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Boer War

Boer War Pictures



The Boer War was fought between Britain and the rest of the Empire and the Boer (Boer is Dutch for farmer) republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal between October 1899 and May 1902. There was actually an earlier, smaller war between the British and the Boers of the Transvaal in 1881-1882, but that's not usually counted. That of 1899 - 1902 was a classic Imperial war prompted by the discovery of gold and diamonds in the Transvaal in 1880s and the consequent British commercial interest and imperial aspirations conflicting with the previous semi-autonomy of the Dutch settlers.

The British, as usual, expected an easy win, but the Boers were able to lay siege to Mafeking (where Baden-Powell led the defence), Kimberley and Ladysmith. The sheer scale of the resources that the British would prove to be able to deploy from the Empire (including troops from Australia, Canada and New Zealand) meant that a Boer defeat was inevitable, but until those resources could be mobilised the Boers had a number of stunning victories that shocked British sentiment at home. One, the defeat at Spion Kop, is remembered in the naming of terraces at English football stadia, the most famous example being the Kop at Anfield.

The relief of Mafeking, as a rare set-piece victory in an otherwise somewhat nebulous conflict, provoked great celebrations back in the Mother Country: on the streets, in workplaces and of course in such institutions as the London Stock Exchange.

As British military numbers swelled the Boers changed tactics and turned to guerilla warfare, which pinned down the numerically far superior British army, much to their surprise and consternation, but could only delay the inevitable result.

The invention of concentration camps is usually attributed to the British in the Boer War although they were in fact first used in Cuba (where they were called reconcentrados) during 1895-1898. Their use by the supposedly civilised English caused widespread revulsion in the UK. To be fair, if that is relevant, the death by disease and starvation of the women and children held in such camps was due to inefficiency in their management rather than deliberate policy, and was fairly swiftly ended when it was realised back home what was going on. The British public's initial enthusiasm which contributed to the Conservative victory in the final Victorian election of 1900 (the 'khaki election') turned to disappointment at a prolonged war and disgust at the use of brutal tactics.

As if to demonstrate South Africa's astonishing capacity for reconciliation that was so wonderfully demonstrated in the 1990s, and the civilising influence of Edwardian sport, in 1906 a South African rugby team (the first Springboks) toured Britain with a National side combining South Africans of both English and Dutch origin. Furthermore, just twelve years after the end of the Boer War South Africa was to give major support to the British effort in World War I. Jan Smuts, a Boer leader towards the end of the Boer War, served in the British War Cabinet during the Great War and in Churchill's Imperial War Cabinet during World War II.