The Boer War (1899-1902)

Figure 1.--This print shows a early image of Colonel Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, the Defender of Mafeking in field service uniform as Colonel of Irregular Horse from a photograph by - Elliot & Fry, Baker Street, W. A descriptive text was on the reverse side which covers text verso relating to the war in South Africa and Col. R.S.S. Baden-Powell. - Excerpt from the descriptive: In 1896 Baden-Powell was sent to Matabeleland on special duty in connection with the rising in the Matoppo Hills. Here he distinguished himself greatly, both as a scout and as possessing a great influence with the natives, among whom his singular powers of keen observation and accurate deduction soon earned him the title of "He who sees by night." One has only to read his recently published "Aids to Scouting" to realise that Baden-Powell is truly, as someone has observed, a "prince of scouts" as well as a "prince of good fellows." Note the hat that he wore became the famous early Boy Scout hat--still a symbol of Scouting to this day.

The Boer War, or South African War as it is sometimes called, is today an obscure footnote in history. At the time it was a major turning point in history. Not only did it occur at the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian era, but it helped to confirm the growing opinion in England that it was the rising power of Germany under the mecurial Kaiser Wilhelm II that posed a danger to Britain rather than the traditional English enemy--France. This was a major transition in English thinking that had enormous repersusions in the 20th century. The War also convinced many that major reforms were needed to modernize the Army. The Boer War brought the term concentration camp" to the 20th century. A more happy impact was indirectly the War was involved in the founding of the Scouting movement. The British casualties were much higher than anticipated and the civilian casualties were even higher. European public opinion was incensed and the British began to see their Empire in a new light.

The Boers

The term "boer" is the Duch word for farmers. The Boers, or Afrikaners which is the more common term today, are the descendents of the Durch who founded Cape Colony in southern Africa (1652). The Dutch settlers initially estblished a colony at Cape Town near the stratehic Cape of Good Hope to support shipping around Africa to Asia. French Huguenots (Protestants) fleeing religious supression arrived (1687) and inter-married with the Dutch. The strict Calvinism of the Boers and their conflict with the vast native population as well as conflivts with the despotic Dutch East India company developed a spirit of rugged independence in the Boers. The Dutch ceeded the Cape Colony to Britain (1814) near the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Conflict with the British began almost at once, but intensified after the British freed the slaves that the Boers still held (1834).

The Boer Republics

The Boers decided to place themselves beyond British authority and about 7,000 intrpid pioneers emmigrated north in the Great Trek (1835-40). More Boer emmigrants followed and three states were created: the Orange Free State, Natal, and the Transvall. The Boers fought several wars with native populations, especially the Zulus and the British, who insisted on their jurisdiction. The British annexed Natal to their Cape of Good Hope colony (1844), but recognized the independence of the Orange Free State (1854). The situation in the Transvall was more complicated. Britain annexed the Transvaal (1877), but after the First Boer War (1880-81) agreed to a kind of semi-independent status. Primeminister William Gladstone who had major reservations about empire building decuded to grant self-government in the Transvaal.

The British

Queen Victoria still reigned in Britain in 1899 and celbrated her Diamond Jubilee. The British Empire is at its zenith in power and prestige. Britain was the World's greatet colonial power. Even so there had always been a debate in Britain as to the building of the Empire. Prime Minister Disreali had helped bring th Queen into the camp of the Empire builders. Others like Cicil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling were great exponents of Empire. The British High Commissioner of Cape Colony in South Africa, Alfred Milner, was an exponent of Empire and wanted to gain control of the Boer Republics. One of his pet projects was a Cape-to-Cairo confederation of British colonies. Some dreamed of a Cape to Cairo railway.


Serious problens between the Boers and the Brirish began as a result of the discovery of gold in the Transvaal (1884). British subjects seeking to find gold flooded into the Transvaal overnight. This was similar to other gold rushes such as occurred in California and the Yukon, only the Transvaal was much more accessable than many of these other gold rushes. The straight-laced Boers who had fled the Cape colony to get away from the British quickly came into conflict with the rough and unruly prospectors. The reaction was to essentially to treat them as aliens subject to taces and without a right to participate in the local government. The British and other foreign prospectors objected to their treatment and eventually revolted against the Transvaal Government. The gold attracted renwed British interest. The abortive Jameson raid (1895-96) was an attempt to establish Brirish control, The miners appealed to British authorities in Cape Colony.

The War

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.


The Boer War was fought entirely in southern Africa. As a result it was mostly Boer children that were affected by the War. The British Army at the time still accepted boys. It was, however, primarily the Boer children that were affected. Many children were orphaned. Many boys enlisted in the military and were either killed or captured by the British. The Boers boys that fought were the Penkiops. The British confined many Boer families, including the children, in concentration camps. There because of deplorable conditiins, many died as a result of malnutrition and disease.

Impact on the British Army

The Boer War came as a shock to the British Army. The last important war Bitain had waged was against the Russians in the Crimean War (1853-56). In the intervenin 40 years, the British Army had only engaged ilorganized opponents, often armed with primitive weapons. This left the Army with the idea that they were invincible. The Boers were organizedfast and highly mobile. They were well armned with new smokeless cartridges in their German Mauser rifles. This helped to concal their positions. Their effective hit-and-run tactics proved costlyto the British. The British commanders did not prove adaptble to the conditions in the field.

Public Opinion

Public opinion both in Britain and Europe was affected by the British war which in many quarters was seen as naked aggression. Thre reaction was particularly negative in the Netherlands and Germany. German public opinion did not onject to colonisn actions against Africans and Asians, but Briish ctions against other Europeans--especially the Affriaaners of Dutch origins. There were many ties between the Netherlands cultural, linguistic, economic, and family ties between the Netherlands and Germany. Also disturbing to many were the tactics the British employed, especially the use of concentraion camps. There was always those in Britain that question the policies of Empire. During Victoria's rign they had been lead by Gladstone. The casualties and graphic stories of the concentration camps ws in many ways a turning point for the Britih Empire as more begn to question their country's imperial role. The majority in Briain still supported the politics of Empire, but the view was very different than two years early during Victoria's diamond jubilee. While till a minority, more of the British people, especially the growing Labour movement began to question Britain's imperial role.

Kaiser Wilhelm

The British operations against the Boer Republics were not the first effort to seize them. Irregulars backed by Cecil Rhodes staged the Jameson Raid (1895-96). Kaiser Wilhlm who was a grandson of Queen Victoria sent a congratulatory telegram to President Kruger ("Kruger telegram") when the raid ended in disaster. The British were outraged, especially the implication that Germany had the right to interfere in southern Africa. The message caused great indignation in England. It was one of many diplomatic blunders by the Kaiser that helped tp position Germany in the British mind as an enemy nation and a threat to the Eurpan peace. When fighting broke out in 1899, the Kaiser pursued an aggresively anti-British foreign policy. He also supported the Boers. Not unsuprisingly, his later attempts at Anglo-German reconciliation fell on death ears in Britain.

Lord Baden-Powell (1857-1941)

Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, made his reputation as the dfender of Mafeking and was a hero to English boys even before he founded the Scouting movement.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

A young Winston Churchill also made a name for himself in the Boer Wars as a war correspndent. He was captured, bravely escapes, and makes a triumphal reenters Natal. He reports on several major battles and is among the first to enter Ladysmith when the seige is lifted. He also managed to be one of the first enter the Boer capital Pretoria when it is finally tken by the British. He rote two popular books about the War (London to Ladysmith: Via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton's March. Churchill's exploits in southern Africa help in his first election to Parliment.


Baden Powell wore the famed lemon-squeezer/Smokey Bear hat as part of the field service uniform as Colonel of Irregular Horse. The hat became the famous early Boy Scout hat--still a symbol of Scouting to this day. Shorts pants were not commonly worn by boys before the turn of the century. Some younger boys wore them, but knickers and knee pants were more common. The British Army in South Africa was issued shorts, after which they became increasingly more common. Boer War ventran Lord Baden Powell, based on his Boer War experience introduced shorts to generations of Scouts around the world.


Wilson, A.N. The Victorians (Norton), 724p.


Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to Main 19th century war page]
[Return to Main war page]
[Return to Main military style page]
[About Us]
[Introduction] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Freedom] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Ideology] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: August 10, 2002
Last updated: 1:26 AM 5/2/2010