Part 1 of 2: The Boer Republics under siege: ‘But the heart of the Boer is deeper and wider’

A flag made by a Boer prisoner of war, H.J. Steyn, in Diyatalawa camp, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The flag is an example of the so-called ‘Unity’ flags of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). These were unofficial flags representing ‘Boer’ forces fighting the British during the Anglo-Boer War.

South Africa 1899 – 1903

When Cecil Rhodes became the Governor of the Cape Colony in 1890, the British began to agitate on the franchise issue in the Boer Republics and to undermine them at every opportunity. This culminated in a conspiracy in 1896 by Rhodes and Dr. Leander Starr Jameson for a Rhodes financed cavalry force to ride into the Transvaal with 500 men and stir an “uitlander” revolt against the Boer government in the Transvaal. The conspiracy was, however, not tightly held, and the invading force, which was composed predominantly of Rhodesian policemen, was met by the Boers and quickly defeated and captured.

This was a considerable embarrassment for the Empire. Relations were thereafter very tense. In 1899, the British issued an ultimatum demanding the Transvaal repeal all legislation restricting the rights of foreigners and that they cease importing weapons from Germany. The Boers demanded that the British remove the high concentration of troops on their borders.

The Boers, realizing a British invasion was imminent, preempted the initiative. As the Boers were advancing to their preemptive attack on the British at Mafeking, a cavalry detachment led by Koos de la Rey intercepted a British armored train headed to that city. De la Rey’s cavalry captured its cargo of guns, munitions, and supplies, and tore up the tracks in its front. Neither de la Rey nor most of the Boers wanted war, but war it would be from 1899 to 1902.

Besides the demand for English political franchise in the Transvaal Republic, the British fought for mine owners and mining interests, tax revenues, and avenging the humiliation of Majuba, but ultimately and most importantly their motive was the growth, dominance, and stability of the British Empire.

The Afrikaners (Boers) simply fought for independence, the right of self-determination. The British military strategy was to overwhelm the Afrikaners with vast numbers of well-equipped and well-supplied troops and to devastate the Afrikaner economy with a scorched earth policy designed to undermine civilian as well as military support for the war. The British employed not only a vast number of troops (448,000 by 1902), but some of their best trained and most highly esteemed and decorated regiments, such as the Gordon Highlanders. Churchill, who was a news correspondent in South Africa during the war, called the Gordons “the best regiment in the British Army, probably the best regiment that ever was.” The number of British troops involved was almost equal to the total Boer population of the two republics. Against some of the most elite troops of the British Empire and outnumbered more than five to one, rode almost every Boer man from 16 to 60 and over that could mount a horse and fire a weapon. Despite their overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment, the British also followed a deliberate policy of economic warfare against the civilian population, killing livestock, burning crops, and barns. They also interned many civilians in concentration camps.

The Boer strategy was to make things so painful and frustrating to the British that they would quit the field. In this hope they had the encouragement that not all in Britain and the British Parliament supported the war.

Although the British were ultimately victorious with many of their regiments distinguishing themselves for valor, they paid an appalling price, more than 21,000 dead from all causes. The Boers, outnumbered better than five to one, gave such an astonishing and formidable account of themselves in tactics, dogged determination, ingenuity, loyalty, endurance, courage, leadership, and Christian nobility that they should rank among history’s most admired combatants in defense of liberty.. The Boers lost about 4,000 men in combat, but the total number of deaths has never been accurately determined. Very probably the Boers inflicted military casualties against the British in a ratio of about two to one despite being considerably outnumbered and less well supplied.

The Boers, however, suffered a great many indirect civilian casualties during the war due to the British scorched earth policy and the British use of concentration camps. The British had no motive but confinement for these camps and no intent to inflict casualties, but nevertheless, according to Afrikaner sources, approximately 20-25,000 people including about 3,000 blacks perished in the camps due to unsanitary conditions, sickness, inadequate diet, exposure, and limited medical care. More than 80 percent of the total were children.

The death rate in the camps was greatly reduced toward the end of the war because of public protest in Britain and influential members of the Liberal Party. In general, the Liberal MPs in the British Parliament were opposed to the war, while most of the so-called conservative Tories were persuaded to support it for Empire, gold, or the rationalized franchise issue.

Most of Part 2 of this series will pay tribute to one of greatest of the Boer generals, Jacobus Herculaas (“Koos”) de la Rey. De la Rey was a respected member of the Boer parliament, but he had no formal military education. His brilliant cavalry tactics have been compared to Confederate Cavalry leader Nathan Bedford Forest, and his remarkable ability to command incredible and unwavering loyalty by the sheer nobility of his character has been compared to Robert E. Lee.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR   –  Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist

a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs

 Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.

He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.

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