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South African War

The War

The British, after the appointment (1897) of Sir Alfred Milner as high commissioner for their South African territories, determined upon a showdown in defense of what they considered their commercial rights. Troops were dispatched from Britain, and, after Boer protestations were refused, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war (Oct. 12, 1899). The Boer forces, well equipped by Germany, were larger than those immediately available to the British, and they scored impressive victories in the areas adjacent to the Boer territories. In the Cape Colony, Mafeking (now Mahikeng) and Kimberley were besieged; in Natal, Ladysmith was placed under siege. Reinforcements under the command of Sir Redvers Buller were sent from Britain.

Buller's failure to dislodge the Boers led to his replacement by Gen. Lord Roberts, with Kitchener as his chief of staff. They landed in 1900 with heavy reinforcements and soon won victories; Kimberley and Ladysmith were relieved, and General Cronje was forced to surrender. Roberts advanced into the Orange Free State, captured its capital, Bloemfontein, and occupied the entire territory by May. By the end of June, Mafeking had been relieved, the Transvaal invaded, and Johannesburg and Pretoria captured. The Boer states were formally annexed and Kruger, a fugitive in Europe, appealed in vain for help there.

Roberts, believing the war to be over, left South Africa and delegated the mopping up to Kitchener. The Boers, however, continued an extensive and coordinated guerrilla war. Under their leaders, including Smuts, De Wet, and Botha, they disrupted communications, attacked outposts and, with their intimate knowledge of the countryside, eluded capture. Kitchener decided that final victory lay only in the systematic destruction of these guerrilla units, and adopted a scorched-earth policy. Boer women and children were herded into concentration camps where unhealth conditions killed some 26,000 Boers, most of whom were children, and perhaps 20,000 or more black Africans also died. Thousands of farms were torched, some 40 towns destroyed, and untold livestock killed. Chains of blockhouses were erected that cut off large areas, and dragnets of troops went through the guerrilla country section by section. By 1902 the British force (about 450,000) had reduced to final submission the Boer troops (approximately 54,000). The Treaty of Vereeniging (May 31, 1902) ended hostilities; the military casualties included some 22,000 British troops, mainly from disease, and some 7,000 Boers.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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