The Gentleman’s War
The Story of the Boer War
Albert Walter Breach took part in the second Boer War in South Africa between 1901 and 1902. Here I have tried to explain some of the background of the war to better understand his role there.
The first colonists in South Africa were Dutch, however, British troops occupied the Cape during the Napoleonic wars and later bought the territory from Holland. The colonists resented new laws introduced by the British so they began to look to the interior of the continent to set up an independent state.
Groups of families set out on the migration north, called ‘The great Trek’; these ‘Trekboers’ (meaning farmers looking for new farms) set up two republics on the Orange River. The British saw these discontented Boers (farmers) as a unified nation. This didn’t stop Britain meddling in their affairs though. War erupted between the Transvaal and Britain in 1881 and was known as the first Boer War. The discovery of diamonds in Orange River in 1867 and gold in the Transvaal in 1886 caused further disputes with the British.
Discussions between the Boer states and their neighbours went on for years, mainly about the rights of ‘Uitlanders’ (foreigners) on the Transvaal goldfields. The gold rush had attracted thousands of Europeans, Americans and Australians to the area, but most were British.
A conference between the leader of the Boers, Johannes Kruger and Alfred Milner (who had recently taken over the premiership of the Cape from Cecil Rhodes) was held in Bloemfontein in May 1899 but war broke out the following September (the second Boer War).
The British Army thought it well prepared to fight a bunch of farmers but had seriously misjudged the necessity for mounted troops, especially as volunteers poured in from Europe, America, Scandinavia and Russia to join forces with the Boers. Three months into war the British suffered three serious defeats in one week, known as ‘Black Week’. Help came from New Zealand, Australia and Canada and the many volunteer regiments from Britain that sprang up. The War Office set up a new recruiting office in the Strand and it soon attracted long queues; private companies such as ‘Lovett’s Scouts’ and ‘Paget’s Horse’ made up more than eighty volunteer regiments by the end of the war. All in all 256,000 British regular soldiers and 109,000 volunteers from Britain and the Colonies took part.
Battles included ‘The Battle of Ladysmith’ (30th October 1899 – 28th February 1900) and ‘The Relief of Kimberley’ (15th February 1900). By July 1900 Guerrilla fighters were authorised to burn Boer farms while in the spring of 1901 columns of soldiers were sent on long drives, marching round and round a 10,000 mile square territory. The experience was one long grind, sleeping in the open and without a change of clothes. Other soldiers were sent to guard blockhouses, miniature forts les than a mile apart; life in the blockhouse was very demoralising.
Concentration camps were set up to house Boer families but were nothing like the ones set up by Germany in the Second World War. Refugees were housed in comfort and safety but typhoid became a frequent problem. Because of the lack of the kind of war crimes prevalent during the world wars, the Boer War was nicknamed ‘The Gentleman’s War’.
The field hospitals were kept very busy. Apart from the surgeons, the nurses who volunteered their services often came from the best families in England and were well trained in Florence Nightingale’s methods.
Finally, the surrender document came; it was signed on the 31st of May 1902 and spelled the end of a bitter war that had claimed 21,000 men, through fighting and disease.
|Boer War Artillery|