The Anglo-Boer War was a preventive war: this is the explanation which does least violence to the multitude of facts, purposes, interpretations, and mythologies. The Boers fought because they believed that they had no alternative if they were to preserve their independence; the British pushed the Boers to extremity because they felt that in Afrikaner nationalism there was a danger to the paramount position of Great Britain in southern Africa. Since the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in , economic power had been shifting from the Cape to the Transvaal.
Throughout southern Africa Afrikaners outnumbered those who regarded themselves as British. The logic of the facts pointed to the conquest of the Transvaal and its transformation, after a short war, into a British colony, in which the Boers would be swamped by British immigrants.
It was the Boers who sent the ultimatum; the other side of the case may be summed up in Milner's words to Lord Roberts: 'I precipitated a crisis which was inevitable before it was altogether too late. Militarily the war fell into three phases of unequal length. In the first, which lasted from 12th October l until the end of that year, the initiative was with the Boers. They invaded Natal and the Cape Colony, stirred up rebellion, annexed British territory, besieged the towns of Mafeking, Kimberley, and Ladysmith, and in the second week of December - 'black Week' as it was known in Great Britain - defeated General Gatacre' at Stromberg, Lord Methtlen at Magersfontein, and general BuIler the commander'-in-chief, at Colenso.
In this period the Boers were fighting strategically on the offensive, tactically on the defensive. They had the advantage of prepared positions - they were adept at fortifications, and the trenches dug by J. Their rifles and their marksmanship were superior to those of the British; and they were certainly helped by unimaginative British generalship. With the arrival of the 1st Army Corps at the end of October the balance changed; but Buller divided his forces and tried unsuccessfully to re lieve Kimberley and Ladysmith. By the middle of December Buller's command had been defeated at every turn and remained, barren of initiative, pinned down from the northern Cape to the midlands of Natal.
Buller had lost his nerve. He was one of those unfortunate soldiers who are competent subordinates but fail in novel situations when in high command. After Colenso he signalled by heliograph to the besieged commander in Ladysmith that he should fire off his ammunition and surrender. It was this action which determined the British government to replace him as commander-in-chief; in his place came Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener of Khartoum as chief-of-staff.
The 1st XI was being put in to the field. With the victories of 'Black Week' the Boers had reached what Clauswitz, the German military theorist, would have called the culminating point of victory after which they began to slip downwards. Roberts acted with imagination; Kitchener, displaying the restless energy that characterized his career, improvised a system of wagons for tr']ansport 'which unshackled the British troops from dependence upon the railway lines along which, hitherto, they had doggedly plugged into Boer fortifications.
The English', said General' Cronje, who was besiegirig Kimberley, do not make turning movements. They never leave the railway, because they cannot march. General Cronje's besieging army was trapped in the gorge of the Modder river at Paardeberg, and shelled into surrender with 4, men on 28th February, the nineteenth anniversary of the Boer victory at Majuba Hill. Cronje's defeat sent vibrations of discouragement throughout the Boer armies. The forces around Ladysmith withdrew, and Buller was at last able to enter a town from which the attackers had gone. Buller had already fought 'the bloodiest single engagement of the war, at Spion Kop.
When the British and Boers both withdrew from the hill in the belief that they had been defeated. The Boers were the first to discover that the enemy had also gone. General Pretorius, pinned against the mountains of the Basutoland Protectorate, surrendered with a large part of the army of the Free State. After pausing for seven weeks in Bloemfontein, largely because of a serious outbreak of enteric fever among his troops, Roberts resumed his march to the north, occupied Johannesburg and Pretoria, and shepherded the Transvaal forces eastwards down the railway line leading to the Portuguese colony of Mozambique.
In September the Transvaal was annexed. The second phase - that of the great British counter-offensive - was over, and it seemed that with it the war was over. The third phase of the war lasted another eighteen months. This is sometimes referred to as the guerrilla war. The phrase is a misnomer.
A guerrilla war is carried on by small bodies of irregular troops, acting independently. The Boer armies had been defeated in the field; 'they had been' dispersed' but they had not been broken. The Boer governments had been dislodged from their capitals; but, peripatetic though their existence was, they retained their authority.
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President Kruger, an old and broken man, had sailed from Lourenco Marques for Europe, but his authority devolved upon Schalk Burger, vice-President of the South African Republic, and was effectively shared with General Louis Botha; the Commandant-general of the Republic's forces. In the eastern Transvaal General Botha, and in the western Transvaal General de la Rey, commanded large bodies of men; elsewhere the Boers reverted to their natural style of fighting, the swift movement of bodies of mounted infantry - the commandos - carrying their food with them or living off the countryside, harassing British communications.
On paper, the two Republics had been annexed; but there was no effective occupation. The third phase of the war was'one of movement and attrition, in which a dwindling number of Boers maintained their resistance, hoping for a weakening of British resolution, and a large British army, constantly reinforced, lumbered about, over thousands of square miles of country, pecking away at Boer strength. It was in this third phase of the war that the contest changed its nature; it seemed to the Boers that the British were seeking to exterminate them as a people.
It became increasingly difficult for the British to distinguish between civilian and military enemies. A large number of Free Staters had surrendered, and had been permitted to return to their farms after having taken an 'oath of neutrality' - a curiously named promise to take no further part in the war. Neither President Steyn nor, later, acting President Burger recognized either the annexations or the right of their own people to contract out of the war.
The British provided little protection for those who had surrendered; Boer commandos pounced upon them and threatened them with immediate punishment as deserters, or more remote fears of punishment by the British as apostates. Roberts turned to 'farm-burning' of the homesteads of those who had broken their oaths, and a circle of reprisals began. Furthermore, 'camps of refuge', under military control, were set up in which the surrendered could take refuge with their families: this was the beginning of the system of 'concentrationcamps'.
The last phase of the war was carried out against a background of military stalemate, divided counsels, administrative confusion and, on the British side at least, increasing friction between the military and the civilian authorities.
In the Boer armies in the field, military and civilian authority were so entwined that it was practically impossible to separate them. On the British side, the military authorities were vested with power to do what the exigencies ofwar demanded; the soldiers did not see the war from the same point of view as the civilians. Both sides had, for different reasons, decided upon a fight to a finish. To Milner, the object of the war was to break Afrikaner nationalism: the terms offered to the Boers in were in a phrase borrowed from the US Civil War general, Grant 'unconditional surrender'.
In , after Lord Kitchener had unsuccessfully offered terms of peace to General Botha at Middelburg, the two Boer governments met at Waterval and agreed that neither should conclude a separate peace unless the annexations were reversed and the independence of the Republics restored.
Given these conditions, the war would continue until the last Boer had been killed or captured. Roberts had given up the command at the end of , to be succeeded by Kitchener.
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Kitchener had his own reasons for ending the war'as soon as he could; he wished to be given the post of commander-in-chief in India, which he feared would elude him if he could not end the campaign in South Africa quickly; he was not concerned with the political consequences of his actions; rapidly his regard for Milner deteriorated into indifference, Milner's for him into mistrust.
In military operations it seemed that the British army had lost the initiative, and was compelled, in innumerable local actions, to react to Boer movements.
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General Christian de Wet made two spectacular raids, in which he slipped through superior British forces and made his escape. Militarily, de Wet's operations achieved little that was lasting, but they did demonstrate the inability of the British army either to catch or to force a commando to battle against its will. At the end of the Free State generals, Kritzinger and Hertzog, invaded the Cape Colony for the second time, and touched off a second, and far more serious rebellion. In the former Transvaal state attorney, Jan Christian Smuts, who had taken to arms with considerable native ability, conducted a spectacular raid into the Cape Colony, which took him within sight of Cape Town and on into, the far north-west of the Colony.
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