Boer War

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The Boer War was a complex war, often referred to as the Boor War (have you seen what those guys looked like?), and the Bore War (have you read any histories of the thing?) primarily refers to a war that took place (1899-1902) in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. There was actually an earlier war fought between 1880 and 1881 that the British don't really like to talk about... because they lost, badly. This article focuses on the second but we'll discuss the first one too. Just note that when someone talks about "the Boer War", they're almost always talking about the second, much larger one.

It became perhaps most notable for the popularization of the concentration camp. Military historians tend to remember it for the monumentally incompetent generalship of British commanders, especially Redvers Buller,Wikipedia and for the guerrilla tactics of the BoersWikipedia in the war's later stages.


In the 1600s, with the major European powers grabbing up colonies all over the world, Africa started to become a focal point, at first largely as a stopover point for ships traveling around the continent to get to India. In the mid-1600s, the Dutch began settling in the area that is now South Africa, with farmers known as "Boers" (which means "farmer" in Dutch and Afrikaans, the dialect of Dutch spoken by Boers) driving out the native Africans to set up farms. During the Napoleonic Wars, France seized control of the Netherlands and turned it into a kingdom ruled by Napoleon's brother; to prevent Napoleon from similarly seizing the Dutch colony in South Africa, the British invaded and occupied South Africa themselves. After Napoleon was finally defeated, the British decided to just keep the colony and began settling it with their own people. Of course, the Boers and these newly arrived British colonists didn't particularly get along, and the Boers felt that their British overlords were unfairly favoring the British settlers over them (this is what we call "foreshadowing"). The last straw was when the British abolished slavery in 1834 (the Boers wanted to keep their slaves). The angry Boers said "fuck this" in Afrikaans, gathered their stuff, and left. In what is called the Great TrekWikipedia, the Boers moved hundreds of miles inland and set up a bunch of small republics under their control (the native Africans didn't really have a say in any of this). The British signed a treatyWikipedia with these republics in 1852, officially recognizing their independence.... for now.

In the 1870s, the British got the great idea to unify the South African colonies and native kingdoms into one big colony under their control, similar to what they had just done with Canada. In April 1877, the British straight up ignored the existence of that 1852 treaty, and issued a declaration that the Transvaal, the largest of the Boer republics, was being annexed. Where the Transvaal was having internal problems, not the least of which being that it was practically bankrupt thanks to Boers not paying their taxes and expensive wars against neighboring native African kingdoms, it was unable to resist, although a non-violent resistance began.[1] In 1879 the British tried to basically do the same to a native African kingdom called the Zulu, and this time they were met by violent resistance. The Anglo-Zulu WarWikipedia only lasted five months in 1879, and was characterized by small forces of British regulars being assaulted by huge numbers of Zulu impi (regiments consisting mostly of nearly naked African warriors armed with spears and leather shields), with one fairly large army being overwhelmed and slaughtered at IsandlwanaWikipedia; but otherwise, the rifle-armed British were usually able to resist the attacks and inflicted heavy casualties on the Zulu warriors. When the British were able to finally bring a larger and more powerful army equipped with machine guns, artillery, and cavalry to fight the main Zulu force at the Battle of UlundiWikipedia, the Zulu army was utterly crushed. The Zulu kingdom was dismantled and absorbed into the British colony.[2]

First Boer War[edit]

Boer commandos

In 1880, after seeing how successful the Zulus had been against the British, the Boers began violently resistingWikipedia British domination. The catalyst was when British officials seized a Boer's wagon because he hadn't paid some bullshit tax; when the British tried to auction off the wagon, a hundred or so Boers attacked. The Boers didn't have a standing army like the British or even the Zulu impis; instead they relied on rifle-armed militia regiments called "commandos" that turned out to be quite skilled at guerrilla warfare and marksmanship (translation: they were good at being sneaky and being snipers). The British, having just defeated the poorly-equipped Zulus, were not able to shift gears to fight an equally well-armed foe that refused to fight pitched battles against them. British redcoats (yep, they were still mostly wearing those red coats similar to what they wore in the American Revolution) stood out in the arid landscape, making easy targets for Boer snipers who blended into the terrain. In every battle, the Boer commandos inflicted heavy casualties on the redcoats while suffering relatively few in return. After the British suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Majuba HillWikipedia, where a commando assaulted and nearly destroyed a small, ill-prepared British army on top of the eponymous hill, the British agreed to terms with the Boers - the Boers would be mostly independent but would be under British suzerainty, meaning the British would handle their foreign affairs.

Second Boer War aka "The Boer War"[edit]

Afrikaner Commandos, c. 1900.

In the 1880s and 1890s, valuable resources like gold and diamonds were found in abundance in the lands of the Boers. This was a problem for the British colonial leaders like the infamous Cecil Rhodes since they decided that those resources rightfully belonged to them because... well... because they said so. British settlers called "uitlanders" ("outsiders") by the Boers began moving into the Boer republics to take part in the gold and diamond rushes, which of course caused friction with the Boers who didn't particularly want these outsiders to take what they had already "rightfully" taken from the native Africans. Plus the Boers feared that if enough uitlanders showed up and became Burghers (full citizens), they'd be able to influence political decisions in a direction the Boers didn't like (that is, friendly towards the British). Rhodes and his pals didn't give up though, and they arranged for the Jameson RaidWikipedia in 1895, where a small army of about 600 British colonial "police"[3] along with a few machine guns and light artillery marched into the Transvaal in the hopes of seizing its capital and starting a uitlander rebellion before the Boers could call up their commandos again. The raid failed due to poor planning and, most importantly, because the Boers discovered it before it even began. Boer forces picked at the force as it marched, ultimately attacking it in a full battle about 20 miles from the capital, easily defeating the force and capturing the survivors. The Boers were quite understandably upset about the whole affair. Rhodes and his friends still longed for all the gold and diamonds, so they started a propaganda campaign claiming that the uitlanders as well as native Africans (more of that foreshadowing) were being mistreated by the Boers (which wasn't totally untrue...), thereby gaining public support for what they thought would be a short, easy war. After lengthy attempts to negotiate a deal failed, on October 11, 1899 the two largest Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, declared warWikipedia on the British Empire. The war would be fought in three distinct phases.

The first phase was characterized by each side doing essentially what they had done in the first war, but this time with much larger armies- the Boers used their commandos to conduct a guerrilla war against the British army, and the incompetent British got their asses kicked. Commandos often ambushed and inflicted heavy casualties on British forces and even besieged some important towns in the British colony. Inept British commanders failed to learn anything from the first war, and ignored crucial intelligence about the Boers. This culminated in the Black WeekWikipedia of December 1899, where the British suffered three major defeats in the span of seven days, including one particular battleWikipedia where the British marched out in the rain straight in front of trenches ringed by barbed wire and full of Boer snipers. The result was pretty much exactly the bloodbath you'd expect (although a Scottish Highlander regiment managed to get up close and maul one of the Boer units). After Black Week, London decided it was time to get real and throw the full might of their massive empire against these annoying Boers.

Phase two started in early 1900 with a complete shake up of the British command. Lord KitchenerWikipedia, having just conquered Sudan for Britain, was brought in along with Lord RobertsWikipedia, who was coming off a successful campaign in Afghanistan and India. Huge armies were raised and sent down to South Africa - at the start of the war, there were about 13,000 men on the British side. When this new phase started, that number swelled to nearly 200,000, with more on the way, including soldiers from other British colonies like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. These enormous British forces successfully ended the Boer sieges and went on the offensive, attacking Boer territory. The British overwhelmed the Boers and occupied the republics; Lord Roberts offered amnesty to those Boers who surrendered and peacefully went back to their farms; almost 20,000 Boers took the offer. As summer turned to autumn that same year, it seemed that the war was coming to an end.

And that's when the third and most infamous phase began. Rather than surrender, the Boers doubled down on unrelenting guerrilla warfare. British commanders quickly realized that they only really controlled the territory where their armies were physically standing, which was mostly in the cities; the countryside was controlled by commandos. Kitchener, having taken over after Roberts's departure in late 1900, did not waste time adapting to the commandos and their guerrilla tactics. He used armored trains and small, easy to defend forts called blockhouses to cut down on the mobility of the commandos by limiting where they could go.[4] He implemented scorched earth tactics, where farms were burned and wells were destroyed, denying the commandos any food or water.[5] Thousands of captured Boer troops were hastily shipped off to prison camps in distant British territories like St. Helena.[6] Boer civilians including women and children were arrested and concentrated in special camps where they would be easier to control and thus deny the commandos their assistance; the camps were woefully mismanaged and undersupplied, so nearly 30,000 prisoners- mostly children- died of starvation or disease (or both).[7] Yes, you read that right... although similar ideas had historically been used, this is where the modern concept of concentration camps originated. British armies swept the countryside, often with help from African auxiliary troops and even "joiners", Boer spies and agents who sided with the British.[8] Nevertheless, the stubborn guerrilla campaign and the ruthless British countermeasures continued for nearly two more years.

By May 1902, the British grew weary of the costly war and just wanted it to end; the Boer troops were exhausted and starving while their families were horribly dying in the concentration camps. The Boers finally surrendered to the British and ratified a peace treatyWikipedia on May 31, 1902, ending the war.


The peace treaty was surprisingly lenient, as the British were apparently overjoyed to be able to put this awful business behind them. The British even went so far as to compensate the surviving Boers for their destroyed farms. However, the Boer republics were officially ended and became British colonies. Although Rhodes died several weeks before the war's end, his friends and allies finally got the gold and diamonds they so desperately desired. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was created as a "dominion", a semi-independent country with the monarch of the United Kingdom as its paramount ruler, a lot like Canada and Australia; it fought on the side of the Allies during World War I and was one of the first countries to join the ill-fated League of Nations. Racist laws and policies that treated the native Africans as inferior people were already passed by the Boer republics and stayed in place after the Union's creation – these would be the groundwork leading into Apartheid, a brutal system of legal segregation in place in South Africa from the 1940s until the 1990s.

The Boer War caused a bit of controversy back in England as reports of Kitchener's brutality and the inhumane conditions of the concentration camps started coming in. Little came of this as Kitchener basically shrugged and said that he had done what needed to be done to win the war; the King punished Kitchener by promoting him to viscount and making him the governor of India.[9] Kitchener and his glorious mustache would go on to be the British version of Uncle SamWikipedia during World War I.

In fiction[edit]

Probably the most influential depiction of the conflict, to later generations, was the story Breaker MorantWikipedia by the Australian writer Kenneth G. Ross, dramatizing the trial of three Aussie (pronounced "Ozzie") army officers on a charge of shooting prisoners of war. It became a stage play and then a widely admired (1980) film. It depicted everyone involved as a right bastard. The "message" was that war makes people into right bastards.

Fun facts[edit]

Why did the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories get knighted? After serving as a field doctor for the British during the second war, he wrote a book defending Kitchener's conduct and the fact that there was a war in the first place. The establishment liked the book, so he became Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.[note 1]

A certain British officer named Robert Baden-PowellWikipedia was in one of the sieges during the second war, and personally conducted reconnaissance missions. After the war, drawing upon his personal experience as well as lessons learned from his foes, he began writing instruction manuals for teaching young boys about survival techniques, patriotism, and self-reliance so that they could be good soldiers someday. He subsequently used these lessons to create the precursor to the Boy Scouts.

See also[edit]


  1. As the book has long since passed into the public domain, you can read it here.


  1. First Anglo Boer War, South African History Online.
  2. Zulu War, The National Army Museum
  3. Rhodes wasn't allowed to have his own private army, but he was allowed to have a police force under the charter of the British South Africa Company.... so he raised an army and called it "police". See the Wikipedia article on the British South Africa CompanyWikipedia
  4. Blockhouses of the Boer War, Australian Boer War Memorial
  5. Imperial Firefighters: Roberts, Kitchener, and the Anglo-Boer War, The Past
  6. St. Helena Honours Boer War Prisoners, History Today
  7. South African Concentration Camps, New Zealand History
  8. THE STORY OF TWO 'JOINERS' The capture, trial, sentencing and execution of Pieter Bouwer and Adolf van Emmenes, The South African Military History Society
  9. Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, Britannica