The South African War, sometimes called the Boer War or
Anglo-Boer War, was the first major conflict of a century
that was to be marked by wars on an international scale.
It demonstrated the inadequacy of 19th century military
methods and raised issues of whether conscription should
be brought in and the use of concentration camps.
The South African War was fought between Britain and the
self-governing Afrikaner (Boer) colonies of the South African
Republic (the Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. (At
the outbreak of war, Britain ruled the South African colonies
of the Cape and Natal).
The war began on October 11 1899, following a Boer ultimatum
that the British should cease building up their forces in
the region. The Boers had refused to grant political rights
to non-Boer settlers, known as Uitlanders, most of whom
were British, or to grant civil rights to Africans. Perhaps
more important was the underlying question of control over
the gold mines of the Transvaal at a time when the international
financial system, and the stability of the British pound,
was based on the gold standard. The war was also about Britain's
control of South Africa and therefore its 'great power'
Although the war was fought between Briton and Boer, it
was not simply a 'white man's war'. Large numbers of Africans
and other non-Europeans were involved whether combatants
or in support roles (including Mahatma Gandhi, then living
in South Africa, who served as a volunteer stretcher-bearer
in 1900), and the lives of many more were affected by the
conflict. On the British side, troops came not just from
Britain but also from other parts of the empire, especially
Canada and Australia.
|A new kind of war
The South African War was a 20th century war fought
by a British army that was only organised to fight the smaller-scale
colonial wars of the 19th . It employed modern
weapons - quick-firing rifles with magazines; machine guns,
such as the Maxim gun; and terrible new types of high explosive
such as lyddite, said to be capable of killing everything
within 50 yards of its point of detonation. In its later stages
it became a conflict of guerilla warfare and concentration
camps for civilians were used to combat these tactics.
The course of the war
Initially the Boers took the initiative, invading the British
colonies of Natal and the Cape, where they were joined by
Afrikaner sympathisers. British troops were defeated in
battle and the key towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley
besieged. However, by late February 1900, Ladysmith and
Kimberley had been relieved as massive British reinforcements
began to turn the tide. In May, Mafeking was also relieved
and Johannesburg taken, followed by Pretoria in early June.
Both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were formally
annexed to the British crown and at the beginning of October,
Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, in a speech at Coventry,
announced 'the war is over'. This was far from true, as
the Boers turned to vigorous guerilla warfare. Hard-liners,
such as Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa,
wanted the Boers crushed - 'to knock the bottom out of the
"great Afrikaner nation" for ever and ever. Amen'.
By February 1901, the British Commander-in-Chief in South
Africa, General Kitchener, was more willing to compromise
for peace and offered terms to the Boer generals. He suggested
that the republics would become crown colonies, though with
the ultimate aim of self-government within the empire; prisoners
of war would be released; an amnesty would be granted for
those who had fought, except the Afrikaner 'rebels' living
in Natal and the Cape; a £1 million compensation fund
would be established; and 'coloured persons' would receive
the same legal rights as they had in the Cape Colony, although
if they were ever granted the vote this would 'be so limited
as to secure the just predominance of the white race'. Peace
talks were held at Middleburg but the denial of an extension
of the amnesty to the 'rebels' was unacceptable to the Boer
Over a year later, almost the same terms were accepted
by the Boers under the Peace of Vereeniging of May 1902,
with certain significant differences. The compensation fund
was increased to £3 million. The question of votes
for 'natives' would not be raised until the colonies became
self-governing (as eventually happened in 1910) and, as
the historian Thomas Pakenham observes, 'once self-governing,
no Boer state would give the vote to Africans'.
Despite fighting for the British, the black population of
South Africa derived little benefit from the war. Indeed,
as Pakenham concludes, that 'it was the Africans who had
to pay the heaviest price in the war and its aftermath'.
Follow this link to People
of 1901 for more on people involved in the war.
For more on the South African War, try the following websites:
War Museum website
History Net website
Esslemont's website containing the diary of her grandfather
who served with the British Army in South Africa
Africa government, for a general history of South Africa
Please note that these websites give a variety of perspectives
on the South African War. The National Archives does
not necessarily guarantee their accuracy or objectivity.