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Boer War

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There were two Boer wars, one in 1880-81 and the second from October 11, 1899-1902 both between the British and the settlers of Dutch origin (called Boere, Afrikaners or Voortrekkers) in South Africa that put an end to the two independent republics that they had founded.


First Boer War

The first clash was precipitated by Sir Theophilus Shepstone who annexed the Transvaal (the South African Republic) for the British in 1877 after the Anglo-Zulu War. The Boers protested and in 1880 revolted. The Boers dressed in earthtone khaki clothes, whereas the British uniforms were bright red, a stark contrast to the African landscape, which enabled the Boers to easily snipe British troops from a distance. After a British force under George Pomeroy-Collery was badly defeated at the Battle of Majuba Hill in February 1881 the British government of Gladstone 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 sprung 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, although remaining 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 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).

Siege life took its toll on both the defending soldiers and the civilians in the cities of Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberly 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 Magersfontein, Boer commander, Koos de la Rey, devised a plan to dig trenches in an unconventional place to both fool the British and give his riflemen a greater firing range. His plan worked, decisively defeating the British resulting in the loss of nearly 1,000 British soldiers, and preventing them from relieving Kimberley and Mafeking. Similar defeats at Stormberg and Colenso concluded Black Week.

The second phase: British offensive - January 1900 until September 1900

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. The relief of Mafeking on May 18, 1900 provoked riotous celebrations in England. The British were able to force the surrender of General Piet Cronje and 4,000 of his troops, further weakening the Boer fighting force. They 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.

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

The Boer guerrillas began to attack the railroads and telegraph wires of the British army. 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 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 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 Boers 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.

The concentration camps

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 malign 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.

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 dysentry. 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 million 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 , History of Cape Colony from 1870 to 1899


  • Farwell, Byron (1976). The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Gordon, April A.; Gordon, Donald L., eds. (2001). Understanding Contemporary Africa. 3rd ed. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner.
  • Harrison, David (1981). The White Tribe of Africa. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Pakenham, Thomas (1979). The Boer War. New York: Random House.
  • Plaatje, Sol T. (1990). Mafeking Diary: A Black Man's View of a White Man's War. Cambridge: Meridor Books.

External links

  • War Museum of the Boer Republics. Anglo Boer War Museum (accessed 24 December 2003)
  • National UK Archives site
  • Battlefields in KwaZulu Natal

Last updated: 02-07-2005 17:14:04
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55