Warfare in South Africa
The ‘Johnny Boer‘ poem by Banjo Paterson offers insight into the challenges faced by British forces against the Boer guerilla tactics during the Second Boer War. Through vivid imagery and admiration of the Boers’ cunning, Paterson reveals the difficulties and frustrations for the British soldiers.
Paterson depicts the Boers as elusive fighters, making excellent use of the terrain by converting natural landforms into fortifications outfitted with deadly Maxim guns. The geography benefits the Boers, who can disappear and reemerge at will to ambush the British.
By contrast, the poem shows the British having to mount dangerous frontal assaults across open ground. Paterson imagines the bitter courage this requires, charging straight into unseen Boer guns protected by rock walls and hills.
While clearly respecting the Boers’ resourcefulness, Paterson also asserts confidence that British firepower and persistence will win eventually. The tone toward the Boers is more complex than simple animosity – their skill and tenacity are praised even while the British soldier’s duty remains to oust them.
The Second Boer War
The Boers’ ingenious use of terrain and unconventional tactics to offset British power aligns with Paterson’s depiction of their craftiness in the poem. However, British perseverance and adaptations ultimately overcame the Boer resistance after a long and costly conflict.
- The Boers were Dutch settlers in southern Africa who fiercely resisted British control. They developed guerrilla warfare tactics to fight against the larger British army.
- They made excellent use of the local terrain, hiding behind hills and rocks to stage ambushes and evade the British. This allowed small bands of Boers to hold off larger forces.
- The Boers utilized fast-firing rifles and early machine guns like the Maxim gun to inflict casualties from their defensive positions. This made frontal charges very costly for the British.
- Their mobility and shoot-and-run tactics frustrated the British, who were used to more direct fighting in the open. The Boers refused to commit to fixed battles.
- Despite early Boer successes, the British eventually adapted using blockhouses, scorched earth tactics, and overwhelming numbers to constrain Boer movement and cut off supplies.
- The Second Boer War lasted from 1899-1902 and ended in a British victory that consolidated control over modern-day South Africa. But the Boers’ skilled guerrilla defense cost the British dearly.
The irregular rhymes and conversational language give a sense of the speaker’s frustration and begrudging admiration. Paterson skillfully captures the challenges of adapting to the Boers’ unorthodox battle tactics. The poem realistically depicts warfare in South Africa rather than glorifying combat. Underneath its tribute to the Boers’ moxie is a sober reflection on war’s burdens.
Men fight all shapes and sizes as the racing horses run,
And no man knows his courage till he stands before a gun.
At mixed-up fighting, hand to hand, and clawing men about
They reckon Fuzzy-wuzzy is the hottest fighter out.
But Fuzzy gives himself away—his style is out of date,
He charges like a driven grouse that rushes on its fate;
You’ve nothing in the world to do but pump him full of lead:
But when you’re fighting Johnny Boer you have to use your head;
He don’t believe in front attacks or charging at the run,
He fights you from a kopje with his little Maxim gun.
For when the Lord He made the earth, it seems uncommon clear,
He gave the job of Africa to some good engineer,
Who started building fortresses on fashions of his own—
Lunettes, redoubts, and counterscarps all made of rock and stone.
The Boer needs only bring a gun, for ready to his hand
He finds these heaven-built fortresses all scattered through the land;
And there he sits and winks his eye and wheels his gun about,
And we must charge across the plain to hunt the beggar out.
It ain’t a game that grows on us,—there’s lots of better fun
Than charging at old Johnny with his little Maxim gun.
On rocks a goat could scarcely climb, steep as the walls of Troy,
He wheels a four-point-seven about as easy as a toy;
With bullocks yoked and drag-ropes manned, he lifts her up the rocks
And shifts her every now and then, as cunning as a fox.
At night you mark her right ahead, you see her clean and clear,
Next day at dawn—“What, ho! she bumps”—from somewhere in the rear.
Or else the keenest-eyed patrol will miss him with the glass—
He’s lying hidden in the rocks to let the leaders pass;
But when the main guard comes along he opens up the fun,
There’s lots of ammunition for the little Maxim gun.
But after all the job is sure, although the job is slow,
We have to see the business through, the Boer has got to go.
With Nordenfeldt and lyddite shell it’s certain, soon or late,
We’ll hunt him from his kopjes and across the Orange State;
And then across those open flats you’ll see the beggar run,
And we’ll be running after with our little Maxim gun.