Britain’s Near-Defeat in South Africa, 1899–1902

Boer militia at the Battle of Spion Kop

“The first tidings of unsuccess were received in England with calmness. . . . That was the British way of doing things.” So wrote Leo Amery, a future cabinet minister who was then a correspondent for the Times. (No other identification was thought necessary for Britain’s—and the world’s—leading newspaper.) “But gradually, as fuller news of the campaign . . . began to reach home . . . a feeling of uneasiness began to spring up.”

That was putting it with typical English understatement. In fact something like panic gripped Britain during the cold and foggy “Black Week” at the end of 1899 as the public digested the “grave news” from South Africa. Headlines spoke of a “Severe Reverse” and “Our Heavy Losses.” Three times that week British forces had attacked the Boers, and three times they had been repulsed—at Stormberg on Sunday, December 10, at Magersfontein on Monday, December 11, and, worst of all, at Colenso on Friday, December 15. Those “three stinging blows” had cost the British three thousand men killed and wounded and twelve field guns lost. Attempts to relieve the besieged towns of Kimberley, Ladysmith, and Mafeking had to be abandoned.

Casualties were much lower than they had been in Afghanistan in 1842, but more of those who perished were of British ancestry. It was widely believed that the conjunction of these three defeats made this week “the most disastrous for British arms in this century.” “The nation was,” in Amery’s words, “more deeply stirred, more profoundly alarmed, than perhaps at any period since the eve of Trafalgar.”

“Few who were in England at the time will forget the gloom of that black week in December,” confirmed a barrister. Using virtually identical language, a university student wrote that “a deep gloom settled upon London, emptying of their frequenters the theatres, music halls, supper restaurants, and other haunts of pleasure seekers.” For her part, Queen Victoria, who usually had an unerring sense of her subjects’ sentiments, wrote that she was “terribly anxious” and “deeply grieved and troubled” about the “sad events” that had befallen “the Queen’s dear brave soldiers.”

What made the situation even more galling to the proud and self-righteous Britons was the undisguised schadenfreude—“the delight and foolish exultation,” the writer Arthur Conan Doyle called it—displayed by so many other countries. Sherlock Holmes’s creator could understand if the French were happy, “since our history has largely been a contest with that Power.” But what about “the insensate railing of Germany, a country whose ally we have been for centuries”? It was the same in Austria, another country that would have been “swept from by the map by Napoleon” had it not been for British help. Conan Doyle harrumphed, “Never again, I trust, will a British guinea be spent or a British soldier or sailor shed his blood for such allies.”

He was positively thunderstruck that “even our kinsmen of America” could revel in these reverses to the mother country. But it was true. Not a few Americans shared the sentiments of the expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler, who expressed “unbounded admiration” for the “pluck” of the Boers and their “beautiful war.” Whistler constantly made “witty and amusing” comments at the expense of the “Islanders,” such as the supposed tale of a lecturer who informed his audience that the “cream of the British army had gone to South Africa,” only to have some unknown heckler yell out, “Whipped cream.”

There was more than a bit of truth in this jape. The British had sent out storied regiments like the Black Watch. Now they were reeling in defeat—whipped indeed—and their commanders had been revealed as rank incompetents. Britain’s army had been expressly designed in the Victorian era for waging “small wars,” yet it had utterly failed to quell the uprising among a few South African farmers, and now it faced a big war for which it was manifestly ill prepared. This was certainly the last thing anyone in the world, except perhaps a few Boers confident in the Lord’s favor, had anticipated when war had broken out on October 11, 1899.

On paper the contest seemed absurdly one-sided. It pitted two republics of Afrikaans-speakers—the Orange Free State and the Transvaal—against the entire British Empire, which spanned the globe and controlled the neighboring Cape Colony and Natal. (All territories that are today part of South Africa.) Britain, with a population of 38 million and the world’s most industrialized economy, against the Boers (“farmers”), with just 219,000 people and a largely agrarian economy. The British expected a quick victory; they would not have precipitated the conflict otherwise. But the Boers possessed hidden strengths that would allow them to inflict embarrassing setbacks on “the khakis,” as they called British troops.

While gold and diamond discoveries had made the Transvaal an attractive takeover target for the British, these riches also allowed the Boers to arm themselves with the most advanced weapons of the fin de siècle. Their Mauser magazine rifles and Krupp and Creusot artillery were superior to the equivalent weapons in the British arsenal. As for the men who wielded those weapons, they were mostly tough, hardy frontiersmen who had been riding and shooting since childhood. Although they were of European origin, primarily Dutch, the Boers’ egalitarian and amateurish military system was in some ways quite similar to that of the Sioux, Chechens, Pashtuns, and other irregulars who fought Western armies in the nineteenth century. As one burgher noted, “Our system of warfare . . . resembles that of the Red Indians.” Aside from a small artillery corps, the Boers lacked a professional military. They had no uniforms, no drill sergeants, no general staff. They were defended by a militia made up of almost every adult male loosely organized into “commandos,” ranging in size from a few hundred to a few thousand. When called up for service, the burghers showed up wearing their Sunday-best clothes, riding their own horses, and answering to their own elected officers. Boers fought when and where they liked and disregarded orders that displeased them. “With the Boers,” wrote one young burgher, “each man is practically his own commander.”

All of these qualities made it tough to marshal the Boers for conventional military action. Their leaders tried to do just that in the opening months of the war, and they succeeded in fielding an army of almost fifty thousand men, which managed, as we have seen, to inflict a series of setbacks on the British army. But their lucky streak could not continue indefinitely, and it did not. In the wake of Black Week, more troops were sent to South Africa along with a new commander to replace the discredited Sir Redvers Buller. The new chief was the elderly field marshal Lord Roberts, “a lithe, grey terrier of a man,” in the words of the historian Thomas Pakenham. His was “a name to conjure with,” the Times wrote, “ever since his wonderful campaign amidst the mountains and snows of Afghanistan reminded the world what British soldiers could do if properly led.” Of course those campaigns from the Second Afghan War had occurred twenty years earlier. The Victoria Cross he had won for bravery during the Indian Mutiny was even more dated—thirty-five years old. Since coming home in 1893 after forty-one years in India, Roberts had been put out to pasture as commander of Her Majesty’s forces in Ireland. But despite his advanced age and lack of recent combat experience, “Bobs” (or, as Kipling called him, “Our Bobs”) soon rewarded the public’s enduring faith in him.

By the spring of 1900, the British force had swelled from 20,000 men to 250,000, and everywhere the Boer armies were in retreat. Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, fell on March 13, followed by Johannesburg on May 31, and Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, on June 5. If the British had been facing a less determined opponent, the war might have been over. But the Boers were only beginning to fight, and the prickly independence that had proved such a detriment when conducting conventional military operations would become their greatest asset during the guerrilla operations that would last for the next two years.

By the summer of 1900, the least fit, wily, and motivated Boers had been killed or captured or had deserted. Those who remained numbered only about thirty thousand men, but they were exceptionally able fighters with first-rate leaders such as Louis Botha, Jacobus Hercules “Koos” de la Rey, and Judge James Barry Hertzog. The most formidable of the lot was Christiaan Rudolf de Wet, whose name became, in a biographer’s words, “a byword for supreme skill in mobile and guerrilla fighting.” A forty-five-year-old farmer, he had no formal military education but had fought as a young man against Basuto tribesmen and against the British during a short, victorious conflict in 1880–81, gaining the same sort of on-the-job training as Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and other American irregulars who went from fighting Indians to fighting the British. In 1899 he had enlisted as a simple militiaman along with three of his sixteen children. By early the following year he had been elevated to commandant-general of the Free State’s forces.

De Wet did not look or act much like a senior general in the Western sense. A British prisoner described him as “an undistinguished-looking man with a black pointed beard.” One of his own men said he was a “sorry sight”: “His manners were uncouth, and his dress careless to a degree.” Then there was “his tactlessness, abrupt speech, and his habit of thrusting his tongue against his palate at every syllable.” He also had an explosive temper. De Wet invariably carried a sjambok (leather whip), and he did not hesitate to apply it to those who displeased him, whether “Kaffirs” (a derogatory term for blacks—De Wet was an inveterate racist) or his own men. On one occasion, when a group of Boers did not appear when they were supposed to, De Wet raged, “I wish the British would catch and castrate every one of them, so that they may be old women in reality.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) his irascibility, De Wet had a natural genius for guerrilla warfare. He insisted that his men give up their ponderous wagon trains—a decision hard to enforce because Boers were as attached to their covered wagons as the pioneers of the American West. But he was convinced that this war “demanded rapidity of action more than anything else. We had to be quick at fighting, quick at reconnoitering, quick (if it became necessary) at flying!” He “aimed at”—and achieved—all these goals.

His first big success occurred at daybreak on March 31, 1900, when he struck the British garrison at Sanna’s Post, site of the Bloemfontein waterworks. De Wet managed to stealthily assemble 2,000 men to attack a roughly equivalent number of Britons. On his signal, one part of his force began shelling the outpost. The British commander decided to retreat to Bloemfontein—and fell right into De Wet’s trap. “Hands up!” screamed De Wet’s men, and “a forest of hands rose in the air.” De Wet wound up killing or wounding 350 British soldiers and capturing 480 more along with seven field guns and seventeen wagons. Best of all, he made a clean getaway, even though 30,000 “khakis” were within twenty miles.

De Wet would continue to be a thorn in the lion’s side with his marauding, which disrupted communications lines (railways were a favorite target) and mauled careless British columns. Virtually the only task at which he failed was his attempt to invade the Cape Colony in hopes of raising a rebellion among its 250,000 Afrikaners. Another commando, under Jan Christiaan Smuts, was more successful—at least in penetrating the Cape Colony. Neither Smuts nor anyone else managed to rouse the Cape’s Afrikaner majority, the only thing that could have seriously shaken the British grip on the area.

If anyone could have succeeded at this task, it should have been the urbane, English-speaking Smuts, who had been born in the Cape as a British subject and had established his first law practice there after a dazzling career at Cambridge. Originally a fan of the empire builder Cecil Rhodes, he had become disenchanted by Rhodes’s plots to undermine Boer independence, and in 1898 he moved to the Transvaal to join the cabinet as state attorney at age twenty-eight. After the fall of Pretoria, there was no more need for lawyers, so he became a commando leader instead, rallying his men with talk of George Washington and Valley Forge while finding personal inspiration in a Greek-language copy of Xenophon’s Anabasis—an account of an epic march by Greek hoplites—which he carried in his saddlebag.

On the night of September 3, 1901, he crossed the Orange River, named after the Dutch royal house, which flowed westward across the veld and defined the boundary between the Orange Free State and the British-held Cape Colony. He had with him 250 handpicked men, including Deneys Reitz, the eighteen-year-old son of a former Free State president. Within days the commando was trapped in the Stormberg Mountains of the eastern Cape, among peaks of 5,000 to 8,000 feet where less than two years earlier the British had suffered one of their Black Week reverses. Now British soldiers were visible, wrote Reitz, “in every valley and on every road . . . to bar our progress.” They marched for forty hours straight, “all but finished for lack of sleep and rest,” while trying to break through the cordon. They had no luck until one night a hunchbacked sympathizer appeared to show them an escape route down a sheer escarpment. The entire commando went down in the dark. “At times,” recounted Reitz, “whole batches of men and horses came glissading past, knocking against all in their course, but luckily the surface was free of rock, and covered with a thick matting of grass which served to break the impact, and after a terrible scramble we got down without serious damage.”

More troublesome than the British were the elements and their own lack of supplies. “By day we were wet and cold, and the nights were evil dreams,” Reitz wrote. His wardrobe was falling apart: “a ragged coat and worn trousers full of holes, with no shirt or underwear of any kind. On my naked feet were dilapidated rawhide sandals, patched and repatched during eight months of wear, and I had only one frayed blanket to sleep under at night.” He took to wearing a grain bag with holes cut out for his head and arms, but on a particularly cold night his grain bag “froze solid.” Food was as hard to come by as clothes. Commandos survived on mealies (corn) and biltong (meat jerky). During their trek through Cape Colony, Reitz was eternally grateful to a farm woman who provided “the first slice of bread and butter and the first sip of coffee [he] had tasted for a year.” Not all that they found to eat was equally nutritious: On October 1, Smuts wrote, he and some of his men “came across some wild trees bearing sweet and delicious looking fruit, but in reality a deadly poison.” Smuts remained, he wrote, “lying in the jaws of death until the next morning.”

Smuts’s men managed to temporarily relieve their supply woes when they pounced on an isolated British military camp. “We had ridden into action that morning at our last gasp, and we emerged refitted from head to heel,” Reitz remembered. “We all had fresh horses, fresh rifles, clothing saddlery, boots and more ammunition than we could carry away.” This was only one of numerous occasions when the Smuts column managed to surprise and maul isolated British detachments, attacking them, as Smuts wrote about an October 3 battle in the Zuurberg Mountains near Stormberg, “with terrible loss” and forcing “a retreat that was terrible to see.” Yet the British kept coming, in far greater numbers, forcing Smuts to flee.

Eventually, after a 2,000-mile trek, the marauders made their way in early 1902 to the rural, isolated northwestern Cape, on the edge of the continent, where they established a stronghold that British troops would never penetrate. From here they raided British-held towns, hoping against hope that they would last long enough to see the day when, as Smuts put it, “Right triumphs over might.”

Leaving aside whether the Boers, who were already notorious for their inhumanity to black Africans, truly had “right” on their side, it was a vain hope. The daring feats of Smuts and other commando leaders may have inspired the Boers and alarmed the British, but they did little to change the course of the war. In response, British commanders instituted a series of increasingly harsh but successful measures aimed primarily at the civilian population. The Boers may have been of European ancestry, which meant that they would not be treated by British troops with the same degree of inhumanity as “colored” adversaries, but neither were they “Englishmen”—so they would not get the same kind of consideration granted to American rebels more than a century earlier.

Beginning in early 1900 Lord Roberts imported a common Northwest Frontier tactic by ordering Boer farms burned and livestock slaughtered if British troops had been fired on from the premises or if acts of sabotage had occurred nearby. His successor, the icy and impatient Lord Kitchener, expanded the practice after taking over in November 1900. An engineer by training, “K of K”—Kitchener of Khartoum—had acquired a reputation for machinelike efficiency during his conquest of the Sudan from 1896 to 1898. His “cold blue eye[s],” “firm jaw,” “cruel mouth,” and “heavy moustaches” were to become legendary. Described by a fellow viceroy as “a molten mass of devouring energy and burning ambition,” Kitchener was known for getting results, no matter the cost. In South Africa he added to that reputation by sanctioning the systematic destruction of the economic base on which Boer resistance depended, much as the Americans had done to the American Indians and as other British columns were then doing to the Pashtuns. Before the war was over, thirty thousand farms would be torched and 3.6 million sheep slaughtered. “Farm burning goes merrily on,” wrote one British officer, “and our course through the country is marked as in prehistoric ages, by pillars of smoke by day and fire by night. We usually burn from six to a dozen farms a day. . . . I do not gather that any special reason or cause is alleged or proved against the farms burnt. . . . We burn the lot without inquiry.”

Boer commandos engaged in some farm burning of their own, albeit on a much smaller scale. They torched farms belonging to hensoppers (hands-uppers), the Boers who went over to the British—akin to the Loyalists in the American Revolution who were similarly persecuted by “patriots.” To provide a place for the families of hensoppers, the British set up refugee camps, or “government laagers.” Soon they were being used not only to house those who wanted to be there but also those who didn’t. Boer women and children whose male relatives were on commando were imprisoned in what became known as “concentration camps.”

Although the term was new—first employed by John Ellis, a Liberal member of Parliament, in 1901—the concept was not. Indian reservations in North America were essentially concentration camps. So were the reconcentrado camps that the Spanish general Valeriano Weyler had set up in Cuba in 1896–97. Half a million Cubans were incarcerated and over 100,000 died from starvation or disease. Weyler, who blithely explained that “one does not make war with bonbons,” became known as “the Butcher.”