The First Boer War

Flag of the South African Republic, or Transvaal. Transvalers! Laat ons feeslied galm! Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.
Flag of the South African Republic, or Transvaal. Transvalers! Laat ons feeslied galm!
Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

The first British to learn about the war was a column of about 250 men led by Lieutenant Colonel Anstruther. Heading for the capital of Pretoria, he was surprised to see a rider approaching with the Vierkleur (lit. “four color”) raised. The Transvaal Vierkleur flag resembled the modern Dutch one, with stripes of red, white, and blue with an additional vertical green stripe on the left hand side. The herald politely told Anstruther that Transvaal as of December 16, 1880 was independent, and that it was in the best interest of the “red soldiers” to turn right around. Just as politely Anstruther refused. Niceties out of the way, the Boers then shot the column to pieces from all sides. The “Battle” of Bronkhorstpruit lasted just 15 appalling minutes, and cost the British 156 men killed and wounded. The Boers lost seven. Hit in the leg five times, Anstruther surrendered as he bled out on the ground. Within a few short days the entirety of the Transvaal boiled over into revolution. All six British outposts in the region were besieged, leaving the provincial leaders aghast.

The British dive headfirst into another beartrap. Incidentally, Laing's Nek was the last time a British unit took its colors into combat. After four officers died holding up the flag, they thought better of it. Painting by Elizabeth Thompson
The British dive headfirst into another beartrap. Incidentally, Laing’s Nek was the last time a British unit took its colors into combat. After four officers died holding up the flag, they thought better of it.
Painting by Elizabeth Thompson

Scrambling fast, the British General Colley threw together a relief force in Natal and shot north as fast as he could. Unfortunately, another thousand red coats mostly just offered new targets for the Boers. It also didn’t help that Colley was another general who suffered from a rather inflated opinion of himself. He had already dropped the ball anticipating the Boer uprising, and he did little to redeem himself as his men began to engage the Boers. Their first battle at Laing’s Nek involved trying to charge up a rocky hill at the Boer positions, whereupon the Boers shot them a lot. When the British cavalry units tried to circle around, the Boers shot them too. Then the British withdrew, deciding another 200 wounded and killed was quite enough for one day. Reeling a bit, Colley fell back, and quickly found himself hemmed in by the Boers himself. As he frantically put the call out for reinforcements a small attempt to keep open his line of communications and supply earned him another 139 casualties.

It was at this point that PM Gladstone and his party heard the news of a frustrating little war happening down in South Africa. Paul Kruger, already in London, was on hand to negotiate the end of the hostilities, if Gladstone wanted to put the mess behind him. The Prime Minister was certainly considering it, as his administration was already snarled by multiple scandals. He had tried to dip his hand into granting home rule to Ireland, something that had caused an incredible amount of polite scoffing and tea spewing among some of the older lords in his party. Combined with another wave of colonial revolts in more lucrative territories Gladstone had his hands full worrying about the electoral survival of his government. It was also a poorly kept secret that Queen Victoria despised him personally, which made all of his work that much more challenging. Cabling down to South Africa, Gladstone told Colley to hold up for a bit while he offered Kruger terms.

British General George Colley, seen here prior to getting shot repeatedly for his hubris. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.
British General George Colley, seen here prior to getting shot repeatedly for his hubris.
Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

For General Colley admitting defeat at the hands of some Dutch farmers was not something he was willing to do. He reasoned that if he could get at least one good punch in the British could end this on much more reasonable note from their perspective. Colley’s idea for the engagement actually wasn’t a bad one. Near the closest Boer position was Majuba hill, if he could get men and a gun or two on the summit he could easily pound the Boers flat, or at least force them back. Whatever else his flaws, he also didn’t lack for guts, and he personally led 360 men to the peak in the dead of night with the help of a local black African guide. The ruse worked perfectly, and Colley gazed down in triumph on his enemies. Curiously though, gazing was just about all he did. His men were tired, and rather than digging trenches, they mostly just lay around for the next day. The problem was that bright red British uniforms really stood out atop an exposed hill, and the Boers quickly realized just how bad things would get if they left the force alone up there. The Commandos started up the hill in small groups. Each time a unit pushed forward, the others would shower the hilltop with rifle fire to pin the British on the summit. The Boers quickly leapfrogged their way up the hill, and surprised the still exhausted British at the top. Colley himself quickly learned that an officer’s insignia were a bit of a target and he was shot dead trying to rally his men. Nor was he the only one, Colley’s unit suffered a staggering casualty rate of 46 percent, including thirteen dead or wounded officers.

Paul Kruger and Sir Evelyn Wood, replacement for the late lamented Colley, negotiate the end of the war. From a statue in Pretoria. Photo Credit: JMK, Wiki Commons
Paul Kruger and Sir Evelyn Wood, replacement for the late lamented Colley, negotiate the end of the war. From a statue in Pretoria.
Photo Credit: JMK, Wiki Commons

In the grand tradition of plucky, slightly racist colonial farmers past, the Boers had punched out a far bigger adversary and won back the freedom of the Transvaal. For the British and Gladstone, Majuba Hill was the upset of the century. While they had lost other battles in their kleptomaniac’s approach to colonizing Africa, but for the most part the only British soldiers on hand had been the officer’s corps. Usually the ranks were filled out with locals, and the citizenry back in London hardly got excited thinking about dead Egyptian or Sudanese conscripts in places like Khartoum. The “Scramble” for Africa was something they read about in the papers, a serial drama they followed avidly, but one that hardly felt real. Majuba Hill was one of those rare battles where the British couldn’t blame anyone but themselves for the defeat, and this time there was no heroic defense at Rorke’s Drift to lift their spirits. They had just been taken to school by backveld farmers so broke they couldn’t afford a telegraph wire for their capital without begging for a loan. The only saving grace from Gladstone’s perspective was the wording of the treaty. Nothing sets the stage for future conflict like ambiguous language in a peace treaty, and Gladstone was a master wordsmith. The resulting Pretoria Convention of 1881 established the Boers as a self-governing nation, but one that agreed to British input in their foreign and native affairs. The British were hardly going to let the Boers start cozying up to their imperial rivals, especially the Boer’s newly unified linguistic cousins the Germans. For now, the British were content to let the Transvaal go. After all, there was nothing really there in the first place that was worth going ten rounds with the farmers for. That would change shortly.

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