The Second Boer War


The Causes and Course of the War 1899-1902

Fought between the British /empire and the Boer Republic of South Africa. The British controlled parts of Southern Africa while the Boers, who were the descendants of Dutch Settlers to the region and usually farmers, controlled the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. 

  • Strategic; the British were interested in expanding their empire in Southern Africa as the region was of key strategic importance to them as a route to India and other parts of the British Empire. Did not want to see the Boers join their territories to German possessions nearby.
  • Gold; Boer regions became more attractive to British miners and speculators such as Cecil Rhodes when gold was discovered there in 1886. The discovery of gold also worried the British as they felt that with this new wealth, Boer areas would become too powerful.
  • The Uitlanders; the British were annoyed that the so-called Uitlanders, the mainly British foreigners living in Boer lands, were denied the vote in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
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The Course of the War

British Defeats: 12th October 1899, the Boers declared war on the British after the British refused to withdraw the troops they had gathered on the boarders of Boers territory. The British suffered a series of humiliating defeats during Black Week and at Spion Kop, and were besieged at Ladysmith, Kimberly and Mafeking. The Commander of British forces was General Buller.

British Victories: The British managed to break sieges and capture key Boer settlements. In February 1900, Kimberly and Ladysmith were relieved, while Bloemfontein was captured in March, and Mafeking finally relieved in May. By June 1900, with Boer capitals Johannesburg and Pretoria taken, the British believed that they had won. The British commander during the second phase was Field Marshall Lord Roberts.

Late 1900 and through 1901: Guerrilla War. The Boers fought back with a determined guerrilla campaign. Boer commanders attacked British railways and supply lines. The British responded by destroying Boer farms, clearing Boer areas and establishing concentration camps. Eventually they gained the upper hand and in May 1902, the Peace of Vereeniging was signed: The Transvaal and Orange Free State became part of British Empire. Commander during 3rd phase; Field Marshall Horatio Kitchener. 

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The Impact of Reporting and Propaganda

There was enormous press and public interest in the Boer War, the first major conflict that the British had been involved in since the Crimean War. Newspapers now routinely developed war correspondents and some, including Winston Churchill, achieved fame through their reporting.

Most newspapers were supportive of the war effort, and only the Manchester Guardian opposed the war throughout its duration. Anti-war newspapers found that their circulation declined, while pro-war newspapers enjoyed increasing sales. It was for this reason that the Daily Chronicle hired a new editor and changed from being anti to pro-war. The Daily Mail was by 1899 the best selling daily newspaper in the country and was particularly enthusiastic about the war. The paper saw its circulation rise during the war, and benefited particularly when it dramatised events such as the relief of Mafeking. The Morning Post and The Times were pro-war but critical of government planning and organisation of the war effort.

Most correspondents on ground in South Africa, supportive of the war. However many did not shrink from producing reports on British defeats, or from questioning army leadership after Black Week, British suffered series of defeats. Correspondents sometimes put out fake information to try to help the British; portraying the Boers as cruel and heartless. 

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The Impact of Reporting and Propaganda

Winston Churchill's reporting for the Morning Post increase his fame as he reported upon his exploits in being captured and then escaping from the Boers in December 1899. Churchill's stance was pro-war but he gave honest accounts of British defeats, the death and injuries of soldiers and the quantities of the Boers. Bennett Burleigh of the Daily Telegraph criticised the army after Black Week. MA Gwynne of Routers news agency gave supportive accounts of the army's efforts in return for regular information from Kitchener. Emily Hobhouse reported on concentration camps in the Manchester Guardian.

The Boer War was the first to have an official British censor. General Buller has a negative view of the press and did not co-operative with war correspondents. He consequently received a bad press after the events of Black Week. Field Marshall Roberts realised the value of the press in maintaining morale and in generating a positive public image. He tried to get press support by supplying war correspondents with information and allowing them to use army telegraph systems to relay despatched to London. Lord Kitchener felt that the press needed to be controlled. He introduced greater censorship during the guerrilla phase of the war in 1900-1901.

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Support and Opposition to the War

The majority of the British public, press and politicians were pro-war. However a small group of radicals took a very public and often unpopular stance against the war. As the conflict dragged on into 1901 and reports emerged about concentration camps, support declined.

  • Politicians pro-war: The conservative party, who were in power, imperial secretary and conservative MP for Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain in particular. The Limps; Liberal imperialists, the pro-empire section of the liberal party.
  • Opponents of the war: A section of the Liberal party including young MP David Lloyd George, who made a name for himself in opposing the war. Leader of the Liberal Party, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, pro to anti war after revelations about concentration camps.
  • Newspapers pro-war: The Daily Mail who sponsored Soldiers' Wives and Children Fund, Daily Telegraph, Times, Morning Post and The Daily News until 1901
  • Opponents of the war; The Manchester Guardian, The Daily Chronicle was initially anti-war, The Daily News after 19901
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Support and Opposition to the War

  • The public pro war: The evidence of newspaper sales, the results of the 1900 khaki election and the reaction of the public to British victories indicate that majority were pro-war. Result of 1900 Khaki election was a decisive victory for pro-war conservative party. Support for the soldiers' wives and children fun was strong; £70,000 raised by end of war. Support strong in Birmingham and London. Some think middle class more likely to be supportive than the working class as the Empire brought the middle class greater benefits than the working class. 
  • Opponents of the war: Lloyd George's anti war message was received most positively in Bristol. Irish nationalists were anti-war as they viewed British Imperialism negatively. The results of the 1906 Liberal landslide election indicated British public less pro-war after conflict has ended. The Liberal Party contained a number of prominent anti-war figures.
  • Pro-Boers often received a lot of hostility, particularly during the early part of the war. At a meeting in Birmingham, Lloyd George was attacked by a pro-war crowd and had to escape. The MP for Lisheard, Leonard Courtney, received a very hostile reaction from his constituents when he made an anti-war speech.
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Concentration Camps and Guerilla Warfare

The British declared that they had won the Boer war in 1900, but the Boers continued to mount a determine guerilla campaign. Kitchener's response was to launch a scorched earth policy to try to weaken and demoralise Boer fighters; farms ransacked and burnt when they were absent. Eventually a system of blockhouses were established across Boer areas finally securing the territory for the British. 

During the Guerilla phase of war, the British increasingly housed Boer women and black africans from Boer areas in concentration camps. Poor organisation and supplies and inadequate sanitation and medical provisions meant that disease and hunger were rife in the camps. Overcrowding also added to the problems: at their peak the camps contain 140,000 people. Children suffered in particular and cases of measles, typhoid and malaria were widespread. Death rates ran at the astonishingly high rate of 34% in white camps. Black Africans were house separately and received less food and medical attention. It is likely that conditions here were worse, as one of Hobhouse's accounts seems to indicate, but no one trouble to investigate. An estimated 20,000 Boers and 12,000 black africans had died in the camps by the end of the war.

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Concentration Camps and Guerilla Warfare

Emily Hobhouse visited South Africa and a concentration camp in Bloemfontein in january 1901. she wrote to her brother, a journalist on the Manchester Guardian, about the horrendous conditions that she encountered. Hobhouse's letters were first circulated as a report amongst MPs and later published in the Manchester Guardian. Many MPs and member of the public were outraged about camp conditions and Henry Campbell Bannerman, the Liberal leader who had previously been supportive of the war, made a famous speech condemning the British use of concentration camps and the scorched earth policy as 'methods of barbarism'

The Fawcett Commission: Millicent Fawcett the leading campaigner for women's suffrage, was asked by the government to go to South Africa to report upon conditions in the camps following the Hobhouse reports. Fawcett and her commission supported Hobhouse's findings and recommended that rations, hygiene and medical care in the camps be improved, and that the camps be administered by civilian, not military, authorities. Death rates fell to 6.9 per cent and eventually to 2 per cent

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The Boer War, Imperialism and National Efficiency

At the time of the Boer War, the British were almost united in their view that the Empire was necessary for British status and strength and was a positive force in the world. The Boer War was fought to enhance Britain's imperial status and control over Southern Africa.

Patriotic and pro-empire songs and poems were produced such as Land of Hope and Glory and AC Swinburne's Transvaal. Periodicals such as the Boy's Own Paper and the Union Jack were popular and encouraged people to feel pride in the Empire. Baden Powell established the scouting movement in 1907 which promoted patriotic values.

Some opponents of the war broadened their critique to include a denunciation of imperialism altogether. Many opponents of the war criticised the motivations for it, claiming it was fought to benefit rich business men such as Cecil Rhodes who were in pursuit of gold mines. The empire was portrayed as an enterprise designed to benefit rich men and not genuine national interest.

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The Boer War, Imperialism and National Efficiency

J A Hobson, the Manchester Guardian's correspondent in South Africa, published a very influential book criticising the British Empire called Imperialism- A Study. Hobson claimed that the British Empire served the interests of a narrow elite of arms manufacturers, aristocrats and international financiers whilst most people remained in poverty. His book was widely read by left-wing British writers and politicians and had some impact upon the wider British public during the 1906 election campaign.

The term national efficiency refers to the notion that Britain was losing its position as the world's leading power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Britain struggled to win the Boer War, some worried that Britain's national efficiency was declining. Problems with recruitment to the army during the war highlighted the poor health and physical conditions of many in Britain: a third of volunteers were turned away by the army for these reasons. In Manchester, as many as three in five people were turned down. The worry was that poverty and the resulting poor physical condition of many British people would leave Britain unable to defend her empire. Concerns regarding national efficiency were one of the motivations for the Liberal Reforms.

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Army Reform and Social Reforms

The Boer War was impetus for 2 highly important sets of reforms. Defeats that the British had suffered at the hands of the Boers prompted Lord Salisbury, the conservative prime minister in 1902, to ask Lord Esher to make recommendations to improve the organisation of the army. Later Richard Burton Haldane, Secretary of State for War under the Liberal government, made further crucial reforms. The national efficiency debate that had been partly triggered by the Boer War contributed to the Liberal's decision to pursue an ambitious programme of social reform which significantly increased the role of the state in the health and wealth of citizens.

  • The Esher Reforms: Improvement for army organisation; defined roles, such as Chief of General Staff, had responsibility for planning, training. Improved training and professionalism through introduction of new drill books and establishment of military training base at Salisbury Plain and officer training at Camberley. New/ better weapons introduced; improved Lee-Enfield Rifle.
  • The Haldane Reforms: The British Expeditionary Force, permanent battle-ready fighting force, introduced, made important contribution during FWW. Organisation of the Territorial Army was improved and strengthened, played important role during FFW. Combined impact of reforms made British Army stronger, more effective/ efficient.
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Social Reforms

  • The Liberal Reforms of 1906-14: There were a range of measures designed to improve the health and well-being of the poorest in society. The reforms were introduced partly as a result of the Boer War. The Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration of 1904 highlighted how poverty and associated problems such as rickets, weakened the physical condition of British people

Among the measures were:

  • The Free School Meals Act of 1906: Local authorities could provide meals for the poorest children in schools
  • The National Insurance Act 1911: Made it compulsory for the poorest workers and worker in industries more prone to unemployment, to participate in a government backed scheme to provide insurance against sickness and unemployment. Measures were also taken to restrict exploitation of workers and provide medical checks for school children. 
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