(1899-1902) War fought between Britain and the Afrikaaner republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Despite their paucity of numbers (500,000 to 90,000), the Boers managed to wage a fairly effective guerilla campaign but were overwhelmed. The war was triggered by the refusal of President Kruger of Transvaal to grant political rights to foreigners, who had flooded into the country looking for gold... providing the British with an excuse to seize the largest gold fields in the world.

The reason the guerillas managed to stay in business for so long was because of the ever so generous Kaiser Wilhelm II. Germany saw the uprising as a most excellent oppurtunity to upset its primary rival, Britain. Hence, the Germans covertly supplied the guerillas with weapons and ammunition. While this helped the guerillas, it wasn't enough, and as the war neared the end, the Germans began supporting the guerillas increasingly, in hope of turning the tables. It still didn't help, and the Germans were caught supplying the weapons, where it had been unknown before. This flared up tensions between Britain and Germany, and was a major factor in the outbreak of World War I.

South African History

The First Boer War

There were actually two Boer wars. The first Boer war, between the British and the Afrikaaners, was a small affair in 1880-1881. Britain had annexed the Transvaal in late 1877, but were forced to let in just three months. The British had seriously underestimated Boers' skills with muskets. The battle of Majuba was particularly remembered. British prime minister, William Gladstone conceded the Boers self-government of the Transvaal.

Naming of Wars

The war commonly called "The Boer war" is more accurately called "The second Boer war". It is also known as "Die Engelse oorlog" (The English war) or the "Die tweede Vryheids oolog" (The second war of Independence) by the Boers, "The South African War" by some, or "The Anglo-Boer" war by English-speaking South Africans and historians trying to be neutral. This rematch lasted from October 1899 until May 1902.


In the mid 1890's the south end of Africa, called the Cape Colony, was part of the British Empire. The prime minister was Cecil Rhodes. To the east was the British colony of Natal. Inland, to the north, lay the boer republics of the Orange Free State and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic), ZAR also called the Transvaal republic. The Boer republics were the home of the Afrikaaners, the descendants of Protestant Dutch settlers.

The Boers had regained their independence in 1880 without too much fuss, as the Transvaal had been of little interest to anyone except the Afrikaaner farmers who made up its citizens.

However in 1887 gold was found in the Witwatersrand area (today Gauteng). Lots of gold. Soon it was the largest gold-mining area in the world. In 1885 the Traansvaal was nearly bankrupt, needing assistence from the British Cape. In 1896 revenue from gold alone was £4 million per year. The center of economic power had shifted to Johannesburg, and it remains there to this day.

This brought political turmoil too. Tens of thousands of foreigners flocked to the gold rush. Most of them were British. Transvaal president Paul Kruger viewed them as 'uitlanders' (outlanders, aliens) and denied them citizenship until they had been resident for 14 years, but taxed them from day one.

The British began to see the point of bringing the Transvaal and its gold back under British rule. First there was a raid - The Jameson raid in 1895 attempted to overthown the Traansvaal government. But it failed badly, and soured Anglo-boer relations. Cecil Rhodes was forced to resign. In 1896 the Transvaal and the Orange Free State allied for mutual self-protection.

The Boers were in a difficult position. If they gave in to British demands to give the English-speaking immigrants a vote, the Boer republics would cease to be Boer republics within a few years. To refuse the British meant that they would be at war with an empire.


The British forces were led initially by Sir Redvers Buller, as in 1881. The forces were raised in the Cape and Natal, but British forces would eventually come from all over the empire.

The Boers had 88,000 soldiers, more than immediately available to the British. They also had a little help in the form of some weapons from Britian's rivals, the Germans. Unlike the British, who had a large standing army, the Boer army consisted of a small but well equiped (those Germans again) artillery corps. The bulk of the army came via the system of military service, where each district would call up a set number of able-bodied men to go on commando, typically 200 - 1000 men in a commando.

The officers for the district were elected. Men would report for duty with horse, mauser rifle, ammunition and food. They did not have uniforms, but being neighbours and relatives of their fellow soldiers, they certainly had esprit de corps.

The Boer command was fairly decentralised. Commandos would operate independantly or together.

Around 500 international volunteers aided the Boers against the British, despite no appeals for help. They came from Ireland, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.


Boers are stubborn. War broke out on 11 October 1899. The Boers chose to go first, sending an ultimatum that the British remove their growing numbers of troops, which of course did not happen.

At first the fighting was fairly conventional, with armies, cannons, trenches and cavalry charges. Though the territory fought over was huge, the engagements centred on towns.

The Boers began the war by attacking British territory. In December 10-15 they besieged the Northern Cape towns of Kimberley and Mafeking and in Natal captured the town of Ladysmith.

On 24 January 1900 the British suffered another defeat at Spion Kop (Spy Butte or Lookout Hill).

The British Empire had vast resources, and was determined to win this time at any cost. In 1900 more men arrived, led by General Lord Roberts and his capable second-in-command Lord Kitchener.

By the end of June 1900 the British seemed on top of things. Mafiking had been relieved after 217 days of seige. The Orange Free State and Traansvaal had been invaded. Bloemfontein, Pretoria (the capital of the ZAR) and Johannesburg (where the gold was) had fallen, and Paul Kruger had fled into exile in Europe.

At the end of 1900 Lord Roberts returned to England, leaving Kitchener to mop up. This proved difficult.

Hands-uppers and bitter-enders

Boers are stubborn. Some surrendured, but many did not. They made innovative use of what they had. As cattle farmers, they knew the territory well, and were skilled with rifle and horse and in the skills needed to survive in a wild land. Their troops dispersed and vanished into the vast countryside. The guerrilla tactics of their independant commandos made life difficult for the British, sometimes by sabotage to the long railways that brought in supplies.

In 1901 the war had become a costly stalemate, so Kitchener resorted to a scorched earth policy of burning down farms and killing the livestock in order to deny the Boer commandos the food and intelligence that they needed from their friendly civilians. Around 30 000 farmhouses were destroyed.

The Boer civilians were rounded up by the British in another innovation, the concentration camp. Blockhouses were built in cordons and the areas inbetween them swept by British troops.

The British forces won, not by skill but by overwhelming strength and determination to win at any cost. In the end, the British committed around 350,000 men to the war1, against the boers 88 000. British loss of life is estimated at 5 000; For the Boers around 3 700 combatants.

However around 26 000-27 000 Boer women and children succumbed to diseases and malnutrition in the camps2. Conditions did improve, due mostly to the efforts of an Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse in bringing their plight to the attention of Europe and the British public. For her trouble she was vilified by the English press, ignored by the British government and is counted a heroine in South Africa.

"The fatality rate of our soldiers on the battlefields, who were exposed to all the risks of war, was 52 per thousand per year, while the fatalities of women and children in the camps were 450 per thousand per year. We have no right to put women and children into such a position."
  - David Lloyd George

The Boers capitulated in May 1902, with the Treaty of Vereeniging bringing the Boers under British rule again.

Aftermath and consequences

British public opinion remained firmly in favour of the war throughout. See David Lloyd George for an example of how opposing the war was physically dangerous. The few who said outright that it was an unjust war, (no blood for gold is what comes to my mind), were accused of being traitors. Some things change, some don't.

The Treaty of Vereeniging promised the Boers self-government in return for responsible governement (citizenship and votes for those uitlanders I presume). The British granted 3 million pounds in reparation for destruction of property.

In 1910 the Union of South Africa, now the Republic of South Africa was formed from the four provinces of Cape Province, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal.

Bitter hatred of the English persisted among the Afrikaners for many decades afterwards due to the destruction of farms and death in the concentration camps, not to mention the pecuniary motives for the war.

The Boer War contributed to tension between the British and German interests, which came to a head in 1914 with World War I.

Although the newly formed Union was an ally of Britain during World War I, Afrikaaner power was on the rise again by the 1940s. This had the consequence that the Republic of South Africa was reluctant to enter World War II on the Allied side. Ironic as seems from what we know now of concentration camps, many of the Afrikaners had more loyalty to the Germans. But South Africa did eventually throw in with Britain.


At the time, the world's financial systems were heavily dependant on the gold standard.

The Boer war was the largest war that Britian fought in the period from Napoleonic Wars until World War I.

The Boer war is regarded as the 'last of the little wars' but also as the little war that foreshadows the methods of the total wars of the 20th century.

Though the British Empire would aquire Palestine, Iraq and Kuwait after the First world war, the age of empires was nearly over.

A discussion of this war would not be complete without mentioning that the majority of South Africans were and are neither Boer nor Anglo, but Black. Many fought for and aided masters on both sides. Though the powerful economic forces of precious minerals were changing their destiny, the Boer war did not. The British were marginally less racist than the Boers (it was the British who forced the Boers to free their slaves). However this was a war between two groups of Europeans, both of whom viewed Black Africans as servants and labourers, but not citizens.


The British
Cecil Rhodes: British imperialist, diamond mining tycoon and Prime minister of the Cape Colony until 1896. Defended Kimberly during the siege.
Sir Alfred Milner Rhodes's successor as governor-general of the Cape.
Sir Redvers Buller: Commander in Chief
General Lord Roberts: Replacement Commander in Chief.
Lord Kitchener: Chief of staff
Lord Baden-Powell: The first boy scout, defended Mafeking from seige.
Joseph Chamberlain: British Prime minister
Emily Hobhouse: Humanitarian
Winston Churchill: A young journalist, war correspondant. Briefly a POW. Later a famous British Prime Minister.
Rudyard Kipling: War correspondant and author.

The Boers
Louis Botha: Boer general and farmer
Jan Smuts: boer general and farmer. Later head of state of South Africa, and an important statesman.
Jacobus Hercules de la Rey: Orange free state boer general, guerilla, politician and farmer
Christiaan Rudolf de Wet: Traansvaal boer politician, general, guerilla and farmer
Paul Kruger: Transvaal president and farmer
Marthinus Theunis Steyn: Orange free state president and farmer


1) Brittanica says "The total British military strength in South Africa reached nearly 500,000 men".
2) Brittanica puts the number of Boer civillian deaths at "more than 20 000".

http://www.boer.co.za/boerwar/hellkamp.htm A site about how much the boervolk suffered. A strong anti-British bias. Note that anyone who they like cannot be British. Emily Hobhouse is for instance in their eyes Cornish and David Lloyd George is Welsh.
http://www.anglo-boer.co.za/ Is fairly factual and dispassionate.
http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/WARboer.htm gives a good summary from the British perspective, and mentions the camps briefly.
The Book The Boer War 1899-1902 by David Smurthwaite, published by Hamlyn in 1999. ISBN 0 600 60773 9. Yay local library!
Encyclopædia Britannica 2003 DVD edition.

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