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The Boer War

By Peter Warwick | Published in 1980 
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Thomas Pakenham

'It appears certain that, after [one] serious defeat, they would be too deficient in discipline and organisation to make any further real stand.' This view of the Boers was advanced in a secret intelligence report circulated within the British War Office on the eve of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 – a war that was destined to last two-and-three-quarter years, cost the British taxpayer over £200 million, result in the loss of at least 22,000 British, 25,000 Boer and inestimable African lives, and damage irreparably Britain's former self-assurance in the capabilities of her armed forces. The British defeats at the Stormberg on December 10th, 1899, at Magersfontein on the following day, and at Colenso on December 15th, startled the nation: 'The week which extended from December 10th to December 17th... was the blackest one known during our generation, and the most disastrous for British arms during the century', wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That Britain should have underestimated the military difficulties of the South African campaign was neither surprising nor excusable. Her armies and commanders had become accustomed during the preceding half-century to small-scale, often punitive, imperial operations against determined but much less well- equipped opponents. By contrast, the Boers could put into the field an army of over 50,000 men, all well-armed with the most sophisticated weaponry available. As the struggle developed, Britain's nineteenth-century army had repeatedly to come to terms with fighting a twentieth-century war.

With the arrival in South Africa early in 1900 of Lord Roberts as Commander-in-Chief and Lord Kitchener as his Chief-of-Staff, together with heavy reinforcements, the military tide began to turn. By the middle of the year Johannesburg and the Boer capitals had been captured; and to many, including Lord Roberts, who returned home triumphantly in December, the war seemed all but over. Yet the guerrilla phase of the war was only just beginning, and under the astute leadership of Botha, De Wet and De la Rey the conflict dragged on, ever more ruthlessly on Kitchener's part, until May, 1902, when the Boer guerrillas finally laid down their arms and recognised Britain's annexation of their republics.

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