THE BOER “BITTEREINDERS”

American Survival Guide - - LAUNCH FAMILY -

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.”

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