Second Boer War Escalation and war
The Jameson Raid alienated many Cape Afrikaners from the British, and united the Transvaal Boers behind President Kruger and his government. It also had the effect of drawing the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (led by President Martinus Theunis Steyn) together in opposition to perceived British imperialism. In 1897, a military pact was concluded between the two republics. President Paul Kruger proceeded to re-equip the Transvaal army, and imported 37,000 of the latest magazine Mauser rifles, and some 40 to 50 million rounds of ammunition. The best modern European artillery was also purchased. By October 1899 the Transvaal State Artillery had 73 guns, 59 of them new, including four 155-mm Creusot fortress guns, and 25 37mm Maxim Nordenfeldt guns.The Transvaal army had been transformed; approximately 25,000 men equipped with modern rifles and artillery could mobilise within two weeks. However, President Kruger's victory in the Jameson Raid incident did nothing to resolve the fundamental problem; the impossible dilemma continued, namely how to make concessions to the uitlanders without surrendering the independence of the Transvaal.
The failure to gain improved rights for uitlanders became a pretext for war and a justification for a major military buildup in the Cape Colony. The case for war was developed and espoused as far away as the Australian colonies. Several key British colonial leaders favoured annexation of the independent Boer republics. These figures included Cape Colony Governor Sir Alfred Milner, Cape Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, and mining syndicate owners or Randlords (nicknamed the gold bugs), such as Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato, and Lionel Phillips. Confident that the Boers would be quickly defeated, they planned and organised a short war, citing the uitlanders' grievances as the motivation for the conflict.
Their influence with the British government was, however, limited. Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, despised jingoism and jingoists. He also distrusted the abilities of the British army. Yet he led Britain into war for three main reasons: because he believed the British government had an obligation to British South Africans; because he thought that the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and the Cape Boers aspired to a Dutch South Africa, and that the achievement of such a state would damage Britain's imperial prestige around the world; and because of the Boers' treatment of black South Africans. (Salisbury had referred to the London Convention of 1884, after the British defeat, as an agreement 'really in the interest of slavery'.)Salisbury was not alone in this concern over the treatment of black South Africans; Roger Casement, already well on the way to becoming an Irish Nationalist, was nevertheless happy to gather intelligence for the British against the Boers because of their treatment of black Africans.
Given this sense of caution among key members of the British cabinet and of the army, it is even harder to understand why the British government went against the advice of its generals (such as Wolsely) to send substantial reinforcements to South Africa before war broke out. One strong argument is that Lansdowne, Secretary of State for War, did not believe the Boers were preparing for war, and also believed that if Britain were to send large numbers of troops, it would strike too aggressive a posture and so prevent a negotiated settlement being reached or even encourage a Boer attack.
President Steyn of the Orange Free State invited Milner and Kruger to attend a conference in Bloemfontein. The conference started on 30 May 1899, but negotiations quickly broke down, despite Kruger's offer of concessions. In September 1899, Chamberlain sent an ultimatum demanding full equality for British citizens resident in Transvaal. Kruger, seeing that war was inevitable, simultaneously issued his own ultimatum prior to receiving Chamberlain's. This gave the British 48 hours to withdraw all their troops from the border of Transvaal; otherwise the Transvaal, allied with the Orange Free State, would declare war.
News of the ultimatum reached London on the day it expired. Outrage and laughter were the main responses. The editor of the Times laughed out loud when he read it, saying 'an official document is seldom amusing and useful yet this was both.' The Times denounced the ultimatum as an 'extravagant farce.' The Globe denounced this 'trumpery little state.' Most editorials were similar to the Daily Telegraph',' which declared: 'of course there can only be one answer to this grotesque challenge. Kruger has asked for war and war he must have!'
Such views were far from those of the British government, and from those in the army. To most sensible observers, army reform had been a matter of pressing concern from the 1870s, constantly put off because the British public did not want the expense of a larger, more professional army, and because a large home army was not politically welcome. Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, had had to explain to a surprised Queen Victoria that: 'We have no army capable of meeting even a second-class Continental Power.
War was declared on 11 October 1899 with a Boer offensive into the British-held Natal and Cape Colony areas. The Boers had no problems with mobilisation, since the fiercely independent Boers had no regular army units, apart from the Staatsartillerie (Afrikaans for 'States Artillery') of both republics. As with the First Boer War, since the Boers were civilian militia, each man wore what he wished, usually his everyday dark-grey, light-grey, neutral-coloured, or earthtone khaki farming clothes—often a jacket, trousers and slouch hat. Only the members of the Staatsartillerie wore light green uniforms. When danger loomed, all the burghers (citizens) in a district would form a military unit called a commando and would elect officers. A full-time official titled a Veldkornet maintained muster rolls, but had no disciplinary powers. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horse. Those who could not afford a gun were given one by the authorities.The Presidents of the Transvaal and Orange Free State simply signed decrees to concentrate within a week and the Commandos could muster between 30,000–40,000 men.
The average Boer nevertheless was not thirsty for war. Many did not look forward to fighting against fellow Christians and, by and large, fellow Christian Protestants. Many may have had an overly optimistic sense of what the war would involve, imagining that victory could be won as easily as in the First South African War. Many, including many generals, also had a sense that their cause was holy and just, and blessed by God.
It rapidly became clear that the Boer forces presented the British forces with a severe tactical challenge. What the Boers presented was a mobile and innovative approach to warfare, drawing on their experiences from the First Boer War. The average Boers who made up their Commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working life in the saddle, both as farmers and hunters. They had to depend on the pot on their horse and their rifle and were skilled stalkers and marksmen. As hunters they had learned to fire from cover, from a prone position and to make the first shot count, knowing that if they missed, the game would either be long gone or could charge and potentially kill them. At community gatherings, target shooting was a major sport, and they practised shooting at targets such as hens' eggs perched on posts 100 metres (100 yd) away. They made expert mounted infantry, using every scrap of cover, from which they could pour in a destructive fire using their modern, smokeless, Mauser rifles. Furthermore, in preparation for hostilities, the Boers had acquired around one hundred of the latest Krupp field guns, all horse-drawn and dispersed among the various Commando groups, and several Le Creusot "Long Tom" siege guns. The Boers' skill in adapting themselves to becoming first-rate artillerymen shows them to have been a versatile adversary.The Transvaal also had an intelligence service that stretched across South Africa, and of whose extent and efficiency the British were unaware.
The Boers struck first on 12 October at Kraaipan, an attack that heralded the invasion of the Cape Colony and Colony of Natal between October 1899 and January 1900. With elements of both speed and surprise the Boer drove quickly towards the major British garrison at Ladysmith and the smaller ones at Mafeking and Kimberley. The quick Boer mobilisation resulted in early military successes against the scattered British forces.
Sir George Stuart White, commanding the British division at Ladysmith, had unwisely allowed Major-General Penn Symons to throw a brigade forward to the coal-mining town of Dundee (also reported as Glencoe), which was surrounded by hills. This became the site of the first engagement of the war, the Battle of Talana Hill. Boer guns began shelling the British camp from the summit of Talana Hill at dawn on 20 October. Penn-Symons immediately counter-attacked. His infantry drove the Boers from the hill, but at the cost of 446 British casualties including Penn-Symons himself.
Another Boer force occupied Elandslaagte, which lay between Ladysmith and Dundee. The British under Major General John French and Colonel Ian Hamilton attacked to clear the line of communications to Dundee. The resulting Battle of Elandslaagte was a clear-cut British tactical victory, but Sir George White feared that more Boers were about to attack his main position and ordered a chaotic retreat from Elandslaagte, throwing away any advantage gained. The detachment from Dundee was compelled to make an exhausting cross-country retreat to rejoin White's main force.
As Boers surrounded Ladysmith and opened fire on the town with siege guns, White ordered a major sortie against the Boer artillery positions. The result was a disaster, with 140 men killed and over 1,000 captured. The Siege of Ladysmith began, and was to last several months.
Meanwhile to the north-west at Mafeking, on the border with Transvaal, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell had raised two regiments of local forces amounting to some 1,200 men in order to attack and create diversions if things further south went amiss. Mafeking, being a railway junction, provided good supply facilities and was the obvious place for Baden-Powell to fortify in readiness for such attacks. However, instead of being the aggressor Baden-Powell and Mafeking were forced to defend when 6,000 Boer, commanded by Piet Cronje, attempted a determined assault on the town. But this quickly subsided into a desultory affair with the Boers prepared to starve the stronghold into submission, and so, on 13 October, began the 217-day Siege of Mafeking:
Lastly, over 360 kilometres (220 mi) to the south of Mafeking lay the diamond mining city of Kimberley, which was also subjected to a siege. Although not militarily significant, it nonetheless represented an enclave of British imperialism on the borders of the Orange Free State and was hence an important Boer objective. From early November about 7,500 Boer began their siege, again content to starve the town into submission. Despite Boer shelling, the 40,000 inhabitants, of which only 5,000 were armed, were under little threat as the town was well-stocked with provisions. The garrison was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kekewich, although Cecil Rhodes was also a prominent figure in the defence.
Siege life took its toll on both the defending soldiers and the civilians in the cities of Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley as food began to grow scarce after a few weeks. In Mafeking, Sol Plaatje wrote, "I saw horseflesh for the first time being treated as a human foodstuff." The cities under siege also dealt with constant artillery bombardment, making the streets a dangerous place. Near the end of the siege of Kimberley, it was expected that the Boers would intensify their bombardment, so Rhodes displayed a notice encouraging people to go down into shafts of the Kimberley Mine for protection. The townspeople panicked, and people surged into the mine-shafts constantly for a 12-hour period. Although the bombardment never came, this did nothing to diminish the distress of the civilians. The most well-heeled of the townspeople, such as Cecil Rhodes, sheltered in the Sanatorium, site of the present-day McGregor Museum; the poorer residents, notably the black population, did not have any shelter from the shelling.
In retrospect, the Boer decision to commit themselves to sieges (Sitzkrieg) was a mistake, and one of the best illustrations of the Boers' lack of strategic vision. Historically, it had little in its favour. Of the seven sieges in the First Boer War, the Boers had won none. More importantly, it handed the initiative back to the British and allowed them time to recover, which they then did. Generally speaking, throughout the campaign, the Boers were too defensive and passive, wasting the opportunities they had for victory. Yet that passiveness also testified to the fact that they had no desire to conquer British territory, but only to preserve their ability to rule in their own territory.
Second Phase of the Boer War
The British government took these defeats badly and with the sieges still continuing was compelled to send two more divisions plus large numbers of colonial volunteers. By January 1900 this would become the largest force Britain had ever sent overseas, amounting to some 180,000 men with further reinforcements being sought.
While waiting for these reinforcements, Buller made another bid to relieve Ladysmith by crossing the Tugela west of Colenso. Buller's subordinate, Major General Charles Warren, successfully crossed the river, but was then faced with a fresh defensive position centred on a prominent hill known as Spion Kop. In the resulting Battle of Spion Kop, British troops captured the summit by surprise during the early hours of 24 January 1900, but as the early morning fog lifted they realised too late that they were overlooked by Boer gun emplacements on the surrounding hills. The rest of the day resulted in a disaster caused by poor communication between Buller and his commanders. Between them they issued contradictory orders, on the one hand ordering men off the hill, while other officers ordered fresh reinforcements to defend it. The result was 350 men killed and nearly 1,000 wounded and a retreat back across the Tugela River into British territory. There were nearly 300 Boer casualties.
Buller attacked Louis Botha again on 5 February at Vaal Krantz and was again defeated. Buller withdrew early when it appeared that the British would be isolated in an exposed bridgehead across the Tugela, and was nicknamed "Sir Reverse" by some of his officers.
By taking command in person in Natal, Buller had allowed the overall direction of the war to drift. Because of concerns about his performance and negative reports from the field, he was replaced as Commander in Chief by Field Marshal Lord Roberts. Like Buller, Roberts first intended to attack directly along the Cape Town – Pretoria railway but, again like Buller, was forced to relieve the beleaguered garrisons. Leaving Buller in command in Natal, Roberts massed his main force near the Orange River and along the Western Railway behind Methuen's force at the Modder River, and prepared to make a wide outflanking move to relieve Kimberley.
Except in Natal, the war had stagnated. Other than a single attempt to storm Ladysmith, the Boers made no attempt to capture the besieged towns. In the Cape Midlands, the Boers did not exploit the British defeat at Stormberg, and were prevented from capturing the railway junction at Colesberg. In the dry summer, the grazing on the veld became parched, weakening the Boers' horses and draught oxen, and many Boer families joined their menfolk in the siege lines and laagers (encampments), fatally encumbering Cronje's army.
Roberts launched his main attack on 10 February 1900 and although hampered by a long supply route, managed to outflank the Boers defending Magersfontein. On 14 February, a cavalry division under Major General John French launched a major attack to relieve Kimberley. Although encountering severe fire, a massed cavalry charge split the Boer defences on 15 February, opening the way for French to enter Kimberley that evening, ending its 124 days’ siege.
Meanwhile, Roberts pursued Piet Cronje’s 7,000-strong force, which had abandoned Magersfontein to head for Bloemfontein. General French’s cavalry was ordered to assist in the pursuit by embarking on an epic 30-mile drive towards Paardeberg where Cronje was attempting to cross the Modder River. At the Battle of Paardeberg from 18 to 27 February, Roberts then surrounded General Piet Cronje's retreating Boer army. On 17 February, a pincer movement involving both French’s cavalry and the main British force attempted to take the entrenched position, but the frontal attacks were uncoordinated and so were easily repulsed by the Boers. Finally, Roberts resorted to bombarding Cronje into submission, but it took a further ten precious days and with the British troops using the polluted Modder River as water supply, resulting in a typhoid epidemic killing many troops. General Cronje was forced to surrender at Surrender Hill with 4000 men.
In Natal, the Battle of the Tugela Heights, which started on 14 February was Buller's fourth attempt to relieve Ladysmith. Despite reinforcements his progress was painfully slow against stiff opposition. However, on 26 February, after much deliberation, Buller used all his forces in one all-out attack for the first time and at last succeeded in forcing a crossing of the Tugela, and defeated Botha's outnumbered forces north of Colenso. After a siege lasting 118 days, the Relief of Ladysmith was effected, the day after Cronje surrendered, but at a total cost of 7,000 British casualties.
After a succession of defeats, the Boers realised that against such overwhelming superiority of troops, they had little chance of defeating the British and so became demoralised. Roberts then advanced into the Orange Free State from the west, putting the Boers to flight at the Battle of Poplar Grove and capturing Bloemfontein, the capital, unopposed on 13 March with the Boer defenders escaping and scattering. Meanwhile, he detached a small force to relieve Baden-Powell, and the Relief of Mafeking on 18 May 1900 provoked riotous celebrations in Britain.
On 28 May, the Orange Free State was annexed and renamed the Orange River Colony.
After being forced to delay for several weeks at Bloemfontein due to a shortage of supplies and enteric fever (caused by poor hygiene, drinking bad water at Paardeburg and appalling medical care), Roberts resumed his advance. He was forced to halt again at Kroonstad for 10 days, due once again to the collapse of his medical and supply systems, but finally captured Johannesburg on 31 May and the capital of the Transvaal, Pretoria, on 5 June. The first into Pretoria, was Lt. William Watson of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, who persuaded the Boers to surrender the capital.(Before the war, the Boers had constructed several forts south of Pretoria, but the artillery had been removed from the forts for use in the field, and in the event the Boers abandoned Pretoria without a fight).
This allowed the Roberts to declare the war over, having won the principal cities and so, on 3 September 1900, the South African Republic was formally annexed.
British observers believed the war to be all but over after the capture of the two capital cities. However, the Boers had earlier met at the temporary new capital of the Orange Free State, Kroonstad, and planned a guerrilla campaign to hit the British supply and communication lines. The first engagement of this new form of warfare was at Sanna's Post on 31 March where 1,500 Boers under the command of Christiaan De Wet attacked Bloemfontein's waterworks about 23 miles (37 km) east of the city, and ambushed a heavily escorted convoy, which caused 155 British casualties and the capture of seven guns, 117 wagons, and 428 British troops.
After the fall of Pretoria, one of the last formal battles was at Diamond Hill on 11 – 12 June, where Roberts attempted to drive the remnants of the Boer field army beyond striking distance of Pretoria. Although Roberts drove the Boers from the hill, the Boer commander, Louis Botha, did not regard it as a defeat, for he inflicted more casualties on the British (totalling 162 men) while suffering around 50 casualties.
The set-piece period of the war now largely gave way to a mobile guerrilla war, but one final operation remained. President Kruger and what remained of the Transvaal government had retreated to eastern Transvaal. Roberts, joined by troops from Natal under Buller, advanced against them, and broke their last defensive position at Bergendal on 26 August. As Roberts and Buller followed up along the railway line to Komatipoort, Kruger sought asylum in Portuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique). Some dispirited Boers did likewise, and the British gathered up much war material. However, the core of the Boer fighters under Botha easily broke back through the Drakensberg mountains into the Transvaal highveld after riding north through the bushveld. Under the new conditions of the war, heavy equipment was no use to them, and therefore no great loss.
As Roberts's army occupied Pretoria, the Boer fighters in the Orange Free State had been driven into a fertile area known as the Brandwater Basin in the north east of the Republic. This offered only temporary sanctuary, as the mountain passes leading to it could be occupied by the British, trapping the Boers. A force under General Archibald Hunter set out from Bloemfontein to achieve this in July 1900. The hard core of the Free State Boers under Christiaan De Wet, accompanied by President Steyn, left the basin early. Those remaining fell into confusion and most failed to break out before Hunter trapped them. 4,500 Boers surrendered and much equipment was captured, but as with Robert's drive against Kruger at the same time, these losses were of relatively little consequence, as the hard core of the Boer armies and their most determined and active leaders remained at large.
From the Basin, Christiaan De Wet headed west. Although hounded by British columns, he succeeded in crossing the Vaal into western Transvaal, to allow Steyn to travel to meet the Transvaal leaders.
There was much sympathy for the Boers on mainland Europe and in October, President Kruger and members of the Transvaal government left Portuguese East Africa on the Dutch warship De Gelderland, sent by the Queen of the Netherlands Wilhelmina, who had simply ignored the British naval blockade of South Africa. Paul Kruger's wife, however, was too ill to travel and remained in South Africa where she died on 20 July 1901 without seeing her husband again. President Kruger first went to Marseille and then on to The Netherlands where he stayed for a while before moving finally to Clarens, Switzerland, where he died in exile on 14 July 1904
Third Phase of The Boer War
By September 1900, the British were nominally in control of both Republics, with the exception of the northern part of Transvaal. However, they soon discovered that they only controlled the territory their columns physically occupied. The Boer commanders adopted guerrilla warfare tactics, primarily conducting raids against infrastructure, resource and supply targets, all aimed at disrupting the operational capacity of the British army.
Each Boer commando unit was sent to the district from which its members had been recruited, which meant that they could rely on local support and personal knowledge of the terrain and the towns within the district thereby enabling them to live off the land. Their orders were simply to act against the British whenever possible. Their tactics were to strike fast and hard causing as much damage to the enemy as possible, and then to withdraw and vanish before enemy reinforcements could arrive. The vast distances of the Republics allowed the Boer commandos considerable freedom to move about and made it impossible for the 250,000 British troops to control the territory effectively using columns alone. As soon as a British column left a town or district, British control of that area faded away.
The Boer commandos were especially effective during the initial guerrilla phase of the war because Roberts had assumed that the war would end with the capture of the Boer capitals and the dispersal of the main Boer armies. Many British troops were therefore redeployed out of the area, and had been replaced by lower-quality contingents of Imperial Yeomanry and locally-raised irregular corps.
From late May 1900, the first successes of the Boer strategy were at Lindley (where 500 Yeomanry surrendered), and at Heilbron (where a large convoy and its escort were captured) and other skirmishes resulting in 1,500 British casualties in less than ten days. In December 1900, De la Rey and Christiaan Beyers mauled a British brigade at Nooitgedacht. As a result of these and other Boer successes, the British, led by Lord Kitchener, mounted three extensive searches for De Wet, but without success. However, by its very nature the guerrilla war was sporadic, poorly planned and with little overall objective in mind except to harass the British. This led to a disorganised pattern of scattered engagements throughout the region.
End of The Boer War
Towards the end of the war, British tactics of containment, denial, and harassment began to yield results against the guerrillas. The sourcing and coordination of intelligence became increasingly efficient with regular reporting from observers in the blockhouses, from units patrolling the fences and conducting "sweeper" operations, and from native Africans in rural areas who increasingly supplied intelligence, as the Scorched Earth policy took effect and they found themselves competing with the Boers for food supplies. Kitchener's forces at last began to seriously affect the Boers' fighting strength and freedom of manoeuvre, and made it harder for the Boers and their families to survive.
The Boers and the British both feared the consequences of arming Africans. The memories of the Zulu and other tribal conflicts were still fresh, and they recognised that whoever won would have to deal with the consequences of a mass militarisation of the tribes. There was therefore an unwritten agreement that this war would be a “white man's war.” At the outset, British officials instructed all white magistrates in the Natal Colony to appeal to Zulu ama-khosi to remain neutral, and President Kruger sent emissaries asking them to stay out of it. However, in some cases there were old scores to be settled, and some Africans, such as the Swazis, were eager to enter the war with the specific aim of reclaiming land confiscated by the Boers. As the war went on there was greater involvement of Africans, and in particular large numbers became embroiled in the conflict on the British side, either voluntarily or involuntarily. By the end of the war, many blacks had been armed and had shown conspicuous gallantry in roles such as scouts, messengers, watchmen in blockhouses, and auxiliaries.
And there were more flash-points outside of the war. On 6 May 1902 at Holkrantz in the southeastern Transvaal, a Zulu faction had their cattle stolen and their people mistreated by the Boers as a punishment for helping the British. The local Boer officer then sent an insulting message to the tribe, challenging them to take back their cattle. The Zulus attacked at night, and in a mutual bloodbath, the Boers lost 56 killed and 3 wounded, while the Africans suffered 52 killed and 48 wounded.The official statistics of blacks who had served as combatants or non-combatants or who died in the concentration camps are unreliable. Many black combatants were dumped in unmarked graves, and most of the superintendents of the concentration camps did not record the deaths of black inmates.
After the war the British government went to great lengths to attempt to conciliate Boer opinion to the extent of refusing to officially recognise the military contribution made by blacks by issuing campaign medals. It was felt that the Boers would already feel insecure and angry at the arming of blacks, and granting medals would have prejudiced the stability of the region. Boer insecurity and the British government’s favouring of Boer over African interests caused much bitterness, and did much to shape the racial politics of the region.
The British offered terms of peace on various occasions, notably in March, 1901, but were rejected by Botha. The last of the Boers surrendered in May, 1902 and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging signed on 31 May 1902. Although the British had won, this came at a cost; the Boers were given £3,000,000 for reconstruction and were promised eventual limited self-government, which was granted in 1906 and 1907. The treaty ended the existence of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State as independent Boer republics and placed them within the British Empire. The Union of South Africa was established as a member of the Commonwealth in 1910.
In all, the war had cost around 75,000 lives; 22,000 British soldiers (7,792 killed in battle, the rest through disease), between 6,000 and 7,000 Boer fighters, and, mainly in the concentration camps, between 20,000 to 28,000 Boer civilians (mainly women and children) and perhaps 20,000 black Africans (both on the battlefield and in the concentration camps). During the conflict, 78 Victoria Crosses (VC) – the highest and most prestigious award in the British armed forces for bravery in the face of the enemy – were awarded to British and colonial soldiers.
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