The Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) was the first war of the 20th century and saw the introduction of trench warfare, the first large-scale use of concentration camps for non-combatants, and the most prolonged period of guerrilla warfare by a conquered nation's military against a victorious army.
This is possibly the first war where camouflage was used extensively with the Boers camouflaging their trenches and the British in their khaki uniforms to help them blend into the treeless landscapes.
The world's first news footage and propaganda films were shot during the Anglo-Boer War and the British made extensive use of telegraph.
Technologically, it saw the first use of a generation of weapons that are still with us today - automatic handguns, magazine-fed rifles and machine guns.
The last of the gentleman’s wars
11 October 1899 – 31 May 1902
They called it ‘The Last of the Gentleman’s Wars’ where opposing generals still addressed each other in the most courteous terms. The Boers, deeply religious, often declined to attack on the Sabbath. British soldiers were trained more for ceremonial than war duties and their officers were more accustomed to the perfumes of sumptuous ballrooms than the stench of the battlefield. Yet the Anglo-Boer War left the world a horrific legacy. The Boers, outnumbered, but not outdone for ingenuity, inspired the art of trench warfare as used to such hideous effect on the Western Front during the First World War.
Concentration camps were devised by the British in which women and children were imprisoned in grim conditions, the forerunner of such Second World War monstrosities as Auschwitz.
Clash of interests
The war originated from a clash of interests between the expanding British empire of the second half of the 19th century and the South African Republic in the Transvaal.
What was once a quiet economic back-water was transformed into one of the richest and most desirable countries on earth after the discovery of gold and other minerals.
The British government considered the republic to be inept, backward and corrupt; the republic regarded the British as a rapacious, land-grabbing threat to the independence of the state and its people.
There were constant rumours of war and the movement of troops. The republic used part of its new wealth to arm itself. The Republic of the Orange Free State was in alliance with the South African Republic and felt equally insecure.
An ultimatum was presented to the British Government on 9 October 1899. It demanded that Britain give up sovereignty over the republics, withdraw troops from the Transvaal border, remove all re-inforcements from South Africa, set up an arbitration committee to settle mutual differences and give an assurance that British troops en-route for the Cape would not be landed. If the conditions of the ultimatum were not complied with by 17h00 on 11 October 1899 the republics would regard this as a declaration of war.
Declaration of war
As the British did not respond, on 11 October 1899 war was declared! The battle was seen as a struggle between two Davids and a Goliath. The republics had a maximum strength of 75 000 men, mainly drawn from a white population of 300 000. Great Britain had a population of 30 million and at the peak of the war 250 000 were placed in the field, supported by vast resources of finance and material.
The Boer forces however, knew their home ground well and how to use it in battle. They were righteous in the cause of independence and first-class marksmen and horsemen. The British, despite overwhelming numbers, were poorly trained and blindly confident.
The supreme republican commanders were Commandant-General Piet Joubert on the Natal front and General P A Cronjé on the western front. They were elderly, courteous and well-liked and utterly without the killer instinct of the ruthless conqueror. The British commander-in-chief was General Sir Redvers Buller, with General Sir George White on the Natal front.
Talana Hill, Dundee
Joubert decided to strike the British forces in Natal, being the primary threat to the Transvaal. He launched his army across the border and straight at the British units stationed at Dundee. The first battle of the war on this part of the front took place on 20 October 1899 at Talana Hill. The next day a second republican force drove southwards to cut communications between Dundee and Ladysmith. Both republican forces suffered setbacks, but the British Goliath was sufficiently shaken by the onslaught to abandon Dundee and fall back on Ladysmith.
Mulderspruit, Nicholson’s Nek
Transvaal forces pressed behind them while a contingent from the Orange Free State rode down the escarpment from the west and the British found themselves compressed. They tried to shoulder the Republican forces apart but on 24 October 1899 at Rietfontein and 30 October 1899 at Mulderspruit and Nicholson’s Nek, the British were defeated, driven into Ladysmith and besieged.
Joubert raided as far as Estcourt but after a sharp clash withdrew to the hills overlook the Tugela River and remained there in a strong position, defensively waiting for the British to attack and meanwhile hoping to subdue Ladysmith.
On the western front the republican fores also struck quickly but found themselves drawn into tedious, debilitating sieges. In the first action on this front on 12 October at Kraaipan, a British armoured train was captured by General J H de la Rey but the British forces in that part of the country fell back in separate groups to Mafeking and Kimberley and held the republicans in two more dreary sieges, giving the British time to gather reinforcements.
Ladysmith, Colenso, Spionkop, Vaalkrans
General Sir Redvers Buller was determined to relieve Ladysmith and he collided with the republican defensive line in the hills north of the Tugela. On 15 December 1899 Buller’s attempt at advance was halted at Colenso. He tried again at Spionkop and at Vaalkrans, each time suffering grievous loss.
On the western front, General Lord Metheun led a British force up the railway from the Cape in an attempt to lift the siege at Kimberley. On 22 November 1899 he pushed them out of Graspan and on 28 November from Modder Rivier.
The republicans retired to Magersfontein. They dug trenches at the foot of a koppie and hid in waiting. The British advanced to the koppie expecting the enemy to be holding the highest ground but marched straight into a barrage of gunfire from the trenches. The advance was stopped on 11 December 1899. The strategy of trench warfare had been born.
Other clashes took place in the Stormberg, south of the boundary of the Orange Free State. On 10 December 1899 In this area of flat-topped hillocks and vast manoeuvring spaces Major-general W F Gatacre suffered a humiliating defeat and there was no further British advance on the Orange Free State from that direction for some time.
These defeats became known to the British as ‘Black Week’ and a new British commander, the purposeful and effective Field-marshall Lord Roberts was despatched from Britain to relieve the fumbling General Buller. General Lord Kitchener accompanied Roberts as chief of staff.
They arrived in Cape Town in January 1900 and with large reinforcements made their way to the western front, determined to relieve Kimberley, where Cecil Rhodes was with the besieged force, and endeavour to knock the Orange Free State out of the war by capturing Bloemfontein.
On 15 February 1900 General John French led his cavalry through the republican siege lines around Kimberley. The siege was raised and Cronjé was forced to abandon his token resistance.
Pretoria was an open city and the British entered it on 5 June. Roberts felt the war was over apart from minor mopping-up as President Paul Kruger and his Transvaal government had abandoned Pretoria before its capture and using a railway train, withdrawn along the eastern line leading to the sea at the Portuguese port of Lourenco Marques (Maputu). Expecting the republican forces to surrender readily, the British set out to occupy the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The republicans meanwhile, were reorganizing.
Joubert, who had served his country valiantly died on 27 March 1900 and he was succeeded by the resolute General Louis Botha.
The British found the Orange Free State the easier republic to occupy. De Wet challenged them but was defeated near Bethlehem and on 5 July 1900 Acting Chief Commandant M Prinsloo with 3 000 men was forced to surrender near Fouriesburg. De Wet retreated into the Transvaal and the rest of the war consisted of Boer hit-and-run ambushes.
Meanwhile Roberts had returned to a triumphant welcome in Britain. Lord Kitchener took over command of the British army in South Africa and faced a complex task of trying to bring the war to an end. In 1901 the British were compelled to raise even more substantial reinforcements.
Kitchener devised a ‘scorched earth’ policy, destroying farms suspected of sheltering republican forces, covering the country with barbed wire entanglements to impede the Boer horsemen and building blockhouses as guard points at strategically important points.
Concentration camps were created and women and children whose homes were destroyed were placed in them where they could no longer help the republican forces and would also be out of danger from fighting. These concentration camps were poorly managed and more than 26 000 women and children died in the camps, mostly from disease.
All through 1901 the guerrilla war raged unabated.
On 9 April 1902 republican leaders met at Klerksdorp to discuss peace. A second meeting was held at Vereeniging on 15 May 1902. Though undefeated the Boers were heartsore at the deaths in concentration camps of many of their women and children and a treaty was drawn up in Vereeniging and signed in Pretoria on 31 May 1902. Never again would the world see a ‘Gentleman’s War’.
The cost of the conflict to the British was 5 774 men killed and 22 829 wounded. The Boers lost 4 000 men killed and an estimated 12 000 wounded.
Very few battlefield sites have any form of interpretative information, some are on private property and therefore require permission to visit and some are very difficult to find. Therefore the use of a Guide is highly recommended.