Boer War

11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902

General Background

The history of the events leading up to the fighting can be traced back to the partition of Africa among the major European powers of the period and in particular to the pressure placed upon the original Dutch settlers of the Transvaal, and the opportunities opened up, by the discovery of the extraordinarily rich gold field on the Witwatersrand. This was in 1886 and acted as a magnet to draw in many foreigners, most of whom were British (and Manx as the Manx mines were then in decline). These 'Uitlanders' were not welcomed by the Transvaalers led by President Kruger who announced that they would be tolerated only on the agreement that they had no votes and agreed to heavy taxes both on their profits and in the form of import duties. Even on these terms the foreigners flocked in, the Transvaal moved from being the poorest to being the richest province in South Africa. Kruger bought extensive armaments, imported Dutch civil servants and tightened the anti-settler (in particular the anti-English) laws. Transvaal had been denied its own sea-port by British acquisition or control of lands to the North, East and West leaving the Cape Province of mixed Dutch/English to the South controlled by Cecil Rhodes. Kruger had provoked a British ultimatum in 1895 over his attempt to force trade away from the Cape ports to the Portuguese harbour of Delagoa Bay linked by a railway line. He gave way, but increasing complaints were being received in London from the 'Uitlanders' in the Transvaal. Ensor in his excellent volume in the Oxford History of England (sic!) then lays blame on the USA President Cleveland who in 1895 in support of American syndicalists had decided "to twist the Lion's tail" in a dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela over disputed lands - American public opinion being in favour of a war with the UK over it; luckily more sensible heads prevailed and it was settled by negotiation (Treaty of Washington 1897) - however it indicated to Kruger that Great Britain was isolated and that Germany would be anti-British. An illegal raid in late 1895 organised (or at least countenanced) by Rhodes to take Johannesburg by a force led by Dr Jameson from Bechuanaland resulted in surrender of the raiders, their repudiation by London and the resignation of Rhodes. This strengthened Kruger's hands at home, but when the raiders stood trial in London , even though convicted and sentenced, British public opinion was strongly in favour of the raiders. The raid also cost London the support of the Dutch in the Cape Colony and the Orange Free State; another effect was to encourage a rising in Matabeleland which demonstrated the power of guerrilla warfare. Kruger continued to invest heavily in armaments and after the elections in 1898 effectively made himself dictator. Tension, already high, was increased by the killing of an English workman by a Boer policeman in circumstances that to many seemed to indicate murder; yet at the trial the policeman was exonerated and even commended by the judge. A petition sent to London by the 'Uitlanders' had too many names to be ignored and in March 1899 a sequence of events started which failed to keep the peace, and by September 1899 both sides had started to move troops with war commencing in October. Any hopes of peace were not helped by the 'swaggering aggressiveness' that had developed in the British public after the Sudan campaign of 1897-8.

The Boers initially had a major advantage with some 50,000 mounted infantry, well equipped and better gunned than the 14,700 regular troops that Britain had at that time in South Africa. In September 1899 some 10,000 men were moved from India and somewhat later some 47,000 men from the UK.

Ensor splits the 32 months of the war into five phases -the first lasting until February 1900 being the Boer invasion of Natal and Cape Colony, the second (until October 1900 when Kruger fled into Portuguese territory) being the Boer resistance to the British invasion , the third (until March 1901) being the very successful Boer guerrilla war before the British determined how to combat it. The fourth phase was a scheme to starve the guerrillas of food and support by dividing the country with wire fences and blockhouses - the inhabitants (mostly women and children) of each 'swept area' being moved to concentration camps where mismanagement meant that disease killed many (maybe 1 in 5 !). The fifth and final phase being when the state of these camps was exposed to the public, the British prime-minister Chamberlain took over control and attempted to rectify matters. This public acceptance and rectification of the situation eased the final stages of negotiation to end the conflict.

Ensor is of the opinion that it was faulty strategy that stopped the Boers from reaching a position of strength in the first phase that would probably have led the British to negotiate. He describes the sieges of Kimberly and Ladysmith as fruitless and wasteful of effort as was their attempt to annex Durban - this wasted time allowed the British to move troops into place. Northern Natal saw the first fighting at Talana Hill and Elandslaagte. The Natal Field force was led by Sir George White (an old King Williamite) but was forced into Ladysmith; Kimberley (with its large civilian population) and Makeking (defended by Col Baden-Powell) were also besieged. The British Army was led by Sir Redvers Buller with Generals Gatacre, Cleary and Methuen under him. Most went well until December 10th when within 5 days some 2,000 men were lost on the British side, Buller lost his nerve and was replaced as chief commander by Lords Roberts and Kitchener. Buller lost another 1700 men in January 1900 at Spion Kop but Roberts , the better strategist, moved the war more in the British favour and at the end of February 4,000 Boers were surrounded and captured signalling the end of the Boer invasion.

Manx Combatants and Civilians

These are covered elsewhere - the lists published in the papers show those moved from India to South Africa, the reservists moved from the UK and the volunteers after the December debacles .


There are numerous books on the Boer War - Two contrasting ones are

R.Ensor England 1870-1914 in Oxford History of England 1936 (ISBN 0-19821705-6) and
T. Jackson The Boer War Channel4/Macmillan 1999 (ISBN 0-7522-1702-X), the later is profusely illustrated and also deals with the native black population, totally ignored in Ensor's magisterial overview.

One Manx soldier's story is in Manx Quarterly #2

 Manx Note Book   [History Index]


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2002