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The Boer War & British Society

Peter Donaldson examines how the British people reacted to the various stages of the South African war of 1899-1902.

In Rudyard Kipling’s famous phrase, the Boer War taught the British ‘no end of a lesson’. A war which was expected to be brief and glorious ended up taking a British and Imperial army of approximately 500,000 men over two and a half years to defeat Boer forces that never numbered more than 45,000. With in excess of £200 million expended on the war and a British death toll of 22,000, the conflict was, both in human and financial terms, by far the costliest that Britain had undertaken between 1815 and 1914. It is hardly surprising then that the war dominated public discourse in Britain and excited a wide range of emotions.

The traditional view, first presented by the economist J. A. Hobson in his 1902 work, Imperialism, has been of an ardently pro-war British public swept away in a frenzy of jingoistic fervour. The rush to volunteer following ‘Black Week’, the unrestrained celebrations of Mafeking Night and the Conservatives’ triumph in the ‘Khaki election’ have all been used to support this line of argument. More recently, a move has been made to differentiate public responses according to class boundaries. It has been suggested that, for the majority of the working class, the war was, at best, no more than a distraction from much more pressing concerns about social and economic reform.

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