How The English Won The Boer War

In South Africa Essay, Research Paper

Fleming 01James M. Fleming22 March, 2001How Great Britain won the Boer War in South Africa in 1902 On October 11, 1899, the forces of the Boer republics, Orange Free State and South African Republic, responded to Great Britain’s dismissal of an ultimatum against the placement and reinforcing of British troops in South Africa by laying siege to cities in northern Cape Colony occupied by the then outnumbered British troops. The British were able to gain superiority and eventually win the Boer War by brute force, vastly superior numbers and the cessation of rights for those deemed the enemy and its collaborators. It would take three years and drastic changes in “the gentlemanly art of war” for Great Britain to achieve victory. Leading up to the end of the nineteenth century there were massive efforts by European countries to expand the boundaries and influences of each individual nation. Great Britain, with it’s blossoming industrial capabilities and the unsurpassed size and strength of its naval force, was at the zenith of her power, wealth and prestige which allowed distinct advantages in the colonization efforts that were being carried out at the time. Much of the useful land on the continent of Africa was under British control and the imperialistic need to gain even more would be the driving force in England’s foreign policy. This would bring them into direct conflict with the Boers, who were predominantly farmers and herders and had previously left Cape Colony en-masse to escape British control and establish a country under their own rule. As the Boers moved further north across the Vaal River into the Transvaal, they stumbled onto the richest gold deposits known to exist. This new found source of wealth, and the imperialistic fervor that was prevalent at the time, set the stage for war between the British and Boers. Fleming 02 In September of 1899 the British dispatched military units to South Africa to reinforce those already in Cape Colony, to the south, and Natal, to the east of The South African Republic and the Orange Free State. This action, the Boer leaders justly feared, was the build up of the military power necessary to conquer the Boer nations by force, and an ultimatum was issued on the 9th of October calling for the removal of all British troops from the republic’s borders within 48 hours or it would be viewed as an act of war and dealt with accordingly. Ignoring the ultimatum, the British maintained their positions and at 17:00 on the 11th of October war was declared. The fighting for the next three years of the war was characterized by three distinct phases of battles and styles of warfare. In the first phase, from October of 1899 to February of 1900, there was obvious superiority in the Boer troop’s numbers and abilities. This was evident in the ease with which they corralled the British troops into the cities of Mafeking on the 13th of October, Kimberley on the 14th, and Ladysmith on the 1st of November. The Second phase, February to November of 1900 was marked by steady British advances into the Boer territories and the taking of all major cities including the capital, Pretoria. The third and final phase of the war, from November of 1900 until its end in May of 1902, was notable for the Boer tactical switch to small groups of men called commandos, and their guerilla style of warfare, and the British employment of a scorched earth policy that necessitated rounding up all civilians and destroying any structure of conceivable use to the Boers. At the beginning of hostilities it is estimated that there were approximately seven thousand British troops in South Africa that were in position and ready to fight. There were, however, an equal number in India that were being prepared for effective deployment by mid-October and there were also the troops being sent from England, which were part of the initial concern of the Boers, but they were not expected to be capable of entering combat until well into Fleming 03November. The Boers had approximately thirty five thousand troops fully prepared for battle when the war started and soon after their numbers swelled to almost fifty five thousand. They set out knowing full well that all of their aspirations as a young nation resided on their ability to defeat the British at any cost. Their devout nationalism would serve to be a highly effective motivator throughout the conflict. As the Boers took the initiative in the opening days of the war, they had great success against the outnumbered British. They attacked on two fronts, to the east was Natal and it was this direction that lay the nearest achievable seaport for the Boers. To the west lay the northern regions of Cape Colony on the grassy plains of the Transvaal, and it was here that the first successes were to be had. On the very day war was declared the Boer forces under General De La Rey engaged British troops on a train in Kraaipan that was loaded with weapons and ammunition bound for Mafeking, to the north. The Boers easily overcame the British troops and having gained all the destructive potential of the weapons aboard the train, immediately set off for Mafeking. Within 2 days the Boers laid siege to Mafeking under Commandant Cronje with six to eight thousand troops. The siege of Kimberley, approximately two hundred miles to the south west of Mafeking, was had with similar ease. The siege of the town of Ladysmith would prove to be an even greater success for the Boers. On the 12th of October twelve hundred British troops would be surrounded by over forty thousand Boers and surrender while the remaining troops were to fall back to Ladysmith. Advancing steadily the Boers would eventually lay siege to Ladysmith also, which they would hold until late February of the following year. From the 10th to the 15th of December 1899, a series of British losses prompted the nickname “Black Week” for the depth of damage and the loss inflicted by the Boers. The three disastrous battles for the British were “Gatacre’s mishap at Stromberg” on the 10th, “Methuen’s repulse at Fleming 04Magersfontein on the 11th and “Buller’s first reverse at Colenso” on the 15th as named by the British. During these battles they would end up losing almost three thousand troops and suffer the humiliation of the defeat of the mighty British armies by a loosely regimented group of farmers. One of the primary reasons for the Boers ability to repel the British in these early battles was the introduction of smokeless gunpowder and the repeating rifle that allowed the Boers to attack advancing troops while remaining hidden at a great distance. There was no smoke from the discharge of the weapon and the accuracy was infinitely better than that of the black powder rifles of just a few decades prior. These advantages, coupled with the Boers’ intimate knowledge of the South African terrain and the highly mobile, commando style of engaging the enemy, were to confound and frustrate the British army continuously throughout the conflict. The British were not able to gain an authoritative grasp of the situation until the early months of 1900. In January there was a tremendous influx and regrouping of British military and a change of leadership as Field Marshall Frederick Roberts replaced General George White, who was put in charge of the forces in Natal, and Horatio Herbert Kitchener became Roberts’ chief of staff. With their increasing numbers and better understanding of the tactics with which the Boers were succeeding, the British would begin a sweep northward that would not stop until they reached the capital of the South African Republic, Pretoria. The numbers of troops they eventually put into service in South Africa reached almost four hundred and fifty thousand by wars end, which was just a few thousand more people than the Boer republic’s entire white population of man, woman and child combined. The Boers were only able to muster one fifth that number of soldiers and the age group ranged from teenage boys to old men with more and more women joining the commandos as the British began their final phase of scorched earth and concentration camps for Boer civilians. It is interesting that many of the black Africans Fleming 05took up arms with the English to aid in the fight against the Boers because they believed the English to be the lesser of two evils in that their policy towards blacks did not involve slavery yet it also did not give them the right to vote or have any say in the manner in which their ancestral land was managed. . In a communiqu? from General Piet Cronje to Colonel Baden-Powell on the 29th of October, during the siege of Mafeking, Cronje expressed his dismay at the use of black Africans in the British defense of the city:“It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingos and Baralongs against us- in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness…reconsider the matter, even if it cost you the loss of Mafeking…disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.” (03)Due to inaccurate records that were kept pertaining to them, though, only a vague estimate of the number of blacks can be made. It is believed that roughly one hundred thousand were utilized in various manners in the British army and about ten thousand assisted the Boers’ endeavors, be it their desire to or not. There would also be a rally to the British flag from her colonies around the globe. The Australians would be largest of supporters of the Empire and sent in over sixteen thousand troops and twenty five thousand horses. New Zealand also came to the call of the Queen with six thousand four hundred troops sent and Canada had the third greatest show of support with six thousand men and fourteen thousand horses. Throughout the war over three hundred fifty thousand horses would be sent to South Africa, with almost one hundred thousand coming from the United States alone, and over one hundred thousand mules were sent, of which around seventy five thousand were from the U.S. These animals would become increasingly important as the war moved into its later stages and the Boers small, agile commando groups spread out across the vast plains of the veldt. There were one thousand twenty seven ships Fleming 06actively engaged in the constant resupply of the British war efforts and they were recorded to have moved more than thirteen billion tons of goods and supplies, excluding troops and their gear, throughout duration of the war. By the end of the war, Great Britain’s cost will have reached two hundred twenty billion pounds. In February of 1900, the British army was able to gain forward momentum with a series of victories that mark the second phase of the war, the phase of British domination. In short order they were able to relieve the city of Kimberley and seven days later Kitchener was able to cut off Cronje and the main body of the retreating Boer army at Paardeberg and force the surrender of over four thousand troops with Cronje being sent to Saint Helena island in the south Atlantic as a prisoner of war. British troops steadily pressed on and by the middle of March had captured Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State and on the 28th of May the Free State was annexed and renamed the Orange River Colony. While the battles on the western front were progressing steadily, the forces in Natal were also succeeding in driving the Boers back out into the northern section of the Orange Free State and further into the Transvaal itself. When General White took over in Natal he brought reinforcements and on the 28th of February he was able to break through to the city of Ladysmith and relieved it of its siege thereby denying the Boers an opportunity to drive to the sea and gain access to an active port from which they could resupply. Mafeking, the last Cape Colony city to remain under siege was finally reached on the 17th of May when reinforcements arrived scattering the attacking Boers. The British forces were then able to focus their combined capabilities on a steady advance that took Johannesburg on the 31st of May and promptly moved on to Pretoria, the capital of the South African Republic on the 5th of June. At this point it seemed that the war was nearly over but the Boers, in their small commandos, became the elusive menace to the British forces. There were vast stretches of land in the veldt, or prairies, to the west of Pretoria and the scrub grasses that Boer horses lived well Fleming 07on would not support the horses and other livestock the British brought in from overseas. Water proved to be a scarcity also making extended treks extremely trying and limited the distant areas that could be covered by the British patrols. The Boers had largely overcome all of these tribulations and they roamed the veldt in their small commando groups concentrating their destructive efforts on supply and communication lines as had been agreed upon at their council of war meeting in Kroonstad on March 17th, 1900. It was the Boers elusiveness and Great Britains overwhelming desire to end the conflict that the third and final phase came to be. In November of 1900, Kitchener called for the beginning of a scorched earth policy that would involve the complete annihilation of any structures that could prove useful to the Boers and the subsequent collection of all displaced civilians into hastily constructed and poorly planned concentration camps. There would be around thirty thousand homes and farms razed by fire or dynamite and the partial to complete destruction of forty towns by the British in their pursuit to destroy all means of support for the Boer commandos. They would carelessly loot these homes and give the occupants scant time with which to remove their belongings before putting torch or dynamite to it. They would then either shoot the livestock out-right or gluttonously feed on parts of the animals and leave the larger portion of the carcass to rot. It is described in a letter from a young Boer commando in a letter to family in Germany:“Later on, the British, finding that by looting our cattle they could get fresh meat for nothing, were no longer forced to be content with bully beef. They then, like ourselves, killed oxen and sheep; but, unlike us, were very wasteful with it. Often, in the camping places they had vacated, we found the remains of half-eaten oxen, sheep, pigs, and poultry. Fleming 08But I shall not go further into this matter. I leave it to other pens to describe how the British looted our property, wantonly killed our cattle, and devastated our farms.” (4)This practice throughout the final seventeen months of the conflict displaced tens of thousands of women, children and the elderly. In the final months of war, Kitchener decided it would be even more of an incentive for the Boers to surrender if once the homes and belongings were destroyed the women and children would not be taken up and cared for by the already overtaxed concentration camps, they would, however, be turned out to their own devices with the hopes that the Boer men would eventually retrieve them and see to their needs. This act proved with finality that the concept of a “gentleman’s war” would no longer pertain to this conflict. Kitchener would also devise another plan with which to curb the destruction caused by the Boers. Upon the capture of Bloemfontein in March of 1900 by British forces, he needed to protect the railway that was the main supply connection to Cape Colony. The structures that were built were two story stone buildings with mounts on the roof for a machine gun and not one section of railroad track or bridge was destroyed where these “blockhouses” were built and manned. In the later months of 1900, Lord Milner, the British High Commissioner at the Cape suggested constructing a line of these blockhouses away from the railroad out into the veldt, creating an enormous fence with which to corral the evasive Boer commandos and provide a useful supply line out into the barren veldt. Kitchener liked the idea so well that from January of 1901 to the end of the war in May of 1902 they were built at the rate of forty per month. In the end, over eight thousand blockhouses were constructed with an accompaniment of fifty thousand men to stand guard, 7 per house, and curtail the movements of the Boers over a thirty seven hundred mile stretch. The number of troops used by the British for this activity alone is nearly double the estimated thirty thousand Boer troops that were left roaming the veldt. Duty in the Fleming 09blockhouses was typically uneventful and boring, which left ample time to maintain the wires that ran between each house, typically one thousand yards apart, by stringing tin cans and such to them to alert of the hapless Boer who tired to cross between. The final phase of the war was also the time when one of Great Britains more dubious achievements occurred. Kitchener found the need to do something with all of the Boer civilians that were accumulating, and the concentration camps that were devised for the shelter of those whose homes were destroyed would become the most widely publicized of Great Britain’s departure from civilized behavior. The camps were first utilized in March of 1901 and at wars end, close to one hundred thousand Boers would be interred. As the scope of the endeavor to destroy all of the Boer dwellings came to light, it became obvious that the concentration camps were hopelessly ill prepared to handle the volume of people the degree of care necessary to maintain the health of those held in the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. What made the situation even worse was that the Boer farms were often separated by many miles and this semi-seclusion never allowed them to build up an immunity to such diseases as measles, whooping cough and chicken pox. These conditions soon overwhelmed the abilities of the understaffed and ill equipped medical facilities that were set up to care for their health and the death rates in every camp became alarmingly high. Eventually there were between twenty six and twenty eight thousand deaths in the concentration camps of which approximately eighty percent were children and if one compares this to the total loss of British troops at twenty two thousand and the loss of Boers at an estimated four thousand troops it becomes clear as to who the true casualties of war were. The British military initially attempted to keep the questionable activities a quiet problem of their own concern but vocal opponents of these actions soon got word out of the atrocious conditions in the camps. Emily Hobhouse was initially the most vocal of opponents of the camps. She would go there in person and witness the devastation of the mind and body of the Fleming 10Boers who’s rations were halved simply because there husbands fathers and sons were still fighting against the Empire’s armies. A British journalist, W.T. Stead writes of his encounters in the camps:”Every one of these children who died as a result of the halving of their rations, thereby exerting pressure onto their family still on the battle-field, was purposefully murdered. The system of half rations stands exposed and stark and unshamefully as a cold-blooded deed of state policy employed with the purpose of ensuring the surrender of people whom we were not able to defeat on the battlefield.” (03)In Parliament, there is a concerted effort to portray the work of the British Army as noble and gentlemanly. The Secretary of State for War, Mr. Brodrick, states during parliamentary session:“…sufficient allowance is being given to all families in camp, and they are satisfied and comfortable.” (04)and:“…every provision has been made for medical attendance, and the education of the children is being conducted…” (04) This ruse was employed to gain the time necessary for Kitchener’s plan to break the will of the Boers and force them into surrender by using the civilian population as a tool. In April of 1902, The Boer governments met at Klerksdorp and agreed to negotiate with Kitchener. They wished first to consult with representatives from all of the commando groups before making any decisions and in a conference of sixty of those representatives at Vereeniging, it was voted fifty-four votes “for” and six votes “against” a surrender and recognition of the authority of King Edward VII. On the 31st of May both Boer and British met at the Melrose House in Pretoria and signed the Vereeniging peace treaty ending three years of war. Fleming 11CONCLUSION To gain the military superiority that was needed to defeat the Boers, the British found that more was necessary than simply superior force and numbers. They had to engage in a different style of warfare, and they discovered that the human quest for freedom is a powerful motivator, one that can only be broken by persistent removal of the freedoms themselves. The British were able to gain superiority and eventually win the Boer War by utilizing the combination of brute force, vastly superior numbers and the cessation of rights for those deemed the enemy and its collaborators.

01) A.W. Ward, Litt. D., G.W. Prothero Litt. D., Stanley Leathes M.A., eds., “The Latest Age”. The Cambridge Modern History. Vol. 12, New York: Cambridge University Press, 196902) Magill, Frank N. ed. “Modern European Series, Vol. II, 1800-1899”Great Events from History.Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 197303) South African War Virtual Library Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources


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