“It was, wrote Churchill, a ‘miserable war, ill-omened in its beginning’”
The fight against the Boer republics was, wrote one historian, “Britain’s last major war of imperial expansion and it provided humiliating evidence of physical decrepitude as well as moral turpitude”. This is fair. Britain’s initial strategy was to divide their forces and invade Boer territory from three directions. But three disastrous defeats in the ‘Black Week’ of December 1899 resulted in a change of strategy.
Forces were then concentrated for the relief of the besieged city of Kimberley – achieved in February 1900. The Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria fell in March and June respectively. Yet British forces had failed to trap and destroy any significant Boer army or to inflict a major defeat in the field, and the enemy simply switched to guerilla warfare. The British responded by destroying Boer farms and driving 160,000 Boers (mainly women and children) and 130,000 Africans into concentration camps, where up to a sixth of the incarcerated population died of disease and malnutrition.
In May 1902, a compromise peace was agreed by the Treaty of Vereeniging, which cost the Boers their independence but guaranteed them, in the words of one historian, “a stake in the British empire as well as mastery over the black man”.
Even the arch-imperialist Churchill was appalled. It was, he wrote, a “miserable war – unfortunate and ill-omened in its beginning, inglorious in its course, cruel and hideous in its conclusion”.
Saul David is professor of military history at the University of Buckingham. His non-fiction books include Zulu (2004), Victoria’s Wars (2006) and All The King’s Men (2012)