THE BOER “BITTEREINDERS”
The Boers of South Africa held out as no other group. After the two Boer nations— the South African Republic (or Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State— were under nominal control of the British, the war continued. The Boer commanders adopted guerrilla warfare tactics and made it nearly impossible for 250,000 British soldiers to effectively control all of South Africa.
These holdouts were known as the Bittereinders (“bitter-enders”), who truly held out until the bitter end. Their culture played a huge part in motivating these individuals.
“The Boers were fiercely independent,” said Dr. Spencer Jones, senior lecturer in armed forces and war studies at University of Wolverhampton. “They had emigrated—the ‘Great Trek’—from [the] British-ruled Cape into the wilderness of eastern South Africa in the 1830s. Along the way, they had battled for survival against the Zulu, and later, they … battled and defeated the British to win their independence. The Boers lived with something of a siege mentality and were wary of any effort to take their hard-won independence away from them.”
Another large element of this independence was frontier living, and even as small cities and mining towns developed, the majority of the population lived in the countryside.
“The living was tough, and it produced tough people,” added Jones. “All the risks you would associate with frontier living in the American West were present in South Africa: There were range disputes, outlaws, cattle rustlers and native raids.”
In addition, for the Boers on the frontier, the gun and horse acquired a remarkable symbolism as both a means and metaphors for independence.
“To lose one’s rifle was an intolerable shame for a Boer; and furthermore, a Boer living on the frontier would be terribly vulnerable without one,” explained Jones. “The British attempts to create a ‘gun amnesty’ in 1900 were doomed from the start. Canny Boers handed in broken or obsolete rifles whilst keeping their modern magazine loaders.”
While British soldiers could march and make camp, the Boers possessed a variety of advantages in this regard.
“These men were frontiersmen,” said Jones. “They were physically and mentally tough and possessed vast local knowledge. Boers [who] came from urban backgrounds learned from their hardy comrades. In the early stages of the guerrilla war, they could call upon friendly farms and homesteads in Boer territory and purchase—or even be gifted—supplies. Incidents of looting farms were rare, although British farmers living in Boer territory risked being robbed and even killed.”
As the British began a scorched-earth policy, the Boers became adept at raiding British food supplies. They found that passing into British territory was an effective way to live off the land, because the British Army was reluctant to burn farms that—theoretically, at least—belonged to British subjects. They also simply did more with less.
“To Boer eyes, the average British soldier always traveled ‘heavy,’ being overburdened with kit and supplies,” explained Jones. “A daily ration for a British soldier might last a Boer several days, and a successful attack against a British patrol could produce enough food to feed the hardy Boers for a week.”
Equipment was a trickier matter, but the Boers had gone to war in civilian clothes.
“The stresses of campaigning swiftly shredded these garments, and the guerrilla war prevented easy replacement,” said Jones. “The Boers survived through ‘making do and mending’ and by capturing British uniforms. British boots were especially prized, as were well-made British officer’s jackets, but the taking of British uniforms was a source of controversy.”
What eventually drove these holdouts to the negotiating table included improved British counterinsurgency tactics, the creation of the blockhouse line that reduced freedom of movement and sheer exhaustion after three years of warfare.
“Some testament to their toughness can be gained from the fact that in 1940, Winston Churchill (who had had many adventures in the Boer War) chose to name Britain’s special forces after the word the Boers used for their own military units: commando,” said Jones. “Churchill called for ‘men of the hunter class,’ and he undoubtedly had the Boers in mind as an example.”