‘War without Guns’: Sport and the Anglo-Boer War

By Dean Allen

In the 40 years before the outbreak of the First World War one of the most notable social phenomena in Britain was the dramatic rise of organised sport, both amateur and, increasingly, professional. In much the same way that civilian society’s passion for sport grew, the military was also affected as sport came to dominate the lives of soldiers during this period. The development of sport and physical training in the late Victorian British army meant that for the soldiers serving in South Africa during the 1899-1902 campaign, sporting activity formed an important part of their daily existence.

'Sports at the Sanatorium during the Siege of Kimberley, 1899' 'No. 2 Company, King's Regiment at the Pull' (Public Collection, McGregor Museum, Kimberley)

An important factor in the growth of regimental sport in the latter part of the 1800’s was, according to Campbell, the movement throughout English society to form associations and leagues to regulate play and provide for championships. The Football Association (soccer) was formed in 1863, and the Rugby Union in 1871. The army was heavily represented among the individuals and teams that initially formed these bodies, and something of this organising and propagating spirit was transferred to the nascent institution of regimental sport in South Africa. Within this culture, soldiers of all ranks were encouraged to participate in army sport and build upon interests they had carried with them from civilian society. As a result, accounts of regimental sport during the South Africa campaign continued to dominate the journals of the various regiments based across the country. Around the turn of the century, as Campbell shows, The Thistle, the monthly journal of the 1st Regiment of Foot, The Royal Scots, and The Thin Red Line, journal of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, contained more information about company and regimental football than about the regiment’s actions on active service in India and in South Africa. For the English, regimental cricket was especially popular with reports in the April 1901 issue of St. George’s Gazette detailing the exploits of The Northumberland Fusiliers in cricket matches played throughout South Africa against rival regiments (St. George’s Gazette, 30 April 1901).

This keen interest in sport was in fact shared by the Boers who, on numerous occasions, challenged the British to less deadly contests during the war. For example, shortly after Jan Smut’s departure from the North Western Cape for the peace talks at Vereeniging in April 1902, Field General Manie Maritz challenged the besieged British garrison at Okiep to a football match. Originally written in High Dutch this now famous letter is housed in the South African Rugby Museum at Newlands in Cape Town. The English translation reads:

The Honourable Major Edwards,


Dear Sir,

I wish to inform you that I have agreed to a football match taking place between you and us. I, from my side, will agree to a cease-fire tomorrow afternoon from 12 o’clock until sunset, the time and venue of the match to be arranged by you in consultation with Messrs. Roberts and Van Rooyen who I am sending to you.

I have the honour etc.,

pp. S.G. Moritz

Field General

Transvaal Scouting Corps.

Concordia, April 28, 1902.[1]

Although the match never took place, the challenge itself indicates a common ground represented here by rugby, between Boer and Briton. At Mafeking too, towards the end of April 1900, cricket and war also mixed in a lighter vein. A British patrol inspecting railway lines to the south west of the town found a letter addressed to Colonel Baden-Powell from Sarel Eloff, Commandant of the Johannesburg Commando and one of Paul Kruger’s thirty-five grandsons. It read:

Dear Sir,

I see in The Bulawayo Chronicle that your men in Mafeking play cricket on Sundays, and give concerts and balls on Sunday evenings. In case you will allow my men to join in, it would be very agreeable to me, as here, outside Mafeking, there are seldom any of the fair sex, and there can be no merriment without them being present. In case you would allow this we could spend some of the Sundays, which we still have to get through round Mafeking, and of which there will probably be several, in friendship and unity. During the course of the week, you can let us know if you accept my proposition and I shall then, with my men, be on the cricket field, and at the ballroom at the time so appointed by you.

I remain,

Your obedient friend,

Sarel Eloff,



Baden-Powell, his biographer Hillcourt records, read the letter with a sardonic smile – a Sunday cricket match with the Boers – he sent his answer to the Boer lines under a white flag:


I beg to thank you for your letter of yesterday, in which you propose that your men should come and play cricket with us. I should like nothing better – after the match in which we are at present engaged is over. But just now we are having our innings and have so far scored 200 days not out against the bowling of Cronje, Snyman, Botha and Eloff, and we are having a very enjoyable game.

I remain,

Yours truly,
R.S.S. Baden-Powell[3]

Despite their many differences these incidents, although isolated, indicate a mutual appreciation for sport. The Anglo-Boer War it would seem, did not prevent either side from continuing forms of sporting activity and the shared passion for games such as rugby and cricket would form part of the reconciliation process long after the last shot was fired.


[1] See A.C. Parker, The Springboks 1891-1971, 1970, p. 5 and South African Rugby Board, Rugby in South Africa, 1964, p. 19.

[2] Quoted in J. Winch, Cricket in Southern Africa, 1997, p. 44.

[3] Quoted in J. Winch, Cricket in Southern Africa, 1997, p. 44.

Further readings:

J.D. Campbell, ‘Training for sport is training for war’. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 17(4), 2000.

W. Hillcourt, Baden-Powell, The Two Lives of a Hero, 1964.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s