African History: The Second Boer War
Standing Up To The British
South Africa In The Late 19th Century
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
Real Footage From The Second Boer War
More On 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.
Horrors Of War
The Relief Of Ladysmith
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.
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
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
South Africa Today
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.