December 10th 1899 – “Black Week” in South Africa

The Second Anglo-Boer War (sometimes referenced simply as the Boer War in the UK although there was an earlier conflict fought between 1880 and 1881) was fought between the British Empire in Africa and the Boers, a combined force from the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State. The Boer Republics declared war on Britain on October 11th 1899 after years of escalation and fears of Britain attempting to annex their territories for their gold and diamond deposits. The war would last until May 31st 1902 with a British victory and the absorption of their defeated foe’s lands in to the British Empire.

In 1899, Britain was overconfident regarding the state of her imperial security in the south African region and as such was woefully under-prepared for when the Boers struck. The Boer forces moved through much of the sparsely defended countryside while laying siege to the fortified British positions in towns like Kimberley and Ladysmith.

Then in one disastrous week beginning on December 10th 1899, the British Army suffered three devastating defeats by the forces of the Boer Republics. This week would become known as “Black Week”. The first came at Stormberg where Sir William Gatacre’s exhausted forces were beaten after undertaking a night march through heavy rain.

Second 2nd Anglo Boer War South Africa Black Week 1899 1902The next day on December 11th, an expedition under Lord Methuen that had been attempting to relieve the besieged town of Kimberley was also defeated by Boer forces at Magersfontein. Among the 1,000 British casualties at Magersfontein was Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope CB CMG whose loss exacerbated the sense of disaster regarding the battle in Africa and back home.

On the following Friday, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC GCB GCMG was defeated attempting to relieve the town of Ladysmith. The battle at Colenso cost over 1,000 British casualties and forced Redvers in to retreat. This defeat brought an end to the “Black Week” and proved a wake-up call to the British who began a massive build-up of reinforcements.

There were several factors that led to these disasters. Firstly, the British forces in Africa were used to fighting rebel tribesmen armed with spears rather than a well disciplined force armed with equivalent weapons to themselves. The British also struggled to organise themselves effectively beyond the immediate battlefield which meant opportunities to take advantage of weaknesses in the Boer lines were missed. Finally, the Boers were fighting in territory they had grown up in whereas much of the British force consisted of troops brought in from across the Empire such as Australia and New Zealand as well as Britain itself.

All these lessons would be learned and through 1900 and 1901 the Boers would be beaten back until their final defeat in 1902.


42 Commando to lose 200 men and be re-roled as maritime security force

Royal Marines 42 Commando AfghanistanAmid intense opposition from ministers and the public alike, the MoD has confirmed that 42 Commando – one of three frontline Royal Marine units – is to be withdrawn from frontline battlefield duties. The unit, which is based at Bickleigh just outside Plymouth and has seen extensive combat in Afghanistan, will be streamlined with the loss of 200 personnel with the remainder being re-roled as a maritime security force primarily focused on defending surface vessels from attack by potentially hostile boarders such as pirates rather than continuous combat operations on shore alongside the Army and RAF.

The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, told the Plymouth Herald;

As someone who has worked with Royal Marines at every stage of my career, most notably when commanding the Amphibious Task Group from RM Stonehouse, I know how vital their role is as the UK’s premier high readiness contingency force.

However, as First Sea Lord, I also know we must adapt to meet the challenges of a dangerous and uncertain world. The Government is investing in a new generation of ships, submarines and aircraft. As we introduce these capabilities into Service, we must ensure we have the right mix of skills across each of the Navy’s Fighting Arms to optimise how we use them, and the Commandant General and I have sought to find the right balance between sailors and marines in responding to this challenge.

The Royal Marines remain bound in to every part of the Royal Navy’s future, from conducting sophisticated operations from the sea, at a variety of scales and against a range of threats, using our new aircraft carriers as a base, to leading the service’s development of information warfare. They will continue to be as vital to the defence of the realm in the years ahead as they have been for the past 350.

The loss of 42 Commando leaves only 40 Commando and 45 Commando able to be deployed on battlefield operations in the future.

British Army Bayonet Training Manual, 1916

The following extracts are taken from a US-produced reproduction of the British Army’s Bayonet Training Manual revised in 1916 to take in to consideration the nature of the fighting on the Western Front of World War I. With the US declaring war on Germany and the other Central Powers on January 9th 1917, they looked to take advantage of the lessons the Allied powers had learned in the previous two and a half years and apply them to their own troops.


September 9th 1939 – Blundering in to Belgium


Belgium declared itself neutral in the opening days of the Second World War and took a very dim view on its territory being violated by the combatants either deliberately or accidentally. On September 9th 1939 with the war being just over a week old a flight of Royal Air Force Whitley bombers accidentally strayed in to Belgian territory and was intercepted by the Belgian Air Force.

Believing they were under attack the Whitleys defended themselves…

Read the full story in The Hostility of Neutrality.

NEWS: Army reduction ahead of schedule

British soldier army 2013 defence images

The reduction in strength of the British Army is almost three years ahead of schedule according to Ministry of Defence personnel figures released this week as the culture of returning to civilian employment grows within the ranks. In July 2010 the British Army stood at 102,260 active military personnel but the subsequent defence review following the coming to power of the coalition government saw the Army having to cut the number of active personnel down to around the 82,000 mark by 2018 as part of a major restructuring program known as “Army 2020”.

However that figure has already been reached ahead of the next review due later this year thanks largely to the Army’s efforts to encourage voluntary redundancies. Nearly every issue of the Army’s Soldier magazine in recent years has offered advice and help to those who would chose to leave and now it seems the effort has been too effective with current numbers for active duty personnel being 81,700. The drop off in the number of active service personnel was meant to be made up by an increase in part time reserve forces however the number of applicants for reserve units has not been as high as hoped. By April of this year the trained strength of the volunteer Army Reserve had reached 21,030, an increase of 1,000 on the same time last year but still well short of the 30,000 target set for 2018 when the Army was supposed to be at its current strength.

This has lead many analysts and observers to question whether the British Army has the manpower to meet all of its requirements in the coming years while the number of reserve forces are built up. The MoD issued a statement to address the concerns saying;

This government is committed to an army of 82,000 and the funding is in place to deliver it. We have the manpower we need at the moment and, working with the army, we are taking clear action to keep driving recruitment upwards.

What is the extent of British support to Ukraine?

Ukrainian troops (RT)

Ukrainian troops (RT)

We work to improve links between Ukrainian and British people and institutions. We support Ukraine’s EU aspirations and help increase positive change in the rule of law, economic reform, public administration and fight corruption. We work to improve energy security and energy efficiency, beat international crime and threats to international security.

British government statement regarding Britain’s relationship with Ukraine
Viewable at

Few countries in Europe have been as vocal in their support to Ukraine as the United Kingdom. In the wake of perhaps the most chaotic year the people of Ukraine have seen since the end of the Second World War the country suffered revolution, scandal, the loss of the Crimean peninsula and a pro-Russian uprising in the east of the country with constant rumours of Russian regular forces fighting clandestinely on behalf of the rebels. Add to this the constant fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t be happy with just annexing the Crimea and it paints a worrying picture of a situation that could spiral very rapidly out of control.

On February 24th 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Britain would be sending military advisors to Ukraine to aid the Ukrainian military in the fight against the rebels. This was in response to rumours and indeed some compelling evidence that Russian soldiers were at least training rebels in the Ukraine. Around 75 British military personnel were initially dispatched to the Ukraine where according to the UK government their primary function was to teach essential non-lethal skills which primarily revolve around combat first aid, logistics and intelligence gathering.

However the government did also admit in their February 24th statement that there would be an infantry based assessment program to determine what future training requirements the Ukraine armed forces may need to tackle the rebels in the east of the country. It is likely that these training requirements will be met in the upcoming Rapid Trident 2015 exercise to be held in the Ukraine at the end of July.

Britain’s support for Ukraine has understandably upset Moscow who responded in that typically Soviet way of flying bombers and sailing warships around the coastline of the United Kingdom. The British press continue to make sensationalist headlines regarding these operations by the Russian military but it has to be remembered that British forces have done and continue to do the same near Russian territory and interests. At present a force of RAF Typhoon FGR.4 combat aircraft are providing air defence duties on behalf of NATO for the Baltic States while in 2014 during the Crimean crisis Russian forces were watched very closely by RAF Sentry aircraft using its long range radar to look over the border at Russian activity. On the ground, British Challenger tanks deployed on exercise to Poland where British politicians made efforts to tell the world that the UK and NATO remains committed to protecting eastern Europe – put simply this was a warning to Moscow about having ambitions beyond Ukraine.

So just what is the extent of British support for Ukraine?

Training of Ukrainian government forces

British troops on exercise in Ukraine in 2014 (

British troops on exercise in Ukraine in 2014 (

According to official British government figures around 850 Ukrainian personnel have been retrained by British advisors since February. This figure is set to rise as in June 2015 Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that Britain’s retraining of Ukrainian forces would be stepped up to such an extent that 250 Ukrainian troops are scheduled to be retrained in August alone. It should be noted that these figures do not include the number of Ukrainians expected to receive additional training from British and international forces that will be participating in Exercise Rapid Trident 2015 at the end of July. 

British advisors operate as part of four teams each of which is assisting the Ukrainian government forces in different ways.

  1. Medical Short Term Training Team.
    British forces are currently training combat medic instructors in the Ukraine on the basis that they then can train their own medics and thus increase the number of combat medics in the Ukrainian military fully trained to modern NATO standards. Extensive combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has meant the British armed forces are in a prime position to teach the most effective methods as well as pass on personal knowledge of administering first aid in a combat scenario.
  2. Logistics Short Term Training Team.
    This team’s role primarily revolves around the assessment of Ukrainian logistics operations on the ground and in the air and then assisting in identifying weaknesses before finally addressing those weaknesses. To the lay-person this may seem like a low priority but as combat experience has proven insurgent forces are very fluid in their movements and often live off the land in some way. Ukrainian government forces may not have that option especially when operating in a pro-rebel area where the local population may view them as the enemy. Therefore their logistics chain needs to be at the top of its game to keep the Ukrainian troops mobile and able to keep fighting while at the same time being able to evacuate wounded quickly and safely.
  3. Infantry Short Term Training Team.
    It has been repeatedly made clear that the British Army mission is non-combat however that does not mean that British advisor’s aren’t looking at the way the Ukrainian military has been engaged in the fighting. This team’s role is to look at how the Ukrainians are tackling the rebels directly and pass on knowledge gained from experience in Afghanistan to improve their combat effectiveness.
  4. Intelligence Capacity Building Short Term Training Team

This team’s primary goal is to provide tactical level analysis training aimed at making Ukrainian troops more proficient at analysing information and gathering intelligence to allow them to better understand their combat environment.

Material Support to Ukraine

Over the last year the UK has also provided personal protective equipment (PPE), winter fuel, medical kits, winter clothing and sleeping bags to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. On July 3rd 2015 a Royal Air Force Lockheed C-130J Hercules took off from the UK bound for Ukraine with a cargo of items requested specifically by the Ukrainian government to support their troops. The aircraft carried 1,000 individual battlefield First Aid Kits, 2,000 Mk.6 helmets and up to 54 helmet-mounted monocular night vision goggles (MNVGs) to improve the Ukrainians government forces’ ability to fight under the cover of night which is still something of a limiting factor for the rebels.

On the 13th of July the British government announced that it would be sending additional equipment in the form of 200 global positioning system (GPS) units, 220 hardened laptops, and a further 100 MNVGs. These items had been promised along with the equipment sent on the 3rd of July back in March but are yet to be delivered. The whole cost of Britain’s material support to Ukraine is currently listed as being in the £2 million range but this does include transportation and maintenance costs.

Additional Support

The above support is in addition to ongoing British involvement in helping to keep the country functional and thus reduce the effect the fighting has on the country. This includes providing;

  • Crisis management skills
  • Anti-corruption tactics
  • Defence reform to meet the challenge ahead
  • Improved strategic communications

Beyond Ukraine

The European Union continues to sanction Russia for its role in the Crimean crisis and the fighting in the east of Ukraine with the earliest they can be expected to be lifted at present being January 2016. This means that many financial assets Russian banks hold in the west have been withheld to put pressure on Putin’s economy.

It hasn’t all been one sided however as Putin has “retaliated” politically. Firstly, in his own country the west continues to become demonised in the eyes of the Russian people increasing mistrust and even hatred back to Cold War levels. Putin’s own particular dislike of Britain has seen his government voice its support to Argentina over the Latin American country’s claim on the Falkland Islands even to the point of possible arms negotiations which at one point included Sukhoi Su-24 low level strike aircraft. Meanwhile the Russian military itself continues to flex its muscles warning the west it will not be provoked with Russian aircraft making high speed passes over American warships in the Baltic.

The situation in the Ukraine is in many ways like a microcosmic replica of the Cold War; the two major sides fighting over a piece of land in the middle but training and equipping someone else to do the fighting all the while making claims, counter-claims and denials to one another. The actual fighting has largely ground down in recent months to a slow war of attrition and the relationship between Ukraine and its western supporters with Moscow continues to be frosty. On Friday July 17th the Ukrainians expelled Russia’s consul general from the Black Sea port of Odessa accusing him of “actions incompatible with diplomatic activity” which proves that despite efforts to establish a permanent ceasefire the air of hostility is still quite fresh.