xxxxxAs we have seen, the First Anglo-Boer War of 1880-1881 ended in defeat for the British, and the Transvaal regained its independence. However, the discovery of large gold deposits within the country brought in vast numbers of fortune seekers - mostly British - and these “Uitlanders” or foreigners threatened the country’s stability. They were denied political rights and this provided the excuse for the ill-fated Jameson Raid of 1896. This failed, but the British government continued to demand justice for the newcomers, and when this was refused by the Boer leader Paul Kruger, war was inevitable. The opening phase of the war in 1899 was disastrous for the British. The cities of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith were besieged, and their forces were defeated in a series of battles, including those of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. The Boers, skilled stalkers and marksmen, proved a formidable enemy. With the arrival of more troops, however, the tide turned in favour of the British. The new commander, Field Marshal Lord Roberts, introduced new tactics and went on the offensive. The besieged cities were relieved and, following victory at the Battle of Paardeberg, Bloemfontein was captured and the Orange Free State was annexed in May 1900. Then the Transvaal was taken over in the September following the capture of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and victories at the Battles of Diamond Hill and Bergendal. Roberts then left for home, but, in fact, the war was far from over. The Boers then began a highly successful guerrilla campaign, launching hit-and-run attacks upon British supply routes and storage depots. In response the new commander, Lord Kitchener, introduced a scorched-earth policy, but this produced thousands of homeless women and children. He housed these in concentration camps, but these were badly managed and some 28,000 died of malnutrition and disease. This strategy was condemned worldwide, but it eventually wore down Boer resistance, and the Peace of Vereeniging was signed in May 1902. By it, the Transvaal and Orange River Colony were made British colonies, but became part of the Union of South Africa when it was formed in 1910.


1899 - 1902  (Vc, E7)


Majuba Hill: from Famous Men and Great Events of the 19th Century by the American journalist Charles Morris (1833-1922), published 1899, artist unknown – eBook, The Project Gutenberg. Map (South Africa): from Map (Orange Free State and Transvaal): source unknown. Koos de La Rey: date and artist unknown. Camp: date and photographer unknown. Churchill: 1898, photographer unknown. Hobhouse: date and photographer unknown.

xxxxxAs we have seen, the First Anglo-Boer War of 1880-1881 ended in defeat for the British. They were badly beaten at the Battle of Majuba Hill in February 1881 (illustrated), and by the Pretoria Convention of 1881 and the London Convention of 1884, the Transvaal regained its independence. However, in 1886 the discovery of large gold deposits near the present-day city of Johannesburg brought a vast influx of foreigners (Uitlanders) into the Transvaal, and this created a problem for the Boer government, led by their president Paul Kruger. Fearing that this horde of fortune hunters - the majority from Britain - would undermine the state, it imposed heavy taxes upon them, and refused to grant them the right to vote. As we have seen, this led to the ill-fated Jameson Raid of 1896, an attempt to seize the Transvaal - and its riches - for the British. The raid, inspired by the Cape Colony prime minister Cecil Rhodes, was a complete and embarrassing failure, but the problem of the Uitlanders remained, and their resentment continued to grow.


xxxxxThexfinal and inevitable showdown was not long in coming. In 1897 Alfred Milner (1854-1925) was appointed High Commissioner for South Africa, and he only served to add fuel to the fire. He was convinced that the disastrous Jameson Raid had made war inevitable, and that the longer it was delayed the stronger the Boer army would become. Firm in the belief that it was the moral duty of the British to rule over inferior peoples, he publicly denounced the Transvaal government for threatening “the peace and prosperity of the world”, and openly encouraged the Transvaal Uitlanders to call for British intervention. Axlast minute attempt at finding a compromise was held at the Bloemfontein Conference in June 1899, but Milner walked out of the meeting when Kruger bluntly refused to enfranchise the Uitlanders. When an anti-government revolt broke out in Johannesburg in September 1899, Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary sent an ultimatum to Kruger demanding full equality for the Uitlanders. Kruger replied with his own ultimatum, giving the British 48 hours to withdraw all their troops from the Transvaal border. When this time expired on 11th October, the two sides were at war.

xxxxxThe Boers had long realised that a war was inevitable and they had made preparations accordingly. Kruger had imported a large quantity of arms - mostly from Germany - and this had included 37,000 of the latest Maiser rifles and one hundred of the latest Krupp field guns. In addition, much time had been given over to training in order to create a more professional force. Meanwhile, on the political front an alliance had been formed with the Orange Free State to gain additional support and extend the area of the conflict. The Second Anglo-Boer War, often known as the Boer War or the South African War, was a brutal conflict which was to see many British setbacks and some questionable strategy before victory could be claimed. At its height, half a million imperial troops faced an army of little more than 85,000 men, but the Boers were fighting in familiar terrain, and the British combat methods proved outdated against the guerrilla tactics of a resourceful, fast moving enemy.

xxxxxThe war started off disastrously for the British. Sending troops to Africa took some time, and the field force in place proved inadequate. Within a matter of weeks the Boers had broken out and were laying siege to Mafeking and Kimberley in Cape Colony and the town of Ladysmith in Natal. ThexBritish suffered heavy loses in fighting at Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, and the Battle of Nicholson’s Nek, just outside Ladysmith, saw the defeat of a large British force and the surrender of some 800 men, the largest capitulation since the Napoleonic Wars. And elsewhere, by means of superior field-craft - greatly assisted by a knowledge of the terrain - the imperial forces found themselves outmanoeuvred and outwitted. The Boer farmers, skilled stalkers and marksmen, kept their distance, denying the British the open targets provided by a conventional assault. Inxthe space of five days in December, the so-called “Black Week”, the Boers gained tactical victories at Stormberg and Magersfontein, and the British commander Sir Redvers Buller (1839-1908), failing to cross the Tugela River, was forced to retreat at the Battle of Colenso. 145 of his men were killed and over 1,000 were reported missing or wounded. Then early in 1900, anxious to regain his reputation, Buller attempted to recapture Ladysmith, but en route his attacks on Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz were repulsed with heavy losses, and he was forced to pull back.

xxxxxThisxbrought about a change in command. Buller was replaced by Field Marshal Lord Roberts, and Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, the victor of the Battle of Omdurman, became his second in command. Meanwhile in Britain thousands of men volunteered for duty - alarmed at the news of defeat - and were quickly shipped out to South Africa to boost the size of the fighting force. By the Spring of 1900 the tide began to turn in Britain’s favour. New tactics introduced by Roberts whereby troops carried their own rations and were not obliged therefore to keep close to slow-moving supply wagons, greatly increased the mobility of his frontline forces. This, together with the arrival of troops from Canada, New Zealand and Australia, allowed the British to go on the offensive. Amidxgreat rejoicing at home, the towns of Kimberley and Ladysmith were relieved by the beginning of March, and Mafeking - where a force of 1,200 under the command of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, had been besieged since mid-October and suffered constant bombardment and serious food shortage - was relieved on the 16th May.

xxxxxInxthexmeantime Roberts had won a decisive victory at the Battle of Paardeberg (during which the Boer commander General Piet Cronje was captured) and, following further success at the Battle of Popular Grove, the capital of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein, was captured. In May the country was annexed and renamed The Orange River Colony. Then, after a delay caused by an outbreak of typhoid, troops were prepared for the invasion of the Transvaal, and by June, Johannesburg and Pretoria, two of the country’s largest cities, had been occupied. The British then gained victories at the Battles of Diamond Hill and Bergendal (near the town of Belfast), and by September the Transvaal itself had been taken over, and Kruger had fled to Europe. To prevent any further resistance a large number of Boer prisoners of war - about 26,000 - were then sent overseas, mainly to St. Helena, Ceylon, Bermuda and India. Meanwhile what was left of the Boer forces had taken refuge in remote areas outside of the major centres.

xxxxxUnderstandably, Roberts now considered that the war was won and he returned home, leaving Kitchener to bring the conflict to a rapid end. But the Boers had not surrendered and, as a meeting held at Kroonstad showed, many were willing and anxious to continue the fight. Underxthe leadership of General Christian Rudolf De Wet (1854-1922), and some intelligent young soldiers - including Jan Smuts (1870-1950) a future prime minister of the Union of South Africa - they conducted a guerrilla war which taxed the British high command and kept the war going until May 1902. Using hit and run tactics, this band of fighters harassed a British Army that was many times its size, attacking isolated bases, supply routes and storage depots, and escaping long before enemy reinforcements appeared on the scene. (Illustrated here is the Boer general Koos de La Rey.)

xxxxxKitchener’s response to these terrorist activities was a scorched earth policy, the destruction of crops, cattle and homesteads in order to deprive his enemy of food and shelter. It worked to some extent, but this brutal strategy also left him responsible for thousands of homeless women, children and elderly folk. His solution was to herd these people into a large number of tented camps, but these “concentration camps” (illustrated), were inadequately maintained and supervised and, as a result, some 28,000 Boer citizens, mostly children, died of malnutrition or diseases such as dysentery, typhoid and measles. This scorched earth policy and the horror stories that came out of these internment camps brought worldwide condemnation of Britain’s conduct of the war, and turned world public opinion against the British military. Such was the level of criticism that it became vitally important to bring the campaign to an end as quickly as possible. Large numbers of troops were employed to flush out the guerrilla units section by section, and by the Spring of 1902 the surviving Boer fighters, exhausted and heavily outnumbered, were prepared to sue for peace.


xxxxxThexPeace of Vereeniging, was signed in Pretoria at the end of May, 1902. Negotiations were conducted between Milner, Kitchener and Kruger’s successor Louis Botha. The Boers received the sum of £3 million to rebuild their country, and were promised responsible government as soon as this was seen as practicable. In return, they recognised Edward VII as their sovereign. However, the thorny question of “granting the franchise to natives (Africans)” was deferred until self-government had been restored in both republics, thereby giving over to white minorities the political fate of the black majorities.

xxxxxIn total around 75,000 lives were lost during the war. The British lost 22,000 men, more than a half through disease, and the Boers about 35,000 men, women and children, some 28,000 of whom died in the concentration camps set up to house the general population. In addition, it is estimated that 20,000 native Africans were killed during the conflict. The brutal strategy adopted by the British in the final stages of the war came in for severe criticism across the world, and raised questions about the morality and, indeed, the viability of British imperial policy. Britain found itself in “splendid” but dangerous isolation and embarked on a search for friends. There followed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 and the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, agreements that forged the making of two hostile blocs at the very heart of Europe.

xxxxxIncidentally, A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 poems published in 1896 by the English classical scholar and poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936), proved extremely popular during the war, and became even more so with the coming of the First World War in 1914. Set amid an idyllic rural scene, and dwelling tenderly upon the growing pains of youth and young love, their preoccupation with death and their subtle military overtones struck a powerful chord in the minds of the British public. ……

xxxxx…… We are told that during the siege of Mafeking Baden Powell organised a series of cricket matches within the garrison to keep his men occupied. The Boers watched the games from afar and at one point proposed a pause in the fighting in order that the two sides could have a match! Baden Powell declined, telling the Boer commander that the British were already winning, having scored 200 days not out. ……

xxxxx…… Despite the worldwide criticism levelled against Britain’s conduct of the war, the well-known Scottish writer Conan Doyle - creator of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes - came out in support of Britain’s role. After serving for a few months as a volunteer doctor during the conflict, he put forward the case for Britain in a pamphlet entitled The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct and later in his book The Great Boer War, published in 1900. ……

xxxxx…… After the war the Transvaal and Orange River Colony were made British colonies, and in 1910 they became part of the Union of South Africa. Considering the bloody, brutal nature of the conflict there was surprisingly little ill-feeling between the states. The Union became a leading member of the Commonwealth, and during the First World War, many who had fought against the British supported the Empire’s cause. ……

xxxxx…… Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during the Second World War, served as a war correspondent for the Morning Post during the conflict. At one point he was captured and imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp in Pretoria, but he managed to escape and travelled some 300 miles to reach the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. He returned home a national hero, and then went back to South Africa to be present at the relief of Ladysmith and the capture of Pretoria. He wrote about his war experiences in London to Ladysmith Via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton’s March, both published in 1900.

xxxxxThe plight of the women and children inside the concentration camps in South Africa was brought to the notice of the British public by a Cornish welfare campaigner named Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926). Having learnt that thousands were dying through lack of food and the unhygienic conditions in the camps, she set up a Distress Fund for South African Women and Children and visited Cape Colony in December 1900. Her worst fears were confirmed.

xxxxxIn her report, delivered to the British government in June 1901, she blamed the authorities for the appalling conditions that she found in the camps she visited, condemning them for the “wholesale cruelty” they were inflicting on the old, the weak and the young. The whole policy, she wrote, was “a grievous and gigantic blunder” and presented almost insoluble problems. Eventually the government agreed to the setting up of the Fawcett Commission - headed by the English suffragist Millicent Fawcett (1847-1928) - and this corroborated her report in 1901.



Emily Hobhouse