The Boer War - History

The Boer War - History

The Boer war was fought between Great Britain and the Boars of Transvaal (South Africa) and the nearby Orange Free State. The Boars demanded that Britain withdraw its troops who were protecting the many British citizens who had come to the country. After achieving initial success the Boers were defeated by reinforced British troops led by Field Marshal Frederick Marshalls.

Boer War

The Boer War (or Anglo-Boer War) was a conflict in which the British Empire fought the forces of two “ Boer Republics ” from 1899 to 1902 in southern Africa. The Boers lost the war, but resistance gained them concessions even in defeat. One of many conflicts that heightened international tensions before 1914, the war accelerated patterns of violence that came to mark twentieth-century warfare, especially violence toward civilians.

The “ Boer ” population — mostly of Dutch Calvinist background — originated with a Dutch East India Company colony planted at the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century. Britain acquired the Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars. After clashes with the British administration, many settlers migrated northward in the “ Great Trek ” between 1835 and 1841, establishing two “ Boer republics ” : the South African Republic (or the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. The term Boer means “ farmer ” in Dutch and in the related language that developed among these settlers, which today is called Afrikaans.

The earlier war associated with the terms Boer War and Anglo-Boer War (1880 – 1881) was the result of British attempts to establish control over the republics. The British lost militarily but gained Boer agreement to nominal British rule over the autonomous republics. The conflict more commonly called the Boer War began in 1899 and was connected to the discovery of gold in the territory of the Transvaal in 1886. Europeans poured in to run the mines and recruit African labor. In the nineties, colonial authorities pushed to gain the vote for resident “ foreigners ” (uitlanders ), a measure that would have enabled the uitlanders to vote the republics into dissolution. Transvaal President Paul Kruger (1825 – 1902) opposed the plan vehemently. The Jameson Raid of 1895, sponsored by Cecil Rhodes (1853 – 1902 Cape Colony premier), was an effort to establish British control by force. After the defeat of the filibuster, German Emperor Wilhelm II (1859 – 1941) sent a telegram congratulating Kruger, to the irritation of the British. More concretely, the Germans also sent arms to the Boers in an attempt to counter their imperial rival, Britain.

Assisted by mining interests, in the late 1890s British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (1836 – 1914) and British High Commissioner Sir Alfred Milner (1854 – 1925) pressured the republics to give full citizenship to all resident British subjects. An attempt at reconciliation at the Bloemfontein Conference in mid-1899 failed, and the sides exchanged ultimata. The Boers struck first, invading the Cape Colony and Natal with a force based on the militia-like pattern of Boer defense, the commando system. The keys to their powerful blows against professional British units were expert marksmanship, good weapons, and mobility (mostly on horseback). From October 1899 to February 1900, Boer forces enjoyed success, defeating larger British units in a series of conventional battles, climaxed by the Battle of Spioenkop (earlier, Spion Kop), where British troops failed to carry the Boer lines after assaulting them for two days and losing 1,683 men, compared to 198 on the part of the Boers.

The tide of the war turned in February 1900, when British Field Marshall Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts (1832 – 1914) arrived with reinforcements. Though the British continued to sustain high losses, they were now able to overpower Boer forces, which retreated back to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Roberts followed and captured the Boer capitals by early June. The largest remaining Boer force was defeated in August 1900. Yet the Boers had already decided to move away from conventional warfare and adopt a guerrilla war of raids and ambush by June this campaign was in full swing. Several capable commanders emerged, especially Christiaan de Wet (1854 – 1922) and Jan Smuts (1870 – 1950). The British columns were deadly, but the Boer commandos were frequently elsewhere by the time the British were ready to strike.

Hence, although they nominally occupied the republics, British forces seemed stymied. Soon 250,000 British troops were engaged, but this number still represented a relatively low ratio of troops to area: The territory of the Transvaal alone (111,196 square miles) almost equaled that of the British Isles. The British military compensated for this low density of troops with a network of hundreds of “ blockhouses, ” outpost structures giving protection to small garrisons and linked by barbed-wire fences, designed to disrupt Boer movements.

Lord Roberts resigned in November 1900 because of sickness, and Herbert Lord Kitchener (1850 – 1916) took command. Kitchener intensified the “ scorched-earth ” policy that Roberts had already begun, which paralleled similar strategies in other contemporary colonial conflicts. His plan was to destroy Boer homes and crops and appropriate their livestock to deny the commandos food, supplies, and hiding places in two years the army burned some 30,000 Boer dwellings.

A byproduct of the “ scorched-earth ” policy was the creation of “ concentration camps ” to house those made homeless. Among the refugees were Boer women, children, and elderly, but also black Africans associated with Boer farming economies, or simply those displaced by military operations. British commanders also hoped that holding the refugees in tent camps surrounded by barbed wire, with limited food and rough hygiene, would bring about Boer surrender. Kitchener built forty concentration camps containing 116,000 prisoners, most of them women and children. Malnutrition and disease killed a high percentage. In a year and a half, well over 26,000 Afrikaners died, over 20,000 of them children under sixteen. The British also rounded up black Africans into camps, where as many as 17,000 died of disease and poor conditions. Some 12,000 of those seem to have been children. The total of black African deaths caused by the war is unknown. Nearly all the relevant mortality figures have been disputed, but it is not in dispute that the primary killer, even in the case of military deaths, was disease.

Whatever the effect of British tactics on the outcome of the war, it is clear that the Boers did not have the resources to fight on indefinitely. Several larger-scale battles in 1902 led to losses that thinned the already sparse commando ranks. The Boers surrendered in the spring of 1902, and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging, signed on May 31, 1902. The two republics became undisputed British possessions, but they emerged with considerable autonomy, allowing for self-government and continued use of the Dutch (later redefined as Afrikaans) language in schools, courts, and other institutions. The British agreed to pay a large sum for reconstruction in compensation for war damage. On the question of the enfranchisement of black Africans in the region, the treaty stipulated that no discussions of the issue would be held until after the region had been granted self-government.

Historians generally understand the war to have promoted and accelerated social trends marginalizing black African and racially mixed populations in South Africa. Hence, the institutionalization of apartheid (separateness) after World War II is seen as a later stage in developments resulting from the settlement of the Boer War. New legal restrictions based on race appeared in South Africa in the following decades. The Boer War also seems to have set in motion or intensified dislocation and the breakup of traditional cohesions among black South African ethnic groups, trends that shaped later racial relations in South Africa.

The war was an international affair, particularly on the British side. Some 22,000 soldiers of the British Empire died, and hundreds of thousands served. Yet, thousands were not from the British Isles. Africans served in various capacities. Many Indians living in South Africa likewise served in the war (Mohandas Gandhi [1869 – 1948] was a stretcher-bearer in the volunteer Indian Ambulance Corps). Australia ’ s involvement in the Boer War became a significant part of Australian history and identity. Over 10,000 Australians served in Australian units alone, and many others in British units. Some 500 Australians died in the war, about half from disease. Nearly 7,500 Canadians served, with deaths totaling 219, and New Zealand sent some 6,500 troops, with 229 resulting deaths. The war was, after all, an imperial effort.

The unity implied by these contributions did not reflect universal support back home. In Britain pacifists, liberals, socialists, and others were outspoken opponents of the war. Among the best known was political activist Emily Hobhouse (1860 – 1926). Opposing the war forcefully, she organized the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children in 1900 and traveled to South Africa to visit the concentration camps. Her efforts led to official inquiries and eventually a lowering of the mortality rates in the camps. Another prominent opponent was economist John A. Hobson (1858 – 1940), who produced a critique that far outlasted the events he observed. Covering the war for the Manchester Guardian, he wrote in The South African War: Causes and Effects (1900) that the war had been foisted on Britain by a “ small confederacy of international mine-owners and speculators ” lobbying for the war to support their own investments in South Africa. Hobson later generalized these and other arguments to apply to the whole of European imperialism in Imperialism (1902). Vladimir I. Lenin (1870 – 1924) adapted some of Hobson ’ s ideas in writing Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916).

SEE ALSO Apartheid Concentration Camps Imperialism

Underlying causes

The causes of the war have provoked intense debates among historians and remain as unresolved today as during the war itself. British politicians claimed they were defending their “suzerainty” over the South African Republic (SAR) enshrined in the Pretoria and (disputably) London conventions of 1881 and 1884, respectively. Many historians stress that in reality the contest was for control of the rich Witwatersrand gold-mining complex located in the SAR. It was the largest gold-mining complex in the world at a time when the world’s monetary systems, preeminently the British, were increasingly dependent upon gold. Although there were many Uitlanders (foreigners i.e., non-Dutch/Boer and in this case primarily British) working in the Witwatersrand gold-mining industry, the complex itself was beyond direct British control. Also, the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 allowed the SAR to make progress with modernization efforts and vie with Britain for domination in Southern Africa.

After 1897 Britain—through Alfred Milner, its high commissioner for South Africa—maneuvered to undermine the political independence of the SAR and demanded the modification of the Boer republic’s constitution to grant political rights to the primarily British Uitlanders, thereby providing them with a dominant role in formulating state policy that would presumably be more pro-British than the current policy of the SAR. In an effort to prevent a conflict between Britain and the SAR, Marthinus Steyn, president of the Orange Free State, hosted the unsuccessful Bloemfontein Conference in May–June 1899 between Milner and Paul Kruger, president of the SAR. Kruger did offer to make concessions to Britain, but they were deemed insufficient by Milner. After the conference, Milner requested that the British government send additional troops to reinforce the British garrison in Southern Africa they began arriving in August and September. The buildup of troops alarmed the Boers, and Kruger offered additional Uitlander-related concessions, which were again rejected by Milner.

The Boers, realizing war was unavoidable, took the offensive. On October 9, 1899, they issued an ultimatum to British government, declaring that a state of war would exist between Britain and the two Boer republics if the British did not remove their troops from along the border. The ultimatum expired without resolution, and the war began on October 11, 1899.

The Boer War ends in South Africa

In Pretoria, representatives of Great Britain and the Boer states sign the Treaty of Vereeniging, officially ending the three-and-a-half-year South African Boer War.

The Boers, also known as Afrikaners, were the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of southern Africa. Britain took possession of the Dutch Cape colony in 1806 during the Napoleonic wars, sparking resistance from the independence-minded Boers, who resented the Anglicization of South Africa and Britain’s anti-slavery policies. In 1833, the Boers began an exodus into African tribal territory, where they founded the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The two new republics lived peaceably with their British neighbors until 1867, when the discovery of diamonds and gold in the region made conflict between the Boer states and Britain inevitable.

Minor fighting with Britain began in the 1890s and in 1899 full-scale war ensued. By mid-June of 1900, British forces had captured most major Boer cities and formally annexed their territories, but the Boers launched a guerrilla war that frustrated the British occupiers. Beginning in 1901, the British began a strategy of systematically searching out and destroying these guerrilla units, while herding the families of the Boer soldiers into concentration camps. By 1902, the British had crushed the Boer resistance, and on May 31 of that year, the Peace of Vereeniging was signed, ending hostilities.

The treaty recognized the British military administration over Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and authorized a general amnesty for Boer forces. In 1910, the autonomous Union of South Africa was established by the British. It included Transvaal, the Orange Free State, the Cape of Good Hope and Natal as provinces.

Setting the record straight

The claim that caused the most upset was Rees-Mogg’s allegation that the concentration camps had exactly the same mortality rate as was the case in Glasgow at the time.

This is simply factually incorrect.

In its recent Glasgow Indicators Project the Glasgow Centre for Population Health gives the death rate of people in the city as 21 per 1000 per annum in 1901.

Inside one of the British concentration camps. Photographical Collection Anglo-Boer War Museum, Bloemfontein SA

The death rate for Boer civilians in the concentration camps in South Africa exceeded this by a factor of 10. It’s well established that 28 000 white people and 20 000 black people died in various camps in South Africa. Between July 1901 and February 1902 the rate was, on average, 247 per 1000 per annum in the white camps. It reached a high of 344 per 1000 per annum in October 1901 and a low of 69 per 1000 per annum in February 1902.

The figures would have been even higher had it not been for the fact that British welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse exposed the deplorable conditions in the camps. A subsequent report by the Government’s Ladies Commission prompted the British Government to improve conditions. Another factor that reduced the fatality rate was that Lord Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony, took over administration of the camps from the military from November 1901.

Rees-Mogg also revealed his total lack of understanding why the British military authorities established the concentration camps in statements such as:

Where else were people going to live when … (the Boers were fighting the war)?

People were put in camps for their protection.

They were interned for their safety.

They were being taken there so that they could be fed because the farmers were away fighting the Boer War.

The reality was very different.

Further information:

Sources and further reading:

P. Dennis, J. Grey, E. Morris, R. Prior, and J. Connor, The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995

Kit Denton, For Queen and Commonwealth: Australians at war, vol. 5, Sydney, Time–Life Books Australia, 1987

L. Field, The forgotten war: Australian involvement in the South African conflict of 1899–1902, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1979

J. Grey, A military history of Australia, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1990

Craig Wilcox, Australia’s Boer War: the war in South Africa, 1899–1902, Melbourne, Oxford University Press 2002

The Boer War

[Ed. See the previous article for a look at the events leading up to the outbreak of war]

The British Government entered on the struggle upon the basis of a huge miscalculation. There appears to have been a general impression that the Boers, on a liberal estimate, could not put as many as thirty thousand efficient men in the field, and that thirty thousand farmers armed with rifles would by no means be a match for fifty thousand British regulars armed with superior artillery.

As a matter of fact the two republics could take the field with armies numbering not far short of eighty thousand and for years past the Transvaal had been utilising the wealth extracted from the gold-mines to accumulate war-stores and to purchase guns which com­pletely outranged those of the British. Their forces were exceedingly mobile, being almost entirely mounted infantry, amply provided with horses which were accustomed to the country, while they themselves were consummate horse-masters and dead shots. Moreover, the strategical advantages enjoyed by the Boers were immense.

Their frontier was an elongated semicircle guarded by mountain ranges exceedingly difficult for regular troops to penetrate while they themselves, holding the interior lines, could with great rapidity transfer large masses of troops from point to point" of the frontier, an operation entirely impossible for the British.

Also at the moment chosen for the declaration of war the British regular troops, of which the great bulk were merely infantry, numbered not much more than twenty thousand men and, for political reasons, two-thirds of these had been massed with complete disregard of strategical considerations at Ladysmith and Dundee in the northern angle cf Natal.

On the opposite side of the Orange Free State a strong garrison held Kimberley, the centre of the diamond mines, and to the north of Kimberley, on the Transvaal frontier, Colonel Baden-Powell was at Mafeking with some nine hundred combatants under his command - volunteers and irregulars. Other points at the south were held by Generals French and Gatacre, but co-operation between these various forces was quite impossible.

Though the Boer commanders showed no little ability in the field, their conceptions of strategy were happily of an elementary character. The sound policy for them would have been to leave containing forces sufficient to check active operations from Ladysmith and Kimberley, and to strike at once in force at the Cape itself, a policy which, with the greatly superior numbers which they controlled at the outset, would have been entirely practicable.

An invasion of the Cape would probably have brought to their standard large numbers of the dis­affected Cape Dutch, and the British would in that case have had to reconquer the Cape itself. Instead of this, however, the Boers concentrated their energies upon the sieges of Ladysmith, of Kimberley, and of Mafeking.

At the very outset it became obvious that the British position at Glencoe near Dundee was untenable. By October 26th the force there had effected its retreat to Ladysmith, where the army remained shut up for four months. In November reinforcements arrived at the Cape under command of General Buller.

The fact that Mr Rhodes was at Kimberley had been extremely useful, because it had filled the Boers with an intense desire to capture that post and the person of the man whom they regarded as their arch enemy so that Kimberley for them acquired a wholly fictitious importance.

General Buller decied that both Ladysmith and Kimberley must be relieved he himself undertook the campaign on the east, while that on the west was entrusted to lord Methuen. The Boers contented themselves with occupying the ground beyond the Tugela, blocking the way to Ladysmith, while advanced forces were thrown out from the neighbourhood of Kimberley to block the progress of Lord Methuen.

In the second week in December came a series of disasters. After a sharp struggle, Methuen forced the passage of the Modder River, and on the night of the 10th he attempted to surprise the Boer General Cronje in the strongly entrenched position which he occupied at Magersfontein. The task was entrusted to the Highland Brigade. But the Highlanders advancing in the dark in close order, which in a night attack must be preserved till the last moment, reached the enemy's lines before they knew they had done so.

Suddenly, without warning, a storm of fire belched forth from the Boer entrenchments in three minutes six hundred of the Highlanders had fallen. They broke, only to rally the moment they reached cover, but an advance was impossible. Though reinforcements presently arrived, to carry the entrenchments by a frontal attack was out of the question.

The advance to the relief of Kimberley was completely blocked. On the previous day General Gatacre in the south had attempted to strike at a Boer force which was at last invading Cape Colony. His force was cut in two at Stormberg, and six hundred British soldiers became prisoners of war. In the east on the 15th Buller attempted the passage of the Tugela, and was repulsed with heavy loss at Colenso. The whole offensive movement was entirely paralysed.

The "black week" aroused the nation to the consciousness of the immensity of the task which it had undertaken, but with grim determination it resolved to carry it through. The call to arms met with an eager response not only in the British Isles but from Canada and from Australasia.

The veteran Lord Roberts, the hero of the Afghan War, was despatched to take the supreme command, having as his Chief of Staff Lord Kitchener, who had achieved the highest reputation by the reconquest of the Soudan, of which the story will presently be told.

It was not till the second week in February that Lord Roberts was ready to put his new plan of campaign in operation. In the meantime Ladysmith had been subjected to a fierce attack, beaten off with dogged valour.

Again General Buller had carried a large force across the Tugela to storm and carry the Boer position at Spionkop - for it would seem that at the end of the day the Boers believed that the British were established on the crest, and were preparing to beat a retreat. But so deadly had the struggle been that the exceptionally gallant officer, who had taken the command when General Woodgate fell mortally wounded, believed that the position was wholly untenable and it was the British, not the Boers who retreated.

Yet Ladysmith still held out with grim resolution, Kimberley defied its besiegers in the west, while the lively and resourceful defence of Mafeking gave even a flavour of comedy to the great tragedy.

Battle of Paardeberg
From the moment of the opening of Roberts' campaign the tide turned completely. Buller was left to fight his way to Ladysmith, but except for this the whole of the now large force collected in South Africa was to be engaged in a sweeping movement of invasion, taking Kimberley by the way.

While attention was concentrated on the advance of the main army, General French, with a strong column of cavalry, was despatched on a race by a more easterly route to ensure the envelopment of the Boers before Kimberley. On the fourth day the siege was raised.

The besiegers made a dash for the gap which the slower movements of Roberts with his infantry force had not yet closed up. But one British detachment was able to hang on the rear of the retreating Cronje, while the cavalry again issuing from Kimberley headed him off the line on which he was retiring.

At Paardeberg Cronje was trapped after a furious fight, and in spite of the obstinacy with which he held out in a position elaborately entrenched, his whole force was reduced to surrender nine days after the battle of Paardeberg, on February 27th.

Relief of Mafeking
While these successful operations were being carried on in the western theatre, Buller had at last found a practicable line of advance. This time the turning movement was successful, and on the day after Cronje's surrender the Boers were on the retreat from before Ladysmith. In seventeen days the entire aspect of the war had been changed.

A fortnight later Lord Roberts was in Bloemfontein. A great epidemic of typhoid delayed further operations until May 1st, when the march upon Pretoria began. On May 17 Mafeking was relieved, a piece of intelligence which sent the entire population at home temporarily off its head. On June 5th Lord Roberts was in Pretoria.

Diamond Hill
The sweeping advance met with occasional resistance, but the Boers were unable to attempt a pitched battle. Still, however, a detached force of Free-Staters, generally commanded by Christian De Wet, carried on perpetual raids upon the British communications and snapped up isolated detachments while the rapidity of De Wet's movements and the completeness of his information enabled him to evade pursuit.

President Kruger had himself departed from Pretoria, but his official Government and the Transvaal army were still in being. A severe defeat was inflicted on this force at Diamond Hill on June 11th, which may be regarded as the last pitched battle of the war. And yet it was not till September that Mr. Kruger had so far despaired of the republic that he withdrew to the coast and took ship for Europe.

Lord Roberts, with a somewhat premature optimism, was able to announce that the war was practically over, and departed, leaving Lord Kitchener to complete the subjugation of the rebels who still remained in arms - rebels in the exceedingly technical sense that they were in arms against the power which had formally proclaimed its sovereignty. The chief political authority was still in the hands of Sir Alfred, who had now become Viscount Milner.

At home Lord Salisbury took the opportunity for appealing to the country by a dissolution, when the electorate definitely pronounced that the work of settling South Africa should be completed by the Government which had entered upon the war.

The attitude of a section of the Liberal party had produced an impression that whatever might be the sins and shortcomings of the Unionists it would be dangerous to entrust the government to a party which was suspected of an unpatriotic sympathy with the country's enemies. The Unionist majority after the general election still stood at 130.

Yet for another eighteen months the war remained particularly lively. The Boer leaders, so long as they were able to maintain a guerilla warfare, declined to consider themselves beaten or to accept anything short of that complete sovereign independence for which they had been fighting from the beginning.

The brilliant audacity and resourcefulness of several leaders, and, above all, of the ubiquitous and irrepressible De Wet, inspired the hearty admiration of the British while the conduct of many of the farm people, who acted as combatants or non-combatants according to the convenience of the moment, kept alive an acute irritation.

Concentration camps
The severities involved were angrily denounced and while the population was to a great extent gathered into "concentration camps" by the British Government, and there maintained and kept in security, fictitious stories of British brutality were freely circulated and believed all over the European Continent. From first to last, however, one fact had been conspicuous.

While the press of nearly all Europe united in denouncing the British, the Powers had recognised the futility of any intervention in a war which would involve fighting not with British armies but with British fleets. The British command of the sea was so decisive that the Powers, whatever their inclinations might be, had no choice but to leave the Boer States to take care of themselves.

End of the War
Meanwhile Lord Kitchener, with imperturbable persistency, drew the lines of his block-houses across the country until he had at last formed an impenetrable net, pressing ever closer and closer upon the Boers, who still fought on until at last that indomitable people recognised that extermination was the only alternative to submission.

In March 1902 they opened negotiations, which were conducted on behalf of the British with unfailing tact and firmness by Lord Kitchener. On May 31st the provisional government signed the treaty which terminated the war.

The republics were incorporated in the British Empire, in the first instance as Crown colonies, but with the promise or at least the hope that before long they might be placed in the same position as the colonies which enjoyed responsible government Great Britain provided them with £3,000,000 in order to establish them on a working financial basis and the use of the Dutch language was to be permitted in the schools and law courts.

Broadly speaking, it was resolved that the conquered states should not be treated as subject nationalities which must be kept in subjection with a strong hand the way was prepared instead for accepting them as free and loyal denizens of the British Empire.

A History of Britain

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

The Boer War - History

The first European colony established in South Africa was Cape Town, which was founded in 1653 by Dutchman Jan van Riebeek. As this colony grew, more people arrived from the Netherlands, France, and Germany. These people became known as the Boers.

In the early 1800s, the British began to take control of the region. Although the Boers fought back, the Netherlands gave up control of the colony to Britain in 1814 as part the Congress of Vienna. Soon, thousands of British colonists arrived in South Africa. They made many changes to the laws and ways of life for the Boers.

The Boers were unhappy under British rule. They decided to leave Cape Town and establish a new colony. Starting in 1835, thousands of Boers began a mass migration to new lands to the north and east in South Africa. They established their own free states, called Boer republics, including the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. These people were nicknamed the "Voortrekkers."

First Boer War (1880 - 1881)

In 1868, diamonds were discovered on Boer lands. This caused an influx of new settlers into the Boer territory, including many British. The British decided that they wanted to control the Transvaal and annexed it as part of the British colony in 1877. This did not sit well with the Boers. In 1880, the Boers of the Transvaal revolted against the British in what became known as the First Boer War.

The skill and tactics of the Boer soldiers took the British by surprise. They were very good marksmen. They would attack from a distance and then retreat if the British soldiers got too close. The war ended with a Boer victory. The British agreed to recognize the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as independent states.

Second Boer War (1889 - 1902)

In 1886, gold was discovered in the Transvaal. This new wealth potentially made the Transvaal very powerful. The British became concerned that the Boers would take over all of South Africa. In 1889, the Second Boer War began.

The British had thought that the war would last only a few months. However, the Boers once again proved to be tough fighters. After several years of war, the British finally defeated the Boers. Both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal became part of the British Empire.

During the Second Boer War, the British used concentration camps to house Boer women and children as they took over territory. The conditions in these camps were very bad. As many as 28,000 Boer women and children died in these camps. The use of these camps was later used to stir up resistance against British rule.

Cameo roles of notable figures

Although they merited only a footnote in this particular conflict, mention must be made of the following actors:

Winston Churchill

The 26 year old Winston worked as a war correspondent for The Morning Post, during which time he was captured, held prisoner at Pretoria and then escaped to re-join the British army.

Mahatma Gandhi

In 1900 he volunteered to be a stretcher bearer for the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps and recruited 1100 India volunteers. He received the Boer War Medal along with 37 other Indians.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

He served as a volunteer doctor at Bloemfontein (Langman Field Hospital) between March – June 1900. He publicised the fact that of the 22,000 soldiers killed in the hostilities, 14,000 had actually died of disease. He also wrote a pamphlet defending the war entitled: “The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct”.

Canada and the South African War (Boer War)

The South African War (1899–1902) was Canada's first foreign war. Also known as the Boer War, it was fought between Britain (with help from its colonies and Dominions such as Canada) and the Afrikaner republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Canada sent three contingents to South Africa, while some Canadians also served in British units. In total, more than 7,000 Canadians, including 12 nurses, served in the war. Of these, approximately 270 died. The war was significant because it marked the first time Canadian troops distinguished themselves in battle overseas. At home, it fuelled a sense that Canada could stand apart from the British Empire, and it highlighted the French-English divide over Canada's role in world affairs — two factors that would soon appear again in the First World War.

Soldiers of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, riding on the grasslands of the Transvaal, in pursuit of Boer troops, March 1902 (NAC PA-173029).

How It Started

Britain went to war in 1899 as the imperial aggressor against two small, independent Afrikaner (or Boer) republics. The Afrikaners were descendants of Protestant Dutch, French and German refugees who had migrated in the 17th Century to the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. After Britain took control of the Cape in the 19th Century, many Afrikaners — unwilling to submit to British rule — trekked north into the interior, where they established the independent nations of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. By 1899 the British Empire (then at the height of its power) had two South African colonies, the Cape and Natal, but also wanted control of the neighbouring Boer states. Transvaal was the real prize, home to the richest gold fields on earth.

Map of Southern Africa Showing the British Colonies and the Boer Republics, ca. 1900.

(courtesy Canadian War Museum)

Britain's pretext for war was the denial of political rights by the Boers to the growing population of foreigners, or Uitlanders as they were known in the Afrikaans language — mostly immigrants from Britain and its colonies — who worked the Transvaal gold mines. The British government rallied public sympathy for the Uitlander cause throughout the Empire, including in Canada where Parliament passed a resolution of Uitlander support. Britain increased pressure on the Boers and moved troops into the region, until finally in October 1899 the Boer governments made a pre-emptive military strike against British forces gathering in nearby Natal.

Canadians Divided

Canadian opinion was sharply divided on the question of sending troops to aid the British. French Canadians led by Henri Bourassa, seeing growing British imperialism as a threat to their own survival, sympathized with the Boers, whereas most English Canadians rallied to the British cause. English Canada was a staunchly British society at the time Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee had been celebrated in lavish fashion across the country in 1897. Two years later, if the mother country was going to war, most English Canadians were keen to help her. Dozens of English-speaking newspapers took up the patriotic, jingoistic spirit of the time, demanding Canada's participation in the war.

founder of Le Devoir and an opponent of Canadian involvement in foreign military adventures, including in South Africa in 1899.(courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-27360/Henri Bourassa Coll). Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier agreed to send Canadian troops to South Africa, but only after considerable pressure in English-speaking Canada

Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was reluctant to get involved, and his divided Cabinet was thrown into crisis on the matter. Canada did not have a professional army at the time. Eventually, under intense pressure, the government authorized the recruitment of a token force of 1,000 volunteer infantrymen. Although they would fight within the British army, it was the first time Canada would send soldiers overseas wearing Canadian uniforms into battle.

Canadian Contingents

The 1,000 volunteers were organized into the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR). This first contingent was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter, a hero of the North-West Rebellion. It sailed on 30 October from Québec — called "the gallant thousand" by the minister of militia, Frederick Borden, whose own son Harold would be killed in South Africa.

As the war continued, Canada had no difficulty raising 6,000 more volunteers, all mounted men. This second contingent included three batteries of field artillery and two regiments — the Royal Canadian Dragoons and the 1st Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles. Another 1,000 men — the 3rd Battalion, RCR — were raised to relieve regular British troops garrisoned atHalifax, Nova Scotia. Only the 1st, 2nd and Halifax contingents, plus 12 instructional officers, six chaplains, eight nurses and 22 tradesmen (mostly blacksmiths) were recruited under the authority of the CanadianMilitia Act. They were organized, clothed, equipped, transported and partially paid by the Canadian government, at a cost of nearly $3 million.

Personnel of Strathcona's Horse en route to South Africa aboard S.S. Monterey.

(Library and Archives Canada / C-000171)

A 3rd contingent, Strathcona's Horse, was funded entirely by Lord Strathcona (Donald Smith), Canada's wealthy high commissioner to Britain. The other forces to come from Canada — including the South African Constabulary, the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Regiments of Canadian Mounted Rifles, and the 10th Canadian Field Hospital — were recruited and paid by Britain. All volunteers agreed to serve for up to one year, except in the Constabulary, which insisted on three years' service.

Canadians also served in British units, and in guerrilla-type army units such as the Canadian Scouts and Brabant's Horse.

5th Canadian Mounted Rifles (left) in camp at Durban.

(photo by H.J. Woodside, courtesy Library and Archives Canada / PA-016431)


Most of the early Canadian volunteers who sailed for South Africa in October 1899 believed they would be home, victorious, by Christmas. Imperial Britain was the most powerful nation on earth — how could two small Boer republics withstand its military might? By the time the Canadians reached Cape Town in November, however, the British side was in a state of shock. After two months of war the main British forces had either surrendered in fighting, or were besieged by the Boers in garrison towns. Then in December, the British suffered three stunning battlefield defeats in what became known as "Black Week." Suddenly, Britain found itself embroiled in its biggest war in nearly a century.

The setbacks were due not only to British military blunders, but also to the skill of the Boer armies — made up of citizen soldiers who were highly mobile, familiar with the land, equipped with modern weapons, and determined to defend their homeland. In February 1900 the British reinforced and reorganized their war effort. Under new leadership, the British abandoned the slow and vulnerable railway lines, instead marching their armies directly across the African grasslands to the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria.

On 17 February a British column of 15,000 men — including the 1,000 troops of the first Canadian contingent — confronted a Boer force of 5,000 which had circled its wagons at Paardeberg, on a stony plain south of Bloemfontein. For nine days the British besieged the smaller Boer force, pounding them with artillery and trying without success (including one failed, suicidal charge by the Canadians) to assault the Boer encampment with infantry.

Field hospital at Paardeberg Drift.

(photo by Reinhold Thiele, courtesy Library and Archives Canada / C-006097)

On 26 February, the Canadians under William Otter were ordered into the fray again, this time to attempt a night attack. After several hours of desperate fighting, the Boers surrendered to the Canadians just as dawn broke the following morning. It was the first significant British victory of the war, and Canada was suddenly the toast of the empire. Hundreds of men on both sides, including 31 Canadians, died at Paardeberg. Still, the British commander Field Marshal Frederick Roberts heaped praise on Otter and his men. "Canadian," he said, "now stands for bravery, dash and courage."

The Battle of Paardeberg is the best-known Canadian engagement of the South African war. Canada's first contingent helped Britain capture a Boer army, and win the first major imperial victory of the war.(courtesy The Corporation of the City of Toronto).


By June 1900, Bloemfontein and Pretoria had fallen to the British and Paul Kruger, the Transvaal president, had fled to exile in Europe. But rather than surrender, the remaining Boer forces organized themselves into mounted guerrilla units and melted away into the countryside. For the next two years the Boers waged an insurgency against the British — raiding army columns and storage depots, blowing up rail lines and carrying out hit-and-run attacks. The British responded with a scorched-earth strategy — burning farms and herding tens of thousands of Boer and African families into concentration camps, until the last of the "bitter enders" among the Boer fighters were subdued.

On 7 November 1900, with the guerrilla phase of the war underway, a British force of 1,500 men was attacked at Leliefontein farm in the eastern Transvaal, by a large group of Boers on horseback, intent on capturing the supply wagons, and the guns of the Royal Canadian Artillery, at the rear of the column. For two hours the Canadian artillery crews, and soldiers of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, fought a wild, mounted battle to protect the guns.

Image: WikiCommons. The Victoria Cross, instituted 1856 by Queen Victoria, is the Commonwealth's premier military decoration for gallantry. It is awarded in recognition of the most exceptional bravery displayed in the presence of the enemy.

Three Canadians died at Leliefontein. Three others, including a wounded Lieutenant Richard Turner (who would later serve as a general in the First World War), won the Victoria Cross for their bravery in saving the guns.


Perhaps the most heroic fighting carried out by Canadians in South Africa occurred near the end of the war, on Easter Monday, 31 March 1902, at the Battle of Boschbult farm — also known as the Battle of Harts River. Another British column of 1,800 men had been patrolling the remote, western corner of the Transvaal when it ran into a surprisingly large enemy force of 2,500 Boers. Outnumbered, the British installed themselves around the farm buildings at Boschbult, set up their defences, and for the rest of the day tried to defend against a series of charges and attacks by mounted enemy soldiers.

On the outer edge of the British defence line, a group of 21 Canadian Mounted Riflemen, led by Lieutenant Bruce Carruthers, fought valiantly against the charging enemy horsemen. Carruthers' men were eventually cut off and surrounded, and many were badly wounded, but they refused to surrender their position until they had fired the last rounds of their ammunition. Eighteen of the 21 were killed or wounded before the battle was over.

Meanwhile, six other Canadians originally with Carruthers' group had become separated from their unit during the fighting, and were stranded from the main force. Rather than surrender they fled on foot into the open veld (grassland), pursued by a group of Boers for two days, until finally the small band of Canadians was forced to stand and fight. Two were killed before the other four finally surrendered.

In total, 13 Canadians were killed and 40 wounded at the Battle of Boschbult, amid some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Canadian Honours

The last of the Boers finally surrendered and the war ended on 31 May 1902. Canadian troops, in the first of many, and much greater conflicts to come in the 20th century, had distinguished themselves in South Africa. Their tenacity, stamina and initiative seemed especially suited to the Boers' unorthodox guerrilla tactics. Five Canadians received the Victoria Cross, 19 the Distinguished Service Order and 17 the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Canada's senior nursing sister, Georgina Pope, was awarded the Royal Red Cross. During the final months of the war, 40 Canadian teachers went to South Africa to help reconstruct the country.

Pope was the first Matron of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (courtesy Canadian War Museum).


Overall, the war claimed at least 60,000 lives, including 7,000 Boer soldiers and 22,000 imperial troops. Approximately 270 Canadians died in South Africa, many of them from disease. Most of the suffering, however, was borne by civilians, largely due to disease resulting from poor living conditions among the tens of thousands of families confined in British concentration camps. An estimated 7,000–12,000 Black Africans died in the camps, along with 18,000–28,000 Boers, the majority of them children.

Despite the loss of life, at home Canadians viewed their soldiers' military feats with pride, and marked their victories during the war with massive parades and demonstrations.

Volunteer donors insured the veterans' lives upon their enlistment, showered them with gifts upon their departure and during their service, and feted them upon their return. They formed a Patriotic Fund and a Canadian branch of the Soldiers' Wives' League to care for their dependants, and a Canadian South African Memorial Association to mark the graves of Canadian dead — more than half of them victims of disease, rather than casualties of combat. After the war Canadians erected monuments to the men who fought. For most towns and cities across Canada, these were their first public war memorials, and many still stand today — including the South African Memorial on University Avenue in Toronto, sculpted by Walter Allward (who would later design the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge in France).

Return of Canadian soldiers from South Africa.

(Library and Archives Canada / PA-034097)

The war was prophetic in many ways — foreshadowing what was to come in the First World War: the success of Canada's soldiers in South Africa, and their criticism of British leadership and social values, fed a new sense of Canadian self-confidence, which loosened rather than cemented the ties of empire. The war also damaged relations between French and English Canadians, setting the stage for the larger crisis over conscription that would consume the country from 1914 to 1918.

South Africa also introduced new forms of warfare that would loom large in the future — it showed for the first time the defensive advantage of well-entrenched soldiers armed with long-range rifles, and it gave the world a foretaste of guerilla tactics.

Two towering figures of the 20th century also made appearances in South Africa: Winston Churchill, as a war correspondent, and Mahatma Gandhi, a Natal lawyer who volunteered as a stretcher-bearer, fetching Britain's wounded from the battlefields. Meanwhile John McCrae, the Canadian who wrote the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, first tasted war in South Africa as a young officer with the Royal Canadian Artillery.

Captain Everett, Colonel St.-George Henry and Martland Klosey, HQ staff 4th Mounted Infantry Brigade.