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African History: The Second Boer War

Updated on May 05, 2014

Standing Up To The British

A detachment of Boer commandos at Spion Kop, ready to take on the mightiest empire in the world.
A detachment of Boer commandos at Spion Kop, ready to take on the mightiest empire in the world. | Source

South Africa In The Late 19th Century

Green area= South African Republic/Transvaal, Orange area= Orange Free State, Blue area= British Cape Colony, Red area= Natal.
Green area= South African Republic/Transvaal, Orange area= Orange Free State, Blue area= British Cape Colony, Red area= Natal. | Source

Background

Relations between the Boers (descendants of Dutch settlers) and Britain had remained dangling on a knife edge ever since the British had taken control over the Afrikaans speaking Cape Colony in South Africa in 1814.

In response to the Emancipation Act and attacks by local tribes, Boers began to leave the Cape Colony in 1835 and set up the independent republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal. By 1854, both had been fully recognised by the British. However, by 1877 the Transvaal was totally bankrupt and also under threat from the Zulus. Britain was worried about German colonial expansion into the region, and annexed the Transvaal in return for defending it against the Zulus. With the Zulus defeated by 1879, the Boers rebelled against British rule, defeating them at Laing’s Neck in January 1881 and then at Majuba Hill in February. The Treaty of Pretoria, signed in April, restored the state’s independence.

The discovery of gold in the Transvaal in 1886 attracted thousands of Uitlanders (foreigners) to the region. The Transvaal government refused to give them voting and other rights, which led to unrest. In 1895 Cecil Rhodes, owner of a Transvaal mining company, sent an armed party of 500 men commanded by Leander Starr Jameson to support an Uitlander uprising. The uprising, however, never materialised.

The Failed Raid

A sketch depicting the arrest of Leander Starr Jameson after the failure of the raid.
A sketch depicting the arrest of Leander Starr Jameson after the failure of the raid. | Source

Real Footage From The Second Boer War

On The Road To War

The failure of the Jameson raid in 1895 poisoned relations between the Transvaal and Britain; the British, however, continued to put pressure on the governments of both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, who felt threatened by Britain’s support of the Uitlanders and by its perceived imperialism. In response, both states declared war on Britain in October 1899 with the aim of forcing a negotiated settlement.

The two sides were far from evenly matched. The British had close to 25,000 soldiers in the region when war broke out, but quickly called on a large standing army stationed elsewhere in the empire. They were well armed and trained, although not familiar with the territory and their experience of close formation fighting in wars around the world since 1815 was not, however, that relevant or useful when faced with the highly mobile and well-armed Boers. In contrast, the Boers avoided set piece battles, preferring hit and run tactics. They could call on around 83,000 men of fighting age, of whom around 40,000 were fighting at any one time, but they had no trained army. Instead, they had a local militia system grouped into mounted commando units that varied in strength according to the population from which they were recruited. All were skilled, mounted marksmen, their skills learned from hunting on the veldt (wide, treeless grasslands).

Although it was a legal requirement that all adult men own a rifle, many Boers did not, or a modern one at least, so President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal ordered 37,000 rifles and ten million cartridges from Krupps, the German manufacturer. The Mauser model 1895 rifle was extremely accurate at long range and superior to the British Lee-Metford magazine rifle. The Boers also had a small quantity of modern French and German field artillery.

Trench Warfare

Although the British were superior in number, trench warfare and modern weaponry reduced their effectiveness. This type of warfare was a prelude to what would happen in World War I fourteen years later.
Although the British were superior in number, trench warfare and modern weaponry reduced their effectiveness. This type of warfare was a prelude to what would happen in World War I fourteen years later. | Source

Horrors Of War

A photograph showing British dead at Spion Kop.
A photograph showing British dead at Spion Kop. | Source

The Relief Of Ladysmith

The greeting between Sir George Stuart White and Major Hubert Gough on the 28th February 1900 signified that the relief had indeed taken place.
The greeting between Sir George Stuart White and Major Hubert Gough on the 28th February 1900 signified that the relief had indeed taken place. | Source

Fascinating Fact

The British stretcher-bearer at Spion Kop was one Mohandas Gandhi, the future leader of India who had organised the Indian Ambulance Corps in South Africa during the war to care for the wounded.

Scorched Earth

Frustrated by effective Boer guerrilla tactics, the British sought to try to deny them vital supplies by literally scorching everything valuable in their path.
Frustrated by effective Boer guerrilla tactics, the British sought to try to deny them vital supplies by literally scorching everything valuable in their path. | Source

Under Siege

At the start of the war fast moving Boers columns advanced out of the two republics, besieging Colonel Robert Baden-Powell and his troops at Mafeking and the garrison at Kimberley, while a 15,000 strong Transvaal force invaded British-run Natal and besieged Ladysmith. The British commanded by Sir Redvers Buller, sent out three columns to relieve the sieges. The first column, a force of around 10,000 men with 16 guns, advanced northwest from the Cape towards Kimberley and overcame Boer resistance at the Modder River at the end of November 1899. However, it was then defeated by the Boers, led by Piet Cronje at Magersfontein outside Kimberley on the 10th-11th December. On the 9th the second column, which headed north from the Eastern Cape to relieve Mafeking, had been defeated at Stormberg. On the 15th December the third column heading from Durban, led by Buller himself, encountered the Boers, who in turn were led by Louis Botha, at Colenso. The British third column numbered around 21,000 men but was driven back by the 6500 Boers concealed in difficult terrain. The British had all of its artillery captured and sustained losses of 143 men killed, 756 men wounded, and 220 men captured. Boer casualties, at around 50, were negligible, as they had been in the previous two encounters.

The three defeats suffered by the British during this ‘Black Week’ led to a rapid change in command. Buller, who retained his local command, was replaced by Field Marshal Viscount Roberts, with General Kitchener as his chief of staff. The two rapidly reorganised the British forces to counter Boer mobility, and Buller made another attempt to finally relieve Ladysmith. He divided his force into two; one, led by General Warren, attempted to take control of the commanding heights of Spion Kop to the west of Ladysmith, the balance being held in reserve. On the night of the 24th January 1900 2000 men scaled the hill but discovered in daylight that they could not dig in, had no sandbags, and, worse, were overlooked by Boer artillery. The British came under heavy fire, which they could not return, but reinforcements allowed them to keep the hill despite a Boer attempt to scale the hill and engage them at close quarters. By the evening both sides were exhausted and withdrew, the Boers then regrouped taking the abandoned summit and allowed Buller to retreat. Buller himself eventually managed to relieve Ladysmith on the 28th February.

A Terrifying Precursor

A photograph showing the tents at Bloemfontein concentration camps.
A photograph showing the tents at Bloemfontein concentration camps. | Source

The First Concentration Camps

After the British had burned Boer farms and destroyed their crops to deny Boer fighters food and shelter, General Kitchener set up a series of refugee camps to accommodate Boer civilians who had become displaced. They were the first camps to be known as concentration camps and served as a chilling precursor for what was to follow in the 20th century. Conditions were appalling and food rations meagre, leading to the deaths from starvation, disease and exposure of 27,927 Boers, of whom 24,074 were under 16- half of the Boer child population.

The Long War

Meanwhile, Roberts had helped free Kimberley in mid-February and then decided to strike at the Boer capitals. A 6000 strong British force led by Kitchener trapped a slightly smaller Boer force on Paardeberg hill and attacked it directly, suffering more than 1000 casualties before Kitchener withdrew. Roberts then took command and subjected the Boers to an artillery barrage before they submitted. He then marched on Bloemfontein, the Orange Free State capital, which he took on the 13th March before heading north to Transvaal to take Johannesburg on the 31st May and Pretoria on the 5th June. As Roberts forged ahead, the siege of Mafeking, which had been in progress since the start of the war, was over. Defended by Colonel Baden-Powell, the town was relieved on the 17th May 1900.

The Boers, having all but lost the war, turned to guerrilla tactics. They sabotaged railway communications, attacked isolated outposts, and ambushed British troops. The British responded by starting a scorched earth policy that burned farms to deny the rebels food and moved the displaced civilians into concentration camps. Faced with such harsh measures, the Boers capitulated, signing a peace treaty in May 1902.

Britain's Dark Side

Lizzie Van Zyl, one of the 24,000 or so Boer children that died in British concentration camps. British nurses refused to care for her, instead labeling her a nuisance due to her inability to speak English.
Lizzie Van Zyl, one of the 24,000 or so Boer children that died in British concentration camps. British nurses refused to care for her, instead labeling her a nuisance due to her inability to speak English. | Source

South Africa Today

Aftermath

The aforementioned peace treaty was signed at Vereeniging on the Transvaal-Orange Free State border and was quite lenient on the Boers. The two Boer republics accepted British sovereignty and the promise of future self-government, which both republics gained in 1907. The Boers were also compensated £3 million for restocking and repairing their farms. Both Boer republics eventually joined with Cape Colony and Natal to become part of the Union of South Africa, founded in 1910.

For the British meanwhile, it had taken more than 500,000 imperial troops to defeat a far smaller number of Boers. Army reforms were desperately needed. Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for War from 1905 to 1912, created a British Expeditionary Force ready to fight overseas at any time, and a Territorial Force that amalgamated all voluntary local militia forces into a single home defence force. The wisdom of these reforms was proved in the opening months of World War I.

The war had revealed Britain to be isolated diplomatically, with most nations supporting the Boers. What had once been a deliberate policy of ‘Splendid Isolation’ from European affairs now became a liability. Britain therefore moved to secure an alliance with Japan in 1902 and an entente, or understanding with France in 1904 that settled outstanding colonial differences between the two nations. In 1906 the first in a series of confidential military conversations took place between their military staff in order to determine a common strategy in the event of a war against Germany. An entente with Russia, similar to that with France, was signed in 1907.

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    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      This is a subject I knew bits and pieces about and your article ties things together wonderfully. The Second Boer War strikes me as a grubby bit of British history, exposing commercial and political arrogance and greed. The scorched earth policy and concentration camps were a disgrace to the mighty British Empire. If they had lost, it would have been their Vietnam. They did, however, learn their lessons, using their experience against the entrenched masses of quick-firing long range Boer rifles to train their troops where they excelled in these very tactics in 1914. Young Winston Churchill also gained fame during the war by escaping from a POW comp. Great job as always, James.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much. Yes I did read a little bit about Churchill's involvement in the war. But what fascinated me more was the fact that Colonel Baden-Powell, went on to found the cub-scout movement, and also one of the stretcher bearers at Spion Kop was one Mohandas Gandhi.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      And wasn't Cecil Rhodes the creator of the Rhodes Scholarship?

    • profile image

      mbuggieh 3 years ago

      Anyone thiught about the Boer War as Act 1 of World War I?

    • profile image

      mbuggieh 3 years ago

      Sorry "thought".

    • Mel Jay profile image

      Mel Jay 3 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for your thoughtful and considered hub. I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that the British were the first to use the concept of a concentration camp, but had never actually explored the issue. It paints the particular brand or ethic of British colonialism in a very sinister light and accords with the British treatment of the indigenous people here in Australia. It seems that British colonial cruelty and arrogance was not an isolated or situational occurrence but a structural theme of empire and dominance at the time. Thumbs up from me.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes I do believe you're right. I'd forgotten about that.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I suppose in a way yes. I would also include the Zulu War in there too, as the British used precursors to machine guns on the native warriors.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I think it's just the nature of imperialism, the British, like all Europeans thought they were somehow superior to everybody else, and yet they are largely responsible for the messed up world we live in today. And speaking of Australia, it was the British who were responsible for wiping out the native peoples of Tasmania.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      This is so interesting and I vote up plus share onto my FB page 'A Brand New Dawn'.

      Enjoy your day.

      Eddy.

    • Mel Jay profile image

      Mel Jay 3 years ago from Australia

      Yes you are right about the elimination of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania by the British and early Tasmanian colonists. I believe that part of the story is that the soldiers and settlers formed a long line and swept through the bush shooting every Aboriginal person they could discover. The survivors were then relocated to a mission on a lonely windswept island where they eventually died out. I think that a few made it across to Victoria and there are some descendants today, but only a very few. I am sure there is a lot more to that unfortunate story though.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Eddy. You have a good day too.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hmmm...yes, I remember reading that story in a book called 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond. It just goes to show that there was nothing noble about the British Empire. It was all pure greed and the desire to dominate, it makes me feel sick whenever I hear people over here yearning for the return of the empire.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Like everything else, it's different when your on the top of the heap, isn't it? It's so much nicer up there and, as long as we keep the nasty bits covered up, the hoi poloi won't mind. We're not supposed to have an American Empire, but how does that explain our imperialistic ways?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes, you're right. Personally I see the American Empire as a direct successor to the British Empire. When you think about, many peoples around the world are still influenced by people speaking the English language, only it sounds slightly different than before.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 3 years ago from Norfolk

      JKenny - The image above of Lizzie Van Zyl is for-ever imprinted in my memory. What a sobering reminder of a terrible time in History. I grew up in this area and know it well. I find all wars distressing but never one which was more senseless than this one. Thank you for sharing.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Well, yes I agree with you on this one. The war was fought for nothing more than imperial conquest. For me the British Empire was neither noble or grand, instead it was just a conquering force, motivated by greed.

    • Tom Mukasa profile image

      Tom Mukasa 3 years ago from Lives in USA

      Thanks JKenny (you) as a student of "this kind of subject," do you think we can also say , in some part, the poverty we see today in many parts of Africa arising from the activities of these years?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes Tom, you are right. Imperialism certainly left its mark in a negative way on most of Africa. I've never been comfortable with the idea of Europeans trying to force others to live like them. And as we have seen in Africa, the Middle East and various other places, it doesn't always work.

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 2 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Very good overview of the war.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      This is certainly a very "good" history of a war. What can we learn? Stay away from war! Do not enmesh yourself in taking sides. Leave the area. You are not a tree, Move. More broadly, walk away from a fight, even if provoked. We are not politicians or kings. We are not the leaders, there is no value in war for us common folk.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 2 years ago from Northern California, USA

      Fascinating! You have an intriguing way of presenting information that would otherwise have been tedious to read. Congratulations on receiving the Hub of the Day award. You deserve it for this well-written hub.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 2 years ago from Norfolk

      JKenny

      Congratulations on your well deserved HOTD - so glad you have been able to highlight this war - especially as I grew up in SA.

    • Jacquelyn fuller profile image

      Jacquelyn fuller 2 years ago from Woonsocket, Rhode Island

      This is great history the African people have been through so much with the British people they have truly be ensalved in their own country as well as taking the African people and dividing them up as property in other parts of the world. this month is truly a celebration of black history to in rememberance to where we were yesterday and how we have prospered today. Even though Victory is not quite done and we are still considered the outcast of the world and other races still take us for granted the day will come when we rise above it all.

    • conradofontanilla profile image

      conradofontanilla 2 years ago from Philippines

      AT about the same time, like the Boers, the Filipinos were fighting the Americans to keep the freedom they have gained by fighting the Spaniards. The Americans, using superior arms developed during the American civil war, employed concentration camps. A lot of Filipinos died of cholera in camps. The Americans coveted the vast Chinese market. The Philippines is a natural jumping board to this market. The Americans are of British origin.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 2 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Congratulations for being selected HOTD. This hub is well researched. Yes, there was animosity between the British and the Boers from the beginning of British hegemony in Africa. The British viewed the Boers as somewhat inferiors the way they viewed the Irish. Now, let me not digress.

      The Boers were a fierce, independent people who wanted autonomy over their lands. The British at the time did not want their "subjects" to have any type of hegemony for that would threaten, even destroy the British Empire. However, the Boers rebelled against such British dominance but to no fruition. As a result of this conflict, the animosity between the British & Boer escalated so much that the latter were on the side of Britain's enemies during World War II. However, after World War II, the Boer gained dominance over the British in South Africa & Afrikaan became the main language in South Africa. The Boers or rather Afrikaners in turn oppressed the African majority in South Africa with their apartheid policy which was dismantled in 1990.

    • gposchman profile image

      Gene Poschman 2 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      When I was a child, 7 or 8 I used to take after dinner walks at my grandmother's with Ned. I remember Ned as a big man, both in height and girth. I realize that a 7 year old might see any man as tall, but my grandmother assures me that Ned was over 6'4" tall. I later learned that Ned had been born in England.

      While we walked he would tell me stories about his adventures in the Boer wars, though he didn't identify them as such. It was only later I learned that the stories he told me had to do with the Boer Wars. My grandmother told me that Ned was a young officer in the wars and when he returned to England, he resigned his commission and immigrated to America.

      I remember little of the stories he told me, only that he told them well and was able to keep a 7 year old captivated. That would have been around 1955.

      I like the article, it gave me some perspective on Ned. I always remember him as a warm man.

      Gene Poschman

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      The lesson is not to become enmeshed in war at all. Do not pick sides, do not assign blame, just stay out of it. As individuals we have little or no say in politics, so avoid harm.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      We went to South Africa and visited the Memorial for Cecil Rhodes, a testament to the Empire that was the power then. No Empire really looked good in history especially when viewed today.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Learn from this and other wars not to become enmeshed in them. People will fight one another forever, learn to move away from the violence and subsequent repercussions. You are not a tree, Move!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 2 years ago from Australia

      Thanks for an interesting hub on a war which is often overlooked, especially its relevance to the changing political landscape leading to WWI. Congratulations on HOTD, well deserved

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Good Article. The lesson for most of us is Not to become enmeshed in wars. War and violence is not healthy for the individual. You can generally see war and violence coming. Avoid it. Move if needed.

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