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Case Number: 56

Case Identifier: BOERWAR

Case Name: Anglo-Boer: Britain's Vietnam (1899-1902)




1. Abstract

Between the war of 1812 and the First World War, there were many different "small" wars that took place. However, unlike the war of 1812 and the First World War, these other "short lived" wars have been completely over-looked. Why because many people wish these "small" wars did not happen and it should be forgotten, like the US involvement in Vietnam. One of these wars that should have not happen was the Anglo-Boer War in Southern Africa in 1899.

2. Description

This war was very different than other wars at it time, because this war was fought by people who were not the "natives" of the area. The actual "natives" had nothing to do with the war at all. One would say that the Boer War was the "White Man's War", even though it took place in Southern Africa.

The Anglo-Boer War started on October 11, 1899 between two former British republics (Free Orange State and Transvaal) and the United Kingdom, in South Africa. As the war continued, Britain brought reinforcements from Australia, New Zealand and Canada as well as some volunteers from other British colonies. The war lasted for three years, and it had a very high casualty rate on both sides.

The casualties of the were:

British soldiers: 7,792 (killed) 13,250 (death from disease)

Boers: 6,000

Women and Children in Concentration Camps: 26,370

Africans in Concentration Camps 20,000+ (Data from Anglo web)

During the war there was a large influx of Boer women and children and Africans that were homeless because of the destruction of their homes, and had no place to go. The British military leaders decided that the best way to solve this problem was to simply put these people in concentration camps , where they would be safe from harm's way. However, these camps were not the "haven" for the Boers, but in fact these camps were actually large death traps. Thousands of people in these camps died of numerous illnesses. The deaths in the camps were much greater than the deaths in the actual war. What happen in these camps was the worst event of the entire war, which many want to over-look.

On October 11, 1899 around tea time, the Anglo-Boer War officially began. Many stated that the Anglo-Boer War was the United Kingdom's version of Vietnam. Why Vietnam, because just like the United States and the French, the British underestimated the Boer people. The British thought that the war would only last for a weeks, and in fact the war lasted for over two years and thousand of people lost their lives, just like in the Vietnam war.

The purpose of this case study is to give an informative and historical analysis of the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. The case study will discuss the Boer and African societies, causes of the war, the two warring parties (the two armies), a brief view of the war and a brief review of the concentration camps and it's effects on the Boer society.

The Boer people

The Boer society was made up of Dutch farmers who had settled in the southern Africa in the 17th century. During this time these Dutch farmers intermingled with other European settlers and established the Afrikaner or Boer community. Although the Boer population was a mixture of various Europeans, the predominant religion was Dutch Protestant. The Boers became very independent and cut off all ties with the mainland (Europe). One of the major aspects of the Boers was racial superiority; slavery unfortunately was common place in this society. By the 1850s, the Boers established two independent Boer states, Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Boers and British lived separately and peacefully for the next decade.

The African people

There is they little information on Africans involvement with the Boer war. The only account that was stated in many books is that thousand of Africans die in concentration camps.

The Beginning of the War

Conflict between the British colonial territories and the Boer Republics had been going on many years before the beginning of the war in October 1899. Especially the relationship of the Boer states to their neighboring British colonies. "Things finally came to a head in May 1899 when a conference was held in Bloemfontein in an attempt to resolve the most recent points of the contention."1 This conference was the last chance for both groups to prevent the outbreak of total war. The conference was held in the capital of Orange Free State, and the representatives for the Boers and Britain were Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger, President of the Transvaal Republic and Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner in the Cape.

The main disagreement between the British government and the Boers was about the right of 'Uitlanders' (foreigners) on the Transvaal gold fields. (The hidden British idea was to get the Boer's gold mines.) During the late 1880s in Transvaal, there was a gold rush that attracted thousands of people into the area (many came from Europe and even America and Australia). By the 1890s these Uitlanders were paying a considerable amount of taxes and were demanding equal rights in Transvaal. The main question at the conference was the period of residence of the Uitlanders, before they could get the right to vote in Transvaal elections. "Kruger had been insisting on fifteen years."2 Milner on the other hand demanded immediate voting rights for all Uitlanders who had lived in Transvaal for more than five years. If the Boer's gave voting rights to all the Uitlanders, the Boers would in time gradually lose power, because the Uitlander population was rapidly growing. After hearing Milner's demand, Kruger burst into a tearful 'It is our country you want.' Milner abruptly terminated the meeting without consulting with Joseph Chamberlain, who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Kruger wish to continue talks on the subject of the Uitlanders, but Milner still demand that all of the Uitlanders' grievances must be settled before future discussions between them could take place. The situation worsened, when the British government started dispatching more military reinforcements to South Africa. Kruger in turn, insisted that the British army should stop it's advancement to the Transvaal border as a act of peace. But the British military did not yield and they continue to advance to Transvaal's borders. Because the British not listen to Kruger request, he was force to give the British an ultimatum. The ultimatum stated that all of the British troops on the Transvaal's borders must be withdrawn and reinforcements on the way sent back. The British did not yield to the Boers demand.

By October 9 all hope of peace had faded away. On this day the British Cabinet declared war on the Boer Republics. "The Great Trek had created the Boer nation; the war was about to destroy it"3.

The two Armies

The British Army

In 1899, the British army was thought to at its apex. It was designed to defend small uprising all over the empire, not to fight large scale war. Before 1899, the British military did not have a large force in South Africa because it posed no immediate military threat. That changed greatly during the negotiations in 1899.

At the start of the war, the British army considered itself to be more than a match for the Boers (they saw the Boers as a rabble of farmers). Their senior officers had wide experience of military administration and the army was well fled, and the army had modern transportation. Also, the army's morale was very high at the beginning of the war. Because the army believed that no one could defeat the "mighty British military."

The British army was very over confidant at the beginning of the war. There was little or no training in marksmanship (unlike the Boers) and they viewed the use of camouflage as not sportsmanlike. In fact, the British army thought of the war like a sporting match instead of an actual war. "Most officers looked upon war as an extension of their activities on the cricket or polo field, combined with the excitement of a grouse shoot"4

The Boer Army

Unlike the British army, the Boer army had been carefully designed for the conditions of South Africa. The Boers had a very efficient mechanism for mobilizing their army which was called the "commando" system. The commando system is like today's guerilla warfare, the Boers attacks were "hit and run", they would attack an target fast and escape before the enemy attacked them.

Unlike the British, the Boer army was mainly free-lance; the only professional units were the state artilleries. Most of the men in the Boer army (called the "Burgher") were expected to provide himself with a rife, ammunition and sufficient food to last for eight days. If battle lasted longer than eight days then it became the government's responsibility to feed and arm the troops.

The Boer army was remarkable in many ways. Although men were legally obliged to take up arms when ordered, the government did not have the right to demand complete obedience. If a solider did not want to fight in a particular battle, he could ask for leave. It was decided that not more than 10% of the troops could be away at one time, but this rule was not strictly enforced in the early battles.

The Boers fought as a team, they also, did not wait for an official order to take advantage of an opportunity or to retreat when a position became untenable. These troops were also, trained as excellent marksmen, and to save ammunition, which was very expensive and difficult to get in the heat of battle. Boers were so good that there is evidence that Boers could pick off British officers at 1,200 yards or sometimes further.

The War

At the beginning of the war both sides were very confident. After the Boer ultimatum, the Boers knew that it would take least six weeks before the British troops to arrived in South Africa, and they plan to outnumber the British forces when they landed. In October 1899 the Boers brought between 32,000 and 35,000 men immediately into the field against a British garrison in the Cape Colony and Natal numbering only about 20,000.

The British empire and Boer republics seemed to be unevenly matched and, it was widely believed that once the fighting started the Boer republics would be overrun without difficulty and the war would be very short (six months). But this was not the case, the actual war lasted for over two and a half years.

In South Africa the Boer offensive was launched on three fronts. The republics' main force crossed from the Transvaal and Orange Free State into northern districts of Natal, compelling the advanced detachments of the British garrison to retire to Ladysmith, where the main body of British troops in the colony where stationed. Between Oct. 29 and Nov. 2 General Piet Joubert, (a veteran Boer military leader), succeeded in laying siege to the town. On the western front, Boer commandos moved into the northern Cape and the Bechuanaland Protectorate to stop British communications along the railroad from Cape Town to Bulawayo in Rhodesia. A third force, composed of Free Staters, invaded the Cape midlands, where commandos rapidly gained recruits from among the colony's population. All three of these major attacks inflicted startling defeats to the British forces (mainly because the British army had to get to Southern Africa) The war could have been won by the Boers if they continued to advance, but the old and "experienced" military leaders of the Boers did not want to advance that soon. This decision ultimately cost them the war.

The war was about even until Lord Roberts of Kandahar and Lord Kitchener of Khartoum were appointed to Commander-Chief and Chief of Staff of the British army. Roberts first plan was to attack the township of Kimberley, by advancing along the railway northwards from Cape town. After this he planned to dispatch the main force eastward towards Bloemfontein in the Free State. Robert's main army advanced through the Cape towards the republics. The attack on Kimberly ended on Feb. 15, 1900, "the Boers' most humiliating defeat of the war".5 The route was now open to Bloemfontein and it was captured on March 13, 1900. Then Roberts moved his army to Johannesburg (capture May 17) and then to Pretoria (capture June 5). "Having occupied Johannesburg and Pretoria(the Boer's capitals), Robert's army went eastwards, driving the republican government and the body of the Transvaal commandos along the railways towards the Mozambican frontier."6 By September 1900 British troops had gained control of the entire railroad network of the Transvaal, thus denying the Boers their last direct link to the outside world. During this time Roberts promised to protect the people and property to those burghers who gave up their arms and had signed a pledge to take no further part in the war.

Following the capture of the Boer capitals both republics were annexed to the British empire, the "...Orange Free State on May 24, 1900 (to be known as the Orange River Colony), and the Transvaal on September 1, 1900, through in view of the continuation of the war the validity of the annexations in international law was questionable."7 The Anglo-Boer war seemed to be drawing to its conclusion.

In November 1900 Lord Kitchener succeeded Roberts as Commander in Chief. Under the command of Kitchener the war completely changed. About 30,000 farmsteads were destroyed during the course of Kitchener's operations. Also, under Kitchener one of the worst event of the war happened. Boers and Africans were removed from the devastated country and were put in concentration camps, where many people died. About 26,000 Boer women and children and 14,000 Africans died in over-crowded, insanitary and ill-organized camps

Once Kitchener became commander the war was practically finished. With the exception of a few more battles during the next few months. In April 1902, the Boer government met at Klerksdorp and agreed to open peace talks with Milner and Kitchener. These talks ultimately led to the surrender of the Boer's independence and the signing of a peace treaty on May 31, 1902.

Concentration Camps: Social and Environmental aspects of the Boer War

During the course of the war, the British military commanders were faced with a serious problem: how to maintain the safely of the thousands of Boer women and children and Africans that were in British occupied areas of South Africa. The British commander thought the solution to this problem was very simple, put these people in areas of "concentration" were they would be safe. But these camps became a death trap rather than a "safe haven".

"These concentration camps in the Boer War must not be confused with the German camps of the Second World War."8 The British camps were set up for an entirely different reason and were meant to house people in comfort and safety, but this was proven to be completely false. However, the administration of the camps soon ran into many difficulties which worsen the conditions in the camps.

The conditions of the camps were initially not too bad. But a few months after the camps started a sickness began to spread like "... a dark strain amongst the children, and soon reached the adults too."9 With frightening rapidity the number of the sick began to climb in all of the camps. Death began to be reported in an increasing number. By October 1901, out of the 113,506 refugees in the camps, 3,156 had died, most of them children.

What was causing the deaths in the camps? The Doctors really did not know, some say that it was scurvy, tuberculosis and a few other diseases. The major problem was that the people in the camps had abnormal diets which in turn with the large influx of people living together in a small area created the chance of a crisis to happen.


The Anglo- Boer war was a very tragic war, not only did the Boers lose there independence from the British, also they lost thousands of women and children from the camps. Also, thousands of Southern Africans (whom did not even fight in the war), lost their lives, in a war that had nothing to do with them. Not only did the war destroy Boer towns and farms , it basically destroyed the Boer way of life completely.

3. Duration: 1899-1902

4. Location:

Continent: Africa

Region: Southern Africa

Country: South Africa

5. Actors: The Boers colonist and the British

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Habitat and Human Lost

7. Type of Habitat: Dry

8. Act and Harm Sites: Southern Africa

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

South Africa       Southern Africa             Damage after war

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Interstate

10. Level of Conflict: High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: unknown

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Direct

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Region

14. Outcome of Dispute: Victory

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

ICE cases

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Farewell, Byron. The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1976.

Lee, Emanoel. To the Bitter End. New York: Viking, 1985.

Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979.

Warwick, Peter, S.B. Spies. Ed. The South African War: The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Essex: Longman, 1980.


1. Lee, Emanoel. To the Bitter End. New York: Viking, 1985, p19.

2. Ibid, p19.

3. Ibid p26.

4. Ibid p31.

5. Warwick, Peter, S.B. Spies. Ed. The South African War: The Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Essex: Longman, 1980, p58.

6. Ibid, p61.

7. Ibid, p60

8. Lee, Emanoel. To the Bitter End. New York: Viking, 1985, p175.

9. Ibid , p180.

Interesting things about the Boer War

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) also known as Mahatma (Great Soul), serves with the British medical corps as a stretcher-bearer.

Sir Robert Conan Doyle (1859-1930), British physician, runs a hospital, and on his return to England writes 'The great Boer War' (1900) and 'The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct' (1902), justifying England's participation. For these works he is knighted in 1902.

A young Winston Churchill (1874-1965) is all over the war. He is captured, escapes, and makes a triumphal reentry into Natal. He is present at several major battles. He wrote two books on the war, 'London to Ladysmith: Via Pretoria' and 'Ian Hamilton's March.' His exploits get him elected to Parliament.

A great number of British officers who served in the war later turn up as Field Marshalls.

The African population, who suffered greatly in the war, are barely acknowledged in the Boer War's histories