The Boer War

Causes of the Second Boer War 1899 -1902 – Facts and Timeline

The causes of the Boer War (also known as the ‘Second Boer War’ and ‘Anglo Boer War’) are complicated and often disputed but, ultimately, boil down to time-honoured disputes over sovereignty and control over highly lucrative natural resources (in this case gold).


The British Empire v The South African Republic and The Orange Free State.

Countdown to War

The ‘Great Trek’ and the founding of two Boer republics

The Vanished Diamond by Leon Benett

The Vanished Diamond by Leon Benett

The Cape Colony, in the most southern part of Africa, was originally occupied by Dutch settlers. However, in 1806, the British defeated the Dutch at the Battle of Blaauwbert and finally, in 1814, the colony came under British control.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the Boers (Dutch/Afrikaans for “farmers”), unhappy at living under the British, embarked on the ‘Great Trek’. Initially, they moved east along the coast to Natal but, in 1843, when the British proceeded to annex Natal, they moved northwards.

Eventually, in the 1850s, the Boers founded two new States; the South African Republic (or the Transvaal) & the Orange Free State, both of which were recognised by the British in 1852 and 1854 respectively.

The Diamond and Gold Rushes

As so often happens, the Boers then became a victim to the riches of their own natural resources.

In 1866, diamonds were discovered at Kimberley, leading to a huge migration of Uitlanders (foreigners) to the borders of the Orange Free State.

Then, in 1886, gold was discovered at Witwatersrand (near modern-day Johannesburg) in the South African Republic resulting in a further surge of Uitlanders, so that they soon outnumbered the Boers of the Transvaal.

Tensions grow

The First Boer War (1880-1881)
The First Boer War was sparked by attempt by the British to annex The Transvaal in 1877. The Boers comprehensively won; the Battle of Majuba Hill (1881) was one of the British Empire’s most humiliating defeats. The South African Republic was reinstated but the British continued to retain a nominal (face-saving) suzerainty which the Boers came to resent.

Uitlanders denied voting rights
As most of the Uitlanders were British, the Boers became (not surprisingly!) concerned that the Transvaal would become a British colony by stealth. The Boers knew that they would doubtless lose control over their territory if they gave the Uitlanders full voting rights. As a result, the Boers imposed voting restrictions on the Uitlanders and heavy taxes on the gold-mining industry.

The Uitlanders, in turn, became increasingly unhappy at their treatment; freight charges (imposed by the Boer government) and dynamite (for which the Boers had a monopoly) were ludicrously high. Despite being effectively disenfranchised, the Uitlanders were paying 90% of the state’s taxes. This discontent was fomented by the acquistive Cecil Rhodes, Governor of the Cape colony.

The Jameson Raid (1895)
Cecil Rhodes planned to encourage an uprising among the Uitlanders of Johannesburg who heavily outnumbered the Boers. The Raid failed when the Uitlanders did not rise up and Jameson and his men were captured before they reached Johannesburg. However, the mining industry and the rights of the Uitlanders continued to cause friction between Britain and the Boers.

The British send an Ultimatum (Sept 1899)
After the failed conference at Bloemfontein, Joseph Chamberlain (the British Colonial Secretary) demanded full voting rights for the Uitlanders living in the Transvaal.

The Boers send an ultimatum (Oct 1899)
Before receiving the British ultimatum, Paul Kruger, the President of South African Republic, issued his own: the British must withdraw their troops from the borders of the Transvaal within 48 hours or the Boers would “regard the action as a formal declaration of war.” Unfortunately, this ultimatum reached Britain a day after the 48 hour deadline had passed. When it was received, it was met with much derision by the British press.

The British government were much less sanguine; Lord Salisbury declaring to a startled Queen Victoria that ‘We have no army capable of meeting even a second-class Continental Power.’ Nevertheless, the British rejected the ultimatum and the South African Republic and the Orange Free State declared war on Britain.

Whose fault was it?

This has long been in dispute. The Boers, with some justification, believed that Britain was once again attempting to annex the Transvaal but the British lack of preparation makes this unlikely, at least at the beginning of the conflict. However, the British were certainly protecting their control over the region in a typically robust fashion.

Although the Boers issued the ultimatum, many have argued that the British, fearful of the lack of support for the war at home, were attempting to push the Boers into a declaration.

Others believe that the British Government were dragged into war by the mining magnates, whilst others argue that the mining magnates were duped into creating the conditions which made war inevitable.

First Phase – The Boer Offensive (Oct 1899 – Dec 1899)

The first phase of the war involved the Boers making pre-emptive strikes into Natal and the Cape Colony, both of which were British-held. They laid siege to the garrisons at Ladysmith (in the Natal) and Mafeking and Kimberley (both in the Cape Colony).

During this phase of the war, the British suffered ‘black week’, during which they were defeated in three successive battles in the space of 5 disastrous days; The Battles of Stormbert (10 December) Magersfontein (11 December) and Colenso (15 December). If this wasn’t bad enough, the British troops in the Battle of Colenso were being led by Sir Redvers Buller, British Commander-in-Chief (but not for much longer).

Second Phase – The British offensive (Jan – Sept 1900)

By January 1900 the British (who had expected the war to be over by Christmas) had no option but to expand their force to a total of 180,000 men; the largest ever sent overseas. Sir Redvers (now nicknamed ‘Reverse’) Buller was replaced by Field Marshall Lord Roberts and British fortunes began to improve.

The British relieved the sieges at Ladysmith and Kimberley in February 1900 and, finally, Mafeking on 18 May.  Of the these three sieges Mafeking is by far the most famous; partly because the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s son was besieged in the town and also because it created a war hero out of Col. Robert Baden-Powell (who later founded the Boy Scouts movement). When the siege was eventually lifted after a total of 217 days it massively lifted morale in Britain, despite being of limited military significance.

Having secured the Natal and Cape Colony, the British proceeded to invade Boer-held territory. In March 1900, the British took Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State. In the Transvaal, the British took Johannesburg (May 1900) and Pretoria, the capital (June 1900). The war was now considered to be effectively over (at least by the British) and Roberts returned to England victorious.

Third Phase – Guerrilla warfare v ‘scorched earth’ policy (Sept 1900 – May 1902)

This ugly phase of the war dragged it out for a further two years. The British, believing they had won the war, were initially caught off guard as the Boers now turned to a new type of hostility – guerrilla warfare. They met with initial success, sabotaging railways and capturing army posts.

Lord Kitchener, who by now had succeeded Lord Roberts as Commander-in-Chief, responded with aggression. He applied a ‘scorched earth’ policy and, to prevent communities rebuilding, arranged for women and children to be moved to existing ‘refugee camps’. These camps, although originally set up for their intended purpose, now became effectively concentration camps. It was the first time that such concentration camps had been imposed on an entire population. Almost 28,000 Boer women and children died in these camps, along with another 20,000 black Africans, as the supply of food and medicine were wholly inadequate for the numbers being housed.

In June 1901, Emily Hobhouse published a report on the concentration camps and Lloyd George (who would later become Prime Minister) accused the Government of carrying out a “policy of extermination” against the Boer population. Although, in 1900, the Conservatives had won the “Khaki Election” on the back of British military success, revulsion at the use of concentration camps and frustration at the length of the war had turned public opinion decisively against the campaign.

The Boers finally surrendered on 31 May 1902. By the end of the war, Britain had sent a total of 450,000 troops to fight 50,000 Boers.  The Military Genealogy website Forces War Records hold 391,554 Boer War records relating to British Forces that fought in the Boer War from 1899 – 1902.

The Peace of Vereeniging (31 May 1902)

Under the terms of this treaty, the British went to some lengths to make amends for their conduct during the latter stages of the war. Although the two republics were absorbed into the British Empire, there was a promise of future self-government for the Boers, later fulfilled by the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. In addition, a general amnesty was granted to those who had fought the British and a donation of £3 million was awarded for the reconstruction of Boer farms.

The cost of the war

In lives

The total number of British military casualties was 22,000 (of which over 14,000 had died of disease).
The Boers suffered 6,000 military casualties. A further 24,000 prisoners were sent overseas. However, of the 115,000 interred in the concentration camps, almost 28,000 Boers and another 20,000 black Africans died.

The Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration, for valour, ‘in the face of the enemy’ was awarded to 78 members of the British Armed Forces for the Second Boer War for the period 1899 – 1901.

Monetary cost

The total cost of the war was £210 million which, in today’s money, would be over £200 billion.

Cameo roles of notable figures

Although they merited only a footnote in this particular conflict, mention must be made of the following actors:

Winston Churchill

The 26 year old Winston worked as a war correspondent for The Morning Post, during which time he was captured, held prisoner at Pretoria and then escaped to re-join the British army.

Mahatma Gandhi

In 1900 he volunteered to be a stretcher bearer for the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps and recruited 1100 India volunteers. He received the Boer War Medal along with 37 other Indians.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

He served as a volunteer doctor at Bloemfontein (Langman Field Hospital) between March – June 1900. He publicised the fact that of the 22,000 soldiers killed in the hostilities, 14,000 had actually died of disease. He also wrote a pamphlet defending the war entitled: “The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct”.