History Podcasts

The Boer War

The Boer War

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

The Boer Wars was the name given to the South African Wars of 1880-1 and 1899-1902, that were fought between the British and the descendants of the Dutch settlers (Boers) in Africa. After the first Boer War, William Gladstone granted the Boers self-government in the Transvaal. (1)

Paul Kruger, resented the colonial policy of Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Milner which they feared would deprive the Transvaal of its independence. After receiving military equipment from Germany, the Boers had a series of successes on the borders of Cape Colony and Natal between October 1899 and January 1900. Although the Boers only had 88,000 soldiers, led by the outstanding soldiers such as Louis Botha, and Jan Smuts, the Boers were able to successfully besiege the British garrisons at Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley. On the outbreak of the Boer War, the conservative government announced a national emergency and sent in extra troops. (2)

Asquith called for support for the government and "an unbroken front" and became known as a "Liberal Imperialist". Campbell-Bannerman disagreed with Asquith and refused to to endorse the despatch of ten thousand troops to South Africa as he thought the move "dangerous when the the government did not know what it might lead to". David Lloyd George also disagreed with Asquith and complained that this was a war that had been started by Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary. (3)

It has been claimed that Lloyd George "sympathised with the Boers, seeing them as a pastoral community like Welshmen before the industrial revolution". He supported their claim for independence under his slogan "Home Rule All Round" assuming "it would lead to a free association within the British Empire". He argued that the Boers "would only be subdued after much suffering, cruelty and cost." (4)

Lloyd George also saw this anti-war campaign as an opportunity to stop Asquith becoming the next leader of the Liberals. Lloyd George was on the left of the party and had been campaigning with little success for the introduction of old age pensions. The idea had been rejected by the Conservative government as being "too expensive". In one speech he made the point: "The war, I am told, has already cost £16,000,000 and I ask you to compare that sum with what it would cost to fund the old age pension schemes.... when a shell exploded it carried away an old age pension and the only satisfaction was that it killed 200 Boers - fathers of families, sons of mothers. Are you satisfied to give up your old age pension for that?" (5)

The overwhelmingly majority of the public remained fervently jingoistic. David Lloyd George came under increasing attack and after a speech at Bangor on 4th April 1900, he was interrupted throughout his speech, and after the meeting, as he was walking away, he was struck over the head with a bludgeon. His hat took the impact and although stunned, he was able to take refuge in a cafe, guarded by the police.

On 5th July, 1900, at a meeting addressed by Lloyd George in Liskeard ended in pandemonium. Around fifty "young roughs stormed the platform and occupied part of it, while a soldier in khaki was carried shoulder-high from end to end of the hall and ladies in the front seats escaped hurriedly by way of the platform door." Lloyd George tried to keep speaking and it was only when some members of the audience began throwing chairs at him that he left the hall. (6)

On 25th July, a motion on the Boer War, caused a three way split in the Liberal Party. A total of 40 "Liberal Imperialists" that included H. H. Asquith, Edward Grey, Richard Haldane, and Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery, supported the government's policy in South Africa. Henry Campbell-Bannerman and 34 others abstained, whereas 31 Liberals, led by Lloyd George voted against the motion.

Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, decided to take advantage of the divided Liberal Party and on 25th September 1900, he dissolved Parliament and called a general election. Lloyd George, admitted in one speech he was in a minority but it was his duty as a member of the House of Commons to give his constituents honest advice. He went on to make an attack on Tory jingoism. "The man who tries to make the flag an object of a single party is a greater traitor to that flag than the man who fires upon it." (7)

Henry Campbell-Bannerman with a difficult task of holding together the strongly divided Liberal Party and they were unsurprisingly defeated in the 1900 General Election. The Conservative Party won 402 seats against the 183 achieved by Liberal Party. However, anti-war MPs did better than those who defended the war. David Lloyd George increased the size of his majority in Caernarvon Borough. Other anti-war MPs such as Henry Labouchere and John Burns both increased their majorities. In Wales, of ten Liberal candidates hostile to the war, nine were returned, while in Scotland every major critic was victorious.

John Grigg argues that it was not the anti-war Liberals who lost the party the election. "The Liberals were beaten because they were disunited and hopelessly disorganised. The war certainly added to their confusion, but this was already so flagrant that they were virtually bound to lose, war or no war. The government also had the advantage of improved trade since 1895, which the war, admittedly, turned into a boom. All things considered, the Liberals did remarkably well." (8)

Lord Kitchener, the Chief of Staff in South Africa, reacted to these raids by destroying Boer farms and moving civilians into concentration camps. It was reported: "When the eight, ten or twelve people who lived in the bell tent were squeezed into it to find shelter against the heat of the sun, the dust or the rain, there was no room to stir and the air in the tent was beyond description, even though the flaps were rolled up properly and fastened. Soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine." (9)

Emily Hobhouse, formed the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children in 1900. It was an organisation set up: "To feed, clothe, harbour and save women and children - Boer, English and other - who were left destitute and ragged as a result of the destruction of property, the eviction of families or other incidents resulting from the military operations". Except for members of the Society of Friends, very few people were willing to contribute to this fund. (10)

Hobhouse later wrote: "It was late in the summer of 1900 that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women that became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations. That the poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance. And from that moment I was determined to go to South Africa in order to render assistance to them". (11)

Hobhouse arrived in South Africa on 27th December, 1900. Hobhouse argued that Lord Kitchener’s "Scorched Earth" policy included the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields - to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base. Civilians were then forcibly moved into the concentration camps. Although this tactic had been used by Spain (Ten Years' War) and the United States (Philippine-American War), it was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted. She pointed this out in a report that she sent to the government led by Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury. (12)

When she returned to England, Hobhouse campaigned against the British Army's scorched earth and concentration camp policy. William St John Fremantle Brodrick, the Secretary of State for War argued that the interned Boers were "contented and comfortable" and stated that everything possible was being done to ensure satisfactory conditions in the camps. David Lloyd George took up the case in the House of Commons and accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. (13)

After a meeting with Emily Hobhouse, the leader of the Liberal Party, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, gave his support to Lloyd George against Asquith and the Liberal Imperialists on the subject of the Boer War. In a speech to the National Reform Union he provided a detailed account of Hobhouse's report. He asked "When is a war not a war?" and then provided his own answer "When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa". (14)

The British action in South Africa grew increasingly unpopular and anti-war Liberal MPs and the leaders of the Labour Party saw it as an example of the worst excesses of imperialism. The Boer War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902. The peace settlement brought to an end the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as Boer republics. However, the British granted the Boers £3 million for restocking and repairing farm lands and promised eventual self-government. David Lloyd George commented: "They are generous terms for the Boers. Much better than those we offered them 15 months ago - after spending £50,000 in the meantime". (15)

It was late in the summer of 1900 that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women that became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations. And from that moment I was determined to go to South Africa in order to render assistance to them.

The Lord Mayor of London appeared in his robes and made a speech to the crowd. I cannot remember his exact words, but they announced that after intolerable insults from an old man named Kruger, Her Majesty's government had declared war upon the South African Boers. There was terrific and tumultuous cheering. Top hats were flung up after the crowd had sung "God Save the Queen". I don't believe I joined in the cheering. Certainly I did not fling up my top hat. Brought up in the Gladstonian tradition to the Liberals, and being, anyhow, a liberal-minded youth hostile to the loud-mouthed jingoism of the time, I was not swept by enthusiasm for a war which seemed to me, as it did to others, a bit of bullying by the big old British Empire.

You hear the squeal of the things all above, the crash and pop all about, and wonder when your turn will come. Perhaps one falls quite near you, swooping irresistibly, as if the devil had kicked it. You come to watch the shells - to listen to the deafening rattle of the big guns, the shrilling whistle of the small, to guess at their pace and their direction. You see now a house smashed in, a heap of chips and rubble; now you see a splinter kicking up a fountain of clinking stone-shivers. This is a dangerous time. If you have nothing else to do, you get shells on the brain, think and talk of nothing else, and finish by going into a hole in the ground before daylight, and hiring better men than yourself to bring you down your meals.

There was a remarkable decrease in the applications at the soup kitchen today, yesterday, and the day before, thanks to the arrival of enormous clouds of locusts, which in ordinary times are unwelcome visitors, but in our present condition were hailed with joy. The natives gathered sacks full, and feed on them tell their stomachs project in prominence of plenitude.

When the eight, ten or twelve people who lived in the bell tent were squeezed into it to find shelter against the heat of the sun, the dust or the rain, there was no room to stir and the air in the tent was beyond description, even though the flaps were rolled up properly and fastened. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.

1832 Reform Act and the House of Lords (Answer Commentary)

The Chartists (Answer Commentary)

Women and the Chartist Movement (Answer Commentary)

Benjamin Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)

William Gladstone and the 1884 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Canal Mania (Answer Commentary)

Early Development of the Railways (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Answer Commentary)

The Plight of the Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)

Health Problems in Industrial Towns (Answer Commentary)

Public Health Reform in the 19th century (Answer Commentary)

Walter Tull: Britain's First Black Officer (Answer Commentary)

Football and the First World War (Answer Commentary)

Football on the Western Front (Answer Commentary)

Käthe Kollwitz: German Artist in the First World War (Answer Commentary)

American Artists and the First World War (Answer Commentary)

Sinking of the Lusitania (Answer Commentary)

(1) Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (1995) page 609

(2) Robert Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (1970)

(3) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 122

(4) Hugh Purcell, Lloyd George (2006) page 18

(5) William P. George, Backbencher (1983) page 299

(6) John Grigg, The Young Lloyd George (1973) pages 266-267

(7) David Lloyd George, speech at Caernarvon (19th September, 1900)

(8) John Grigg, The Young Lloyd George (1973) page 273

(9) Emily Hobhouse, report on Bloemfontein Concentration Camp (January, 1901)

(10) Elaine Harrison, Emily Hobhouse : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Anna Ruth Fry, Emily Hobhouse (1929) page 156

(12) Emily Hobhouse, report on Bloemfontein Concentration Camp (January, 1901)

(13) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 138

(14) Henry Campbell-Bannerman, speech at the National Reform Union (14th June, 1901)

(15) David Lloyd George, letter to Margaret Owen (2nd June 1902)

The Boer War

  • The 20th Century
    • People & Events
    • Fads & Fashions
    • Early 20th Century
    • The 20s
    • The 30s
    • The 40s
    • The 50s
    • The 60s
    • The 80s
    • The 90s

    From October 11, 1899, until May 31, 1902, the Second Boer War (also known as the South African War and the Anglo-Boer War) was fought in South Africa between the British and the Boers (Dutch settlers in southern Africa). The Boers had founded two independent South African republics (the Orange Free State and the South African Republic) and had a long history of distrust and dislike for the British that surrounded them. After gold was discovered in the South African Republic in 1886, the British wanted the area under their control.

    In 1899, the conflict between the British and the Boers burgeoned into a full-fledged war that was fought in three stages: a Boer offensive against British command posts and railway lines, a British counteroffensive that brought the two republics under British control, and a Boer guerrilla resistance movement that prompted a widespread scorched-earth campaign by the British and the internment and deaths of thousands of Boer civilians in British concentration camps.

    The first phase of the war gave the Boers the upper hand over British forces, but the latter two phases eventually brought victory to the British and placed the previously independent Boer territories firmly under British dominion -- leading, eventually, to the complete unification of South Africa as a British colony in 1910.

    Underlying causes

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

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

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

    The Boer War

    [Ed. See the previous article for a look at the events leading up to the outbreak of war]

    The British Government entered on the struggle upon the basis of a huge miscalculation. There appears to have been a general impression that the Boers, on a liberal estimate, could not put as many as thirty thousand efficient men in the field, and that thirty thousand farmers armed with rifles would by no means be a match for fifty thousand British regulars armed with superior artillery.

    As a matter of fact the two republics could take the field with armies numbering not far short of eighty thousand and for years past the Transvaal had been utilising the wealth extracted from the gold-mines to accumulate war-stores and to purchase guns which com­pletely outranged those of the British. Their forces were exceedingly mobile, being almost entirely mounted infantry, amply provided with horses which were accustomed to the country, while they themselves were consummate horse-masters and dead shots. Moreover, the strategical advantages enjoyed by the Boers were immense.

    Their frontier was an elongated semicircle guarded by mountain ranges exceedingly difficult for regular troops to penetrate while they themselves, holding the interior lines, could with great rapidity transfer large masses of troops from point to point" of the frontier, an operation entirely impossible for the British.

    Also at the moment chosen for the declaration of war the British regular troops, of which the great bulk were merely infantry, numbered not much more than twenty thousand men and, for political reasons, two-thirds of these had been massed with complete disregard of strategical considerations at Ladysmith and Dundee in the northern angle cf Natal.

    On the opposite side of the Orange Free State a strong garrison held Kimberley, the centre of the diamond mines, and to the north of Kimberley, on the Transvaal frontier, Colonel Baden-Powell was at Mafeking with some nine hundred combatants under his command - volunteers and irregulars. Other points at the south were held by Generals French and Gatacre, but co-operation between these various forces was quite impossible.

    Though the Boer commanders showed no little ability in the field, their conceptions of strategy were happily of an elementary character. The sound policy for them would have been to leave containing forces sufficient to check active operations from Ladysmith and Kimberley, and to strike at once in force at the Cape itself, a policy which, with the greatly superior numbers which they controlled at the outset, would have been entirely practicable.

    An invasion of the Cape would probably have brought to their standard large numbers of the dis­affected Cape Dutch, and the British would in that case have had to reconquer the Cape itself. Instead of this, however, the Boers concentrated their energies upon the sieges of Ladysmith, of Kimberley, and of Mafeking.

    At the very outset it became obvious that the British position at Glencoe near Dundee was untenable. By October 26th the force there had effected its retreat to Ladysmith, where the army remained shut up for four months. In November reinforcements arrived at the Cape under command of General Buller.

    The fact that Mr Rhodes was at Kimberley had been extremely useful, because it had filled the Boers with an intense desire to capture that post and the person of the man whom they regarded as their arch enemy so that Kimberley for them acquired a wholly fictitious importance.

    General Buller decied that both Ladysmith and Kimberley must be relieved he himself undertook the campaign on the east, while that on the west was entrusted to lord Methuen. The Boers contented themselves with occupying the ground beyond the Tugela, blocking the way to Ladysmith, while advanced forces were thrown out from the neighbourhood of Kimberley to block the progress of Lord Methuen.

    In the second week in December came a series of disasters. After a sharp struggle, Methuen forced the passage of the Modder River, and on the night of the 10th he attempted to surprise the Boer General Cronje in the strongly entrenched position which he occupied at Magersfontein. The task was entrusted to the Highland Brigade. But the Highlanders advancing in the dark in close order, which in a night attack must be preserved till the last moment, reached the enemy's lines before they knew they had done so.

    Suddenly, without warning, a storm of fire belched forth from the Boer entrenchments in three minutes six hundred of the Highlanders had fallen. They broke, only to rally the moment they reached cover, but an advance was impossible. Though reinforcements presently arrived, to carry the entrenchments by a frontal attack was out of the question.

    The advance to the relief of Kimberley was completely blocked. On the previous day General Gatacre in the south had attempted to strike at a Boer force which was at last invading Cape Colony. His force was cut in two at Stormberg, and six hundred British soldiers became prisoners of war. In the east on the 15th Buller attempted the passage of the Tugela, and was repulsed with heavy loss at Colenso. The whole offensive movement was entirely paralysed.

    The "black week" aroused the nation to the consciousness of the immensity of the task which it had undertaken, but with grim determination it resolved to carry it through. The call to arms met with an eager response not only in the British Isles but from Canada and from Australasia.

    The veteran Lord Roberts, the hero of the Afghan War, was despatched to take the supreme command, having as his Chief of Staff Lord Kitchener, who had achieved the highest reputation by the reconquest of the Soudan, of which the story will presently be told.

    It was not till the second week in February that Lord Roberts was ready to put his new plan of campaign in operation. In the meantime Ladysmith had been subjected to a fierce attack, beaten off with dogged valour.

    Again General Buller had carried a large force across the Tugela to storm and carry the Boer position at Spionkop - for it would seem that at the end of the day the Boers believed that the British were established on the crest, and were preparing to beat a retreat. But so deadly had the struggle been that the exceptionally gallant officer, who had taken the command when General Woodgate fell mortally wounded, believed that the position was wholly untenable and it was the British, not the Boers who retreated.

    Yet Ladysmith still held out with grim resolution, Kimberley defied its besiegers in the west, while the lively and resourceful defence of Mafeking gave even a flavour of comedy to the great tragedy.

    Battle of Paardeberg
    From the moment of the opening of Roberts' campaign the tide turned completely. Buller was left to fight his way to Ladysmith, but except for this the whole of the now large force collected in South Africa was to be engaged in a sweeping movement of invasion, taking Kimberley by the way.

    While attention was concentrated on the advance of the main army, General French, with a strong column of cavalry, was despatched on a race by a more easterly route to ensure the envelopment of the Boers before Kimberley. On the fourth day the siege was raised.

    The besiegers made a dash for the gap which the slower movements of Roberts with his infantry force had not yet closed up. But one British detachment was able to hang on the rear of the retreating Cronje, while the cavalry again issuing from Kimberley headed him off the line on which he was retiring.

    At Paardeberg Cronje was trapped after a furious fight, and in spite of the obstinacy with which he held out in a position elaborately entrenched, his whole force was reduced to surrender nine days after the battle of Paardeberg, on February 27th.

    Relief of Mafeking
    While these successful operations were being carried on in the western theatre, Buller had at last found a practicable line of advance. This time the turning movement was successful, and on the day after Cronje's surrender the Boers were on the retreat from before Ladysmith. In seventeen days the entire aspect of the war had been changed.

    A fortnight later Lord Roberts was in Bloemfontein. A great epidemic of typhoid delayed further operations until May 1st, when the march upon Pretoria began. On May 17 Mafeking was relieved, a piece of intelligence which sent the entire population at home temporarily off its head. On June 5th Lord Roberts was in Pretoria.

    Diamond Hill
    The sweeping advance met with occasional resistance, but the Boers were unable to attempt a pitched battle. Still, however, a detached force of Free-Staters, generally commanded by Christian De Wet, carried on perpetual raids upon the British communications and snapped up isolated detachments while the rapidity of De Wet's movements and the completeness of his information enabled him to evade pursuit.

    President Kruger had himself departed from Pretoria, but his official Government and the Transvaal army were still in being. A severe defeat was inflicted on this force at Diamond Hill on June 11th, which may be regarded as the last pitched battle of the war. And yet it was not till September that Mr. Kruger had so far despaired of the republic that he withdrew to the coast and took ship for Europe.

    Lord Roberts, with a somewhat premature optimism, was able to announce that the war was practically over, and departed, leaving Lord Kitchener to complete the subjugation of the rebels who still remained in arms - rebels in the exceedingly technical sense that they were in arms against the power which had formally proclaimed its sovereignty. The chief political authority was still in the hands of Sir Alfred, who had now become Viscount Milner.

    At home Lord Salisbury took the opportunity for appealing to the country by a dissolution, when the electorate definitely pronounced that the work of settling South Africa should be completed by the Government which had entered upon the war.

    The attitude of a section of the Liberal party had produced an impression that whatever might be the sins and shortcomings of the Unionists it would be dangerous to entrust the government to a party which was suspected of an unpatriotic sympathy with the country's enemies. The Unionist majority after the general election still stood at 130.

    Yet for another eighteen months the war remained particularly lively. The Boer leaders, so long as they were able to maintain a guerilla warfare, declined to consider themselves beaten or to accept anything short of that complete sovereign independence for which they had been fighting from the beginning.

    The brilliant audacity and resourcefulness of several leaders, and, above all, of the ubiquitous and irrepressible De Wet, inspired the hearty admiration of the British while the conduct of many of the farm people, who acted as combatants or non-combatants according to the convenience of the moment, kept alive an acute irritation.

    Concentration camps
    The severities involved were angrily denounced and while the population was to a great extent gathered into "concentration camps" by the British Government, and there maintained and kept in security, fictitious stories of British brutality were freely circulated and believed all over the European Continent. From first to last, however, one fact had been conspicuous.

    While the press of nearly all Europe united in denouncing the British, the Powers had recognised the futility of any intervention in a war which would involve fighting not with British armies but with British fleets. The British command of the sea was so decisive that the Powers, whatever their inclinations might be, had no choice but to leave the Boer States to take care of themselves.

    End of the War
    Meanwhile Lord Kitchener, with imperturbable persistency, drew the lines of his block-houses across the country until he had at last formed an impenetrable net, pressing ever closer and closer upon the Boers, who still fought on until at last that indomitable people recognised that extermination was the only alternative to submission.

    In March 1902 they opened negotiations, which were conducted on behalf of the British with unfailing tact and firmness by Lord Kitchener. On May 31st the provisional government signed the treaty which terminated the war.

    The republics were incorporated in the British Empire, in the first instance as Crown colonies, but with the promise or at least the hope that before long they might be placed in the same position as the colonies which enjoyed responsible government Great Britain provided them with £3,000,000 in order to establish them on a working financial basis and the use of the Dutch language was to be permitted in the schools and law courts.

    Broadly speaking, it was resolved that the conquered states should not be treated as subject nationalities which must be kept in subjection with a strong hand the way was prepared instead for accepting them as free and loyal denizens of the British Empire.

    A History of Britain

    This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

    The Boer War ends in South Africa

    In Pretoria, representatives of Great Britain and the Boer states sign the Treaty of Vereeniging, officially ending the three-and-a-half-year South African Boer War.

    The Boers, also known as Afrikaners, were the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of southern Africa. Britain took possession of the Dutch Cape colony in 1806 during the Napoleonic wars, sparking resistance from the independence-minded Boers, who resented the Anglicization of South Africa and Britain’s anti-slavery policies. In 1833, the Boers began an exodus into African tribal territory, where they founded the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The two new republics lived peaceably with their British neighbors until 1867, when the discovery of diamonds and gold in the region made conflict between the Boer states and Britain inevitable.

    Minor fighting with Britain began in the 1890s and in 1899 full-scale war ensued. By mid-June of 1900, British forces had captured most major Boer cities and formally annexed their territories, but the Boers launched a guerrilla war that frustrated the British occupiers. Beginning in 1901, the British began a strategy of systematically searching out and destroying these guerrilla units, while herding the families of the Boer soldiers into concentration camps. By 1902, the British had crushed the Boer resistance, and on May 31 of that year, the Peace of Vereeniging was signed, ending hostilities.

    The treaty recognized the British military administration over Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and authorized a general amnesty for Boer forces. In 1910, the autonomous Union of South Africa was established by the British. It included Transvaal, the Orange Free State, the Cape of Good Hope and Natal as provinces.

    The Boer War: The Opening Act in a Violent Century

    David Carlin writes about American and European History. He just finished a series on the July Crisis and the outbreak of WWI. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College where he majored in History. He can be reached at dcarli[email protected]

    "When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa."

    -Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal MP (later British PM), 1901

    When gold was discovered in South Africa in 1884, many were ecstatic. Paul Kruger, President of the Boer republic of the Transvaal did not share the enthusiasm. &ldquoThis gold will cause our country to be soaked in blood.&rdquo Indeed, the old Afrikaner would be proved right. Thousands of fortune-seekers from across Europe descended on his humble nation, turning a rough mining encampment into the city of Johannesburg almost overnight. The Boers looked upon influx of foreign miners and businessmen, &ldquouitlanders&rdquo in Africaans, with fear and disgust.

    The Republic of the Transvaal and its sister, the Orange Free State, had been set up by the descendants of Dutch settlers who had trekked north in the early 19th century to escape British rule. Called Boers, from the Dutch word for farmer, this community had developed a unique culture during the 200 years since first arriving in South Africa. They were deeply insular, religiously conservative, and fiercely independent. In the 1870s, the grasping hands of the British Empire reached and annexed the Transvaal. When conflict broke out in 1881, the Boers fought fiercely and reclaimed their independence.

    The peace after the First Boer War was always shaky. Britain had certainly not relinquished its designs on South Africa&rsquos natural resources. The growing uitlander population was also a source of rising tension. These foreigners, many of them British, were becoming wealthy and increasingly demanding political power in the Transvaal. The uitlanders received encouragement from British arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers, as well as the British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Both men believed that incorporating the Boer Republics into the British Empire was inevitable. In 1895, Rhodes funded the Jameson Raid, an ill-fated mission to seize the Transvaal. While the British government officially disavowed the raid, many in London had tacitly supported it. Anglo-Boer relations reached a new low and war appeared inevitable. In 1899, the British government forced the matter by issuing an ultimatum demanding full rights for the uitlanders. Knowing full-well that the Boers would refuse, Britain had sent troops to South Africa.

    Britain was the wealthiest nation on earth and possessed an empire upon which the sun never set. Since the defeat of Napoleon, the 19 th century had been a nearly unbroken procession of British progress and expansion. At the outbreak of the Second Boer War (called the Boer War hereafter), London was awash in excitement. It would hardly be a war at all. The chief worry of the British soldiers was that the fighting would be over before they arrived. The determined Boers would see to it that the British had all the fighting they could handle and then some.

    Rather than the expected easy British victory, the war began with disastrous Britain defeatson all fronts. In three battles, the British suffered nearly 3,000 casualties. The London press dubbed it &ldquoBlack Week,&rdquo and the Empire was sent into an uproar. The Boers also besieged several important British settlements. In the field, Boer leaders repeatedly surprised the British forces with their superior mobility and better knowledge of the local terrain. Rather than facing the British directly, the Boers used hit-and-run tactics to disrupt British supply lines.

    The aging Queen Victoria spoke for her empire after Black Week when she defiantly announced: &ldquowe are not interested in the possibilities of defeat they do not exist.&rdquo Britain re-doubled its efforts, ultimately sending nearly half a million troops from across the Empire to overwhelm the total force of 50,000 Boer commandos. In early 1900, this overwhelming influx of men and materiel decisively turned the tide. The cities of Kimberley, Mafeking, and Ladysmith, which had been besieged by the Boers, were soon liberated. The British offensive then advanced on Pretoria and Bloemfontein, capitals of the Boer Republics.

    After the capitals fell and the main Boer forces were defeated, many, including the British commanders, believed the war was over. The British even announced the re-annexation of the Transvaal. However, the Boers refused to surrender. Their governments continued to operate on the run, and bands of Boer commandos embarked on a guerrilla campaign.

    Britain&rsquos response to the Boer insurgency was swift and brutal. British military leaders ordered the destruction of Boer farms and homesteads and the internment of Boer civilians. The roundup soon encompassed over 100,000 Boers, mostly women and children, in a series of concentration camps across South Africa. As the British focused on pacifying the country, they paid scant attention to their captives, who began to die of starvation and disease at horrifying rates. By the time the British forced the Boers to surrender in May 1902, over 20,000 women and children had perished.

    Outside South Africa, the Boer War has been largely forgotten amidst the sea of 20 th century horrors. However, the Boer War provided an uncanny preview of 20 th century warfare. The killing power of modern weaponry was on full display, upending centuries of military theory. The stubborn Boer insurgency provided a guide for later asymmetric conflicts. The British responded to resistance by extending the boundaries of the war to the entire Boer population. The doctrine of total war rationalized the wanton destruction of civilian property. The awful suffering imposed sparked global outrage and inspired a powerful antiwar movement in Britain itself.

    The Boer War also shaped the careers of several towering figures. War correspondent Winston Churchill&rsquos daring escape from Boer captivity made him a household name. Attempting to demonstrate India&rsquos vital role in the Empire, Mahatma Gandhi organized a volunteer ambulance corps. Future South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts led a series of audacious assaults on the British Cape Colony. Reporter Sol Plaatje, who later founded the African National Congress, witnessed the racism of both the British and the Boers. Their voices provide eloquent accounts of the 20th century&rsquos first conflict.

    Infernal Machines

    The 19th century witnessed tremendous advances in military science that fundamentally changed the nature of warfare. Explosives developed by Alfred Nobel and others made the cannonball of Napoleon&rsquos day seem almost quaint. Hiram Maxim&rsquos machine gun, a water-cooled weapon, could fire a remarkable 600 rounds per minute. Until the Boer War, European colonial powers were content to use these devastating new weapons primarily against poorly armed local populations. Many European leaders believed these weapons would not be used in &ldquocivilized&rdquo warfare. Instead, they stubbornly relied on outdated military doctrines such as the gallant frontal charge.

    For the British high command, the Boer War was a rude awakening. Their Boer foes had the most recent quick-firing rifles, machine guns, and artillery to boot. At the war&rsquos outset, British troops marched in close formation and aggressively charged into battle. Invariably, they were slaughtered by the Boers. Sol Plaatje reported with amazement, &ldquothey [the British] stroll about in a heavy volley far more recklessly than we walk through a shower of rain.&rdquo The combination of outdated tactics and general arrogance led to the disasters of Black Week and cost the British commander his job.

    By setting two well-armed foes against each other, the Boer War provided a first glimpse into the changing role of man in war. Previously, individual virtues such as valor and determination could change the outcome of a battle. Now these human attributes were increasingly subordinated to the awesome killing power of modern machinery. The valiant frontal assault would become a suicide charge against machine guns. Courage would count little against the Lyddite shell, which was said to kill nearly everything within a 50-yard radius. War began to lose its luster when it became less about individual bravery and more about the impersonal killing power of machines. All the signs of this terrible evolution of war were present on the battlefields of South Africa. However, some in Europe clung to their old romantic notions. Had they learned from the Boer War, perhaps some of the outright butchery of WWI would have been avoided.

    No Safe Place

    By September 1900, the British had captured over 15,000 Boer commandos. They controlled all the major cities and had put the Boer governments to flight. Hundreds of thousands of British troops were stationed across South Africa. With their main armies defeated, the Boers organized a well-coordinated guerilla campaign.

    The Boer insurgency provided a new template for effective asymmetric warfare. Their commandos infiltrated their home areas, where they relied on local knowledge and partisan support. The commando units were remarkably non-hierarchical, giving each great autonomy in identifying British weaknesses. Commandos were typically expert marksmen and were motivated by the fervor that comes from defending one&rsquos homeland. An impressed Churchill described them as: &ldquothousands of independent riflemen, thinking for themselves, possessed of beautiful weapons, led with skill&hellip moving like the wind, and supported by iron constitutions.&rdquo

    The British soon realized that their control in the Boer territories extended only as far as the sights of their rifles. During 1901, the British repeatedly offered peace, but the Boer leadership&rsquos hard core of &ldquobitter-enders&rdquo refused. Boer commanders Christiaan de Wet, Louis Botha, and Koos de la Rey continued to effectively harass British settlements, infrastructure, and businesses. Smuts led an extended raid into Cape Colony, sparking panic among the British subjects. These attacks made it impossible for the British to restore economic productivity and social order in South Africa. For all its military might, Britain found that defeating an insurgency was far more difficult than winning on the battlefield. America would learn a similar lesson in the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq.

    Throughout history, civilians had often suffered the direct and indirect effects of war including violence, looting, displacement, and famine. What was unique in the Boer War was that a modern Western nation targeted an entire civilian population. Using their superior industrial power, the British vigorously pursued a doctrine of total war and turned the entire country into a warzone. Under this doctrine, anything that could aid the Boer guerillas must be destroyed.

    The consequences were devastating. As historian Martin Bossenbroek explains, orders were given to burn the farms of Boer commandos. These farm burnings &ldquooften&hellipwere not reprisals for sabotage but random acts of destruction,&rdquo wrecking economic havoc on the civilian population. This indiscriminate campaign surely violated the 1899 Hague Convention forbidding &ldquocollective punishment.&rdquo

    The civilian situation deteriorated further when Lord Kitchener took command of the British forces. Determined to strangle the insurgency by any means necessary, Kitchener constructed what Bossenbroek describes as an &ldquoimmense metal web&rdquo throughout South Africa. Kitchner&rsquos web included hundreds of military blockhouses and dozens of civilian internment camps.

    While earlier conflicts had used internment or concentration camps, the scale employed in South Africa was unprecedented. The network of camps soon swelled to contain nearly 100,000 Boer civilians, mostly women and children. Africans caught up in the conflict were also interned in significant numbers. The British military authorities responsible for the camps had put little thought into the welfare of the internees. As a result, conditions in the camps were appalling. Deaths from starvation and disease spread with terrifying speed. By October 1901, some camps experienced death rates exceeding 30% per month.

    Many Boers bitterly questioned whether British policies sought the annihilation of the Afrikaner people. Historian and Member of Parliament Thomas Pakenham argues that Kitchener did not desire the deaths of women and children in the camps, rather &ldquohe was simply not interested&rdquo in their fates. In Kitchener&rsquos single-minded quest for victory he had &ldquouproot[ed] a whole nation.&rdquo

    Ultimately, total war brought victory. The Boers were worn down and demoralized by the suffering of their people. As Deneys Reitz, a young Boer commando recalled, his troop was reduced to &ldquostarving, ragged men, clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered with sores.&rdquo Not only did independence now seem impossible, but continuing the war now threatened the very existence of the Boers. Kitchener&rsquos triumph showed the brutal effectiveness of making the civilian population a target of military operations. In WWII, the German Blitz and the Allied firebombings similarly attempted to break an opposing nation&rsquos will to resist.

    Antiwar Activism

    British policies in South Africa did not escape the world&rsquos notice. From the beginning, many saw Britain as the grasping, bullying aggressor. When the Boer delegation arrived in Europe for the 1900 World&rsquos Fair, they received a riotous ovation. In America, Teddy Roosevelt expressed deep sympathy for the Boers. However, as Bossenbroek notes, such feelings did not translate into material support. Nations recognized Britain&rsquos naval dominance and did not wish to antagonize the Empire by supporting the Boers&rsquo hopeless cause.

    Within Britain, the Boer War helped create the first modern anti-war movement. The conflict cost over 2.5 million pounds per month, (nearly 400 million dollars per month in 2019). The main beneficiaries seemed to be arms dealers and the wealthy mining houses. For many reformers, a seemingly interminable faraway war was an outrageous expense while Britons at home lacked adequate nutrition, healthcare, and education.

    While economic considerations surely influenced some anti-war voices, the humanitarian issue truly captured British hearts. One remarkable woman, Emily Hobhouse, is responsible for alerting the British people to the horrors in South Africa. She spent months investigating the camp conditions, and what she found utterly shocked her. Not only did the camps lack sufficient food, clean water, and medicine, but internees whose male relatives remained in commandos were punished with starvation rations. Hobhouse declared: &ldquoI call this camp system a wholesale cruelty&hellipto keep these Camps going is murder to the children.&rdquo

    Despite pressure from British authorities, Hobhouse shared a detailed report of her findings. The public outcry was swift. Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who led the Liberal opposition deplored the &ldquomethods of barbarism in South Africa.&rdquo A young David Lloyd George went even further, calling British actions &ldquoa policy of extermination.&rdquo His fervent opposition to the war burnished his growing political reputation. Under increasing criticism, the Conservative government agreed to send a commission to South Africa. Led by the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, the commission confirmed Hobhouse&rsquos assertions and demanded immediate policy changes. The military relinquished control of the concentration camps to British colonial administrators, and the death rates began to plummet. The episode demonstrated that democratic politicians now needed to consider the humanitarian consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, the masses retained significant moral blind spots and governments simply worked harder to cover up human rights abuses. Nonetheless, the popular campaign against the outrages in South Africa marked a watershed in anti-war activism.

    An Enduring Legacy

    The Boer War reverberated throughout the British Empire. Global sympathy for the Boers showed London how resented the Empire was. Other nations appeared all too eager to take advantage of any further signs of British weakness. Although Britain remained the dominant world power, its days of &ldquosplendid isolation&rdquo were numbered. In 1902, Britain concluded a treaty with Japan to secure their Pacific holdings against European rivals. In 1904, the Entente Cordiale ended centuries of animosity between Britain and France. By signing an agreement with France&rsquos ally Russia in 1907, Britain protected its claims in Afghanistan, Iran, and its crown jewel, India. With this final deal, the Triple Entente was born.

    The Boer War also revealed the grime of poverty below the veneer of Victorian splendor. Embarrassingly, many potential British recruits were rejected because they were too poorly nourished. The richest nation in the world could not even feed its people. Such revelations motivated Liberal efforts to create the basic forms of social welfare.

    In South Africa, the war sowed the seeds of apartheid. The peace concluded at Vereeniging offered exceptionally lenient terms to the Boers and pledged millions of pounds to rebuild the nation. This arrangement left the Boers with political control across much of South Africa. Considering white Boer dominance to be preferable to African sovereignty, the British soon reconciled with their bitter foes. In 1906, the Boers were granted significant legal autonomy, and in 1910, the colonies joined to become the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion.

    Many of the &ldquobitter-enders&rdquo were still unhappy with any degree of British authority. Winston Churchill believed this opposition was based on &ldquothe abiding fear and hatred of the movement that seeks to place the native on a level with the white man.&rdquo Indeed, to the Boers&rsquo racialized worldview, even Britain&rsquos tepid endorsement of African legal rights was anathema. Just before WWI, former Boer commander Barry Hertzog founded the National Party, which fiercely defended Afrikaner culture and white supremacy. Although an opportunistic 1914 Afrikaner uprising was suppressed, the Afrikaner nationalists never stopped trying to slip the British yoke. During the next few decades, the ruling Afrikaner minority systematically stripped black Africans of their rights and pushed for greater separation from Britain. Leaders like Jan Smuts attempted to maintain unity, but in the chaos after WWII, the right-wing nationalists won out. The National Party&rsquos victory in 1948 enabled the final construction of the apartheid state.

    The British accommodation with the Boers betrayed Britain&rsquos non-white allies. In exchange for supporting the Empire, Indians and Africans had been promised legal and political equality. Before the war, Gandhi had believed &ldquoif I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defense of the British Empire.&rdquo After the war, he expressed the disappointment of many, &ldquolearn your lessons, if you wish to, from the Boer War. Those who have been enemies of that [British] empire a few years ago, have now become friends.&rdquo

    Africans felt similarly betrayed. Sol Plaatje described the racist ways the British had mistreated their African allies. During the siege at Mafeking, Africans were given the lowest rations and ultimately were forced from the city to reduce the number of mouths to feed. A British administrator described the widespread African discontent well: &ldquothey received a rude awakening. They found the country was not theirs that we had not fought to give it to them, and most of all that the owners went back and still owned the farms.&rdquo For Gandhi, Plaatje, and others, British duplicity forced them to acknowledge that true equality could never be obtained within the Empire. The struggle for equality would become a struggle for independence.

    There is something darkly poetic in the timing of the Boer War. It offered a grim preview of warfare and the social conditions that would shake the world during the 20th century. The devastating power of modern weaponry and the challenges of defeating an insurgency would force a fundamental reevaluation of military strategy. Lines between civilians and combatants would be increasingly trampled. As a result, the suffering of innocents would reach an unprecedented scale. The Boer War was the first spring of these deadly flowers of modern war.

    A comprehensive archive or the Boer War including photographs, maps, and historical accounts.

    The Boer War (1899 to 1902) also known as the Anglo-Boer War and the Transvaal War, saw the might of the British Empire at its height, pitted against the small Boer Republics of southern Africa. It should have been an easy fight instead the vastly outnumbered and under equipped Boers inflicted a series of humiliating losses on the British, who were forced to call upon reinforcements from all corners of the Empire to crush the Boer resistance. The unequal David versus Goliath struggle captured the imagination of the world and news headlines in the United States, Europe and the Empire announced every engagement and development. The public was so fascinated by the struggle of the unyieldingly independent Boers that showmen in the United States staged extravagant recreations of Boer War battles, complete with explosions and staged massacres.

    The British Empire expected a rapid victory over the tiny Boer republics whose armies were outnumbered and outgunned. In fact, the Boer's strategy of mobile warfare inflicted numerous defeats on the British and forced the Empire to commit its world wide resources. In order to win, the British had to resort to rounding up the population into concentration camps.

    The Boer took place just before the First World War and was in many ways a rehearsal for that conflict, one which the British failed to learn from. Instead of understanding the value of mobility as proven by the Boer commandos,, the British would embrace the concept of static trench warfare, leading to the carnage of World War 1.

    A-level History Blog

    First of all, I blame Victor for everything. He has been absent all this week and we haven’t been able to consult him for information, or been able to co-ordinate what on earth is going on. As a result of the ‘girl’ portion of this group ‘slacking’, Alex and I are ‘stuck’ doing the Blog. Of course, we love it! It’s the one we opted for after all. While many opted for the ‘best of the bad bunch’, we actually chose the one that we favored, and maybe the one were pretty damn good at too, so here we are, once again, discussing whats hot in the world of Tresham History – The Boer War, but more specifically, the Impact and Aftermath of it.

    As we all know, both the Crimean and Boer war were a great learning experience for the British military as a whole. The stupidity of the army is often mocked when we look back on it all, such as not having screwdrivers to open up those precious cases of Ammunition, or the lazy Officers not distributing the goods sent from Britain. However, these mistakes caused a chain reaction which actually allowed the British empire to shape up, and argueably, prepare for World War One.

    The popularity of the war was at it’s height from 1899-1900, but then seemed to decline rapidly. This was mostly due to the Impact on Britain that the discovery of the Concentration Camps caused. That one bit us in the behind didn’t it. Due to the Boer tactics changing to Guerilla Warfare, the British army had no choice but to adopt a ‘Slash and Burn’ policy, where they would practically raid farms, and ‘Slash and Burn’ everything. This in turn forced the Guerillas out, but to prevent the civillians from further providing the Guerillas with food and warmth, they had to keep the civillians locked up. As we know from previous history, the British couldn’t even look after themselves, let alone half of the Boer population. This caused the ‘concentration camps’ that the civillians were locked up in, to become death camps, ridden with diseases such as dysentry and cholera. When word came back of this to Britain, the general public were outraged, and war popularity decreased drastically. Media hype was often a big contribution to the view of the public, and their power and realisation of influence grew a great deal in this era.

    Due to such unpopularity, the war began to be seen for what it truly was – an investment. Many argued that it was a war for the rich mine owners like Cecil Rhodes. Three key figures bought the news of the war to the public, and they were:

    (Follow the links for further information on the individuals)

    The war also caused many Political Impacts on Britain. Because the war was so popular in the 1900’s, the conservative party wanted to cash in. The previous election was in 1895, and conservatives won the majority, but had since been unpopular and lost many seats in by-elections. However, in September 1900, parliament was dissolved 2 years early to force a new election. The liberal party was fractured and split into groups of war support and those who opposed the war.

    The Conservatives claimed 50% of the votes

    Only 74% of the British population voted, this might suggest that war popularity was predominantly of the middle class. Conservatives were also very succesful in large urban areas like London.

    Labour may be looking scarce here, but they make a huge comeback, which we will soon be learning about.

    Thanks for reading, see you in 2 weeks time. (girls turn next week, let’s see who does the better job)

    Wireless in the Boer War


    The Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902) was the first occasion in which wireless communications were used in military conflict. This article traces the history from the point of view of both the British and the Boer forces, both of which had intentions to use this latest invention on the field of battle. Marconi's apparatus, in its most elementary form, went with the British Army to the front but failed the Boers' German equipment was captured and never saw service. The British Army soon rejected wireless but the Royal Navy acquired the apparatus and made it work. No doubt circumstances and personalities played their part but by far the major factor in determining success and failure was the natural electromagnetic environment.


    The Boer War was declared on 11 0ctober 1899, just three years after Marconi arrived in England. from Italy with his elementary wireless signalling apparatus. While described by some as the last of the gentlemen's wars, the Boer War is probably more accurately the war that linked two centuries in time, tactics and technology it was certainly the first mililitary conflict in which wireless communications were used. The combatants were the Kommandos of the Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State - bolstered by volunteers from Europe, Russia and even the United States - and the British Army supported by contingents from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Boers, fiercely independent and determined to remain so in the face of advancing British Imperialism across southern Africa, were finally driven to declare war on the British garrison troops over issues of citizenship for the Uitlanders, foreigners mainly from England who had been attracted in their thousands following the discovery of gold near Johannesburg in 1886.

    At the outset, some 48 000 Boers were ranged against the 27 000 British soldiers then in South Africa. The ferocity and sheer effrontery of the Boer attacks stunned an ill-prepared British force. In Natal, the Army lost a General within a week of the opening salvo and what may have appeared at first to be just an uprising by undisciplined farmers, untutored in the arts of war, immediately took on the trappings of a major confrontation. The Boers, equipped with Mauser rifles imported from Gennany for just such an eventuality, were superb marksmen and the smokeless cartridges fired from the saddle or the trench never betrayed their presence. Within a month of that first shot being fired, an expeditionary force of 47 000 men, the largest to leave British shores for nearly a century, was on its way to fight a war in a vast and rugged land [1].


    The British military were amongst the most interested observers at the first demonstrations of Marconi's equipment on Salisbury Plain late in 1896. Representing the Royal Navy was one Captain (later Admiral Sir Henry) Jackson, a pioneer himself in the science of communicating without wires and one of Marconi's most avid supporters. Amongst the Army's observers was Captain J N C Kennedy RE, (figure 1), soon to play a most active part in assisting Marconi with further experiments and then in setting up the first wireless sets to be deployed on the battlefield just three years later [2].

    Fig 1 Capt J N C Kennedy RE
    Museum of Army Communications, Blandford

    During those tests, and in subsequent experiments over land around Bournemouth and across the sea between there and Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight (a distance of about 23km), Marconi achieved reliable communications using vertical wire antennas up to 37m long and connected to earth at one end. This monopole, as we would term it today, soon became known as the "Marconi aerial". The transmitter (figure2a),consisted of an induction coil capable of producing 250 mm discharges between the spheres of a spark gap when operated by a Morse key in series with a 14V battery of 0bach cells delivering 6 to 9 A. This transmitter relied entirely on the natural resonance of its antenna for, any degree of tuning and, witha similar configuration at the receiver, was referred to, at the time as a "plain aerial working" [3]. The receiver (figure2b) made use of Marconi's own version of the coherer - a form of shock-excited switch - connected between the antenna and earth as the detector of the electromagnetic waves. After responding to an electrical impulse, the coherer was restored to its non-conducting state by a 'tapper', which operated within a feedback circuit. The Morse code output from the receiver was then displayed visually on the paper tape of a mechanically-driven inking printer.

    Fig 2. The Marconi transmitter and receiver

    It was the outcome of the Royal Navy's alnnual manoeuvres in the summer of 1899 that was directly instrumental in the War Office's decision to send Marconi's wireless apparatus to South Africa with the British forces when the war broke out just a few months later. During those manoeuvres, three ships, HMS Alexander, Europa and Juno, were fitted with Marconi's wireless equipment, while Marconi himself sailed aboard Juno, which was under the command of Captain Jackson RN [4]. The exercise took the form of a naval encounter between two squadrons, only one of which was equipped with wireless and thus able to communicate well beyond visual range. Marconi's apparatus performed admirably, under typically testing naval conditions and a maximum communication range of 136 km was reported. The shipboard antenna, again the only frequency-determining element in the system, was attached to the main top mast and consisted of about 50 m of wire running to the lower after-bridge where the apparatus was housed. Wireless signals, exchanged both by day and night, not only greatly assisted the tactics employed by Captain Jackson's squadron but also proved the efficacy of Marconi's 'jigger', a transformer between the antenna and the transmitter and receiver. Its use brought about a marked increase in sensitivity, and hence in range, and established the principle of impedence matching - itself a major technical advance. However, the lack of any significant tuning or selectivity, except for that provided by the specific length of the antenna, meant that only one transmitter could operate at a time if overwhelming interference was to be avoided. It would be another year before Marconi adopted Oliver Lodge's principle of 'syntony" (what we now call resonance) to markedly improve the sharpness of the tuning of his receiver [5] Only then would it be possible to select the wanted transmission from the cacophony of noise gnerated by the impulsive sparks from many transmitters, all operating at the same time.

    In view of what was soon to follow on the South African veldt, the key part played by the vertical wire in the communications process was critical. It was one of Marconi's fellow countrymen, a Professor AscoIi, who determined the optimum length when he showed that "the length of the wave radiated (was) four times the length of th vertical conductor." This result and the recognition by J.A. Fleming, following Marconi's lecture to the lnstitution of Electrical Engineers in 1899, of the importance of the quality of the earth connection were to be crucial factors that helped to explain the performance of the wireless equipment deployed near Kimberley just a few months later.


    Britain certainly underestimated both the will of the Boers to fight and their resourcefulness to do so once hostilities commenced. By 14 October 1899, just three days after the first probing shots were exchanged, the towns of Kimberley and Mafeking, plus their encamped British troops, were under siege. Two weeks later, Ladysmith suffered the same fate. On 14 October, too, three divisions of infantry plus supporting cavalry set sail from Southampton for the Cape. With these went six engineers frorn the Marconi Company (Messrs Bullocke, Dowsett, Elliott, Franklin, Lockyer and Taylor), some RE sappers to supply, the necessary manual labour (figure3), as wel1 as five so-called portable wireless stations made up of the Marconi apparatus of the time. In command of the RE detachment was Captain Kennedy, by now an acknowledged expert in the use of wireless.

    Fig 3 Marconi engineers and Royal Engineers sappers in South Africa 1899 (GEC-Marcopni Archives)

    It was originally intended that the wireless sets would be used for ship-to-shore communications by deploying them at the ports of disembarkation. By doing so, it was hoped to coordinate the process of landing masses of men, stores, horses and and the other impedimenta of war. However, soon after their arrival in Cape Town in December 1899, Bullocke, at Captain Kennedy's request, "gave a show" of the equipment's capabilities for the General, his staff officers and military attaches at the Cape Town Castle. It went off successfully even though the distance signalled was but a token "few hundred yards" [6]. No doubt impressed by this achievement and reinforced by Kennedy's firsthand account of the results on Salisbury Plain, the planning staff decided to deploy the five wireless sets and their operators at the front, and Marconi's engineers indicated their willingness to accompany the equipment and to prepare it for action.

    Neither the British commanders in South Africa about to set out for the hinterland nor their government at home had appreciated quite how thoroughly President Kruger had been preparing for war. Ever since the abortive Jameson Raid of 1896 that had tried to wrest control of the Transvaal from the Boers, he had been stockpiling considerable quantities of weapons and ammunition. By July 1899, after the breakdown of talks with the British High Commissioner Sir Alfred Milner, war seemed inevitable and Kruger was prepared. ln addition to his Kommandos, his Staats Artillerie was also well equipped and well trained, thanks particularly to the ready support given to the Boer republics by Germany. Signalling, too was afforded a high priority and the Republics' telegraphic communications' networks had been rapidly expanded in recent years. As early as 1897 the State Telegraph Department in the Transvaal, and that supporting the railway network, began to upgrade their lines and to train telegraph operators by the score [7]. The network eventually became so extensive that by the outbreak of war all the Boer lagers around Ladysmith were in contact with each other and with their headquarters in Pretoria, and heliographs were in general use [8]. But wires and cables are vulnerable both to attack and to 'tapping', an art in which the Boers were well-versed, and the 'Helio' did not work at night so some other means was required to link the various forts that ringed Pretoria.

    Kruger's General Manager of Telegraphs, one C K van Trotsenburg, was an able engineer who had followed developments in the world of wireless communications with much interest and was therefore in a position to offer a solution. He had already investigated the supply of suitable wireless telegraphy equipment for the forts and had received quotations for the necessary apparatus from Messrs Siemens and Halske in Berlin, the Societe Industrielle des Telephones in Paris, and, most intriguingly, from the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company, Ltd in London - Marconi's very own company. After visiting Europe in July to inspect each company's equipment, Meneer van Trotsenburg decided in favour of the German apparatus (figure4) and an order for six sets of vonkeltelegraafinstrumenten (spark telegraph instruments) was placed with Siemens and Halske on 24 August 1899 [9]. This was in addition to the heliographs, signal flags, compasses and field glasses that the company had already supplied to the Boers [10]. The wireless equipment was duly broken up and loaded it aboard five vessels presumably, in the interests of security, which sailed from Hamburg for South Africa early in October 1899.

    Fig 4. A reconstruction of the Siemens and Halske receiver supplied to the Boers (Siemens AG)

    An interesting aside as this point is to note Marconi's reaction when word eventually reached him about these developments.In an address at The Royal Institution on 2 February 1900, after it had been mentioned that the Boers had attempted to obtain wireless apparatus, Signor Marconi stated: "I need hardly add that as no apparatus has been supplied by us to anyone (sic) the Boers cannot possibly have obtained any of our instruments". What he neglected to say was that his company had been quite willing to do business with Kruger! It transpired that Kruger's forces were never to see the Siemens wireless apparatus. By the time the six sets, their masts, accumulaters and other paraphernalia arrived in Cape Town, war had already broken out and the equipment was impounded by Customs. Word of this soon reached Captain Kennedy and he duly inspected the booty, cannibalizing some of its elements for use with hs own apparatus soon to be deployed[11].


    In their first week of December 1899, Marconi's engineers, Kennedy's sappers and the five "portable wireless installations", left Cape Town for De Aar, an important railway junction and dispersal point for British troops moving north to the besieged towns of Kimberley and Mafeking (figure. 5). Certain shortcomings in the provision of equipment were already apparent. Most important was the lack of suitable masts or poles with which to support the wire antennas. Since the antennas would turn out to be the key elements in the system, this was serious. The poles supplied with the Marconi equipment were too bulky for use in the field and were discarded while those purloined from the Customs shed in Cape Town were equally unsuitable. lt was, therefore decided to make use of local 9m bamboo poles that could be lashed together to reach an adequate height. In addition, an order was placed, in all haste, for a number of balloons and kites from the Royal Engineers Balloon School at Aldershot. These would then augment the few that Kennedy had been able to borrow and would ensure that he and his men could get the wires aloft somehow.

    Fig 5. South Africa at the time of the Boer War

    From De Aar, three of the sets, plus their civilian operators, were transferred to the military encampments at Orange River, Belmont and Modder River with the intention of establishing wireless communications between them. ln addition, a wireless station was also set up at Enslin "about 27 kms from Modder" (Figure 6) where, according to Bullocke, Lord Methuen commanding the 1st Infantry Division feared "a surprise" from the Boers.

    While in transit from Cape Town the wireless contingent witnessed their first severe South African thunderstorm and reported that the accompanying lightning was "the most vivid any of us had ever seen". It was confirmed to Bullocke by those in the know that such pyrotechnics were almost a daily occurrence in that part of the world at that time of the year. This duly prompted him to remark in his letter of 11 December to the Company back home in EngIand that it would be a "delightful time for Xs", the accompanying atmospherics that so disrupted wireless communications.

    Fig 6. Enslin camp, 1899

    On setting up the equipment a week later, Bullocke reported that attempts to communicate between De Aar and Orange River, some 112km apart, were unsuccessfuI. He stated that he had used "a curly aerial about 18m in height and [a] good earth", yet in spite of that he could not explain the lack of success. Problems abounded. Kennedy, at De Aar, resorted to using kites but there was insufficient wind to allow them to be flown that day. When there was, he was able to eIevate a wire to a height of 152m, but had no success either because Elliott, at Orange River, had broken his pole [12]. But they persisted doggedly and at the end of the month had some success when contact was made between Orange River and Modder River, a distance of 80km, but only by using an intermediate or relay station at Belmont, and such achievements were few.


    The pre-war naval manoeuvres of 1899 were very significant in the history of wireless in general and military wireless in particular.

    Attempts to make the Marconi equipment function reliably in the field continued for a further six weeks but were thwarted for at least half the time because most sets were unusable. If cyclonic dust storms had not splintered the bamboo masts, or lightning discharges overwhelmed the coherers, then the wind was either too weak to fly the kites or so fierce as to tear away the balloons. Not surprisingly, on 12 February 1900, the Director of Army Telegraphs gave orders for the three sets along the Kimberley line to be dismantled. This fate soon followed for the two others that had been dispatched a month before, along with Messrs Bullocke, Taylor and Captain Kennedy, to join General Buller's forces attempting to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith [13]. Since neither Marconi's employees, nor Captain Kennedy, could offer what he considered a reasonable explanation for this state of affairs, the Adjutant General Sir Evelyn Wood, duly had the wireless equipment sent to the Royal Navy in Simonstown where he believed that they might have some use for it.

    The lack of any success by the Army with this hastily-assembled Marconi apparatus, for whatever reason, did not deter the Royal Navy from installing the discarded wireless sets on board five cruisers operating a blockade in Delagoa Bay, Portuguese East Africa. The admirals remembered only too well how effective wireless had been during those manoeuvres just the year before. The particular task now facing the Royal Navy was to stop and search any merchantmen heading for the port of Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) and suspected of carrying mi!itary contraband destined for the Boers. Any measure that would assist in this was welcome and effective ship-to-ship communications certainly fell into that category. And so the wireless apparatus was transferred to the Delagoa Bay Squadron and on 17 March 1900 a set was fitted in the cruiser HMS Thetis (Figure7), which thus became the first naval vessel to carry wireless equipment in an active theatre of war. Soon her sister ships, HMS Forte, Magicienne, Dwarf and Raccoon would be similarly equipped and the blockade operation was pursued in earnest [14]. .

    Fig. 7 HMS Thetis showing the extended mast carrying the antenna

    In great contrast to the recent dismal results on land, wireless communication at sea proved to be an unqualified success. Its use turned out to be invaluable to the Navy for, not only could the cruisers cover a wider search area while still remaining in contact with one another, but concerted action was possible while both out of sight of each other and of their quarry. In addition, speedy communication was possible between the ships at sea and the Commander-in-Chief in Simonstown, about 1600km away, by using the Magicienne, lying at anchor in the bay, to relay messages via a landline link to the shore and, thence, via the telegraph network to the Cape.

    To use the wireless equipment effectively required that the masts of the ships be extended to accommodate the long wire antenna. HMS Thetis, under the command of Captain Stokes-Rees, duly raised hers to a height of 44m above the waterline for this purpose.Tests conducted on 13 April 1900 yielded a range of 85 km, which greatly increased the flexibility of the blockage operatlons. SubsequentIy, she was fitted with a horizontal, twin-wire antenna, which proved to be so successful that thereafter this became the standard installatlon on Naval vessels.

    The wireless equipment remained in service with the Royal Navy until November 1900 when it eventually went into storage owing almost certainly, to the change in the nature of the war on land. The Boers, though in retreat, were by no means defeated. For the next 18 months they fought a bitter guerrilla campaign against a British Army that now numbered almost half-a-million men under the command of General Lord Kitchener. Wireless played no further part. lt had served its immediate purpose, and although a failure on land, it had ushered in a new era for the Navy. Its success in Delagoa Bay, coupled with the experience of the naval manoeuvres in 1899, was undoubtedly behind the Royal Navy's decision to equip 42 ships and eight shore stations around Britain with wireless by the end of 1900 [15].


    Much has been written about the failure of the wireless equipment when tried by the Army but rather less has appeared about the success achieved when used by the Royal Navy. It should be appreciated that each service had use of the equipment for roughIy the same length of time and in both cases it was set up and operated by the same six engineers from the Marconi company, and yet its performance was markedly different in the two theatres of operations. One has to ask why this should have been so.

    When wireless proved so disappointing on the South African veldt after the favourable reports that followed both the Salisbury Plain demonstrations in 1896 aud the naval manoeuvres of 1899, the immediate reaction of Signor Marconi was to blame the military authorities for "their lack of proper preparation" by not providing the correct poles to support the antennas. Some observers closer to the scene also suggested it was due to "the iron in the hills", while Marconi's own engineers, though having some sympathy with their employer's view, also believed that the locality of the north-western Cape Colony, both geological and meteorological, may well have had somewhat more to do with it. The subsequent success achieved by the Navy using the same equipment, but in a vastly different environment, leads one to conclude that antennas, geology, meteorology and the season of the year were, indeed, all to blame.

    As mentioned, the 'plain aerial working' used with the Marconi equipment meant that the particular frequency on which a transmitter radiated maximum energy was determined solely by the length of that vertical wire, whether attached to mast, kite or balloon, as well as by the quality of the electrical connection to the earth below. EssentiaIly, when the wire was a quarter wavelength long and the earth connection was sound, the system would have been at its most efficient but only at that particular frequency. The implication of this for the British Army when it tried to use the equipment with makeshift antennas on what were described as the "dry, sandy plains of the Northern Karroo", was that no two wireless installations were ever likeIy to have been operating on exactly the same frequency because the antenna lengths were so variable and the earth connections so poor.This fundamental problem was to some extent offset by the lack of selectivity elsewhere within the primitive systems and by the essentiully broadband nature of the spark transmitters. But the poor earth connections would also have introduced loss, which in turn would have reduced significantly the amount of power both radiated by the antenna and propagated by the ground wave that was almost certainly the mode of signal propagation at the sort of frequencies involved.

    Since the Marconi receiver consisted of little more than a coherer its performance, and hence the range over which communications would have been possible, were entirely dependent on the power radiated by the transmitting antenna and on the electrical conductivity of the ground beneath the antennas and between the wireless stations themselves. Bullocke and his men appreciated this to some extent since it was reported that that "sheets of tin" (probably galvanized iron) were buried beneath the antenna masts to improve matters but all was to no avail because other natural phenomena also conspired against them.

    It was shown, some many years later, by Vice [16] that the ground conductivity south-west of Kimberley was typically between 6.5 and 10 mS/m at a frequency of 500kHz, (figure 8). At a guess, Marconi's equipment might have operated anywhere from 500kHz to about 4MHz, depending upon the length of the antenna actually depIoyed, thus some variation in the conductivity would be expected over that range. Whatever it was, these values shouId be compared with the 14mS/m at 1 MHz that is typical of Salisbury Plain, the site of so many of Marconi's early experiments [17]. Not only would the antennas have been more efficient in England but the groundwave would have suffered less attenuation as it propagated along the surface of the more highly conducting earth too. By contrast, when used by the Royal Navy the considerably higher conductivity of the sea water (4000 mS/m) would have enhanced significantly, both the performance of the antennas and the propagation over the surface of the sea. Thus, whether in the Atlantic Ocean in 1899 or in the Indian Ocean less than a year later, one reason for the Royal Navy's consistent success with wireless is now readily apparent.

    Fig: 8. Map of ground conductivity in South Africa after Vice [16]

    There is an additional important factor that must also be considered and that too, was frequently commented upon by Marconi's engineers at the front: the intensity of the lightning and the paralysing effect it had on the coherers in the receivers.In certain parts of South Africa is one of those regions of the world in which severe lightning is but a fact of life during the summer months [18]. Measured as the number of lightning flashes per square kilometre per year, the region south-west of Kimberley has typically three to five such events that occur predominantly between November and April, the height of the southern hemisphere summer (Figure 9). This was precisely when the British Army was hoping for useful service from its secret weapon, Marconi's wireless apparatus. By contrast, once again, the level of lightning activity for the whole of the British Isles never exceeds one flash per square kilometre per year [19], and none was reported during Marconi's demonstrations on Salisbury Plain nor any during the manoeuvres at sea in 1899. When the Royal Navy equipped its Delagoa Bay Squadron with these discarded wireless sets during March the following year, and then used them throughout the winter months, such heavenly pyrotechnics were non-existent. Thus, not only did the ships benefit from better antennas and propagation conditions, but the signal to noise ratio, in modern parlance, would have been markedIy better too, given the absence of lightning and its attendant 'Xs" that had so plagued the Army on the ground just a few months before.

    Fig 9. Map of lightning ground flash distribution in South Africa. The darker the colours the more frequent the lightning (Eskom[18])


    The history of wireless is replete with stories of its origins but probably none is more intriguing than that describing its first use in a military conflict. That it actually took place well over a century ago during the Boer War is a fact worth recording in its own right but, to record only the disappointing performance achieved by Marconi's apparatus when rushed into service in a role for which it was never intended does not tell the full story. It can so easily be presented as but an ill-judged attempt to use a revolutionary technology before it was ready, but that would be to ignore totally its performance at sea. For reasons not understood at the time, wireless failed to assist the Army but it more than proved itself on board Her Majesty's ships. We now know that there were many factors involved, not least of which were the geophysical conditions that prevailed in southern Africa. They, probably more than anything else, determined the outcome of this first use of wireless in warfare.

    Cameo roles of notable figures

    Although they merited only a footnote in this particular conflict, mention must be made of the following actors:

    Winston Churchill

    The 26 year old Winston worked as a war correspondent for The Morning Post, during which time he was captured, held prisoner at Pretoria and then escaped to re-join the British army.

    Mahatma Gandhi

    In 1900 he volunteered to be a stretcher bearer for the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps and recruited 1100 India volunteers. He received the Boer War Medal along with 37 other Indians.

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

    He served as a volunteer doctor at Bloemfontein (Langman Field Hospital) between March – June 1900. He publicised the fact that of the 22,000 soldiers killed in the hostilities, 14,000 had actually died of disease. He also wrote a pamphlet defending the war entitled: “The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct”.

    Watch the video: Boer Wars. 3 Minute History (June 2022).


  1. Darton

    What an entertaining topic

  2. Randale

    Mlyn, spammers have already got it freely with this primitive!

  3. Mindy

    This very good thought, by the way, occurs right now

  4. Custennin

    I recommend you visit the website that has many articles on this matter.

  5. Brak

    I consider, that you are mistaken. Let's discuss this. Email me at PM, we will talk.

  6. Stephenson

    Wacker, it seems to me a great idea

  7. Jabbar

    I absolutely agree with you. There is something in this and an excellent idea, I agree with you.

Write a message