Boer War Essay Topics

The Boer War marked a watershed in terms of Britain’s relationships with its colonies, but also in terms of its relationship with other European powers (and the USA). It had started in 1899, but instead of being swiftly over, the might of the British army (aided by troops from other colonies), amounting to 450,000 at its height, took nearly three years to defeat small army of ‘farmers’ (never more than 40,000). The British Army had suffered battle defeats in colonial circumstances before (such as by the Zulus in the Battle of Isandlwana, 1879) but had been victorious in the end, as in this case. But the Boer War victory was one that had a high cost though it taught the British many lessons which it drew on during World War One.

The Boer War was, in terms of how it was viewed (and fought) by contemporaries, an international conflict, almost a ‘world’ war. It was also of interest to the world, because it was the most reported conflict to date – men and women of the press from around the world turned up to write journalism about the war. It helps to explain why men volunteered to fight on the Boer side from Holland, France, Germany, Italy as well as the USA (mainly Irish Americans). Also, in terms of global involvement, it was not only men and women from all over the Empire who fought and nursed on the British side, some Americans also volunteered on the British side. All the Great Powers sent military attachés to view the conflict and report back to their governments. Reporters from all major international states, and all the British colonies of white settlement, were there. News flew round the world by telegraph and when amplified by the regular opinion pieces in newspapers, this had a significant impact on British prestige and influence. The majority of sympathy outside Britain lay with the Boers during and after the war. The British knew it, and looked to learn lessons from it (as Kipling advised they should: ‘Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should/We have had no end of a lesson:/ It should do us no end of good). This ensured that many texts were written to try to explain the war and what went wrong, including J.A. Hobson’s South African War, which led to his critique Imperialism (1902) so closely studied by Lenin. In the USA, the war split opinion and made American support for any British cause more difficult for a number of years. Overall the British, as imperialists, were shown to be less powerful (physically and morally) than before.

The Peace of Vereeniging 1902 which concluded the war was a treaty which was hastily drawn up by a British government eager to settle a war which had shaken its international prestige and so, it included acceptance of a number of Boer terms in order to get the republics to accept British sovereignty. Thus when the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, it was under Afrikaaner hegemony (or dominance). The subsequent establishment of apartheid as a political system in South Africa is consequently traceable directly to the British failure (or ‘betrayal’) to secure actual or potential black voting rights for their colonial subjects.

Contextualising the impact of the Boer War, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1897 had provided a vision of an invincible Empire strong in moral qualities such as justice and fairness. However, the way in which the British pursued the war caused an international outcry. Frustration over the guerrilla tactics of the Boers meant that the British resorted to harsh measures, including a scorched earth policy of burning Boer farms to prevent them being used to hide the Boer fighters. They also put Boer women and children in ‘concentration camps’ as a way of preventing them helping their menfolk but this backfired when conditions in the camps became so awful that illness became rife and many died. The Boer War seriously dented the façade (or surface image) of British fairness. Yet the negatives were not immediately apparent: initially educated
native opinion in Africa continued to be essentially pro-British and anti-Boer. It was not until further flaws in British attitudes to their colonial subjects became apparent during the First World War that critical voices appeared significantly in African colonies. When they did, colonial critics looked back to the Boer War as the time when they began to question British moral standards and invincibility.

Questions:Consider why the British were so criticised internationally for their conduct of the Boer War.
Did the Boer War lead the British people to question whether
Britain should continue to be a major imperial power?

Reading: For the basics, and to see how this fits into WWI, for instance, you could look at Alan Farmer, The Experience of Warfare in Britain: Crimea, Boer and 
the First World War 1854-1929
, or for the Scramble for Africa and Decolonisation, at A and A Holland, Different Interpretations of British Imperialism 1850-1950, but if you want to take this further and become more of a specialist, you could also look in more detail at Keith Wilson, The International Impact of the Boer War, John Darwin, The Empire Project orNiall Ferguson, Empire. How Britain Made the Modern World.

On 9 October 1899 the SAR issued an ultimatum to Britain and two days later, on 11 October the war was officially declared between Britain and the Boers. The British forces thought that the war would be won easily, but they were wrong. The two Boer republics that were involved in the conflict were the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The first phase of the war was one of the set-piece battles, but from July 1900 onwards the Boers changed tactics and they conducted a very efficient guerrilla war that kept nearly 500 000 British troops occupied until 1902. The Boers were conquered in the end, but a great deal of property and lives were lost on both sides. It was the bloodiest, longest and most expensive war Britain engaged in between 1815 and 1915. It cost more than 200 million pounds and more than 22 000 men were lost to Britain. The Boers lost over 34 000 people. More than 15 000 black people were killed.

The British government was embarrassed by the army's initial lack of success against what they called a backward, incompetent and rural enemy. They underestimated the Boers who only had 27 000 men in their commandos. During the early stages of the war. Britain suffered a number of significant defeats.

The Boer offensive October 1899 – November 1899

The first battle took place at Talana, near Dundee in northern Natal on 29 October 1899. The battle was indecisive because both generals divided their forces. The outcome of the battle was not clear. On 30 October 1899 the second battle took place at Elandslaagte, and here the British army won. Other battles took place on the same day at Modderspruit and Nicholson’s Nek and here the Boers won. British forces went on the defensive and were besieged in Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking.

This war was much longer than the First Anglo-Boer War and more battles took place. During “Black Week” in December 1899 the British army lost many men. At this stage British army was divided into 3 main groups under General Sir Redvers Buller, who was the British commander-in-chief in South Africa at the beginning of the war, Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen and Lieutenant-General W F Gatacre, who controlled forces in the Cape Colony. The battles during "Black week" were at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso. Buller suffered a humiliating loss and was replaced by Major-General Lord Kitchener on 16 December 1899, although he remained in charge in Natal. Battles at Spionkop on 24 January 1900 and Vaalkrans on 7 February 1900 were also Boer victories.

The British Offensive

After “Black Week” the British army sent for reinforcements from Britain and on 10 January 1900 the new soldiers arrived in Cape Town with Major-General Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts. After the arrival of the extra men the British army quickly moved inland, defeating the Boers as they travelled.

The sieges in Kimberley ended on 15 February 1900, and the Ladysmith followed less than a fortnight later.

On 13 March 1900 the British army occupied Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State and on 1 June 1900 they took Johannesburg. They then marched into on Pretoria four days later and occupied the town on 5 June 1900. After Bloemfontein and Pretoria had fallen to Britain, as many as 13 900 Boers laid down their arms because they were so demoralized. Some felt it was hopeless to continue the war, while other Boers refused to surrender choosing to pursue guerilla war.

In March 1901 Lord Kitchener, the commander of the British forces, decided cut off the supply of food to the Boers. They were being supported by the people on the farms so he initiated the “scorched earth” policy. About 30 000 Boer farmhouses and more than 40 towns were destroyed. He also had animals like horses, cattle and sheep, killed. Children, women and black people were put in concentration camps.

Towards the end of the war there were more than 40 camps housing 116 000 white women and children, with another 60 camps housing 115 000 black people. These camps were overcrowded, the captives underfed and the conditions poor. There were limited medical supplies and staff and diseases like measles, whooping cough, typhoid fever, diphtheria and dysentery resulted in 1 in every 5 children dying. 26 370 white women and children died in the concentration camps, 81% of the casualties were children. It is estimated that more than 15 000 black people also died in the separate black concentration camps.

The plight of women, children and the edelry in the White Anglo-Boer concentration camps

Black involvement in the war
The South African War of 1899-1902 was essentially a “White Man’s” war, fought to determine which white authority had real power in South Africa but other populations groups like the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazis and Basotho and Sotho’s were also involved in the war. Although there was an unwritten agreement between the Boers and the British that Blacks would not be armed in the war, neither side adhered to this agreement.
It should be mentioned that the South African war was fought in a region where four fifths of the population was Black and that the conflict was over land that belonged to the various African tribes
Most politically conscious Blacks, Coloureds and Indian groups in South Africa believed that the defeat of the Boers would mean more political, educational and commercial opportunities would be afforded to them. They hoped that the Cape franchise would be extended throughout South Africa. The Indian community was encouraged by MK Gandhi to show loyalty to Britain if they wished to achieve their freedom. Thus, the Ambulance Corps was formed in Natal, was and became active on the British side during the early months of the war... read more

Direct Aftermath of the War

The Second Anglo-Boer War resulted in heavy loss of life for both the Boers and the British. The Boers had lost the war and peace negotiations begun in March 1902. On 11 April 1902 preliminary meetings among Boer representatives began in Klerksdorp, as well as with Lord Kitchener in Pretoria. Milner tried to prevent the talks because he felt that the Boers should surrender completely.

15 May 1902 saw the meeting of 30 representatives from each side meet at Vereeniging and by 31 May 1902 the peace agreement was official. The document was signed in Pretoria at Melrose House.

The Treaty of Vereeniging

Some Boers felt that it was worthwhile to continue fighting, but they didn't have enough resources to do so. The Transvaal and Orange Free State leaders also agreed not to divide the two former republics.

The Peace Treaty of Vereeniging included the following points:

  • Uitlanders could return to the Transvaal.
  • The Boers had to lay down their weapons.
  • Dutch would still be taught in schools and used in courts.
  • A civil government would replace the military administration.
  • Self-government would be promoted.
  • Voting rights for black people would only be discussed once the two new colonies could govern themselves.
  • Financial help would be provided for poor citizens.
  • The two new colonies? debts would be paid.

39 000 Uitlanders returned to the Transvaal and the mines opened again. This also meant that the two new British colonies could generate their own income and become financially independent.

We have scanned in a copy of the original 'Peace Treaty of Vereeniging'


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