Boer Wars

From New World Encyclopedia
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The Boer Wars were fought between British and Dutch settlers of the South African Transvaal. The Dutch were known as "Boers" from the word for "farmer." Their ancestors had settled in the Cape area from the 1650s onwards. From 1828, many trekked to the Transvaal with the express purpose of avoiding British rule. The British had occupied the Cape from 1806. Boers felt a natural dislike the Anglicizing policy of the colonial administration, policies which they believed undermined their own cultural heritage. Abolition of slavery in 1830 led many of them to believe that continued British interference would surely destroy their economic prosperity. Following wars with Zulu peoples in 1834, some Boers felt that the colonial authorities seemed to be more protective of non-white than of white interests. Believing this to be the case, Boers who held attitudes of racial superiority were disturbed. By 1853, however, following the Great Trek, two Boer states had gained recognition by the British, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Some suggest that many of the Boers, also known as Afrikaners, came to think of their land as a divine gift. For those with such a mindset the Trek came to be compared to the Exodus. As with all cultures, some Boers ethnocentrically came to think of themselves as superior, as the only truly civilized people in Africa. Language and ideology paralleled biblical notions comparing themselves to how the Israelites in Canaan had the injunction to keep themselves pure and uncontaminated by the land's original inhabitants.

But a new imperial policy arose in England. It aimed to bring the whole of Southern Africa under British rule. Because of this, the Transvaal was annexed by the British in 1877. The annexation led to the first of the two Boer Wars. The second Boer War, from 1899 until 1902, followed an insurrection against British rule in both of the Boer States. Much of the second war a guerrilla campaign waged by the Boers. The issue was both economic and cultural. The discovery of gold in the Transvaal led to British demands for access, while the Boers sought predominantly to preserve their way of life. Both wars were over territory, power, and culture fought by European settlers and troops on foreign soil. Neither European power gave any thought to the native Africans who of, course, actually had a prior claim to ownership of the the land in question. The British used the argument that they were best suited to rule, discipline, and educate Africans in the context of Britain's planned "Cape to Cairo Empire." In reality, the British aim was to exploit Africa's resources more efficiently by building and controlling railroads. To the Boers these were wars against imperial oppression. In some respects, with troops from Australia, Canada and New Zealand contributing to the British victory, these wars prepared the British for involvement in World War I and World War II, during which time she was supported by these former colonies.

First Boer War

The First Boer War also known as the Transvaal War, was fought from December 16, 1880, until March 23, 1881. It was the first clash between the British and the Transvaal Boers. It was precipitated by Sir Theophilus Shepstone who annexed the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) for the British in 1877. The British consolidated their power over most of the colonies of South Africa in 1879 after the Anglo-Zulu War. The Boers protested and in December 1880 they revolted.


The war began on December 16, 1880, with shots fired by Transvaal Boers at Potchefstroom after Transvaal formally declared independence from Great Britain. It led to the action at Bronkhorstspruit on December 20, 1880, where the Boers ambushed and destroyed a British convoy. From December 22, 1880, to January 6, 1881, British army garrisons all over the Transvaal became besieged.

The Boers were dressed in their everyday farming clothes, which were a neutral or earth tone khaki color, whereas the British uniforms were still bright scarlet red, a stark contrast to the African landscape, which enabled the Boers, being expert marksmen, to easily snipe at British troops from a distance. Other significant advantages to the Boers included their widespread adoption of the breech loading rifle, which could be aimed, fired, and reloaded from a prone position, and the Boers' unconventional military tactics, which relied more on stealth and speed than discipline and formation.

Conduct of the War

The besieging of the British garrisons led to the Battle of Laing's Nek on January 28, 1881, where a British force composed of the Natal Field Force under Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley attempted to break through the Boer positions on the Drakensberg range to relieve their garrisons. But the Boers, under the command of P.J. Joubert repulsed the British cavalry and infantry attacks.

Further actions included the Battle of Schuinshoogte (also known as Ingogo) on February 8, 1881, where another British force barely escaped destruction. But the final humiliation for the British was at the Battle of Majuba Hill on February 27, 1881, where several Boer groups stormed the hill and drove off the British, killing Colley in the process.

Unwilling to get further involved in a war which was already seen as lost, the British government of William Gladstone signed a truce on March 6, and in the final peace treaty on March 23, 1881, they gave the Boers self-government in the Transvaal under a theoretical British oversight.

The Second Boer War

The Second Boer War, also known as the South African War (outside of South Africa), the Anglo-Boer War (among some South Africans) and in Afrikaans as the Anglo-Boereoorlog or Tweede Vryheidsoorlog (Second War of Independence), was fought from October, 11 1899, until May 31, 1902. The war was fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic). After a protracted hard-fought war, the two independent republics lost and were absorbed into the British Empire.


With the 1885 discovery of gold in Transvaal, thousands of British and other prospectors and settlers streamed over the border from the Cape Colony and from across the globe. The city of Johannesburg sprang up as a shanty town nearly overnight as the uitlanders poured in and settled near the mines. The uitlanders rapidly outnumbered the Boers on the Witwatersrand, but remained a minority in the Transvaal as a whole. The Afrikaners, nervous and resentful of the uitlander presence, denied them voting rights and taxed the gold industry heavily. In response, there was pressure from the uitlanders and the British mine owners to overthrow the Boer government. In 1895, Cecil Rhodes sponsored a failed coup d'état backed by an armed incursion, known as the Jameson Raid.

The failure to gain improved rights for Britons was used to justify a major military buildup in the Cape, since several key British colonial leaders favored annexation of the Boer republics. These included the Cape Colony governor Sir Alfred Milner, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain and mining syndicate owners (nicknamed the "gold bugs") such as Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato and Lionel Phillips. Confident that the Boers would be quickly defeated, they attempted to precipitate a war.

President Martinus Steyn of the Orange Free State invited Milner and Paul Kruger (President of the Transvaal) to attend a conference in Bloemfontein which started on May 30, 1899, but negotiations quickly broke down. In September 1899, Chamberlain sent an ultimatum demanding full equality for British citizens resident in Transvaal.

Kruger, sure that war was inevitable, simultaneously issued his own ultimatum prior to receiving Chamberlain's. This gave the British 48 hours to withdraw all their troops from the border of Transvaal; otherwise the Transvaal, allied with the Orange Free State, would be at war with them.

First phase: The Boer offensive of October to December 1899

War was declared on October 11, 1899, and the Boers struck first by invading Cape Colony and Natal Colony between October 1899 and January 1900. This was followed by some early Afrikaner military successes against General Redvers Buller. The Boers were able to besiege the towns of Ladysmith and Mafeking (defended by troops headed by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell), and Kimberley.

Siege life took its toll on both the defending soldiers and the civilians in the cities of Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley as food began to grow scarce after a few weeks. In Mafeking, Sol Plaatje wrote, "I saw horseflesh for the first time being treated as a human foodstuff." The cities under siege also dealt with constant artillery bombardment, making the streets a dangerous place. Near the end of the siege of Kimberley, it was expected that the Boers would intensify their bombardment, so a notice was displayed encouraging people to go down into the mines for protection. The townspeople panicked, and people flowed into the mine shafts constantly for a 12-hour period. Although the bombardment never came, this did nothing to diminish the distress of the civilians.

In Kimberley many of the towns people, now under siege, sheltered in the local convent, now the Mcgregor museum. Since the mining that occurred there, for diamonds, was open air, the people were not able to shelter in mine shafts. The mine is now known as the Big Hole, a popular tourist attraction in the area.

The middle of December proved difficult for the British army. In a period known as Black Week (December 10-15, 1899), the British suffered a series of devastating losses at the Battles of Magersfontein, Stormberg, and Colenso. At the Battle of Stormberg on December 10, British General William Forbes Gatacre, who was in command of 3,000 troops protecting against Boer raids in Cape Colony, tried to recapture a railway junction about 50 miles south of the Orange River. But Gatacre chose to assault the Orange State Boer positions surmounting a precipitous rock face in which he lost 135 killed and wounded, as well as two guns and over 600 troops captured.

At the Battle of Magersfontein on December 11, 14,000 British troops, under the command of General Paul Sanford Methuen, 3rd Baron Methuen, attempted to fight their way to relieve Kimberly. The Boer commanders, Koos de la Rey and Piet Cronje, devised a plan to dig trenches in an unconventional place to fool the British and to give their riflemen a greater firing range. The plan worked. The British were decisively defeated, suffering the loss of 120 British soldiers killed and 690 wounded, which prevented them from relieving Kimberley and Mafeking. But the nadir of Black Week was the Battle of Colenso on December 15, where 21,000 British troops, under the command of Redvers Henry Buller, attempted to cross the Tugela River to relieve Ladysmith where 8,000 Transvaal Boers, under the command of Louis Botha, were awaiting them. Through a combination of artillery and accurate rifle fire, the Boers repelled all British attempts to cross the river. The British had a further 1,127 casualties, and lost 10 artillery pieces to the Boers during the ensuing retreat. The Boer forces suffered 40 casualties.

Second phase: The British offensive of January to September 1900

The Relief of Ladysmith. Sir George White greets Major Hubert Gough on 28 February. Painting by John Henry Frederick Bacon (1868-1914)

The British suffered further defeats in their attempts to relieve Ladysmith at the Battle of Spion Kop of January 19 to 24, 1900, where Redvers Buller again attempted to cross the Tugela west of Colenso and was defeated again by Louis Botha after a hard-fought battle for a prominent hill feature which resulted in a further 1,000 British casualties and nearly 300 Boer casualties. Buller attacked Botha again on February 5, at Vaal Krantz and was again defeated.

It was not until reinforcements arrived on February 14, 1900 that British troops commanded by Field Marshal Lord Roberts could launch counter-offensives to relieve the garrisons. Kimberley was relieved on February 15, by a cavalry division under John French, 1st Earl of Ypres. At the Battle of Paardeberg on February 18 to 27, 1900, Roberts surrounded General Piet Cronje's retreating Boer army, and forced him to surrender with 4000 men after a siege lasting a week. Meanwhile, Buller at last succeeded in forcing a crossing of the Tugela, and defeated Botha's outnumbered forces north of Colenso, allowing the Relief of Ladysmith the day after Cronje surrendered.

Roberts then advanced into the two republics, capturing Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, on March 13. Meanwhile, he detached a small force to relieve Baden-Powell, and the Relief of Mafeking on May 18, 1900, provoking riotous celebrations in England. After being forced to delay for several weeks at Bloemfontein due to sickness within his army (caused by poor hygiene and medical care), Roberts resumed his advance and captured the capital of the Transvaal, Pretoria, on June 5.

British observers believed the war to be all but over after the capture of the two capital cities. However, the Boers had met at a new capital of the Orange Free State, Kroonstad, and planned a guerrilla campaign to hit the British supply and communication lines. The first engagement of this new form of warfare was at Sanna's Post on March 31, where 1,500 Boers under the command of Christiaan De Wet attacked Bloemfontein's waterworks about 23 miles east of the city, and ambushed a heavily escorted convoy which resulted in 155 British casualties and with seven guns, 117 wagons and 428 British troops captured.

After the fall of Pretoria, one of the last formal battles was at Diamond Hill on June 11-12, where Field Marshal Lord Roberts attempted to drive the remnants of the Boer field army beyond striking distance of the city. Although Roberts drove the Boers from the hill, the Boer commander, Louis Botha, did not regard it as a defeat, for he inflicted more casualties on the British (totaling 162 men) while only suffering around 50 casualties.

The set-piece period of the war now largely gave way to a mobile guerrilla war, but one final operation remained. President Kruger and what remained of the Transvaal government had retreated to eastern Transvaal. Roberts, joined by troops from Natal under Buller, advanced against them, and broke their last defensive position at Bergendal on August 26. As Roberts and Buller followed up along the railway line to Komatipoort, Kruger sought asylum in Portuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique). Some dispirited Boers did likewise, and the British gathered up much material. However, the core of the Boer fighters under Botha easily broke back into the Transvaal. Under the new conditions of the war, heavy equipment was no use to them, and therefore no great loss.

Third phase: Guerrilla war of September 1900 to May 1902

By September 1900, the British were in control of both Republics, except for the northern part of Transvaal. However, they found that they only controlled the ground their columns physically occupied. As soon as the columns left a town or district, British control of that area faded away. The huge territory of the Republics made it impossible for the 250,000 British troops to control it effectively. The vast distances between the columns allowed the Boer commandos considerable freedom to move about. The Boer commanders decided to adopt a guerrilla style of warfare. The commandos were sent to their own districts with the order to act against the British there whenever possible. Their strategy was to do as much damage to the enemy as possible, and then to move off and vanish when enemy reinforcements arrived.

Western Transvaal

The Boer commandos in the Western Transvaal were very active after September 1901. Several battles of importance were fought here between September 1901 and March 1902. At Moedwil on September 30, 1901, and again at Driefontein on October 24, Gen. De la Rey’s forces attacked the British but were forced to withdraw after the British offered strong resistance.

A time of relative quiet descended thereafter on the western Transvaal. February 1902 saw the next major battle in that region. On February 25, De la Rey attacked a British column at Ysterspruit near Wolmaranstad. De la Rey succeeded in capturing the column and a large amount of ammunition—enough to last his commandos a long time.

The Boer attacks prompted Lord Methuen, the British second-in-command after Lord Kitchener, to move his column from Vryburg to Klerksdorp to deal with De la Rey. On the morning of March 7, 1902, the Boers attacked the rear guard of Methuen’s moving column at Tweebosch. In the confusion that soon reigned in British ranks, Methuen was wounded and captured by the Boers. The battle of Tweebosch was one of the De la Rey’s finest victories.

The Boer victories in the west led to stronger action by the British. In the second half of March 1902 large British reinforcements were sent to the Western Transvaal. The opportunity the British waited for arose on April 11, 1902, at Rooiwal, where the combined forces of Gens. Grenfell, Kekewich and Von Donop came into contact with the forces of Gen. Kemp. The British soldiers were superbly positioned on the mountain side and mowed down the Boers charging on horseback over a large distance, beating them back with heavy casualties.

This was the end of the war in the Western Transvaal and also the last major battle of the Anglo-Boer War.

Orange Free State

While the British occupied Pretoria, the Boer fighters in the Orange Free State had been driven into a fertile area in the north east of the Republic, known as the Brandwater Basin. This offered only temporary sanctuary, as the mountain passes leading to it could be occupied by the British, trapping the Boers. A force under General Hunter set out from Bloemfontein to achieve this in July 1900. The hard core of the Boers under Christiaan de Wet, accompanied by President Steyn, left the basin early. Those remaining fell into confusion and most failed to break out before Hunter trapped them. 4500 Boers surrendered and much equipment was captured, but as with Robert's drive against Kruger at the same time, these losses were of little consequence if the hard core of the Boer armies and their most determined and active leaders remained at large.

From the Basin, de Wet headed west. Although hounded by British columns, he succeeded in crossing the Vaal into the Western Transvaal, to allow Steyn to travel to meet the Transvaal leaders.

Returning to the Orange Free State, de Wet inspired a series of attacks and raids from the hitherto quiet western part of the country. In late January 1901, he also led a renewed invasion of Cape Colony. This was less successful, because there was no general uprising among the Cape Boers, and de Wet's men were relentlessly pursued by British forces. They escaped across the Orange River, almost by a miracle.

From then until the final days of the war, de Wet remained comparatively quiet, partly because the Orange Free State was effectively left desolated by British sweeps.

Eastern Transvaal

Two Boer forces fought in this area; under Botha in the south east and Ben Viljoen in the north east. Botha's forces were particularly active, raiding railways and even mounting a renewed invasion of Natal in September 1901. However, Botha's forces were the target of increasingly large and ruthless drives by British forces, and eventually, he had to abandon the highveld and retreat to a narrow enclave bordering Swaziland.

To the north, Ben Viljoen grew steadily less active. His forces mounted comparatively few attacks and as a result, the Boer enclave around Lydenburg was largely unmolested. Viljoen was eventually captured.

Cape Colony

After he escaped across the Orange in March 1901, de Wet had left forces under Cape rebels Kritzinger and Scheepers to maintain a guerrilla campaign in the Cape Midlands. The campaign here was one of the least chivalrous, with intimidation by both sides of each other's civilian sympathizers. Several captured rebels, including Scheepers, were executed for treason by the British, some in public. In most cases though, the executions were ostensibly for capital crimes such as the murder of prisoners or of unarmed civilians.

Fresh Boer forces under Jan Christiaan Smuts, joined by the surviving rebels under Kritzinger, made another attack on the Cape in September 1901. They suffered severe hardships and were hard pressed by British columns, but eventually rescued themselves by routing some of their pursuers and capturing their equipment.

From then until the end of the war, Smuts increased his forces until they numbered 3000. However, no general uprising took place, and the situation in the Cape remained a stalemate.

Final days of the War

Towards the end of the war, British drives and offensives became more successful. This was achieved by establishing lines of blockhouses and wire fences which parceled up the wide veld into smaller areas. De Wet narrowly avoided being trapped against these by a drive, but Kitchener's forces at last began to seriously affect the Boers' fighting strength and freedom of maneuver.

The concentration camps

Boer women and children in a concentration camp

These had originally been set up for refugees whose farms had been destroyed by the British "Scorched Earth" policy (burning down all Boer homesteads and farms). However, following Kitchener's new policy, many women and children were forcibly moved to prevent the Boers from resupplying at their homes and more camps were built and converted to prisons. This relatively new idea was essentially humane in its planning in London but ultimately proved brutal due to its lack of proper implementation. This was not the first appearance of concentration camps. The Spanish used them in the Ten Years' War that later led to the Spanish-American War, and the United States used them to devastate guerrilla forces during the Philippine-American War. But the concentration camp system of the British was on a much larger scale.

There were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 for black African ones. Of the 28,000 Boer men captured as prisoners of war, 25,630 were sent overseas. So, most Boers remaining in the local camps were women and children, but the native African ones held large numbers of men as well. Even when forcibly removed from Boer areas, the black Africans were not considered to be hostile to the British, and provided a paid labor force.

The conditions in the camps were very unhealthy and the food rations were meager. Women and children of men who were still fighting were given smaller rations than others. The poor diet and inadequate hygiene led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid, and dysentery. Coupled with a shortage of medical facilities, this led to large numbers of deaths—a report after the war concluded that 27,927 Boers (of whom 22,074 were children under 16) and 14,154 black Africans had died of starvation, disease, and exposure in the concentration camps. In all, about 25 percent of the Boer inmates and 12 percent of the black African ones died (although recent research suggests that the black African deaths were underestimated and may have actually been around 20,000).

A delegate of the South African Women and Children's Distress Fund, Emily Hobhouse, did much to publicize the distress of the inmates on her return to Britain after visiting some of the camps in the Orange Free State. Her fifteen-page report caused uproar, and led to a government commission, the Fawcett Commission, visiting camps from August to December 1901 which confirmed her report. They were highly critical of the running of the camps and made numerous recommendations, for example improvements in diet and provision of proper medical facilities. By February 1902 the annual death-rate dropped to 6.9 percent and eventually to 2 percent.

Counterinsurgency techniques which were applied by the British in the Boer War were later reused by the British to fend off Malayan communist rebels during the Malayan Emergency.

POWs sent overseas

The first sizable batch of Boer prisoners of war taken by the British consisted of those captured at the battle of Elandslaagte on October 21, 1899. [1] At first many were put on ships. But as numbers grew, the British decided they didn't want them kept locally. The capture of 400 POWs in February 1900 was a key event, which made the British realize they could not accommodate all POWs in South Africa. [2] The British feared they could be freed by sympathetic locals. They already had trouble supplying their own troops in South Africa, and didn't want the added burden of sending supplies for the POWs. Britain therefore chose to send many POWs overseas.

The first overseas (off African mainland) camps were opened in Saint Helena, which ultimately received about 5000 POWs. About 5000 POWs were sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Other POWs were sent to Bermuda and India. Some POWs were even sent outside the British Empire, with 1,443 [3] Boers (mostly POWs) sent to Portugal.

The end of the war

In all, the war had cost around 75,000 lives—22,000 British soldiers (7,792 battle casualties, the rest through disease), 6,000-7,000 Boer soldiers, 20,000-28,000 Boer civilians and perhaps 20,000 black Africans. The last of the Boers surrendered in May 1902 and the war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in the same month. But the Boers were given £3,000,000 for reconstruction and were promised eventual self-government, and the Union of South Africa was established in 1910. The treaty ended the existence of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as Boer republics and placed them within the British Empire.

The Boers referred to the two wars as the "Freedom Wars." Those Boers who wanted to continue the fight were known as "bitter-einders" (or "irreconcilable") and at the end of the war a number like Deneys Reitz chose exile rather than sign an undertaking that they would abide by the peace terms. Over the following decade, many returned to South Africa and never signed the undertaking. Some, like Reitz, eventually reconciled themselves to the new status quo, but others waited for a suitable opportunity to restart the old quarrel. At the start of World War I the bitter-einders and their allies took part in a revolt known as the Maritz Rebellion. Those Boers who now formed the South African government, along with their English speaking allies, quickly suppressed the revolt. Compared with the fate of leading Irish rebels of the Easter Rising in 1916, the leading Boer rebels in the Maritz Rebellion got off lightly, with terms of imprisonment of six and seven years and heavy fines. Two years later, they were released from prison, as Louis Botha recognized the value of reconciliation. After this, the bitter-einders concentrated on working within the constitutional system and built up the National National Party which would come to dominate the politics of South Africa from the late 1940s until the early 1990s, when the apartheid system they had constructed also fell. The party enshrined as law Boer racist views.

During the conflict, 78 Victoria Crosses (VC)—the highest and most prestigious award in the British armed forces for bravery in the face of the enemy—were awarded to British and Colonial soldiers.

Effect of the war on domestic British politics

The war highlighted the dangers of Britain's policy of non-alignment and deepened her isolation. The United Kingdom general election, 1900 UK general election, also known as the "Khaki election," was called by the Prime Minister, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury on the back of recent British victories. There was much enthusiasm for the war at this point, resulting in a victory for the Conservative government.

However, public support quickly waned as it became apparent that the war would not be easy and it dragged on, partially contributing to the Conservatives' spectacular defeat in 1906. There was public outrage at the use of scorched earth tactics—the burning of Boer homesteads, for example—and the conditions in the concentration camps. It also became apparent that there were serious problems with public health: up to 40 percent of recruits were unfit for military service, suffering from medical problems such as rickets and other poverty-related illnesses. This came at a time of increasing concern for the state of the poor in Britain.

The use of Chinese labor, known as "Coolies," after the war by the governor of the new crown colonies, Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner, also caused much revulsion in the UK. Workers were often kept in appalling conditions, received only a small wage and were forbidden to socialize with the local population—this led to further public shock at the resulting homosexual acts between those forbidden the services of prostitutes. Some believe the Chinese slavery issue can be seen as the climax of public antipathy with the war.

Many Irish nationalists sympathized with the Boers, seeing them as a people oppressed by British imperialism, much like themselves. Irish miners already in the Transvaal at the start of the war formed the nucleus of two Irish commandos and small groups of Irish volunteers went to South Africa to fight with the Boers—this despite the fact that there were many Irish troops fighting with the British army.

In Britain, the "Pro-Boer" campaign expanded. Many British authors gave their "Pro-Boer" opinions in British press, such as G. K. Chesterton's writing to 1905, with writers often idealizing the Boer society.

Empire involvement

The vast majority of troops fighting for the United Kingdom came from the UK or South Africa. However, in the Second Boer War (South Africa War) a number did come from other parts of the Empire. These countries had their own internal disputes over whether they should remain tied to the United Kingdom, or have full independence, which carried over into the debate over whether they should send forces to assist the United Kingdom. Though not fully independent on foreign affairs, these countries did have local say over how much support to provide, and the manner in which it would be provided. Ultimately, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all chose to send volunteers to aid the United Kingdom, but did not send them in sufficient size or speed to be critical to the final outcome.


The Commonwealth of Australia was formed from the six Australian colonies on January 1, 1901, making the Boer War the first war in which the Commonwealth of Australia fought. As part of the British Empire prior to federation the Australian colonies also offered troops for the war in South Africa. In all, 16,175 Australians served in contingents raised by the six colonies and the Commonwealth. About 4,500 men served more than one contingent. 267 died from disease and slightly less, 251, died in action or from wounds sustained in battle, while a further 43 men were reported missing. A small number of Australians are known to have fought on the Boer side. [4]

The Australian climate and geography were far closer to that of South Africa than the towns and cities of Britain where most of the British troops originated, so Australians were perceived by the British authorities as better suited to the conditions in South Africa than many of the British troops and a particularly useful adjunct to the British regular forces.

The Australians served mostly as powerful "mounted rifles" in units formed in each colony. Some contingents fought in the second phase of the war when the British counter-attack captured the Boer capitals. Later contingents fought in the guerrilla war phase. They were valued for the ability to be able to match the speed and agility of the Boer commandos on the veldt and were often used as quick-response reserves sent to areas where the more sedate British infantry units often in Blockhouses reported contact with the Boers. Some of these troops formed the kernel of the Australian Lighthorsemen regiments later sent to Middle East in World War I.

In Australia at the start of the war sympathy lay with the imperial cause, but as the war dragged on the Australian public started to become disenchanted, in part because the sufferings of Boer civilians became known through newspaper reports on the well-publicized conviction and execution of Lieutenants Breaker Morant and Handcock in 1902.


At first Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier tried to keep Canada out of the war. [5] The Canadian government was divided between those, primarily French Canadians, who wished to stay out of the war and others, primarily English Canadians, who wanted to join with Britain in her fight. In the end, Canada agreed to support the British by providing volunteers, equipment, and transportation to South Africa. Britain would be responsible for paying the troops and returning them to Canada at the end of their service. The Boer War marked the first occasion in which large contingents of Canadian troops served abroad.

The Battle of Paardeburg in February 1900 represented the second time Canadian Troops saw battle abroad (although there was a long tradition of Canadian service in the British Army and Royal Navy), the first being the Canadian involvement in the Nile Expedition of 1884-85.

Ultimately, over 8,600 Canadians volunteered to fight in the South African War. However, not all saw action since many landed in South Africa after the hostilities ended while others performed garrison duty in Halifax, Nova Scotia so that their British counterparts could join at the front. Approximately 277 Canadians died in the South Africa War: 89 men were killed in action, 135 died of disease, and the remainder died of accident or injury. 252 were wounded.

New Zealand

When the Second Boer War seemed imminent, New Zealand offered its support. [6] On September 28, 1899, Prime Minister Richard Seddon asked New Zealand Parliament to approve the offer to the imperial government of a contingent of mounted rifles and the raising of such a force if the offer were accepted and thus becoming the first British Colony to send troops to the Boer War. The British position in the dispute with the Transvaal was "moderate and righteous," he maintained. He stressed the "crimson tie" of Empire which bound New Zealand to the Mother-country and the importance of a strong British Empire for the colony's security.

In many ways the South African war set the pattern for New Zealand's later involvement in the two World Wars. Specially raised units, consisting mainly of volunteers, were dispatched overseas to serve with forces from elsewhere in the British Empire. The success enjoyed by the New Zealand troops fostered the idea that New Zealanders were naturally good soldiers, who required only a modicum of training to perform creditably.


  1. Anglo-Boer War Museum. Boer Prisoners of War. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  2. The Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society. Collecting Interests. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  3. The Anglo-Boer War Philatelic Society. Picture Detail. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  4. Australian War Memorial. Australia and the Boer War.
  5. Veterans Affairs Canada. South African War 100th Anniversary. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  6. New Zealand History Online. New Zealand in the South African War. Retrieved May 24, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Farwell, Byron The Great Anglo-Boer War. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. ISBN 0060112042 (published in the UK as The Great Boer War. London: Allen Lane, 1977. ISBN 0713908203)
  • Gordon, April A and Donald L. Gordon (eds.). Understanding contemporary Africa. 3rd ed. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2001. ISBN 1555878504
  • Harrison, David. The white tribe of Africa: South Africa in perspective. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981. ISBN 0520046900
  • Judd, Denis and Surridge, Keith. The Boer War. London: John Murray, 2003. ISBN 0719561698
  • Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979. ISBN 0394427424
  • Pretorius, Fransjohan Scorched Earth. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 2001. ISBN 0-7981-4192
  • Plaatje, Sol T Mafeking diary: a black man's view of a white man's war. Cambridge: Meridor Books; Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990. ISBN ISBN 0852550642
  • Milner, Alfred. The Milner Papers, South Africa 1899-1905. London: Cassell, 1933.

External links

All links retrieved November 17, 2023.


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