“It was, wrote Churchill, a ‘mis­er­able war, ill-omened in its be­gin­ning’”

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

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)

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