War has broken out in South Africa, and British commanders are confident they will soon crush the upstart Boer republics who have dared to defy them. General White’s troops facing Boer positions on the high ground near Ladysmith wait nervously as British and Boer artillery duel overhead. But the neighbouring British units have gone silent, and the order comes to retreat. Boer artillery and riflemen pour fire onto the exposed British troops, and they withdraw in panic. On this day, the Empire has been defeated, but there’s a long and bloody war ahead. It’s the 2nd Boer War. https://youtu.be/tFxCfxF_iV4
In the late 19th century, conflict was brewing in southern Africa. The Dutch had colonized the region from the 17th-century, and the settlers arrived in what became the Cape Colony. They called themselves Afrikaaners and spoke their own dialect of Dutch known as Afrikaans, but were often known simply as Boers – the Dutch word for farmer. Most of these settlers farmed lands that they seized from the local native population, many of whom the Afrikaaners then enslaved.
In 1806, Britain captured Cape Town during the Napoleonic Wars, and kept permanent control of the Cape Colony after 1815. But problems between the British administration and the Boer population soon emerged over language, cultural outlook, and legal systems. The tipping point came when Britain outlawed slavery in 1834. This enraged the Boers, who relied on slave labour to work their farms. Between 1835 and 1840, the Boers migrated out of British territory in what they called the Great Trek to find new, independent homelands in eastern South Africa. There they founded two new Boer republics: Orange Free State and the South African Republic or Transvaal. The new Boer states maintained some forms of slavery and expropriated their land from native Africans.
But the British-Boer struggle continued. The British Empire slowly expanded its control of South Africa by taking over more native African territories, and until by the 1840s it shared a border with the Boer Republics. Frequent border skirmishes blew up into the First Boer War of 1880-1881. The Boers won the war, and forced the British government to formally acknowledge Boer independence.
And then came the Transvaal gold rush. Prospectors discovered enormous gold deposits between 1884 and 1886. Immigrants from all over the British Empire flooded South Africa to seek their fortune, and the newfound mineral wealth of Transvaal drew interest of British statesmen and businessmen. Foremost among these was Cape Colony Prime Minster and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, who led the campaign to bring the Boer republics under British rule to secure their natural resources for the empire. But his scheme to overthrow the Boer governments using a force of mercenaries in the Jameson Raid of 1895 ended in fiasco and alerted the Boers to the threat of British annexation.
Despite the failure of the Jameson Raid, Britain relentless pressured the Boer republics to make territorial and legal concessions. By 1899 the British troops were massing in their colony of Natal and the Boers feared an invasion was imminent. Rather than await the inevitable, the Boers decided to strike first, and on October 11, 1899, the Second Boer War began.
So the Boers’ desire for independence and British imperial expansion had come to a head with the outbreak of war in 1899. Let’s take a look at the fighting forces that each side brought to the battlefield.
The Boers did not possess a standing army and instead relied on a militia system. In times of war, the government would muster all able-bodied men between the ages of 16 and 60. Citizens were expected to arrive with their own rifle and horse, but the government also bought and distributed thousands of German Mauser rifles at the start of the war.
The Boers had no formal military training but were formidable fighters noted for their excellent marksmanship. In peacetime, Boer citizens developed their skill by hunting game and through target shooting competitions – a practice noted by American journalist Howard Hillegas:
“Target shooting was the chief amusement [in Transvaal]…demand for rifle ammunition was constant and firing at marks may almost be said to have taken the place occupied by billiards in Europe.” (Jones, ‘Shooting Power’, p. 37)
Every Boer fighter was a mounted rifleman. They could move quickly and seize key terrain before dismounting and delivering a hail of accurate rifle fire. Decades later, Winston Churchill named Britain’s special forces after the Afrikaaner word for a military unit – commando.
The riflemen were backed by a small professional artillery branch, which deployed a mixture of modern French and German guns including four 155mm Creusot guns, which the British nicknamed ‘Long Tom.’
The Boers were motivated, well-armed, and determined to defend their independence. They had about 60,000 men available to fight, but their weakness was their ability to sustain a long war. The Boers relied on military imports from Europe, their small population meant that they could not afford a war of attrition, and they feared an African uprising or attack from the Zulu kingdom. They had to strike fast and win a clear victory.
The British Army was immensely experienced in colonial warfare, and with 250,000 troops it could field more men than the Afrikaaners. One of them, in fact, would be my great-grandfather. The 2nd Boer War would be the 226th out of 230 wars fought during the reign of Queen Victoria. The British won nearly all these conflicts thanks to the army’s advantages in discipline and technology, and tactics based on close formations and crushing fire.
But the Army had very little experience of facing modern firepower, since the colonial enemies it had defeated fielded little more than a handful of second hand rifles. Imperial troops would face an unpleasant surprise under Boer rifle and artillery fire.
Still, the British army in South Africa was confident, and seemed to have forgotten its defeat at the hands of the Boers in 1880-1881. British military thinkers reckoned victory would be swift and decisive against a fragile Boer force lacking discipline.
Native black Africans also played a role in the war. Officially both sides declared that the conflict was a “white man’s war” and that the neutrality of black Africans would be respected. In reality, black Africans performed a variety of roles for both belligerents. The Boers used African forced labour to provide transport and dig trenches. The British hired thousands of Africans for logistic work, as well as native scouts and trackers, some of whom fought in uniform.
The Boer militias and the British army were set to clash, and when war broke out in October 1899, the Boers tried to make the most of their window of opportunity.
At the start of the war, the Boers outnumbered British forces in South Africa 40,000 to 20,000. Since the British were sure to send reinforcements, the Boer plan emphasised speed and aggression. They would sweep into South Africa and crush the British garrisons before fresh troops arrived from the United Kingdom.
The Boers invasion had four main axes. In the west, Boer forces besieged the railway town of Mafeking to prevent British forces advancing from the direction of Bechuanaland (Botswana). In the southwest, the Boers surrounded the diamond mining centre of Kimberley, and in the south, Boer forces advancing into the Cape Midland region to disrupt British rail transport.
The main Boer offensive though drove into Natal. The British had most of their Army here – some 15,000 men – and had planned to use the colony as a base to invade Boer territory until the Boers beat them to it. But British forces were poorly deployed, and Lieutenant General William Penn Symons 4000-strong detachment bore the brunt of the Boer attack.
On 20 October 1899 the first pitched battle of the war took place as the Boers got their artillery onto Talana Hill and bombarded Symons’ camp below. The British were surprised, but they quickly rallied and launched an assault that drove the Boers from the high ground. The attack was a costly success: Symons was mortally wounded and 10% of his force became casualties. The nature of the fighting surprised even veteran British officers like Captain Nugent of the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corps:
“The ground in front of me was literally rising in dust from the bullets, and the din echoing between the hill and the wood below and among the rocks from the incessant fire of the Mausers seemed to blend with every other sound into a long drawn-out hideous roar. I looked round over my shoulder […] the whole ground we had already covered was strewn with bodies. At that moment I was hit […] through the knee. The actual shock was as if someone had hit me with their whole strength with a club. I spun round and fell, my pistol flying one way and helmet another.” [Pakenham, Boer War, p.131]
Despite the victory at Talana Hill, the British were in danger. Mobile Boer columns threatened to surround the isolated force, which endured a harrowing retreat to join the main British garrison at Ladysmith.
British forces moved north to clear the retreat route. On October 21, a British column struck advancing Boers at the Battle of Elandslaagte. A skilful British combined arms attack drove the Boers from their positions before British cavalry swept in from the flank and completed the route.
Yet the Boer advance into Natal continued. By the end of October, British commander George White had two options. He could withdraw to the south and wait for reinforcements from Britain. This would preserve his army but would cause political problems if public opinion saw it as too passive. Or, he could attack the Boers and try for a decisive victory to defeat the invasion. This might turn the tide of the war, but also ran the risk of a disastrous defeat.
White chose to gamble. On October 30, he threw his forces into action at the Battle of Ladysmith. But British attacks were badly co-ordinated and the Boers won a significant victory. White retreated to Ladysmith, and the Boers laid siege to the town.
The opening weeks of the war had been a success story for the Boers: they had defeated Britain’s main army in South Africa and trapped it in Ladysmith. If the town were to fall, the Boers might just win the war.
In November 1899, a fresh British army was on its way to help relieve besieged imperial troops in Ladysmith. Its 45,000 men had left the UK at the start of the war under the command of General Redvers Buller. Buller had planned to link up with White’s force and invade the Boer republics, but the Boers’ siege of Ladysmith forced him to scrap the idea.
Instead, Buller split his force in three. 15,000 men would head west to relieve Kimberley; 5,000 troops would secure the Cape Midland area; and Buller himself would lead 20,000 men into Natal and break the siege of Ladysmith. And the British were in a hurry to rescue the garrisons, since Buller could not be sure how long they could hold out.
Since the British had to operate along the railway lines, surprise was impossible. The Boers had time to prepare defensive positions, and were ready and waiting.
On December 10, British troops in the Cape Midlands attempted a complicated night march to surprise the Boers at dawn. But the British column got lost in the dark and when dawn broke they found themselves in the middle of the Boer position rather than on its flank. The desperate British launched a doomed frontal assault, but Boer riflemen mowed them down, and won the Battle of Stormberg.
On the road to Kimberly, Lord Methuen at first drove the Boers back, but the tables turned at the Battle of Magersfontein on December 11. Once again the British wanted to move up at night, they were slowed by a thunderstorm and were stuck in the open at sunrise. The Boers pinned them down under fire, and the British retreated in disorder.
On December 15, Buller’s main army attacked Boer positions on the Tugela River on the way to Ladysmith. British artillery moved too far forward, and the Boers quickly knocked out two batteries. The British infantry assault fared no better, and as they advanced in close order, Boer fighters ambushed them and blasted the imperial troops from three sides. 18-year old Boer fighter Denneys Reitz, who later served in the British army in WW1, recalled the battle:
“We heard a British voice call out “Bayonets! Bayonets!” and they came at us like a wall… We poured volley after volley into their closely packed ranks… we delivered such a volume of fire that the column swerved away to the left. Any soldier who got amongst us was shot or made prisoner.” (Reitz, Commando, pp. 59-60
By mid-morning the Battle of Colenso was over. The British suffered over 1000 casualties and lost ten field guns, while only 38 Boer fighters were killed or wounded. In just one week, the Boers had defeated the mighty British Empire three times, stunning UK public opinion and causing The Times newspaper to refer to the “Black Week.”
By Christmas 1899 many in the Boer republics thought that the war was all but won, even though the sieges continued. But the shock and humiliation of the Black Week had galvanized the Imperial Government.
After a string of defeats in December 1899, London sent its most famous soldier to South Africa. Lord Roberts arrived in January 1900, along with tens of thousands of reinforcements from all over the empire, including Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and a certain Mohandas Ghandi who served with the Indian Ambulance Corps at the Battle of Spion Kop. Roberts began to reorganize the army, including transport to free it from railways, and new tactics to counter Boer firepower.
The British launched a new offensive on February 10, 1900. 50,000 men advanced on Kimberly, and British cavalry caught the Boers off guard by bursting through their siege lines and threatening their line of retreat. A British officer described how the action evolved:
“The enterprise appeared to us at first as quite hopeless; we believed only a few of us could come out of it alive, and had we made a similar attack [in training], we should certainly have all been put out of action, and have been looked upon as idiots. When we had galloped about a quarter of a mile, we received a very hot frontal and flanking fire, and I looked along the ranks expecting to see the men falling in masses; but I saw no one come down, although the rifle fire was crackling all around us. The feeling was wonderfully exciting, just as in a good run to hounds.” (Journal of the US Cavalry Association, Vol. XV, 1904-1905, p.725)
The Boers lifted the siege and tried to withdraw, but with wagons and artillery in tow they couldn’t outrun the British. So the Boers unwisely dug in at Paardeberg, which allowed Imperial troops to surround them. After a ten-day siege, 4000 Boer fighters surrendered on February 27. It was a crushing blow for such a small army.
Meanwhile, in Natal, Buller continued his efforts to relieve Ladysmith. The Boers were able to repel British attacks at Spion Kop in January and Vaal Krantz in February. But another British attack at the Tugela Heights in late February broke the Boer defences. British artillery and infantry launched methodical step-by-step attacks that resembled the fighting of the First World War, and Ladysmith was relieved on February 27.
The Boer army was severely weakened, and the British capitalised on their victories by invading Orange Free State and Transvaal. They occupied Bloemfontein in March and Pretoria fell in June. Boer efforts to halt the relentless advance were overwhelmed by British numbers and firepower. The last pitched battle of the war took place at Bergendal in Transvaal in late August 1900 as the Boers struggled to hold their last defensive line. After several days of fierce fighting the British cleared the position. It seemed the war was over.
By September 1900 the British had occupied the Boer republics and scattered their armies. Lord Roberts proclaimed that the war had been won and returned home as a conquering hero. But the Boers refused to give in and unleashed a guerrilla war.
In Early 1900, the situation for the Boers was rapidly changing. Some Boer commanders, in particular Christiaan de Wet, argued that the Boers should adopt guerrilla war against Britain’s numerical advantage. There had already been successful Boer ambushes, like the attack on an armored train carrying war correspondent Winston Churchill, who made an observation that would play a crucial role in the next phase of the war: “Nothing looks m formidable and impressive than an armored train; but nothing is in fact more vulnerable and helpless. It was only necessary to blow up a bridge of culvert to leave the monster stranded, far from home and help, at the mercy of the enemy.” (Jenkins 52)
De Wet put his ideas into practice with a spectacular guerrilla attack at Sanna’s Post on March 31, 1900. His commandos ambushed an unsuspecting British column, inflicting over 500 casualties and capturing seven artillery pieces for the loss of just eight men.
De Wet would continue his guerrilla campaign with great success in 1900, ambushing isolated British columns and destroying the railway on which the British relied for supplies.g Taking advantage of Boer mobility and knowledge of the terrain, de Wet could emerge from the countryside to strike without warning, and easily eluded British attempts to pursue his commandos.
Following the defeat at the Battle of Bergendal in August the remaining Boer commanders decided that conventional warfare was futile and also turned to guerrilla war instead.
The Boer campaign began in earnest from October under the overall leadership of Louis Botha. Commandos attacked British columns and supply depots, but targeted the rail lines most of all. Lines were frequently sabotaged and unguarded trains were hijacked. During one such hijacking, a surprised American businessman was robbed at gunpoint by Boer fighters – one of them was Johannes Steyn:
“[The American] was stunned and as he handed over his wealth he said ‘But sir, I thought that this war was over?’ I replied ‘You were misinformed. This war is just beginning.’” [Spies, Methods of Barbarism, p.115]
The British initially had no answer to Boer guerrilla tactics. The commandos’ speed and knowledge of the terrain made them too elusive for slower British columns to catch. The British carried out great ‘sweeps’ of the countryside looking for commandos and placed faith in the so-called ‘prisoner count’ of Boers they captured. In reality, most of the ‘prisoners’ were just farmers or drifters seized by a passing British column rather than Boer fighters.
Frustrated by continued Boer resistance and their inability to counter it, the British responded with brutality. In mid-1900, Lord Roberts ordered the destruction of farms thought to be supporting Boer guerrillas with food or ammunition. His successor, Lord Kitchener, took this measure much further. From December 1900 on British troops were to burn all Boer-owned farms regardless of whether they supported the guerrillas or not. This relentless scorched earth campaign destroyed thousands of Boer farms and made about 150,000 civilians homeless.
Kitchener also introduced the ‘Blockhouse System’ to limit Boer mobility. Blockhouses were small, easily constructed pillboxes manned by eight soldiers. The British built 8000 blockhouses along the rail lines and opposite river crossings. Each blockhouse was linked to its neighbours with wire obstacles, creating a permanent, defended barrier which greatly hindered Boer movement.
As with all guerrilla wars, the fighting was prolonged and brutal, and both sides inflicted cruelty on the civilian population. Boer commandos plundered African villages and pro-British farms for supplies, and the British burned down Boer farms. Combat between Boer guerrillas and British columns usually took the form of ambushes and was often close ranged and exceptionally violent. The Boers looted dead or captured British soldiers for equipment, and the British responded by summarily executing any Boer fighter found to be using British gear.
Kitchener’s relentless scorched earth policy created thousands of Boer refugees, and their treatment by the British would lead to the creation of concentration camps.
The British had first considered a refugee camp system for displaced Boers in May 1900 and set up several ad-hoc camps. Kitchener made the system official in December 1900 as his scorched earth policy created thousands of additional refugees. And the concentration camp system was born.
The British initially intended the camps as refugee centres that provided accommodation, food, and medical care. But problems with the system soon emerged. The camps were short of staff, since the Army argued that they were a civilian issue and refused to provide officers, while civilian authorities felt that they were a low priority and struggled to find suitable administrative and medical personnel. As a result, many of the camps were badly organised, under-resourced and poorly run. To worsen the situation, many camps were constructed in locations without adequate sanitation. But the most critical problem was chronic overcrowding. There were some 44,000 Boer civilians in the camps by March 1901, but this had risen to 110,000 by December of the same year.
These conditions led to terrible outbreaks of disease like measles and diphtheria, which killed many Boers, including children. Survivor Hester Johanna Maria Uys was 7 years old at the time:
“The camp was lice infested. My aunt had to cut all my hair off. Thousands of newcomers arrived at the camp. Hundreds became sick. The marquee hospital tents were always full. The doctors worked day and night. People died like rats. Carts came down the rows of tents to pick up the dead. There were funerals every day.” (https://erroluys.com/boergirl.html)
The shocking state of the concentration camps was exposed by British aid worker Emily Hobhouse in May 1901. Her damning report caused worldwide outrage against Britain:
“It presses hardest on the children. They droop in the terrible heat, and with the insufficient unsuitable food; whatever you do, whatever the authorities do, and they are, I believe, doing their best with very limited means, it is all only a miserable patch on a great ill.” (Emily Hobhouse, The Brunt of War, p.54)
The British government appointed suffragette Milicent Fawcett to lead an official investigation. Her report confirmed Hobhouse’s findings and recommended major reforms. From November 1901 onwards the camps came under formal civilian control and conditions steadily improved. By the end of the war in May 1902 the monthly mortality rate in the camps was lower than that of the pre-war Boer republics. But these British measures came too late for tens of thousands of Boer civilians.
The British also created a parallel camp system for black civilians. These camps were intended to be self-sufficient and had even fewer resources than the camps for the Boers. Hobhouse never had a chance to visit these camps, and the Fawcett Commission ignored them entirely.
All told, about 27,000 Boer civilians died, of whom 22,000 were children under the age of 16. At least 25,000 black civilians also died in camps, bringing the death toll to a minimum of 52,000.
The brutal guerrilla war took a terrible toll on South Africa. Both sides had suffered thousands of military casualties, large parts of the country had been destroyed, and over 100,000 civilians were interned in camps. In 1902, it finally came to an end.
By early 1902 the remaining Boer fighters were exhausted. British scorched earth tactics denied them supplies, and the blockhouse system limited their movement. The commandos were also struggling to accommodate some 10,000 Boer civilians who were sheltering in the wilderness to avoid falling into British hands. These civilians lacked food, shelter or medical supplies, and suffered so badly that in some cases Boer fighters took them to the gates of concentration camps and left them for the British to take them in.
Boer commanders calculated that there was no longer any prospect of victory, and continued fighting would only prolong the suffering of the Boer population. It had indeed been a bloody struggle. The British Army suffered over 100,000 casualties including 22,000 dead, and Boer military losses are estimated to be about 30,000 with 9,000 dead.
Faced with this grim reality the Boers opened negotiations with the British, leading to the Peace of Vereeniging in May 1902. The Boers would surrender but be granted amnesty; the British promised to protect the Dutch language; the Boer republics were absorbed into the Empire but would get self-government in due course; and the discussion of Black African voting rights would be delayed until self-government.
The 2nd Boer War shocked Britain, which reformed its army and soon found new allies in Japan, France, and Russia. It was a baptism of fire for many officers that would later play important roles during the First World War, foreshadowed many of the horrors of the 20th century battlefields, and was a dark premonition of modern warfare’s horrors for civilians.
- Leo Amery (ed.) The Times History of the War in South Africa, 7 Volumes, (London, William Clowes, 1902-1909)
- A British Officer, An Absent Minded War (London, Milne, 1900)
- Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (London, Abacus, 1979)
- John Gooch (ed.) The Boer War: Direction, Image and Experience (London, Frank Cass, 1999)
- Fransjohan Pretorius, Life on Commando (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 2000)
- Fransjohan Pretorius, The Historical Dictionary of the Anglo-Boer War (Lanham, Scarecrow Press, 2010)
- Peter Trew, The Boer War Generals (Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball, 1999)
- S.B. Spies, Methods of Barbarism? Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics (Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1977)
- Emily Hobhouse, The Brunt of War and Where it Fell (London, Methuen & Co., 1902)
- Deneys Reitz, Commando (London, Faber & Faber, 1905)
- Peter Warwick (ed.) The South African War (Harlow, Longman, 1980)
- Spencer Jones, From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reform of the British Army 1902 – 1914 (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2012)
- Spencer Jones, 'Shooting Power: A Study of the Effectiveness of Boer and British Rifle Fire, 1899-1914' in the British Journal for Military History, Vol.1, Issue 1, 2014.
- Bill Nasson, The South African War 1899 – 1902 (London, Arnold, 1999)
- Stephen Miller, Volunteers on the Veld: Britain’s Citizen Soldiers and the South African War 1899-1902 (Norman, University of Oklahoma, 2007)
- Fred R. van Hartesveldt, The Boer War: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography (London, Greenwood, 2000)
- Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey (ed.), The Boer War: Army, Nation and Empire (Canberra, Army History Unit, 2000)
- John Stirling, Our Regiments in South Africa (London, W. Blackwood, 1903)
- Winston S. Churchill, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (London, Longmans, Green & Co, 1900)
- Ian Hamilton and Victor Sampson, Anti-Commando (London, Faber & Faber, 1931)
- Andre Wessels (ed.) Lord Roberts and the War in South Africa 1899 – 1902 (London, Army Records Society, 2000)
- Andre Wessels (ed.) Lord Kitchener and the War in South Africa 1899 – 1902 (London, Army Records Society, 2006)
- Roy Jenkins, Churchill. A Biography, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001)