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 Two.

Field Tactics—How We Secured Some Transport—Spirit Triumphs over the Impossible—Invalided Home—At Balmoral—Back in South Africa—Our New Responsibilities—King Edward and South Africa—The Work of the Constabulary Appreciated—I Leave the S.A.C—The End of the S.A.C.

Field Tactics

As I have said, the organisation of the force dated from October 22nd 1900, to be in shape by the middle of 1901; but urgent calls came for its use from the Commander-in-Chief before the end of 1900 and the surprising thing was that we were able to respond, inadequately of course, but not without effect.

Indeed, by the 12th October, when forming the nucleus of the force, we had had our first engagement as a fighting unit in the field. It was at Strydom’s Pass in the Orange Free State, in which our little force was successful. Six Boers were killed including their commandant, Brand, and ten wounded were captured, our losses being five killed and four wounded.

The force came to be used in two main ways, one as mobile columns working in co-operation with the regular troops, and the other in making and holding lines of blockhouses to prevent the enemy from moving across certain tracts of country.

As a general principle for mobile columns in the field we adopted what we termed a triangular system, that is, that the column was divided into -three units, which-moved across country in a triangular disposition, each party at a distance of a mile or so from the others.

The formation was thus always ready for attacks by the enemy from any quarter, the body nearest the enemy taking the offensive, the other two at once forming support and reserve automatically.

The Boers seeing a party moving across country generally preferred to distract its attention by feinting in front and delivering an attack on its rear. But when they tried this on with the triangular formation on more than one occasion they found themselves in a tight corner, being fired into by the two supporting units.

This formation proved its value, particularly in one engagement, when the Boer Commandant, Erasmus, suffered defeat at the hands of the S.A.C., and Lord Kitchener wrote a favourable appreciation of its formation and its use.

For holding the line of country where required we devised a form of trench which served as block-house without the failings of the recognised type of building usually employed.

It was called the C.S. or "Common Sense" trench, because in its trace it was shaped like the letter C or, alternatively, the letter S—a long deep narrow trench, six feet in length for each man of its garrison.

C.S. or "Common Sense" trench.

Wide, low loop-holes were made on every face, on the ground level, and the whole trench was solidly roofed in. It was concealed from distant view by bushes, grass, etc.; any firing from the loop-holes was thus along the surface of the ground, and therefore was as effective at night as by day; the trench offered no target for artillery, and the loopholes being wide but low gave the defenders a good range of vision while safe from dropping bullets.

Good Loopholes and Bad.

To make our line impassable we naturally had to employ innumerable dodges improvised to meet the local peculiarities of ground, but generally our block-house trenches were grouped in triangles so that if the Boers passed one they found themselves under fire from two others; barbed wire entanglements held them up at unexpected points; dummy forts and standing camps of empty tents gave false impressions to their Scouts by day; wire trip lines to spring guns, lighted lanterns, watch dogs, etc., were posted at intervals between block-houses.

Alarm signal flares were made of bunches of dry grass hung on poles, which a sentry would light up in a moment to give the alarm and to show up the enemy.

To ensure watchfulness by sentries at night the officer in charge would flash a bull’s-eye lantern from his headquarters to his outlying posts, to which each sentry replied by striking a match inside a biscuit tin whose opening was directed bask to the officer, while its-sides prevented the light from being seen by the enemy.

It was an ingenious but not a novel idea; since when Athens was besieged by the Spartans Alcibiades used to see that his sentries were awake by showing a light, which every sentry then replied to.

So also by Sir Frederick Carrington, in the Basuto campaign, where outlying sentries were posted in inaccessible points among ridges and ravines, impossible of access to an orderly officer by night, the same principle of signalling was employed.

How We Secured Some Transport

It was a very difficult matter for us to obtain the necessary transport for our supplies to the force, since the Army had naturally obtained all the available transport animals and vehicles in the country.

One day: Lord Kitchener told me that he had got a first-class man to command a column of royal’ Dutch and British farmers. He added that his’ name was Colenbrander. I could not help a sudden smile. Lord Kitchener spotted this and asked the reason of the smile. I answered that I knew Colenbrander well, but it was strange to me to hear him called -by- his proper name instead of his more usual nickname of: "Collar ’em and Brand ’em," which had been earned through a little habit of his when he saw any stray cattle about.

Well’ old "Collar ’em" and his force came to be camped with my column of Constabulary for a time. I’ told him that-apart from-being an old friend he needn’t bother’ to loot any of our transport animals as’ we had practically none, and were, in fact, badly in need of any we could get ourselves. Of course, I was not going to sneak any-of his.

He saw my point and proved a real friend. In a few days we had wagons and teams-galore passed into our line’ I never knew where they came from, nor did I ask. Enough for me that we got them and that they were branded as ours. So ours they must be.

It was said of old Colenbrander, though I don’t know with what- truth, that when the war was over Lord Kitchener allowed him to buy some thousands of Army horses at a very low figure per head conditional on his taking a quantity.

Those who knew of Colenbrander’s impecunious state at that time wondered: how he was going to pay for them. Still, they were confident that somehow or other a little difficulty of that kind was not going- to stand. in his way.

He surmounted it all right. By great luck there came a hailstorm, a day or two after he had corralled his army of horses on a fenced range. Colenbrander appeared before Lord Kitchener desolate. The large proportion of the horses he had bought, being in such poor condition, had succumbed to a blizzard of snow and hail, and he was faced with ruin, being without the means of paying for them.

He implored pity for an old warrior in misfortune, and he did not appeal ‘in vain.’

But though the report went on to say he had made a pile out of the-horses which survived (which- nearly all of them did) I scarcely believe it.

Spirit Triumphs over the Impossible

I have always maintained that if the right spirit is there it can knock the "im" out of the word "impossible," and this certainly proved itself true in the early days of the S.A.C.

The spirit of the officers and men was indomitable. For the most part ill-fed, ill-clothed and living in such’ shelter as they could improvise, they carried on. At one time I found a detachment performing their work-of trench digging in ‘continuous heavy rain, dressed in nature’s garb in order to keep their only suit of clothes dry.

An extract from one of my-letters to the Adjutant General -says: "Our horses are in good fettle, hospital and transport organised and working well. Our men are in rags and doing a lot of real hard work in night raids and ambushes. They have had no rest for eleven months, but they are full of go and keeness for work in the field."

One of the jobs of the S.A.C.

So in spite of all these difficulties by June, 1901, the Constabulary was 8,000 strong, out of its ultimate establishment of 10,000, mounted, equipped, trained, and doing effective work in the field.

Invalided Home

Unfortunately I myself gave out about this time. I had been pretty hard at it practically day and night ever since arriving in the country in July, I 899. Doctors wagged their heads over me and told me I must take some months off, and I was packed off home. On arrival at Southampton I was warned that there was an enormous reception awaiting me in London, but the authorities were bricks; they tacked a carriage for me on to the engine and vans which took the mails ahead of the boat-train to London, and gave orders to the driver to stop and let me out at Woking.

Here I arranged to stay quietly with my brother officer of old, "Boy" Maclaren, till I could escape into quiet country quarters.

At Balmoral

I shortly afterwards ventured back to London and started opening my letters, in the midst of which a bombshell was burst upon me in the shape of a Command invitation to come immediately to stay at Balmoral for the week-end.

I left London by the night train via Aberdeen for Ballater (which I found was pronounced Bahleter).

Soon after my arrival Colonel Davidson, the Equerry, took me for a walk round the Castle and grounds. He and I had travelled out to India together in 1876 in the Serapis.

Later that afternoon King Edward sent for me in his study, where he made me sit down and had a long and most cheery informal talk.

After a time he rang the bell and told the footman to "Ask the Queen to come here." It sounded to me like a bit out of Alice in Wonderland.

Presently Queen Alexandra came in, bringing with her her little grandson, the present Prince of Wales.

I knelt and kissed her hand, or at least tried to do so, but had been told that actually to do so was a very rare accomplishment as she had a knack of snatching her hand away at the critical moment and causing one to kiss one’s own silly fingers. And so it came about in my case.

The King and Queen asked me a lot about Mafeking, about Lady Sarah Wilson, Ronnie Moncrieff, the present state of the war, the value of Colonial troops, and all about the South African Constabulary.

It was a long and very friendly talk. Finally, with a few particularly kindly words of thanks and congratulations, the King handed me my decoration as Companion of the Bath and the South African War Medal, and told me that I must stay on for a couple of days’ holiday at Balmoral.

Also, just as I was leaving the Castle two days later, the King came into the hall to see me off, and presented me with a walking-stick as a souvenir.

Then taking me on one side he began in a serious voice, which for the moment sent my heart into my boots, and said: "I want to speak to you seriously. I have watched you at meals and I notice that you don’t eat enough. When working as you are doing you must keep up your system. I am sending with you some venison to tempt you to eat more. Don’t forget—eat more."

And with a genial twinkle in his eye he laughed: end warmly shook hands.

I have seldom met a jollier or more kindly host. I wrote a day or two later to Colonel- Davidson privately to tell him so, and he went and showed my letter to both the King and Queen!

I travelled that day and night to Cornwall to stay with friends at Fowey. The following evening one of them said: "Won’t you play us something on your violin?"

"Violin ? I don’t possess such a thing."

"Oh, yes you do. We saw it arrive with your luggage."

I went up to my room to look and there, under my bed, was a neat little box like a violin case, containing the King’s haunch of venison.

Back in South Africa

At length I was passed sound by the doctors and although my term of-sick leave had not expired I was back in South Africa by the end of the year (1901).

On arrival at Johannesburg I found that the S.A.C. Headquarters were now established. on a permanent basis in that city. I wrote home saying "It is good to be back at work again. We (the S.A.C.) are now quite a power in thc land and doing excellent work in every direction."

We had so many cases of individual gallantry on the part of officers and men that it. was difficult. to get them all recognised by the Army authorities, especially as they were in so many cases not regularly attached to Army units. So, although we had three V.C.’s and a considerable number of D.S.O.’s and D.C.M.’s awarded to the S.A.C., I found it desirable to institute a Badge for Gallantry of our own, and this came to be a highly prized-decoration in the force.

Talking of V.C.’s, we hold two "records" in the S.A.C. among the officers, viz. Major Martin Leake, V.C., who won a second Victoria :Cross in the Great War, and Brigadier-General E. Wood, D.S.O., who was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order on three further occasions during the Great War.

In the first eighteen months of our existence we had frequent scraps with the Boers, so that by the beginning of February, 1902, they had lost at our hands: 93 killed, 117 wounded, 543 captured, 154 surrendered, 3578 horses, 248 mules, 910 trek oxen, 184 wagons, etc.

Our New Responsibilities

The end of our soldiering came on the 7th June, when peace was made with the Boers at Vereeniging.

The S.A.C. were at once released from their duties as soldiers, to take up those of civil police. Some ten days later, Lord Kitchener left South Africa for England, but before leaving he telegraphed. his "warm appreciation of good conduct, endurance, and gallantry which has distinguished the S.A.C. Officers and men have endured their hardships, isolation and danger with cheerful alacrity and have earned the affection and respect of the rest of the Forces. The S.A.C. have now-the great and: noble task of acting as exponents to the inhabitants of the British character, and Lord Kitchener could not leave the good name of our nation in better hands."

South African Constabulary.

The pacification of our late enemies was undoubtedly a most important task and no easy one.

Indeed, I went so far as to suggest-to His Excellency that some of the Boer leaders, notably Botha, Smuts, Delarey and De Wet, might be offered commissions in the Police, the idea being that they would thereby feel that they were not losing caste among their people, and would be the more loyal to the new regime and less inclined to accept the tempting offers which were being made to them by unscrupulous sensation-mongers at home to come and deliver lectures in Europe.

From old acquaintance I had a liking and a great admiration for the average Boer. He was now intensely suspicious and cunning, and his women-folk doubly so; he was still full of very natural anxiety as to how far we might go in the matter of reprisals and vengeance, once we had him disarmed.

He had a certain dignity about him which would resent any familiarity.

At the same time any sign on our part of humouring him would be taken as weakness, and he would presume upon it. So we had to be mighty tactful and exhibit a firm sense of justice and duty, coupled with human understanding.

Well, it was naturally obvious to everybody that such was the right line to take, but to put it into actual practice through our troopers, acting individually each on his own beat, was a bit of a problem.

In giving out my orders to the force for their new duties I quoted the well-known speech of Abe Lincoln at the conclusion of the Civil War in America, since his words aptly met the present situation:

"With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work that we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

The men rose nobly to the occasion and, carefully instructed by their officers, they shed their war hatred and assumed their role of good-humoured peacemakers with an adaptability which I venture to think is essentially British.

As Sir John Fortescue writes in The Empire and the Army: "It is not with lead and steel only that the British soldier has consolidated the Empire. He knows how to make war when bidden, but also he knows how to make peace…. He possesses that universal language that springs from simple good nature and kindness of heart."

The Burghers had themselves become divided into bitter factions against each other, between those who had surrendered and those who had held out to the end

The natives, as I have said, were eager to loot where they could. White adventurers and bad characters of various nationalities were taking advantage of the unsettled state of the country, and land-grabbing and stock-thieving were being attempted on a large scale.

Illicit liquor dealing and smuggling of arms were going on, and locusts were ravaging the scanty crops.

Thus the demands on the Constabulary were many and various as well as urgent.

But both officers and men started their new duties with keenness and determination, and soon had these various evils well in hand.

A notable instance of this readiness and resource occurred early in our career as police, when there was a gold rush to the Lataba gold fields. Colonel Steele, commanding the B Division, had had experience of gold rushes in the Klondike, therefore he forestalled this rush by establishing a Police post on the spot, with a registration office and rules drawn up for regulating the rush when it arrived a few days later.

Shortly afterwards came an urgent request from the High Commissioner that we should send Police to the spot; and when it was found that we had already made all arrangements in anticipation and on a businesslike footing, we received the very cordial thanks of the Mines Department.

In our orders I put a notice to the effect that members of the Constabulary, wherever stationed in the districts, were to seek out and identify all graves of men killed in the war, and renovate them; and to make it part of their duty to keep them in good order.

They were to do this not only for the British dead but also "for our former enemies the Boers who fell fighting bravely for their cause and who equally deserve our respect."

Colonel Steele, Commander of the B Division, was a Canadian and a great character. He had risen from the ranks to be Commandant of the Royal North-West Mounted Police. He had done arduous police work with exciting experiences in the Yukon Territory.

After the Boer War I visited him in Canada and in showing me the remains of Fort Garry in Winnipeg he said that he was on sentry at the gate when Colonel Garnet Wolseley arrived to confer with Mr. Smith, the factor of the Hudson Bay Company in the fort.

Mr. Smith was later known as Lord Strathcona.

This was at the time of the Riel Rebellion. The story ran that when Riel eventually came to the scaffold he addressed the crowd and told them that though he was to be hanged he would, like Christ, rise again three days after his burial and lead them to further revolution.

The Police officer in charge of the execution spoke after him and reminded his hearers that in the case alluded to they were Roman soldiers who kept watch but that on this occasion it was the Royal North-West Mounted Police, and that Riel would not rise again.

Nor did he.

As regards the men of the S.A.C. one authority, well qualified to judge, said that they formed "the finest unit of such size that the world had ever seen," and I could well believe him. All the men were picked men, and wasters were eliminated without mercy. (1 dispensed with eleven officers and 300 men at one go and sent them home.)

Nearly two thousand of the men were public school men. With such a personnel it was possible to put them on their honour and to trust them to do their work in their scattered out-stations.

Promotion went as largely as possible by merit. We established a system whereby a good N.C.O. or trooper could rise to be an officer in the force. The candidate had to pass an examination in drill and field duties, interior economy, riding, and police law.

He then became a probationary officer, with the title of Cornet. He was attached to four different squadrons in succession for a period of three months each.

At the end of the year he had to pass a further test examination in Police duties, veterinary knowledge, and keeping registers, accounts, etc.

A report was made upon him by each of the four Squadron Commanders under whom he had served, and each had to say whether he would like him appointed to his Squadron permanently or not. If all was satisfactory the Cornet then became eligible for promotion to lieutenant.

King Edward and South Africa

After peace was made the question was asked, and has often been asked since, whether, in justice to all parties, the British were not a bit premature, in handing over the government of the country to untried hands.

King Edward, sympathetic but far-seeing, said, when in 1906 Winston Churchill explained Campbell-Bannerman’s proposals for self-government in South Africa, that "he hoped that Churchill’s sanguine hopes of success might be realised, but begged him to remember it was a newly conquered country and not an old-established colony seeking self-government, and he thought it a bit of a risk to British supremacy to grant self-government prematurely."

"What will be the eventual outcome ?" His Majesty continued prophetically. "Will British or Boer have the majority ?"

He urged Churchill to put country before party in deciding these matters.

When Lord Gladstone was proposed by Mr. Asquith to succeed Lord Selborne as High Commissioner, Ising Edward wrote: "Is there nobody better ? Have the leading people in South Africa been consulted ?"

On the 19th October, 1907, the Transvaal Government offered to King Edward the Cullinan Diamond "as a token of the loyalty and attachment of the people of the Transvaal to His Majesty’s person and Throne."

What a difference it would have made in the history of South Africa had the King been able to pay the country a personal visit.

The Work of the Constabulary Appreciated

Mr. Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, spoke in high terms of the S.A.C. in the House of Commons in 1903. He said:

"I attach the utmost importance to the South African Constabulary as a great civilising and uniting influence. It may have been regarded in the past exclusively from its military capacity, and indeed during the war it distinguished itself under military command, and some of the most gallant little actions of the war conferred the greatest credit on this force."

He further explained how difficult it was to bring a new central government into personal touch with the peoples in the back veldt, but that through the agency of the S.A.C. sympathetic touch had already been brought about.

"Again and again," he said, "I found by entering into conversation with the men, and with the farmers also, that the former, learning the language of the country, were becoming the friends of the people, were welcomed at every farmhouse, were doing little jobs for the inhabitants, carrying their letters and parcels, giving information and settling their disputes. So much was that the case that I have had a serious complaint from one Resident Magistrate that his duty was becoming almost a sinecure in consequence of the action of a sergeant of the S.A.C. who was settling all the difficulties without bringing them to him."(Laughter.)" I can sympathise with the

Resident Magistrate, but I am bound to say that I cannot help expressing my entire approval of the action of the sergeant of the Constabulary."

I Leave the S.A.C.

My own connection with the force came to a sudden end early in 1903.

I received the announcement that I had been appointed Inspector-General of Cavalry for Great Britain and Ireland.

Here was another bombshell! A promotion which I had never expected, especially as I was already employed on active work in South Africa.

I at once put myself in the hands of Lord Milner, since I was serving under him, as to whether I should accept the step or not.

He replied very generously showing that the appointment was, as he termed it, "the Blue Riband" of the Cavalry, and as the S.A.C. was now in good working order I might accept it with a clear conscience.

With-mixed feelings of elation and regret I accepted accordingly. I made a farewell round of my Divisions and eventually handed over my Command of the Constabulary to Colonel Nicholson.

It was only then that I realised how hard it was to break away from one’s own child, but my regret was tempered by the kindly greetings I got, not only from the Constabulary but from friends, civil and military, British and Boer as well.

As consolation I had a wonderful tribute from Lord Milner, written in his own hand, to the efficiency and value of the force, and also a very high appreciation from Sir Arthur Lawley, Governor of the Transvaal.

The End of the S.A.C.

The people at home knew little of what was done by the Constabulary for the Empire in South Africa, and, unfortunately, cared less. A few years later when the country was handed over unconditionally to be governed by local politicians the force was reduced and officers and men were thrown out to shift for themselves without any help or sympathy from home.

It was some Eve years after I left the force that this happened, and I received from them the pathetic farewell cable "Morituri te salutamus"—to which I replied: "Phoenix ex cineribus resurgat" (May the Phoenix arise again from its ashes), with the faint hope that in some way the force might be reorganised.

Very partially this came about but with a large accession of Dutch officers in place of those discharged.

Anyhow the South African Police, as it is now called, and as I saw it last year, is a fine body built up on the remains of the traditions of the S.A.C. So it has to some extent resurged.

In many parts of Africa, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain, there exist S.A.C Associations of ax-members of the Force who still meet annually on the 22nd October to exchange reminiscences and to keep up their old spirit of loyalty and good comradeship.

When the Great War came I offered to gather the ex-officers and men of the S.A.C. to form a regiment, complete with its reserves and bound together by spirit and tradition, and seasoned to service in the field.

Lord Kitchener considered the idea very sympathetically but eventually turned it down. He held that these men would be of greater value distributed as a leaven among the young soldiers in the different battalions then being raised.

Lessons from the Varsity of Life
Chapter VIII. The South African Constabulary.
Part One.
 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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