The Boer War
Africa in the 19th Century was subject to an unashamed land grab by the wealthy industrialised nations of Europe. France, Germany, Italy and even Belgium carved up the continent arbitrarily. So too Britain, a country whose industrial expansion was creating an insatiable hunger for commodities, and the Victorian Era demanded a hegemonic presence in foreign affairs. South Africa was keenly contested.
As early as the 1830s, the Boers had settled in the Transvaal. 12,000 fled north, away from the British colonies of Cape Colony and Natal, to lead an agrarian life in the harshest of conditions. In 1857, Transvaal’s independence from the British was formalised, with the Boer farmers occupying territory north of the Vaal River. But Transvaal was a huge headache for all concerned. The Boers, regularly under attack from the Zulus, saw their land annexed in 1877 as Britain stepped in to manage the area as a crown colony.
The Boers rebelled. Annexation was a desperate measure, to which their leader, Paul Kruger, had little choice in the face of British might, Zulu attacks and financial collapse in the region. In December 1880, dissent turned to violence as the Boers, long dismissed as a military threat, ambushed the British Army at Bronkhorstspruit, killing over half of the 94th Regiment and imprisoning the rest. Within weeks, British garrisons were under seige. The Boers operated in disparate militia groups, making full use of their fieldcraft and marksmanship skills. British reinforcements came from the south-eastern British colony of Natal. But after Sir George Pomeroy Colley’s men were routed at Laing’s Nek – Colley, himself, shot in the head at Majuba Hill – the British lost their appetite for conflict. Transvaal was a nightmare for little gain and Gladstone granted the Boers autonomy at the Pretoria Convention. By the 25th October, the first Boer War was over.
Of course, Gladstone would not have been so acquiescent had the discovery of gold and diamonds been common knowledge. In the mid-1880s, gold, and lots of it, was discovered in Transvaal and it attracted both the common Briton who earned a living in the mines, and indeed the political aspirations of Victorian Britain who, all of a sudden, were hugely interested in Transvaal’s affairs. The British worker’s rights were marginal in Transvaal. But the British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain was not primarily concerned with these; it was the industry in general that attracted his attention.
Tension started choking relations between Transvaal and London . Kruger bristled at the British deployment of troops along the borders of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The independence of Transvaal was under threat. War, with weary predictability, reared its head when the Boers attacked British positions at Mafeking, Ladysmith and Kimberley. The latter’s diamond mines made it a significant economic target. It stood firm. But the British desperately needed reinforcements to reverse the khaki tide of Boers.
The Boers, armed with german rifles and cannons, were supremely mobile combatants. It was from the Boer War that Churchill , then a young war correspondent reporting from the frontline, would take the name commando from. Britain’s elite fighting units of the next century, owed their name to their foes of the previous.
As 1898 drew to a close, the British Army suffered defeats at Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colesno. At the latter, a force of over 20,000 British troops was defeated by 8,000 Boers. It became known as Black Week, one of the darkest chapters in British military history. The Boers’ offensive repelled attempts to relieve Mafeking and Ladysmith. Queen Victoria would have no talk of defeat. More troops would be sent. The Second Boer War would become largest deployment of troops since the Crimean War .
On the 24th January 1900, British forces marched through the early morning on Spion Kop. The mountain, that they thought would afford them a secure position from which to attack the Boers, was great. After a treacherous climb, a tired British Army came to the realisation that they did not occupy the summit; the Boers did. It was a slaughter. Many men were shot through the head as they took their positions behind rocks, peering over them to take aim. The Boer’s valued marksmanship above all else. They already had a great desire and hatred of the British, and their skill with a German rifle was considerable.
British reinforcements duly arrived in 1900. General Buller was replaced by Lord Roberts , and his chief of staff Joseph Chamberlain. On the 25th February 1900, Major General Lord French relieved Kimberley. Ladysmith too, was eventually relieved after heavy losses. When Mafeking was relieved on the 17th May 1900 , Victorian Britain rejoiced at its heroes. Salisbury won another term for the Conservative government – the Khaki Election evidence of the polling power of military triumph. This was the sort of derring-do that empires were founded on. With the might of the army, Roberts marched on the Orange Free State and took Bloemfontein. The Boer state was renamed the Orange River Colony. Yet again, through unbridled force the political landscape of South Africa was changed again.
The Boers did not surrender, however, as was expected. Abandoning trenches, they adopted guerrilla tactics. The British had build a henge of blockhouses across South Africa, fenced off with barbed wire in an attempt to trap and kill the Boer commandoes and ensure the safe transit of supplies. As the war entered its final phase a British victory was looking certain. Under the command of Kruger, Louis Botha, Koos De La Rey, Martinus Steyn, the Boer war effort had been immense. In the face of such might, it was futile.
Kruger was secreted out of the country to mainland Europe. Lord Kitchener, who relieved Roberts of his duties in November 1900, employed scorched earth policies to flush out the guerillas. The civilian population was to suffer greatly. One British invention, at a time of truly great British inventions, would cast shame over Kitchener’s tactics in South Africa: the concentration camp. It is estimated that over 26,000 woman and children perished in concentration camps. 14,000 black Africans died in separate concentration camps. Indeed, black Africans were forgotten in accounts of the Boer War. Largely decreed a white man’s war, the black population were forced to fight by both sides. There was little or no shelter in the concentration camps. Hygiene was non-existent. This was the outrage that turned international opinion against the British Empire. Emily Hobhouse, a British campaigner from the South African Women’s And Children’s Distress Fund visited the camps in 1901 and was horrified by the conditions.
She was not alone. Liberal Britain was appalled. David Lloyd George spoke out in parliament against the treatment of the Boer civilians. The war was nearing its end game. Finally, for those in the concentration camps, carbolic soaps and latrines stopped the spread of disease. In the field, the last Boer guerrilla fighters, the ‘Bitter-enders’, were fighting their last. By May 1902, the Boers were forced to sue for peace.
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