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A Complete Overview of The Second Boer War

Are you currently learning about The Second Boer War? Or perhaps you’re just looking to brush up on the facts surrounding this often overlooked and somewhat complex period of history. If you’re looking for a complete overview of this fascinating turn of the century event, look no further…


 11th October 1899 – 31st May 1902


This was a conflict fought between the United Kingdom (more accurately, the British Empire) and Boer Republics, comprising the South African Republic (ZAR, or Zuid-Afrikaansche Republic, also known as Transvaal Republic and later to become the Transvaal Colony after its defeat) and the Orange Free State.

Both republics were made up of the Boer (‘farmer’ in Dutch and Afrikaans) people, who spoke an offshoot of Dutch called Afrikaans, which was earlier known as Cape Dutch.

The Boers were descended from Dutch settlers who came to the Eastern Cape frontier in the 17th century. The most prominent of these settlers was Jan van Riebeek, an employee of the Dutch East India Company and founder of Cape Town: he is generally considered the father of the Boer people.

The British meanwhile arrived in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, defeating the Dutch at the Battle of Blaauwberg, which resulted in their acquisition of the Cape Colony. 

The First Boer War, which took place from December 1880 to March 1881, was a relatively minor affair and resulted in a Boer victory, preserving the independence of the Boer republics.

There was conflict throughout the 19th century between these two groups until a dispute about who owned the rights to the region’s diamond and gold supplies, in particular the lucrative Witwatersrand Gold Mines, precipitated a full-blown conflict.

Events leading up to war

The discovery of the gold mines represented a huge coup for the Boers. However, lacking the technological and administrative capability to do so themselves, the Transvaal authorities were forced to allow British uitlanders (‘foreigners’) to help them develop the resource.

 These uitlanders eventually threatened to outnumber the Boers and, backed by powerful British industrial and political figures such as Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain, demanded full voting rights in the Transvaal.

 With full voting rights would come a share of the region’s immense wealth for the British: the Boers were therefore understandably reluctant to acquiesce to uitlander demands.

 Furthermore, Rhodes and Chamberlain were instrumental in instigating the 1895/6 Jameson Raid, a failed insurrection designed to depose the Boer-led government and establish British hegemony in the Transvaal Republic. The Jameson Raid was led by British politician Leander Starr Jameson, whose principal aim was to incite the uitlanders.

This then was the background that led to escalating tensions and eventually resulted in British troops massing on the Transvaal and Orange Free State borders, an event inevitably seen as provocation by the Boers.

Transvaal President Paul Kruger ordered their withdrawal within 48 hours, on 9th October 1899. The British rejected the ultimatum and war was formally declared on 11th October.


The War

The war was roughly divided into three phases: the initial phase consisted of a Boer offensive, taking place in late 1899 (October to December). The second was characterized by the British response in 1900 (from January to September), resulting in a decisive British victory and control of the two Boer republics.

 The third and final phase lasted longer than the previous two phases (the ‘conventional war’) combined, from September 1900 to May 1902. This was largely fought between the British army and the remnants of the Boer forces, engaging in an increasingly desperate guerilla conflict and refusing to fully capitulate for as long as possible.


Phase One of The Second Boer War

 The British were largely highly trained, professional soldiers whereas the Boers were mainly farmers who had no regular army units or even uniforms, with the exception of the Staatsartillerie (States Artillery), who wore light-green clothing. However, the Boers knew the land very well and, after their defeat in the initial two phases of the conflict, this knowledge would result in one of the first instances of guerilla warfare in a modern conflict.

 Additionally, at least at the outset of the war, the Boers were numerically superior to the British, though this state of affairs would not last the duration of the conflict, with Britain drawing on its vast Empire to redress the initial disparity in numbers.

 At the first major battle of the war, the Battle of Talana Hill on the 20th October 1899, the British won a costly victory, with 446 casualties.

 This phase of the conflict was successful for the Boers, with their forces laying siege to the cities of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith. The Boers dealt the British a crushing defeat at the Battle of Ladysmith in British-controlled Natal, on the 30th October 1899. The subsequent Siege of Ladysmith lasted for four months, ending on 28th February 1900.

 The war was fought on three fronts during ‘Black Week’ (10th to 15th December 1899), and the British suffered successive defeats in the battles of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso: even in instances where the Boers were outnumbered, they possessed superior weaponry and tactics.

 The result of this humiliation was for the British forces to modernize elements of their army, such as improvements in artillery and machine guns as well as providing the cavalry with rifles instead of lances.


Phase Two of The Second Boer War

 During the second phase of the war, Field Marshall Lord Roberts replaced the beleaguered General Redvers Henry Buller who had been in charge during the Boer offensive, as commander-in-chief of the British forces. Roberts appointed a new team of senior officers from throughout the Empire, including Lord Kitchener, his eventual replacement as head of the British armed forces.

 With these new appointments in place and the technological advancements made by the British since the disaster of Black Week, things began to change in their favour.

 A key success for the British was in the Robert Baden-Powell-led Siege of Mafeking, which lasted 217 days from 13th October 1899 to 17th May 1900. This ended in a celebrated British victory and turned Baden-Powell into a national celebrity in Britain: he went on to become the founder of the Scout Movement.

 Furthermore, the British began from January 1900 to transport huge numbers of troops from Britain and its colonies in the Empire, resulting in their vastly outnumbering the Boers, and this led to military victories such as the Siege of Kimberley, with the defence organised by the hugely wealthy and politically ambitious Cecil Rhodes.

 Rhodes had made his fortune in the region’s diamond mines, later giving his name to the Rhodes Scholarship, as well as the colony (later republic) of Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe). He was an arch British imperialist, famously stating: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life’. He is also known for having drafted a will (not his final will) in 1877 which was to make provisions for the creation of a secret society whose aim was to extend the British Empire throughout the entire world, including ‘the ultimate recovery of the United States of America’ with the eventual goal being ‘the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity’. Cecil Rhodes was one of the wealthiest men in the world at his death in 1902 at age 48.

 The British victory at the Battle of Paardeberg (18th to the 27th February) was another key event in the conflict and resulted in the British building concentration camps to house over 25,000 Boer women and children as well as 15,000 (possibly more) black Africans. The surrender of general Piet Cronjé at Paardeberg to Lord Robert’s forces heavily demoralised the Boers, and this formed part of a sequence of British successes, including the Battle of Poplar Grove on 7th March 1900, that culminated in the British taking Bloemfontein, the Orange Free State capital on the 13th March 1900 with no opposition, no shots fired and fleeing Boers.

 Field Marshall Roberts captured Johannesburg on 31st May 1900 and the Transvaal capital, Pretoria, on the 5th June.

 On the 3rd September 1900, Roberts declared the war over and the South African Republic was annexed.


Phase Three and the end of the Second Boer War

 Thereafter followed the third and final phase of the war, from September 1900 to May 1902. This consisted largely of mobile guerilla warfare launched from Kroonstad, the new capital of the Orange Free State, where the Boers waged an increasingly desperate resistance during which President Kruger escaped to the Netherlands via Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa).

 After initial Boer guerilla success, the British responded by launching a scorched earth policy, making it difficult for the Boer commanders to effectively rely on the land and restricting their freedom of movement.

 The effective leaders of the Boer guerillas, Christiaan de Wet and future Union of South Africa Prime Minister Jan Smuts were unable to stem the British advances through Boer territories and from here on a British victory became a foregone conclusion.

 The war came to an end with the Treaty of Vereeniging, signed on the 31st May 1902, the effect of which was to change the Transvaal Republic and Orange Free State from independent Boer republics into colonies of the British Empire. In addition, the defeated Boers were required to sign an oath of allegiance to the British Empire, which many Boers, known as bittereinders (‘irreconcilables’) refused to sign, preferring instead to go abroad.


Immediate aftermath, cultural impact and legacy

 One of the legacies of the Second Boer War was the entry into popular consciousness of the term ‘concentration camp’ – this conflict was not technically the first to feature such camps, but it was the first time the general public became aware of them.

 The Fawcett Commission, headed by the suffragist Millicent Fawcett claimed that an estimated 154,000 Boer and African women and children died in the British concentration camps. A report conducted after the war produced different figures, concluding that 27,927 Boers died, the vast majority of which were children. 107,000 Black Africans were interned but their eventual fates were less judiciously recorded: however, estimates of as many as 14,154 deaths were given.

 The activist Emily Hobhouse brought these camps to international attention by highlighting the case of Lizzie van Zyl, a young girl who died in the Bloemfontein concentration camp. A photo of her emaciated body was widely published and initially used by British establishment figures such as the politician Joseph Chamberlain to illustrate the alleged neglect shown by Boer parents to their children, until Hobhouse countered this assertion.

 The war was notable for the participation of famous figures of the period and of later periods. In addition to the aforementioned Lord Kitchener, Cecil Rhodes and Robert Baden-Powell, others connected to the conflict included a young Winston Churchill, a young Mahatma Gandhi and an older Arthur Conan Doyle.

 Churchill served as a war correspondent for The Morning Post. He accompanied Sir Redvers Buller to Africa and ended up being captured on a scouting mission and imprisoned in a Pretorian POW camp, from which he escaped. He later gained a commission in the South African Light Horse regiment of the British Army and helped British relief efforts in the Siege of Ladysmith as well as participating in the British conquest of Pretoria, along with his cousin Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

 Gandhi worked as part of a volunteer ambulance service, helping carry wounded British soldiers during their defeat at the Battle of Spion Kop (23-24th January 1900) from the battlefield to a hospital several miles away. He received the War Medal for his efforts, and the Indian ambulance volunteers were noted for their courage in a dispatch sent by Sir Redvers Buller.

 Conan Doyle was a volunteer doctor who also wrote in support of the British war effort, for example seeking to cast the behaviour of the British armed forced in relation to the concentration camps in a favourable light, according with Joseph Chamberlain and others’ assertion that the emaciated condition of many Boer children was down to parental neglect rather than any British culpability.

 The British eventually allowed a degree of self-government for the colonies, and this state of affairs eventually led to the Union of South Africa, a British dominion, on 31st May 1910, comprising the British colonies of Transvaal, Orange River, Cape and Natal. Finally, the Boer dream of a country free from British rule was realized with the formation of the independent Republic of South Africa on 31st May 1961.



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