Second Boer War

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The Second Boer War (11 October 1899 - 31 May 1902), also known as the Boer War, Anglo-Boer War, or South African War, was fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer states, the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, over the Empire's influence in South Africa. The trigger of the war was the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Boer states. Initial Boer attacks were successful, and although British reinforcements later reversed these, the war continued for years with Boer guerrilla warfare, until harsh British counter-measures including a scorched earth policy brought the Boers to terms.


There is only one possible settlement – war! It has got to come ... The difficulty is in the occasion and not the job itself, that is very easily done and I think nothing of the bogies and difficulties of settling South Africa afterwards. ~ Alfred Milner
  • [W]here we were obliged to part company with our friends was here—that we held and still hold that war was neither intended nor desired by the Government and the people of Great Britain, but that it was forced upon us without adequate reason, entirely against our will.
    • H. H. Asquith, speech in the Liverpool Street Station Hotel, London (20 June 1901), quoted in Speeches by The Earl of Oxford and Asquith, K.G. (1927), p. 40
  • [Bryce] had said from the first that the war had been a hideous blunder, and he had supported that opinion in the House of Commons. (Cheers.) ... Stop the farm-burning; it had been a great mistake and was against British ideas. (Cheers.) Recognize that they were dealing with men whose bravery and tenacity they could admire, and offer terms to the representatives of the two Republics and to the burghers who were now in arms.
    • James Bryce, speech in the public baths of Caledonian Road, Islington, London (12 December 1900), quoted in The Times (13 December 1900), p. 10
  • Having condemned the policy of severity which had been adopted with the object of bringing the [Boer] war to a conclusion, [Bryce] said that it might be doubted whether anything short of the restoration of the independence of the two Republics — subject of course to a measure of British control — would have the effect of inducing the Boers to lay down their arms. The passion for independence was strong; it had been the cherished ideal of those people ever since they quitted Cape Colony and won the country for themselves. Our demand for unconditional surrender was a fatal blunder. ... What was a reasonable offer? In the first place, there ought to be an amnesty. ... The second point in the terms should be a grant of money to rebuild the burned homesteads and restock the devastated farms. ... Nothing would do more to accelerate the return of peace and order than to give the people occupation and a chance of living. Then, it should be part of any reasonable offer to the Boers that there should be a speedy restoration of self-governing institutions.
    • James Bryce, speech to the Women's National Liberal Association Conference, Memorial Hall, London (12 June 1901), quoted in The Times (13 June 1901), p. 12
  • The danger which threatened the natives in the future, at any rate in the mining districts, would arise from the desire to obtain a constant and cheap supply of native labour for the mines. It would be the duty of those in authority to guard the native against the oppressive laws which were in force in the Dutch Republics. In conclusion, [Bryce] protested against a policy of harshness and violence in South Africa. We should try to inculcate forbearance, wisdom, and the generosity into the minds of those who had the government of the country.
    • James Bryce in a speech to the Women's National Liberal Association Conference, Memorial Hall, London (12 June 1901), as quoted in The Times (13 June 1901), p. 12
  • What is that policy? That now that we had got the men we had been fighting against down, we should punish them as severely as possible, devastate their country, burn their homes, break up their very instruments of agriculture... It is that we should sweep – as the Spaniards did in Cuba; and how we denounced the Spaniards! – the women and children into some of which the death-rate has risen so high as 430 in the thousand. I do not say for a moment, because I do not think for a moment, that this is the deliberate and intentional policy of His Majesty's all events, it is the thing which is being done at this moment in the name and by the authority of this most humane and Christian nation. Yesterday I asked the leader of the House of Commons when the information would be afforded, of which we are so sadly in want. My request was refused. Mr. Balfour treated us with a short disquisition on the nature of war. A phrase often used is that "war is war", but when one comes to ask about it one is told that no war is going on, that it is not war. When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa.
    • Henry Campbell-Bannerman, speech in the Holborn Restaurant (14 June 1901), quoted in John Wilson, C.B.: A Life of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1973), p. 349
  • What of Dundee? ... No real attempt was made to stop General Yule but, instead, the burghers engaged in a drunken orgy of theft, to be followed as thieves, if not as drunks, by their wives. ... The Sabbath, throughout the siege [of Ladysmith], was a rest day, but the Boers interpreted their own rule as a rest from killing. There was no rest from a preparation for killing, and ... they could be seen building a gun platform on Pepworth Hill, heralding the arrival of the Creusot.
    • Lewis Childs in Ladysmith: The Siege (Battleground South Africa), p. 69, Pen and Sword Military, 2009
  • But she [i.e. England] can be sure that this tricolour flag, grabbed from Fachoda and ripped to shreds in London, was brought to Pretoria by French Volunteers, and has taken its place next to those of the Southern Boer Republics to support their independence against the oppressors. She gave us a Hundred Years' War, and for a hundred years she has robbed the farmers from the Cape. Since then she has violated every peace treaty. Her hatred being even fiercer against the Boer, for there is French blood flowing through their veins.
    • F. Chinier in La Presse Français et les Boërs, memoire de maitrise, Université de Lyon III, 1988.
  • I came back from the land of dreams to reality and the hideous fact that Natal is invaded and assailed by the Boer.
    • Winston Churchill in The Boer War: London to Ladysmith Via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton's March, 1900
  • In the face of the insolent Ultimatum which had been addressed to Great Britain by the South African Republic, the nation closed it ranks and relegated party controversy to a more appropriate season. The British people were temporarily in accord. A wave of indignation surged over the country, and united men of different shades of politics and of varying religious creeds, making them forget their private feuds, and remember only the paramount fact that they were sons of the Empire. There were a few exceptions ... to prove the rule of unanimity, ... But these were ... fractitious Irishmen and political obstructionists who posed for notoriety at any price; and ... eccentrics and originals whose sense of opposition forbade them from floating at any time with the tide of public opinion.
    • Louis Creswicke in South Africa and the Transvaal War, Vol. 2 From the Commencement of the War to the Battle of Colenso, 15th Dec. 1899, Library of Alexandria
  • Before hostilities had actually begun, refugees from Johannesburg began to pour down to Natal and the Cape, and there were daily reports of insults received by the Uitlanders at the hands of the Boers. Ladies were spat upon, and passengers suffered indignities sufficient to make an Englishman's blood boil. ... The European exodus from all quarters continued, defenceless men and women alike being subjected to insult and ill-treatment by the Boers.
    • Louis Creswicke in South Africa and the Transvaal War, Vol. 2 From the Commencement of the War to the Battle of Colenso, 15th Dec. 1899, Library of Alexandria
The nation of the Orange Free State stands ready for war in such circumstances where peace cannot be secured with honour, and although we recognize our shortcomings, our nation depend on the power of God to deliver us and secure us a victory. With a deep understanding of what we can expect when we place our trust in the Almighty, our nation will enter the war with courage and will fight until the bitter end to preserve the independence of our beloved fatherland ~ Marthinus Theunis Steyn
  • The Boers have shown far more humanity to their wounded enemies than the English. They also treated their prisoners, English officers, with much greater consideration and kindness. They never boasted or bragged in their Press or speeches about the victories they have won or of the deeds they have performed, as the English have blatantly done. They have exhibited far more racial decency and self-respect, both in triumph and in disaster. The Boers have fought without pay or reward. Their homes and country were at stake, and these they have risked, not for pay, or praise, or pension, but for Liberty and National Independence. For the time being they are beaten. Great Britain and the recreant section of Ireland, together with the Australias and Canada, representing a population of near 50,000,000, have sent over 200,000 troops and hundreds of cannon to fight and conquer two little nations with a total population less than that of the city of Manchester, and therefore the Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State are, for the present, beaten. But they are not conquered!
  • The military qualities of the Boers […] were useful but not showy. They came by instinct and not by acquisition, and they cannot be sufficiently accounted for as the outcome of experience in the pursuit of game on the veld. They were neutralized partially by characteristics the reverse of military. The Boers were not remarkable for personal courage. If there had been in the Boer Army a decoration corresponding to the Victoria Cross it would have been rarely won or at least rarely earned. There is scarcely an instance of an individual feat of arms or act of devotion performed by a Burgher. On the few occasions when the Boers were charged by cavalry they became paralysed with terror. They were incapable of submitting themselves to discipline, and difficult to command in large numbers. They could not be made to understand that prompt action, which possibly might not be the best under the circumstances, was preferable to wasting time in discussing a better with the field cornets. They were subject to panics and, for the time, easily disheartened: and their sense of duty was not conspicuous. The principles of strategy were unknown to them, their tactics were crude, and with the exception of a very few who had fought in 1881, they were without experience of the realities of war.
  • The Boers rarely failed [in combat] when commanded by a resolute leader who knew his own mind and was able to impose his own will upon them. In isolated enterprises daringly conducted, they were usually efficient, and sometimes irresistible, but like most primitive communities in which the military instinct is individual rather than collective, they were incapable of forming themselves into a coherent and unified Army for action in mass.
  • In the Boer war both governments began with bluff, but they couldn't stay there; the military tension was too much for them.
  • [I have done my utmost for peace, despite England pushing the Boers out of their inheritance bit by bit, and taking advantage of us in every conference and native war. My hope till the present war had been for a South African Confederacy under English protection – the Cape, Natal, Free State and Transvaal all having equal rights and local self-government. ...] But now we can only leave it to God. If it is His will that the Transvaal perish, we can only do our best.
    • Piet Joubert in conversation with Henry Nevinson on 2 October 1899, at the outbreak of war, The Diary of a Siege, 1900, H. W. Nevinson.
  • All you read about the Boers in England is absolutely untrue. They are most kind to the wounded and prisoners, looking after them as well as their own wounded, and anything they've got they'll give you if you ask them, even if they deprive themselves. We came up to Pretoria in first-class sleeping carriages, and the way they treated us was most considerate, feeding us and giving us coffee every time we stopped. The day we arrived we took up quarters on the race-course, but we have been moved into a fine brick building with baths, electric light, etc. [...] In fact we can have everything we like except our liberty; for some reason or other, they won't at present give us parole, and we are surrounded by sentries. [...] They say they won't exchange the officers at any price.
    • Letter by Lieutenant C. E. Kinahan of the Royal Irish Fusiliers who was taken prisoner at Nicholson's Nek, as quoted in the Daily News of 28 December 1899.
  • Through the World I thank the people of the United States most sincerely for their sympathy. Last Monday the Republic gave Great Britain fourty-eight hours' notice within which to give the Republic an assurance that the present dispute would be settled by arbitration or other peaceful means, and that the troops would be removed from the borders. This expires at five to-day. The British Agent has been recalled. War is certain. The Republics are determined, if they must belong to Great Britain, that a price will have to be paid which will stagger humanity. They have, however, full faith. The sun of liberty will arise in South Africa as it arose in North America.
    • Paul Kruger by telegram on 11 October 1899 to New York World, as quoted by Louis Creswicke in South Africa and the Transvaal War, Vol. 2 From the Commencement of the War to the Battle of Colenso, 15th Dec. 1899, Library of Alexandria
  • There is only one possible settlement – war! It has got to come ... The difficulty is in the occasion and not the job itself, that is very easily done and I think nothing of the bogies and difficulties of settling South Africa afterwards. You will find a very different tone and temper when the center of unrest is dealt with.
    • Alfred Milner as recorded by Percy FitzPatrick, cited in Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, 2008, Martin Meredith, p. 374
  • During the Philippine-American War, the United States built a concentration camp on the island of Marinduque. Concentration camps were invented, however, by the British — specifically by Lord Kitchener, who established the first during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The conflict had evolved into an insurgency pitting Boer ‘commandos’ against regular British troops. Kitchener responded by ordering that all non-combatant Boers should be ‘concentrated’ within specially created camps — partly to guarantee their safety as he initiated a ‘scorched-earth’ policy in the Transvaal and Cape Colony, but also to deny Boer guerrillas the ‘water’ in which they ‘swam’. Although Kitchener was a notably tough general, he was no monster. But the concentration camps were run incompetently: 28,000 of the Boer inmates died in epidemics, leading to scandal, enquiries and the discontinuation of a bad policy.
  • You may carry fire and sword into the midst of peace and industry—such a war of the strongest Government in the world against this weak little Republic, and the strongest Government in the world, with untold wealth and inexhaustible resources, will bring you no glory. (Renewed and prolonged cheering.) It will bring you no profit but mischief, and it will be wrong. (Hear, hear.) You may make thousands of women widows and thousands of children fatherless. It will be wrong. (Cheers.) You may add a new province to your Empire. It will still be wrong. (Renewed cheers.) You may give greater buoyancy to the South African stock and share market. (Hear, hear.) You may create South African booms. You may send the price of Mr. Rhodes's Chartereds up to the point beyond the dream of avarice. Yes, even then it will be wrong. (Loud and continued cheering.)
    • John Morley, speech to a meeting called by the Transvaal Committee of Manchester and Liverpool in St. James's-hall, Manchester, against the Boer War (15 September 1899), quoted in The Times (16 September 1899), p. 8
  • And only then I realize, how much my freedom meant
    When the searchlight from the gunboat Casts it's rays upon my tent
  • ... the Jameson Raid was the real declaration of war. And that is so in spite of the four years of truce that followed... [the] aggressors consolidated their alliance... the defenders on the other hand silently and grimly prepared for the inevitable.
  • The groans of the dying and the blanched set faces of the dead ... were enough to drive away all unwholesome feelings of exultation, and to remind one of the grim reality that war is. And even though these were the faces and the sufferings of our enemy, one had ... a deeper sense of the common humanity which knows no racial distinctions.
  • A second important consequence of this policy of spoliation has been the elimination from the Boer ranks of all those elements which are useless from a military point of view. The ordeal has been too terrible for the weak and the faint. First of all went the irresponsible braggarts who had clamoured for war and had called the peacemakers cowards and traitors. The man who expected to gain something from continuing in the field; the man who preferred to protect his property; the man who had lost all hope of a successful issue followed. There remain the stout-hearted and able-bodied – the men of physical courage, the men of moral endurance, whom self-respect and honour keep true to their country’s cause; the men of invincible hope in the future and child-like faith in God – truly a select band, the like of whom, I fondly think, is not to be found in the wide world today.
    • Jan Smuts in a letter written while on commando at Vanrhynsdorp, 4 January 1902, as quoted in his private papers by Hancock and van der Poel.
  • One day eight years later, I found myself talking over these events with General Botha, who was visiting this country as first Prime Minister of the South African Union. Just as I was leaving he stopped me for a moment and said: ‘After all, three words made peace and union in South Africa: “methods of barbarism.”’ Softening the epigram a little, he went on to speak of the tremendous impression which had been made upon men fighting a losing battle with an apparently hopeless future by the fact that the leader of one of the great English parties had had the courage to say this thing, and to brave the obloquy which it brought upon him. So far from encouraging them to a hopeless resistance, it touched their hearts and made them think seriously of the possibility of reconciliation.
    • J. A. Spender, The Life of The Right Hon. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, G.C.B. Vol. I (1923), p. 351
  • The Victorian age ended in the crash and conflict of the Great Boer War.
    • E. H. van der Wall in The Boers at Diyatalawa, Journal of the Dutch Burger Union of Ceylon, Vol XVIII No 3, January 1929
  • [The natives] regarded themselves, not without reason, as essential to the contending forces in the field, both of whom required native experts for, amongst other things the important work of transport, herding and scouting. For these services, which they well and loyally fulfilled to whichever side they were attached they received high wages and, though losing a good deal of their live stock, enjoyed the benefits which always fall to neutrals. The war thus left South Africa with a heavy legacy in the shape of high wages which every common unskilled native labourer had learned to regard as normal, and further there was engendered a spirit of independence and apparent aggressiveness which was a new and regrettable feature in relations between black and white.
    • C. A. Wheelwright, in Native Affairs, Transvaal Administration Reports for 1903. A.1. (2 January 1904)
  • The natives emerged from the War in a state of restlessness and unnatural excitement, with the idea that the object of the War had been to return to them their old lands, and that the white owners had been expelled for ever from their farms and habitations. They had become imbued with the idea that the country was now theirs to do as they willed with, and in fact that we had engaged in the war in order to win it for them. Wherever they got these ideas from they received a rude awakening. They found the country was not theirs; that we had not fought to give it to them, and most of all that the owners went back and still owned the farms the Natives now imagined to be theirs.
    • C. A. Wheelwright, in Native Affairs, Transvaal Administration Reports for 1903. B.18. Annexure "A": Native Commissioners' Annual Reports, Northern Division, Political Aspect (2 January 1904)

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