The Boer War

The Boer Wars was the name given to the South African Wars of 1880-1 and 1899-1902, that were fought between the British and the descendants of the Dutch settlers (Boers) in Africa. After the first Boer War William Gladstone granted the Boers self-government in the Transvaal.

The Boers, under the leadership of Paul Kruger, resented the colonial policy of Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Milner which they feared would deprive the Transvaal of its independence. After receiving military equipment from Germany, the Boers had a series of successes on the borders of Cape Colony and Natal between October 1899 and January 1900. Although the Boers only had 88,000 soldiers, led by the outstanding soldiers such as Louis Botha, and Jan Smuts, the Boers were able to successfully besiege the British garrisons at Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley.

Walter Crane, Justice Journal (1907)
Walter Crane, Justice Journal (1907)

Army reinforcements arrived in South Africa in 1900 and counter-offences relieved the garrisons and enabled the British to take control of the Boer capital, Pretoria, on 5th June. For the next two years groups of Boer commandos raided isolated British units in South Africa.

Lord Kitchener, the Chief of Staff in South Africa, reacted to these raids by destroying Boer farms and moving civilians into concentration camps. the journalist, Emily Hobhouse, visited the Bloemfontein Concentration Camp in January 1901: "When the eight, ten or twelve people who lived in the bell tent were squeezed into it to find shelter against the heat of the sun, the dust or the rain, there was no room to stir and the air in the tent was beyond description, even though the flaps were rolled up properly and fastened. Soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine."

The British action in South Africa was strongly opposed by many leading Liberal politicians and most of the Independent Labour Party as an example of the worst excesses of imperialism. The Boer War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902. The peace settlement brought to an end the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as Boer republics. However, the British granted the Boers £3 million for restocking and repairing farm lands and promised eventual self-government (granted in 1907).

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Primary Sources

(1) Emily Hobhouse wrote about how she decided to visit South Africa during the Boer War.

It was late in the summer of 1900 that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women that became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations. That the poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance. And from that moment I was determined to go to South Africa in order to render assistance to them.

(2) Philip Gibbs, The Pageant of the Years (1946)

The Lord Mayor of London appeared in his robes and made a speech to the crowd. I cannot remember his exact words, but they announced that after intolerable insults from an old man named Kruger, Her Majesty's government had declared war upon the South African Boers. There was terrific and tumultuous cheering. Top hats were flung up after the crowd had sung "God Save the Queen". I don't believe I joined in the cheering. Certainly I did not fling up my top hat. Brought up in the Gladstonian tradition to the Liberals, and being, anyhow, a liberal-minded youth hostile to the loud-mouthed jingoism of the time, I was not swept by enthusiasm for a war which seemed to me, as it did to others, a bit of bullying by the big old British Empire.

The Daily Mail (19th May, 1900)
The Daily Mail (19th May, 1900)

(3) George W. Steevens reported the siege of Ladysmith for The Daily Mail (October, 1899)

You hear the squeal of the things all above, the crash and pop all about, and wonder when your turn will come. Perhaps one falls quite near you, swooping irresistibly, as if the devil had kicked it. You come to watch the shells - to listen to the deafening rattle of the big guns, the shrilling whistle of the small, to guess at their pace and their direction. You see now a house smashed in, a heap of chips and rubble; now you see a splinter kicking up a fountain of clinking stone-shivers. This is a dangerous time. If you have nothing else to do, you get shells on the brain, think and talk of nothing else, and finish by going into a hole in the ground before daylight, and hiring better men than yourself to bring you down your meals.

(4) Lady Sarah Wilson was in Mafeking during the Boer War. She reported on the siege for the Daily Mail during April, 1900.

There was a remarkable decrease in the applications at the soup kitchen today, yesterday, and the day before, thanks to the arrival of enormous clouds of locusts, which in ordinary times are unwelcome visitors, but in our present condition were hailed with joy. The natives gathered sacks full, and feed on them tell their stomachs project in prominence of plenitude.

(5) Emily Hobhouse, report on Bloemfontein Concentration Camp (January, 1901)

When the eight, ten or twelve people who lived in the bell tent were squeezed into it to find shelter against the heat of the sun, the dust or the rain, there was no room to stir and the air in the tent was beyond description, even though the flaps were rolled up properly and fastened. Soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.