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The Boer War, 1899-1902



Boer Prisoners of War arriving from the front

The background to the conflict

The causes of the Boer War go back to 1795, when Britain took over the Cape Colony from the Dutch and British troops started to arrive. At first the Dutch settlers, known as Boers, ignored their new governors and moved away from the administrative centres, they were fiercely independent and refused to accept any outside rule or influence. However, the British authorities began to follow the Boers and hostilities began to develop with the introduction of new laws, such as the order in 1823 for English to be adopted as the official language and the emancipation of British slaves in 1833. This second law struck the Boers deeply as it threatened their economic stability as their farms depended on free labour. Unhappy with British rule a large number of Boers began to move away from Cape Colony,  in 1852 the British conceded to allow Boers self government and thus the republic of Transvaal was born, with the Orange Free State following two years later. However, the Boers continued to bicker amongst themselves and with the discovery of diamonds in 1867, Britain annexed Transvaal. Anglo-Boer tensions continued to simmer throughout the second-half of the 19th century until the uprising of the Uitlander question caused the spark to ignite the Boer War.

The Utilander or outlander question began to arise in the 1880s. The Boers' fears of being swamped by the, mainly British, Utilanders during local elections led to the increased tensions. Coupled with this Cecil Rhodes, the British Prime Minister of the Cape Colony began to stir up dissent among the British Utilanders, in order to try to incorporate the Boer territories with the British to form one large, strong, British South African state. In 1898 came the final spark, a Boer policeman shot Tom Eggars, an unarmed British miner, however, the Boer policeman was found not guilty. This decision enraged the British Utilanders who sent a petition to Queen Victoria demanding equal political rights in a state where they formed the majority. This led to talks in May 1899 to try and solve the Utilander problem, however, the talks hit problems. Worrying that they didn't have enough military representation in the area Britain began to amass troops in South Africa, this led to an ultimatum from the Boers asking for the end of troop movements. The ultimatum was ignored and thus war was declared.

The conflict

October 1899 saw the British government issuing orders for the mobilisation of an Army Corps, consisting of three infantry Divisions and Corps troops, a cavalry Division and lines of Communication troops. The 2nd battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry were selected as part of the Communication troops. The 2nd battalion arrived at Cape Town on 20 November and proceeded to De Aar, an important railway junction on the direct line to Kimberley, a town under siege. By early December the battalion was moving toward Ladysmith to take part in an attempt to lift the siege, however, the military situation turned further against the British and any plan to relieve Ladysmith were postponed.

An ambulance carrying the sick away from the front

Early February saw a third attempt on the relief of Ladysmith. The operation lasted a week and was unsuccessful; the 2nd battalion covered the army's retreat back across the Tugela River. A fourth attempt and luckily the final attempt began towards the end of February. Attention was turned to the east where the Tugela River, in a great loop, cut the Boer defences. A pontoon bridge was built over the River and the 2nd battalion were given the honour of leading the advance. At 2 pm on the 21 February the battalion crossed the river and immediately ran into trouble; the battalion occupied a front of about a mile, which lay upon an open plain totally devoid of cover. About a thousand yards in front of the line lay the lower slopes of Grobelaar's Kloof that held the enemy. The Boers were fighting from well-defended positions that soon brought the British attack to a standstill. For four days the British continued to bombard Grobelaar's Kloof, loosing 1,200 men in the process. Buller then shifted his attentions to the right and began to press the advantage that lay there. In just under twenty-four hours, on the 27 February, the Boer line was broken and the road to Ladysmith was open.

After the relief of Ladysmith and the town of Kimberley the nature of the war changed, things were finally moving in favour of the British. Mafeking, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria all came under British control and in July 4,000 Boers surrendered in the Orange Free State. It appeared to most, on both sides, that the war was over. However, with the British occupying all the major towns the Boer forces split up and took to the countryside, to continually harass the British using guerrilla tactics.  The British army adopted a system of marching and countermarching, trying to anticipate where the next attack would come from.

The Somersets were split between two infantry columns in early 1900 and also supplied two companies of Mounted Infantry who took part in some attacking manoeuvres in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. The main action the 2nd battalion saw, after the successful lifting of the siege of Ladysmith, was the De Wet Hunt. De Wet was a Boer Commando General operating in the Orange Free State, he managed to escape an encircling net which was laid for him by Kitchener, the new commander of the South African forces; this meant that a column of British forces were tied up with trying to track him down. In two months the column marched 560 miles without any sighting of the enemy.

In May 1902 peace terms were finally agreed and the British soldiers were congratulated in bringing the war to a successful end. The Somersets won two more battle honours, the Relief of Ladysmith and South Africa 1899-1902 along with the South Africa medal.

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