Although not responsible for bringing on hostilities, the Boer republics declared war first. Why? Going on the offensive was their best chance of attaining a reasonable settlement. It was vital to block a British advance on the republics as they had thousands of kilometres of exposed frontiers and too few soldiers and fortifications for an adequate defence of their territory. By acting quickly, before the British had properly reinforced their weak South African troop position, the Boers hoped to catch their enemy on the back foot. A deep invasion of the Cape and Natal before the November arrival of a large imperial expeditionary force would give the republicans an early advantage.
The Boer war plan was to carry the war to neighbouring British colonies and keep it going there, pinning down the British and checking their advance on the interior. That might produce stalemate. Leaders in Pretoria and Bloemfontein therefore gambled on inflicting a knockout blow, leaving a short war in which a weakened Britain would be obliged to make peace that would respect the ZAR’s internal independence. Some in the Boer leadership, including Smuts, were hoping, too, for diplomatic intervention by European powers sympathetic to their cause to bring about favourable early peace terms. Should this strategy fail, Smuts anticipated a long and brutal struggle in which the Boers would have to be bled into submission. This bleak prophecy would prove to be accurate.
At first the conflict went well for the Boers. When war broke out, the republics were able to field around 50 000 well-armed and well-provisioned commandos against the precarious British, who had barely 20 000 troops at their disposal. Although an arrogant British command still expected a swift and smooth victory over what some imperial observers called a mob or rough tribe of Boer riflemen, they experienced a devastating shock. In the closing months of 1899, invading republican forces lunged deeply into British colonial territory, inflicting several major and humiliating defeats in battles with badly organised and poorly led British troops, and surrounding and laying siege to the Cape and Natal towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith.
A perceptive observer, Sol Plaatje, recorded the varied experiences of black and white townspeople trapped in Mafeking (See Sol Plaatjie) . An assault on two fronts saw British garrison power knocked back and, with the assistance of colonial Boer rebels, the annexation of occupied frontier Natal and Cape districts as republican territory.
However, instead of exploiting their military successes by pushing on to gain more ground for political bargaining with the enemy, the Boers appeared to run out of steam. As their offensive ground to a halt and turned into holding positions within the British colonies, so conditions for forcing early negotiations evaporated. As the Boer armies eased up, they gave Britain time in which to mount a stiff counter-offensive.
As the Pretoria and Bloemfontein press celebrated the glorious gains of what they termed a just war blessed by God, the British were landing their first big Army Corps. London was determined to turn the tide quickly. Once again, though, an advancing imperial army found it unexpectedly hard going and had its nose bloodied. In battles at Modder River, Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso during November and December, most of the killing was done by the Boers and the dying by the British. Facing the grim spectacle of repeated defeats and a mounting toll of casualties, Salisbury’s war secretary, Lord Lansdowne, described his country’s war effort in South Africa as a national disaster on the greatest scale imaginable.
Still, for Whitehall it could be nothing but war to a victorious finish. Massive reinforcements were fed in to strengthen the campaign, forces were better organised, and ineffective generals were eased out of command. Early in the new year, Britain sent out a new chief commander, Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener as his chief of staff. Their arrival signalled a far more methodical and more ruthless campaign, supported by enormous resources. By early 1900, Roberts had amassed a field force of more than 180 000 soldiers, an invading army whose size was already not far off the combined white citizenry of the Boer states.
Rolling on relentlessly and breaking desperate republican resistance, overwhelmingly stronger British forces forced republican opponents back into their territory. In operations already becoming marked by increasingly indiscriminate harshness towards the Boer civilian population, by March 1900 Roberts’s army was beginning to lay waste to the countryside, burning the homesteads, crops and livestock of Boers on commando service as punishment for not laying down arms.
Elsewhere, the republics’ war effort experienced crushing blows in the field, such as defeat at Paardeberg and collapsing morale on the home front in the face of thousands of casualties and the loss of thousands of commandos taken prisoner. As Smuts had earlier concluded, the war had become little more than a seemingly endless retreat, led by disheartened Boer fighters who were abandoning their duty to defend their soil and fleeing homewards.
Intransigent Boer women, now often in charge of farms, condemned men for cowardice and urged them to return to the fight. Bloemfontein fell into British hands by mid-March 1900, and by June Pretoria and Johannesburg were occupied. Roberts assumed that the fall of their capitals would knock the heart out of the Boers, finally finishing them off. Yet some of his commanders were not so sure. They considered the republics to be too large, too rural, and their communities too scattered to be intimidated into surrender by the loss of distant symbols of urban identity.
So it proved to be. Although Roberts considered the conflict to have virtually come to an end by mid-1900, hostilities were anything but nearly over. Many parochial rural Boers felt little for the fate of their Afrikaner state capitals, seeing the conflict as a struggle to defend their homes, farming livelihoods and way of life. What this implied was grasped well by one British general, Sir Archibald Hunter. In his sceptical words, Roberts had annexed a country without conquering it.
It is, of course, equally true that the republicans had misgivings about the appalling costs of continued fighting. Early in June 1900 several influential Boer commanders, among them Ben Viljoen and Louis Botha, had proposed to Kruger that the war be ended before Pretoria fell. Smothered by enemy superiority in men and equipment, the Boer armies were disintegrating, with thousands of commandos laying down their arms and accepting British surrender terms. If warfare continued, it could go on to devastate all of republican territory. A compromising Botha more than once wished to sue for peace without having consulted his southern Free State allies.
But younger and more tenacious generals like Koos de la Rey had no desire to throw in the towel. President Steyn, whose republic had suffered enormous destruction in its lost struggle for independence, sensed betrayal by the Orange Free State’s ally. The ZAR’s talk of peace was selfish and disgraceful, he concluded. Republican honour demanded that the Boers fight on, however bad the outlook. In the end, few were willing to break a combined ZAR-Orange Free State war undertaking. Yet Botha’s underhand attempt at negotiations with the enemy left a troubling mark, sowing the seed of post-war mistrust of ZAR leadership.
If resisting Boers were down, they were not yet out. Although much of their military capability had been destroyed, surviving pockets of commandos remained committed to continuing armed resistance. Reorganising their combatants for irregular operations, the Boers switched to guerrilla warfare. By dispersing their mounted forces in small and fast-moving bands, republican generals planned a guerrilla campaign that would not only hurt British invaders on their territory, but again hit at the Cape and Natal by carrying the war back into the coastal colonies.
What ensued was nearly two years of effective guerrilla warfare. Staying on the run and living off what food and shelter they could scrape from the countryside, running commandos kept Britain’s imperial army at bay with surprise attacks on columns, convoys and supply depots, sabotage of bridges, railway lines, telegraph links and other kinds of harassment. While they faced increasing strains and divisions over the costs of keeping up the fight, uncompromising nationalist patriots such as Koos de la Rey and Christiaan de Wet were of no mind to abandon hostilities. What they had left were the means to frustrate their enemy, denying Britain final victory for as long as possible. If war dragged on with no clear end in sight, there remained the faint hope of eventual diplomatic intervention, European aid or even a British loss of will to continue with so draining a colonial war.
Kitchener, who had replaced Roberts as Britain’s commander-in-chief towards the end of 1900, grew both increasingly frustrated with this state of affairs and extreme in his view of what it would take to end the guerrilla struggle. In 1901 he even threatened to deport die-hard republicans to remote Indian Ocean or Pacific islands, and to banish Boer leaders from the country permanently, unless they surrendered shortly.
This was a wild bluff that in any event scared few commandos into giving in. Equally, by then Kitchener understood that the keys to victory lay not in threats but in a ferocious rural strategy to squeeze the life out of commando attackers. To isolate mounted bands from their essential agrarian lifeline of civilian food supplies, shelter and moral support, the British command adopted measures used in earlier colonial campaigns against Asian and black peasant opponents. These turned on the use of sweeping scorched earth tactics, destroying crops and livestock and burning thousands of farms. This policy, proclaimed in August 1900 by Lord Roberts, commander of the British forces, was intended to destroy Boer food supplies in order to starve the commandos into submission. Those who fell victim to this increasingly indiscriminate punitive policy included not only Boer families but also black farm tenants with their produce and animals.
Women and children, as well as a smaller number of older men who were uprooted from the land and turned into destitute, wandering refugees, were rounded up by British forces and deposited in a string of internment or concentration camps. The number of white and black inhabitants confined in this manner increased by many tens of thousands during the course of 1901. Even though not classed as combatants, their presence in hostile districts that housed roving commandos made them a target. In effect, by being placed in camps they were made prisoners of war. By removing embittered, anti-British civilians, burning homesteads and stripping the countryside of foodstuffs and other supplies, imperial commanders hoped to starve commandos of sustenance, breaking their will and compelling them to surrender.
The severity of clearance of rural areas was accompanied by more exacting methods of anti-guerrilla warfare. Kitchener’s army vastly increased its intelligence capability and fenced off large sections of open countryside with barbed wire, blockhouses and other fortified posts, held together by sturdy lines of communication. By ensuring that fleetfooted Boers would increasingly run out of ground across which to operate, the British sought to counter the skilful and evasive guerrilla tactics in which their opponents, such as De Wet and De la Rey, had become so expert.
Squeezed into inhospitable terrain and caught between British lines through which escape became more and more difficult, shrinking bands of commandos were harried remorselessly by Kitchener’s mounted columns, a strike force that at the beginning of 1902 consisted of well over 200 000 experienced troops.
To add to Boer woes, blacks on the southeastern and western fringes of the ZAR were turning on commandos seeking refuge on their lands, plundering provisions from homesteads and conscripting labour. Armed Zulu and Kgatla were growing increasingly sharp teeth. In April 1902 there was one ferocious confrontation in the southeast that had serious implications for the future of Boer fortunes. At Holkrantz near Vryheid a vengeful regiment of Zulu warriors fell upon a small commando camp, killing 56 burghers. It was an ominous indication of the deepening intensity of black resistance.
By early 1902 Britain’s unrelenting pursuit of the war and intensifying Boer misery began inevitably to sap the will of the republicans to continue so ruinous and unequal a struggle. True enough, a hard core of commandos, backed by militant women in the camps and elsewhere, were committed to keeping combatants in the field. With lands cleared, homes burned and families locked away in camps, what was there to be saved by a compromising surrender?
Others like Smuts’s close associate, the eloquent Deneys Reitz, perceived that the Boer cause was lost. Once a bitter bittereinder, with Smuts he had undertaken an epic commando trek deep into the Cape to assess prospects for prolonging the struggle. Reitz’s powerful account of his war experiences, Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War, is probably the finest soldiering memoir of the conflict, and one of the great classics oftwentieth-century war literature. In his painful view of early May 1902, there was nothing more that could be achieved by the remaining haggard commandos, short of clothes and equipment, and stumbling about in search of food.
By now, the Boers also had other nightmares to confront. Very high death rates for women and children in poorly run and unsanitary concentration camps appeared to threaten the very future of the Boer people. Awareness of such civilian suffering seriously eroded the morale of republican leaders. Then there was the deepening crisis of black hostility towards republican ownership and authority. Granted, the Boers could count on the loyalty of some personal farm dependants. But from the start of the war, black people had been collaborating with the British in ever-growing numbers, while high-handed and often brutal Boer conduct in the field towards blacks had gained them few friends.
As conditions in the republics worsened, rural black resistance and assaults on farming communities and even isolated commandos became more serious and widespread. This produced, in the words of peace-minded Boer officials in 1902, an unbearable condition of affairs in many districts of both their territories.
As if that threat were not bad enough, the number of Boers who had lost faith in their war effort was growing fast. The really wounding development was collaboration with the British. Giving up by abandoning their arms and surrendering as hensoppers to sit out the rest of the war as peaceful neutrals was one thing. It was regarded as cowardice. Switching sides by enlisting in British ranks as joiners (as they were contemptuously termed) was another thing altogether. It was viewed as faithless treachery.
Boers who took up service with British forces and became rural guards and National Scouts, turning out against their former republican compatriots, were treated as traitors by die-hard bittereinder republican patriots. By the end of hostilities, there were no more than around 17 000 bittereinders still in the field. About 5 500 Boers had been recruited as collaborators by the British. Among them was Piet de Wet, brother of Christiaan de Wet, one of the greatest Boer war heroes. In the last phase of the war, there was hardly a British column without its share of ex-commandos, teaching it the stealthy Boer way of war, such as muffling the hooves of horses. Like the black scouts and spies alongside them, they too had thrown in their lot with empire.
As searing divisions enveloped Boer society, coping with the burdening miseries of the war not only undermined the mood and allegiances of commandos. The challenge of continuing to fight and endure also affected relations between men on commando and Boer women. Much of the most militant anti-British resistance was sustained not merely by men but by nationalist Boer women. In farming areas, it was their domestic spaces that were invaded and wrecked by imperial forces, creating a sphere of female hatred and bitter resolve to continue resistance, despite the Orange Free State and ZAR being on their knees.
For the atrocities of scorched earth and the family sufferings of camp life created not merely cowering female victims but also female bittereinders, grimly determined to turn men from retreating or deserting and to stay in the patriotic fight. Indeed, there is an argument that the implacably hostile spirit of women more than matched that of more wavering male commandos, who at times had to be flogged into the front-line by their commandants or who would neglect duty to slip home to attend a cattle auction. In these uncertain circumstances, the moral fervour of irreconcilable women urging otherwise despondent men to stay in the battle was a notable element in sustaining resistance.