The Boer Wars

The Boer Wars, known in Afrikaans as Vryheidsoorloë (“freedom wars”) were two wars fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics, the Oranje Vrijstaat (Orange Free State) and the Republiek van Transvaal (Transvaal Republic).

The First Anglo-Boer War (1880-1881), was a rebellion of Boers (farmers) against British rule in the Transvaal that re-established their independence. The conflict occurred against the backdrop of the Pretoria government becoming increasingly ineffective at dealing with growing claims on South African land from rival interests within the country.

The Second Ango-Boer War (1899-1902), by contrast, was a lengthy war involving large numbers of British troops, which ended with the conversion of the Boer republics into British colonies (with a promise of limited “self-bestuur” (self government). These colonies later formed part of the Union of South Africa. The British fought directly against the Transvaal and the Oranje Free State, defeating their forces first in open warfare and then in a long and bitter guerrilla campaign. British losses were high due to both disease and combat. The policies of “scorched earth” and civilian internment in concentration camps (adopted by the British to prevent support for the farmers/Boer commando campaign) ravaged the civilian populations in the Transvaal and the Oranje Free State Republics.

During the later stages of the Second Boer War, the British pursued the policy of rounding up and isolating the Boer civilian population in concentration camps, one of the earliest uses of this method by modern powers. The wives and children of Boer guerrillas were sent to these camps, which had poor hygiene and little food. Many of the children in these camps died, as did some of the adults. This attracted hostility from, in particular, the German Empire. The British journalist, WT Stead, wrote: “Every one of these children who died as a result of the halving of their rations, thereby exerting pressure onto their family still on the battle-field, was purposefully murdered. The system of half rations stands exposed and stark and unshamefully as a cold-blooded deed of state policy employed with the purpose of ensuring the surrender of a people whom we were not able to defeat on the battlefield.

This led to a change in approach to foreign policy from Britain, which now set about looking for more allies. To this end, the 1902 treaty with Japan in particular was a sign that the British Empire feared attack on its Far Eastern empire and saw this alliance as an opportunity to strengthen its stance in the Far East. This war led to a change from “splendid isolation” policy to a policy that involved looking for allies and improving world relations. Later treaties with France (“Entente cordiale”) and Russia, caused partially by the controversy surrounding the Boer War, were major factors in dictating how the battle lines were drawn during World War I.

The Boer War also had other significance. The Army Medical Corps discovered that 80% of men presenting for service were physically unfit to fight. This was the first time in which the government was forced to take notice of how unhealthy the British population was. This strengthened the call for the liberal reforms of the first decade of the twentieth century.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the following about the Boer nation in his book titled “The Great Boer War”:

“Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots who gave up home and fortune and left their country forever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon earth. Take this formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances under which no weakling could survive, place them so that they acquire exceptional skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman, and the rider. Then, finally, put a finer temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual, and you have the modern Boer — the most formidable antagonist who ever crossed the path of Imperial Britain.”

Further Reading:


GOD DOES NOT FORGET: The Story of a Boer War Commando by Reitz, Deneys