The Second Boer War

Piet Joubert, commander in chief of the Boer armies until his death in 1900. Though his initial plans were ambitious, Joubert would be criticized for being too cautious as the war progressed. Photo Credit HF Helmolt.
Piet Joubert, commander in chief of the Boer armies until his death in 1900. Though his initial plans were ambitious, Joubert would be criticized for being too cautious as the war progressed. Photo Credit HF Helmolt.

By 1899 war between Britain and the Boer republics seemed very likely, but it was hardly inevitable. Though Milner and Kruger both anticipated the war with varying degrees of glee and resignation, they weren’t the only voices in the conversation. The Orange Free State’s President Martinus Steyn favored further negotiations, though he was just as intractable in his own way as Kruger. Grudgingly, Kruger had agreed, and even accepted concessions like a five year plan for Uitlander enfranchisement. It was quite a walk down, as Kruger and his chief military leader Piet Joubert had already drawn up plans for a lightning fast strike into Natal and the Cape before British reinforcements poured in. The plan had been ambitious, but it also represented the only time the Boers collectively had a coherent strategy for winning the war. For the sake of a final stab at peaceful resolution they had let it slip through their fingers.

Likewise though Milner and Rhodes were enthusiastically in favor of a final war, the current Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, or Robert Gascoygne-Cecil, was not. Cecil had a personal dislike for what American contemporaries would have called jingoism, especially Rhodes’ global flavor of megalomania, and after having traded the Prime Ministership with Gladstone for three terms he was far too old for sabre rattling nonsense. To emphasize the point, just the year before the French and British had nearly gone to war over the Fashoda Incident, a non-violent confrontation between their field units in modern South Sudan. Though both sides mobilized, Cecil and his French opposites had successfully defused the situation.

Lord Salisbury, matching PM Gladstone stinkeye for stinkeye, and Kruger beard for beard. Photo Credit: Elliot & Fry.
Lord Salisbury, matching PM Gladstone stinkeye for stinkeye, and Kruger beard for beard. Photo Credit: Elliot & Fry.

Since Lord Salisbury wasn’t feeling territorial conquest this time, Rhodes, Milner and other war hawks appealed to his fear and compassion. There was always concern that if the British failed to unify South Africa, then the Boers themselves might try to create an Afrikaner state out of the two former colonies. In an ironic inverse of the Uitlander debate, the majority of British Cape Colony and Natal’s white population was still Afrikaner, and there was genuine concern for a major uprising if the British didn’t clamp down on the Boer republics. The other and more interesting point was that Lord Salisbury was also concerned about the plight of the black Africans living within the republics. As a response to the initial wealth many black Africans had acquired and the rising cost of labor, the Boers had clamped down hard on the population. Wages were forcibly capped, and laws enacted to prevent workers from negotiating for higher ones or better conditions, and a range of other draconian practices were enacted to keep the population trapped in segregated poverty.[1] To British observers unaware of their own citizens profiting from this proto-Apartheid, it was appalling. Even Roger Casement, the tragically famous Irish nationalist, was willing to collect information for the British on Boer movements as the lesser of two evils. By May 1899, final negotiations had broken down, with Milner stonewalling Kruger’s grudging concessions. In late October Lord Salisbury issued a final ultimatum to the Boers. It was the kind of document that was never meant to be accepted, the cassus belli a modern nation could wave around to other modern nations as a kind of paper shield for their aggression. Before they had even received it, the Boer states responded with their own two day ultimatum, all British troops were ordered to withdraw from the border, or they would invade. The British in London laughed, and multiple newspapers wrote expected the war to end within a few months. The mouse was roaring, and Britain could scarcely care less.

A French cartoonist's needling of Rhodes in Kimberly. Note the bottle of champagne, it will be sadly important later. Rhodes' media presence was almost Trumpian by the Boer War. Photo Credit: Charles Lucien Leandre
A  needling of Rhodes in Kimberly. Note the bottle of champagne, it is sadly relevant. Rhodes’ media presence was almost Trumpian by the Boer War. Photo Credit: Charles Lucien Leandre

On October 30, 1899 the Second Boer War officially began as the Boers surged across the borders of Cape Province and Natal. Even though the British had bulked up, their initial 15,000 were outnumbered by the 47,000 men the Boer republics had mobilized and armed in just a few months.[2] A series of small but ugly battles started immediately as the Boers pushed in against the outnumbered local British forces. These struggles were hardly a clean sweep for the Boers, and the British managed to score a few victories. Still, the commando units got the better of their opponents, and before too long the main British garrison at Ladysmith, and smaller ones at Mafeking and Kimberly were under siege. The choice of the Boers to lay siege to the enemies was a strange one. Out of the seven bases and towns they had ringed in the last war, the Boers had never taken any of them. It was a lack of strategic coherence, and it played to British strengths rather than the Boers’ own. In spite of the danger, Rhodes himself opted to stay behind in Kimberly, hoping to draw more attention to the conflict (and to himself, naturally). He would try his best to direct the defense, even supervising the Macgyvering of a new siege gun by some of the De Beers engineers.[3] For a few months the Boers had made solid gains, but the siege warfare slowed everything to a crawl.

With the Boers relinquishing the initiative, the first real wave of British regulars began to pour into South Africa under the command of General Redvers Buller. The General was a veteran of the Zulu Wars, and the proud owner of a shiny Victorian Cross, and he decided there was no point dawdling about. Plans were quickly drawn up for a full frontal assault along the entire Boer line, with little advance reconnaissance or preparations conducted. In contrast, the Boers themselves were well aware the British were coming. They dug in a network of trenches, and waited for the British to stomp on the waiting upturned rake. The resulting series of battles from December 10-17 would go down in British military history as Black Week.

Maegersfontain. Thanks in large part to the sacrifice of a Swedish unit on the Boer side, the British attack flopped badly. Photo Credit: Kurz & Allen
Maegersfontain. Thanks in large part to the sacrifice of a Swedish unit on the Boer side, the British attack flopped badly. Photo Credit: Kurz & Allen

First at Stormberg, then Maegersfontein, and finally at Colenso different British generals managed to stumble into more or less the same set up. Attacking the Boer lines, the British found their artillery missing the concealed trenches of their enemies, whereupon the Boers would shoot them a lot at close range. Then the British would clamp a firm hand on their white helmets, turn around, and run away lest they get taunted a second time. Each battle also carried a personal humiliation for the British. At Stormberg they had charged straight up a hillside cliff, and shelled their own men. At Maegersfontein the vaunted Highlander Brigade had walked straight into a trap and lost hundreds of men in just five minutes of shooting. And at Colenso Buller himself had even managed to lose ten field guns when his artillery train somehow wandered into rifle range ahead of the main columns. The only bright point for the British at this point in the war had been the harrowing tale of young war correspondent Winston Churchill’s escape from captivity in Pretoria. Black Week also gave the British a nasty case of sticker shock, 2,776 casualties, all of them British nationals, for nothing.

Yet these battles also exposed the cracks in the Boers themselves. In all three cases whatever chance the Boers had to push forward and seize the initiative was squandered. At Colenso one of their most brilliant generals Louis Botha had literally been forced to telegram Kruger for moral support when an entire section of his line decided their position was untenable and wandered back to camp. Only after convincing the men to draw lots for the post could he find enough Boers willing to stand their ground in the defense’s lynchpin.

[1] Not that Rhodes and the other Gold Bugs were complaining. They were, if anything, the driving force behind many of these terrible laws.

[2] Constituting the overwhelming majority of both nation’s men of fighting age, and more than 6,000 Uitlander troops. While most of the latter were either Dutch, German, or Scandinavian, roughly 300 Americans and 200 Irish fought for the Boer republics as part of these auxiliary units.

[3] Dubbed the “Long Cecil”, in a moment that would have made Freud choke on his cigar.

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