The Boer War: The Opening Act in a Violent Century

tags: British history, military history, South Africa, Boer War

David Carlin writes about American and European History. He just finished a series on the July Crisis and the outbreak of WWI. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College where he majored in History. He can be reached at dcarlin7@gmail.com.




"When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa." 

-Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal MP (later British PM), 1901


When gold was discovered in South Africa in 1884, many were ecstatic. Paul Kruger, President of the Boer republic of the Transvaal did not share the enthusiasm. “This gold will cause our country to be soaked in blood.” Indeed, the old Afrikaner would be proved right. Thousands of fortune-seekers from across Europe descended on his humble nation, turning a rough mining encampment into the city of Johannesburg almost overnight. The Boers looked upon influx of foreign miners and businessmen, “uitlanders” in Africaans, with fear and disgust.


The Republic of the Transvaal and its sister, the Orange Free State, had been set up by the descendants of Dutch settlers who had trekked north in the early 19th century to escape British rule. Called Boers, from the Dutch word for farmer, this community had developed a unique culture during the 200 years since first arriving in South Africa. They were deeply insular, religiously conservative, and fiercely independent. In the 1870s, the grasping hands of the British Empire reached and annexed the Transvaal. When conflict broke out in 1881, the Boers fought fiercely and reclaimed their independence. 


The peace after the First Boer War was always shaky. Britain had certainly not relinquished its designs on South Africa’s natural resources. The growing uitlander population was also a source of rising tension. These foreigners, many of them British, were becoming wealthy and increasingly demanding political power in the Transvaal. The uitlanders received encouragement from British arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers, as well as the British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Both men believed that incorporating the Boer Republics into the British Empire was inevitable. In 1895, Rhodes funded the Jameson Raid, an ill-fated mission to seize the Transvaal. While the British government officially disavowed the raid, many in London had tacitly supported it. Anglo-Boer relations reached a new low and war appeared inevitable. In 1899, the British government forced the matter by issuing an ultimatum demanding full rights for the uitlanders. Knowing full-well that the Boers would refuse, Britain had sent troops to South Africa.


Britain was the wealthiest nation on earth and possessed an empire upon which the sun never set. Since the defeat of Napoleon, the 19thcentury had been a nearly unbroken procession of British progress and expansion. At the outbreak of the Second Boer War (called the Boer War hereafter), London was awash in excitement. It would hardly be a war at all. The chief worry of the British soldiers was that the fighting would be over before they arrived. The determined Boers would see to it that the British had all the fighting they could handle and then some.


Rather than the expected easy British victory, the war began with disastrous Britain defeatson all fronts. In three battles, the British suffered nearly 3,000 casualties. The London press dubbed it “Black Week,” and the Empire was sent into an uproar. The Boers also besieged several important British settlements. In the field, Boer leaders repeatedly surprised the British forces with their superior mobility and better knowledge of the local terrain. Rather than facing the British directly, the Boers used hit-and-run tactics to disrupt British supply lines.


The aging Queen Victoria spoke for her empire after Black Week when she defiantly announced: “we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.” Britain re-doubled its efforts, ultimately sending nearly half a million troops from across the Empire to overwhelm the total force of 50,000 Boer commandos. In early 1900, this overwhelming influx of men and materiel decisively turned the tide. The cities of Kimberley, Mafeking, and Ladysmith, which had been besieged by the Boers, were soon liberated. The British offensive then advanced on Pretoria and Bloemfontein, capitals of the Boer Republics.


After the capitals fell and the main Boer forces were defeated, many, including the British commanders, believed the war was over. The British even announced the re-annexation of the Transvaal. However, the Boers refused to surrender. Their governments continued to operate on the run, and bands of Boer commandos embarked on a guerrilla campaign. 


Britain’s response to the Boer insurgency was swift and brutal. British military leaders ordered the destruction of Boer farms and homesteads and the internment of Boer civilians. The roundup soon encompassed over 100,000 Boers, mostly women and children, in a series of concentration camps across South Africa. As the British focused on pacifying the country, they paid scant attention to their captives, who began to die of starvation and disease at horrifying rates. By the time the British forced the Boers to surrender in May 1902, over 20,000 women and children had perished.


Outside South Africa, the Boer War has been largely forgotten amidst the sea of 20thcentury horrors. However, the Boer War provided an uncanny preview of 20thcentury warfare. The killing power of modern weaponry was on full display, upending centuries of military theory. The stubborn Boer insurgency provided a guide for later asymmetric conflicts. The British responded to resistance by extending the boundaries of the war to the entire Boer population. The doctrine of total war rationalized the wanton destruction of civilian property. The awful suffering imposed sparked global outrage and inspired a powerful antiwar movement in Britain itself. 


The Boer War also shaped the careers of several towering figures. War correspondent Winston Churchill’s daring escape from Boer captivity made him a household name. Attempting to demonstrate India’s vital role in the Empire, Mahatma Gandhi organized a volunteer ambulance corps. Future South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts led a series of audacious assaults on the British Cape Colony. Reporter Sol Plaatje, who later founded the African National Congress, witnessed the racism of both the British and the Boers. Their voices provide eloquent accounts of the 20th century’s first conflict.


Infernal Machines

The 19th century witnessed tremendous advances in military science that fundamentally changed the nature of warfare. Explosives developed by Alfred Nobel and others made the cannonball of Napoleon’s day seem almost quaint. Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, a water-cooled weapon, could fire a remarkable 600 rounds per minute. Until the Boer War, European colonial powers were content to use these devastating new weapons primarily against poorly armed local populations. Many European leaders believed these weapons would not be used in “civilized” warfare. Instead, they stubbornly relied on outdated military doctrines such as the gallant frontal charge.


For the British high command, the Boer War was a rude awakening. Their Boer foes had the most recent quick-firing rifles, machine guns, and artillery to boot. At the war’s outset, British troops marched in close formation and aggressively charged into battle. Invariably, they were slaughtered by the Boers. Sol Plaatje reported with amazement, “they [the British] stroll about in a heavy volley far more recklessly than we walk through a shower of rain.” The combination of outdated tactics and general arrogance led to the disasters of Black Week and cost the British commander his job.


By setting two well-armed foes against each other, the Boer War provided a first glimpse into the changing role of man in war. Previously, individual virtues such as valor and determination could change the outcome of a battle. Now these human attributes were increasingly subordinated to the awesome killing power of modern machinery. The valiant frontal assault would become a suicide charge against machine guns. Courage would count little against the Lyddite shell, which was said to kill nearly everything within a 50-yard radius. War began to lose its luster when it became less about individual bravery and more about the impersonal killing power of machines. All the signs of this terrible evolution of war were present on the battlefields of South Africa. However, some in Europe clung to their old romantic notions. Had they learned from the Boer War, perhaps some of the outright butchery of WWI would have been avoided. 


No Safe Place

By September 1900, the British had captured over 15,000 Boer commandos. They controlled all the major cities and had put the Boer governments to flight. Hundreds of thousands of British troops were stationed across South Africa. With their main armies defeated, the Boers organized a well-coordinated guerilla campaign. 


The Boer insurgency provided a new template for effective asymmetric warfare. Their commandos infiltrated their home areas, where they relied on local knowledge and partisan support. The commando units were remarkably non-hierarchical, giving each great autonomy in identifying British weaknesses. Commandos were typically expert marksmen and were motivated by the fervor that comes from defending one’s homeland. An impressed Churchill described them as: “thousands of independent riflemen, thinking for themselves, possessed of beautiful weapons, led with skill… moving like the wind, and supported by iron constitutions.”


The British soon realized that their control in the Boer territories extended only as far as the sights of their rifles. During 1901, the British repeatedly offered peace, but the Boer leadership’s hard core of bitter-enders” refused. Boer commanders Christiaan de Wet, Louis Botha, and Koos de la Rey continued to effectively harass British settlements, infrastructure, and businesses. Smuts led an extended raid into Cape Colony, sparking panic among the British subjects. These attacks made it impossible for the British to restore economic productivity and social order in South Africa. For all its military might, Britain found that defeating an insurgency was far more difficult than winning on the battlefield. America would learn a similar lesson in the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq. 


Total War

Throughout history, civilians had often suffered the direct and indirect effects of war including violence, looting, displacement, and famine. What was unique in the Boer War was that a modern Western nation targeted an entire civilian population. Using their superior industrial power, the British vigorously pursued a doctrine of total war and turned the entire country into a warzone. Under this doctrine, anything that could aid the Boer guerillas must be destroyed. 


The consequences were devastating. As historian Martin Bossenbroek explains, orders were given to burn the farms of Boer commandos. These farm burnings “often…were not reprisals for sabotage but random acts of destruction,” wrecking economic havoc on the civilian population. This indiscriminate campaign surely violated the 1899 Hague Convention forbidding “collective punishment.” 


The civilian situation deteriorated further when Lord Kitchener took command of the British forces. Determined to strangle the insurgency by any means necessary, Kitchener constructed what Bossenbroek describes as an “immense metal web” throughout South Africa. Kitchner’s web included hundreds of military blockhouses and dozens of civilian internment camps. 


While earlier conflicts had used internment or concentration camps, the scale employed in South Africa was unprecedented. The network of camps soon swelled to contain nearly 100,000 Boer civilians, mostly women and children. Africans caught up in the conflict were also interned in significant numbers. The British military authorities responsible for the camps had put little thought into the welfare of the internees. As a result, conditions in the camps were appalling. Deaths from starvation and disease spread with terrifying speed. By October 1901, some camps experienced death rates exceeding 30% per month


Many Boers bitterly questioned whether British policies sought the annihilation of the Afrikaner people. Historian and Member of Parliament Thomas Pakenham argues that Kitchener did not desire the deaths of women and children in the camps, rather “he was simply not interested” in their fates. In Kitchener’s single-minded quest for victory he had “uproot[ed] a whole nation.” 


Ultimately, total war brought victory. The Boers were worn down and demoralized by the suffering of their people. As Deneys Reitz, a young Boer commando recalled, his troop was reduced to “starving, ragged men, clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered with sores.” Not only did independence now seem impossible, but continuing the war now threatened the very existence of the Boers. Kitchener’s triumph showed the brutal effectiveness of making the civilian population a target of military operations. In WWII, the German Blitz and the Allied firebombings similarly attempted to break an opposing nation’s will to resist. 


Antiwar Activism

British policies in South Africa did not escape the world’s notice. From the beginning, many saw Britain as the grasping, bullying aggressor. When the Boer delegation arrived in Europe for the 1900 World’s Fair, they received a riotous ovation. In America, Teddy Roosevelt expressed deep sympathy for the Boers. However, as Bossenbroek notes, such feelings did not translate into material support. Nations recognized Britain’s naval dominance and did not wish to antagonize the Empire by supporting the Boers’ hopeless cause.


Within Britain, the Boer War helped create the first modern anti-war movement. The conflict cost over 2.5 million pounds per month, (nearly 400 million dollars per month in 2019). The main beneficiaries seemed to be arms dealers and the wealthy mining houses. For many reformers, a seemingly interminable faraway war was an outrageous expense while Britons at home lacked adequate nutrition, healthcare, and education.


While economic considerations surely influenced some anti-war voices, the humanitarian issue truly captured British hearts. One remarkable woman, Emily Hobhouse, is responsible for alerting the British people to the horrors in South Africa. She spent months investigating the camp conditions, and what she found utterly shocked her. Not only did the camps lack sufficient food, clean water, and medicine, but internees whose male relatives remained in commandos were punished with starvation rations. Hobhouse declared: “I call this camp system a wholesale cruelty…to keep these Camps going is murder to the children.”


Despite pressure from British authorities, Hobhouse shared a detailed report of her findings. The public outcry was swift. Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who led the Liberal opposition deplored the “methods of barbarism in South Africa.” A young David Lloyd George went even further, calling British actions “a policy of extermination.” His fervent opposition to the war burnished his growing political reputation. Under increasing criticism, the Conservative government agreed to send a commission to South Africa. Led by the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, the commission confirmed Hobhouse’s assertions and demanded immediate policy changes. The military relinquished control of the concentration camps to British colonial administrators, and the death rates began to plummet. The episode demonstrated that democratic politicians now needed to consider the humanitarian consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, the masses retained significant moral blind spots and governments simply worked harder to cover up human rights abuses. Nonetheless, the popular campaign against the outrages in South Africa marked a watershed in anti-war activism.


An Enduring Legacy


The Boer War reverberated throughout the British Empire. Global sympathy for the Boers showed London how resented the Empire was. Other nations appeared all too eager to take advantage of any further signs of British weakness. Although Britain remained the dominant world power, its days of “splendid isolation” were numbered. In 1902, Britain concluded a treaty with Japan to secure their Pacific holdings against European rivals. In 1904, the Entente Cordiale ended centuries of animosity between Britain and France. By signing an agreement with France’s ally Russia in 1907, Britain protected its claims in Afghanistan, Iran, and its crown jewel, India. With this final deal, the Triple Entente was born. 


The Boer War also revealed the grime of poverty below the veneer of Victorian splendor. Embarrassingly, many potential British recruits were rejected because they were too poorly nourished. The richest nation in the world could not even feed its people. Such revelations motivated Liberal efforts to create the basic forms of social welfare. 


In South Africa, the war sowed the seeds of apartheid. The peace concluded at Vereeniging offered exceptionally lenient terms to the Boers and pledged millions of pounds to rebuild the nation. This arrangement left the Boers with political control across much of South Africa. Considering white Boer dominance to be preferable to African sovereignty, the British soon reconciled with their bitter foes. In 1906, the Boers were granted significant legal autonomy, and in 1910, the colonies joined to become the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion. 


Many of the “bitter-enders” were still unhappy with any degree of British authority. Winston Churchill believed this opposition was based on “the abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man.” Indeed, to the Boers’ racialized worldview, even Britain’s tepid endorsement of African legal rights was anathema. Just before WWI, former Boer commander Barry Hertzog founded the National Party, which fiercely defended Afrikaner culture and white supremacy. Although an opportunistic 1914 Afrikaner uprising was suppressed, the Afrikaner nationalists never stopped trying to slip the British yoke. During the next few decades, the ruling Afrikaner minority systematically stripped black Africans of their rights and pushed for greater separation from Britain. Leaders like Jan Smuts attempted to maintain unity, but in the chaos after WWII, the right-wing nationalists won out. The National Party’s victory in 1948 enabled the final construction of the apartheid state. 


The British accommodation with the Boers betrayed Britain’s non-white allies. In exchange for supporting the Empire, Indians and Africans had been promised legal and political equality. Before the war, Gandhi had believed “if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defense of the British Empire.” After the war, he expressed the disappointment of many, “learn your lessons, if you wish to, from the Boer War. Those who have been enemies of that [British] empire a few years ago, have now become friends.”


Africans felt similarly betrayed. Sol Plaatje described the racist ways the British had mistreated their African allies. During the siege at Mafeking, Africans were given the lowest rations and ultimately were forced from the city to reduce the number of mouths to feed. A British administrator described the widespread African discontent well: “they received a rude awakening. They found the country was not theirs; that we had not fought to give it to them, and most of all that the owners went back and still owned the farms.” For Gandhi, Plaatje, and others, British duplicity forced them to acknowledge that true equality could never be obtained within the Empire. The struggle for equality would become a struggle for independence. 


There is something darkly poetic in the timing of the Boer War. It offered a grim preview of warfare and the social conditions that would shake the world during the 20th century. The devastating power of modern weaponry and the challenges of defeating an insurgency would force a fundamental reevaluation of military strategy. Lines between civilians and combatants would be increasingly trampled. As a result, the suffering of innocents would reach an unprecedented scale. The Boer War was the first spring of these deadly flowers of modern war.

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