The Boer War

The Boer War

Two ideologies namely British imperialism and Afrikanernationalism were to clash at the turn of the nineteenth century in South Africa. Britain sought the unification of whole of South Africa under the British flag. The existence of the two Boer republics namely the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State therefor was a stumbling block. The two republics on the other hand wanted to preserve their independence and to build their republics into regional forces. They were therefore not prepared to become part of a united South Africa under British authority.

In 1886 a new phase in the contest between the two opposing ideologies was reached when gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in the South African Republic. Thousands of prospectors and miners from all over the world were lured to the goldfields with one purpose in mind namely to seek their fortune. The inhabitants of the South African Republic saw the newcomers (Uitlanders) as a threat to their continuing independence. In 1890 the government of the South African Republic restricted the Uitlander franchise for presidential and Volksraad elections to naturalized citizens who had been in the country for fourteen years. To satisfy Uitlander interests a second Volksraad was created, to be elected by naturalized citizens of two years standing. Though relatively few Uitanders were genuinely concerned about the franchise question, this nevertheless became a central issue between the British government and the government of the South African republic.

The policies of the Kruger government regarding the granting of concessions (monopolies) raised mining costs considerably. This was especially relevant regarding concessions governing rail transport and the manufacture of dynamite. Eventually this was to become a deep source of grievance between the Chamber of Mines and the government. Many of the mining executives realised that to enable deep-level gold production to prosper a much closer relationship between the industry and state had to be established and that this was only likely if a change of government could be realised.

A new era in the relations between the governments in Britain and the South African Republic began when they appointed Joseph Chamberlain to the Colonial Office in 1895. He was an avowed imperialist who wanted to press ahead with federating South Africa under a British flag.

Relations between the two governments deteriorated further, following the abortive Jameson Raid in December 1895, a foolhardy enterprise set up by the then premier of the Cape, Cecil John Rhodes and a group of associates, many of whom had links with deep-level mining. They wanted to overthrow the government in the South African Republic. The political consequences were disastrous. Boer mistrust of the British government’s intentions was heightened. Chamberlain now felt obliged to deflect some suspicion and criticism of the British policy in South Africa by taking up the issue of the uitlander grievances.

Sir Alfred Milner, the newly appointed High Commissioner and an ardent imperialist, became committed to the issues set forth by the British South African League in 1896. They were soon urging the British Government to intervene directly in the affairs of the republic. His diplomatic strategy from 1896 therefore was directed at the strengthening of the loyalty and political cohesion of the English-speaking South Africans and channelling Uitlander discontent and opposition to Kruger’s government. He also prepared public opinion as to the seriousness of the grievances of the uitlanders and to the possibility of war if a satisfactory settlement was not reached. In 1899 the situation came to a head when Milner broke off talks with Kruger about the franchise question during the Bloemfontein Conference (31 May-5 June 1899).

By the middle of 1899 the British public would clearly accept the possibility of British intervention in South Africa and that no European power would intervene on the behalf of the South African republic should war be declared. However when further offers of franchise reform by the Pretoria Government was rejected tension was once again heightened. When British military reinforcements were dispatched to South Africa in September 1899, the governments of the two republics decided that Britain intended to destroy the independence of the two republics by force. The government of the South African Republic, wishing to seize the military initiative, issued an ultimatum to Britain on 9 October 1899 calling for the removal of all imperial troops from the republic’s borders within forty-eight hours with the alternative of formal war.

The primary object of the Boer command was to isolate or wipe out the British forces at Dundee and Ladysmith in Natal, and at Mafeking and Kimberley before the arrival of British reinforcements.

In the first battle in Natal, Talana or Dundee, General Lucas Meyer failed in his objective namely to crush the British garrison. He also allowed the British to escape to Ladysmith. On 21 October, the British repulsed the Boer offensive against Lieutenant-General Sir George White’s garrison at Elandslaagte. Boer losses, mainly among the Dutch Volunteer Corps, amounted to 46 dead. On Mournful Monday (30 October 1899) White failed to scatter the Transvaal and Free State forces at Modderspruit and Nicholson’s Nek. With White’s force isolated at Ladysmith Joubert undertook a reconnaissance as far as Estcourt in Natal. Their objective was to find defensive positions to block the march of British reinforcements. At the end of November, Joubert’s expedition fell back on Colenso, taking up position on the northern bank of the Tugela (Thukela) River. Here Joubert prepared to resist the large British force marching from southern Natal. Several battalions had already arrived from overseas and were concentrated around Estcourt and Mooi River.

On the western front the Boers under General Koos de la Rey captured an armoured train at Kraaipan on 12 October during the very first battle of the war. A British force of some 1000 whites and 300 armed blacks acting as herdsmen, were stationed at Mafeking (Mafekeng) under Col RSS Baden-Powell. On 13 October 1899 Mafeking was completely encircled by Boer Forces. By 3 November some 4 800 Free State Burghers under Chief Commandant CJ Wessels and 2 200 Transvalers had also besieged Colonel Kekewich and his force of 2 600 men at Kimberley.

In the Northern Cape a Boer Force under Chief Commandant ER Grobler (OFS) and General HJ Schoeman occupied Colesberg while Commandant FJ du Plooy entered Burghersdorp on 15 November 1899. The Boers, however failed to occupy the important railway junctions at De Aar and Naauwpoort leaving the railways in British hands.

The First British Offensive Fails

Meanwhile, the first British reinforcements had already arrived in South Africa. General Sir Redvers Buller, the British Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, soon after his arrival in South Africa on 31 October 1899, decided to relieve Ladysmith and Kimberley as soon as possible and to try and halt the Boer offensive in Natal and the Northern Cape. With this objective in mind, Lord Methuen had to proceed along the western railway line to relieve Kimberley while Major-General JDP French and Lieutenant-General Sir William Gatacre had to repulse the Boer invasion of the Cape Colony at Colesberg and Stormberg respectively.

On 25 November Buller arrived in Natal. His reinforcements at Frere soon numbered more than 21 000 men and 46 guns. North of Colenso Louis Botha and his 4 500 Transvalers and 5 guns blocked the way to Ladysmith. Along the upper Tugela a force of 2 000 Freestaters were waiting. On 15 December 1899, Buller’s forces suffered a disastrous defeat at Colenso. Buller’s first attempt to relieve Ladysmith thus ended in dismal failure. In an attempt to occupy Ladysmith General Schalk Burger and Chief Commandant Marthinus Prinsloo launched an attack on Platrand on 6 January 1900. The lack of leadership and cooperation and the valiant defence of the British troops caused the attack to fail.

Buller’s defeat at Colenso led to his replacement by Lord Roberts as supreme commander of the British forces in South Africa on 18 December 1899. However, before Roberts’ arrival, Buller tried, once again, to break through to Ladysmith. He decided to cross the Tugela a few kilometres west of Colenso and to go round the Boers’ right flank. On 16 January Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Warren crossed the river with the aim to take Spioenkop to threaten the Boers on Tabanyama Hill. On 24 January 1900 the British column of 2 000 men under Major-General ERP Woodgate was pinned down by the Boers on the summit of Spioenkop. The British lost 225 men, 122 were missing, 550 were wounded and 178 were captured. Fifty-eight Boers were killed and 140 were wounded. A third attempt to relieve Ladysmith (5-7 February) came to nothing at Vaalkrans. This was mainly because of the courageous defence of the Johannesburg commando and the Boer artillery.

Meanwhile Methuen had received orders from Buller to go on to Kimberley as quickly as possible. With some 10 500 men, reinforced regularly, he managed to drive the Boers from their positions at Belmont (23 November 1899) and Graspan (Enslin or Rooilaagte) two days later. On 28 November 1899 Methuen and De la Rey again crossed swords at Tweeriviere or Modder River. The Boers again had to fall back when the Free Staters under Combat General J Prinsloo on the western flank left their positions thus exposing the other burghers to danger. The Boers now took up position at Magersfontein where Methuen attacked them on 11 December 1899. The unsuspecting British troops, with the Highland Brigade in the lead, walked straight into the deadly fire from the Boer trenches. Here the Boers suffered some 225 casualties while the British lost some 971 men.

On the southern front many Cape colonists, who sympathised with the Boer cause, joined the ranks of the Boer army. To quell this rebellious spirit and to restore some lost British prestige, Gatacre decided to attack the Boers at Stormberg with a force of approximately 5 000 men. On 10 December 1899 Gatacre came up against the Boers under General JH Olivier at Stormberg where between 700 -800 British soldiers were put out of action while the Boers lost 21 men – either killed or wounded.

British reverses at Stormberg (10/12/1899), Magersfontein (11/12/99) and Colenso (15/12/99), became known as the “Black Week”

The Second British Offensive

The new Commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts and his chief of staff, Lord Kitchener landed in South Africa on 10 January 1900. Roberts decided to conquer the Boer Republics from the Cape Colony in keeping with their original strategy. He decided to use the western railway line for his advance and saw the relief of Kimberley as his prime objective. After achieving this he would then leave the railway line and make an eastward attack on Bloemfontein and then advance on Pretoria. From January 1900 he gathered a force of some 50 000 men for the coming campaign. To relieve Kimberley Roberts held the attention of General PA Cronje and CR De Wet with an infantry division, while French’s Cavalry moved off in a wide arc, past Cronje’s left flank. After a quick march French entered Kimberley on 15 February 1900. General Piet Cronje left Magersfontein with his convoy of wagons and retreated to Paardeberg where Roberts’ force finally encircled him. On 27 February 1900, after ten days of intense fighting Cronje and some 4 000 men finally surrendered to the British.

Cronje’s surrender was a severe blow to the Boers and many burghers fled in despair. On 7 March General De Wet tried in vain to check the British advance on Bloemfontein at Poplar Grove. Three days later De la Rey’s burghers offered courageous resistance at Abrahamskraal (Driefontein) but had to retreat because they were in danger of being outflanked. On 13 March1900 Lord Roberts occupied Bloemfontein without meeting any resistance of note.

In Natal Buller at last realised that the key to success at Ladysmith lay in capturing Hlangwane Hill and the surrounding hills, south of the Tugela River and northeast of Colenso, where Botha’s vulnerable left flank was entrenched. When Buller managed to capture these hills from 17-19 February the Boers’ power of resistance crumbled and many dispirited burghers started leaving the front. Inspired by the news of Cronje’s surrender the British finally managed to break through the Boer lines surrounding Ladysmith at Pietershoogte on 27 February1900. The Boers now retreated towards the Biggarsberg and on 28 February Ladysmith was relieved. The relief of Mafeking was only achieved by Colonels BT Mahon and Plumer on 17 May 1900.

On 17 March at a joint council of war at Kroonstad the Boers decided among others to abolish the cumbersome wagon laagers. In future they would employ mobile mounted commandos which heralded a new method of fighting.

After De Wet had granted the Free State burghers a brief leave of absence they regrouped at the Sand River on 25 March 1900, inspired with new courage. De Wet, now Chief Commandant of the OFS, harassed the British by frequently attacking from the rear. Isolated British columns were among his favourite targets. On 31 March 1900 he dealt the British a severe blow when he defeated Brigadier-General RG Broadwood’s forces at Sannaspos, 28 km east of the Free State capital. The British losses amounted to 159 men while the Boers lost 13 men. De Wet also managed to capture a convoy of 116 wagons. This victory managed to raise the Boers’ morale and many burghers who had gone home after the fall of Bloemfontein again took up their weapons. At Mostertshoek near Reddersburg, (4 April 1900) he again met with success. De Wet now decided to lay siege to the British garrison at Wepener. After an unsuccessful siege of sixteen days the Boers’ were forced to retire when British reinforcements arrived.

On 3 May Roberts started his march to Pretoria but near the Vet River and Sand River the Boers attempted to halt the British advance – without any success. On 12 May Roberts and his army were in Kroonstad and on 28 May he had already crossed the Vaal River. Although Lieutenant-General Ian Hamilton suffered heavy losses at the battle of Doornkop (29 May) the Boers could not prevent the Johannesburg and the gold mines from falling into British hands two days later.

The Mobile War Begins

As the Transvaal leaders decided not to defend Pretoria, Roberts entered the capital unopposed on 5 June. At Donkerhoek (Diamond Hill) from11-12 June 1900 and Bergendal (Dalmanutha) from 21-27 August 1900, Louis Botha failed to attain the same measure of success as in his earlier battles on the Natal front. He now fell back with the Transvaal forces eastwards along the railway line thus enabling French to occupy Middelburg on 27 July.

The success of Roberts’ advance led to irresolution among the government, officers and burghers of the Transvaal. Kruger and Botha now informed their Free State counterparts that Transvaal regarded the continuation of the war as pointless. However, both Steyn and De Wet stood firm and insisted on continuing with the war.

Roberts soon realised that although Pretoria had fallen into his hands the war was hardly at an end. There were still too many areas under Boer control and the lines of communication in the Free State were poorly guarded and vulnerable to Boer attacks. On 29 May 1900 General AJ de Villiers dealt General Sir Leslie Rundle a severe blow at Biddulphsberg near Senekal and two days later General Piet De Wet followed up the success at Lindley. To add insult to injury general CR de Wet managed to capture British supplies worth £ 500 000 at Roodewal on 7 June 1900

The Guerrilla War

The final phase of the war that Lord Kitchener saw as “insensate resistance” was to persist for nearly two years – from March 1900 to the end of the war. While the very mobile Boer riflemen could avoid capture and secure the necessary ammunition and basic foodstuffs – in most cases from the British army itself, they could exist indefinitely as the ” gadfly of regular armies.” For the Boers in the veld it was a feat of endurance. All semblances of conventional military activity disappeared.

The Boers launched their extensive guerrilla campaign against the occupying British forces after a decisive military council meeting held at Kroonstad on 17 March 1900. Here they decided that one of their main objectives would be to try and destroy the British lines of communication. Railway depots and bridges were continually liable to destruction and assault. They also regrouped their forces in small, mobile units that lived off the land. They achieved remarkable success in evading capture, seizing British supplies and disrupting railway communications. One hundred and thirty-five train-wrecking incidents were recorded between December 1900 and September 1901. Some battles fought in the Free State during during this period were Rooiwal (7 June 1900), Doornkraal at Bothaville, (6 November 1900), Groenkop (25 December 1900) and the hot pursuit operations aimed at General De Wet in February and March 1902. Although De la Rey’s half-hearted siege of the British camp at Elands River was a failure, he and his generals harassed the British at Nooitgedacht (13 December 1900), Tweebosch (7 March 1902) and Roodewal (11 October 1902) during the final months of the war.

In the eastern Transvaal a period of comparative calm followed the Battle of Bergendal. However in a nocturnal attack on 29/29 December 1900 General Ben Viljoen overwhelmed the British garrison at Helvetia. On 28 Janaury 1901 Kitchener launched the first great drive. His target was the Transvaal highveld between the Delagoa Bay and Natal railway lines. Most of the commondos offered little or no resistance since they knew they were outnumbered. However, they did manage to break through the British lines in smaller numbers. Behind the lines they were safe though the destruction brought about by the advancing British brought great shortages of food. Among those who broke through the lines was General Louis Botha who attacked Major-General Smith Dorrien at Chrissiesmeer on 6 February 1901.

During the latter stages of the war Natal was quiet and it was only General Louis Botha’s failed attempt at an incursion from September to October 1901 that disrupted the newly established tranquillity.

The guerrilla phase not only prolonged the war a further eighteen months but escalated it until it spread across almost the whole of South Africa. During this period several incursions led by various Boer generals, e.g. Generals CR de Wet, J C Smuts and JMB Hertzog into the Cape Colony took place. The war was finally quelled only through the severe tactics of the new British commander in chief, Lord Kitchener. He exhausted the Boers by devastating the farms that had sustained the Boers with a so-called scorched earth policy and by placing women and children, both black and white in concentration camps. He also built a formidable line of blockhouses that bisected the countryside and started flushing out the guerrillas in a series of systematic drives with success defined in a weekly “bag” of killed, wounded and captured.

Captain March Phillips in With Rimington vividly describes what the difficulties were that confronted the British Army during the last phase of the war: “As for our wandering columns, they have about as much chance of catching the Boers on the veldt as a Lord Mayor’s procession would have of catching a highwayman on Hounslow Heath…[the Boers] are all around and about us like water round a ship, parting before our bows and renting round our stern. Our passage makes no impression and leaves no visible trace”.

The first sizable batch of Boer prisoners of war taken by the British consisted of those captured at the battle of Elandslaagte on 21 October 1899. No camps had been prepared and by arrangement with the Naval authorities these prisoners (approximately 200 men) were temporarily housed on the naval guard ship HMS Penelope in Simon’s Bay. Several ships were used as floating prisoner of war camps until permanent camps were established at Greenpoint, Cape Town and Bellevue, Simonstown. The first prisoners were accommodated in Bellevue on 28 February 1900. Wounded prisoners were sent to the old Cape Garrison Artillery Barracks at Simonstown which had been converted into the Palace hospital. The first wounded arrived on 2 November 1899.

Towards the end of 1900 with the first invasion of the Cape Colony the prisoners at Cape Town and Simonstown were placed on board ships. At the end of December 1900 some 2550 men were placed on board the Kildonan Castle where they remained for six weeks before they were removed to two other transports at Simons’ bay.

The camp at Ladysmith, Natal was in use from 20 December 1900 until January 1902. It was mainly used as a staging camp although it had some 120 prisoners of war. Another staging camp was also established at Umbilo in Natal.

Prisoners of war repatriated to South Africa after the cessations of hostilities were sent on arrival to Simonstown or Umbilo. Here they were provided with blankets and clothes before being sent of by train to their final destinations. As the war developed the number of prisoners increased and the provision of accommodation raised some serious problems for the British authorities. This was particularly so after the surrender of General P A Cronje and approximately 4000 burghers at Paardeberg. To keep large camps supplied while conducting a war over large areas would only have imposed intolerable strains on already overburdened supply lines. Not only this, but there was the very real danger of insurrections in the neighbourhood of the camps and the risk of the release of the captives. The solution to the problem was found in the shipment of the prisoners overseas.

The first overseas camps were opened in St Helena.The SS Milwaukee arrived off St Helena on 11 April 1900 with 514 prisoners on board. This was the first batch of some 5000 prisoners housed in the two camps on the island namely Broadbottom and Deadwood.

Six loads of prisoners of war from South Africa were landed in the Bermudas during the period 28 June 1901 to 16th January 1902. The camps were situated on islands in the Great Sound namely:

i Burts (400 men)
ii Darrell’s, (1100 men)
iii Hawkins (1300 men)
iv Hinson’s (120 men)
v Morgans (850 men) and
vi Tuckers (800 men)

The first batch of prisoners arrived in Ceylon on 9 August 1900 and subsequently others followed until some 5 000 prisoners had landed. Diyatalawa was the main camp. Mt Lavinia was the convalescent camp while dissidents and irreconcilables were housed at Ragama. A camp for prisoners on parole was also opened at Urugasmanhandiya in September 1901. Hambantota was also a parole camp. Camps were established in India at the following places:

I Abottabad
II Ahmednagar
III Bellary
IV Bhim Tal
V Dagshai and Solon
VI Fort Govindgarh
VII Kaity-Nilgiris
VIII Satara
IX Shahjahanpur
X Sialkot
XI Trichinopoly
XII Umballa and
XIII Upper Topa.

The young Joubert Reitz gave expression to the feeling of grief and longing of the approximate 26000 Boers who were sent to camps, forts and goals in Natal, the Cape coast, St. Helena, Bermuda, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India as prisoners of war in the following poem:

The Searchlight

When the searchlight from the gunboat
Throws its rays upon my tent
Then I think of home and comrades
And the happy days I spent
In the country where I come from
And where all I love are yet.
Then I think of things and places
And of scenes I’ll ne’er forget
Then a face comes up before me
Which will haunt me to the last
And I think of things that have been
And happiness that’s past
And only then I realize, How much my freedom meant
When the searchlight from the gunboat
Cast it`s rays upon my tent.

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