my right hand. He was Commandant of the British South African Police in Rhodesia, and was at the moment serving as Staff Officer to the column that I had handed over to General Plumer.

I got him all right, but it was only for a few days, and then he was snatched back to Army work again.

It was not till some months later that I eventually got him.

Meantime I had to do the best I could with such officers as I could pick up.

Beyond food and equipment the Army found themselves unable to supply our needs in clothing, men, horses, transport, etc. We were further told not to get these from sources of Army supply since they were already working at full power.

Consequently it devolved upon us to arrange our own recruiting and the transport from overseas of men and horses, and to a large extent their equipment, and to organise our own medical staff and hospitals.

Then, as time went on and the war did not come to an end as had been expected, our objective was changed, and from being police we had to prepare ourselves in training and organisation to be a fighting force in the field—a very different pair of shoes.

Foiled in my efforts to get officers from the Army I turned to the depot camp at Stellenbosch. This was a sort of purgatory in which officers were placed who had been responsible for any "regrettable incident" in the campaign, and there were a good many of them corralled there.

But I reckoned that every man makes a mistake some time or other in his career. As Napoleon said: "The man who never made a mistake never made anything." These men had made their mistakes and were therefore all the more likely not to do so in the future, so I took them. I don’t remember having to regret taking them in any single instance.

So soon as the Force became known applications flowed in for commissions in numbers that were difficult to deal with. Some three thousand were received where only three hundred officers were required. Literally hundreds of mothers plied me with letters recommending their sons, many getting influential friends to back them. It was a whole-time job for one of my officers to open, acknowledge’ and burn these letters.

The work of organising with a scratch staff, and under agreement to produce and train a large and efficient force of mounted men for either military or police work, within eight months, was undoubtedly a tough job; at the same time it was a most interesting and joyous one, seeing that the force was to be entirely self-contained, with its own auxiliary branches for its feeding supply, housing, medical treatment, payment, transport, remount, criminal investigation, and this in a far-off country in the midst of a difficult campaign going on around one.

We were asked to have our force complete and in the field, if possible, by June, 19O1. Well, we raked in men and officers wherever we could get them, all over the Empire; stock-riders from Australia, farmers from New Zealand, North-West constables and cowboys from Canada, planters from India and Ceylon, R.I. constables from Ireland, and yeomen from England.

A remarkable difficulty was that according to our wonderful laws in the British Empire we were not allowed to enlist the men outside of the country where they were to serve, so our recruiting officer in England, for instance, examined men and on finding them suitable he handed them their passage money to South Africa, and trusted them on their honour to go there to enlist. I don’t think we had a single case of a man abusing his trust.

At that time there was a good deal of fraud going on in the army enlistment through personation. This we avoided in recruiting for the Constabulary, by making each man, when he was received by the recruiting officer, make the print of his thumb on his identity card. With this card he then called on the medical officer who made him "sign" the card a second time with his thumb print, which was then compared with the original to ensure that it was the same man. Then he went on to be tested in riding, again signing his test in the same way, and similarly with the shooting test.

Thus it was impossible for him to get another man to pass the test in his place, as no two men have precisely the same thumb marks.

In addition to these British contingents we enlisted some six hundred friendly Boers and two thousand native Zulus for police work. A fairly mixed lot, but all of first-class quality.

Quick Training for the Men

We established a central training depot and headquarters in a dynamite factory at Modderfontein, situated between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and here we started training our men in batches as they arrived, by our patent short-cut method.

No other form of training, certainly not that then usual in the Army, could possibly have attained the results in the short time in which we got them. It was done by putting it to the men to train themselves to a very large extent, and the spirit in which they responded, and the results which followed, were a real eye-opener to most of us.

Decentralised responsibility was the secret, to every man from Divisional Commandant down to the last corporal in charge of a group responsibility was given and praise or blame accorded on the results of his work.

Discipline was bred from within instead of being imposed from without. It is true that our method of training was criticised by many military disciplinarians, especially as I had said that I did not want old soldiers for the Constabulary. I wanted intelligent young fellows who could use their wits and who had not been drilled into being soulless machines only able to act under direct orders.

[Incidentally, being at the dynamite factory, we were able to give the men practical training in mine-laying. This had unfortunate results for the local Boer who supplied us with milk and who arrived early one morning before the mine-wires had been disconnected. See illustration.]


Practical War Training

At Modderfontein we taught our recruits riding, musketry, drill and tactics; also how to make blockhouses and trenches which they built round our depot with barbed wire entanglements and all other such contraptions.

Within a few miles of Modderfontein the Boers had established themselves in a strong position on a kopje which served as a base for their reconnoitring and raiding parties.

For the instruction of our recruits in field tactics and maneuvers this position made an admirable target for our attacks, since it gave the lads a taste of action under fire, so that they learned to keep their heads and to observe discipline under the actual conditions of war.

When we had gone far enough we sounded the "retire" and practiced rearguard action with Boers coming out elated at the idea of having defeated us.

This scheme was carried out time after time, until towards the end of our stay at Modderfontein we elected actually to carry the attack home and take the position.

The annoyance of the Boers at being captured on this occasion was nothing as compared with their rage when told they had been merely used before for our recruits to practice on.

Our Distribution

I was fortunately able to secure the services of a first-rate lot of officers from different branches of the Services and from different parts of the Empire. We organised the force in three self-contained divisions for the’ Transvaal and Swaziland, and a fourth for the Orange Free ‘ State, each division eventually to have a strength of between two and three thousand men, and each decentralised in its administration.

Distribution of the S.A.C. Divisions

These divisions were commanded respectively’ by Colonel Edwards, 5th Dragoon Guards, late Commandant of the Imperial Light Horse, Colonel "Sam" Steele, the famous head of the Royal North-West Mounted Police in Canada, Colonel Fair, 21st Lancers, and Colonel Ridley, Northumberland Fusiliers (who was later succeeded by Colonel Pilkington, late 19th Hussars, of the Australian Mounted Forces).

Major Wilberforce, Queen’s Bays, commanded the depot, where recruits and remounts were trained previous to being posted to divisions.

The remounts were under Lieutenant Mackenzie, who had been my Transport Officer in Mafeking.

The Veterinary Department was under Major Sanderson, of New Zealand.


I designed a uniform for the men on my experience of work in different climes, of an economical type and one which differed in appearance from that of the Army. Since officers and men had to be continuously on duty and therefore always in uniform it was essential that this should be not merely smart but also comfortable to wear.

We therefore adopted khaki coats with roll collars and khaki shirts and collars with neckties, instead of the military stand-up stock collars. Our innovation was afterwards adopted by the Army.

The facings of the Constabulary uniform were green, with yellow piping, the national colours of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State respectively.

Sergeant’s Ordinary
camp dress

For headgear we wore Stetson hats with flat brims which distinguished them from the hats worn by the Army with soft brims looped up at the side.

These hats, which were imported from America, were known in the trade as "Boss of the Plains" or "B.P." pattern, which brought about the mistaken notion that they had something to do with me.

In order to make the greater distinction from the Army headgear, the Constabulary hats were fitted with a feather cockade, termed in the trade "Jay’s Wings." Although they were nothing more than chickens’ feathers dyed green for the purpose, I received angry protests from bird lovers in England for massacring the race of jays.

Army. Constabulary.

In March, 1901, a train bringing the supply of our S.A.C. hats was wrecked by the Boers. Fearing that they would adopt these hats for their own uses for purposes of disguise I had a notice printed in Dutch and posted about the country, giving warning to all and sundry that anyone found wearing these hats unlawfully would be liable to be shot.

Although we had hundreds of instances of Boers wearing British-soldiers’ equipment, we never found one wearing a Constabulary hat.

Besides planning out what the men should have as their uniform, it also fell to me to design the uniform for our nurses; and for a man, and a bachelor at that, to attempt to dictate what ladies should wear was a pretty bold start on my part. I quite expected mutiny, since, among other things, I-departed from the universal custom of nurses wearing voluminous cloaks over their uniform dress and gave them instead khaki serge greatcoats rather like those worn by the officers. To my surprise these were so popular that the ladies on taking their discharge (which they had to do on getting married—and they were always getting married) universally asked to purchase them.

S.A.C. Nurse.

Also their uniform proved popular, comprising as it did brown holland dress with a green shoulder cape with yellow piping, a white headkerchief for indoor duty, and a cowboy hat like those of the officers for outdoors.

With regard to paying the men, our principle was to give them good pay and short service, and easy transfer to the Reserve, the idea being that so soon as peace was fully established, the strength of active Constabulary could be very materially reduced, and if men arranged to settle in the new territory, —they would be given farms—on easy terms and transferred to a Reserve with the liability to be called up for any national emergency.

A retaining fee of twelve pounds per annum would be paid to them, for which they were bound to turn out for a week’s duty in the year at the nearest Police post, to keep up their musketry efficiency and their knowledge of Police law. The pay was liberal for the reason that the men would not have pensions for long service. I knew—from the Irish Constabulary—that old policemen never die, and a pension list with these lusty fellows is a greater burden on the public purse than the pay-list of the active force.

A remount as landed for the Army
(from photograph).


The Constabulary was to be a mounted force, but thc immediate difficulty at starting was to find the horses for it. All the horse markets in the world were being sucked dry to supply remounts for our large mounted army in South Africa.

I had, however, been successful in the past in mounting my Regiment well by taking horses of a kind that other people didn’t want, so profiting by that experience I sent to Australia for horses, seven thousand of them, of a size just below the minimum standard for Army remounts.

In this way I got a very useful lot of cobs. Small wiry men stand more strain than big beefy ones (e.g. the armour that our forebears wore would be too heavy for most of us to carry to-day, if we could get into it. They were very small men but must have been very strong for their size).

So it is with horses. Cobs rather than big striding troop horses were best for our work, which lay mainly in extensive long-distance patrols. Then the Army remounts from overseas usually arrived in very poor condition after a long buffeting sea voyage, and many of them gave out altogether on being sent up-country for service.

A remount as landed for the S.A.C.
(from memory).

So I offered to Captains of the transports which brought over the cobs for the Constabulary one pound a head for each horse landed in good condition. This meant a hundred or two into the Captain’s pocket, so it was to his interest to lie to in a gale, or to have the hatches off in hot weather, and so on; and in this way our horses generally reached us in the form of horses, and not as skeletons.

Another point which was rather lost sight of by some of the higher authorities was that horses are liable to be affected by altitude to a greater extent than men. Most of our work in the Transvaal and Orange Free State was at an altitude of between four and five thousand feet or more, and to push horses, soft and unfit from the voyage, to do hard work at this trying altitude, was to burst their hearts and kill them. And it did kill them in hundreds.

In the Constabulary, therefore, we rented a farm in Natal, at an altitude of between two and three thousand feet and deposited our remounts there, after landing, for a period of several months, to get them acclimatised, conditioned, and trained to their work.

In this way, when they took the field, they were up to the demands made upon them, and this was fair not only to the horses but to the men who rode them.

But we were dishonest enough not to mention the remounts on our returns until they were acclimatised, otherwise the Army authorities would-have called upon us to put them in the field, and they would have been very quickly sacrificed.

Constabulary units, as soon as they were available for service, were lent to the Army for employment as fighting units.

Every week we supplied Lord Kitchener with a return of men and horses thus available for service, but we did not mention remounts. I rather trembled once when he paid a visit of inspection to an Army convalescent farm which was very near my remount farm in Natal, and I was very much relieved when he took my hidden store of horseflesh to be part of the Army establishment there.

I did not realise that this plan of ours was known outside our own immediate circle in the Constabulary, but when I returned home later on and was summoned to see King Edward, one of the first questions that His Majesty put to me was, "How was it that your Constabulary horses did not die to the same extent as-the others ?"

There was precious little that King Edward did not know, but how he knew it was difficult to say.

I remember, too, that his very first question to me that day, when I appeared before him in full dress uniform, was: "I suppose this is the first time you have worn your uniform as a General. Are those spurs gold or gilt ?" He was greatly interested to hear that they were gold, presented to me by the people of Lewisham.

Items of dress had a remarkable importance in his eyes, and few mistakes in that line escaped his attention.

Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Chapter VIII. The South African Constabulary.
Part Two.
 link-bp-hq-mafeking2.gif (3869 bytes) Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Chapter VII. The South African War.
Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Contents and Introduction

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