by Martin Redfern
Reasons for the Boer War are often over simplified. A voracious and rapacious colonial administration seeking to wrest control of the gold and diamond deposits in the Transvaal from an honest, simple farming folk defending what was rightfully theirs tells only part of the story. Whilst it is true that the Cape Governor, Lord Alfred Milner, and the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, did goad the stubborn and not universally popular Paul Kruger into conflict, Kruger had expansionist goals of his own. And Kruger’s administration had much to be defensive about. The fact is the Transvaal could not exploit their natural resources on their own, without the help and expertise of foreigners; the ‘Uitlanders’, mostly British, who were denied voting rights by Kruger’s government.
Cecil Rhodes and the redoubtable Leander Starr Jameson, (the model for Kipling’s “If”), both with an eye on the big prize, launched the disastrous Jameson Raid from Rhodesia and Bechuanaland, ostensibly to come to the aid of the ‘Uitlanders’, and were soundly thrashed by the Boers who read the raiders like a book.
The Boers, seeing exactly which way events were heading, used much of their wealth to re-arm with modern weapons and artillery, which were to prove greatly superior to those used by the moribund British army. Antagonism was ratcheting up on both sides and eventually the Transvaal and later their allies in The Orange Free State were virtually forced into declaring war on 1’st October 1899.
This précis of overly simplified causes of the conflict alters nothing. The Boers entered into the spirit of the ‘scrap’ with gusto and great determination, while the Brits were woefully ill prepared. Other than border and colonial skirmishes their last real war had been the Crimea 43 years before. And that had not gone too well either!
Boer Commandos were pumped, well prepared and equipped, mounted on well shod, salted ponies and all sure shots with a home-grown knowledge of the lie of the land. Early victories at Dundee fired the Commandos and had it not been for a dithering General Joubert, Durban could have been taken in those early days and the supply of British reinforcements prevented from landing. This would have radically changed the course of the war and history.
Initially, the Brits, sitting ducks in their red-coats, were stunned and demoralized by the early Boer aggression, guile and tactical ability. Their vaunted mobility aside, the Boers also took trench warfare to a new level using it to allow the enemy regiments to advance in line abreast. Adding to this, the Boer artillery was vastly superior and they knew how to use it with a little help from German and French volunteers along with a few Irishmen, ever eager to take a swat at the Brits. Reeling from defeats the British ranks were bolstered by colonial troops from India, Australia and Canada.
As their ranks grew, the Brits set about relieving besieged towns and the relief of Ladysmith represents a fine synopsis of the war; it fell to Sir Redvers ‘Reverse’ Buller and his deputy, the incredibly inept Sir Charles Warren, to lead the charge. Boer commandos blocked their way at the Tugela River and repulsed them at Colenso. Then came Spion Kop.
To visit Spion Kop and the ‘acre of horror’ is to appreciate the awfulness of the conflict. Some 17,000 British troops climbed the steep hill and fell to the furious fire of the Boer sharpshooters and artillery gunners. It is an eerie place now with the British trenches well preserved and covered with white painted stones. Hundreds lie buried below. Monuments stand stark testimony to the regiments that campaigned there.
Interestingly, this epochal event involved three men who went on to greatness. Jan Smuts with the Boers, Winston Churchill who had been given a commission in the ‘South African Horse’ having escaped from a Pretoria prison and Mahatma Ghandi who was a stretcher bearer for the British. Both sides captured, abandoned and recaptured the ‘Kop’ delivering no real victory to either side.
Also in the fray at the ‘Kop’ was a young Deneys Reitz. The son of the Secretary General in Kruger’s government, aged 17 he joined the Pretoria Commando at the outbreak of war. His book ‘Commando’ is a classic of the genre; a sort of ‘boy’s own’ adventure story, frankly recording his experiences during the long course of the war. Riveting, is his account of the campaign with Smuts in the Cape where they met with deprivations that beggar belief. Enduring perpetual hunger, wearing sacks for clothes, their ponies perished beneath them of cold and starvation. Many were executed upon capture on Kitchener’s orders for wearing purloined British uniforms. Dismayed by the lack of local support for the cause among Cape Afrikaners the campaign lost traction and surrender followed.
The survivors had little to return to. Kitchener’s brutal scorched earth policy had destroyed their homes and livelihoods and the ‘concentration camps’ had decimated the civilian population leaving a bitter legacy that resonates today.
Reitz accompanied Smuts to Vereeniging and was a signatory to the treaty of May 1902, which formally brought the war to a close. However he, his father and brothers, refused to sign their individual undertakings never to take up arms again and were banished to Madagascar where Denys and his brother started transporting goods from the coast to the interior. However malaria felled Deneys and he shipped back to the Cape to recuperate at the Smuts homestead.
He then joined Smuts in politics before going off to fight for his erstwhile enemy in WW I attaining the rank of Major after being thrice wounded. This remarkable man then re-entered the political arena and was largely responsible for the formation of Kruger National Park before becoming High Commissioner in London.
A wonderful tale of chivalry followed. Upon a day in London an English aristocrat arrived at the High Commission unannounced with a neatly wrapped parcel. The visitor explained he had been shot and wounded by Reitz in the Boer War. At the end of the engagement Reitz ‘relieved’ the wounded ‘Tommy’ of his rifle, horse and equipment before dumping his Mauser for which he had no further use. The kindly Lord, on hearing of his former enemy being in the capital came by to return the weapon to its rightful owner.
In a funny, ironic, politically incorrect way, it is fair to say the Boer War was actually the first authentic ‘Liberation War’ fought on the continent. It was lost in the military sense but the political rise of the Afrikaners was beginning.