South African War And Union Essay

Alternative Titles: Anglo-Boer War, Boer War, Second Boer War, Second War of Independence

South African War, also called Boer War, Second Boer War, or Anglo-Boer War; to Afrikaners, also known as the Second War of Independence, war fought from Oct. 11, 1899, to May 31, 1902, between Great Britain and the two Boer (Afrikaner) republics—the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State—resulting in British victory.

Although it was the largest and most costly war in which the British engaged between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I (spending more than £200 million), it was fought between wholly unequal protagonists. The total British military strength in Southern Africa reached nearly 500,000 men, whereas the Boers could muster no more than about 88,000. But the British were fighting in a hostile country over difficult terrain, with long lines of communications, while the Boers, mainly on the defensive, were able to use modern rifle fire to good effect at a time when attacking forces had no means of overcoming it. The conflict provided a foretaste of warfare fought with breach-loading rifles and machine guns, with the advantage to the defenders, that was to characterize World War I.

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Southern Africa: The South African War

If the Nama-Herero wars were among the most savage in colonial Africa, an equally bitter, costly colonial war was fought by Britain against the Afrikaner South African Republic. The reasons for the South African (or Anglo-Boer) War (1899–1902) remain controversial: some historians…


Underlying causes

The causes of the war have provoked intense debates among historians and remain as unresolved today as during the war itself. British politicians claimed they were defending their “suzerainty” over the South African Republic (SAR) enshrined in the Pretoria and (disputably) London conventions of 1881 and 1884, respectively. Many historians stress that in reality the contest was for control of the rich Witwatersrand gold-mining complex located in the SAR. It was the largest gold-mining complex in the world at a time when the world’s monetary systems, preeminently the British, were increasingly dependent upon gold. Although there were many Uitlanders (foreigners; i.e., non-Dutch/Boer and in this case primarily British) working in the Witwatersrand gold-mining industry, the complex itself was beyond direct British control. Also, the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886 allowed the SAR to make progress with modernization efforts and vie with Britain for domination in Southern Africa.

After 1897 Britain—through Alfred Milner, its high commissioner for South Africa—maneuvered to undermine the political independence of the SAR and demanded the modification of the Boer republic’s constitution to grant political rights to the primarily British Uitlanders, thereby providing them with a dominant role in formulating state policy that would presumably be more pro-British than the current policy of the SAR. In an effort to prevent a conflict between Britain and the SAR, Marthinus Steyn, president of the Orange Free State, hosted the unsuccessful Bloemfontein Conference in May–June 1899 between Milner and Paul Kruger, president of the SAR. Kruger did offer to make concessions to Britain, but they were deemed insufficient by Milner. After the conference, Milner requested that the British government send additional troops to reinforce the British garrison in Southern Africa; they began arriving in August and September. The buildup of troops alarmed the Boers, and Kruger offered additional Uitlander-related concessions, which were again rejected by Milner.

The Boers, realizing war was unavoidable, took the offensive. On Oct. 9, 1899, they issued an ultimatum to British government, declaring that a state of war would exist between Britain and the two Boer republics if the British did not remove their troops from along the border. The ultimatum expired without resolution, and the war began on Oct. 11, 1899.


Initial Boer success

The course of the war can be divided into three periods. During the first phase, the British in Southern Africa were unprepared and militarily weak. Boer armies attacked on two fronts: into the British colony of Natal from the SAR and into the northern Cape Colony from the Orange Free State. The northern districts of the Cape Colony rebelled against the British and joined the Boer forces. In late 1899 and early 1900, the Boers defeated the British in a number of major engagements and besieged the key towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking (Mafikeng), and Kimberley. Particularly of note among Boer victories in this period are those that occurred at Magersfontein, Colesberg, and Stormberg, during what became known as Black Week (Dec. 10–15, 1899).

British resurgence

Kruger’s October 1899 offensive had taken the British by surprise, and it accounts for the early Boer victories. However, the arrival of large numbers of British reinforcements by early 1900 made an eventual Boer defeat inevitable. In this second phase the British, under Lords Kitchener and Roberts, relieved the besieged towns, beat the Boer armies in the field, and rapidly advanced up the lines of rail transportation. Bloemfontein (capital of the Orange Free State) was occupied by the British in February 1900, and Johannesburg and Pretoria (capital of the SAR) in May and June. Kruger evaded capture and went to Europe, where, despite the fact that there was much sympathy for the plight of the Boers, he was unsuccessful in his attempts to gain viable assistance in the fight against the British.

Boer guerrilla warfare and the British response

At the end of 1900 the war entered upon its most destructive phase. For 15 months, Boer commandos, under the brilliant leadership of generals such as Christiaan Rudolf de Wet and Jacobus Hercules de la Rey, held British troops at bay, using hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. They harried the British army bases and communications, and large rural areas of the SAR and the Orange Free State (which the British had annexed as the Crown Colony of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, respectively) remained out of British control.

Kitchener responded with barbed wire and blockhouses along the railways, but when these failed he retaliated with a scorched-earth policy. The farms of Boers and Africans alike were destroyed, and the inhabitants of the countryside were rounded up and held in segregated concentration camps, often under horrific conditions; several thousand died during their incarceration. The plight of the Boer women and children in the carelessly run, unhygienic camps became an international outrage, attracting the attention of such humanitarians as British social worker Emily Hobhouse.

The commandos continued their attacks, many of them deep into the Cape Colony, with Gen. Jan Smuts leading his forces to within 50 miles (80 km) of Cape Town. But Kitchener’s drastic and brutal methods slowly paid off. Boer resistance was worn down and led to divisions between the bittereinders (“bitter-enders”), who wanted to continue fighting, and the hensoppers (“hands-uppers”), who voluntarily surrendered and, in some cases, worked with the British.


The Boers had rejected an offer of peace from the British in March 1901, in part because it required that the Boers recognize the British annexation of their republics. Fighting continued until the Boers finally accepted the loss of their independence with the Peace of Vereeniging in May 1902. In the end, pragmatic Boer leaders such as Louis Botha and General Smuts trumped the will of the bittereinders and opted to negotiate for peace on the basis of British suzerainty, promises of local self-government, the swift restoration and efficient management of the gold mines, and, crucially, the alliance of Boers and Britons against black Africans.


In terms of human life, nearly 100,000 lives were lost, including those of more than 20,000 British troops and 14,000 Boer troops. Noncombatant deaths include the more than 26,000 Boer women and children estimated to have died in the concentration camps from malnutrition and disease; the total number of African deaths in the concentration camps was not recorded, but estimates range from 13,000 to 20,000.

On both sides the war produced heights of national enthusiasm of a type that marked the era and culminated in frenetic British celebrations after the relief of the Siege of Mafeking in May 1900. (The word mafficking, meaning wild rejoicing, originated from these celebrations.) Despite attempts at rapid healing of the wounds after 1902 and a willingness to cooperate for the purpose of uniting against black Africans, relations between Boers (or Afrikaners, as they became known) and English-speaking South Africans were to remain frigid for many decades. Internationally, the war helped poison the atmosphere between Europe’s great powers, as Britain found that most countries sympathized with the Boers.

Reflective of the discriminatory climate that permeated South Africa during much of the 20th century, it was not until the 1980s that studies of the war’s impact on Africa’s black peoples were made. In addition to the thousands who died in the concentration camps, innumerable black Africans were caught up in the sieges, lost their jobs (for example, when the gold mines were closed down during the conflict), or were evicted from their land in areas overrun by war. Both sides recruited black Africans, though various euphemisms were sometimes used for “black soldier.” On the other hand, some segments of the black African population benefitted from the conflict by some measure. Black farmers in some areas prospered, owing to the wartime demand for food. In some regions, such as the western Transvaal, black Africans took advantage of the war and reoccupied lands previously seized from them by white settlers. Swaziland, which had previously been administered by the SAR, was taken by the British during the war and administered by them afterward; this is why it would be excluded from the Union of South Africa in 1910.

The most astonishing aspect of the war, perhaps, is that it was a war between groups of white peoples in a subcontinent with a largely black African population that both sides generally sought to exclude from the fighting, although research in the later decades of the 20th century indicated that black Africans became heavily involved in the war both as combatants and as victims of the armies. During the conflict the British hinted and sometimes promised that in return for support, or at least neutrality, black Africans would be rewarded with political rights after the war. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Vereeniging specifically excluded black Africans from having political rights in a reorganized South Africa as the British and Boers cooperated toward a common goal of white minority rule.

I came across this old university essay the other day, and I thought it blog-worthy (after a few minor edits, corrections, and of course a healthy contribution of pictures). I already have one post about the Boer War on this blog. You can find it here.

I’m aware that anything I put up on the internet is free for someone to appropriate, so –in the interest of academic integrity– I’ve taken out the footnotes and bibliography. That’s not to say any students reading this aren’t welcome to use this essay as either a source or perhaps as a jumping off point to go to their libraries and find the monographs that support my arguments. For non-students reading this blog, I invite you to enjoy something I put a lot of time and effort into, once upon a time. My opinion wasn’t spoon fed to me in class. My thesis and the research to support it were arrived at through my own efforts. If memory serves, I got a mark in the high 80s or low 90s.

The South African War (1899-1902)

The First Total War of the Twentieth Century

The South African War was the last gasp of British Imperial Jingoism and the first whisper of the fall that was to come.

The British Empire had never been more powerful than at the outset of hostilities in 1899. Military experts expected the battle-hardened British army, tempered by a hundred years of such colonial wars, to brush aside the Boers with no more effort than any of the other malcontents of the Pax Britannia had required. By the end of the war in 1902 the days of Britain’s assured world dominance were over. The eventual victory had never been in doubt, but the duration of the war had seen the sun begin to set on the Union Jack. The Empire buried the Boers under the strategic assets of Time, Money, and Manpower –all of which Britain had and the Boers did not– but the Boers’ guerilla tactics were an effective stalemate to Britain’s resources.

It took total war on behalf of the British in the form of destroying civilian homesteads and relocating an entire population to concentration camps to bring the war to an end. Still, it was with stubborn pride that illiterate ranchers had humbled the giant before the world.

Great Britain had two colonies in South Africa, the Cape Colony and Natal, both of which had once belonged to the descendants of Dutch settlers who called themselves interchangeably Boers, which means farmers, or Afrikaners, which means Africans. The Boers chafed under the anti-slavery legislation of the British, and their defining moment was the Great Trek, a migration of thousands of families deeper into Africa to form independent countries beyond the jurisdiction of the British Empire.

There were two such Boer nations in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century: The Republic of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic. Landlocked and unimportant, the Boers might have realized their dreams of true independence had diamonds not been discovered at Kimberly in the 1870s and gold on the Witwatersrand in the 1880s. Fortune-seekers, made up predominately of British citizens, flooded the republics, and money hungry Britain denied that the Transvaal Boers had ever possessed a sovereign nation, which put the mines in de facto British territory. A humiliating defeat at Majuba Hill during the First Boer War of 1880-1881 was enough to shake Parliament lo0se from that position, and Prime Minister Gladstone granted the Boers their independence on the condition that Britain would retain an ambiguous ‘suzerainty’.

Meanwhile the British settlers inside the two republics –whom the Boers called Uitlanders, meaning Outlanders– were still being subjected to heavy taxation and a fourteen-year residency requirement for enfranchisement which effectively denied representation to the very rich English-speaking men who held the majority in the important constituencies around Johannesburg. The Boers were eager to squeeze every farthing out of the mineral wealth of their countries, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to corruption within the state bureaucracy, provided the victims were Uitlanders. With so much money and political power at stake, it would take only a single spark to set the whole powder keg alight, and that spark’s name was Sir Alfred Milner.

Milner, the new High Commissioner of South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony, arrived in Cape Town in May of 1897. He was a respected British civil servant who firmly believed in the Anglo-Saxon race’s divine mission to civilize the world, and he was disgusted with the idea of British citizens being governed by Afrikaners. Within months he was agitating the Colonial Office and Number Ten Downing Street to allow him free rein to force the two republics to give Uitlanders the vote, which would remove the Boers from power and bring the diamond and gold rich territories out of ‘suzerainty’ and back into the Empire proper.

Milner was convinced only a small and easy conflict stood between the British Empire and a redress of all the wrongs the Boers had delivered at Albion’s doorstep. It did not take much to convince Prime Minister Chamberlain, and thousands of British regulars were sent to South Africa in preparation for a short victorious war. It was the Boers who issued an ultimatum which provoked the war, but they did so to begin hostilities before they were hopelessly outnumbered. The costliest war of Queen Victoria’s sixty-four year reign began on October 11th, 1899, and it should be remembered that it was conceived and instigated entirely by Sir Alfred Milner.

The Boers’ ultimatum succeeded in beginning the war before British reinforcements could arrive, but their offensive stalled when half their commandos were committed to laying siege to Mafeking, Kimberly, and Ladysmith, so they prepared themselves to meet the coming British relief forces. When the British counterattack began, the khaki regulars held fast to the redcoat tactics which had won them their past glories, ignoring the destructive power of the new and modern weaponry the Boers had been purchasing against this day. Magazine-fed rifles could send five bullets into a man two miles away in less than ten seconds, and the sniper’s position was no longer revealed thanks to new smokeless powder. Shell bursts, which in 1870 had only yielded thirty-seven fragments of shrapnel, now produced three hundred and forty, and the range of the guns and the blast radius had also increased proportionally. Clearly, weapons had never been more effective at reducing the living to the dead.

The military of the Afrikaner republics was flexible, resilient, and willing to incorporate the latest technology into their tactics. The commando had developed out of the need to defend scattered homesteads against attack by Bantu tribes, and to take offensive action against the kraals of those same tribes in search of ‘orphans’ who could legally be ‘apprenticed’ into the Boer equivalent of slavery. The Afrikaners’ armed forces had little in common with other white armies: There were no battalions or regiments, no commissary services or signals corps among the Boer forces.

When the Boers went to war every able-bodied man between fifteen and sixty, though older and younger were also welcome, would gather at the center of his township, elect an officer from among his peers, and go out ‘on commando’. Each man provided his own horses and wagons, often even his own rifle. When the provisions his wife or mother had packed for him ran out, he could count on more being provided by the Boer farms he passed. The Commando was a mounted guerilla unit, helped by the local populace, which moved across familiar terrain without a need for roads, and was capable of harrying the British wherever they were weak and vulnerable. The British were stupefied at its success, and could find nothing in their military texts to counter it.

Almost all the commandos had the advantage of a country upbringing, with its higher instances of superb marksmanship and fine horsemanship, especially compared to their British opponents, recruited as they were from the Glasgow slums and the Belfast alleys.

The Boers were well tuned to fighting in African conditions, often carefully trapping British forces in the open under the blistering summer sun, keeping them pinned down with withering fire from cool and shady heights, with ponies at the ready for any hasty retreat. The Boers’ tactical ingenuity was not limited to creative use of the sun. Boers were known to conceal artillery throughout a battle until the crucial moment where an exhausted enemy regiment retired to the water carts for the drink necessary to keep them from succumbing to sunstroke. At Magersfontein this tactic led to an embarrassing British rout, when a regiment of parched Highlanders decided the heavy shelling preventing them from their drink was one hardship too many, and they retired without orders to the rear of the battle.

The Boer’s tactical successes were even further encouraged by some British traditions in tactical doctrine which were now sadly outdated: British infantry were still expected to march in close order, without taking advantage of natural cover, and then engage at close quarters with the bayonet. The fact that the in the hands of a competent shot the Lee-Metford rifle was capable of taking the center out of an ace of spades at five hundred yards was ignored. Even if a commander did allow his men to use their rifles for suppression fire, no officer would condone “jack-in-boxes” among his men, which means anyone who would “bob up, fire, and bob down again.”

The British knew that every Boer employed this technique, appearing from his prepared trench only long enough to hit an exposed enemy, but the British officer corps refused to promote or emulate such a cowardly practice. The early days of the war saw a number of very gallant charges with heavy casualties for no gain, and that combination of British bravado and Boer gunfire often inflicted a five or even ten to one casualty ratio in favour of the Afrikaner cause.

The first year of the war saw three Boer victories for each defeat, but the Republicans could not accept even that exchange rate. Every failure, each retreat or surrender, sent more commandos back to their farms, disillusioned. The commandos fought holding actions at every ridge and river, but they could not prevent the British from relieving each of the besieged towns and capturing first Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, then Johannesburg, site of the gold mines, and then finally Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal Republic on the 5th of June, 1900. Over a third of the Boers’ commandos had now surrendered their weapons and sworn an oath of neutrality, and half of the Boer’s best generals were dead or in British hands. General Roberts was convinced that the war was over, and decided to leave rounding up the last diehards for his subordinate, General Kitchener. He sailed home in November of 1900; the war was only a year old, and he never imagined it would take two more years to finish.

The fall of Pretoria was a serious blow to Boer morale, and it could have easily reduced the war to the mopping up operation Roberts predicted, had it not been for men like Christiaan de Wet. Only two days after the fall of Pretoria, and leading a group of commandos that would have been too small to make a difference in the set piece battles against the British offensives, de Wet attacked a series of railway garrisons, killing or wounding seven hundred enemy soldiers and cutting the British supply lines.

Soon others were following General de Wet’s example. The Boers began allowing several wagon convoys to go unmolested so the commandos could attack the unprotected fifth one on a route the British had assumed secured. Others spent their nights heating railway tracks over bonfires until they were soft enough to twist, then put them back onto the line to derail a train. Still other groups set fire to every thirtieth telegraph pole, the most time-consuming damage one could inflict, and then reading the heliograph messages the British came to rely upon. All these tactics were taken up by Afrikaner patriots across a thousand mile front. While the number of Boers in the field was less than a third what it had been at the beginning of the war, the British could not declare the republics subjugated until these commandos had been defeated, and that was unlikely to happen any time soon: The groups worked almost independently of each other, were kept supplied and informed by their own kith and kin, and at the first sign of pursuit they would slip away into the wilderness which they knew intimately, but which was a total mystery to the British cavalry patrols.

Winston Churchill said of the war, “In the first period of the war blood flowed freely, but from a healthy wound; in the second period, the wound was sluggish and festering.” It is an accurate metaphor, as the most cursory look at South African War shows two obvious divisions. The first, lasting less than a year, was of set piece battles and sweeping strategic thrusts and parries, as one would find in a military academy’s curriculum. The second, beginning with the fall of Pretoria and lasting over two years, saw the Boers resort to guerilla warfare in order to continue the struggle even after their ability to wage conventional warfare had been destroyed. The British generals who had spent their entire careers shooting down frontal attacks by tribesmen were stumped as to a means of attaining victory. Flailing about for a solution, they finally settled on one that defied chivalry, but produced results. The British began targeting the Afrikaners’ civilians to break the back of the commandos, and they did it with such heavy handed and brutal methods that it proved effective.

The attacks on the railway after the fall of Pretoria provoked the first serious anti-civilian measure by the British; General Roberts announced that commandos must be receiving local support when they hit rail lines, so whenever the railway was attacked the nearby farms would be burned and their occupants taken as prisoners of war. He also ordered that Boer civilians would be carried on any train moving through a known area of resistance, but this taking of hostages was soon forbidden by Prime Minister Chamberlain on the logic that any Afrikaner man the army could find to put on a train had already refused to join the commandos, and thus the commandos would view him as a traitor, not a comrade, eliminating the value of his safety as a deterrent.

The burning of farms took on a life of its own, beginning with the destruction of homesteads near sabotaged railway lines and dynamiting the homes of Boer generals, then spiraling out to include destroying the property of Afrikaners who had renounced their neutrality oaths or were known supporters of the enemy. Within two months the British patrols had forsaken even these pretenses; they torched every farm unless they were specifically ordered to spare one. While exact records were not kept, it is estimated that thirty thousand farms were burned, and at least three and a half million sheep were slaughtered in the pastures and left for the vultures. Many British doubted the wisdom of the policy; one man on Milner’s staff wrote, “What fool in his folly taught us we could prevent men from brigandage by making them homeless?” Still the burning continued.

So what led the British generals, raised as they were with the Victorian notions of chivalry and fair play, to resort to methods that were so obviously bad cricket? The single best reason was that the Boer Commando was like no foe the British had ever faced before. The Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics did not field Zulu Impis or Chinese Boxers, Whirling Dervishes or scimitar wielding Sikhs. A crass simplification may prove to be an enlightening illustration as to Britain’s problem: The Boers were the first opponent of the Empire since Napoleon, eighty-four years earlier, who wore shoes, not sandals or slippers or calloused bare feet, but proper European shoes with a sole.

Of course this was not the only thing to distinguish the Boers from the usual targets of the Royal Army; the Boers had well trained and effective artillery, mauser rifles which were superior to the Lee-Metfords and Lee-Enfields of the British Regulars, and, in the early stages of the war they had access to transportation and communication tools like trains and telegraphs. Experts had predicted the war would be over in months, but their frame of reference, conflicts like the Crimean War, American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War were decades out of date.

The indiscriminate destruction of homesteads, the burning of crops and the slaughter of cattle, made it increasingly difficult for noncombatants to care for themselves, and the guerilla bands could do nothing to support slow moving civilians without giving up their mobility, which was their key to survival. By the 22nd of September the British were establishing refugee camps for anyone willing to come in, and by December one of Kitchener’s first acts as commander in chief was to make that invitation mandatory; every Boer man, woman, or child living in an area known to contain guerillas was rounded up and put into a concentration camp.

Within the camps, inmates were divided into two groups: The first, which received better food and accommodations, was made up of the families of neutrals, non-combatants, and surrendered Boer men of fighting age. The second group was made up of the families of men out on commando. Kitchener claimed to establish the camps in order to protect white women from the insults and molestations of the natives, but a relentless administrator like Kitchener would have been well aware that the camps would strip the countryside bare of the succor and support the guerillas needed to continue the fight.

Between December 1900 and February of 1902, approximately one hundred and twenty thousand Afrikaners, predominately women and children, were rounded up and deposited in fifty camps. Additional camps were established for minorities, and the families of Boers who collaborated with the British war effort. Conditions varied widely from camp to camp, but one thing all camps had in common was rampant disease: Measles, influenza, typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, diphtheria, whooping cough, bronchitis, and scarlet fever moved through the tents and barracks, spread by a lack of clean drinking water, the ignorance of farmers as to keeping a large camp sanitary, and Afrikaner home remedies that often involved boiled, strained, or sieved manure as a poultice. Between ten and sixteen percent of the Boer population died in the camps, and in October of 1901 the mortality rate for inmates rose to the all time high of three hundred and forty-four of every thousand. The British press was horrified, especially at heartrending stories like the shortage of coffins at the Irene concentration camp necessitating that children be buried in crates.

Having already begun the camp policy to deny intelligence and support to the commandos, Kitchener instituted the construction of a blockhouse system to limit their mobility and to protect the vital railways. By the end of the war there were eight thousand fortified positions stretched along thirty-seven hundred miles of railway, connected with telephones and telegraphs to their neighbours. Duty in the corrugated iron shacks was tedious, and any animal setting off the noisemakers on the perimeter was likely to set provoke a false alarm.

A false alarm at one blockhouse generally spread to its neighbours, and there is at least one incident where a hundred mile stretch of railway on the high veld echoed to thousands of gunshots as sentries fired away at nothing. The system was unable to stop determined Boers from crossing the line at night, but railway sabotage was reduced, and the penned commandos found themselves trapped in an area which would be stripped of supplies by sweeping patrols of British cavalry and Boer collaborators.

Many of the commandos had nothing to go home for. Their farms were in ashes, and if their families were surviving in the camps they were eating better than the commandos were. The stubborn pride of refusing to submit saw them through increasing hardships as sources of food disappeared, mobility was restricted by British fortifications, and things like clothing came into such short supply that many commandos took to wearing captured British khaki, or even the blouses and sunbonnets of women.

One place the commandos could find food was off of Bantu farms, but this elevated hostility levels between the Boers and their traditional Black enemies. Kitchener even went so far as to give the Zulu permission to defend themselves, and there was an incident where a commando raided a Zulu herd for supper before laagering for the night, only to suffer an attack in total darkness in which fifty-six men were speared to death.

The Boers were not alone in their troubles; Kitchener was feeling the manpower pinch. Despite summoning soldiers from every shire and colony of the Empire, from as far away as Canada and New Zealand, the garrisoning of his blockhouses left him with only fifty thousand of his quarter million man army available for offensive duties. Disregarding the British and the Boers’ resolution to keep this war ‘between white men’, Kitchener allowed Black and Coloured volunteers to stand sentry duty. Spot checks proved them no better at the job than their white counterparts, so they were not given positions of more responsibility. The Indian population also expected to be granted privileges after the war for their pro-British stance, but it was not to be. Minority groups, no matter what their stand or expectations, were similarly forgotten at war’s end.

The Boer leadership ended the conflict on May 31st, 1902, even though the commandos still enjoyed tremendous esprit de corps. The Boers were holding off ten times their own number, and they were forcing Kitchener to use four fifths of his force on useless garrison duty, but the Afrikaner leaders knew they could continue the war for only another year or two before they would run out of horses, ammunition, food, and clothing. Going to the bargaining table in 1902 assured them a negotiated peace, rather than an unconditional surrender, and while they signed away their sovereignty they prevented the Black and Coloured population from getting the vote, received an amnesty for the Boers in the Cape Colony who had sided with them, and were even promised a responsible government as soon as that was feasible. Ten years after the war the Boer territory was again under an Afrikaner government, led by former Boer Generals.

What were the consequences of the war for the Afrikaner people? The Boers had lost twenty thousand people in the concentration camps, another thirty eight hundred in battle, and of thirty-one thousand six hundred prisoners of war, six hundred died in captivity. Britain paid three million pounds in war damages to help rebuild the burned farms of the veld, and Milner far exceeded this sum through government work projects and loans, but the accumulated effort and prosperity of the adult generation had been wiped out, and their children had been decimated. More Boer children under the age of sixteen had died in the camps than both sides’ total men killed in action put together. One small upside was that those children who remained were the most educated in all of Boer history, and even had a firm footing in English, thanks to camp schools.

So Milner gained his two republics at the cost of three humiliating years of expensive war. The Boers lost their republics, but before the First World War they were running things their own way again anyhow. The minorities were not rewarded for their efforts, nor were the Boers who collaborated with the English. The first nail had been put in the coffin of the British Empire. It was a total war, and every resource of the nation was brought to bear until the fighting involved the families of the combatants in their own homes, leaving nothing but ashes behind and forcing the refugees into concentration camps.

It was a new kind of war for a new century, the first of its kind, but not the last, and the rules were being written as it went along. Today we have seen it repeated across the world, but here it was first, a valuable lesson if only we had had the wit to learn it.

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