The South African War: The First Total War of the 20th Century

I came across this old university essay the other day, and I thought it blog-worthy (after a few minor edits, corrections, and of course a healthy contribution of pictures). I already have one post about the Boer War on this blog. You can find it here.

I’m aware that anything I put up on the internet is free for someone to appropriate, so –in the interest of academic integrity– I’ve taken out the footnotes and bibliography. That’s not to say any students reading this aren’t welcome to use this essay as either a source or perhaps as a jumping off point to go to their libraries and find the monographs that support my arguments. For non-students reading this blog, I invite you to enjoy something I put a lot of time and effort into, once upon a time. My opinion wasn’t spoon fed to me in class. My thesis and the research to support it were arrived at through my own efforts. If memory serves, I got a mark in the high 80s or low 90s.

The South African War (1899-1902)

The First Total War of the Twentieth Century

The South African War was the last gasp of British Imperial Jingoism and the first whisper of the fall that was to come.

The British Empire had never been more powerful than at the outset of hostilities in 1899. Military experts expected the battle-hardened British army, tempered by a hundred years of such colonial wars, to brush aside the Boers with no more effort than any of the other malcontents of the Pax Britannia had required. By the end of the war in 1902 the days of Britain’s assured world dominance were over. The eventual victory had never been in doubt, but the duration of the war had seen the sun begin to set on the Union Jack. The Empire buried the Boers under the strategic assets of Time, Money, and Manpower –all of which Britain had and the Boers did not– but the Boers’ guerilla tactics were an effective stalemate to Britain’s resources.

It took total war on behalf of the British in the form of destroying civilian homesteads and relocating an entire population to concentration camps to bring the war to an end. Still, it was with stubborn pride that illiterate ranchers had humbled the giant before the world.

Great Britain had two colonies in South Africa, the Cape Colony and Natal, both of which had once belonged to the descendants of Dutch settlers who called themselves interchangeably Boers, which means farmers, or Afrikaners, which means Africans. The Boers chafed under the anti-slavery legislation of the British, and their defining moment was the Great Trek, a migration of thousands of families deeper into Africa to form independent countries beyond the jurisdiction of the British Empire.

There were two such Boer nations in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century: The Republic of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal Republic. Landlocked and unimportant, the Boers might have realized their dreams of true independence had diamonds not been discovered at Kimberly in the 1870s and gold on the Witwatersrand in the 1880s. Fortune-seekers, made up predominately of British citizens, flooded the republics, and money hungry Britain denied that the Transvaal Boers had ever possessed a sovereign nation, which put the mines in de facto British territory. A humiliating defeat at Majuba Hill during the First Boer War of 1880-1881 was enough to shake Parliament lo0se from that position, and Prime Minister Gladstone granted the Boers their independence on the condition that Britain would retain an ambiguous ‘suzerainty’.

Meanwhile the British settlers inside the two republics –whom the Boers called Uitlanders, meaning Outlanders– were still being subjected to heavy taxation and a fourteen-year residency requirement for enfranchisement which effectively denied representation to the very rich English-speaking men who held the majority in the important constituencies around Johannesburg. The Boers were eager to squeeze every farthing out of the mineral wealth of their countries, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to corruption within the state bureaucracy, provided the victims were Uitlanders. With so much money and political power at stake, it would take only a single spark to set the whole powder keg alight, and that spark’s name was Sir Alfred Milner.

Lord Milner

Milner, the new High Commissioner of South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony, arrived in Cape Town in May of 1897. He was a respected British civil servant who firmly believed in the Anglo-Saxon race’s divine mission to civilize the world, and he was disgusted with the idea of British citizens being governed by Afrikaners. Within months he was agitating the Colonial Office and Number Ten Downing Street to allow him free rein to force the two republics to give Uitlanders the vote, which would remove the Boers from power and bring the diamond and gold rich territories out of ‘suzerainty’ and back into the Empire proper.

Milner was convinced only a small and easy conflict stood between the British Empire and a redress of all the wrongs the Boers had delivered at Albion’s doorstep. It did not take much to convince Prime Minister Chamberlain, and thousands of British regulars were sent to South Africa in preparation for a short victorious war. It was the Boers who issued an ultimatum which provoked the war, but they did so to begin hostilities before they were hopelessly outnumbered. The costliest war of Queen Victoria’s sixty-four year reign began on October 11th, 1899, and it should be remembered that it was conceived and instigated entirely by Sir Alfred Milner.

The Boers’ ultimatum succeeded in beginning the war before British reinforcements could arrive, but their offensive stalled when half their commandos were committed to laying siege to Mafeking, Kimberly, and Ladysmith, so they prepared themselves to meet the coming British relief forces. When the British counterattack began, the khaki regulars held fast to the redcoat tactics which had won them their past glories, ignoring the destructive power of the new and modern weaponry the Boers had been purchasing against this day. Magazine-fed rifles could send five bullets into a man two miles away in less than ten seconds, and the sniper’s position was no longer revealed thanks to new smokeless powder. Shell bursts, which in 1870 had only yielded thirty-seven fragments of shrapnel, now produced three hundred and forty, and the range of the guns and the blast radius had also increased proportionally. Clearly, weapons had never been more effective at reducing the living to the dead.

Afrikaners ready for war

The military of the Afrikaner republics was flexible, resilient, and willing to incorporate the latest technology into their tactics. The commando had developed out of the need to defend scattered homesteads against attack by Bantu tribes, and to take offensive action against the kraals of those same tribes in search of ‘orphans’ who could legally be ‘apprenticed’ into the Boer equivalent of slavery. The Afrikaners’ armed forces had little in common with other white armies: There were no battalions or regiments, no commissary services or signals corps among the Boer forces.

When the Boers went to war every able-bodied man between fifteen and sixty, though older and younger were also welcome, would gather at the center of his township, elect an officer from among his peers, and go out ‘on commando’. Each man provided his own horses and wagons, often even his own rifle. When the provisions his wife or mother had packed for him ran out, he could count on more being provided by the Boer farms he passed. The Commando was a mounted guerilla unit, helped by the local populace, which moved across familiar terrain without a need for roads, and was capable of harrying the British wherever they were weak and vulnerable. The British were stupefied at its success, and could find nothing in their military texts to counter it.

Almost all the commandos had the advantage of a country upbringing, with its higher instances of superb marksmanship and fine horsemanship, especially compared to their British opponents, recruited as they were from the Glasgow slums and the Belfast alleys.

The Boers were well tuned to fighting in African conditions, often carefully trapping British forces in the open under the blistering summer sun, keeping them pinned down with withering fire from cool and shady heights, with ponies at the ready for any hasty retreat. The Boers’ tactical ingenuity was not limited to creative use of the sun. Boers were known to conceal artillery throughout a battle until the crucial moment where an exhausted enemy regiment retired to the water carts for the drink necessary to keep them from succumbing to sunstroke. At Magersfontein this tactic led to an embarrassing British rout, when a regiment of parched Highlanders decided the heavy shelling preventing them from their drink was one hardship too many, and they retired without orders to the rear of the battle.

The Boer’s tactical successes were even further encouraged by some British traditions in tactical doctrine which were now sadly outdated: British infantry were still expected to march in close order, without taking advantage of natural cover, and then engage at close quarters with the bayonet. The fact that the in the hands of a competent shot the Lee-Metford rifle was capable of taking the center out of an ace of spades at five hundred yards was ignored. Even if a commander did allow his men to use their rifles for suppression fire, no officer would condone “jack-in-boxes” among his men, which means anyone who would “bob up, fire, and bob down again.”

The British knew that every Boer employed this technique, appearing from his prepared trench only long enough to hit an exposed enemy, but the British officer corps refused to promote or emulate such a cowardly practice. The early days of the war saw a number of very gallant charges with heavy casualties for no gain, and that combination of British bravado and Boer gunfire often inflicted a five or even ten to one casualty ratio in favour of the Afrikaner cause.

The first year of the war saw three Boer victories for each defeat, but the Republicans could not accept even that exchange rate. Every failure, each retreat or surrender, sent more commandos back to their farms, disillusioned. The commandos fought holding actions at every ridge and river, but they could not prevent the British from relieving each of the besieged towns and capturing first Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, then Johannesburg, site of the gold mines, and then finally Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal Republic on the 5th of June, 1900. Over a third of the Boers’ commandos had now surrendered their weapons and sworn an oath of neutrality, and half of the Boer’s best generals were dead or in British hands. General Roberts was convinced that the war was over, and decided to leave rounding up the last diehards for his subordinate, General Kitchener. He sailed home in November of 1900; the war was only a year old, and he never imagined it would take two more years to finish.

Christiaan de Wet

The fall of Pretoria was a serious blow to Boer morale, and it could have easily reduced the war to the mopping up operation Roberts predicted, had it not been for men like Christiaan de Wet. Only two days after the fall of Pretoria, and leading a group of commandos that would have been too small to make a difference in the set piece battles against the British offensives, de Wet attacked a series of railway garrisons, killing or wounding seven hundred enemy soldiers and cutting the British supply lines.

Soon others were following General de Wet’s example. The Boers began allowing several wagon convoys to go unmolested so the commandos could attack the unprotected fifth one on a route the British had assumed secured. Others spent their nights heating railway tracks over bonfires until they were soft enough to twist, then put them back onto the line to derail a train. Still other groups set fire to every thirtieth telegraph pole, the most time-consuming damage one could inflict, and then reading the heliograph messages the British came to rely upon. All these tactics were taken up by Afrikaner patriots across a thousand mile front. While the number of Boers in the field was less than a third what it had been at the beginning of the war, the British could not declare the republics subjugated until these commandos had been defeated, and that was unlikely to happen any time soon: The groups worked almost independently of each other, were kept supplied and informed by their own kith and kin, and at the first sign of pursuit they would slip away into the wilderness which they knew intimately, but which was a total mystery to the British cavalry patrols.

Winston Churchill said of the war, “In the first period of the war blood flowed freely, but from a healthy wound; in the second period, the wound was sluggish and festering.” It is an accurate metaphor, as the most cursory look at South African War shows two obvious divisions. The first, lasting less than a year, was of set piece battles and sweeping strategic thrusts and parries, as one would find in a military academy’s curriculum. The second, beginning with the fall of Pretoria and lasting over two years, saw the Boers resort to guerilla warfare in order to continue the struggle even after their ability to wage conventional warfare had been destroyed. The British generals who had spent their entire careers shooting down frontal attacks by tribesmen were stumped as to a means of attaining victory. Flailing about for a solution, they finally settled on one that defied chivalry, but produced results. The British began targeting the Afrikaners’ civilians to break the back of the commandos, and they did it with such heavy handed and brutal methods that it proved effective.

The attacks on the railway after the fall of Pretoria provoked the first serious anti-civilian measure by the British; General Roberts announced that commandos must be receiving local support when they hit rail lines, so whenever the railway was attacked the nearby farms would be burned and their occupants taken as prisoners of war. He also ordered that Boer civilians would be carried on any train moving through a known area of resistance, but this taking of hostages was soon forbidden by Prime Minister Chamberlain on the logic that any Afrikaner man the army could find to put on a train had already refused to join the commandos, and thus the commandos would view him as a traitor, not a comrade, eliminating the value of his safety as a deterrent.

The burning of farms took on a life of its own, beginning with the destruction of homesteads near sabotaged railway lines and dynamiting the homes of Boer generals, then spiraling out to include destroying the property of Afrikaners who had renounced their neutrality oaths or were known supporters of the enemy. Within two months the British patrols had forsaken even these pretenses; they torched every farm unless they were specifically ordered to spare one. While exact records were not kept, it is estimated that thirty thousand farms were burned, and at least three and a half million sheep were slaughtered in the pastures and left for the vultures. Many British doubted the wisdom of the policy; one man on Milner’s staff wrote, “What fool in his folly taught us we could prevent men from brigandage by making them homeless?” Still the burning continued.

So what led the British generals, raised as they were with the Victorian notions of chivalry and fair play, to resort to methods that were so obviously bad cricket? The single best reason was that the Boer Commando was like no foe the British had ever faced before. The Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics did not field Zulu Impis or Chinese Boxers, Whirling Dervishes or scimitar wielding Sikhs. A crass simplification may prove to be an enlightening illustration as to Britain’s problem: The Boers were the first opponent of the Empire since Napoleon, eighty-four years earlier, who wore shoes, not sandals or slippers or calloused bare feet, but proper European shoes with a sole.

Of course this was not the only thing to distinguish the Boers from the usual targets of the Royal Army; the Boers had well trained and effective artillery, mauser rifles which were superior to the Lee-Metfords and Lee-Enfields of the British Regulars, and, in the early stages of the war they had access to transportation and communication tools like trains and telegraphs. Experts had predicted the war would be over in months, but their frame of reference, conflicts like the Crimean War, American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War were decades out of date.

The indiscriminate destruction of homesteads, the burning of crops and the slaughter of cattle, made it increasingly difficult for noncombatants to care for themselves, and the guerilla bands could do nothing to support slow moving civilians without giving up their mobility, which was their key to survival. By the 22nd of September the British were establishing refugee camps for anyone willing to come in, and by December one of Kitchener’s first acts as commander in chief was to make that invitation mandatory; every Boer man, woman, or child living in an area known to contain guerillas was rounded up and put into a concentration camp.

Prisoner of War Camp

Within the camps, inmates were divided into two groups: The first, which received better food and accommodations, was made up of the families of neutrals, non-combatants, and surrendered Boer men of fighting age. The second group was made up of the families of men out on commando. Kitchener claimed to establish the camps in order to protect white women from the insults and molestations of the natives, but a relentless administrator like Kitchener would have been well aware that the camps would strip the countryside bare of the succor and support the guerillas needed to continue the fight.

Between December 1900 and February of 1902, approximately one hundred and twenty thousand Afrikaners, predominately women and children, were rounded up and deposited in fifty camps. Additional camps were established for minorities, and the families of Boers who collaborated with the British war effort. Conditions varied widely from camp to camp, but one thing all camps had in common was rampant disease: Measles, influenza, typhoid, dysentery, pneumonia, malaria, diphtheria, whooping cough, bronchitis, and scarlet fever moved through the tents and barracks, spread by a lack of clean drinking water, the ignorance of farmers as to keeping a large camp sanitary, and Afrikaner home remedies that often involved boiled, strained, or sieved manure as a poultice. Between ten and sixteen percent of the Boer population died in the camps, and in October of 1901 the mortality rate for inmates rose to the all time high of three hundred and forty-four of every thousand. The British press was horrified, especially at heartrending stories like the shortage of coffins at the Irene concentration camp necessitating that children be buried in crates.

A surviving example of the blockhouses built throughout Boer territory

Having already begun the camp policy to deny intelligence and support to the commandos, Kitchener instituted the construction of a blockhouse system to limit their mobility and to protect the vital railways. By the end of the war there were eight thousand fortified positions stretched along thirty-seven hundred miles of railway, connected with telephones and telegraphs to their neighbours. Duty in the corrugated iron shacks was tedious, and any animal setting off the noisemakers on the perimeter was likely to set provoke a false alarm.

A false alarm at one blockhouse generally spread to its neighbours, and there is at least one incident where a hundred mile stretch of railway on the high veld echoed to thousands of gunshots as sentries fired away at nothing. The system was unable to stop determined Boers from crossing the line at night, but railway sabotage was reduced, and the penned commandos found themselves trapped in an area which would be stripped of supplies by sweeping patrols of British cavalry and Boer collaborators.

Many of the commandos had nothing to go home for. Their farms were in ashes, and if their families were surviving in the camps they were eating better than the commandos were. The stubborn pride of refusing to submit saw them through increasing hardships as sources of food disappeared, mobility was restricted by British fortifications, and things like clothing came into such short supply that many commandos took to wearing captured British khaki, or even the blouses and sunbonnets of women.

One place the commandos could find food was off of Bantu farms, but this elevated hostility levels between the Boers and their traditional Black enemies. Kitchener even went so far as to give the Zulu permission to defend themselves, and there was an incident where a commando raided a Zulu herd for supper before laagering for the night, only to suffer an attack in total darkness in which fifty-six men were speared to death.

Lord Kitchener (and his magnificent moustache)

The Boers were not alone in their troubles; Kitchener was feeling the manpower pinch. Despite summoning soldiers from every shire and colony of the Empire, from as far away as Canada and New Zealand, the garrisoning of his blockhouses left him with only fifty thousand of his quarter million man army available for offensive duties. Disregarding the British and the Boers’ resolution to keep this war ‘between white men’, Kitchener allowed Black and Coloured volunteers to stand sentry duty. Spot checks proved them no better at the job than their white counterparts, so they were not given positions of more responsibility. The Indian population also expected to be granted privileges after the war for their pro-British stance, but it was not to be. Minority groups, no matter what their stand or expectations, were similarly forgotten at war’s end.

The Boer leadership ended the conflict on May 31st, 1902, even though the commandos still enjoyed tremendous esprit de corps. The Boers were holding off ten times their own number, and they were forcing Kitchener to use four fifths of his force on useless garrison duty, but the Afrikaner leaders knew they could continue the war for only another year or two before they would run out of horses, ammunition, food, and clothing. Going to the bargaining table in 1902 assured them a negotiated peace, rather than an unconditional surrender, and while they signed away their sovereignty they prevented the Black and Coloured population from getting the vote, received an amnesty for the Boers in the Cape Colony who had sided with them, and were even promised a responsible government as soon as that was feasible. Ten years after the war the Boer territory was again under an Afrikaner government, led by former Boer Generals.

Boer women and children in a concentration camp

What were the consequences of the war for the Afrikaner people? The Boers had lost twenty thousand people in the concentration camps, another thirty eight hundred in battle, and of thirty-one thousand six hundred prisoners of war, six hundred died in captivity. Britain paid three million pounds in war damages to help rebuild the burned farms of the veld, and Milner far exceeded this sum through government work projects and loans, but the accumulated effort and prosperity of the adult generation had been wiped out, and their children had been decimated. More Boer children under the age of sixteen had died in the camps than both sides’ total men killed in action put together. One small upside was that those children who remained were the most educated in all of Boer history, and even had a firm footing in English, thanks to camp schools.

So Milner gained his two republics at the cost of three humiliating years of expensive war. The Boers lost their republics, but before the First World War they were running things their own way again anyhow. The minorities were not rewarded for their efforts, nor were the Boers who collaborated with the English. The first nail had been put in the coffin of the British Empire. It was a total war, and every resource of the nation was brought to bear until the fighting involved the families of the combatants in their own homes, leaving nothing but ashes behind and forcing the refugees into concentration camps.

It was a new kind of war for a new century, the first of its kind, but not the last, and the rules were being written as it went along. Today we have seen it repeated across the world, but here it was first, a valuable lesson if only we had had the wit to learn it.

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6 Responses to The South African War: The First Total War of the 20th Century

  1. [...] Foreign Policy I enjoyed reworking one of my old university essays for publication on this blog last month, and so I’ve decided to do so again. This time my [...]

  2. Pete Mellar says:

    Hi Geoff, I’m actually doing a Masters dissertation on this very topic, and I was just wondering if you tell me where you found your evidence for the following statement:

    “General Roberts announced that commandos must be receiving local support when they hit rail lines, so whenever the railway was attacked the nearby farms would be burned and their occupants taken as prisoners of war. He also ordered that Boer civilians would be carried on any train moving through a known area of resistance, but this taking of hostages was soon forbidden by Prime Minister Chamberlain on the logic that any Afrikaner man the army could find to put on a train had already refused to join the commandos, and thus the commandos would view him as a traitor, not a comrade, eliminating the value of his safety as a deterrent.”

    Any insight would be much appreciated,
    Cheers, Pete

    • Off the top of my head I would say that the military and civilian authority often clash. Somewhere in this article there’s a great quote: “What fool in his folly taught us we could prevent men from brigandage by making them homeless?” The military on the scene sought to control the situation by treating civilians as combatants, guilty by association. Did the Boer commandos stop hitting trains? Did the locals support the guerrillas? The answer to both questions is yes and no. In the search for black and white answers, the British army favoured black and the British parliament favoured white. The war was shades of grey.

  3. lucrari de dizertatie…

    [...]The South African War: The First Total War of the 20th Century « Face in the Blue[...]…

  4. Jeffery Cole. says:

    A man I knew as a child and young man fought in the 2nd Boer War on the side of the Boers at about 16. He said there were Irish, Canadians and Americans and a smattering of Germans in the force but I forget if he said how it was organised. He had a few souvenirs, a Mauser and pistol, a bugle with a bullet hole and some paperwork.
    He was born on the Australian goldfields, was a blacksmith and miner and and was always disparaging of the British ‘imperialists’. However that didn’t stop him volunteering for WW1 and playing a part in the islands in WW2. I have no idea what happened to his possesions as I don’t think he had any family.

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