The Second Boer War (Afrikaans: Tweede Boereoorlog, more often called Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, “Second Freedom War”), also called Great Boer War, South African War or Second Anglo-Boer War was a military conflict fought between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902 by the British Empire against the two independent Boer republics, the Republic of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The war, originated mainly by British imperialistic and economic aims, was characterized by some unexpected initial successes of the Boers that put in great difficulty the British garrisons. After the arrival of numerous reinforcements and the new commander in chief, Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, the British army went on the offensive, invaded the Boer republics and by mid 1900 occupied Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
The war didn”t end after the conquest of the Boer capitals, but it turned into a wearisome fight characterized by the guerrilla warfare of the Boer commandos who, led by skilled leaders, inflicted repeated defeats to the British. The new commander in chief, General Horatio Kitchener, used the ruthless methods of roundups, deportation of civilians, destruction of territory and concentration camps to win the Boer resistance.
The war, which partly ruined the international prestige of the British Empire, ended after direct negotiations in 1902 with the official annexation of the Boer republics that nevertheless maintained their national identity.
The Boer Republics and the British Empire
After the foundation in 1652 of a naval port of call near the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company, the settlement slowly developed with the arrival of Dutch settlers, German Protestant emigrants and French Huguenots. This white population, the Afrikaners (“people of Africa”), developed their own way of life with their own language, Afrikaans, a variant of Dutch. The Trekboers, or Boers (“wandering farmers”) were the poorest settlers who gradually moved inland, abandoning the coastal strip.
In 1806, during the Napoleonic wars, Great Britain took possession of the Cape Colony in order to make it a strategic connection base on the way to India; however the emigration of British settlers was limited in the following years and Afrikaners remained the majority; new developments occurred in 1834 when the British governor Benjamin d”Urban decreed the emancipation of black slaves in the Cape Colony; in opposition to this decision, about 5,000 Boers decided the Great Trek. The so-called voortrekkers, “pioneers”, resolute and uncompromising, abandoned their Cape settlements and established, after bloody battles against the indigenous tribes, new settlements in the interior, beyond the Orange and Vaal rivers, forming a society based on farms, militias and strict racial segregation of blacks and mixed blood.
The British Empire, under the direction of the new governor Harry Smith, at first opposed the independence of the Boers; in 1843 the territory of Natal, inhabited mainly by Zulus, was annexed to the Cape Colony, then the governor decided to expand the British domain beyond the Orange and the Vaal and defeated the Boers in the battle of Boomplaats. The British government, however, did not approve the aggressive policy of Smith; the governor was recalled, his conquests were canceled and were concluded in 1852 and 1854 the conventions of Sand River and Bloemfontein that recognized the independence of the two Boer republics: the Republic of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
In the following decades the British colony of the Cape experienced a strong expansion favored by the discovery in 1870 in Kimberley, on the border with the Orange Free State, of the largest deposit of diamonds in the world; railways and economic activities were developed, white emigration from Great Britain increased, the colony obtained in 1872 the autonomy of government on a par with the dominion of Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and the five Australian colonies. From 1877 Governor Henry Bartle Frere then developed, with London”s authorization, a new ambitious project to unite the two Boer republics, at that time in serious financial crisis, to the two British colonies in a large white confederation of southern Africa under the control of the Empire. The British plans seemed favored by the difficult situation of the Boer republics that were threatened by the expansionism of the Zulus of Cetshwayo; the Boers asked for help to Britain and seemed to favor the white confederation; the British army entered the Transvaal and in 1879 won, after some initial defeats, the Zulu war.
Political contrasts between the British parties, however, made Bartle Frere”s projects fail; the liberals, led by William Gladstone, opposed the annexation of the Boer republics and the economic development programs of South Africa were blocked; moreover, the nationalistic opposition of the Boer leaders who in 1880, under the leadership of Paul Kruger, decided to rebel against the British occupation of the territory and to fight for the independence of the Afrikaner republics. The First Boer War ended with the harsh British defeat in the Battle of Majuba of February 27, 1881 on the border of Natal; Gladstone, back in government in Britain, decided to give up the revenge, he recalled the British reinforcement forces sent to Africa and decided to grant independence to the two Boer republics, provided that it was officially retained British control over their foreign policy. Kruger and the other Boer leaders preferred to accept this compromise proposed by Gladstone that was sanctioned with the Pretoria Convention of 1881 and confirmed, in a more favorable sense to the Boers, with the London Convention of 1884.
The Jameson Expedition
In 1886, the discovery of the gigantic gold deposits of the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal Republic completely changed the economic and political situation in South Africa. In a short time, the Transvaal became the first producer of gold in the world and the richest nation in the region; above all, there was a continuous and massive influx of immigrants, mainly British, into the Boer Republic. In a few years the so-called uitlanders, “foreigners”, became the majority of the population of the Transvaal numerically surpassing the Boers, took over the management of mines and founded the new city of Johannesburg, the world capital of gold in continuous expansion. The deposits allowed enormous earnings for the British capitalist companies that controlled the mines; in particular, Alfred Beit and Julius Wernher assumed a role of economic dominance in connection with other mining companies, the so-called goldbugs. In South Africa, these monopoly companies received powerful political support from the British Prime Minister of the Cape, the unscrupulous and ambitious diamond billionaire Cecil Rhodes.
The president of the Transvaal Paul Kruger considered with growing concern the continuous arrival of Uitlanders in the Boer republic; the Transvaal collected huge mining rights from foreign mining capitalists but white immigration risked to undermine national cohesion and to remove the Boer political dominance on the republic. Kruger and the Afrikaner nationalists refused to grant full political rights to the Uitlanders who, despite being a majority in the white population, did not get, on the basis of a restrictive law on suffrage enacted in 1888, the right to vote if not after fifteen years of residence.
In 1895 Cecil Rhodes thought it was time to organize a coup d”état to shake the solidity of the Transvaal Republic and promote a new annexation to the British Empire. It seems now established that Rhodes was in contact with the capitalists of Witwatersand, especially with Wernher-Beit, and that even the British Minister of Colonies Joseph Chamberlain was aware of his plans of action that he tacitly approved. Rhodes” plans involved provoking an uprising of the Uitlander colonists from the newly formed so-called “reform committee” in Johannesburg, through a daring raid by an improvised mobile column led by Leander Starr Jameson and a number of British officers. Jameson”s expedition ended in disaster; the alleged Johannesburg conspirators did not take action, the Uitlanders did not rise up at all, and Jameson”s column was intercepted by Boer commandos led by General Piet Cronje, surrounded and easily forced to surrender at Doornkop near Johannesburg on 2 January 1896. The failed raid had important consequences; Kruger was re-elected president of the Transvaal and strengthened the predominance of Afrikaner nationalists on Uitlanders; Rhodes was forced to resign because of the scandal caused by the backstage of the affair; the Minister of Colonies Chamberlain risked to be overwhelmed; the British government temporarily had to follow a policy of appeasement. In addition, the crisis of the raid aroused international complications, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany sent a telegram of congratulations to President Kruger and diplomatically supported the Boer republics, British public opinion rose against German interference and Anglo-German relations worsened.
Alfred Milner at the Cape
In 1897, the able and ambitious Alfred Milner was sent to the Cape as the new high commissioner of the colony; he was a firm believer in the need to develop the British Empire, to promote the supremacy of the white race and to radically and definitively resolve the dispute with the Boer republics, resuming the programs of annexation within an imperial South Africa. Despite the fact that the British government and Minister Chamberlain seemed intent on avoiding new complications in South Africa and had affirmed their interest in peace, Milner, on the contrary, was determined to carry out an aggressive policy to “provoke a crisis”.
Milner believed that, contrary to the opinions of London politicians, time would have favored the definitive consolidation of the Kruger regime; he therefore intended to pursue his imperialist project rapidly by seeking agreement with the loyalist colonists of the Cape, coordinating his action with the Ministry of Colonies, favoring, thanks to his important friendships in the British establishment, a favorable attitude to his demands by public opinion of both parties. In November 1898 Milner returned home where he illustrated his projects to Minister Chamberlain; he stated that Kruger was “more autocratic than ever”, and that it was important to obtain with adequate pressure decisive concessions from the Boers with regard to the rights of Uitlanders. Minister Chamberlain advised caution and patience, but Milner was determined to go “on his own” and try to get Kruger into trouble by insisting on the issue of civil rights for white foreigners from the Transvaal.
After Jameson”s raid actually the Transvaal Republic appeared politically strengthened; Kruger assumed more and more the role of national leader and spiritual protector of the Boer volk, relations were consolidated with the leaders of the Orange Free State where in 1896 was elected president the intransigent Martinus Steyn who favored a process of rapprochement between the two republics. In 1897 a regular military alliance was concluded. In addition, the administrative structure of the Transvaal began to be modernized thanks to the action of an Afrikaner from the Cape, Jan Smuts, the young legal advisor to the government.
While Milner was still in London for consultations with Minister Chamberlain, the episode of the murder on 23 December 1898 in unclear circumstances of Uitlander Tom Edgar, a worker in Johannesburg, by the Boer police, gave way to the political representatives of the “foreigners” to raise the tension and to raise a strong controversy against the Transvaal government and its alleged harassment of white immigrants. James Percy FitzPatrick, the main leader of the Uitlanders, was then able to organize the protests, in connection with the capitalists of the mining companies who aimed to obtain a reduction in mining fees. After the protest demonstration of 14 January 1899, characterized by riots with Boer workers, the Uitlander committees led by FitzPatrick then appealed to the British Empire to get support for their claims and “protection” against the abuses of the Boers. Kruger and Smuts tried to counter the growing protest of the Uitlanders orchestrated by FitzPatrick with the support of Wernher-Beit, proposing the so-called “great pact”, a general agreement that provided for the reduction of taxes on mines and the introduction of a suffrage law with the right to vote after only five years of residence.
FitzPatrick and the capitalists of the mines were able to make this attempt of agreement fail by advancing further demands that, risking to transfer in a few years the control of the Transvaal to the Uitlanders, were unacceptable to Kruger. Milner then, returned to the Cape, could continue to develop his aggressive policy emphasizing the problem of alleged harassment of Boer immigrants of British origin and urging the British government, especially with the famous “dispatch of the Ilots” in which he compared the Uitlanders to the Ilots of Sparta, to intervene with all its power against the Boer republics.
On May 9, 1899 the British government met in London and made the final decisions; despite the lack of interest of British public opinion for South African problems, the cabinet, under pressure from the Minister of Colonies Chamberlain who, in turn urged by Milner, proposed to politically support the claims of the Uitlanders, decided to support the aggressive policy of the High Commissioner and to “tighten the grip” on Kruger, to make him “lower the crest”. Chamberlain in reality did not share the annexationist intentions of Milner and for the moment only intended to force the Boers to grant the right to vote after five years of residence with retroactive effect. While the tension between the Boer republics and Great Britain was rising, the representatives of the Cape Afrikaners proposed a mediation and managed to arrange a direct meeting between Milner and Kruger to seek a general agreement. Milner, although opposed to compromise, had to accept the meeting where, he told Chamberlain, he intended to show himself “studiously moderate”.
The Bloemfontein conference between the high commissioner Milner and the president of the Transvaal Kruger began on May 31, 1899, and continued for four days but ended in complete failure. Milner kept a formally correct behavior but proved to be substantially intransigent; Kruger after some delaying tactics presented on the third day a proposal to grant the right to vote to Uitlanders after seven years of residence in exchange for some secondary concessions. The high commissioner in reality did not want an agreement and rejected the plan, responding with the request for a complete administrative autonomy of the territory of the Witwatersrand. After the president”s exasperated response, Milner abruptly interrupted the conference, which closed “without any commitment on the part of the parties.”
After the failure of direct negotiations, Alfred Milner was determined to pursue his imperialistic projects and accelerate the crisis; he believed that the time had come to move to a threatening policy of military pressure towards the Boer republics. The British military commander in South Africa, General William Butler, was instead personally in favor of an agreement with the Boers and believed that the 10,000 soldiers of the Empire present in Cape Colony and Natal were sufficient to ensure defense in case of aggressive initiatives of the republics. On the contrary Milner presented at the end of May 1899 three main requests to the British government in total contrast with the optimistic assessments of General Butler. Milner requested in the first place the substitution of the general, considered pro-Boer, with a new authoritative general commander; moreover he advised the immediate dispatch of experienced officers to organize the defense of the border towns of the colony, and above all the constitution, with the influx of reinforcements from the metropolis of “a preponderant force” of at least 10,000 men in Natal for intimidation and precautionary purposes. On June 8, 1899 the commander in chief of the British Army, Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, even requested the mobilization at home to impress the Boers of the entire 1st Army Corps of General Redvers Buller consisting of three infantry divisions and one cavalry with 35,000 soldiers in total.
The Minister of War Lord Lansdowne immediately rejected these war plans and on June 21, 1899 announced that for the moment it was sufficient to alert General Butler to monitor the activity of the Boers, provide equipment to troops already in place and send a dozen experienced officers in the colonies. Field Marshal Wolseley, highly critical of the minister whom he considered an adversary of his and a supporter of the faction of the army linked to his rival, Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, protested and in July presented some detailed studies in which he again proposed the mobilization of the I Corps, the allocation of the necessary funds in case of war and finally the immediate dispatch of at least 10,000 soldiers to South Africa. Lansdowne, however, for the moment avoided making radical decisions and limited himself to appointing General William Penn Symons as commander of the British forces in Natal.
After the failure of the Bloemfontein conference meanwhile political negotiations between the British Empire and the Boer republics had continued. After a threatening speech of Minister Chamberlain on June 26 in which the politician said that “we have put our hand to the plow” to solve the Boer question, on July 18 Kruger made new concessions to which the British government responded by requesting a commission of inquiry to verify in detail the correspondence of these proposals to the needs of Uitlanders. On July 28 the British Parliament approved by a large majority the work of the government and the firm attitude of Minister Chamberlain. On August 19, Kruger presented further concessions, but by then Chamberlain had decided to follow the extremist policy of Milner and the British capitalists of the gold mines; in a speech on August 26 he called Kruger a “squeezed sponge” who tried to stall with new and ambiguous reforms and the president of the Transvaal withdrew his last offers on the rights of Uitlanders returning to less accommodating positions.
In August, as the diplomatic crisis worsened, the strong contrast between the Minister of War and Field Marshal Wolseley continued; only in the meeting of September 8, 1899 the British government, under pressure from Chamberlain and despite the doubts of Lansdowne and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Michael Hicks Beach, decided the first concrete military measures. Field Marshal Wolseley therefore received the order to transfer to South Africa 10,000 reinforcement soldiers with contingents mainly from India and regiments stationed in Alexandria, Cyprus and Crete. General Butler was recalled and General George Stuart White, a follower of Field Marshal Roberts, was appointed head of the field forces in Natal. They were also planned the first organizational measures for the mobilization and transfer of the 1st Army Corps that, under the command of General Redvers Buller, main lieutenant of Field Marshal Wolseley, would have to launch a major offensive decisive invading the Boer Republics.
While Field Marshal Wolseley and most of the British military showed optimism and devalued the Boer military efficiency, General Buller, during an unfortunate preparatory meeting with Minister Lansdowne, criticized the plans and the lack of coordination; he stated that it was necessary to send more troops immediately to avoid being taken by surprise by a Boer attack and advised that General White assume a defensive deployment in Natal behind the Tugela River without exposing his troops. The minister did not seem to be alarmed by General Buller”s forecasts; the designated commander, a follower of Field Marshal Wolseley”s “African faction”, was not highly esteemed by Lansdowne; the latter considered it necessary to wait for the Boer moves before further reinforcing the forces and gave confidence to Wolseley”s assurances that with the troops already planned, Natal could be defended without difficulty.
On September 16, General White embarked with his officers for South Africa; on October 3, he arrived in Cape Town where he met High Commissioner Milner who seemed particularly nervous and concerned, then headed by sea to Durban where he disembarked on October 7 and where he learned that since September 25, General Penn Symons, contrary to the warnings received, had transferred part of his forces to northern Natal at Dundee, north of the Tugela. General White preferred, mainly for reasons of political opportunity and for the fear of a revolt of the natives in case of retreat, to maintain the advanced deployment of General Penn Symons. Meanwhile, the British government, after news of the breakdown of negotiations with the Boer republics, had finally activated the next military preparations and on September 22, 1899 it was decided to send General Buller”s I Corps to South Africa.
Since September 2, Paul Kruger had understood that, despite his repeated concessions, war with the British Empire was now inevitable and imminent; at that time the imperial forces present on the border were particularly weak: there were 500 irregular soldiers in Mafeking, another 500 in Kimberley and 2,000 soldiers under the command of General Penn Symons in northern Natal. The young and skillful Jan Smuts, aware of the inevitability of war, had therefore proposed a bold offensive exploiting the temporary weakness of the opponent; having a total of about 40,000 fighters, the Boer republics could reach Durban before the arrival of British reinforcements that were already on the way. These proposals were however opposed by the prudent commander in chief of the Transvaal army, Piet Joubert, and especially by the president of the Republic of Orange, Martinus Steyn. Only after the news arrived at the end of September of the arrival of 8,000 British soldiers in Natal and the decision of the London government to send an entire army corps, the Boer republics decided to take the initiative.
On September 28, the Republic of the Transvaal mobilized its militia, followed on October 2, 1899 by the State of Orange; on October 9, an ultimatum was presented to British agent Greene by Secretary of State Francis William Reitz in which an “arbitration” was proposed and in which Great Britain was asked to “instantly” withdraw its troops that had arrived in South Africa after June 1, 1899 and not to disembark the contingents en route. The following day a large military parade of Boer mounted troops was organized in the presence of Joubert. Finally on October 12 the Boer commandos entered in action penetrating in Natal and starting the war. The Boer ultimatum of 9 October arrived in London just as the Minister Chamberlain was about to send in turn, after obtaining the approval of the government, a document in which the Transvaal was abruptly requested to grant the right to vote to Uitlanders after only one year of residence and gave 24 hours to give a final answer. Chamberlain, having learned of the surprising and unexpected Boer ultimatum, could avoid making his document known and in this way he could put the responsibility of the rupture on the republican authorities.
In the meantime, on October 9, most of the convoys with British reinforcements had arrived in Durban, led by General White and his officers; after learning of the ultimatum, Field Marshal Wolseley appeared fully confident, the mobilization of the reservists assigned to the I Corps was being carried out with order and precision and on October 14 the vanguards of the 47. 000 soldiers assigned to General Buller; however, the latter maintained his concerns about the evolution of the strategic situation in South Africa until the arrival of his troops.
The Boer offensive
Despite the widespread optimism among British political-military leaders, High Commissioner Alfred Milner was not without concerns about the immediate security of Natal and the frontier positions of the Cape Colony. In the first week of October, the town of Mafeking was defended only by six hundred Rhodesian soldiers under the command of Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, while in Kimberley, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kekewith, were part of a British battalion and several thousand local volunteers. The colony after the arrival of reinforcements had at its disposal five battalions of infantry that had occupied the railway bridge over the Orange River and the communication centers of Stormberg, De Aar and Naauwpoort. In Natal instead General George White now had at his disposal a field force of 13,000 soldiers of which 4,000 men, under the command of General Penn Symons, were deployed in a dangerously advanced position in Dundee.
The Boer republics had concentrated most of their forces in Natal; 15,000 militiamen of the Transvaal and 6,000 of the state of Orange began October 12 the invasion divided into four groups under the command of General Joubert and General Martinus Prinsloo; the Boers, extremely mobile thanks to their horses, could quickly surprise the British positions and initially threaten the communications of the garrison of Dundee. General Symons tried to counterattack and obtained a local tactical success conquering the Talana hill on October 20 but he was killed during the battle and his successor, General James Yules, fearing to be surrounded in Dundee by the Boer convergent columns, began on October 22 a disastrous retreat towards Ladysmith where the main forces of General White were. The latter on October 21 had sent a part of his forces to the northeast to support General Yule and to recognize the positions reached by the Boers. The British troops of General Ian Hamilton and General John French obtained a brilliant success in the battle of Elandslaagte but from the strategic point of view the victory did not change the situation and the Boer commandos continued to advance in a semicircle from west, north and northeast towards Ladysmith where on October 26 arrived the exhausted soldiers of General Yule in retreat from Dundee.
General White had concentrated his forces in Ladysmith but he lacked precise information about the position of the Boer columns; finally on October 30 he decided to launch an attack to block the enemy advance. The battle of Ladysmith ended with a disaster for the British; in the so-called “Mournful Monday” the brigades of General White were surprised and repulsed inside the city while the secondary column of Lieutenant Colonel Carleton was forced to surrender at Nicholson”s Nek. The commander of the Natal forces, very demoralized, fell back with all his troops to Ladysmith where the British, nine battalions, four regiments of cavalry and six batteries of guns, were besieged by the Boers of General Joubert from November 2, 1899.
Meanwhile the Boers had also invaded the Cape Colony; by October 14 Mafeking was besieged by over 6,000 militiamen of the Orange State under the command of General Piet Cronje, while the same day Kimberley was also cut off and surrounded by other Boer commandos of General Ferreira. On 4 November came news in Cape Town that the Boers had also crossed the Orange River and seemed intent on pushing deep into the colony, which at the beginning of the war was defended by only 7,000 British soldiers in addition to volunteer militias recruited from among the settlers. In reality, the two border towns defended themselves valiantly; in Kimberley, Lieutenant Colonel Kekewich, who was joined by Cecil Rhodes himself, arrived on the spot as administrative director of De Beers, which controlled the diamond mines, and reinforced his small garrison with policemen from the Cape and several thousand local volunteers. In Mafeking Colonel Baden-Powell successfully countered the forces of General Cronje and, after the departure of the latter for Kimberley, also resisted the siege of the Boers who remained under the command of General Jacobus Snyman.
Despite the valiant defense of the two border towns, Alfred Milner was increasingly worried in Cape Town. General Redvers Buller finally arrived at the Cape on November 1, 1899, preceding the first convoys of troops of the I Corps that arrived on November 8; the British high commander found a situation of considerable confusion and great depression; Milner seemed to fear above all a Boer invasion of the Cape Colony that, in his opinion, could have triggered a general revolt of the settlers of Dutch origin. The high commissioner also considered a priority to unlock Kimberley where Cecil Rhodes was. Milner therefore proposed to General Buller to keep the entire 1st Corps concentrated in the Cape Colony and to march immediately on Kimberley, neglecting for the moment the liberation of Ladysmith and the defense of Natal.
General Buller considered impossible to abandon the 12,000 British soldiers besieged at Ladysmith; from news coming from Natal, he learned that the situation of the garrison was critical, that the Boers seemed free to reach Durban and that General White had shown serious deficiencies of command. The British commander in chief then took the decision on November 4 to divide his army corps and distribute the various divisions in the most threatened areas to stop a possible Boer invasion and then free the British forces besieged in Ladysmith and Kimberley. General Buller successfully carried out major organizational work at the Cape and by the third week of November most of the troops of the I Corps had arrived and were on the move to reinforce the British deployment in both the Cape Colony and Natal. Two brigades of General Francis Clery”s division were in position at Estcourt to protect Pietermaritzburg and Durban, while General Paul Methuen”s division was ready at De Aar to march on Kimberley; General William Gatacre”s division and General French”s cavalry divisions controlled Queenstown and Colesberg. General Buller left on November 22 for Durban where he intended to personally assume command of the Natal sector and direct the advance toward Ladysmith.
In the meantime, during the council of war of November 9, the Boer leaders had decided to renounce to attack immediately Ladysmith and to establish defensive positions along the banks of the Tugela river; November 13 was also initiated a raid with about 2,000 fighters who, led by General Joubert and his deputy, General Louis Botha, advanced south and November 15 surprised an enemy armored train and captured several prisoners, including the young Winston Churchill. General Botha”s attackers continued south, bypassed Estcourt and made contact with British reinforcements. General Joubert, very fearful, preferred to order the retreat to the north of Tugela, where the Boers deployed waiting for the expected British counteroffensive.
The failure of the first British counter-offensive
The British counter-offensive began in the third week of November on the western front where the reinforced division of General Methuen began the advance along the western railroad to try to reach and free the garrison of Kimberley; in this area of the front the Boer defenses were initially weak and the commandos of the Orange Free State under the command of General Prinsloo were defeated in the battles of Belmont, November 23, and Graspan on November 25. General Methuen then continued the advance and reached the Modder River where he found himself in front of the enemy that had been strengthened by the arrival of the commandos of General Piet Cronje and Koos de la Rey; in the battle of Modder of November 28, 1899 the British, attacking the Boer trenches in the open, suffered heavy losses but in the end forced the enemy to retreat.
The Boers, despite the failures, fell back with order on a strong defensive position established on a line of hills; on indication of General de la Rey, trenches were dug for the riflemen at the foot of the ridges from where the Boers could open fire by surprise structuring vast fields of fire. General Metheun had decided to launch a difficult night attack on 11 December 1899 but the British maneuver ended with a bloody defeat in the battle of Magersfontein; the British soldiers suffered heavy losses and were blocked in the open; the next morning they fell back in route abandoning the positions reached. The heavy defeat marked the end of the attempt of the general Metheun to reach Kimberley; the British forces suspended further attacks and they remained firm on the shores of the Modder. The previous day, December 10, 1899, General Gatacre had also suffered a defeat in the central sector of the Western Front in an attempt to attack a railway junction along the line to Port Elizabeth. The Battle of Stormberg ended with a new retreat of the British who had been caught in the open by the Boer commandos.
The second week of December 1899, “Black Week,” ended with a third British defeat on the Natal front. General Buller had arrived in Estcourt and had assumed command in Natal on December 6, 1899; the general did his best to strengthen the morale of his troops and organize his forces before going on the offensive to unlock the garrison of Ladysmith. The mission was difficult; the Boers, led by the able General Louis Botha, were deployed in entrenched positions sheltered by the Tugela River and exploited an uninterrupted series of hilly reliefs that dominated the course of the river from the northern bank and extended for many kilometers. General Buller was aware of the defeats suffered by his subordinates on the western front; he thought that, because of the general situation and of the tactical difficulties, it was risky to try to overcome the Boer defenses on the Tugela with a vast and complicated circumventing maneuver and therefore he decided to organize an attack in force in the center of the lines, at Colenso, to try to advance along the direct road to Ladysmith. On 15 December 1899 the four brigades of the division of General Clery attacked the Boer positions of General Botha but the battle of Colenso ended with a serious British defeat; under the fire of the Boer militia the British troops could not cross the river and were repulsed with serious losses; General Buller had to suspend operations and return to Estcourt.
The disastrous news of the repeated defeats of the so-called “Black Week” and above all of the serious defeat of General Buller at Colenso aroused great emotion in British public opinion and had decisive consequences at a political-military level in Great Britain. On December 16, 1899, after learning of General Buller”s defeat, Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, commander in chief of Ireland, sent a confidential letter to War Minister Lansdowne in which he stated that a radical change in strategy was necessary and put forward his candidacy as the new supreme commander in South Africa. The Minister of War and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Balfour had already decided to remove General Buller who, from the tenor of his messages appeared morally shaken and not very resolute, and to appoint, despite the opposition of Field Marshal Wolseley, Field Marshal Roberts as the new commander in chief. The Prime Minister Lord Salisbury also decided to place alongside Field Marshal Roberts, General Horatio Kitchener, recent winner of the Battle of Omdurman, as chief of staff of the expeditionary corps.
In the atmosphere of excitement and concern that followed the defeats of “Black Week”, in addition to revolutionizing command structures, large quantities of soldiers and reinforcements were mobilized, organized and transferred to South Africa. In an atmosphere of national and imperial cohesion, Queen Victoria showed confidence and optimism and the leaders of the liberal party supported the conservative government. The Ministry of War and Field Marshal Wolseley sought to remedy the serious shortage of materials and adapt logistical structures to the needs of a major war in Africa. By government decision of December 20, 1899, considerable contingents of volunteers were recruited to be used as mobile troops on horseback, the so-called Imperial Yeomanry, and the white dominions supported the Empire and sent units to South Africa. Above all, a second regular army corps was mobilized on December 18, 1899, and three new infantry divisions, with another 45,000 soldiers, left immediately for the theater of war, arriving by January 1900.
Field Marshal Roberts embarked for South Africa on December 23, 1899; he arrived in Cape Town, together with General Kitchener, on January 10, 1900 and immediately assumed supreme command of the British expeditionary corps that was strengthening and reorganizing itself after the defeats. In the meantime the Boers had not been able to exploit their brilliant and unexpected victories; on the western front Generals Cronje and de la Rey had remained stationary on the Modder line, while a violent attack launched on January 6, 1900 by the Boer forces of Natal of General Joubert against the besieged garrison of Ladysmith had been repulsed by the British after a series of dramatic night fights.
Instead ended with a new heavy defeat the second attempt of General Buller to overcome the Boer defenses led by General Botha on the Tugela River and unlock the British garrison of Ladysmith commanded by General White, who was in a precarious situation. Despite Field Marshal Roberts” calls for caution, General Buller, after the arrival in reinforcement to his field force of the newly landed division of General Charles Warren, resumed the initiative and carried out on January 10, 1900 a large circumventing maneuver to cross the Tugela River west of Colenso. After an initial success, the British were defeated again on 23 and 24 January 1900 in the battle of Spion Kop and, due to tactical errors and Boer counterattacks, they gave up the positions they had conquered; General Buller preferred to retreat and return with his army to the starting positions.
After the serious defeat, from London Field Marshal Wolseley and the Ministry of War hypothesized at first also the possibility of renouncing to unblock Ladysmith and authorize the surrender of the garrison; Field Marshal Roberts instead ordered to General Buller to “keep strictly on the defensive” waiting for the beginning of the great offensive in preparation on the western front.
Offensive of Field Marshal Roberts
Field Marshal Roberts” great offensive began on February 11, 1900; the new commander in chief had spent almost a month gathering a powerful mass of maneuver with the help of the new troops in continuous influx into South Africa and to reorganize the logistical and transport system of the British army in order to improve its efficiency and speed of movement. General Kitchener, chief of staff of the field force, was responsible for restructuring the convoy system by centralizing the distribution of supplies to the troops and amassing large quantities of cattle for slaughter and transport. Field Marshal Roberts had also established an efficient command structure with the contribution of young officers and had initially planned a daring offensive maneuver that, momentarily neglecting the towns besieged by the Boers, should have brought the army from the railway bridge over the Orange River directly south of Bloemfontein, the capital of the Free State.
Field Marshal Roberts had concentrated along the Western Railway more than 40,000 soldiers with one hundred cannons; the commander in chief had also tried to improve the mobility of his troops by establishing new divisions of mounted infantry and irregular cavalry to be employed in explorations and reconnaissance in front of the mass of infantry forces. It was the so-called “Tigers of Rimington”, a unit of white colonial guides recruited on the spot, that first entered Ramdam, the first Boer settlement across the border, opening the way for the army. The main British forces consisted of the cavalry division of General John French, the infantry divisions just arrived from Britain of General Thomas Kelly-Kenny and General Charles Tucker and the newly formed division of General Henry Colvile. Field Marshal Roberts had also left behind on the Modder River line a number of brigades under the command of General Methuen; the new commander in chief had reorganized command structures by dismissing or relegating to secondary roles a number of officers deemed incompetent.
On January 27, 1900 Field Marshal Roberts decided to change his plan of operations and to renounce, due to the expected logistical difficulties of an advance across the veld, the bad news coming from Natal where General Buller had suffered new defeats and the pressing calls for help coming from Kimberley, the bold march on Bloemfontein. Instead, the Field Marshal”s new plan called for the army to march along the railroad, crossing the Riet and Modder rivers, while General French”s cavalry division would precede the infantry and head straight for Kimberley. While the divisions of Generals Tucker and Kelly-Kenny arrived in Ramdam, the cavalry of General French began in the night of February 12 the advance northward; the cavalry division, consisting of about 5,000 soldiers, easily crossed the Riet and, despite supply shortages due to the disorganization of convoys, on February 15 also crossed the Modder, quickly routed some weak Boer divisions and galloped on Kimberley.
Field Marshal Roberts reached with his headquarters the banks of the Riet on February 15, 1900 and controlled the advance of the infantry divisions to the north of the river; the march of the army continued with some difficulty especially for the logistic deficiencies. The convoys and the herds of oxen left behind at a ford of the river were attacked by surprise by the Boer commandos of commander Christiaan de Wet. In spite of these difficulties, the field marshal managed to solve the crisis of supplies and the army continued its advance towards Modder, while the cavalry of General French reached Kimberely since 15.30 of February 15 and got in touch with the garrison of Colonel Kekewich that had firmly resisted the long siege.
General Cronje defended the line of Modder with about 5,000 Boer fighters; in front of the massive British offensive, he decided on February 15, 1900 to abandon his positions and try to fall back east along the northern bank of the river towards Bloemfontein; then the Boers began a difficult maneuver of disengagement, made particularly slow and dangerous by the presence together with the militia of all the wagons and livestock of the laager. Commanders Ferreira and De Wet preferred not to follow the bulk of General Cronje and scattered in the veld with their small units. Initially the retreat of General Cronje was successful and the Boers escaped from the infantry of the division of General Kelly-Kenny; the march of the Boers, however, was slowed by the wagons and on February 17 the troops of General Cronje found their way blocked at the ford on the Modder of Paardeberg by the cavalry of General French that from Kimberley had quickly moved south to cooperate with the main army.
Instead of trying to escape the British cavalry and resume the retreat eastward, General Cronje decided to stop on the northern bank of the Modder at Paardeberg and organize solid entrenched defensive positions; the Boer commander then gave the British infantry time to close the distance and reach him from the south. General Kitchener personally led the divisions of General Kelly-Kenny and General Colvile and decided to launch on February 18, 1900 a massive general assault from the southern bank to cross the river and rout the Boer laager. Despite the clear numerical superiority the British were repulsed with heavy losses and the Boers held their positions. Field Marshal Roberts arrived on the battlefield on 19 February and decided to renounce to further frontal attacks and engage all available artillery to systematically bombard the Boer camp. After several days of British cannon fire that caused heavy losses and severely worn out the Boers surrounded, General Cronje decided on 27 February 1900 to surrender to Field Marshal Roberts with all his troops. More than 4,000 Boers fell prisoner in the Battle of Paardeberg that marked a decisive turning point in the war in favor of the British.
While the army of Field Marshal Roberts began the invasion of the Boer Republics, at the same time on the Natal front General Buller suffered a third defeat in the battle of Vaal Kranz on February 7, 1900; however the weakening of the Boer defenses on the Tugela river made possible a new attempt to break through the lines and finally free the British troops of General White besieged in Ladysmith since October 1899. On February 14, 1900 General Buller began a complex maneuver to bypass on the right the lines of the Tugela; the divisions of Generals Neville Lyttelton and Charles Warren conquered first the hills south of the river, then from February 22 launched the decisive attack to the ridges north of the Tugela that were conquered after a long and bitter series of battles. The Boer army of General Botha finally had to beat a retreat and part of the troops had to be transferred urgently to the western front. On February 27 the British troops arrived in Ladysmith and the siege was broken; on March 1, 1900 took place the formal meeting between General Buller and General White, who had defended for over three months with his troops the city.
March on Pretoria
After the surrender of General Cronje, the Boers had tried to organize a new defensive position to protect Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State; about 6,000 fighters under the command of Generals de la Rey and De Wet, were deployed on a line of hills along both banks of the Modder River about fifty kilometers west of the city. The two presidents of the Republics, Paul Kruger and Martinus Steyn, went to the battlefield to galvanize the resistance, but the superiority of the British army was overwhelming and General Roberts, having resumed the advance, was able to attack on March 7, 1900 with the infantry divisions of Generals Kelly-Kenny, Tucker and Colvile and the cavalry division of General French. The so-called Battle of Poplar Grove ended with a British victory; while the cavalry outflanked the Boer lines to the east, the three infantry divisions attacked on the two banks. The Boers, threatened with outflanking, withdrew hastily; general De Wet managed to protect the retreat and the two presidents avoided capture also because of the delayed pursuit of the British cavalry. After renewed fighting at Driefontein on March 10, Field Marshal Roberts was able to enter Bloemfontein on March 13, 1900 without encountering resistance.
After the conquest of the capital of the Orange Free State, Field Marshal Roberts showed optimism in his communications to London; in order to try to pacify the territory as soon as possible, he promulgated a first amnesty and for a few weeks he worked mainly on consolidating his positions, improving connections, strengthening his deployment. The field marshal, convinced of the possibility of an imminent collapse of the resistance, did not make any effort to destroy the enemy armies still in the field; the 6,000 Boers of General Olivier, retreating from Colesberg and Stormberg, were therefore able to retreat northward without being intercepted by the cavalry of General French that on March 20 had reached Thaba Nchu. Despite the optimism of Field Marshal Roberts, most of the political and military leaders and public opinion, in reality the situation of the British army in Bloemfontein was not without difficulties, especially for the serious logistical deficiencies that made it impossible to quickly resume the advance. The transport system was very disorganized and there was a great shortage of horses and oxen, the railway system was inadequate, so the provision of food for men and animals was not satisfactory, also exploded in Bloemfontein a serious outbreak of typhus that the military health service was not able to control adequately.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Boer republics after a momentary pessimism following the first defeats, met on 17 March 1900 in Kroonstad to make new decisions; the meeting, which was also attended by Presidents Kruger and Steyn, had great importance and strengthened the cohesion and determination of the Boers. It was decided to continue the war and to take a series of diplomatic and propaganda initiatives to seek the concrete help of the Great Powers of the world against the British Empire, described as an aggressive power that aimed to destroy the Boer volk. Worldwide there was a widespread feeling of sympathy for the Boer cause and aversion to British imperialist policy, but in practice this moral support was of no help to the republics that could count only on the contribution of a limited number of foreign volunteers. The mystical-religious appeals of Kruger to the resistance for the salvation of Afrikaners instead strengthened the morale, while some resolute leaders, especially Christiaan De Wet and Koos de la Rey, supported the need to change the war strategies and begin a series of rapid raids to hit and disorganize the communication routes and the rear of the invading army.
The new strategy was approved in part by the two presidents and at the end of March 1900 General de la Rey feigned an offensive movement in the direction of Bloemfontein in order to attract the bulk of British forces, while General De Wet with 2,000 Boers launched a first attack to the enemy rear striking by surprise the location of Sannah”s Post where were the aqueducts that supplied the capital of the Orange Free State. The commandos of General De Wet attacked Sannah”s Post on 31 March 1900 and surprised a cavalry unit under the command of General Robert Broadwood; the British were heavily defeated, the Boers captured seven cannons and 428 prisoners and managed to escape the slow pursuit of the infantry units sent in rescue by Field Marshal Roberts. On 3 April the Boers of General De Wet attacked a British battalion at Reddesberg and had another success; finally after a failed attack on the garrison of Wepener, the Boer raiders returned north.
The brilliant action of General De Wet had demonstrated the effectiveness of guerrilla tactics against the enemy”s rear but, due to insufficient forces, had failed to disrupt the railway line that constituted the main British supply route, so Field Marshal Roberts did not give great importance to these local chess and continued to reorganize and prepare his forces for the so-called “second tiger leap” of the invading army. Field Marshal Roberts believed that a major advance directly on Pretoria could deal a decisive blow to the political and military resistance of the Boer republics and secure victory for the British Empire; therefore, while General Buller was instructed to keep on the defensive in Natal with 20,000 men, the field marshal concentrated the divisions of Generals Reginald Pole-Carew, Charles Tucker, and John French with 20. 000 men under his direct command, supported on the left flank by the 8,000 soldiers of the division of General Archibald Hunter; General Ian Hamilton finally took command of a mobile column consisting of 15,000 infantry and mounted troops charged with marching on the right flank and opening the way for the advance of the main column on Pretoria.
The great advance of Field Marshal Roberts began on May 3, 1900, while the relief column of Colonel Bryan Mahon advanced on Mafeking to finally break the siege, the 43,000 British soldiers of the invading army marched quickly without meeting much resistance; the Boers of General Louis Botha preferred to retreat and avoid a battle in the open field. The British crossed the Vaal and the Zand then, after long and tiring marches in the veld, they entered in Kroonstad where the central column stopped for ten days to have time to put in operation the railway line; at the same time General Hamilton on the right flank had arrived on May 18 in Lindley from where he headed towards the left flank of the railway on May 26. Field Marshal Roberts” army arrived at Johannesburg, which was occupied on May 31, 1900 after General Hamilton”s brilliant victory at the Battle of Doornkop. Earlier, on May 17, 1900, Colonel Mahon had reached and liberated the garrison of Mafeking, which had sustained, under the command of Colonel Baden-Powell, a siege since October 16, 1899.
The next objective of Field Marshal Roberts” main army was Pretoria, where there were signs of disunity and confusion among the troops and Boer leaders. Much demoralized in the face of the continued enemy advance, General Botha”s men were falling back to the north of the city, the four forts in the city were evacuated. On June 1, 1900 President Kruger abandoned Pretoria with the entire government and the same generals Botha and Smuts advised the immediate surrender, only thanks to the firm intervention of the president of the Orange Free State, Steyn, who stated a firm will of resistance, the Boer leaders regained control and decided, while Kruger was heading towards the Portuguese border, to continue the war to the bitter end. Parliamentarians were sent by Field Marshal Roberts to gain time, agreeing to surrender Pretoria without a fight and proposing negotiations. On June 5, 1900, Field Marshal Roberts entered Pretoria with his army without encountering resistance; about 3,000 British prisoners were freed.
After a brief stop in Pretoria, Field Marshal Roberts had to resume military operations; General Botha had broken off negotiations and was regrouping his remaining forces east of the capital. On June 10, 1900 the battle of the Diamond Hill was fought, which ended with the victory of the British; however the Boers maintained cohesion, managed once again to avoid destruction and General Botha could withdraw his troops towards the eastern Transvaal to continue the war.
Prolongation of war
While the main army of Field Marshal Roberts advanced in the Transvaal and occupied Pretoria, behind him the war had meanwhile resumed; in the Orange Free State more than 8,000 Boers were still in arms, including the commandos of the able General Christiaan De Wet, who, after the raids of March and April, launched a new series of successful attacks on isolated columns and garrisons in the British rear. On 3 June 1900 the Boers of General De Wet surprised an enemy convoy directed to Heilbron, while on 6 June a great raid on Roodewal, along the main railway line, was successful; finally the brother of De Wet, Piet De Wet obtained a brilliant local victory on 31 May 1900 at Lindley.
Strongly worried by these attacks behind him, Field Marshal Roberts, before embarking with the bulk of his forces on the final advance towards the eastern border of the Transvaal, decided to send south of the Vaal an important contingent of troops to comb the territory of the Orange Free State that had been neglected during the march on Pretoria and to destroy the Boer commandos that struck his rear. The command of these forces was assigned, after the accident occurred due to a fall from a horse to General Ian Hamilton, to the capable General Archibald Hunter. General Hunter maneuvered with skill and was able to encircle in the basin of the Brandwater River by 29 July over 6,000 Boers under the command of General Martinus Prinsloo; by 10 August 1900 the British captured over 4,300 enemies and General Prinsloo surrendered, however a part of the Boer forces, led by commanders Cristiaan De Wet and Olivier, managed to escape the trap of General Hunter.
Since July 15, De Wet with 1,500 men and the president of the Orange Free State Steyn had crossed the British circle and headed north; pursued by other enemy columns, on August 6 they were forced to cross the Vaal and seek refuge in the western Transvaal beyond the Magaliesberg mountain range. General Kitchener, in command of a series of units with 20,000 soldiers with the task of intercepting commander De Wet, was not able to prevent him from crossing the Vaal and furthermore the column led by General Ian Hamilton did not block in time Olifant”s nek, the Magaliesberg pass from where De Wet and his men managed to escape by August 13, 1900 and resume guerrilla activity.
Despite General Hunter”s success in the Brandwater Basin that seemed to end Boer resistance in the Orange Free State, Field Marshal Roberts understood that the failure to capture De Wet and Steyn constituted a major setback and risked prolonging the conflict; for the time being he decided to resume the advance with the bulk of his forces toward the eastern Trasvaal.
In the meantime General Redvers Buller, after a long pause following the liberation of Ladysmith, started the offensive in Natal; in the months of May and June 1900 the British divisions of Generals Francis Clery, Neville Lyttelton and Henry Hildyard overcame the harsh territory of the Biggarsberg and Drakensberg ranges, pushed back the Boers led by Christiaan Botha, brother of Louis, and came out in the south-eastern Transvaal. General Buller reached the communications junction of Standerton and on July 4, 1900 his troops came into contact for the first time with the army of Field Marshal Roberts coming from Pretoria.
After a series of operations to reopen rail links between Natal and the Transvaal, the field force of General Buller and the main army of Field Marshal Roberts joined forces and led together in August the last phase of the campaign; on 25 August 1900 the British defeated the Boer troops of General Botha in the Battle of Bergendal. The remains of the Boer army, badly beaten and demoralized, dispersed in the veld and President Kruger saved himself on 11 September 1900 passing in Mozambique and then going in exile in Europe, General Buller marched on Lydenburg and conquered the passes of the Mauchberg, while General Hamilton and Pole-Carew arrived up to Komatipoort without being able to prevent two thousand Boers to trespass into Portuguese territory.
Field Marshal Roberts was now sure that the war was “practically over”; on October 25, 1900 the commander in chief officially proclaimed the annexation of the Transvaal and in November he communicated to London that he considered his mission over and that he was willing to give up the command to General Kitchener and return home. In fact at least 30,000 Boer fighters were still active in the Orange Free State and in the western Transvaal and above all, despite the first repressive measures adopted by the British with destruction and burning of farms, the Boer resistance was not exhausted and the main leaders had escaped death or capture and were still in action. In November 1900, the High Commissioner Milner communicated with a secret report that the overall situation in South Africa seemed to worsen and that despite the optimism of Field Marshal Roberts, the war was not being exhausted but, on the contrary, had resumed in the form of guerrilla warfare and, in the absence of systematic measures of occupation of the territory, was likely to continue indefinitely. Milner also criticized the work of General Kitchener and proposed a military policy of gradual reinforcement of the measures of repression and raking through mobile columns in action throughout the territory.
Since the autumn of 1900 the Boer commandos had resumed with increasing effectiveness the local raids and had progressively expanded the territory under their control; while the army of Field Marshal Roberts fought in the eastern Transvaal, the other British forces left behind in the regions already invaded found themselves in considerable difficulty. In the western Transvaal the Boer commandos led by the skilled commanders Koos de la Rey and Jan Smuts returned to action in the rugged valleys of the western Transvaal, while the feared commander Christiaan De Wet could begin a new cycle of raids and attacks in the veld north and south of the Vaal.
The so-called “recovery of the worm”, according to the definition of High Commissioner Milner in a letter of January 1901 to Richard Haldane, had resulted mainly from decisions taken in October 1900 by the main Boer chiefs during an impromptu council of war (krygsraad) held in Cypherfontein, a remote farm about one hundred and twenty kilometers west of Pretoria. The krygsraad was attended by the new president of the Transvaal after the departure of Kruger, General Louis Botha, the president of the Orange Free State, Steyn, the two commanders General de la Rey and Smuts; Commander De Wet was not in time to be present and for security reasons the meeting had to be interrupted before his arrival.
During the war council the problems of the war were discussed and a common strategy was agreed between the representatives of the two republics; president Steyn was the most intransigent supporter of the resistance to the bitter end, while at the end even the leaders of the Transvaal, previously discouraged by the defeats and destructions operated by the British, decided to adhere to the policy advocated by the president of the Orange Free State. It was therefore decided to continue with maximum energy the strategy of guerrilla warfare that had proved effective, although it risked provoking reprisals against the civilian population exposed defenseless to enemy violence. Great concern also came from the ruthless British tactic of burning farms and destroying the resources of the territories that was transforming vast areas of the republics into devastated and impassable areas for the guerrillas. It was decided, in response to the British devastating tactics, to organize the daring invasion of the Cape and Natal colonies.
The Boer leaders split up immediately after the end of the Cypherfontein krygsraad and returned to their areas of activity to intensify the guerrilla activity, but on 6 November 1900 General De Wet suffered an unexpected defeat in the Battle of Bothaville and could not take part in the planned raid in the Cape Colony even if he was able to avoid the pursuit of the forces of General Kitchener who tried to block him in the southern territory of the Orange Free State. It was the commandos of commanders Kritzinger and Hertzog who managed instead to overcome the barrages and enter on December 16, 1900 in the territory of the Cape, arousing great concern in the British leadership; previously, Generals Smuts and de la Rey had achieved a brilliant success inflicting on December 13 a heavy defeat at Nooitgedacht to the columns of General Clements that devastated the territory of the western Transvaal.
On December 10, 1900, Field Marshal Roberts handed over supreme command in South Africa to General Kitchener and began the journey back to Great Britain to assume command in chief of the British army, but, despite the energy and determination of the new commander, the actual situation on the ground still appeared difficult to High Commissioner Milner. Milner, also worried by the raids in progress in the Cape Colony, considered it essential to proceed to a slow systematic and methodical occupation of the territory of the two Boer republics, already officially annexed, strengthening the military control of each district and avoiding destruction and reprisals. General Kitchener instead, impatient to conclude the war as soon as possible, initially maintained a policy oscillating between the strengthening of military measures of repression and the search for a quick agreement with the enemy leadership using as mediators some Boer chiefs who had previously accepted the submission. The talks held in Middelburg in February 1901 between the British commander in chief and General Botha did not achieve any result mainly because of the intransigent conditions imposed by High Commissioner Milner, and then General Kitchener decided from March 1901 to start a new more aggressive strategy to accelerate the end of the conflict using increasingly harsh methods.
General Kitchener”s new program was based on the organization of systematic “passes” over the territory by mobile columns to search and destroy the active Boer groups, and on the rounding up, deportation and eviction of women, children and livestock in order to isolate the enemies and deprive them of the resources needed to prolong the resistance. General Kitchener planned to herd the Boer civilians, forcibly evacuated from their homes, into so-called lagers, concentration camps poorly fed and organized, where malnutrition and disease would soon spread.
Repression and deportation
General Kitchener believed that the deportation and concentration of civilians in the camps would allow to isolate the Boer fighters; moreover in this way women and children would receive protection; in fact the internees were herded into camps administered by the military and supplied with minimum food rations without meat, vegetables, milk and fruit. The British general initially showed no humanitarian concern, defended his decisions in the face of doubts from the War Department and stated that the camps were functional and the internees were “happy”.
While proceeding to the deportations of women, old men and children, General Kitchener showed instead concerns about the military development of the war; to the new Minister of War St John Brodrick he said that to achieve victory was “a very difficult problem” and that even with his new strategies only slow progress was obtained; he also believed he did not have sufficient troops. His mobile columns used to hunt down the Boer groups, estimated at 20,000 guerrillas, were numerically scarce; the general therefore required the sending of new divisions of cavalry and mounted infantry.
The new system of warfare adopted by General Kitchener in fact provided for the use of a series of mobile columns to search and destroy the Boer groups scattered in the veld; these British units were led, under the superior command of General John French, by a series of young and resolute officers, such as Lieutenant Colonels Julian Byng, Edmund Allenby and Herbert Plumer and Colonels Douglas Haig and Henry Rawlinson who conducted continuous raids especially in the eastern Transvaal. The war was progressively transforming; no more big battles were fought and there were no more precise fronts; the British operations of repression on the territory were interspersed only by small fights and ended with a detailed statistical balance presented by each column to the headquarters that enumerated the enemies killed, captured or spontaneously surrendered. Despite the great efforts of the British mobile columns, by the end of April 1901 General Kitchener had to draw a first, disappointing balance sheet of his new strategy. In four months, the so-called “carniere” of neutralized Boers had risen from 859 fighters in January to 2,437 in April, but these figures were absolutely insufficient and did not lead to a rapid conclusion of the war.
General Kitchener believed that it was necessary to make the so-called “beats” of the mobile columns more effective by devising a system to hinder the movements of the Boer groups and restrict their freedom of action. At the end of March 1901, the commander in chief spoke for the first time with his subordinates about his new plans, which provided for the construction of a complex system of casemates, small concrete and metal forts defended by garrisons, connected by barbed wire barriers. In this way, according to General Kitchener would have been possible to block and destroy the Boer commandos, trapped between the lines of casemates and barbed wire and the mobile columns that would have “beaten” the territory between the forts.
In addition to planning in detail the methods to try to crush the guerrillas, in this period General Kitchener was again in sharp contrast with High Commissioner Milner. The commander in chief reiterated that the only alternatives to end the war quickly were either further harsher and more terrorist measures such as the confiscation of property of the Boers in arms or even the deportation overseas of all Boer resisters, including families and servants, or enter into negotiations to seek a compromise peace. At the beginning of July 1901, the British government was faced with the choice between the so-called “protection” policy advocated by High Commissioner Milner and the “devastation” policy advocated by General Kitchener. On July 2, the commander in chief was told that, in the absence of decisive results by the end of the South African winter, he would have to adopt Milner”s strategy of slow occupation of the territory; he was also asked to substantially reduce the forces engaged in South Africa, which would have to be reduced from 250,000 to 140,000.
Over time Kitchener”s plan was effective in limiting guerrilla movements, but the war was not yet over. This new tactic soon broke the morale and supply lines of the Boer fighters, finally forcing them to surrender with the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902. In the treaty the UK agreed to pay £3 million to help rebuild the two Afrikaner colonies. In addition, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State would lose their independence from the United Kingdom.
In June 1899, the regular British troops present in South Africa amounted to just 10,000 soldiers with 24 guns; after the arrival of reinforcements from India and the Mediterranean, the British contingent had risen at the beginning of the war to 22,000 men with 60 guns, of which about 14,000 were deployed in Natal under the command of General White. These forces were initially outnumbered by the Boer militia theoretically mobilized by the two Afrikaner republics, but the influx into South Africa of General Buller”s army corps, made up of 47,000 soldiers belonging to the best and most famous regiments of the British army, was expected. The expeditionary corps, consisting of 33 infantry battalions, seven cavalry regiments and 19 artillery batteries, was organized by mobilizing reservists who made up about half of the contingent.
The British Army entered the war fully relying on the tactics and traditions developed and successfully applied during the many colonial wars fought and won during the Victorian period against poorly armed indigenous populations. The tactics adopted generally foresaw a rigidly schematic combat characterized by a preliminary bombardment followed by the infantry attack in close array and by the final charge of the cavalry; the use of rifle discharges was foreseen which had often devastated the primitive tribes launched to the attack. It was also adopted in theory the attack in random order and some battalions engaged in India had some experience of fighting in mountainous terrain against rebel fighters in ambush. In general, however, the tactical teachings gave preeminent importance to the strict discipline, did not foresee the development of the individual initiative of the soldiers and gave little importance to the training in shooting; there was no full awareness, due to lack of direct experience, of the deadly effect of the concentrated fire of modern weapons.
In reality, the British army, which in 1881 underwent the important Childers Reform, which modified the regimental system by grouping battalions recruited in the same geographical area, had for some years introduced some innovations: the blazing red uniform had been replaced by the less conspicuous khaki uniform, individual equipment had been rationalized, officers and soldiers wore colonial helmets with small departmental insignia, modern Lee-Metford and Lee-Enfield repeating rifles had been introduced, and finally two Maxim machine guns had been distributed to each infantry and cavalry battalion as a support weapon.
The British artillery would show, despite its historical traditions, some deficiencies; the field regiments were equipped with 15-pounders while the horse artillery employed 12-pounders; these artillery pieces were efficient and reliable but would reveal their inferiority in firepower and range compared to the modern French and German guns imported by the Boers. British artillery during the war had to rely on improvised divisions of 4.7 inch and 12 pound naval guns to counter enemy heavy pieces. British artillery tactics were also still based on massive direct fire bombardment while indirect fire and mobile barrage techniques to support infantry advances were not developed.
Another weakness of the British army was represented by the cavalry, which, trained to intervene with its shock force during pitched battle, was not able to perform the functions of exploration, raid, cover and control of the territory performed by the Boer mounted infantry. Soon, the British army would integrate its mounted forces by forming irregular divisions of volunteers, some of which were recruited in South Africa; among these divisions were the South Africa Light Horse, the Imperial Light Horse, the Cape Mounted Rifles, the Natal Carbineers and the Mounted Police.
The two Boer Republics entrusted their defense to the city militias recruited with the commando system on the basis of administrative districts; valid men aged between 16 and 60 years could be mobilized in case of war and were required to enter the organic military structures with their own equipment and mounts; the state instead provided the individual and heavy armament. The Boers, accustomed to life in the veld and to the fights against the natives, were excellent horsemen and formidable marksmen; they constituted an efficient army of mounted infantry extremely mobile and with high morale; moreover the Boers were skilled in organizing entrenched positions from where to fight at a distance with their rifles avoiding close combat.
The Boer militias completely lacked the characteristics of a modern professional army; the fighters did not have uniforms and wore in war the sturdy clothes of civilian life; the commandos, each consisting of about 1,000 militiamen, elected a commandant who had to exercise the command of some veld-kornet, administrative officials who in war acted as officers; finally were elected some non-commissioned officers who were responsible for individual groups of fighters. The commandant issued orders but legally did not have the authority to compel obedience; the Boers were voluntary fighters who acted autonomously even in contrast to the provisions of higher commands. The command structure of the armies of the republics provided a general commander and a series of vecht commandants, operational commanders; the most important decisions were generally taken during the krygsraad, the war council. The Boer militias did not have logistical services, but could count on the contribution, for transport and victualling, of thousands of indigenous blacks; the so-called agterryers were often the African servants that the Boers brought with them to war and that played an important role in maintaining the efficiency of the commandos.
After Jameson”s raid, the two Boer Republics had begun a large program of military reinforcement, especially strengthening the armament of the militia; since 1880 the Orange Free State had established a regular artillery corps under the direction of Major Albrecht, a German volunteer, while the Transvaal had a Staatsartillerie. On the eve of the war the Boers had at their disposal modern cannons imported from the European powers; in addition to four heavy 155 mm French Creusot cannons (the so-called Long Tom) that, after being initially deployed in the large forts built to defend Pretoria, were transferred to the war fronts, were available about 50 cannons mainly 75 mm Creusot and Krupp and twenty one-pound Maxim-Nordenfeld pieces. The Boers did not use the guns in batteries but preferred to deploy them isolated behind fortified positions. The commandos were also rearmed with the excellent Mauser repeating rifles imported from Germany. The regular components of the Transvaal mounted police, the so-called ZARP (Zuid Afrikaanse Rijende Politie), and the Orange Free State, constituted a small corps of trained troops that were employed in battle. Finally, the Boers could count during the war on the contribution of some contingents of foreign volunteers, from abroad or recruited in the British colonies; so were formed voluntary units of Irish, Italians, Americans, Germans, Scandinavians and Dutch.
Surely more than 6,300 foreigners took part in the conflict as volunteers: 1. 550 Germans, 690 Swedes, 593 Norwegians, 59 other Scandinavians, 300 Americans, 250 Italians who were part of the Italian Volunteer Legion (of which Colonel Camillo Ricchiardi was a member: the latter during the war captured a train on which was the young Winston Churchill who was in South Africa as a British journalist; during the capture, Churchill turned out to be too compromised with the enemy army and, found in possession of a Mauser C96 pistol with prohibited dum-dum bullets, risked being shot, but the prompt intervention of Commander Ricchiardi saved his life), 225 Poles, 200 Irish, 250 French, 200+ Russians or Russian speakers, and a certain number (unknown) of Australians.
The war involved more than just the military and diplomats. Civilians in the British colonies and Afrikaner states experienced great privations. Life under siege exacted its share of deaths among both the defending soldiers and civilians in the towns of Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberly. As is typical of any siege, food supplies began to run low after a few weeks. In Mafeking, Sol Plaatje wrote, “For the first time I saw horse meat treated as if it were food for people.” The towns under siege also had to cope with constant artillery bombardment, which made the roads dangerous. Towards the end of the siege of Kimberly it was expected that the Boers would intensify their bombardment, so a warning was issued encouraging people to go down into the mines to seek protection. The town was panicked and people were constantly flowing into the mine shafts, for 12-hour periods. The fact that the bombing never came did not diminish the specter of fear that hovered over the civilians.
Even worse than the sieges were the concentration camps, which were part of Kitchener”s harsh tactics to end the conflict. The camps were opened when the British realized that women and children could not take care of themselves and be in the middle of the fighting. The camps were also a safe place for Boers who were not interested in taking part in the war. However, from the moment Kitchener assumed command, he changed the nature of the camps, which at that point detained anyone living in guerrilla controlled areas. His plan was to destroy all support from the remaining Boer fighters. The tragedy of the camps can be described through the account he asked of the people held there. More children died in the camps than the sum total of fallen soldiers on either side. Up to 28,000 women and children died in 1901. It was an atrocity that would tarnish Kitchener”s reputation in years to come, but it must also be seen in the context of the diseases that mowed down 16,000 British soldiers and the general inadequacy of the British military medical apparatus of the time.
By December 1901, many of the internees in the camps were allowed to leave, and many of the men joined two new regiments that fought alongside the British, the Transvaal National Scouts and the Orange River Volunteers, in order to end the war. It is not difficult to see how this led to the Boer surrender of Vereeniging.
President Kruger”s statement regarding the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand proved to be correct. His nation was indeed steeped in blood, soldiers and children. The wealth from the gold attracted men who wanted to mine it, and their presence in a foreign land led to war. The Boer War changed the political landscape of South Africa forever. The British gained control of the largest gold mines in the world, causing a sense of resentment to grow in the hearts and minds of the Afrikaners. People on both sides mourned the loss of sons, daughters, husbands and wives, as no one was immune to the atrocities of the war. Although the parties involved did not fight directly for the gold mines, the race for riches precipitated the causes of the war.