Boer War

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Boer guerrillas during the Second Boer War

There were two Boer wars, one from December 16,1880-March 23,1881 and the second from October 11, 1899-May 311902 both between the British and the settlers of Dutch origin (called Boers, Afrikaners or Voortrekkers) in South Africa that put an end to the two independent republics that they had founded.


First Boer War

Also known as the Transvaal War, the First Boer War was the first clash between the British and the Transvaal Boers. It was precipitated by Sir Theophilus Shepstone who annexed the Transvaal (the South African Republic) for the British in 1877. The British consolidated their power over most of the colonies of South Africa in 1879 after the Anglo-Zulu War. The Boers protested and in December, 1880 they revolted.

The war began on December 16, 1880 with shots fired by Transvaal Boers at Potchefstroom after Transvaal formally declared independence from Great Britain. It led to an action at Bronkhorstspruit on December 20, 1880, also known as the action at Bronkhorstpruit, where the Boers ambushed and destroyed a British army convoy. From December 22, 1880 to January 6, 1881, British army garrisons all over the Transvaal became besieged.

The Boers were dressed in their everyday farming clothes, which were a neutral or earthtone khaki clothing, whereas the British uniforms were still bright scarlet red, a stark contrast to the African landscape, which enabled the Boers, being expert marksmen, to easily snipe at British troops from a distance.

The besieging of the British garrisons led to the Battle of Laing's Nek on January 28, 1881 where a British force composed of the Natal Field Force under Major-General Sir George Pomeroy-Collery attempted to break through the Boer positions on the Drakensberg range to relieve their garrisons. But the Boers, under the command of P.J. Joubert repulsed the British calvary and infantry attacks.

Further actions included the Battle of Schuinshoogte (also known as Ingogo) on February 8, 1881 where another British force barely escaped destruction. But the final humiliation for the British was at the Battle of Majuba Hill on February 27, 1881 where several Boer groups stormed the hill and drove off the British, and Collery was killed.

Unable to get further involved in this war which was already seen as lost, the British government of William Gladstone signed a truce on March 6, and in the final peace treaty on March 23, 1881 they gave the Boers self-government in the Transvaal under a theoretical British oversight.

Second Boer War, also known as the South African War

In 1887, prospectors discovered the largest gold field in the world in the Witwatersrand ("The Rand"), a ridge running 60 miles from east to west 30 miles south of Pretoria. For all the potential benefit of such a find, Transvaal President Paul Kruger showed amazing foresight when he said, "Instead of rejoicing you would do better to weep, for this gold will cause our country to be soaked in blood."

With the discovery of gold in Transvaal, thousands of British settlers streamed over the border from the Cape Colony. The city of Johannesburg sprang up as a shanty town nearly overnight as the uitlanders poured in and settled near the mines. The uitlanders rapidly outnumbered the Boers on the Rand, but remained a minority in the Transvaal as a whole. The Afrikaners, nervous and resentful of the uitlanders' presence, denied them voting rights and taxed the gold industry heavily. In response, there was pressure from the uitlanders and the British mine owners to overthrow the Boer government. In 1895, Cecil Rhodes sponsored a failed coup d'etat backed by an armed incursion, the Jameson Raid.

The failure to gain improved rights for Britons was used to justify a major military buildup in the Cape, since several key British colonial leaders favoured annexation of the Boer republics. These included the Cape Colony governor Sir Alfred Milner, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain and mining syndicate owners (nicknamed the gold bugs) such as Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato and Lionel Phillips. Confident that the Boers would be quickly defeated, they attempted to precipitate a war.

President Marthinus Steyn of the Orange Free State invited Milner and Kruger to attend a conference in Bloemfontein which started on 30 May 1899, but negotiations quickly broke down. In September 1899, Chamberlain sent an ultimatum demanding full equality for British citizens resident in Transvaal.

Kruger, sure that war was inevitable, simultaneously issued his own ultimatum prior to receiving Chamberlain's. This gave the British 48 hours to withdraw all their troops from the border of Transvaal otherwise the Transvaal, allied with the Orange Free State, would be at war with them.

The first phase: Boer offensive - October to December 1899

War was declared on October 12, 1899 and the Boers struck first by invading Cape Colony and Natal Colony between October 1899 and January 1900. This was followed by some early Afrikaner military successes against the hopelessly inept General Redvers Buller. The Boers were able to besiege the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking (defended by troops headed by Robert Baden-Powell), and Kimberley.

Siege life took its toll on both the defending soldiers and the civilians in the cities of Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley as food began to grow scarce after a few weeks. In Mafeking, Sol Plaatje wrote, "I saw horseflesh for the first time being treated as a human foodstuff." The cities under siege also dealt with constant artillery bombardment, making the streets a dangerous place. Near the end of the siege of Kimberley, it was expected that the Boers would intensify their bombardment, so a notice was displayed encouraging people to go down into the mines for protection. The townspeople panicked, and people flowed into the mineshafts constantly for a 12 hour period. Although the bombardment never came, this did nothing to diminish the distress of the civilians.

The middle of December proved difficult for the British army. In a period known as Black Week (10-15 December 1899), the British suffered a series of devastating losses at Magersfontein, Stormberg, and Colenso. At the Battle of Stormberg on December 10, British General Sir William Gatacre, who was in command of 3,000 troops to beat off Boer raids in Cape Colony, tried to recapture a railway junction about 50 miles south of the Orange River. But Gatacre chose to assault the Orange State Boer positions surmounting a precipitous rock face in which he lost 135 killed and wounded, as well as two guns and over 600 troops captured. At the Battle of Magersfontein on December 11, 14,000 British troops, under the command of Lord Methuen, attempted to fight their way to relieve Kimberly. The Boer commanders, Koos de la Rey and Piet Cronje, devised a plan to dig trenches in an unconventional place to fool the British and to give his riflemen a greater firing range. His plan worked. The British were decisively defeated, suffering the loss of 120 British soldiers killed and 690 wounded, which prevented them from relieving Kimberley and Mafeking. But the nadir of the Black Week was the Battle of Colenso on December 15 where 21,000 British troops, under the command of Redvers Buller, attempted to cross the Tugela River to relieve Ladysmith where 8,000 Transvaal Boers, under the command of Louis Botha, were waiting for them. Through a combination of artillery and accurate rifle fire, the Boers beat off all British attempts to cross the river. The British had a further 1,127 casualties and worse still, during the retreat, the British were forced to abandon 10 artillery pieces which the Boers captured after the battle having suffered fewer than 40 casualties.

The second phase: British offensive - January to September 1900

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The British suffered further defeats in their attempts to relieve Ladysmith at the Battle of Spionkop on January 19-24, 1900 where Redvers Buller again attempted to cross the Tugela west of Colenso and was defeated again by Louis Botha after a hard-fought battle for a prominent hill feature which resulted in a further 1,000 British casualties and nearly 300 Boer casualties. Buller attacked Botha again on February 5 at Val Krantz and was again defeated.

It was not until reinforcements arrived on February 14, 1900 that British troops commanded by Lord Roberts could launch counter-offensives to relieve the garrisons. Kimberly was relieved on February 15 by a calvary division under General John French. At the Battle of Paardeberg on February 18-27, 1900 Lord Roberts finally defeated the Boers and was able to force the surrender of General Piet Cronje where he and 4,000 of his men were captured, which further weakened the Boer fighting force and led the way for the Relief of Ladysmith the following day. The Relief of Mafeking on May 18, 1900 provoked riotous celebrations in England. The British then advanced into the two republics, capturing the capital of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein on March 13 and the Transvaal capital, Pretoria, on June 5.

British observers believed the war to be all but over after the capture of the two capital cities. However, the Boers met at a new capital, Kroonstad, and planned a guerrilla campaign to hit the British supply and communication lines. The first engagement of this new form of warfare was at Sanna's Post on March 31 where 1,500 Boers under the command of Christian De Wet attacked Bloemfontein waterworks about 23 miles east of the city, and ambushed a heavily escorted convoy which resulted in 155 British casualties and with seven guns, 117 wagons and 428 British troops captured. One of the last formal battles was at Diamond Hill on June 11-12, where Lord Roberts attempted to drive the remnants of the Boer field army beyond striking distance of Pretoria. Although Roberts drove off the Boers from the hill, the Boer commander, Louis Botha, did not regard it as a defeat, for he inflicted more casualties on the British (totalling 162 men) while suffering around 50 casualties. This battle ended formal military operations and set the stage for the new phase of the war.

The third phase: Guerrilla war - September 1900 until May 1902

Although beaten on the battlefield, the Boers refused to accept defeat. Most of them took to the hills in small groups and waged a protracted guerrilla war that became more brutal as time wore on. The Boer guerrillas began to attack the railroads and telegraph wires of the British army all over Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and even inside Cape Colony. Their new tactics changed the strategy of the war and made the traditionally large British military formations ineffective.

The new commander of the British Army, Lord Kitchener, responded by building blockhouses, small stone buildings surrounded with barbed wire, to restrict the movement of the guerrillas into a small area where they could be defeated. The wire was usually extended to the next blockhouse, around 1000 yards away with bells and tin cans, flares and sometimes loaded rifles pointing along the wire, attached to it to act as alarms. Between January 1901 and the end of the war, around 8,000 blockhouses had been constructed on a 3,700 mile grid. Each blockhouse was manned by an NCO and around six other soldiers, with a lieutenant commanding three or four blockhouses. Eventually, the British had around 450,000 British and colonial troops in the country.

The blockhouses were effective in restricting the movements of the guerrillas, but could not on their own defeat them. Kitchener formed new regiments of irregular light cavalry including the Bushveldt Carbineers who ranged across Boer-controlled territory, hunting down and destroying Boer commando groups.

In March 1901, he adopted a scorched earth policy and started stripping the countryside of anything which could be useful to the Boer guerillas; seizing livestock; burning crops and farms; poisioning wells; and forcibly moving the families that lived in them into concentration camps.

The policy eventually led to the destruction of 30,000 farmhouses and about 40 small towns. In all, 116,572 Boer men, women and children were moved into camps, roughly a quarter of the Boer population, along with about 120,000 black Africans. These new tactics soon broke the spirit and the supply lines of the Boer fighters. By December 1901, many of the camps' internees had been allowed to leave, and many of the men joined two new regiments fighting alongside the British, the Transvaal National Scouts and the Orange River Volunteers, to bring the war to an end on May 31, 1902.

The concentration camps

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Boer women and children in a concentration camp

These had originally been set up for refugees whose farms had been destroyed in the fighting, and the term "concentration camp" did not originally have a malignant meaning as it was simply a camp where refugees were concentrated. However, following Kitchener's new policy many more were built and they were converted to prisons. This new idea was essentially humane in its planning in London but ultimately proved brutal due to its lack of proper implementation.

There were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 for black African ones. The Boer camps held mainly the elderly, women and children as of the roughly 28,000 Boer prisoners of war, 25,630 were sent to camps overseas; but the native African ones held large numbers of men as well. Even when forcibly removed from Boer areas, the black Africans were not considered to be hostile to the British, and so provided a paid labour force.

The conditions in the camps were very unhealthy and the food rations were meagre. Women and children of menfolk who were still fighting were given even smaller rations. The poor diet and inadequate hygiene led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery. Coupled with a shortage of medical facilities, this led to large numbers of deaths — a report after the war concluded that 27,927 Boers (of whom 22,074 were children under 16) and 14,154 black Africans had died of starvation, disease and exposure. In all, about 25% of the Boer inmates and 12% of the black African ones died (although recent research suggests that the black African deaths were underestimated and may have actually been around 20,000).

A delegate of the South African Women and Children's Distress Fund, Emily Hobhouse, did much to publicise the distress of the inmates on her return to Britain after visiting some of the camps in the Orange Free State. Her fifteen page report caused uproar, and led to a government commission, the Fawcett Commission visiting camps from August to December 1901 which confirmed her report. They were highly critical of the running of the camps and made numerous recommendations, for example improvements in diet and provision of proper medical facilities. By February 1902 the annual death-rate dropped to 6.9 percent and eventually to 2 percent.

The end of the war

In all, the war had cost around 75,000 lives — 22,000 British soldiers (7,792 battle casualties, the rest through disease), 6,000-7,000 Boer soldiers, 20,000-28,000 Boer civilians and perhaps 20,000 black Africans. The last of the Boers surrendered in May 1902 and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in the same month. But the Boers were given £3,000,000 in compensation and were promised eventual self-government, and the Union of South Africa was established in 1910. The treaty ended the existence of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as Boer republics and placed them within the British Empire.

The Boers referred to the two wars as the Freedom Wars.

See also: History of South Africa and History of Cape Colony from 1870 to 1899

During the conflict, 78 Victoria Crosses (VC) — the highest and most prestigious award in the British armed forces for bravery in the face of the enemy — were awarded to British and Colonial soldiers. See List of Boer War Victoria Cross recipients

Effect of the war on domestic British politics

The war highlighted the dangers of Britain's policy of "splendid isolation." The 1900 UK general election, also known as the "Khaki election", was called by the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, on the back of recent British victories. There was much jingoistic enthusiasm for the war at this point among the ordinary people, resulting in a victory for the Conservative government.

However, public support quickly waned as it became apparent that the war would not be easy and it dragged on. There was public outrage at the use of scorched earth tactics — the burning of Boer homesteads, for example — and the conditions in the concentration camps. It also became apparent that there were serious problems with public health: up to 40% of recruits were unfit for military service, suffering from medical problems such as rickets and other poverty-related illnesses. This came at a time of increasing concern for the state of the poor in Britain.

The use of Chinese labour, known as Coolies, after the war by the governor of the new crown colonies, Lord Alfred Milner, also caused much revulsion in the UK. Workers were often kept in appalling conditions, received only a small wage and were forbidden to socialise with the local population — this led to further public shock at the resulting homosexual acts between those unable use the services of prostitutes. Some believe the Chinese slavery issue can be seen as the climax of public antipathy with the war.

Many Irish nationalists sympathised with the Boers, seeing them as a people oppressed by British imperialism, much like themselves. Small groups of Irish volunteers went to South Africa to fight with the Boers — this despite the fact that there were many Irish troops fighting with the British ArmyTemplate:Mn. In England, the "Pro-Boer" campaign expandedTemplate:Mn, with writers often idealizing the Boer society.

The consequence of public disquiet over the conduct of the war was the result of the 1906 General Election — the Liberal Party's landslide victory — when the Conservatives lost 246 Members of Parliament, leaving it with 156, and the Liberals gained 216 to give it 399.


  • Byron Farwell: The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: Harper and Row, 1976  ISBN 0-06-011204-2 (published in the UK as The Great Boer War. London: Allen Lane, 1977 ISBN 0-7139-0820-3)
  • April A. Gordon and Donald L. Gordon (eds.): Understanding contemporary Africa. 3rd ed. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2001  ISBN 1-55587-850-4
  • David Harrison: The white tribe of Africa: South Africa in perspective. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981   ISBN 0-520-04690-0
  • Thomas Pakenham: The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979  ISBN 0-394-42742-4
  • Sol T. Plaatje: Mafeking diary: a black man's view of a white man's war. Cambridge: Meridor Books; Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990.   ISBN 0-852550-64-2 (Meridor) ISBN 0-8214-0944-1 (Ohio UP). Originally published as The Boer War diary of Sol T. Plaatje; an African at Mafeking (Johannesburg: Macmillan, 1973 ISBN 0-8695-4002-5)
  • Arthur Conan Doyle: The Great Boer War. London: Smith, Elder, 1900

External links


Template:Mnb "Although some 30,000 Irishmen served in the British Army, which was led by an Irish General, Lord Frederick Roberts, who had been Commander of Chief of British Forces in Ireland prior to his transfer to South Africa, the sympathies of many of their compatriots lay firmly with the Boers. Nationalist-controlled local authorities passed pro-Boer resolutions and there were proposals to confer civic honours on Boer leader, Paul Kruger." (Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall written ( for History Ireland, 2004.)

Template:Mnb Lloyd George and Keir Hardie were members of the Stop the War Committee. (See the founder's biography: William T. Stead's  ( Many British authors gave their "Pro-Boer" opinions in British press, such as G. K. Chesterton's writing to 1905 - see Rice University Chesterton's poetry analysis (Англо-бурска война cs:Brsk vlky de:Burenkrieg fr:Guerre des Boers it:Guerre boere he:מלחמת הבורים nl:Boerenoorlog ja:ボーア戦争 no:Boerkrigen pl:Wojny burskie sv:Boerkriget


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