South Africa 1899-1902

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The Boer War, which lasted from October 1899 to May 1902, was one of the longest and most costly, both financially and in terms of casualties and the reputation of the British army, between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. The conflict was caused by Boer resentment at British encroachments from the Cape and Natal provinces on their two sturdily independent republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Particularly after the discovery of huge gold and diamond deposits around Johannesburg triggered an inrush of foreign ‘Uitlander’ immigration which threatened to disrupt the Boers’ chiefly pastoral way of life. There were three phases of the war, the first from October 1899 to February 1900, consisted of the Boer advance into Natal and Cape Colony, and the three sieges of British-held Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking. These were held by Robert Baden-Powell with great ingenuity and finally relieved amidst mass British rejoicing. This first phase was marked by three British columns all being defeated in one ‘Bloody Week’ at the battles of Colenso, Magersfontein and Stromberg. Another British defeat followed at Spion Kop. After the incompetent British commander Sir Redvers Buller was replaced by the efficient Roberts and the ruthless Sir H.H. Kitchener, the second phase, from February to July 1900, consisted of successful British advances into the Boer republics and their annexation. At this point the war was thought to be over, but the third phase which began in August 1900 and lasted for 20 months, was one of continued guerrilla warfare, carried out by Boer flying columns ‘commandos’ on horseback under the leadership of gifted commanders such as Botha, Smuts, De Wet and De Rey, with numerous small but bitter engagements fought over a very wide area. Only when the British resorted to economic warfare, the destruction of crops and farms and the herding of Boer civilians into ‘concentration camps’ where thousands died of disease and malnutrition did the Boers surrender.