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Significance and Important Facts About the Boer Wars

Vijith Menon
The Boer Wars played an important role in the history of the continent and the British Empire. This post tells you about the significance of the Boer Wars, that led to the union of South Africa.

Did You Know?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the future leader of the freedom struggle in India, served as a stretcher-bearer in the volunteer India Ambulance Corps in the second Boer War.
The race of expansionism had led many countries to sail from their homelands and explore new lands. Although new lands held the notion of adventure for the romantic, it meant constantly defending yourself against native tribes not yet awakened to the rules of the New World.
Since many countries already held a stake in Africa, the British Empire didn't want to be left far behind, and decided to set their base in the unexplored regions of South Africa.

The regions of South Africa were already occupied by Dutch settlers, known as Boers, who had gotten used to the lifestyle and refused administrative help from the British.
The Boers lived in the territories of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. One of the main reasons was the fear of losing their independence as free states. Plus, the recent discovery of gold in the region, and their refusal to agree to a partnership in the gold-rich regions served a primary purpose for the British Empire to wage conflict.
The following sections tell you about the facts of the Boer Wars, and its consequences.

Causes of the First Boer War

■ The annexation of the state of Transvaal in 1877 to the Republic of South Africa, by the order of Sir Theophilus Shepstone in 1877.

■ The territories of the Boers were surrounded by the British Empire to the south and the native tribes of South Africa to the north, especially the Zulus.

Summary of the First Boer War

■ The resentment of annexation had led to a revolt among the Boers against the British Empire.
■ The first battle began at Bronkhorstspruit between Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Anstruther and Commandant Frans Joubert, when Anstruther and his unit, the Connaught Rangers were marching towards Pretoria.
■ The Boers opened fire and annihilated most of the British troops, and a dying Anstruther surrendered. This led to the first defeat for the British Empire.

■ After this initial surprise attack, the Boers captured the forts of Lydenburg, Wakkerstroom, Standerton, Marabastad, Potchefstroom, and Rustenburg.
■ On January 28, 1881, under the command of Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, the British Empire commenced cavalry and infantry attacks on the Drakensberg mountain range. The Boers responded to the attack, following the lead of Piet Joubert, the brother of Frans Joubert. Out of the 480 British troops, 150 went missing in action, and never returned.
■ The Battle of Schuinshoogte began on February 8, 1881, when a mail convoy requesting for reinforcements was turned back by the Boers. General Colley personally went to escort the mail convoy with a larger army in its tow. They were met with an army of 300 Boers, who counterattacked, resulting in a loss of 139 British troops.
■ On February 14, 1881, hostilities were suspended on both sides due to a peace negotiation offered by Paul Kruger, the President of Transvaal.

■ On February 26, 1881, Colley led an army of 360 men to Majuba Hill, overlooking the main encampment of the Boers. The Boers started ascending the hill, seeing the excursion of the British.
■ The Boers started shooting, using the natural cover of the mountain, as well as using the vantage points, and shot many British troops. The British suffered heavy losses, with many falling to their deaths down the mountain.
■ The war ended when a truce was signed by both parties on March 6, 1881.

■ Additionally, a peace treaty was signed on March 23, 1881, accepting the surrender of the British, and the acceptance of Transvaal as an independent country.

Consequences of the First Boer War

■ The Boers won the war easily due to excellent marksmanship abilities of their soldiers and the familiar terrain.
■ Colley's decisions during the war, such as attacking Boer encampments during peace negotiations seemed foolhardy.

■ The war lasted for 3 months and 3 days. It began on December 16, 1880, and ended on March 23, 1881.

Battle of Elandslaagte

Battle Plan of Elandslaagte

Cape Colony Attack

Siege of Ladysmith

Siege of Mafeking

Supply Train

Battle of Modder River

Surrender of Piet Cronjé

Battle of Blood River

Boer Concentration Camps

Causes of the Second Boer War

■ The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand area renewed the interest of the British, and mining companies started gathering in Transvaal.

■ The Jameson Raid was a plan to incite Boer settlers and lead a revolt, under the leadership of Leander Starr Jameson, against the Transvaal Republic.
■ A congratulatory telegram from the German Emperor, Wilhelm II, for the capture of the rebels, to President Paul Kruger, incited anti-German feelings, as well as made the British Empire wary, since they were both involved in the arms race.
■ The increasing number of uitlanders (foreigners) in Transvaal had increased due to the gold rush and the diamond rush in Kimberley. Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain demanded full voting rights for the uitlanders, and ordered troops near the borders of the Transvaal Republic.
■ President Paul Kruger gave an ultimatum of 48 hours to the British Empire to withdraw their troops, ignoring which would lead to war.

Summary of the Second Boer War

The Second Boer War lasted longer than the first, as the British waited for reinforcements to aid them against the Boers.
Phase 1

■ The war began on October 11, 1899.

■ The President of Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State joined forces and mustered an army comprising 30,000 - 40,000 men.

■ The Boers struck at Kraipaan on October 12, 1899, and invaded the areas of Cape Colony and Colony of Natal.
■ The surprise attacks led to the Boers progressing against the garrisons of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley.

■ The first battle took place near the hills of Dundee, referred as the Battle of Talana Hill. Major-General Penn Symons drove away the Boers at the cost of 446 casualties.
■ The British had won a tactical victory by capturing Elandslaagte, but Sir George White abandoned the garrison, fearing more Boer reinforcements to come through.
■ The Boers began an assault of Mafeking, an important railway junction for receiving supplies. Lord Robert Baden-Powell defended the city of Mafeking with 2 armies comprising 1,200 men against a 6,000-man army of the Boers, led by Piet Cronjé.
■ The city of Kimberley was defended by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kekewich, and were attacked by 7,500 Boers. The Boers adopted a strategy of continuous bombardment of the town by heavy artillery firing, and starving the town to death.
■ General Henry Redvers Buller, a war hero, arrived with reinforcements consisting of 3 divisions. One division under the guidance of Lieutenant General Lord Methuen chose to relieve Mafeking & Kimberley. A second division led by Major General William Gatacre was sent to Cape Midlands district. The last one was headed by General Buller to relieve Ladysmith.
■ The Battle of Modder River resulted in 71 British losses and 400 wounded.

■ The Battle of Stormberg ended in a British defeat, with 135 killed and wounded.
■ The Battle of Magersfontein led by Lord Methuen had 14,000 troops to relieve Kimberley. Genl. De la Rey had trenches dug in front of a line of hills in which the Boers awaited the British attack. The British bombarded the hills thinking the Boer positions were on the high ground.
When the British attacked they were pinned down in scorching heat, in open terrain, without any cover, by the Boers firing from the trenches and suffered great losses. This led to 205 dead and 690 wounded for the British.
■ The Battle of Colenso was the biggest setback for the British, when an army of 21,000 troops led by General Buller meant to relieve Ladysmith was foiled by Louis Botha and his 8,000-man army. Buller's forces lost 145 men and 1,200 were wounded, while the Boers suffered only 48 casualties.
Phase 2

■ General Buller made a second attempt at relieving Ladysmith, by crossing the Tugela River successfully, but faced stiff opposition by Louis Botha on a prominent hill. This is now known as the Battle of Spion Kop.
■ Due to poor communications between Buller and his troops, he lost 350 men, while nearly 1,000 were wounded. This led to making another retreat, and the incident led him to be replaced by Field Marshal Lord Roberts.
■ Lord Roberts assembled a new team consisting of Lord Kitchener, Frederick Russell Burnham, Neville Bowles Chamberlain, William Nicholson, and David Henderson.

■ Roberts launched an attack on February 10, 1900, and relieved the city of Kimberley and ended its 124-day siege.
■ Piet Cronje surrendered at Paardeberg with 6000 men.

■ With the defeat of Cronjé, the Boers had lost morale, and General Roberts was able to capture Orange Free State without firing a single shot.
■ Genl. Robberts captured the capital of the Orange Free State 'Bloemfontein' without firing a shot as the Boers had withdrawn from the town to prevent civilian casualties. Fighting started in the Orange Free State and continued till the end of the war.
Phase 3

■ In response to the guerrilla tactics, the British Empire decided to build blockhouses, each housing 6 - 8 soldiers to protect supply routes against Boer raiders.

■ The British implemented a scorched-earth policy, burning down any farms, resources, or housing, making it difficult for the Boers to survive.
■ The concentration camps set up by the British were originally refugee camps, designed for women and children who were rendered homeless because of the burned down farms.

■ The concentration camps were subjected to overcrowding and inadequate shelter, which led to malnutrition and diseases such as measles, typhoid, and dysentery.
■ Lord Kitchener replaced Lord Roberts as Commander-in-Chief during the third phase of the Boer War.

■ The last of the Boers surrendered, and the war ended on May 31, 1902, by signing the Treaty of Vereeniging.

■ The war lasted for 2 years, 7 months, 2 weeks, and 6 days.

Consequences of the Second Boer War

■ President Paul Kruger sought asylum in Marseilles, and never returned to South Africa, even after South Africa became independent.
■ The treaty ended the existence of the states of Orange Free State and Transvaal Republic, and the Union of South Africa was established in 1910.

■ Lord Alfred Milner became the first Governor of South Africa.

Eminent Personalities of the Boer War

Paul Kruger

Piet Joubert

George White

Robert Baden-Powell

General Sir Redvers Henry Buller

Lord Kitchener

Louis Botha

Lord Milner

Weapons Used in Both Wars

In the first Boer war, the only weapons that the Boers possessed were hunting rifles and horses. The rifles consisted of the Westley Richards, the Martini-Henry, the Winchester, the Swiss Vetterliand, and the Snider-Enfield.
In the second Boer war, the commandos of Transvaal used Mauser rifles, the latest Krupp field guns, and Le Creusot Long Tom siege guns.
The tactics of guerrilla warfare used by the Boers were carried over into the 20th century. The Boers themselves, refer to these wars as the Freedom Wars.