by Don Diespecker
Major von Steinaecker commenced the war as a private. His steps are worth noting: squadron quartermaster- sergeant - lieutenant - captain - major, DSO - hon lieutenant-colonel in the army. '[John Sterling](1)
'On arrival in Lourenco Marques, at the end of April  it was my intention to establish step by step a suitable Intelligence Department, which had evidently to consist of two distinct Sections, viz Civil, or Contraband, and Military.' [Captain FHF Crowe, RN, HBM's consul-general](2)
In April 1900, Captain Fritz Hauch Eden Crowe, RN, replaced Carnegie Ross as the British consul-general at Lourenco Marques, at a time when munitions of war and contraband were being transhipped and smuggled through Mozambique to the ZAR. Capt Crowe was a forceful diplomat and a determined Chief of Intelligence, although he is nowhere described either as a diplomat or as a station chief in any of the Lourenco Marques (LM) documents of the period; nevertheless, his work included espionage, misinformation and propaganda, and the planning and control of covert military operations in enemy territory and the Border Areas. He sent regular intelligence diaries to the Foreign Office, with copies to the High Commissioner in Cape Town, the Governor of Natal and to the headquarters of 'both armies', to General Buller and Field Marshal Lord Roberts. In other words Capt Crowe was not so much a consul as he was a Foreign Office spymaster and a director of secret service operations. He divided his time between the diplomatic bullying of both the local Portuguese Governor and the Governor-General, supervising his agents and employees in the detection of contraband, coordinating the debriefing of spies (generally Africans), while also dabbling in undercover operations which made him and his staff increasingly vulnerable to exposure. These British actions were intended to be 'covered' by the Secret Anglo-Portuguese Agreement of 14 October l899.(3)
The Secret Treaty was based on older treaties (the Ancient Alliance). In it, the Government of Portugal... 'undertook not to permit, after the declaration of war between Great Britain and the South African Republic, or during the continuance of the war, the importation and passage of arms and munitions of war destined for the latter.' (However, the Orange Free State was not mentioned in the treaty.) The Portuguese Government also agreed not to proclaim neutrality in the War. The treaty was signed by the Marquess of Salisbury as Prime Minister (he was also Foreign Secretary) and the Portuguese Minister in London, the Marquis de Soveral.
The history of events preceding the signing of this secret agreement reveals serious differences between Britain and her oldest ally. Not only had Britain inherited a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Portugal and the ZAR (which afforded the transhipment of armaments through Mozambique into the ZAR), but her aggressive diplomacy was necessarily moderated by the cordial relations which existed between the Portuguese Government and the ZAR.(4) This was paradoxical in terms of the Secret Agreement and, like most European nations at this time, the Portuguese were largely pro-Boer and anti-British. In Mozambique, the Portuguese authorities were uncooperative and passive-aggressive; Boer secret service agents moved freely about the town; shipping and landing companies (of which most were British-owned) and many local merchants were deemed by the consul-general to be trading with the enemy; and the small Intelligence Department in the British Consulate was kept very busy.
It might be supposed that the British consul-general had his hands full and would have been reluctant to extend any of the operations managed from the Consulate. However, there is evidence to show that this was not so. The consul-general sought permission to obtain the services of an irregular officer, Lieutenant Franz Ludwig von Steinaecker. In retrospect, this seems to have been as unnecessary as it was unwise; and, in the terms of Crowe's despatch to the Foreign Office,(5) the control of covert military operations in the Border Areas does not appear to have been an appropriate function for either an Intelligence Department or a British consul-general.
Accounts of the actions of Steinaecker and the unit which later bore his name, Steinaecker's Horse, vary widely. Curiously, there is little agreement between these accounts, and some writings are either misleading or contradictory. Despite these confusions, however, it is clear that Steinaecker was both a colourful and controversial figure, and there is no doubt that Steinaecker's Horse (SH) played an active role both in policing the Transvaal, Mozambique, Swaziland, and northern Natal and Zululand borders and in clashing a number of times with Boer forces.
During the early part of the Anglo-Boer War, Steinaecker had been a member of the Corps of Guides. The Corps was disbanded in December 1899 and the men formed the nucleus of other units. According to Parritt, 'Major Mennes took one squadron and formed Mennes' Scouts, another followed Major Bethune and became Bethune's Mounted Infantry, and six went off under the Squadron Sergeant-Major, F von Steinaecker, on a daring raid through Zululand and Swaziland to the Transvaal.'(6)
Steinaecker's initial raids into enemy territory targeted Boer supply lines and communications - the large rail bridge at Komati Poort (now Komatipoort) being a prime objective. The raids were made from Natal with small groups of men. The men under Steinaecker's command were literally a motley crew - they pleased themselves as to how they wore their 'uniforms'. This casual approach to dress and discipline was noted even after the Republics had been re-annexed and Steinaecker's Horse had been formally raised and was based at Komatipoort. Steinaecker was well-known and well-regarded by senior British officers, including General Buller, Field Marshal Lord Roberts and, later, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener.(7)
Steinaecker came to the attention of the new consul-general within days of his arrival at Delagoa Bay. Crowe sent a telegram to Lt-Col A E Sandbach, an Assistant Adjutant-General (Intelligence) (AAG (I)) and General Buller's Chief Intelligence Officer. It read, in part:(8) 'Can you give me any information about STEINAKER [sic]. Please give me authority to enable me to obtain some materials from him, also to insure his working with me so as to insure success.'
Sandbach was then stationed at Ladysmith; during the next few weeks the Natal Army operated in the southern and eastern Transvaal and was continually on the move. Crowe's communications with Sandbach and others was necessarily via the Natal Governor's Private Secretary at Pietermaritzburg, who served as the middleman for all encyphered telegrams exchanged between the consul-general and the Natal Army.
Sandbach reacted immediately [we may suppose that Gen Buller was consulted] and sent written instructions to Lt A Campbell on the same day. Campbell was a Deputy AAG (I) and some of his informal reports to his Colonel have survived.(9) Campbell's orders were to report to Capt Crowe at Lourenco Marques where he was '... to arrange matters in regard to STEINACKER [sic].' Campbell was told that there had been some correspondence with Bloemfontein regarding him and that Sir Redvers Buller wanted it made clear that Campbell was '... not to interfere in any Intelligence arrangements for Capetown [sic]... [but] ... you are to keep us informed of all Intelligence that you can gather that concerns us: and that you are to act under the orders of the Consul-General in all you do.' Campbell was authorized to show Crowe the cypher system which Sandbach had arranged.(10)
This indicates that Crowe's request was immediately approved at a high level, that Campbell would be Sandbach's 'eyes and ears' in the LM Consulate and that he would facilitate the operations of Steinaecker's unit, and that both Campbell and Steinaecker would be under Crowe's orders.
The documents show that the consul-general planned to attack the Pretoria-Delagoa Bay railway. Lt Steinaecker was to lead the 'expedition.'
A collection of telegrams (originally in cypher) describe 'Lt Steinaecker's Expedition'.(11) Almost all of this traffic was headed 'Cypher' and marked variously as 'Urgent', 'Most urgent', 'Secret', and 'Clear the line'. In the first telegram (17 July 1900), Crowe advised Sandbach that he had authorized Steinaecker to increase his party to 'over twenty men'. The consul-general made it clear that the unit was being supplied and maintained from Lourenco Marques: 'I have supplied all necessaries, but difficulties and risk of detection here are great. He is well armed and well horsed.'
Crowe's plan was simple: 'to destroy [Pretoria-Delagoa Bay] railway at effective point and if opportune to try scheme against Komati Bridge also. [Steinaecker] will afterwards return to his entrenched camp on Lebombo mountains and discuss future plan of operations. I have now greatly exceeded your £500; may I please draw on Natal Governor for £1 000 which will leave good margin to carry on...
The cypher traffic continued for three months and, although the effort was not entirely wasted, the expedition itself was eventually cancelled. The proposed scheme became more grandiose over the weeks. Crowe made further requests for 'Secret Service' funds; they were always approved. Steinaecker made repeated requests to increase the size of his force (from 20 to 27, to 50, to 100); these, too, were approved.
A second collection of 66 telegrams in the same WO file describes communications between Crowe and Sandbach. Most of this traffic was military intelligence which had been gathered in the Transvaal, but there were four references to Steinaecker. The first of these - also the first of the 66 telegrams - was transmitted at the end of April 1900, although it was undated. It was sent by Crowe from HMS Tartar at Durban and refers to Steinaecker's new liaison: 'Please thank Sir Redvers for loan of Lieut Campbell's services; shall be glad to see him as soon as possible. Leave early tomorrow for Delagoa.'(12) A signal from Crowe on 19 June had reported that the Malelane Bridge (about 30 miles [48 km] west of Komati Poort on the Eastern Line) had been destroyed. Crowe did not know who had made the attack: 'This is probably work of party from here.' The 20 meter single-span steel bridge collapsed when dynamite was detonated by an approaching train. Three days later, Crowe's knowledge was still uncertain: '... both this and Steinaecker's party, which probably leaves Lebombo Mountains tonight, will endeavour further damage as arranged before starting. Komati Poort bridge scheme progressing but difficulty increased owing to increase of garrison.'(13)
Referring back to the Steinaecker Expedition telegrams,(14) Crowe, when asked what his requirements were, wired on 29 July 1900 that 'arms, ammunition, men, will be required from your side, full particulars of which later on.' He ended this signal to Sandbach with: 'I assume you have obtained Foreign Office sanction for me to assist.' General Buller promptly sent a 'Secret' message to 'Proemial' London, on the same day, in which he emphasized, 'I have not obtained anything of the sort as I never knew it was wanted, but I have obtained Lord Roberts authority to spend money through Crowe on Steinaecker who is doing good work. Please obtain Foreign Office sanction if it is needed.'
On 9 August 1900, General Buller had reached Amersfoort. He advised Crowe to use the Military 'Z' cypher or send through Governor Natal.' On the previous day, Crowe had sent a 'Most urgent - Clear the line' cypher to Sandbach; it was his list of requirements for the expedition and began: 'Please have following goods ready for immediate shipment on board HMS Widgeon at Durban, and wire her Captain of Gunnery there on Thursday telling him where and to whom to apply for them. I have arranged for disposal of these goods. Secrecy and rapidity necessary ...
Crowe did not specify Widgeon's destination nor where she was to land her cargo. It is probable that he wanted the supplies landed at Kosi Bay, close to the Mozambique border in northern Zululand - and where it was unlikely that he would have required the ship to enter Delagoa Bay where its cargo would certainly have created a diplomatic furore. Steinaecker maintained a camp at Nomahasha in Swaziland; it was virtually on the Mozambique border and less than five miles from Namaacha in Mozambique which was the terminus of a road, or track, which led to Lourenco Marques. Steinaecker's base camp was only about 60 miles [96 km] south of Komatipoort along the Lebombo Mountains and about 30 miles [48 km] west of Lourenco Marques. Kosi Bay was further: about 70 or 80 miles [110-30 km] along the borders from the camp.
Crowe had ordered a large quantity of supplies which would have required considerable logistic support: 'One hundred thousand rounds ammunition, carbine, ten thousand Maxim with belts, one thousand revolver ammunition. Fifty carbines with buckets and bandoliers fifty revolvers [there were a number of additional items, including clothing and sundry equipment for the horse]... Tripod Maxim. Mountain gun in parts and six mule loads of ammunition. After consulting with Steinaecker, I have arranged that he leaves tomorrow for Pietermaritzburg. He wishes one hundred men fully equipped and thirty horses (spare). He should take these as soon as ready from Eshowe in fortnight to scene of operations. Provision placed on line of march at certain point will enable him to travel with rapidity. Main supply of provisions will be supplied from here [Lourenco Marques]. He hopes it will not be necessary to recruit men individually. Could volunteers for special service be collected in batches from Colonial Corps, ready equipped and assembled quickly but quietly on Show Grounds at PMBurg; only best men and horses required. Include suitable proportion of good non-commissioned officers, signallers, farriers and experienced Maxim detachment. No man should be informed where he is going but merely told on important service. He needs also gun detachment and gun mules latter with saddles and former mounted on spare horses would go ahead of him and save time, being caught up later [sic]. But if collection of force can be arranged independently of Steinaecker this will give him time to attend to organization alone. Please send authorised Officer to meet him at Durban to instruct and assist him. He will use Herbert Cypher "Gules". Please send him Standard Bank Maritzburg one thousand pounds sterling and four thousand pounds for me to draw on. I believe with assistance now given he will fulfil all expectations. Add to list ten Field glasses. - ends. -'
On 10 August 1900, Sandbach sent a 'Most urgent' telegram to 'Chowder', (possibly General Wolfe-Murray) at Newcastle, Natal. 'Chowder' was advised by the AAG (I) that General Buller wished him to see Steinaecker, and that he was to comply with the 'Consul-General's demands at once as far as you can'. Gen Buller had also suggested that he 'should confer with General Dartnell about Volunteers for special employment and, if sufficient Colonial men are not available, then select any good men from the 5th Lancers and 13th Hussars, giving them volunteer pay while so employed.'
Steinaecker telegraphed Sandbach from Durban on 17 August 1900: 'Saw General Wolfe-Murray at Newcastle 13th. Arrived Maritzburg 14th. - Have not authorization to act. Can do nothing. As time is valuable now I beg for authorization by wire to draw shoes, horses, mules, &c and get men where I can & to arrange for provisions along line of march. Such arrangements have been made from Usutu, north. - As proper account must be kept &c I beg permission to name my force Steinaecker's Horse as I have certain objections to the name of Colonial Scouts. I intend taking from here 110 mounted men including Maxim detachment, exclusive gun crew & to bring the squad I have in my camp to 110 men by recruiting there. Stores, ammunition, carbines, gun, Maxim, &c for both squadrons to be drawn here and partly shipped by Widgeon for conveying them to my camp have been made; further beg permission to assume rank of Major for time being.'
Sandbach sent his reply to Steinaecker at Pietermaritzburg on the same day: 'Your proposals sanctioned; authority wired to General Wolfe-Murray.' He sent a further signal to 'Chowder', also on 17 August, advising that the General approved both Steinaecker's assuming the rank of major and his proposals for the constitution of the force. There was also, on the same day, an unexplained break in communication between 'Chowder' and Sandbach; the former therefore referred the matter to Lord Roberts in Pretoria. Roberts' response was: '... I think project might now be dropped. - Its success is extremely doubtful and it is rather too late in the day to carry it out.'
The consul-general was convinced that he had been misled by 'Boer slimness', but quickly appreciated that the expedition had been cancelled. Steinaecker was to return to his command and to '... do what he can with the force at his disposal'. On 19 August 1900, 'Chowder' authorized Steinaecker to draw a further £1 000, ordered all equipment to be supplied, and '... informed him he can assume temporary rank of Captain.'
The consul-general had made a last bid for 'his' expedition on 18 August; he requested of Sandbach that he '.... please ask General Buller to supply nevertheless goods detailed in my telegram 6th August reduced in quantity by 50 000 rds ammunition, four hundred horse shoes, gun and accessories. If granted, please order Steinaecker to embark, without loss of time, without these on HMS Widgeon now waiting at Durban...' Steinaecker sailed on the Widgeon on 21 August 1900.
It is likely that the HMS Widgeon landed her cargo at Kosi Bay. A telegram on 17 September from Crowe began:(15) 'Trustworthy information that the Boers yesterday brought "Long Toms" to Komati Poort and have placed three in position on spur of Lebombo mountains about mile south of railway between Portuguese border and Komati River. Steinaecker has arrived at his camp. Strength over 50 men newly armed and equipped through Kosi Bay. Horses and provisions supplied from here [Lourenco Marques]. I have sent him particulars of whole situation for him to act on as he thinks best.'
A discordant note had been struck by the Department of Military Intelligence (DM1) at Pretoria on 19 August.(16) The telegram read: '- No W 820 - One Sheehan, late Corporal in Col[onial] Scouts and appointed to accompany Steinaecker on a secret Intelligence mission in March last has sent in a petition to Field-Marshal re wrongful imprisonment awarded by Commandant Durban consequent on alleged false evidence produced or instigated by Steinaecker. Case has been forwarded direct to Chowder, Newcastle for report but think it advisable to acquaint you with matter.'
On 27 August 1900 General Buller defeated General Botha at Bergendal (Dalmanutha) and on 6 September Buller captured Lydenburg. President Kruger crossed the border into Mozambique by train (over the intact Komati Bridge) on 11 September. General Pole-Carew reached Komati Poort on 25 September.
There were two final telegrams in the incomplete 'Steinaecker's Expedition'17 collection. The first, dated 17 October 1900, was from Sandbach to Crowe, advising the consul-general that Lord Roberts had '... decided to raise Steinaecker's Corps to 200 men and to quarter them at Komati Poort.' Would Crowe therefore '... please inform that Officer his Pay Lists should in future be sent to DMI, Pretoria instead of to Natal. Please note that any further sums you may require for secret service must be obtained from DMI, Pretoria.'
Two days later President Kruger left Lourenco Marques for France on board the Dutch cruiser, the Gelderland.
In the final telegram, on 20 October 1900, 'Chowder' passed on a message from Crowe to Sandbach which advised that .... S[teinaecker] left for Durban by Matabili Tuesday morning so cannot communicate what you request. Am already winding up all my Intelligence accounts which will be forwarded to various quarters concerned as soon as possible.'
General Buller, who had always supported Steinaecker, sailed for England on 24 October 1900.
It is clear from wartime documents that Captain Crowe manipulated both the military and political systems to the best of his ability and that he generally achieved his objectives, including the services of Lt Steinaecker. It is also clear that Steinaecker successfully manipulated the consul-general. He was able to do this because he could appreciate the extent to which Crowe's success depended upon him. Steinaecker's good reputation derived from his ability to organize and lead small raiding parties. Ironically, his expedition failed because Crowe planned it and took an inordinately long time to organize it.
It is also clear from many documents (especially Foreign Office despatches) that Crowe's political and diplomatic successes in Mozambique were considerable. His foray into secret service military operations may therefore be seen as an ill-considered adventure. Steinaecker, by contrast, excelled in adventurous raids - he 'had his uses' - and had earned acertain reputation at the highest military level. He succeeded both in enlarging his force and in obtaining a promotion. Most importantly, he succeeded in having the force named after him, Steinaecker's Horse. There is a high probability that General Buller made that decision.
The penultimate telegram in the collection relating to the expedition,(18) verifies that Steinaecker was still under Crowe's 'command' as late as 17 October 1900. The South African Mounted Irregular Forces (SAMIF) Roll(19) shows that five squadrons of Steinaecker' s Horse were raised at Pietermaritzburg on 7 November 1900 ('for 6 months or 3 years') and that they were disbanded at Komati Poort on 7 February 1903 - the last SAMIF unit to be disbanded.
The naming of Steinaecker's Horse appears to have been a consequence of Crowe's ambitious plan to use the unit in a secret service operation in enemy territory. Steinaecker had previously achieved good results with small detachments of twenty or so men engaged in small-scale raids; such a small force was unlikely to be named after its commander (then a lieutenant). It seems significant that a British consul-general should so intentionally have sought to obtain the services of an irregular officer whose good reputation rested on small- scale autonomous raids, ie, on 'secret service' operations. (The term, 'secret service', occurs six times in the relevant telegrams).
The expedition telegrams imply that the name 'Colonial Scouts' had been suggested for Steinaecker's unit and that his objection may have been related to the DM1 information regarding Cpl Sheehan's petition. The request from Steinaecker to Sandbach for the unit to be given his name is the only telegram in the collection of 36 which originated from Steinaecker himself. There is no indication that Crowe knew about this, nor that he had direct knowledge of Sandbach's agreement, and it can be assumed that the approval came from General Buller himself.
Thus, the irregular officer who had been working covertly in enemy territory apparently did not ask his immediate superior, the consul-general, for permission to name the unit; he used the more familiar chain of command and worked through General Buller's Chief Intelligence Officer.
Steinaecker's small unit, prior to 7 November 1900, was a secret service force operating in Natal and the Border Areas. Its operations were supported by special secret service funding through the Natal Governor, a connection which also implies a degree of cooperation between the Colonial Office, the War Office, and the Foreign Office. As Captain Crowe was a Foreign Office official, there is a further implication: that Crowe wanted personal control over a covert military unit which was a legitimate but secret extension of the British Government - a unit which the Foreign Office certainly supported.
It would be unfair to ascribe all of the blame for the failed mission to Crowe: communications were indirect (although the target - the railway and its bridge at Komatipoort - was tantalizingly close to Lourenco Marques) and there was too broad an array of officials and personnel involved at widely separated locations.
The telegrams also reveal an important aspect of British secrecy in 1900: the British concealment, from the Portuguese Government, of the supply of equipment, provisions and horses from Lourenco Marques, which were destined for operations in the Transvaal.
1. J Stirling, The Colonials in South Africa 1899-1902: Their record based on despatches (London, Wm Blackwood & Sons, 1907).
2. Crowe to Foreign Office, Contraband Section of the Intelligence Department at Lourenco Marques. May - October 1900, Foreign Office 2/365, pp 184-90.
3. Secret Treaty between Great Britain and Portugal, 14 October 1899 (sometimes incorrectly described as 'The Treaty of Windsor'), Foreign Office 93/77/58 XC 7010.
4. Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between the South African Republic, now the Transvaal State, and His Majesty the King of Portugal: with Protocol annexed. Signed at Lisbon, 11 December 1875. Ratified by Her Majesty as Suzeraine ofthe Tranavasl State and Ratifications exchanged at Lisbon, 7 October 1882. Article VI states: 'His Majesty the King of Portugal reserves the right of prohibiting the importation of arms and munitions of war, and of subjecting the transit thereof to special regulations, but he binds himself to allow the free importation and transit of arms and military stores intended for the South African Republic, and applied for by the Government of that Republic, upon the guarantees necessary to remove all doubt as to their destination being given.' Foreign Office 2/227, pp 66-8.
5. Crowe to Foreign Office, Contraband Section of the Intelligence Department at Lourenco Marques. May - October 1900, Foreign Office 2/365, pp 184-90.
6. Lt-Col B A H Parritt, The Intelligencers (London, privately printed, nd), p 198.
7. Warwick and Spies refer to Steinaecker thus: 'Kitchener's methods were ruthless and draining on British manpower. He was unable - evidently sometimes unwilling - to curb the zeal of some of his units which indulged in excessive brutality and looting. The activities in the north-eastern Transvaal and Swaziland of one group of irregulars, Steinaecker's Horse, led by a flamboyant German mercenary, Colonel Steinaecker, drew protests from British officials who requested the corps' disbandment. Kitchener refused to enterain the suggestion, one of his officers remarking, "No one thinks S[teinaecker] an angel but he has his uses." CO 291/27/4357 sub in encl 1, Major W Congreve to Johannes Smuts, 1 January 1901. Quoted in P Warwick and SB Spies(eds) The South Afican War: The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. (London, Longman, 1980), p 62.
8. Telegram, Crowe to Sandbach, 26 April 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
9. See, for example, D D Diespecker, 'British Intelligence Operations In Mozambique in August 1900' in the South African Military History Journal, Vol 9 No 6, December 1994, pp 219-26.
10. Written orders, Sandbach to Campbell, 27 April 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
11. Telegrams and various papers relating to Lt Steinaecker's Expedition; 17 July 1900 to 20 October 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
12. Telegrams which passed between the Consul-General, Delagoa Bay, and Assistant Adjutant-General for Intelligence, Natal Army. April 1900 to 23 September 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
13. Telegrams which passed between the Consul-General, Delagoa Bay, and Assistant Adjutant-General for Intelligence, Natal Army. April 1900 to 23 September 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
14. Telegrams and various papers relating to Lt Steinaecker's Expedition; 17 July 1900 to 20 October 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
15. Amongst the collection of 66 telegrams which passed between the Consul-General, Delagoa Bay, and Assistant Adjutant-General for Intelligence, Natal Army. April 1900 to 23 September 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
16. Telegrams and various papers relating to Lt Steinaecker's Expedition; 17 July 1900 to 20 October 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
17. Telegrams and various papers relating to Lt Steinaecker's Expedition; 17 July 1900 to 20 October 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
18. Telegrams and various papers relating to Lt Steinaecker's Expedition; 17 July 1900 to 20 October 1900. War Office 132/22 XC 11897.
19. Return of Corps of the South African Mounted Irregular Forces. War Office 108/339 5497.
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