The flag of the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State

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

Cartoon: The Transvaal and the Orange Free State are seen as virgins, tied to a burning stake, which is lit by John Bull, the British version of America’s Uncle Sam. All of Europe's powers seem to be standing by, watching, but not helping. (From Amsterdamsche Courant, 23 March 1900)

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.

Starving Boer child in a concentration camp. © Anglo Boer War museum

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.

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