The Second Anglo-Boer War: Britain’s First Taste of Modern Warfare

Here is the brutal history of the Second Anglo-Boer War: Britain’s unhappy introduction to modern warfare.

Apr 10, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
illustration of boers capturing british soldiers

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, before the First World War, the British Empire was embroiled in a brutal war of colonialism that made it redefine how it fought wars. It was a war against an enemy who considered themselves both native and European, an enemy who refused to fight in the way the British were capable of dealing with. Desperation drove both sides: one side fought for greed and the need to save face, and the other for its very existence. It was a war that culminated in concentration camps and genocide and served as an augur of the horrors of war that the 20th century would present. This was the Second Anglo-Boer War – the first modern war.

 

Background to the Second Anglo-Boer War: Who Were the Boers?

three generations boers
Three generations of Boers, via britishbattles.com

 

In the 17th century, the Dutch started colonizing the southern tip of Africa, beginning with the building of Cape Town as a refreshment station for the journey from Europe to The East Indies. After the fall of the Dutch Empire, the immigrants that populated its colony (of mainly Dutch, French, and German descent) no longer received support from Holland. Their new masters, the British, treated them with contempt, and in desperation, they moved northeast into new lands that were not controlled by any European power. It was there they began to consider themselves a distinct racial and cultural entity and sought to secure their own future with governance on their own terms. This led to the formation of the Boer Republics, chief among them being the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. These two entities would later be the enemy whom Britain sought to defeat.

 

“Boer” literally means “farmer” in both Dutch and the language that evolved from it: Afrikaans. With their own language and over a century of living in Africa, the Boers considered themselves separate from Europe politically, and ethnically different from the people surrounding them. They had far more knowledge of their African home than the British and had spent much of their existence forging their own path and suffering their own trials and tribulations. They had to adapt to new climates and ways of farming, and came into conflict with African tribes who were also relatively new to Southern Africa, predominantly the Xhosa and the Zulu, the latter of which, due to past conflict, were particularly despised.

 

The Prelude: The First Anglo-Boer War

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South Africa at the time of the Second Anglo-Boer War. British possessions are (as usual) depicted in pink, which includes Bechuanaland and Rhodesia, via transvaalstudycircle.org

 

There were several predicates for the First Anglo-Boer War, which included the existence of diamonds along the borders of British and Boer territory, as well as a general expansion by the British into territories claimed by the Boers. This expansion led to a small but not insignificant conflict. Off the back of crushing the Zulus two years before, the British had tasted their worst colonial defeat but still came out as undisputed victors in a series of decisive battles that ended Zulu independence. This fueled a spirit of overconfidence that ultimately led the British into disaster.

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The First Anglo-Boer War was small, but it revealed that the British needed to make serious changes if they were to continue their colonial ambitions. The war lasted four months, from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881. In that time, two battles were fought. The total number of British dead stood at 401, while the Boers lost just 25 men. The embarrassment of defeat and the grossly skewed casualty ratio were wake-up calls for the British. One of the first things they realized was that wearing a bright red jacket was no longer convenient in any way. Camouflage had to be adopted, and the British went khaki, their new uniforms dyed with tea.

 

anglo boer war majuba hill
The Battle of Majuba Hill by Richard Caton Woodville, via britishbattles.com

 

It will never be known whether the British were content to accept the status quo, but the discovery of massive deposits of gold (the biggest in the world) and diamonds on the Witwatersrand area of the Transvaal changed whatever plans they had for peaceful co-existence. Many British citizens migrated to these areas to capitalize on the discoveries, changing the demographic makeup of the Republic. These citizens were known as Uitlanders (foreigners) in Afrikaans and were generally distrusted by the local populace.

 

Tensions continued to rise, and in 1895, the British attempted to provoke an Uitlander uprising against the Boer rule in the Transvaal. However, the “Jameson Raid” failed miserably, as the Uitlanders failed to heed the call to arms. This embarrassment for the British led to desperate negotiations. The British desired voting rights for the Uitlanders within the South African Republic, but the Boers, observing the massive influx of British citizens, realized that by doing so, they would lose control of their own ethnic majority. Fearing invasion, President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal issued an ultimatum to the British to remove troops from the border. The British ignored the ultimatum, and in October 1899, the South African Republic, along with its ally, the Orange Free State, went to war with the British.

 

The First Phase of the Second War

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The failed Jameson Raid, via todayinhistoryblog

 

The  Second Anglo-Boer War kicked off with a string of Boer victories. They were able to muster forces quickly and, in the initial stages, actually outnumbered the British, who had to organize supply lines and bring in troops from Britain. The Boers generally fought in small flexible units called “commandos” that could be mobilized quickly, especially since most Boer men were already members of the local militias. They were also used to living off the land and were excellent riders and marksmen, having skills far beyond the average British soldier.

 

With the Boers having taken the initiative, they besieged the British towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley. British attempts at relief culminated in what was known as “Black Week” (10-15 December 1899), where the British suffered a string of significant defeats, the worst being the Battle of Colenso in which around 20,000 British troops dogged by inadequate preparation, poor reconnaissance, and bad leadership were defeated by the Boers who numbered just 4,500.

 

Realizing that the war would require a lot more investment, the British sent 180,000 troops to South Africa. This number would eventually swell to 347,000, excluding natives and auxiliaries.

 

The British Offensive

colenso boers capturing british guns
Boers capturing British guns at Colenso by Fritz Neumann, via britishbattles.com

 

In January 1900, the British began a new offensive and removed commander Redvers Buller, who had been held responsible for the shocking defeats. Buller was replaced with Field Marshal Lord Roberts, who employed Lord Kitchener as Chief of Staff. Kitchener had already proven himself in Sudan as a man with little regard for the lives of his enemies, and this would have significant effects later in the war as British tactics devolved into barbarism.

 

Nevertheless, the British offensive was decisive and culminated in the relief of the towns besieged by the Boers and the capture of the two Boer capital cities: Bloemfontein and Pretoria. The British public widely believed that this would mean an end to the war. However, it only ushered in a change in tactics for the Boers. Their attempt to defeat the British in formal and conventional styles of warfare ultimately failed, although at a high cost to the British. But with the loss of their administrative centers, they resorted to guerilla tactics, an area where they excelled.

 

The Guerilla War

fix bayonets british soldiers
British soldiers fixing bayonets during the siege of Ladysmith by Richard Caton Woodville, via britishbattles.com

 

By September 1900, The Boer Republics were under British control, and the Boers had been defeated in the field. However, many thousands of Boer soldiers refused to accept the result and formed “commandos”: small groups of soldiers using guerilla tactics to harass the British wherever possible.

 

Despite having 250,000 soldiers occupying the two republics, the British suffered constant losses and could not bring the territories under control. With their knowledge of the terrain, their adversaries would use hit-and-run tactics and then seemingly vanish. The initial successes of these tactics were undeniable. In one ten-day period, the British lost 1,500 men.

 

The British response was to build thousands of small fortified structures called blockhouses along trade and supply routes and in and around towns. Barbed wire connected these blockhouses and cordon areas into easily controllable units that could be swept for Boer activity. Around 8,000 blockhouses were eventually built. The British also resorted to a scorched earth policy to deprive the Boers of supplies and then further interned Boer women and children in concentration camps.

 

blockhouse dummy sentries
A blockhouse guarded by dummy sentries, via angloboerwar.com

 

Although black people were not considered combatants by the British, many were interned in concentration camps. Separate sections of the camps were reserved for black prisoners, and conditions were just as poor as for the interned Boers.

 

The Concentration Camps

 

In a bid to stop the Boer fighters from being resupplied, the British instituted a scorched earth policy, burning crops, slaughtering livestock, and imprisoning entire populations in camps.

 

Originally termed “refugee camps,” they soon became known instead as “concentration camps.” It was the first time that the term was used. When Lord Kitchener took over, the conditions inside these camps became deadly. The willful neglect led to the deaths of thousands. Sanitation was poor, rations were wholly inadequate, overcrowding was a problem, and there was not enough shelter. All of these factors led to widespread outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and measles.

 

This was also the first time an entire nation had been targeted, making the resultant deaths an example of genocide. In total, almost 27,000 Boer women and children and around 20,000 Africans perished in these camps.

 

lizzie van zyl
Lizzie van Zyl, who died from typhoid fever in a concentration camp, via allthatsinteresting.com

 

At first, the British press downplayed the situation in the camps, but a woman named Emily Hobhouse, who delivered aid to those in camps, fought to bring the atrocious conditions of the camps to the attention of the British public, who became outraged at the treatment of the Boers. After the war, Hobhouse returned to South Africa to help rebuild the nation and was given honorary South African citizenship.

 

anglo boer war emily hobhouse
Emily Hobhouse, via layersoflondon.org

 

The Aftermath of the Second Anglo-Boer War

 

The Second Anglo-Boer War left a bitter taste in many mouths. It involved scorched earth policies, concentration camps, genocide, guerilla warfare, trench warfare, and automatic weapons. The brutality that was needed to win the war garnered a deep hatred from the Boers and a feeling of shame from the British public at home, especially because of the treatment of Boers in concentration camps.

 

british maxim gun
British soldiers with a Maxim gun in position at the Johannesburg Fort

 

The scorched earth policy destroyed much of the economies of the Boer Republics, and after the introduction of a new British administration over all of South Africa, serious effort needed to be given to fix the damage that had been done. Many Boers fled the country and never returned, refusing to live under British rule. And while over a century has passed and tensions between English and Afrikaans native-speakers have subsided, sometimes there are still visible remnants of the animosity and distrust between the two groups.

 

In total, both combat and civilian casualties reached almost 100,000 dead from the Second Anglo-Boer War. This includes over 20,000 Africans who perished in camps as well. Of notable importance is the fact that the conflict saw an unusually high death rate for horses. Three hundred thousand died, both in combat and as a food source for those in besieged areas. The average life expectancy for a horse during the Second Anglo-Boer War from the moment it stepped ashore was only six weeks. Not only was this another sad statistic, but it was a significant financial factor, as horses are expensive to train and maintain.

 

anglo boer war horse monument pe
A monument to the animals that perished during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Port Elizabeth / Gqeberha, via palmatour.com.ua

 

The conflict brought a new world of warfare to light. Winston Churchill, who worked as a journalist in South Africa at the time, experienced this first-hand. As a leading politician in the UK, he went on to shape the political and military spheres with his own experiences.

 

Eight years after the Second Anglo-Boer War concluded, South Africa became a Union with dominion status within the British Empire. As such, it was, for all intents and purposes, independent. It had an obligation to support Britain during the First World War, but not without a backlash from those who had suffered at the hands of the British. Upon entering the war on the British side, South Africa had to defeat a rebellion back home from those who harbored resentment towards the British.



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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.