The Boer War: Military Campaigns

Boer War
Figure 1.--This English drummer boy is writing a letter home to his mother after the victory at Colesberg (1900). Colesberg was located halfway between Johannesburg and Cape Town and was a major railway junction.

The British Government decided to get involved when British gold prospectors complained of mistreatment in the Tanscaal. The British dispatched troops to the Transvaal border and issued demands. When Transcaal authorities ignored the demands, the British crossed the frontier and the war began. The British thought it would be very easy to defeat the Tranvaal. The soon found the Boers were able to field a competent military force. The Boers struck back an besieged cities in Natal and the Cape Colony. The British rushed in forces fromn Britain and the Dominions. They releave the beseiged cities and than take the Boer capitals. This proves, however, tgo only be the beginning of the War. The Boers refuse to surrender and launch a guerrila campaihn against the invading British. This turned what had been fought as a traditional military operation into a very dirty little colonial war.

Political Leadership

Primeminister Salisbury wanted to avoid a war in South Africa. He generally cobceeded policy to Colonial Secretary Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain at first worled with Cecil Rhodes, primeminister of the Cape Colony. Rhodes was determined to bring the Transvaal under British control. With Chamberlain's fu;l knowledge, Rhodes helped organize the abortive Jamestown Raid. [Pearce and Stewart, p. 172.] Transvaal President Paul Kruger (1825-1904) adroit hndling of the situation brought him international recognition. He was of German mot Dutch descent. He opposed the colonial policy of and British High Commissioner Alfred Milner. Kruger and other Boer leaders with considerable reason saw the British as attempting to establish British imperial control. The Boers managed to obtain arms from from Germany.

German Arms

The Transvaal bordered on Mozambique, a Portuguese colony. This provided a way of importing arms. And the Germans supplied arms. After the failure og the Jamestown raid, Kaisr Wilhelm II sent a congratulatory telegram to Kruger and stepped up arms shipments. A German ship was sent to Delagoa Bay. In only withdrew after a Royal Navy squadrin arrived. The British set ablout closing this supply channel. They negotiated a treaty with Germany offering aart of the Portuguese Empire should it break up. Germany's African colonies bordered on Portuguese colonies (1898). Next they convinced the Portuguese to end arms shipments through Portuguese ports (1899). [Pearce and Stewart, p. 172.] This meant that in the ensuing war, the Boers would be unable to obtain military supplies.

Set-piece Battles (1899-1900)

British High Commissioner Milner precipitated a war with the Boers. He thought that the British forces could easily seize the small Boer Republics in a few weeks. The Boers with German arms and imaginative leadership defeated the British in a series of engagements on the border of the Cape Colony and Natal (October 1899-January 1900). The Boers seized the offensive and invaded Natal and Cape Province. They managed to field an army of 88,000 men led by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts They surrounding three important towns: Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberly. The British outnumbered the Boers, but were not as mobile as the mounted Boer forces. The British had to change their original invasion plan and come to aid of the beseigned cities. Reinforcements were rushed fom Britain and the Dominions. The British ammased overwealming forces. It took them, however, months to lift the seiges. The larger and more heavily equipped British Army then defeated the Boer armies in a eries od set-piece battles. They proceeded to capture the capitals of the Orange Free State and Transvaal, Johannesburg and Pretoria (June 5). The British casualties were, however, much higher than anticipated.

Guerilla Campaign (1900-02)

The British thought that the Boers would fall into line once their capitals were taken. The Boers had no intention of doing so. The Boers had been in southern Africa long before the British. They had their own lanuage and traditions and no desire to live under Engish rule. After their armies, more like militias, were defeated in the field, Boers commanders realized that they would have to adopt a new strategy. It was a clear that the Boers without artillery and other modern equioment could not defeat the British in a conventioinal war. They decided to adopt guerrilla tactics against the British. Boer commando units, the 'bitter-enders', escaped the cities into the vast veldt of southern Africa. They began a highly effective guerilla campaigned which lasted 2 years. Boer calvalry units ambushed supply trains and attacked small, isolated British garrisons. The British Army did not have the capability of defeating the Boer comandos. The veldt was just too large and the British force too small. The comandos were supported by the Boer civilian population. The British in turn adjusted their tactics. British Chief of Staff, Lord Kitchener, adopted new tactics. They field highly mobile calvalry units to track down and rehage the Boer comandos. The British conducted sweeps of the countryside and built well fortified blockhouses and key locations capab;e of withstanbding comando raids. The British began to see Boer civilians as esentially eneny combatents because they were suppprting the comandos. As a result, they began destroying Boer farms and seizing the women and children and confining them in concentration camps where they could no longer supply the comandos. Tragically, these camps were poorly supplied without adequate facilities. Over 26,000 internees died in the camps. And the comandos deprived of support were finally broken.

Peace Treaty (1902)

The Boers had to agree to a peace traty. It was signed at Vereeniging (May 1902). The Boers had to accept the British demands. The Transvaal and the Orange Free State into British colonies. The British granted the Boers 3 million for restocking and repairing damaged farm lands. They also promised then future self-government.

British Political Debate

The Boer War becme controversial in Britain. Not obly was it costly, but both the Liberal Party and most of the Independent Labour Party criticised it as an imperial excess.

Union of South Africa

The British after the War annexed the Orange Free State (1902). They granted self-goernment to the Boers (1907). They then combined all the different colonies into the Union of South Africa (1910).


The British commanders vastly underestimated what would be necessary to subdue the independent-minded Boers. The War lasted over 2 years and 22,000 sBritish soldiers were killed. Even more Boers, mostly civilians died, and even larger numbers of natives--never even counted. Britain was strongly criticised throughout Europe. King Edward VII was almost killed in an assasination attempt in Brussels. The death of civilians during the War poisoned relations between the Boers and English for years.


Pearce, Malcolm and Geoffrey Stewart. British Political History, 1867-1900: Democracy and Decline.


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Created: 5:54 PM 1/24/2010
Last updated: 5:54 PM 1/24/2010