The Boer War, 1899-1902


Steps to War

  • Transvaal government refused outlanders voting rights, and distrust between Transvaal president Paul Kruger and British high commissioner Sir Alfred Milner exacerbated tensions.
  • In 1895, the Jameson Raid was a ploy to give Britain an excuse to intervene in the Transvaal on the side of the ‘outlanders’. (it failed).
  • Britain wanted the Orange State and Transvaal to be part of the empire, so they could have a swathe of Africa from Cairo to South Africa.
  • Found gold on the Witwatersrand and became valuable for the British. They became important and economic powers.
  • The Boers issued an ultimatum demanding withdrawal of British troops from their frontiers and the return to Britain.
  • Britain refused, and war began on 11 October 1899, with the Boers attacking Cape Colony and Natal.
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Army Strength

  • The British army had around 250,000 regular soldiers, of whom about half were overseas. 
  • Reservists numbered 78,000 in 1899 and 65,000 local militias.
  • Most lower rank soldiers came from the working class, the army offered an escape from poverty and employment.
  • Purchasing of commissions had been abolished, many officers had the private incomes.
  • Sir Redvers Buller and Lord Frederick Roberts of Kandahar had each won the victoria cross for bravery. And Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener of Khartoum was the hero of recent victories in the Sudan.
  • The Boers had 50,000 men and at first outnumbered the British who had 27,000 but by 1st December 1899, there were 84,000 British troops.
  • The British had started to wear Khaki uniform which allowed them to become more camouflaged against the opposition.

Boer Readiness for war:

  • Boer farmers and troops were skilled hunters and trekkers and were used to the terrain in which they would be fighting on.
  • The Boer’s only professional soldiers were artillery gunners and supplied by German and French artillery, they used artillery singularly and had local support to move supplies.
  • Mobile commandos were skilled at guerrilla tactics, these bands of horsemen consisted from a few dozen riders to several hundred.
  • They were backed by Germany and there were a few foreign volunteers, yet countries were reluctant to risk declaring war on Britain.
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The significance of the sieges of Ladysmith, Kimbe


  • The British response to the sieges was led by Sir Redvers Buller
  • Engulfed in disaster during the week 10-17 December 1899 with successive defeats 
  • Buller split his force into three groups, to relieve the stricken towns:
  • Gatacre with 3,000 men to recapture Stormberg
  • Methuen with 10,000 men to relieve Kimberley and Mafeking 
  • Buller with about 20,000 troops to relieve Ladysmith

Stormberg and Magersfontein:

  • His attack on 10th December 1899 failed dismally.
  • The infantry were exposed to Boer rifle fire.
  • More than 500 were left behind and taken prisoner 
  • Methuen was supposed to advance along the railway, but was blocked by Boers led by Piet Cronje and Jacobus H. de la Rey
  • On 11th December, the British attacked, pinned down in daylight, British troops were exposed to scorching sun. 
  • Methuen withdrew, having lost some 200 men.
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Colenso and Spion Kop


  • Buller, on 15 December 1899, tried to cross the Tugela river to reach Ladysmith.
  • Officers sent troops across the river in the wrong places, and into heavy boer fire.
  • Casualties included the son of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, Buller called off the assault, even though the British had occupied the town of Colenso. The British lost 143 dead, 756 wounded and 220 captured-the Boers just eight dead and 30 wounded.

Spion Kop:

  • Crossed the Tugela River towards the end of January 1900
  • Charles Warren attacked the Boers at Spion Kop
  • Poor Communications resulted in some men being told to defend Spion Kop.
  • Losses were heavy before the British pulled back across the Tugela River on 24th January: 1,350 casualties (243 dead)
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The Relief of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking

The Relief of Ladysmith:

  • In January 1900, Lord Roberts, arrived in South Africa as commander in chief with Kitchener as his second in Commander
  • On 28th February, Buller's troops marched into Ladysmith and the 118-day siege was over.

The Relief of Kimberley:

  • Garrison of 5,000
  • Roberts took command of the Relief force with 40,000 men and on 15th February, the siege was lifted.

The Relief of Mafeking:

  • In command of 1,200 against 7,000 Boers was Colonel Robert Baden-Powell.
  • He armed 300 Africans, used teenage boys as messengers and sent an armoured train to attack the Boer camp.
  • By the end of January 1900, there were 180,000 British and colonial troops in South Africa.
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General Redvers Buller and the first phase

  • Buller had won the Victoria Cross in 1879 during the Zulu wars, fought in the First Boer War and served in Egypt as head of army intelligence.
  • By the time he had arrived in SOuth Africa at the end of October 1899, the sieges had begun, and he had to abandon his intention of attacker the Boer in the Transvaal.
  • Buller gave the idea that the war would be short since British soldiers would soon defeat the ‘amateur’ Boers.
  • Given their lack of decent maps, this was a serious failing.
  • His indecision proved crucial, particularly at Colenso, as did his failure to communicate his plans clearly to his subordinates.
  • Buller pushed on, only to meet with disaster at Spion Kop,
  • Buller advanced into the Transvaal, winning at Bergendal against Louis Botha on 27th August 1900
  • Returned to Britain in the autumn of 1900, he was honoured as a war hero, but his reputation was damaged.
  • He was dismissed for breaking army regulations and died in 1908.
  • Buller was also an innovator, using his men to make better use of natural cover and co-ordinating infantry rushed with a ‘creeping barrage’ to counter the Boer tactic.
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Roberts and the second phase

  • Arrived in South africa in January 1900.
  • The British outflanked the Boers at Magersfontein relieved Kimberley on 15th February, and Buller finally relieved Ladysmith on 28 February.
  • Kitchener fought a hard battle of Paardeberg before Roberts finally took Bloemfontein on 13 March 1900.
  • Roberts was forced to halt at Bloemfontein due to a shortage of supplies, and an outbreak of typhoid that killed almost 1,000 men.
  • Though Boer fighters continued to resist in the Transvaal, by the end of the summer, both territories were formally annexed by Britain.
  • Roberts escaped criticism for the army’s early failings with Buller took the blame, he was also slow to defend Kitchener against critics of the ‘scorched earth’, though Roberts began this.
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Kitchener and the end of the war

  • He was unimpressed with what he found, artillery was as useless as he had expected and the food supplies and there was a lack of emergency rations for men and the War Office provided only excuses and out-of-date regulations.
  • Commander-in-chief from November 1900, Kitchener took charge of the last phase of the war. 

Scorched earth policy:

  • Began under Roberts was meant to deny food and shelter to guerrillas.
  • The British swept through Boer areas systematically, removing or destroying food, livestock, ammunition and anything else of use to an enemy.
  • Produced thousands of displaced civilians, who were escorted by British soldiers , and ‘concentrated’ in internment camps.

Concentration camps:

  • Without proper sanitation, water-borne diseases like typhoid killed thousands as more Boer civilians were brought in.
  • In March 1901, there were 28 camps holding 35,000 people; by September, there were 35 camps with 110,000 people. 
  • One in four camp internees had died from disease. Nearly 28,000 died and 22,000 of them children under 16.
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How did the British win the war?


  • Kitchener ordered the ‘segmenting’ of the countryside by wire and blockhouses.
  • The army could seal off sections, then send in mounted infantry to clear out any Boers section by section.
  • 8000 Blockhouses and 4,000 miles of barbed wire helped the British to establish control over the provinces.

The war's end:

  • Boer fighters led by De Wet and Jan Smuts invaded Cape Colony, hoping that local Boers would join them.
  • Continued to trouble to the British in the Transvaal until the last skirmish of the war at Rooiwal in April 1902, after which peace negotiations were concluded.
  • The Boer leaders met Kitchener and the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902.
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Spion Kop's impact through the media

  • Photographs of dead British soldiers on the hill brought home the shocking realities of war
  • Publications such as the Illustrated London News carried photos of soldiers killed in the battle.
  • Newspapers in general were critical of Buller, the general strategy and the attitude of the government to offers of help from the colonies.
  • Queen Victoria, sent 100,000 tins of chocolate to her ‘dear brave soldiers’, along with knitted clothing.
  • She told Arthur Balfour that she was not downcast, declaring: ‘We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.’
  • A recruitment drive was mounted throughout the Empire for able-bodied young men, especially horsemen.
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Churchill's Journalism

  • Joined the army in 1895, aged 21 and had seen action in Cuba, India and the Sudan. 
  • He left the army in 1899 to stand for parliament.
  • He got a job with the Morning Post as its correspondent.
  • He was also captured by the Boers by managed to escape.
  • He re-joined the army and was one of the first soldiers into Ladysmith and Pretoria. 
  • Churchill was elected as an MP in Oldham in the ‘khaki election’
  • Uncensored and revealed deficiencies in the army
  • Made readers at home feel close to the action
  • Photographs had an immediate, and often more dispiriting, impact, showing the horrors rather than the glories of battle.
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Hobhouse Report 1901 & Bloemfontein

  • Opinion change when conditions in the concentration camps were exposed
  • Report from Emily Hobhouse (peace activist)
  • Was asked to join the South African Conciliation Committee
  • Women protested the actions of the BA in South Africa and founded the South African Women and Children's Distress Fund. Only hear of Port Elizabeth concentration camp
  • Milner helped her supplies and provided a railway wagon
  • Poor cramped and squalid conditions at Bloemfontein. People needed food
  • Meat and other goods not given to women and children whose menfolk were fighting 
  • Insanitary conditions without adequate toilets or clean water- led to diseases such as whooping cough measles and dysentery
  • Returned to find the situation had got worse
  • Nobody listened to her pleas so she returned home 
  • She reported to the Distress Fund Committee and reached government in June 1901
  • Got a hostile reaction from some government and press quarters.
  • Manchester Guardian published segments 
  • Worked for reconciliation revisiting South Africa in 1903
  • Government acted, and responsibility for the camps was taken away from the army and passed to civilian administration.
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