This page is about railways in the Boer War.  It has section on the use of railways during the Boer War, the locomotive department and armoured trains.  The text is taken from Maurice's History of the War in South Africa, vol 4.

Interior of an armoured train
Troops moved by rail
Boarding the train
Siege train NCOs
Siege train officers

The main duties of a Director E P C Girouard, RE of Military Railways and his staff may be briefly summarised as follows:

(1.) To be the intermediaries between the Army and the technical working administration of the railway. (2.) To see that the ordinary working of the railway is carried on in such a manner as to ensure the greatest military efficiency. (3.) To satisfy the demands of the Army on the railway without disorganising the working of the railway system as a whole. In war these services are essential, for the officers of a civil railway administration cannot discriminate between the demands of the various branches and departments of the Army, or class them in order of urgency.

The question of organisation in South Africa had been deliberated by Brevet-Major , the officer appointed to be Director of Railways (D.R.) during his voyage to the seat of war. It was tentatively decided that:

(i.) As regards those lines of railway under efficient civil control in friendly parts of the country, the Director would act only as intermediary between the Headquarters Staff of the Army and the Civil Administration.
(ii.) In disaffected country the Director would assume full control of the lines, naming them "Communication Sections" for military purposes. To enable him to ut his duties he was to be in close communication with the Governing Power, the Railway Boards and the General Managers of the Railways.
(iii) It was necessary to appoint a staff of RE officers acquainted with technical railway working, whose duty it would be to co-operate with the civilian staff of the railways in meeting military demands,
(iv) " Communication Sections " were to be controlled by officers styled Assistant Directors of Railways (A.D.R,) They were to be under the orders of the General of Communications within whose district their line ran I and under the D.R., and were to co-operate with the General Managers of lines within the district,
(v.) Deputy A.D.R.'s were to be stationed at Divisional Traffic points. These officers were to be under the A.D.R.'s and were to co-operate with the civil officials,
(vi.) Under the orders of D.A.D.R.'s were to be Railway Staff Officers (R.S.O.), who were to superintend the movement and transport of troops at railway stations,
(vii.) An A.D.R. "Communications" was to act for the Director in details of civil railway policy; it would be his duty also, in consultation with the officers already named, to formulate and to submit for the approval of the G.O.C. and of the Director all orders and proposals relating to movements of troops and stores, diversions of rolling stock, interruptions to ordinary traffic, and the protection of trains and railway property.

The principle underlying these proposals was the creation of a Military Staff corresponding grade by grade with the civil organisation. A lack of properly trained officers was at once felt. For the Cape lines three D.A.D.R.'s were required, as well as an A.D.R. and an R.S.O. at Cape Town; whereas only two officers in all were available. Accordingly, the Eastern and Midland Sections were not provided for.

Nor had there as yet been laid down any clear rules regarding the relative duties of the General Staff of the Lines of Communication and the Staff of the Director of Railways, Consequently, Commandants on the Lines of Communication were ignorant of the position and duty of the Military Controlling Staff under the D.R. A step towards regulating matters was therefore made by the publication of the following order:

LINES OF COMMUNICATION ORDERS. No. 687, DATED DECEMBER 27th, 1899. Duties of Staff Officers, Lines of Communication Railways :— (1.) The working of the railways is carried out by the civil staff of the Cape Government Railways with a staff of military officers to assist and direct the military traffic. This staff forms part of the staff of the L. of C, and is the only means of communication authorised between the military authorities and the civil railway officials.

(2.) The Military Railway Staff will consist of:—

(i.) One A.D.R., on the staff of the Inspector-General Lines of Communication (head office, Cape Town), in charge of all communications.

(ii.) One D.A.D.R., on the staff of the Assistant I.G. L of G, Western Section (head office, De Aar), in charge of Western Section, Cape Town to Modder River,

(iii.) One D.A.D.R., on the staff of the A.I.G. L. of C, Midland Section (head office, Naauwpoort), in charge of Port Elizabeth to Naauwpoort, Naauwpoort to De Aar, and Rosmead to Stormberg.

(iv.) One D.A.D.R., on the staff of the A.I.G. L. of C, Eastern Section (head office, Queenstown), in charge of East London to Stormberg.

(v.) One D.A.D.R., on the staff of the Base Commandant and as S.O. to A.D.R. (head office, Cape Town), in charge Cape Town only, (vi.) R.S.O.'s on the staffs of the Station Commandants, at stations as required.

(3) The duties of the various Staff Officers on the railway are as follows:-

The Assistant Director of Railways is responsible for the whole working of Railway L. of G, and is the channel through which should pass all communications on Railway (Communications) matters from the I.G. L. of G and the D.R. He should keep up a complete account of the state of traffic and position of rolling stock on the railway, and should keep in touch with the General Traffic Manager of the system. He should keep himself informed, through the D.I.G. and A.I.G. L. of C, of the work carried out by D.A.D.R.'s, and see that proper control is exercised over the districts in their charge.

(4.) Deputy Assistant Directors of Railways, under the orders of the D.I.G. and A.I.G. L. of C, should keep themselves completely informed of the state of traffic in their sections. They should, through the Station Commandants, exercise a general supervision over the work of the railway staff in their districts. They should keep careful watch on the distribution of rolling stock on their sections, and are responsible that it is utilised in the best way. They should keep in touch with the Traffic Manager of their sections of the Railway. No work of any nature will be undertaken by the Civil Railway Department for the Military, unless the approval of the D.A.D.R. has previously been obtained. The D.A.D.R. is responsible that any irregularity on his section, which he cannot rectify himself, is reported to the A.LG. L. of C. The office of the D.A.D.R. should be located at the same station as that of the District Traffic Manager, and he is responsible that either himself or his Staff Officer is present at that station? (5.) Railway Staff Officers, under the orders of the Station Commandants, are responsible for the traffic at the stations where they are located. They are responsible that no train is delayed for military requirements, except in extremely urgent cases on the authority of the Station Commandant. They are especially responsible for seeing that trucks loaded with military stores are released as quickly as possible. They should report immediately to their D.A.D.R; any deficiency or irregularity of traffic in their stations. They should similarly address their D.A.D.R. on any questions concerning railway matters on which they require information or orders. They are responsible for all detraining and entraining operations at their stations, and the comfort of all troops passing through. They will furnish such returns on railway matters as may be required to their D.A.D.R. direct. All communications from R.S.O.'s must be sent through Station Commandants.

It was thus sought to modify the original organisation by allotting the A.D.R.'s and D.A.D.R.'s definite positions on the L. of C. staff- and, though R.S.O's remained on the staffs of Station Commandants, the circumstances under which they were to refer to D.A.D.R.'s were specified.

A similar system to that adopted upon the Cape Government Railways was put in force when Lord Roberts advanced into the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Imperial Military Railways (I.M.R.) were then created. The obstacles to smooth handling of traffic in the Orange Free State were at first serious ; the bridges at Norval's Pont and Bethulie (giving access to the railways of Cape Colony) were broken, all rolling-stock on the north bank of the Orange river had been withdrawn by the retreating enemy, and no staffs remained at the stations.

It now became a matter of paramount importance to centralise into the hands of the D.R. the control of the railway; with this object in view instructions were issued by Army Headquarters, dated April 23rd, 1900.

As the Orange Free State and Transvaal fell into British hands, so the mileage under the control of the Imperial Military Railways increased. New A.D.R.'s were appointed at Bloemfontein and Johannesburg, with deputies at Kroonstad, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

In the absence of a railway working staff it became necessary to create one; though many of the members were military officers, the technical and controlling staffs were kept distinct.

After the occupation of Pretoria, when further experience had been gained, all applications for the use of the railways were sent to the Chief of the Staff, who, after consulting the D.R., issued the necessary permits. At the same time the A.D.R. was informed and he communicated with all railway officials concerned. At this time the lack of rolling-stock, and especially of engines, greatly handicapped the controlling staff,

The strain resulting from lack of these necessaries was relieved after the occupation of Komati Poort, in September, 1900. By October 1900, not only had temporary repairs been completed upon every line of railway in the country, but the makeshifts were being gradually replaced by repairs of a semi-permanent and permanent type, executed by the Works Department of the Imperial Military Railways; but the activity of the enemy made it impossible to run trains by night, and consequently the full carrying capacity of the line was not available. In order to cope with the attacks on the lines of railway which occurred at the end of 1900, the D.R. selected stations throughout the theatre of war where there was siding accommodation for construction trains, and there a permanent-way inspector and his gang were quartered, with an R.E. Section whose duty it became to take charge of the construction train, if necessary.

Every effort was made to ensure rapid transmission to the construction train of news of any break in the line. Gangers patrolled the line at dawn, and all military posts reported alarms to the nearest telegraph station, which in turn informed the Deputy Superintendent of Works, who telegraphed his orders to the construction train situated nearest to the break. Officers in charge of construction trains had orders to proceed with all speed to any reported break, whether or not the report had been confirmed. It is recorded that in the Orange River Colony alone, during eight months of the war, seventy-eight destructive raids were made on the railway. Yet the system of intelligence and the scheme for executing repairs were equal to every call. For example, on January 1st, 1901, at 2.30 a.m., information reached the Deputy Superintendent of Works at Bloemfontein that the line had been broken at Wolvehoek. The break, which was sixty-three miles distant, was repaired by 8 a.m. The gradual extension of the blockhouse system ultimately procured more immunity for the railways, and by April, 1901, the worst of the actual train-wrecking was over.

THE LOCOMOTIVE DEPARTMENT. Mention must be made of the work of this department, on which devolved primarily the duty of repairing engines, coaches and trucks. The department was also called upon to execute work for the Army, which, under other circumstances, might have been done by the Army Ordnance Department, e.g., the mounting of Vickers-Maxim and 12-pr. Q.F. guns on armoured trucks. As an illustration of the work of this department, it may be recorded that between May and October, 1901, the following repairs were effected in their workshops at Pretoria, Johannesburg and Bloemfontein:

Locomotives     141
Coaches            558
Trucks              1,955

The need of additional engine-power and truckage was early realised, and during 1901 the rolling stock was increased by 106 locomotives and 1,740 thirty-ton cars.


The supply of men required to operate the railways had to be supplemented from outside the ranks of the R.E. companies. A Railway Staff Depot was therefore formed at Johannesburg in June, 1900, in order to deal with volunteers from the ranks ot the Army who applied for special employment upon the railways. A Railway Employment Office was simultaneously opened in Cape Town; it was freely advertised in the South African newspapers, and applications poured in fast from the civilian population. Applications were examined, enquiry was made with regard to the character of the applicants, and a regular system of registration was instituted, so as to ensure the admission of none but desirable men to the ranks of the Railway Staff. This office, to which all departments of the Imperial Military Railways might apply when in want of additional labour, abundantly justified its institution. It received 7,500 applications for work during the succeeding nine months, and engaged some 800 employees-Mention must also be made of the Native Labour Depots, established at De Aar, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg. Upon these all departments of the Army were entitled to make requisition. Large batches of natives were employed in reconstructing the railway, and in loading and off-loading supplies from trucks. At the end of 1900 some 4,500 native boys were upon the books of the Johannesburg Labour Depot alone.


Soon after Lord Kitchener assumed command he decided regularly to organise the armoured trains as fighting units. He therefore appointed to his Staff an officer termed the Assistant Director of Railways for Armoured Trains. This officer was also on the Staff of the Director of Railways, and was placed in charge of all the armoured trains in South Africa—some twenty in number.

The principal duties of these trains may be said to have been the following:—

(1.) In conjunction with columns in the field, to intercept the enemy whom the columns were driving on to the line.
(2.) To act on the flank of a column or line of columns, the train being well advanced so as to prevent the enemy breaking to that flank.
(3.) To reinforce stations and camps on the railway which were threatened by the enemy.
(4.) To escort ordinary traffic trams.
(5.) To reconnoitre.
(6.) To patrol by day and night.
(7.) The general protection of traffic routes.

The ADR. for Armoured Trains was held responsible for the efficiency of the garrisons, armaments concerted action of the whole.

The garrison of an armoured train was composite. In addition to the infantry escort, it contained R.A. and R.E. detachments. The latter consisted of one N.C.O. and six Sappers, skilled in railway repairing work and in re-setting derailed engines and trucks; two telegraph linesmen, one telegraph clerk, two engine drivers and two firemen. All the men of this detachment were counted as effective rifles when the train was engaged, with the exception of the driver and fireman on the footplate j even the latter carried rifles in the engine cab to drive off an enemy endeavouring to gain possession of their engine. It was important that the officer commanding the train should be a man of judgment and strong nerve. He was often called upon to act on his own responsibility. His strong armament and defences enabled him to attack superior forces. Yet his vulnerable points were many. He had ever to be alert that the enemy did not cut the line behind him. In addition to his visible foes and the constant risks of traffic in war time, he had to contend with skilfully used automatic and observation mines, and had to keep his head even amid the roar which followed the passage of his leading truck over a charge of dynamite, and then to deal with the attack which almost certainly ensued. Officers, therefore, had to be chosen from men of no common stamp. The danger from contact mines was to a certain extent obviated by a standing order that each train should propel a heavily-loaded bogie truck. Such trucks had low sides and ends; they in no way obstructed the view, or fire, from the train ; and they performed the double purpose of exploding contact mines and carrying the railway and telegraph materials. The necessity for this propelled unoccupied bogie was exemplified on several occasions, For example, No 6 Armoured Train exploded a mine near Kroonstad, when, through some unfortunate oversight, it was not propelling its material truck; the Officer Commanding was killed instantly, the leading fighting truck was overturned, and several men in it were injured. This would undoubtedly have been avoided if a loaded bogie had been in front. A few days later this same train, having again been put in commission, ran over a contact mine near Heilbron. On this occasion the propelled bogie fired the mine, and a length of three feet of rail was blown out; but as the mine was laid on a straight portion of the line, the whole train bumped across the break and kept the rails. Three minutes after the explosion it engaging the enemy with the 12-pr. Q.F. gun. There were no casualties on the train.

No 5 Armoured Train was similarly blown up west of Middelburg, Transvaal, when running to reinforce Uitkyk, which the Boers had attacked by night. Again the propelled bogie fired the mine ; but in this case two box trucks in rear of the engine were thrown off by the broken rail, the officer commanding promptly disconnected these, and steamed forward with the front portion of his train to assist in the defence of Uitkyk.

All trains carried a special gun-truck, on which was a pedestal-mounted Q.F. gun. They carried also a machine gun at each end, arranged with a lateral sweep, to allow the fires to cross at either side of the train at a distance of from fifty to eighty yards.

Armoured trains were officially recognised as moving telegraph offices, and equipped with field sounders, vibrators, phonophores and telephones; and whenever trains stopped away from a regular office, which they did nearly every night, they were never out of communication with the neighbouring stations and blockhouses.

When several trains patrolled one section, it was found advisable especially at night, that they should all halt at fixed intervals and connect up with the telegraph wires to receive instructions and news.

Such a train carried out the whole of Brigadier-General Plumer's telegraph work when he crossed the railway near Houtkraal in Cape Colony in pursuit of De Wet.

One of the later improvements made to armoured trains was the addition of a strong electric light. The steam from the engine and turbines working the dynamos was supplied by a flexible pipe from the engine dome, the pipe being fairly protected by steel plates.

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