48

The 4th bullet here contends

  • Gen. Joubert viewed the aftermath of the battle and noted that the British rifles were sighted at 400-600 yards when the battle raged at about 50-100 yards, as the British officers had not told the troops to alter their weapons and, as a result, they were shooting downhill over the heads of the enemy, who had scant shelter.

Why would British officers dictate range, and so micromanage, the enlisted? Why not simply dictate a broader, vaguer command such as "Adjust or check your sights"?

  • 2
    Is it possible the troops didn't know to adjust their sights or just forgot? – Captain Man Aug 8 at 14:07
33

The question asks why British officers would micromanage enlisted troops by doing things like dictating the range to sight their rifles. This type of "micromanaging" is a foundation of the military tactics of that time and one of the key differences between a "military unit" and a "group of men with guns" in the period being discussed.

A few hundred years of warfare using muskets preceded by thousands of years of warfare using bows had left the concept of massed volley fire as a deeply ingrained component of military doctrine, and for good reason since it worked so well. Machineguns were still too new and somewhat uncommon so their impact on infantry tactics was only beginning to emerge. Without a machinegun, massed volley fire was still the best way for units of infantry to engage other units of infantry on a "conventional" battlefield.

At the time of the Boer wars, British infantry doctrine dictated that soldiers would only fire individually when fighting at distances less than 300 yards. Any fighting at distances beyond that was only allowed to occur using volley fire with everybody in the unit firing as a single unit. The only way this type of volley firing can occur is if the unit leader "micromanages" the unit by dictating the distance selected on the rifle sights, dictating the target or target area to engage, when to fire, and when to stop firing.

With this concept of massed fire so deeply ingrained in the military mind and such a foundation of their tactics, infantrymen were taught from the beginning of their training that they are to adjust the range setting on their rifle sights when (and only when) they are ordered to do so by their officer. Discipline is critical to military order and British solders had a well earned reputation for discipline and order. If the officers ordered that sights be adjusted to 500 yards then that is where they were going to stay adjusted until a new order was given. Second guessing orders in the middle of a firefight is not something that a well-trained soldier of that day would ever consider.

And to be clear, when we are talking about adjusting the sights on the rifle in this context we are not talking about zeroing the rifle sights. Some comments in response to another answer seem to be confusing these two concepts. We are talking about soldiers raising the folding "ladder" sight into position for long distance firing and adjusting it to the distance ordered by the unit leader.

This is the rear sight of a Martini-Henry rifle folded down for short range firing or to keep it from being damaged during storage or transport.

enter image description here

And this is the sight raised into position for longer range volley fire.
enter image description here

Another important factor that is not mentioned in the wikipedia article quoted in the question is the effects on bullet trajectory when shooting at a downward or upward angle. The soldiers were shooting down the hill towards their attackers which means the bullet's arc does not "fall" as far relative to the point of aim indicated through the sights. Any British soldiers who were not experienced enough to understand the effects of firing at a downward angle would likely still have been firing too high even if they did flip their sights down to the short range position.

  • 4
    Hi krb and welcome to History SE. Adding sources and links would improve your answer. Also, the images you included should ideally have links / acknowledgements. – Lars Bosteen Aug 9 at 3:56
  • 8
    I like this answer since it gives a reason for this practice instead of dismissing it as merely a relic of British class distinctions. I agree that your answer would be better if it had references. One possibility is "Destructive and Formidable: British Infantry Firepower 1642 - 1765" by David Blackmore (which ends over a century before the battle but is still a good background for some of your points (especially in the second paragraph). – John Coleman Aug 9 at 12:30
69

It was a remnant of the class distinction in British life between aristocratic officers and common soldiers and enlisted men. In British units the men were instructed, forcefully, to simply obey orders without question, with punishment for those who objected. This attitude was why in World War One first the Canadians, and then the other Commonwealth troops refused to serve under British Officers, and insisted in comprising their own divisions.

In Commonwealth units, in both the Boer Wars and First World War, this attitude was soundly rejected. The units were volunteers from closely knit communities, and the junior officers often knew many of the men in their command from prior to enlistment. A mutual trust already existed, with friction in consequence between junior and senior officers in each battalion.

An example of this is the approach to artillery schedules used by the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge. The British practice was to issue schedules for the artillery's walking barrage only to officers. For the Canadian assault on Vimy, Currie convinced Byng to issue the orders down to every Corporal, thus enabling troops to maintain the schedule even if officers were killed, wounded or separated during the approach. This, combined with other innovations, allowed the Canadians to be in the German trenches less than 30 seconds after the artillery barrage lifted, often catching the German troops disarmed.

(The above is taken from Pierre Berton's excellent book Vimy).

  • 2
    The British may have carried this attitude to an extreme, but it is still common in the US military - or was some decades ago, anyway. – jamesqf Aug 8 at 16:15
  • 2
    This was a (the?) major theme of [poetryfoundation.org/poems/45319/… Charge of the Light Brigade). BTW, there should be a comma between "Vimy" and "Currie". Prepositional phrases that precede what they modify should be followed by a comma, and this is especially important when the context makes parsing difficult, as it does here (one proper noun that is not previously introduced at, another that is a shortening of a previously mentioned proper noun). – Acccumulation Aug 8 at 18:59
  • 6
    @RonJohn: After 90 days of Boot Camp I would certainly expect all of them to understand this fundamental. They would have spent many hours on the range by then, and have learned how to disassemble, clean, and reassemble their rifle. This is my rifle, this is my gun – Pieter Geerkens Aug 8 at 21:17
  • 4
    As an (perhaps) interesting sidenote, the German "Auftragstaktik" (which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars) did, in stark contrast, put emphasis on briefing junior officers on the intent of their orders, and allowing them to act on their own initiative toward fulfilling their underlying mission. This came into full fruition in WW2, and today, the concept of "leading by command" is, basically, dead. @PieterGeerkens: It doesn't take Boot Camp style drills ("break down, rebuild") to impress on a soldier the need to be able to hit his target... – DevSolar Aug 9 at 6:10
  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. I have moved all comments to chat and selectively deleted. Please be civil, please follow the code of conduct. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 9 at 13:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.