The Boer War Essay

1.0 Introduction

The presence of the Boers in South Africa gave the British a major problem to contend with in order to establish their presence in the African continent. The British and the Boers engaged in some minor skirmishes in the second half of the 19th century which resulted to the Boer war in 1899-1902.  The British had no good reason to rule over the Boers, but spent almost 100 years trying to subjugate the Boer population. The Boers on the other hand were firm fighting for the right to their way if life.

The Boer people are the Dutch farmers who settled in the southern part of Africa in the 17th century. They intermingled with the other European settlers and established the Boer community. Though they were an actual mix of European the Dutch protestant culture dominated.  The Boers became very independent and soon cut off all ties with Netherlands. The Boers adored racial superiority and slavery was common among them. After the Congress of Vienna the British gained control over South Africa and developed their settlement.

 In 1830s, the British officials outlawed slavery in South Africa. This affected the lives of the Boers because they were used to free labor for their farms.  The British therefore were interfering with their personal affairs which were not taken lightly. In the late 1930s, the Boers responded by embarking on their great trek to find a new place to live[1]. By 1850s Boers had already created two autonomous Boer states; these states were Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Boers and the British lived separately and peacefully for the next decade.  In the late 1860s, gold and diamond was discovered in Transvaal[2]. The British ignited a surge in British immigration and by 1877 they control of the state. The Boers revolted and got back the control of their homeland, in the famous war of Majuba where the British army were overcame by the farmers’ army to been discredited as a fighting army following their defeat by the Zulus

The British had not taken action towards the Boers racial practices, but they were moved by the money they would make. When they moved right in the reason they gave for this n invasion was that they were righting the moral wrongs of the Boers.  Ironically the British were also committing human rights violations in other parts of the world. After the British were removed from power, President Kruger treated them with little respect. These aroused an expedition led by Sir Jameson that planned to overthrow the government of Transvaal in 1985. This attack was repelled which angered the British and devoted more resources to South Africa causing the Boer war.

Throughout history, the Boers have tended to live in semi-isolation and not concern themselves with the affairs of the world at large[3].  The British insisted to interfere and intrude into their lives for no reason other than greed.  They were faced with a high resistance and spirit from the farmers.  These became a center of international attention and served to isolate the British as he specter   of the First World War.  The resources they invested to subjugate the Boers community were not well spent and at long run they did harm them. This shows the British pride in trying to gratify their long term African dominancy.

2.0 battles and the weaponry

The Dutchmen were had defended themselves against the greatest world power Spain for more than fifty years. They had acquired exceptional skills during this particular time with weapons and horsemanship. They also had qualities of a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and were zealous and lived in patriotism. The governments of the Boer republic purchased weapon sin bulk from over seas especially Germany. Efforts were made to distribute the weapons among the troops, most were held in reserve for arming sympathetic rebels in the captured territories. It is likely that the nature of the Boer force, emphasis laid on marksmanship which they learnt through experience and not through training was the start of adoption of standard rifle[4].

The Boer war was a war by the people there every man was a citizen soldier. By law every man between 16 and 60 years of age in both republics was eligible for the war service. Every man was required to have a rifle and ammunition. They were neither complete civilian nor complete soldiers, alternating between tending their farms and fighting the British.

During the months of hostility the Boer commander, general Joubert, bought rifles and modern fire arms from the German armament manufacturer and the French firm creusot. The commandos without any formal discipline of using these weapons were welded to the battle. They were lightly armed, mobile and able to live for long on strips of dried meat and little water. Even as they prepare to face the might of the world’s foremost imperial power, the Boers were confident and determined. Though outnumbered, their morale was good. They were fighting for their land, their freedom and their way and on familiar grounds[5].

The Boers started the war with the maxim ‘the key to a good defense is a good offense’, invaded Cape Province and natal investing three towns: Ladysmith, Masfeking and Kimberley.  This led the British to abandon their original offensive plans in order to lift the sieges. The battles set to recover the cities only exposed the weakness of the British army to the Boers. But they gained superiority in the field and managed to lift the siege and also capture the capital cities of the Boers republics.

British considering the war had ended; the Boers had a long and proud tradition in South Africa and could not give up. The Boers commandos, the bitter-enders, escaped to the vast bush country and for more than two years continued to wage unconventional guerilla warfare by blowing up trains and ambushing British troops and garrisons[6].  The British unable to defeat the Boers with conventional means they adopted the Boers methods and the war degenerated to a devastating and cruel struggle between the British righteous might and the Boers nationalist.

The Boers didn’t conform to the usual rules of war. They were constantly shooting the British and it was not safe for the British soldiers and they could not move openly during the day. They had to camp in unsanitary dugouts rather than in the open, this accelerated the spread of disease in their camps. They feared moving out to seek medical attention for the fear of attack by the Boers. It also distracted their recreation activities, and created an insidious air of boredom. It was a new experience for them to lose in battles and in addition die in large numbers; it coupled them with stress and affected their morale.

The British were armed with the lee metford rifle which used to fire ten rounds at the same  time by the major problem was they had no experience or training to take advantage of accuracy and speed of the fire if the weapon. Another popular weapon that both side s used was the German- made Mauser Model 1896.  It was a self indexing pistol known as ‘Broomhandle’. This weapon later became the mainstay of many a World War 2 action movie for it outstanding appearance. It had a capacity of 7.63mm round its magazine. This means it had double the number of bullets available to the bearer compared to the normal six shot webley pistol which was of limited use in the field of convectional battle.

In terms of artillery, the Boer war was the first to make use of automatic artillery light which was converted into a machine gun commonly known as the ‘pom-pom’.  This maxim machine gun was mostly used by the Boers[7]. It fired a 0.4kg, percussion-fused shell. This weapon was the precursor to the tracked 20mm “Tank killers” of the Second World War, and its main use was against enemy emplacements and defenses, and against locomotives and armed transporters.

 Boer artillery, on the other hand, was composed largely of guns imported from the massive arms factories of Krupp and Creusot. The maxim machine gun was used for heavier shelling; the Boers relied on 75mm field guns. These outranged the British Armstrong guns by a significant margin; the Bier artillery was the most impressive then.

3.0 Casualties, tactics and outcome

The Boer war was a serious jolt for the British army. At the out break of the war they used single shot firearms and fired in folly controlled by battalions and company officers. Their troops were also fighting in close order. The commandos without any formal discipline of using these weapons were welded to the battle. They were motivated by a strong sense of community and dislike for the British. The tactics the British used varied from battle to battle from Crimea, magersfotein and spion kop and were incapable of winning against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles[8].

The British had good weapon like the metford but skills like scouting and field craft were not taught to them. The ideal of fire and movement was unknown to them hence many of their regiments still going into action in close order. They were short of regular troops which called for involvement of volunteers from Britain, New Zealand Canada and Australia who brought new ideal of formation of battle fields.  The British troops lacked imagination and resource; this led to neglecting of routine procedures such as camp protection and scouting.  This made them get lost or ambushed unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war was followed by the British army been re-organized.

In 1900 the British crossed the Tugela River to attack the Spion kop the plan of their commander warren was to climb the spion kor hill, which he considered to be key to range worthy hills. This he would have a good view to the land of Ladysmith.  The troop assigned to conquer this particular land compromised and looked for people to dig the necessary entrenchments. A small Boer picket left leaving warren’s men in possession of the summit, as the sappers were entrenching. The Boer picket rushed to warn Botha, the Boers’ guns director to fire on the summit of Spion Kor.  A few hundred Boer were persuaded to climb the hill and attempt to recapture it from the British.

The mist on the hill prevented the British from realizing that the area occupied was insufficient and that their position was overlooked by other higher features. The fatigue soldiers fell asleep after the strenuous climb while the sappers dug   the trenches. The Boers bombarded them and fired into the entrenched area, which the troops realized was too small and shallow.  They lost their senior command and the sappers also suffered. Warren ordered reinforcement to the summit through general Coke and other seniors and also recommended a diversion.

On the Boer side the fighting was just as desperate. Only volunteers could be persuaded to climb to the top of the hill and the surrounding heights. The hillside was littered with Boer casualties and many were killed on the summit. The sense of desperation was as great on the Boer side just as on the British. To the Boer the effect of thee battle was devastating and the diversionary attack was the last straw. The Boers left the summit though the British had worn.

Appraisal of tactics in the Anglo- Boer war was somehow biased to the Boer native;   there was a theme of cut-and thrust of the war it was on of “Boer movement, British response”. This contributed to the sound tactical thinking of the Boers generals, and somehow the reason for the British position in war. The British thought if they would put in their resources-military and economic-to bear the two Boers republics they would have victory. The only strategy available to the Boers was to cut the lines of re-supply from the England that is the ports. It counted very much when war was declared because the Boers outnumbered the British soldiers by a small margin[9].

The British military theory of the time relied on attacking the enemies formation not the position, this worked well in the big set piece battles of the Crimean and the Napoleonic wars.  For the enemies who did hide underground and were invisible this strategy was ineffective. Many a times the British approached the Boer trenches ground and   they would be attacked with highly accurate fire arms that they would direct to them.  During these times they always risked losing their guns.  In contrast, the Boers focused on possession of position, which were taken during defensive engagements or prioritized during offensive moves. If the positions became threatened the highly mobile Boer forces would simply move away and prepare for another defense.

Another Boer tactic was marking out ranges using white stones, prior to a British attack. With the help of these distances they could adjust their rifles and fire and also increase its effectiveness. The Boer were led by men of high caliber and more proven experience and accustomed to field fighting than the opponents. They were also better equipped than their opponents. Additionally the British had lean rules of modern warfare instead of a well planed way of what is expected and how to accomplish the victory.

As the men went to the battle fields and the bush country in pursuit of the British, the women and children were concentrated in camps –internment camps. Emily Hobhouse who visited these camps alerted the world to their horrors. The internees had been deprived of clothing and in semi-starvation. The fever stricken children were lying upon the bare earth. The appalling mortality could not be assumed. She reported seeing open trucks full of women and children, exposed to the icy rains of the plain left on rail road siding for days without food or shelter. Congestion in the camps was unavoidable three families in one tent and sometimes different families. Women were even raped in the camps. Though the women themselves and her would not verify who rapped them. The fate of the women who left the camps was worse than those who remained[10].

4.0 Conclusion

            The Boer war   was as a result of the British pride and arrogance. The Boer people were self sufficient they had enough to sustain themselves. Through out the above discussion it is evidence that the British were jealous of the progression the Boers were making. They were also looking for a way to establish themselves in Africa. The Boer had good weapons and good tactics meaning they had the capability to defend their land.  The British were also jealous of the rich wealth the Boers republics were sitting on. The British had no intention to finish slavery in South Africa they were looking for a loop hole to get to the Boer community.


Barnes Gregory Fremont, 2003; The Boer War 1899-1902: 1899-1902. ISBN 1841763969, 9781841763965, Osprey Publishing

Churchill Winston, 1990; The Boer War. ISBN 0393028151, 9780393028157, Published by W.W. Norton

Conan Doyle, 1901; The Great Boer War: A Two Years’ Record, 1899-1901: Published by Smith, Elder ; Co

Gaurav Misra, 1997; The Boers. Retrieved on 2nd Dec.2008 from:

Institute for Historical Review, 1980: The Journal of Historical Review: The Boer war remembered, Item notes: v.1 no.3

James Alan Marten ; Coles Robert, 2002; Children and War: A Historical Anthology Contributor Robert Coles. ISBN 0814756670, 9780814756676, NYU Press

Arthur Conan Doyle, Abraham Merritt, 2004; The Great Boer War ISBN 1596741872, 9781596741874,

[1] Misra Gaurav, 1997; The Boers. Retrieved on 2nd Dec.2008 from, para. 4

[2]  Winston Churchill, 1990; The Boer War. ISBN 0393028151, 9780393028157, Published by W.W. Norton, pp.177-184
[3] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir, Abraham Merritt, 2004 The Great Boer War Published by,ISBN 1596741872, 9781596741874, pp. 62-67
[4]  Conan Doyle 1901 The Great Boer War: A Two Years’ Record, 1899-1901 : Published by Smith, Elder & Co., pp. 43-49
[5]  Fremont-Barnes Gregory, 2003; The Boer War 1899-1902: 1899-1902. ISBN 1841763969, 9781841763965, Osprey Publishing, pp. 42-54
[6]   Institute for Historical Review ,1980:The Journal of Historical Review: The Boer war remembered,  Item notes: v.1 no.3, pp. 23-26

Original from the University of Michigan, pp 28-34

[7] Churchill Winston, 1990; The Boer War. ISBN 0393028151, 9780393028157, Published by W.W. Norton, pp.34

[8] Gregory Fremont-Barnes,2003 The Boer War 1899-1902: 1899-1902 Published by Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1841763969, 9781841763965, pp.98

[9] Barnes Gregory Fremont, 2003; The Boer War 1899-1902: 1899-1902. ISBN 1841763969, 9781841763965, Osprey Publishing, pp.145-147

[10] Alan Marten James & Robert Coles, 2002; Children and War: A Historical Anthology Contributor Robert Coles. ISBN 0814756670, 9780814756676,  NYU Press, pp. 141-145