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Theron's scouts in action

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This photo was originally captioned "Verkenners van Danie Theron in aksie, Magaliesberge", which means "Scouts of Danie Theron in action, Magaliesberg". It was retrieved from the online archive of the Zuid-Afrika Huis library in the Netherlands. For sake of size, I have cropped out the blank upper portion of the original photograph that just showed a blank sky. This posed scene is part of a pair of photos, taken the same day from the same camera position. Whereas the first photo shows the Boers leisurely lounging about their hilltop campsite, this photo shows the exact same location transformed into the scene of a mock battle, with the Boers pretending to fire from cover at enemies downrange.

Just as a bit of background, Danie Theron was one of the most celebrated Boer heroes to emerge from the war, and his many remarkable exploits are probably best left for a lengthier and more detailed retelling elsewhere. Suffice to say, before the war, Theron was a lawyer in the Transvaal, and in the lead up to the declaration of war, he made a name for himself by organizing a volunteer corps of cyclists for use as dispatch riders. Although the old guard of conservative Boer generals was skeptical of the ability of a cyclist to match the cross country capabilities of a well mounted horseman, Theron was quick to prove them wrong through a series of demonstrations and field exercises. Although horses remained the undisputed masters of rough and mountainous terrain, on the rolling veld and rough country roads that traversed much of the republics, Theron's cyclists were able to match and even at times outpace Boer horsemen. The cyclists could carry their own water and did not need to make detours for watering stops at rivers and streams, enabling them to travel by shorter and more direct routes than the horsemen in the arid summer heat. Furthermore, the bicycle-mounted rider was far harder for enemy forces to detect due to his lower profile and lack of thundering hooves in contrast to a horse-mounted rider. Ultimately, the Boer generals were impressed and Theron was permitted to expand his cyclist corps into an elite reconnaissance unit of scouts and messengers. Throughout the conventional phase of the war, Theron's Verkennerskorps, or Scout Corps, as the unit came to be known, provided excellent military intelligence and service to the Boer commandos in the field. Although they were gradually forced to trade their bicycles for horses as spare parts and tires began to run out, Theron's scouts continued to prefer their few remaining stealthy and silent bicycles for the difficult task of infiltrating through British lines.

In the photo, a small section of Theron's scouts pose for the camera in the Magaliesberg mountain range in the central Transvaal. The photo was undoubtedly taken sometime during the first year of the war, perhaps during the withdrawal of the eastern Transvaal commandos to the refuge of the Magaliesberg range after the fall of Pretoria.

In the foreground, one of the Boers lies on his back, wearing a khaki (possibly British) sun helmet, pretending to be a dead or wounded British soldier. The Boer standing at the far left has laid out several spare clips of Mauser cartridges on top of the boulder he is using as cover (the clips are the rectangular white shapes on top of the boulder). Below this same leftmost standing Boer, you can see evidence of the campsite that the Boers did not bother to clear away before posing for the battle scene. There is what looks like a wooden cutting board and bowl precariously perched on a smaller rock, with several pieces of fruit or meat visible on the cutting surface. On a rock to the immediate right of these objects is another collection of spare Mauser ammo clips, just next to a Boer coffee pot. Coffee was arguably the lifeblood of the Boer commandos in the field, giving them the boost of energy needed to spend long hours in the saddle on patrol or sentry duty, and the coffee pot was a highly valued piece of communal camp gear for each seksie, or mess, of Boer burghers. The two boxy metal cans nearby might be for carrying water, judging by their similarity to contemporary water cans and the small tin or enamel mug sitting atop the rightmost can, though I am not completely sure about their use.

All of the Boers visible in the photo are armed with Mauser 1893/95 carbines, distinguishable by the bent bolt handles and the shortened barrel length. More so than the typical Boer horseman, the bicycle-mounted scouts of Theron's Verkennerskorps would have immensely appreciated the reduced weight and handier size of the carbine, not to mention the cavalry style sling rings that allowed the carbine to be strapped flat across the back. The full length Mauser or Martini-Henry rifles carried by most Boers probably would have been extremely uncomfortable, clumsy, and burdensome for a cyclist to carry while pedaling down a bumpy country road.

One last interesting thing to note is the style in which almost all the Boers here are wearing their slouch hats. Except for one man wearing his hat with the brim lying completely flat, all the Boers here have pinned up their hat brims on the right hand side. This "right brim up" practice was a common way for the burghers of the Boer republics to display their national allegiance, in contrast to the British and colonial soldiers who always wore their hats with the left brim pinned up. Although you will occasionally find photos of Boers wearing their slouch hats with left brim pinned up, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

In conclusion, although the photo is obviously posed, the presentation here is considerably more realistic than many other posed photos of Boers in battle. While several of the burghers are not making much of a serious effort to take effective cover and they are all bunched in unrealistically close to fit into the camera's narrow field of view, most of the burghers are well sheltered in ready made fighting positions and making a great effort at verisimilitude. The view of a real skirmish line of Boer burghers entrenched on a kopje probably would not have looked too different from something like this.

The original photo can be viewed in higher zoomable resolution here: www.geheugenvannederland.nl/en…
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againerodite's avatar
I'm glad we voted for you to post these.  Even though as you say staged, all the detail helps. 
ColorCopyCenter's avatar
The Boer War occurred during a transitional era of battlefield photography. The Kodak Brownie was just reaching widespread circulation among the upper and middle classes of the wealthier industrialized nations, so ordinary British officers and soldiers with the financial means and interest in amateur photography were able to take souvenir photos of their own in the field for the first time, some even in the middle of battle thanks to the convenient size and portability of the Brownie.

However, on the Boer side, battlefield photography was still restricted to the domain of professional studio photographers based primarily out of Pretoria and Johannesburg, who made trips out to the frontlines for the purpose of taking enough photos to sell in commercially retailed albums. Subsequently, all photos from the Boer side were taken with the traditional style of heavy tripod mounted camera, so they are very similar in style to Civil War photos, being mostly after-action shots of battlefields or camp scenes, along with the frequently sensationalized posed battle scenes.

Due to overseas sympathy with the Boer cause, there was also a very big trade in postcard photos and albums purporting to depict the war from the Boer side at the time, all made by American and European photo studios for consumption by their domestic audiences. These are very easy to spot as fakes due to the poor ability of the American/European countryside to stand in for the African veld, not to mention more specific details like incorrect uniforms/clothing, horse breeds, saddlery, gear, and weapons.
benfan's avatar
ColorCopyCenter's avatar
Thanks for the photo and history.
ColorCopyCenter's avatar
erdervv's avatar
Your description is really interesting, thanks for taking the time to write this all down.
ColorCopyCenter's avatar
you are welcome, glad you find something interesting about it
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