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Wars. Campaigns & Treaties

Great Flank March to Bloemfontein, 11 February-13 March 1900
Kimberley, Methuen's attempt to relieve, 21 November 1899-11 December 1899


Belmont, battle of, 23 November 1899
Colenso, battle of 15 December 1899
Driefontein, battle of, 10 March 1900
Elandslaagte, battle of, 21 October 1899
Kimberley, relief of, 11-15 February 1900
Ladysmith, siege, 2 November 1899-27 February 1900
Lombard’s Kop, battle of, 30 October 1899
Magersfontein, battle of, 11 December 1899
Modder River, battle of, 28 November 1899
Modderspruit or Rietfontein, battle of, 24 October 1899
Nicholson’s Nek, battle of, 30 October 1899
Paardeberg, battle of, 18-27 February 1900
Platrand, battle of the, 6 January 1900
Poplar Grove, battle of, 7 March 1900
Rietfontein or Modderspruit, battle of, 24 October 1899
Rooilaagte, battle of, 25 November 1899
Stormberg, battle of 10 December 1899
Talana Hill, 20 October 1899


Byng, General Sir Julian, Viscount Byng of Vimy, 1862-1935
FitzClarence, Brigadier General Charles, VC, 1865-1914
Gough, General Sir Hubert de la Poer, 1870-1963
Smith-Dorrien, Sir Horace Lockwood, 1858-1930

Weapons, Armies & Units



Belmont, battle of, 23 November 1899
Colenso, battle of, 15 December 1899
Colenso, battle of, central details, 15 December 1899
Kimberley, Lord Methuen's relief expedition
Rietfontein, battle of, 24 October 1899
South Africa in 1899
Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz


Buller, Sir Redvers H.
Gatacre, Major-General Sir W. F.
Methuen, Lieutenant-General Lord
Meyer, Lukas, General
Penn Symons, Major-General Sir W.
White, Lieutenant General Sir George
Wood, General Sir Henry Evelyn, V.C.
Yule, Colonel J. H.


Anonymous, A Handbook of the Boer War
Evans, Martin Marix, Encyclopedia of the Boer War
Evans, Martin Marix, The Boer War
Farwell, Byron, The Great Boer War
Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, The Boer War, 1899-1902
Reitz, Deneys, Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War



Boer War

The Boer War (or Anglo-Boer War) was a conflict in which the British Empire fought the forces of two “ Boer Republics ” from 1899 to 1902 in southern Africa. The Boers lost the war, but resistance gained them concessions even in defeat. One of many conflicts that heightened international tensions before 1914, the war accelerated patterns of violence that came to mark twentieth-century warfare, especially violence toward civilians.

The “ Boer ” population — mostly of Dutch Calvinist background — originated with a Dutch East India Company colony planted at the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century. Britain acquired the Cape Colony during the Napoleonic Wars. After clashes with the British administration, many settlers migrated northward in the “ Great Trek ” between 1835 and 1841, establishing two “ Boer republics ” : the South African Republic (or the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. The term Boer means “ farmer ” in Dutch and in the related language that developed among these settlers, which today is called Afrikaans.

The earlier war associated with the terms Boer War and Anglo-Boer War (1880 – 1881) was the result of British attempts to establish control over the republics. The British lost militarily but gained Boer agreement to nominal British rule over the autonomous republics. The conflict more commonly called the Boer War began in 1899 and was connected to the discovery of gold in the territory of the Transvaal in 1886. Europeans poured in to run the mines and recruit African labor. In the nineties, colonial authorities pushed to gain the vote for resident “ foreigners ” (uitlanders ), a measure that would have enabled the uitlanders to vote the republics into dissolution. Transvaal President Paul Kruger (1825 – 1902) opposed the plan vehemently. The Jameson Raid of 1895, sponsored by Cecil Rhodes (1853 – 1902 Cape Colony premier), was an effort to establish British control by force. After the defeat of the filibuster, German Emperor Wilhelm II (1859 – 1941) sent a telegram congratulating Kruger, to the irritation of the British. More concretely, the Germans also sent arms to the Boers in an attempt to counter their imperial rival, Britain.

Assisted by mining interests, in the late 1890s British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (1836 – 1914) and British High Commissioner Sir Alfred Milner (1854 – 1925) pressured the republics to give full citizenship to all resident British subjects. An attempt at reconciliation at the Bloemfontein Conference in mid-1899 failed, and the sides exchanged ultimata. The Boers struck first, invading the Cape Colony and Natal with a force based on the militia-like pattern of Boer defense, the commando system. The keys to their powerful blows against professional British units were expert marksmanship, good weapons, and mobility (mostly on horseback). From October 1899 to February 1900, Boer forces enjoyed success, defeating larger British units in a series of conventional battles, climaxed by the Battle of Spioenkop (earlier, Spion Kop), where British troops failed to carry the Boer lines after assaulting them for two days and losing 1,683 men, compared to 198 on the part of the Boers.

The tide of the war turned in February 1900, when British Field Marshall Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts (1832 – 1914) arrived with reinforcements. Though the British continued to sustain high losses, they were now able to overpower Boer forces, which retreated back to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Roberts followed and captured the Boer capitals by early June. The largest remaining Boer force was defeated in August 1900. Yet the Boers had already decided to move away from conventional warfare and adopt a guerrilla war of raids and ambush by June this campaign was in full swing. Several capable commanders emerged, especially Christiaan de Wet (1854 – 1922) and Jan Smuts (1870 – 1950). The British columns were deadly, but the Boer commandos were frequently elsewhere by the time the British were ready to strike.

Hence, although they nominally occupied the republics, British forces seemed stymied. Soon 250,000 British troops were engaged, but this number still represented a relatively low ratio of troops to area: The territory of the Transvaal alone (111,196 square miles) almost equaled that of the British Isles. The British military compensated for this low density of troops with a network of hundreds of “ blockhouses, ” outpost structures giving protection to small garrisons and linked by barbed-wire fences, designed to disrupt Boer movements.

Lord Roberts resigned in November 1900 because of sickness, and Herbert Lord Kitchener (1850 – 1916) took command. Kitchener intensified the “ scorched-earth ” policy that Roberts had already begun, which paralleled similar strategies in other contemporary colonial conflicts. His plan was to destroy Boer homes and crops and appropriate their livestock to deny the commandos food, supplies, and hiding places in two years the army burned some 30,000 Boer dwellings.

A byproduct of the “ scorched-earth ” policy was the creation of “ concentration camps ” to house those made homeless. Among the refugees were Boer women, children, and elderly, but also black Africans associated with Boer farming economies, or simply those displaced by military operations. British commanders also hoped that holding the refugees in tent camps surrounded by barbed wire, with limited food and rough hygiene, would bring about Boer surrender. Kitchener built forty concentration camps containing 116,000 prisoners, most of them women and children. Malnutrition and disease killed a high percentage. In a year and a half, well over 26,000 Afrikaners died, over 20,000 of them children under sixteen. The British also rounded up black Africans into camps, where as many as 17,000 died of disease and poor conditions. Some 12,000 of those seem to have been children. The total of black African deaths caused by the war is unknown. Nearly all the relevant mortality figures have been disputed, but it is not in dispute that the primary killer, even in the case of military deaths, was disease.

Whatever the effect of British tactics on the outcome of the war, it is clear that the Boers did not have the resources to fight on indefinitely. Several larger-scale battles in 1902 led to losses that thinned the already sparse commando ranks. The Boers surrendered in the spring of 1902, and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging, signed on May 31, 1902. The two republics became undisputed British possessions, but they emerged with considerable autonomy, allowing for self-government and continued use of the Dutch (later redefined as Afrikaans) language in schools, courts, and other institutions. The British agreed to pay a large sum for reconstruction in compensation for war damage. On the question of the enfranchisement of black Africans in the region, the treaty stipulated that no discussions of the issue would be held until after the region had been granted self-government.

Historians generally understand the war to have promoted and accelerated social trends marginalizing black African and racially mixed populations in South Africa. Hence, the institutionalization of apartheid (separateness) after World War II is seen as a later stage in developments resulting from the settlement of the Boer War. New legal restrictions based on race appeared in South Africa in the following decades. The Boer War also seems to have set in motion or intensified dislocation and the breakup of traditional cohesions among black South African ethnic groups, trends that shaped later racial relations in South Africa.

The war was an international affair, particularly on the British side. Some 22,000 soldiers of the British Empire died, and hundreds of thousands served. Yet, thousands were not from the British Isles. Africans served in various capacities. Many Indians living in South Africa likewise served in the war (Mohandas Gandhi [1869 – 1948] was a stretcher-bearer in the volunteer Indian Ambulance Corps). Australia ’ s involvement in the Boer War became a significant part of Australian history and identity. Over 10,000 Australians served in Australian units alone, and many others in British units. Some 500 Australians died in the war, about half from disease. Nearly 7,500 Canadians served, with deaths totaling 219, and New Zealand sent some 6,500 troops, with 229 resulting deaths. The war was, after all, an imperial effort.

The unity implied by these contributions did not reflect universal support back home. In Britain pacifists, liberals, socialists, and others were outspoken opponents of the war. Among the best known was political activist Emily Hobhouse (1860 – 1926). Opposing the war forcefully, she organized the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children in 1900 and traveled to South Africa to visit the concentration camps. Her efforts led to official inquiries and eventually a lowering of the mortality rates in the camps. Another prominent opponent was economist John A. Hobson (1858 – 1940), who produced a critique that far outlasted the events he observed. Covering the war for the Manchester Guardian, he wrote in The South African War: Causes and Effects (1900) that the war had been foisted on Britain by a “ small confederacy of international mine-owners and speculators ” lobbying for the war to support their own investments in South Africa. Hobson later generalized these and other arguments to apply to the whole of European imperialism in Imperialism (1902). Vladimir I. Lenin (1870 – 1924) adapted some of Hobson ’ s ideas in writing Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916).

SEE ALSO Apartheid Concentration Camps Imperialism

The Boer Wars

Can someone make sense of them for me? What exactly put the British in conflict with these people?

Certainly questions I could get answers to as quickly as a 30-second visit to Wikipedia, but its always more fun to ask you guys

Also, how exactly was the war fought, in terms of battle tactics? As I understand it, it involved some WWI-style trench warfare. Concentration camps were supposedly invented by the British during this war - is this true, and if so how bad were these camps?


Certain British "adventurers" made a land grab that went horribly wrong.
Some settlers got upset that they came under British rule thanks to international politics.
Settlers objected to imposition of assorted British laws including anti-slavery statutes.

Large amounts of gold and diamonds were discovered which had no bearing at all, honest

Throw in some truely terrible diplomacy on all sides, lots of angry letters to The Times demanding SOMETHING MUT BE DONE and hey presto, you have a war.


Can someone make sense of them for me? What exactly put the British in conflict with these people?

Certainly questions I could get answers to as quickly as a 30-second visit to Wikipedia, but its always more fun to ask you guys

Also, how exactly was the war fought, in terms of battle tactics? As I understand it, it involved some WWI-style trench warfare. Concentration camps were supposedly invented by the British during this war - is this true, and if so how bad were these camps?

That's really a series of questions which have even more answers. Even so, I'll have a go at answering.

Battle tactics - none to speak of on the British side. Almost all the Imperial regiments in South Africa were infantry whereas the Boers were mounted infantry. This meant that the British were confined to walking pace or or using the rail network. The British infantryman was equipped with a rifle firing black powder cartridges while the Boers normally used smokeless ammunition. The Boers also had better artillery.

While the British forted-up in situations such as Mafeking or Ladysmith, the Boers also made used of redoubts.

As to the concentration camps, while they weren't invented by the British, this was possibly the first time that such places came to the attention of the public.


No, they had been used fairly regularly before then and were simply the current military solution to a civilian problem. The US used them in the Phillipines, the British in South Africa, the Germans in Namibia all at about the same time.

The US might win by a whisker but they were well ahead with reservations and transportation of the Indian tribes.

What was new was that the London civil rights, human rights and decency campaigners found out about the connditions in them and raised an international campaign and made it a scandal. The British didnt invent them they were simply the first to be blamed in a media campaign.

As for how bad they were, then fairly bad. The Boers were used to living in isaolated farmsteads where public hygiene was finding a spot in a field to relieve yourself in or possibly a cess pit. Suddenly hundreds of them were packed into an urban setting with no ablutions, no waste disposal and they had no idea how to maintain safe hygiene.
At the same time they were a low priority for the military so their food was negligently bad so you can add lack of fresh food causing vitamin deficiencies and there was little medical care or attempt for their welfare, that went to loyalists and the troops.
Add in depression from being penned in and other low morale factors and disease quickly got in and ran wild killing hundreds, possibly thousands.

There was no intent to cause harm to the Boers but negligence and ignorance had exactly the same effect.



Can someone make sense of them for me? What exactly put the British in conflict with these people?

Certainly questions I could get answers to as quickly as a 30-second visit to Wikipedia, but its always more fun to ask you guys

Also, how exactly was the war fought, in terms of battle tactics? As I understand it, it involved some WWI-style trench warfare. Concentration camps were supposedly invented by the British during this war - is this true, and if so how bad were these camps?

The increasing presence of British miners and settlers in the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State led to the Boers becoming concerned about being outnumbered by these uitlanders, and so attempts were made to control them by denying voting rights. The British issued an ultimatum demanding equal rights for the uitlanders and stationed troops on the borders. The Boer republics rejected the demands and issued their own demand that the troops be withdrawn from the border. Britain rejected this and the Boers declared war.

The fighting was in two stages. Initially the British were no match for the fast moving Boer Commandos and it was not until they adopted the same tactics that the war began to go in their favour. Troops from Australia, New Zealand and Canada were particularly suited to these operations as they were more used to working independently and better adapted to the local conditions than the British troops. The guerrilla tactics adopted by both sides cause some controversy.

Concentration camps were used to remove the Boer commandos local support base however this actually failed because at first the Boer fighters were were happy to have their wives and children safe in a camp and out of harms way. The later high death tolls were due to ignorance and inefficiency rather than deliberate neglect.


This will be a pretty long post but hopefully it will cover everything. I'll organize it as best I can to make it easier to swallow. I will try my best to finish this post within the next few days so for now here's a bit of background before the war.

South African Gold Rush
The discovery of massive gold and diamond mines in the Orange Free State and Transvaal caught the attention of Cecil Rhodes, then PM of Cape Colony. Many immigrants flocked to the Boer republics, especially British and Irish citizens. They were called the utilanders by the Boars, and many worked skilled professions or were supervisors. Initially, they were given no voting rights because the Boers feared being eventually outnumbered in the government and having their independence taken away by Britain. Utilanders were upset with no political representation, as well as restrictions placed upon them by the governments. For example, mine owners were required to hire Afrikaners who demanded higher wages than Africans/Utilanders and the Transvaal had a lucrative monopoly on all equipment necessary for mining (dynamite/rail transportation, etc. )

Cecil Rhodes and the Jameson Raid
This is where Cecil Rhodes comes in as an instigator for war. In 1895, with the backing of Joseph Chamberlain (British Secretary of State for the Colonies and father of Neville Chamberlain), Rhodes plotted to overthrow Paul Kruger (PM of Transvaal) and the Transvaal government. An armed force of British South African Company Police was sent into the republic from Bechuanaland under the command of Dr. Leander Starr Jameson while utilanders witihn the Transvaal were expected to mobilize and attack Transvaal from within. The plan backfired when Rhodes realized too late that he didn't have the full support of the utilander community. Prior to this, Paul Kruger granted a small concession to utilander demands, granting them voting rights after being citizens for 14 years. Most utilanders (especially Irish immigrants) did not want to be annxed by Britain because of London's heavy handed interference in colonial affairs. The concession pleased enough of the utilander community to stop the uprising. Jameson, leading the raid, got the message too late and invaded the Transvaal anyway. On January 2, 1896 Jameson and his men were quickly captured. The affair was a PR nightmare for Britain, prompting Cecil Rhodes to retire. Paul Kruger became a hero when he sent the captured SA commandos home unharmed and commuted the death sentences to utilanders involved in the conspiracy to fines.

Paul Kruger acted fast to guarantee his independence afterwards by signing a mutual defense treaty with the Orange Free State and rearming his units with modern German weapons. The deals with the Germans shifted British public opinion from condemning Rhodes to holding him up as an imperial hero.

Sir Alfred Milner
In 1897 Milner became high commisioner of Cape Colony. He was an ardent imperialist who firmly believed the British were destined to rule the world. He hoped internal opposition within the Transvaal would bring down the Kruger administration, but Kruger's sweeping victory in the 1898 elections convinced him otherwise. In 1899, he began comparing the "plight" of the utilanders to that of the slaves and demanded Kruger give more concessions. Milner flat out rejected any attempts of Kruger to compromise and the British Cabinet prepared for war. More British troops were sent to SA and those already there gathered around the border.

Preparing for War
Britain was initially unprepared for the war. In June 1899, they had only 10,000 regulars and 24 field guns in South Africa. Troops under command of General Sir Redvers Buller were on their way. The British Empire was stratched too thin and not ready for fight its first major war in nearly 50 years. Meanwhile, throughout September 1899, the Cape Government mustered as many troops it could, bringing its army to 20,000 (mostly untrained) men and 60 field guns.

On October 11 1899, the war started just in time for tea as the London Times put it. Afrikaners wanted to defend their freedom, the British wanted to attain Boer mineral wealth and unite all of South Africa under their rule.

Primary Sources

(1) Emily Hobhouse wrote about how she decided to visit South Africa during the Boer War.

It was late in the summer of 1900 that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women that became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations. That the poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance. And from that moment I was determined to go to South Africa in order to render assistance to them.

(2) Philip Gibbs, The Pageant of the Years (1946)

The Lord Mayor of London appeared in his robes and made a speech to the crowd. I cannot remember his exact words, but they announced that after intolerable insults from an old man named Kruger, Her Majesty's government had declared war upon the South African Boers. There was terrific and tumultuous cheering. Top hats were flung up after the crowd had sung "God Save the Queen". I don't believe I joined in the cheering. Certainly I did not fling up my top hat. Brought up in the Gladstonian tradition to the Liberals, and being, anyhow, a liberal-minded youth hostile to the loud-mouthed jingoism of the time, I was not swept by enthusiasm for a war which seemed to me, as it did to others, a bit of bullying by the big old British Empire.

(3) George W. Steevens reported the siege of Ladysmith for The Daily Mail (October, 1899)

You hear the squeal of the things all above, the crash and pop all about, and wonder when your turn will come. Perhaps one falls quite near you, swooping irresistibly, as if the devil had kicked it. You come to watch the shells - to listen to the deafening rattle of the big guns, the shrilling whistle of the small, to guess at their pace and their direction. You see now a house smashed in, a heap of chips and rubble now you see a splinter kicking up a fountain of clinking stone-shivers. This is a dangerous time. If you have nothing else to do, you get shells on the brain, think and talk of nothing else, and finish by going into a hole in the ground before daylight, and hiring better men than yourself to bring you down your meals.

(4) Sarah Wilson was in Mafeking during the Boer War. She reported on the siege for the Daily Mail during April, 1900.

There was a remarkable decrease in the applications at the soup kitchen today, yesterday, and the day before, thanks to the arrival of enormous clouds of locusts, which in ordinary times are unwelcome visitors, but in our present condition were hailed with joy. The natives gathered sacks full, and feed on them tell their stomachs project in prominence of plenitude.

(5) Emily Hobhouse, report on Bloemfontein Concentration Camp (January, 1901)

When the eight, ten or twelve people who lived in the bell tent were squeezed into it to find shelter against the heat of the sun, the dust or the rain, there was no room to stir and the air in the tent was beyond description, even though the flaps were rolled up properly and fastened. Soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.


The first European colony established in South Africa was Cape Town, which was founded in 1653 by Dutchman Jan van Riebeek. As this colony grew, more people arrived from the Netherlands, France, and Germany. These people became known as the Boers.

In the early 1800s, the British began to take control of the region. Although the Boers fought back, the Netherlands gave up control of the colony to Britain in 1814 as part the Congress of Vienna. Soon, thousands of British colonists arrived in South Africa. They made many changes to the laws and ways of life for the Boers.

The Boers were unhappy under British rule. They decided to leave Cape Town and establish a new colony. Starting in 1835, thousands of Boers began a mass migration to new lands to the north and east in South Africa. They established their own free states, called Boer republics, including the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. These people were nicknamed the "Voortrekkers."

First Boer War (1880 - 1881)

In 1868, diamonds were discovered on Boer lands. This caused an influx of new settlers into the Boer territory, including many British. The British decided that they wanted to control the Transvaal and annexed it as part of the British colony in 1877. This did not sit well with the Boers. In 1880, the Boers of the Transvaal revolted against the British in what became known as the First Boer War.

The skill and tactics of the Boer soldiers took the British by surprise. They were very good marksmen. They would attack from a distance and then retreat if the British soldiers got too close. The war ended with a Boer victory. The British agreed to recognize the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as independent states.

Second Boer War (1889 - 1902)

In 1886, gold was discovered in the Transvaal. This new wealth potentially made the Transvaal very powerful. The British became concerned that the Boers would take over all of South Africa. In 1889, the Second Boer War began.

The British had thought that the war would last only a few months. However, the Boers once again proved to be tough fighters. After several years of war, the British finally defeated the Boers. Both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal became part of the British Empire.

During the Second Boer War, the British used concentration camps to house Boer women and children as they took over territory. The conditions in these camps were very bad. As many as 28,000 Boer women and children died in these camps. The use of these camps was later used to stir up resistance against British rule.

While Buller continued to alternately slam his head into the Tugela line, try to look for a flanking edge, then concuss himself again, the new commander of the Boer War arrived. Field Marshal Frederick Roberts already had a personal stake in this war, as his young son Freddie Roberts had been killed at Colenso leading [&hellip]

Back in London the news of Black Week stunned the British. Writing just before the grisly losses, Churchill’s brilliant prose captures the feeling of the time: “The enduring courage and confident spirit of the enemy must also excite surprise. In short, we have grossly underrated [the Boer’s] fighting powers. Most people in England-I among them-thought [&hellip]

The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War

Concentration camps are usually linked to WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust. However, they were around long before this and were used by many other countries. The first concentration camps were in Cuba, but the idea had taken root in southern Africa as well.

From 1899 to 1902, the Second Anglo-Boer War was fought in South Africa pitting the British against the two Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

This war would become the most destructive modern armed conflict in the country and shape the history of the nation. It would also be when the British first used concentration camps.

When Lord Roberts occupied Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, he invited Boers to sign an oath of neutrality. This would stop them from participating in the war in exchange for being allowed to remain on their farms.

Boer militia at the Battle of Spion Kop

Approximately a third of Boers accepted this offer, but it did not end the war since fighting turned to guerrilla warfare. The Boers started to attack the railway lines which supplied the British forces in both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

On June 16, 1900, Roberts proclaimed that a scorched earth policy would follow the attacks on the railroad. Any attack on the rail lines would result in one Boer farm being burnt down.

When this did not initially work, a second proclamation was made which resulted in farms within 16 kilometers (almost ten miles) of the attack being burnt, fields salted, and livestock killed.

One British response to the guerrilla war was a ‘scorched earth’ policy to deny the guerrillas supplies and refuge. In this image Boer civilians watch their house as it is burned.

This policy decimated the two republics and led the Boer leaders to reorganize. One of their new actions was to mobilize the Boers who had already agreed to lay down arms. To prevent this from happening, Roberts gathered all the protected burghers and placed them in refugee camps. The first camp in Bloemfontein was opened in August 1900.

Tents in the Bloemfontein concentration camp

This was to lay the groundwork for the concentration camps that would cause the deaths of over 4,000 women and 22,000 children under the age of 15. As the scorched earth policy continued, Boer women and children were left homeless. Roberts decided to take these displaced families into the camps as well.

Boer women and children in a concentration camp

Lord Kitchener, who took over from Roberts, continued this policy. He was also responsible for taking the next steps in the concentration camp policy. This was the forcible placement of Boer families in camps. Women and children of Boer fighters were taken against their will by ox wagon to the camps.

Lord Kitchener was one of the most controversial British generals in the war. Kitchener took over control of British forces from Lord Roberts and was responsible for expanding the British response to the Boers’ guerrilla tactics.

In December 1900, Kitchener sent a memorandum to his general officers. The memorandum laid out all of the military advantages of interning women, children, and men unfit for military service. In this memorandum, he also laid out the two categories into which those in the camps should be divided.

The first category included the families of protected burghers and other non-combatants. The second category included the families of those fighting against the British. Those in the first category were to be given preference in terms of accommodation and rations.

A Transit camp for Prisoners of War near Cape Town during the war. Prisoners were then transferred for internment in other parts of the British Empire.

The living conditions were appalling, with tents being overcrowded and the camps lacking hygiene measures. The food provided was reduced army rations with second category families receiving rations with no meat.

There were also no vegetables or milk for babies, and these families were given less than a pound of rice, potatoes, or mealie meal.

The poor diet of those in the camps led to widespread disease. Some of the diseases reported included diphtheria, whooping cough, dysentery, measles, and typhoid fever. These diseases, alongside the malnutrition, led to high mortality rates in the camps which was made worse by the chronic lack of medical staff and medicine.

By February 1901, the discriminatory food ration policy was discontinued in the concentration camps in the Transvaal. The practice would be discontinued in other camps over the following months.

During this time, Emily Hobhouse would visit a number of camps, but Lord Kitchener would not allow visits north of Bloemfontein.

Emily Hobhouse campaigned for improvement to the appalling conditions of the concentration camps.

The culmination of her visits would be a 15-page report for the Committee of the Distress Fund. The report resulted in the Fawcett Commission visiting the camps and confirming her findings in December 1901.

Her report urged the British government to improve the conditions of the camps. She continued to visit the camps until November 1901 when she was put under a deportation order and placed on a ship back to England.

The House of Commons debated the use of the camps in March 1902. The British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain stated during the debate that the camps minimized the horrors of war and that the policy was forced on them by the Boers.

Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary

While there were no official motions passed during the debate, steps were taken to improve the conditions of the camps.

The end of the concentration camps in South Africa officially began with the Treaty of Vereeniging which ended the war in May 1902. However, many of the camps remained until 1903 including the ones in Bloemfontein, Brandfort, and Irene which had some of the highest mortality rates.

Famous Birthdays

Paul Kruger

1825-10-10 Paul Kruger, 3rd President of South African Republic (1883-1900) and face of Boer resistance during the Second Boer War, born in Steynsburg, Cape Colony (d. 1904)

    Frederick Sleigh "Bobs" Roberts, British gov of Natal (Ireland-Boer war) Jacobus Herculas de la Rey, Boer leader in the South African War (1899–1902), born in Winburg, South Africa (d. 1914)

Horatio Kitchener

1850-06-24 Horatio Kitchener, British General who commanded British forces during the Battle of Omdurman (Sudan) and the Second Boer War who became British Secretary of State for War during WWI (1914-16), born in Ballylongford, County Kerry, Ireland (d. 1916)

    Christiaan R de Wet, South African rebel leader, politician and general in the Boer War Harry Buller Siege Willis, son of South Africa boer in Ladysmith Beene Dubbelboer, Dutch writer (Secret Resistance), born in Tweede Exloërmond, Netherlands (d. 1982) Martijn Lijnema, boer/resistance fighter (WWII)

Great Events in British History: The Boer Wars – The Bitter Legacy of British Imperialism

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Editor’s Note: This is a general reminder that we use the word ‘great’ in the general sense – that is that the event was of great importance. Not that it was ‘good’ as something like the Boer Wars were most certainly not ‘good.’

The Boer Wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) cast a long and bitter shadow over the history of South Africa. The wars marked a watershed in British imperial history, stirring the Empire from its policy of non-alignment and isolationism, and instigating a number of debates in domestic spheres on issues such as public health, British foreign policy, and military strategy. In addition to this, the Boer Wars played a formative role in the future development of the South African state, the domestic economy of the country and the construction of a strong Afrikaner identity. Indeed, in South Africa, such is the significance of the wars to the Afrikaner self-image, that they have passed into cultural memory, forming a well of shared historical trauma that continues to shape identity politics in South Africa until the present day. The Second Boer War, occurring on the eve of the First World War, was a serious test for the British military leadership, and a profound wake up call about the nature of imperial rule at the outset of the 20 th century.

Key Facts

  • 16 December 1880 Outbreak of First Boer War
  • 11 October 1899 Outbreak of Second Boer War (invasion of Cape Colony)
  • 31 May 1902 Treaty of Vereeniging

Key Figures

  • Paul Kruger Boer leader and President of Transvaal (1883-1900)
  • Christiaan Rudolf de Wet Boer military commander (Orange Free State)
  • Lord Salisbury British Prime Minister (1895-1902)
  • Lord Kitchener Commander of the British during the Boer War from 1900
  • Emily Hobhouse British social reformer and campaigner

The First Boer War

During the 19 th century, the Great Powers of Europe were locked into a race to colonize the resource-rich continent of Africa, leading to a number of multi-fronted wars between imperial powers and indigenous populations. The first Boer War (1880-1881) was one such conflict and represented the first attempt by the British to annex the Transvaal region of southern Africa. The motivation for the British annexation was threefold first, they wished to capitalise on the potential gold resources of the region second, they wished to prevent other imperial powers from expanding into southern Africa and third, they wished to control the sea route around the south of Africa to their premier imperial holding of India. The British had maintained a colony in the Cape of Good Hope since 1815, having acquired it from the Dutch in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. The Dutch colonists, mainly comprising farmers known as Boers, resented British rule and had moved gradually northwards, colonizing the two areas known as the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Although these two regions were officially viewed as independent, by the 1870s, the British recognized the value inherent to the Transvaal and began to place pressure on the Boers. Tensions with the neighboring Zulu kingdom in 1877 provided the perfect excuse to occupy the Transvaal, and gradually, the British encroached upon Boer territory.

Once the Zulu kingdom had been subdued, the Boers of the Transvaal began to demand that the British withdraw from their territory. The short-term catalyst for war came when a Boer farmer refused to pay a British imposed tax, resulting in government retaliation that sparked a riot. Following this, the Transvaal formally declared independence from the British and fighters began to systematically attack British army garrisons. The Boers were ostensibly at a considerable disadvantage, as they lacked weapons and military training, and were mostly simple farmers accustomed to living off the land. However, they proved to be excellent snipers and developed a commando-style, dynamic organization that meant that they were extremely effective in cutting through British defenses. In the first battle of Bronkhorstspruit, the Boers inflicted deadly losses on the British, much to the shock of the British commanders. At the battles of Laings Nek and Majuba Hill, the Boers achieved remarkable victories over their opponents, finally bringing them to terms in March 1881. A settlement was agreed in which the British were forced to accept Boer self-governance, and their influence over the region was limited to a nominal suzerainty.

The Second Boer War

By the late 1890s, the bitter memory of Laings Nek and Majuba Hill had diminished sufficiently that the British were tempted to once again attempt to annex the Transvaal. In the years since the end of the First Boer War, tensions had escalated with the influx of foreigners (uitlanders) into the Transvaal as part of the gold rush of the mid-1880s. The Boers were reluctant to allow the uitlanders voting rights and other privileges due to fears that the ethnic Boers would be outnumbered and consequently lose their position of power in the country. The British decided to intervene, allegedly on behalf of the Uitlanders, but also as a consequence of their designs on the rich mineral resources of the Transvaal. In response to British aggression, the Boers of Transvaal, allied to the Orange Free State, declared war on the 11 th of October 1899, launching a full-scale invasion of the Cape Colony. Despite British expectations of a quick victory, the war developed into a protracted, expensive and bloody conflict that would have serious ramifications for the British, the Boers and the indigenous Africans.

The early phases of the war featured a number of set-piece battles, in which the antiquated British tactics yielded decidedly mixed results. Although the British were more comfortable with set-piece battles after their experiences in the Crimea, they suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the mobile Boer cavalry units, and the deadly Boer snipers who fought from secure trench positions. Even as the British brought in reinforcements and sought to launch a large-scale offensive on the Boers, poor battle communications, strategic errors and premature retreats meant that the British incurred heavy losses with little military success. In early 1900, however, the tide began to turn. Although the British still faced heavy losses, they managed to break the siege at Kimberley and defeat the Boers at Paardeberg (27 th February) and Ladysmith (28 th February). These defeats weakened Boer morale, and the malaise inside the Boer camps was compounded by the fact that supplies were running short, and disease threatened to wipe out their fighters. On the 28 th of May, the Orange Free State was lost to the British. On the 5 th of June, the capital of the Transvaal was captured, which seemed to many to herald the end of the war.

However, although the British had regained strategic control over the cities of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, they were not able to exert their authority across the region. The Boers resorted to a guerrilla war, targeting British supply chains and launching raids from their base in the northern part of the Transvaal. The British could do little against such slippery targets, and it was clear that they could not exert their authority across the region without definitively defeating the Boers. A new strategy was required.

The Changing Face of War: Internment

Organised into small, mobile units, the Boers were skilled horsemen, adept marksmen and highly versatile. They were also relatively well organized, well armed, and had an excellent intelligence network. The requirements of fighting against such a force required the British army to adapt and develop new military strategies, adopting a diverse range of techniques that included the employment of troops from other parts of the Empire. Although the Boer War was primarily fought between the British and the Boers, in reality, large numbers of fighters came from other areas of the Empire, in particular, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

As the guerrilla war continued, the British resorted to ever increasingly brutal tactics in order to try and gain the advantage. A ‘scorched earth’ policy was developed, in which Kitchener devastated local agriculture. Whilst the fighters themselves were often difficult to track down they were supported by their families, who remained at home and often ensured the supply of food and resources to guerrilla units. In order to curb this practice, the British decided to detain the families of fighters (usually their wives, children and elderly relatives) in purpose-built concentration camps. The camps had originally been established as refugee camps to house displaced civilians, but as the war progressed, in 1900, the British leader Lord Kitchener decided to forcibly transport the families of Boer fighters to the camps as well. The uncertainties of war meant that supply route to the camps were often disrupted, and the camps had poor sanitation that led to the regular outbreak of disease. Conditions in these concentration camps were squalid, and many of the prisoners contracted fatal diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and measles, and many more died of starvation. Between 1900 and 1902, an estimated 26,000 Boer women and children died in the camps, as a direct consequence of British neglect.

In addition to this, over 100,000 indigenous Africans were interned in the camps, although their precise death toll remains a mystery due to the fact that few records were kept of their identities. The British and the Boers had a tacit agreement not to involve the indigenous population, due to fears that militarising the tribes would render the victors of the war vulnerable to attack from various African groups. The memory of the Zulu war loomed large in the imaginations of both British and Boer. Nevertheless, indigenous Africans did participate in the war, on both sides, although they were typically not placed in fighting roles, and they suffered significantly in the camps, and as a consequence of Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ policy.

The Domestic Response

As the fighting and bloodshed wore on, the Boer War began to have considerable implications for Britain in a domestic context. Although the war was initially popular, leading the Conservative government to victory in the 1900 election, as the conflict continued, there was increasing public concern about the tactics and brutality of the campaign. The reports of forced internment and the horrific death toll within the camps caused a public outcry and resulted in greater introspection into public health within Britain itself. The war had exposed the poor state of public health, as approximately 40% of British military recruits were deemed unfit for service due to the prevalence of systemic health conditions related to poverty. Public anger began to surface, particularly after the high profile campaign spearheaded by Emily Hobhouse, a welfare campaigner who had visited Bloemfontein as part of a delegation of the Distress Fund for South African Women and Children.

Hobhouse arrived at the Cape Colony expecting to find one concentration camp: instead, she discovered a further 45 and was horrified by the conditions and heavy death toll. She petitioned Kitchener for supplies and was finally allowed to Bloemfontein in early 1901. Her subsequent report and vivid descriptions of the horrors of the camps caused a storm when it was finally delivered to the British government in June of 1901. Eventually, bowing to public pressure, the government established the Fawcett Commission to investigate her claims, led by Millicent Fawcett, a prominent suffragist. The Fawcett Commission producing a scathing report, attributing the high number of deaths to the incompetence of British administration, and insufficient knowledge of basic hygiene.

The Road to Peace

By 1902, the British were becoming increasingly weary of the war, and both domestic and international pressures were leading to increasing calls for a settlement. The war was particularly expensive for the British, and they needed to deal with a range of other threats across the Empire. Similarly, the Boers had suffered catastrophic losses, and although they continued to fight, British intelligence tactics were beginning to affect. The Boer fighters were increasingly cut off from food and supplies, and the detention of their families created further practical and psychological pressure. The time was ripe for bringing both sides to the table, and finally, in May 1902, the Boers surrendered.

On the 31 st of May, 1902, a peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Vereeniging, was signed in Pretoria between the Boer leadership and the British. Although the British had won the war, a number of accommodations were made to the Boer leaders, including a £3 million reconstruction fund that would be administered by the Boers. Although the Boers were forced to disarm, there would be no recrimination from the British, and no death penalty applied for Boer fighters. Furthermore, a path was established to ensure self-governance in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, which was achieved in practice in both regions by 1907.

In the period 1902-1910, the administration under the British was led by Lord Milner, whose chief purpose was to rebuild the economy based on the exploitation of gold resources, in line with British aims for South Africa. As a result, the largely agrarian society that had dominated the region was transformed. The scorched earth policy adopted during the Boer War had devastated the landscape, and the policy of salting the earth meant that the land was now largely unsuitable for cultivation in many areas. For fighters and prisoners of war returning to their land, in many cases, they had no possible way to continue to earn their livelihood, leading to the creation of a very large class of urban poor.


The Boer Wars emerged as a significant event and trauma for the Boer population that would provide a focal point around which a strong sense of Afrikaner nationalism and identity would emerge. Prior to the war, the Boer population was divided between the Transvaal and the Free Orange State, and arguably, there was no cohesive sense of identity that bound the two. However, the shared trauma of the war, particularly relating to the British abuses in the concentration camps, provided a historical grievance around which a strong identity discourse could coalesce. Although the Afrikaner population was shattered by the war, in every sense, including economically, the experience of the camps and the suffering of the war gave rise to a blossoming national consciousness and distinctive Afrikaner identity.

One of the most important consequences of the Boer War was the ultimate creation of the South African Union in 1910. At the end of the war, hostilities ceased when the Boers accepted the peace treaty offered by the British, which guaranteed, among other things, the future independence of the new nation. The Treaty of Vereeniging led to the integration of Transvaal and the Orange Free State into the British Empire, and the establishment of a new administration that was responsible for the whole region of South Africa. The promises of self-governance for the Boers were ultimately realized in 1910 when the South African Union was declared, and this new state was an important key ally to the British during the early part of the 20 th century. Despite the support for the British in the South African government, however, there remained a considerable portion of Boer society that was hostile to the idea of fighting on behalf of the British and organized politically to form the National Party. This party ultimately rose to political ascendancy following World War Two and dominated South African politics in the second half of the 20 th century, establishing the apartheid system and cultivating a strong sense of Afrikaner nationalism. As a result, it may be suggested that the legacy of the Boer War would have far-reaching consequences for the nation, as the historical memory of the bitter conflict shaped its political future.

The Boer War also had a significant impact on British foreign policy and its position within the wider international state system. Prior to the war, Britain was locked into a policy of isolationism and had no reliable allies within Europe. The Boer War highlighted the vulnerability of this position, largely because had another European power intervened, the British would have been unlikely to defeat the Boers. The aggression and Anglophobia apparent in Europe caused the British to feel increasingly insecure, and it became apparent that isolationism was not a viable position in the context of early 20th-century international politics.

The failures of British strategy against the Boers also led to significant military reform. In particular, the British adopted similar strategies used by the Boers in other conflicts, including World War One and World War Two. In World War One, trench warfare, used so profitably by the Boers, would become a key strategy. Guerrilla warfare, usually via local proxies, was adopted as a technique in World War Two, and the organization and intelligence networks developed by the Boers were also imitated in the attempt to combat the German occupation of France during World War Two. The Boer War, therefore, may be regarded as a catalyst for change in British military strategy, forcing them both to adapt to a new form of enemy, and providing them with successful examples to imitate.

11-15 Boer War Facts

11. The first scouts were a group of child soldiers in the 2nd Boer war whose job was to carry messages between fortresses in the war, with a 13 yo Warner Goodyear as Sergeant-Mayor. – Source

12. Until 1899, wristwatches were primarily worn by women. It was only due to the Boer War that British soldiers adopted wristwatches, finding their traditional pocket watches too cumbersome. – Source

13. Queen Victoria personally crocheted 8 scarves to be given to members of her forces that fought in the Boer War – 4 were reserved for soldiers from the colonies. – Source

14. King Edward VII on his way to Denmark through Belgium was the victim of an attempted assassination when fifteen-year-old Jean-Baptiste Sipido shot at him in protest over the Boer War. Accusing him of causing the slaughter of thousands during the Boer War in South Africa. – Source

15. The reason that many stadiums in England have stands called ‘The Kop’ is because they resemble the Battle of Spion Kop from the Second Boer War. – Source

Watch the video: The Real Story Of The Falklands War. The Untold Story. Timeline (May 2022).


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