The Boer war was fought between Great Britain and the Boars of Transvaal (South Africa) and the nearby Orange Free State. The Boars demanded that Britain withdraw its troops who were protecting the many British citizens who had come to the country. After achieving initial success the Boers were defeated by reinforced British troops led by Field Marshal Frederick Marshalls..
The origins of the Boer War lie in the contestation for supremacy in South Africa, where both indigenous African groups and European settlers vied for control. The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1871 and gold in the Transvaal in the 1880s amplified the stakes. While the British Empire sought control over these resources and to consolidate its rule in the region, the Boers – descendants of Dutch settlers – wished to maintain their independence and control over their republics.
Tensions escalated in the late 1890s. A key precursor event was the Jameson Raid (1895-96), a botched attempt by British-backed forces to overthrow the Transvaal government. Instead of weakening the Boer position, the raid solidified Boer resistance against British imperialism.
The initial phase of the Boer War, stretching from October 1899 to roughly the start of 1900, was primarily conventional in nature. It involved large-scale movements of troops, traditional sieges, and pitched battles. This phase is a testament to the strategic planning, military traditions, and the importance of territory in war.
In the early stages of the conflict, the Boers managed to strike first and laid siege to British garrisons in towns such as Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking. These sieges would become central events in this phase of the war, capturing the attention of both the British public and the Empire. The Boers, making use of their superior local knowledge and using mobile mounted commando units, effectively put the more traditionally organized British forces on the back foot.
Yet, the British Empire was vast, with resources and manpower that the Boer Republics could not match. The Empire drew troops not just from Britain but also from its colonies, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. British reinforcements began arriving in large numbers, and under the leadership of commanders like Lord Roberts, the British adopted new strategies. They constructed long lines of blockhouses, fortified positions that sought to restrict the movement of the Boer forces and protect British supply lines.
By February 1900, the British had managed to relieve the sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith, and Mafeking. They continued their advance, capturing Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, in March. By June, they had taken Pretoria, the Transvaal capital. These victories seemed to signal that the war was heading towards a conclusive British victory. The British strategy, built on superior numbers and a vast supply network, had seemingly outmatched the Boer tactics of rapid movement and ambushes.
But as the British would soon realize, capturing towns and cities was one thing; controlling the vast South African veldt was quite another. By mid-1900, the nature of the war began to change dramatically, marking the end of its conventional phase.