Great Anglo-Boer War, Part II, 1900-1902:Guerrillas in the Cape & the British response to the Bitter-Enders Insurgency

Part I, Great Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1900

As Field Marshall Frederick Roberts looked for a decisive conclusion to hostilities between his armies and the Afrikaner Boer guerrillas, his chief-of-staff, Lord General Kitchener was tasked with rounding up Boer pockets of resistance near the Cape Colonies in the former Transvaal and Orange Free State.

He had come down with the flu shortly after his arrival in South Africa and thus it would be Kitchener basically who had complete control over most of the British forces in country as the next highest ranking general and as the chief-of-staff. He took to his task of defeating the Boer insurgency with quickly and with fervor, marching across the Modder River to engage Piet Cronje’s commando Held up in a laager on the banks of the Moddan River at the Paardeberg Drift. The old Boer was with his wife and 4,200 Boer guerrillas under arms. Cronje would be a major prize for the British army if he could be neutralized. The victor of the Battle of Modder River in November 1899 over Lord Gen. Methuen, Cronje made a valiant defense at the engagement fought near Paardeberg which ended with Britain's first major tactical success of the War.

Royal Canadian regiment celebrating the Boer surrender at Paardeberg, February 1900

On the morning of the February 27th, 1900, the Boer cause suffered a devastating blow when the bloody Battle of Paardeberg ended with Cronje's surrender to Roberts and Kitchener, the former remarking to Cronje when they met "You have made a gallant defense, sir". After over nine days of continuous bombardment, Cronje had surrendered his laager, and 4,000 of men, mostly Orange Free staters and Western Transvaal Boers, signaling the beginning of the end for Afrikaners cause. Perhaps the worst part of the surrender was not just the loss of one of the best Boer generals Cronje (he and his wife sent to St. Helena until after 1902), but the date at which it took place, the 27th of February being the anniversary of the triumphant victory over the British in 1881, at Majuba during the First Anglo-Boer War.

Piet Cronje, foreground to the right wearing a wide brimmed hat, in the custody of the British army shortly after the Battle of Paardeberg. Note the Indian servant to the far-right.

The day after Majuba was avenged; General Buller made his own triumphant entrance into Ladysmith. The siege had been lifted and the Boers defeated again catastrophically. It was now 1900-British troops numbered close to 207,000 [1] spread throughout South Africa and her territories. Many Afrikaners surrendered en masse after the defeat at Paardeberg. Cronje had been deported (to St. Helena) with other Boer captives and another influential Boer general, Piet Joubert, died of natural causes shortly after the surrender. In March of 1900 the capital of the Orange Free state, Bloemfontein was taken by the British without a Boer rifle fired in opposition.

Guerillas in the Cape

The decision to continue fighting the war was controversial among many Afrikaners especially after the official annexation of the Transvaal on 1st September 1900, President Paul Kruger would flee South Africa ten days later under the cover of night hoping that a diplomatic tour of Europe could gain support for the Afrikaner cause. He would never return to his native land again dieing in Switzerland in 1904.

President Kruger, photographed in 1898, wearing the ceremonial sash of office for the Transvaal Republic.

Unlike Kruger who felt it unwise to continue the War, President Steyn who originally tried to avoid War completely, took a hardened stance in support of continuing the war, seeing the likelihood of independence unlikely. These “bitter-enders”, as they came to be known, in relation to those Boers who already surrendered, Steyn and the other generals looked to regroup the commandos and use a more asymmetrical approach to attack the British in a guerrilla war.

Command now passed to the younger Boer generals such as Christian de Wet, Louis Botha, and a future British Field Marshal  in the World Wars, Jans Smuts (b.1870-1950). This new approach on warfare stressed guerilla tactics to harass British forces looking to round up those Boers still fighting. Urged by many commanders to do so Steyn made better use of the various foreign volunteers fighting for the Boers. This unexpected ‘Boer Revival’[2] shocked many in the British military leadership who anticipated that the conflict was over. Of the over 10,000 British casualties thus far, double that number would be inflicted by the end of the war in 1902.

Small skirmishes were initiated and then dissipated throughout the veld during the bitter-enders quest to continue the war and thus win the conflict despite the fact that the British were already declaring a general victory. General Buller had 55,000 troops in the Natal alone, more than double the entire number of Boers still in the field. Boer generals like De Wet were now determined that if the Boers could not win independence and the republics would be annexed, that at least the British would be unable to suppress the Boer movement and eventually sue for peace.

Clash of Afrikaner & British cavalry on the Veld

The guerilla campaign waged by the Boers looked to disrupt British railway lines in both the colonies and in captured Afrikaner territory as well. De Wet in particular became famous for his daring raids both during daylight and nighttime. Thousands of dollars of British supplies were destroyed during these raids, besides ammunition, the Boers saw little use for any other materials in the supply depots so they just destroyed them. These raids happened more often as ammunition for their Mauser’s became scarce and Boers had to swap them for Lee-Metfordsv[3]. Boer desperation for supplies and a significant victory to help rally civilian support to the guerrilla cause led to the risky and seemingly suicidal decision to invade the Cape Colony in June of 1901.

General de Wet from a period postcard, made in England

Jan Smuts was picked to lead about 300 burghers into the Cape Colony to tear up railroad tracks, cut down telegraph wires, and harass British pickets any where they could be found. This guerilla campaign was effective until at Kitchener’s insistence the blockhouse system is implemented. Using stone garrisons linked together by several hundred feet of barbed wire and guarded with machine guns, Kitchener hoped to stop Boer mobility through capturing territory (and securing it), reducing the commandos movement & therefore reducing its effectiveness.

Gen. Kitchener photographed in his field uniform c.1900

In November of 1901, 17,000 square miles of the Orange Free State and over 14,000 miles of the Transvaal were fenced in with blockhouses. 8,000 of these blockhouses would be built in South Africa by the wars conclusion to fortify much of the interior of the country[4]. Kitchener still however was outraged over the inability of his generals and his own failure to capture the important Boer generals such as Smuts, Koos De la Rey, and De Wet, to end the guerilla conflict once and for all with an Ulundi esque victory.

A controversial tactic was to be implemented by Kitchener in his quest to stamp out the Boer insurgency which was costing Britain lives and vast sums of money in each month that the war dragged on. Farm  and village burning became a popular practice used in the previous conflict with Zulu and Kaffirs and when British columns discovered a Boer farm they often plundered and set it ablaze. The inhabitants would be led out at gun point and then transferred to one of the many concentration camps set up in South Africa. The livestock was often slaughtered because the British did not want to risk it falling into the hands of Boers or the Kaffirs, as they were unable to take care of their animals as it was, this was ultimately the only option.

30,000 Boer farms would perish during this campaign as well as millions of heads of livestock. The affect on the Boer men still in the field fighting was devastating, their homes, family, and livelihood were gone and many had little choice but to surrender or flee in exile in the conclusion to the Anglo-Boer War. Conditions in the concentration camps holding Boer civilians killed more people, most of them children, than bullets or artillery fire did for both sides during the conflict. [5] Boer moral again suffered greatly from these tactics and it finally helped lead to a sharp plunge in Boer fortunes.

Canadians encamped in South Africa, 1901

By March of 1902 the Boers were desperate; many who had supported continuing the fight against the British now looked to end the conflict with as much dignity as possible. De la Rey was not among those looking for peace and carried out one of the most successful guerilla actions of the war despite the grumblings of contemporary generals. Ordering a daring assault across open grassland held by the British, his skirmishers bolstered by a cavalry unit routed the enemy positions. The attack killed 60 and wounded another 100 but the biggest prize for De la Rey was the capture of Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen and 600 of his troops. Otherwise this action was significant because it was to be the last great Boer victory of the Great Anglo-Boer War.

Conclusion to the last Anglo-Boer War, South Africa 1910-1961

Tansvaal leaders met with Kitchener in early April 1902 to begin discussing peace terms. Sporadic fighting continued until all Boer generals could meet and discuss terms. De la Rey, Smuts, and De Wet eventually preside over the conference at Vereeniging in May of 1902, a rather somber affair by all accounts. Though many of the bitter enders including De Wet wanted to continue fighting, it was now clear that capitulation was imminent and that they must all lay down their arms or risk further torment. The British Empire had defeated the Boers, though this defeat had seemed so likely for the British earlier in the conflict they were able to claim victory and make a fragile peace in South Africa. Queen Victoria would not enjoy the victory that her Empire had attained at ultimately such a grave cost in man and beast, dieing in 1901 before the end of the war.

Just nine years later in 1910 the Union of South Africa is formed as a British Commonwealth; Louis Botha becomes Premier with many former Boer generals including Jan Smuts serving in his cabinet. In 1914 the Maritz Rebellion occurs after Smuts and Botha brough South Africa into World War I on the side of the Britain and the Commonwealth. Quickly put down by Botha and the new South African Army, the Maritz Rebellion failed miserably, and Koos de la Rey was killed in what many believed (and still do) was an assassination, ending all major armed Boer resistance to British dominion rule. The last revolt of significance in this period taking place during the Rand Rebellion of 1922, when several ad-hoc commando units and Afrikaner revivalists backed striking miners in the Transvaal. They were defeated heavy handily by Jan Smuts then Prime Minister of South Africa, from 1919-1924 and then again from 1939-1948.

Gen. Louis Botha, future Prime Minister of the Transvaal and later the South African Republic, from 1910 until his death in 1919.

The horrors witnessed by British soldiers in South Africa at Magersfontein and Spion Kop would be relived on a much larger and catastrophic scale in the trenches of Europe, though South Africans would serve with distinction on their continent against the small highly effective guerrilla forces of German Imperial Officer, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (b.1870-1964).

The end of the Great War would signal the first great collapse of British Imperialism worldwide, the foundation first cracked by the  Boers of South Africa in 1880-1881 and 1899-1902. Autonomous rule would be gradually installed in many of its dominions including South Africa, which gained its white minority-ruled (Apartheid) independence from England in May 1961.

Related Posts

[1] Farwell, Byron The Great Anglo-Boer War
[2] Barthorp, Michael The Anglo Boer Wars: The British & Afrikaners 1815-1902
[3] Welsh, William “Cunning Ambush At Sannah’s Post” Military Heritage
[4] The Great Anglo-Boer War
[5] The Great Anglo-Boer War

Suggested Further Readings

Barthorp, Michael The Anglo Boer Wars: The British & Afrikaners 1815-1902
(Sterling Publishing Co. 1987)

Dugard, Martin “Farmers at Arms: Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902” Military Heritage
4 May, 2010

Farwell, Byron The Great Anglo-Boer War
(W.W. Norton Co. 1976)

Pakenham, Thomas The Boer War: Illustrated Edition
(Random House New York 1979, 1993)

Welsh, William “Cunning Ambush at Sannah’s Post” Military Heritage
15 April, 2010