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The full text of the 1912 book A History of the British Nation by AD Innes
 
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The Boer War

From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912


The surrender of General Cronje at Paardeberg, from a photograph, by permission of the \'Graphic\'
The surrender of General Cronje at Paardeberg, from a photograph, by permission of the 'Graphic'

[Ed. See the previous article for a look at the events leading up to the outbreak of war]

The British Government entered on the struggle upon the basis of a huge miscalculation. There appears to have been a general impression that the Boers, on a liberal estimate, could not put as many as thirty thousand efficient men in the field, and that thirty thousand farmers armed with rifles would by no means be a match for fifty thousand British regulars armed with superior artillery.

As a matter of fact the two republics could take the field with armies numbering not far short of eighty thousand; and for years past the Transvaal had been utilising the wealth extracted from the gold-mines to accumulate war-stores and to purchase guns which com­pletely outranged those of the British. Their forces were exceedingly mobile, being almost entirely mounted infantry, amply provided with horses which were accustomed to the country, while they themselves were consummate horse-masters and dead shots. Moreover, the strategical advantages enjoyed by the Boers were immense.

Their frontier was an elongated semicircle guarded by mountain ranges exceedingly difficult for regular troops to penetrate; while they themselves, holding the interior lines, could with great rapidity transfer large masses of troops from point to point" of the frontier, an operation entirely impossible for the British. Also at the moment chosen for the declaration of war the British regular troops, of which the great bulk were merely infantry, numbered not much more than twenty thousand men; and, for political reasons, two-thirds of these had been massed with complete disregard of strategical considerations at Ladysmith and Dundee in the northern angle cf Natal.

On the opposite side of the Orange Free State a strong garrison held Kimberley, the centre of the diamond mines, and to the north of Kimberley, on the Transvaal frontier, Colonel Baden-Powell was at Mafeking with some nine hundred combatants under his command - volunteers and irregulars. Other points at the south were held by Generals French and Gatacre, but co-operation between these various forces was quite impossible.

Though the Boer commanders showed no little ability in the field, their conceptions of strategy were happily of an elementary character. The sound policy for them would have been to leave containing forces sufficient to check active operations from Ladysmith and Kimberley, and to strike at once in force at the Cape itself, a policy which, with the greatly superior numbers which they controlled at the outset, would have been entirely practicable. An invasion of the Cape would probably have brought to their standard large numbers of the dis­affected Cape Dutch, and the British would in that case have had to reconquer the Cape itself. Instead of this, however, the Boers concentrated their energies upon the sieges of Ladysmith, of Kimberley, and of Mafeking.

At the very outset it became obvious that the British position at Glencoe near Dundee was untenable. By October 26th the force there had effected its retreat to Ladysmith, where the army remained shut up for four months. In November reinforcements arrived at the Cape under command of General Buller. The fact that Mr Rhodes was at Kimberley had been extremely useful, because it had filled the Boers with an intense desire to capture that post and the person of the man whom they regarded as their arch enemy; so that Kimberley for them acquired a wholly fictitious importance.

General Buller decied that both Ladysmith and Kimberley must be relieved; he himself undertook the campaign on the east, while that on the west was entrusted to lord Methuen. The Boers contented themselves with occupying the ground beyond the Tugela, blocking the way to Ladysmith, while advanced forces were thrown out from the neighbourhood of Kimberley to block the progress of Lord Methuen.

Magersfontein
In the second week in December came a series of disastyrs. After a sharp struggle, Methuen forced the passage of the Modder River, and on the night of the 10th he attempted to surprise the Boer General Cronje in the strongly entrenched position which he occupied at Magersfontein. The task was entrusted to the Highland Brigade. But the Highlanders advancing in the dark in close order, which in a night attack must be preserved till the last moment, reached the enemy's lines before they knew they had done so.

Suddenly, without warning, a storm of fire belched forth from the Boer entrenchments; in three minutes six hundred of the Highlanders had fallen. They broke, only to rally the moment they reached cover, but an advance was impossible. Though reinforcements presently arrived, to carry the entrenchments by a frontal attack was out of the question. The advance to the relief of Kimberley was completely blocked. On the previous day General Gatacre in the south had attempted to strike at a Boer force which was at last invading Cape Colony. His force was cut in two at Stormberg, and six hundred British soldiers became prisoners of war. In the east on the 15th Buller attempted the passage of the Tugela, and was repulsed with heavy loss at Colenso. The whole offensive movement was entirely paralysed.

The "black week" aroused the nation to the consciousness of the immensity of the task which it had undertaken, but with grim determination it resolved to carry it through. The call to arms met with an eager response not only in the British Isles but from Canada and from Australasia. The veteran Lord Roberts, the hero of the Afghan War, was despatched to take the supreme command, having as his Chief of Staff Lord Kitchener, who had achieved the highest reputation by the reconquest of the Soudan, of which the story will presently be told.

Spionkop
It was not till the second week in February that Lord Roberts was ready to put his new plan of campaign in operation. In the meantime Ladysmith had been subjected to a fierce attack, beaten off with dogged valour. Again General Buller had carried a large force across the Tugela to storm and carry the Boer position at Spionkop - for it would seem that at the end of the day the Boers believed that the British were established on the crest, and were preparing to beat a retreat. But so deadly had the struggle been that the exceptionally gallant officer, who had taken the command when General Woodgate fell mortally wounded, believed that the position was wholly untenable; and it was the British, not the Boers who retreated. Yet Ladysmith still held out with grim resolution, Kimberley defied its besiegers in the west, while the lively and resourceful defence of Mafeking gave even a flavour of comedy to the great tragedy.

Battle of Paardeberg
From the moment of the opening of Roberts' campaign the tide turned completely. Buller was left to fight his way to Ladysmith, but except for this the whole of the now large force collected in South Africa was to be engaged in a sweeping movement of invasion, taking Kimberley by the way. While attention was concentrated on the advance of the main army, General French, with a strong column of cavalry, was despatched on a race by a more easterly route to ensure the envelopment of the Boers before Kimberley. On the fourth day the siege was raised. The besiegers made a dash for the gap which the slower movements of Roberts with his infantry force had not yet closed up. But one British detachment was able to hang on the rear of the retreating Cronje, while the cavalry again issuing from Kimberley headed him off the line on which he was retiring. At Paardeberg Cronje was trapped after a furious fight, and in spite of the obstinacy with which he held out in a position elaborately entrenched, his whole force was reduced to surrender nine days after the battle of Paardeberg, on February 27th.

Relief of Mafeking
While these successful operations were being carried on in the western theatre, Buller had at last found a practicable line of advance. This time the turning movement was successful, and on the day after Cronje's surrender the Boers were on the retreat from before Ladysmith. In seventeen days the entire aspect of the war had been changed. A fortnight later Lord Roberts was in Bloemfontein. A great epidemic of typhoid delayed further operations until May 1st, when the march upon Pretoria began. On May 17 Mafeking was relieved, a piece of intelligence which sent the entire population at home temporarily off its head. On June 5th Lord Roberts was in Pretoria.

Diamond Hill
The sweeping advance met with occasional resistance, but the Boers were unable to attempt a pitched battle. Still, however, a detached force of Free-Staters, generally commanded by Christian De Wet, carried on perpetual raids upon the British ccmmunications and snapped up isolated detachments; while the rapidity of De Wet's movements and the completeness of his information enabled him to evade pursuit. President Kruger had himself departed from Pretoria, but his official Government and the Transvaal army were still in being. A severe defeat was inflicted on this force at Diamond Hill on June 11th, which may be regarded as the last pitched battle of the war. And yet it was not till September that Mr. Kruger had so far despaired of the republic that he withdrew to the coast and took ship for Europe.

Lord Roberts, with a somewhat premature optimism, was able to announce that the war was practically over, and departed, leaving Lord Kitchener to complete the subjugation of the rebels who still remained in arms - rebels in the exceedingly technical sense that they were in arms against the power which had formally proclaimed its sovereignty. The chief political authority was still in the hands of Sir Alfred, who had now become Viscount Milner. At home Lord Salisbury took the opportunity for appealing to the country by a dissolution, when the electorate definitely pronounced that the work of settling South Africa should be completed by the Government which had entered upon the war. The attitude of a section of the Liberal party had produced an impression that whatever might be the sins and shortcomings of the Unionists it would be dangerous to entrust the government to a party which was suspected of an unpatriotic sympathy with the country's enemies. The Unionist majority after the general election still stood at 130.

Yet for another eighteen months the war remained particularly lively. The Boer leaders, so long as they were able to maintain a guerilla warfare, declined to consider themselves beaten or to accept anything short of that complete sovereign independence for which they had been fighting from the beginning. The brilliant audacity and resourcefulness of several leaders, and, above all, of the ubiquitous and irrepressible De Wet, inspired the hearty admiration of the British; while the conduct of many of the farm people, who acted as combatants or non-combatants according to the convenience of the moment, kept alive an acute irritation.

Concentration camps
The severities involved were angrily denounced; and while the population was to a great extent gathered into "concentration camps" by the British Government, and there maintained and kept in security, fictitious stories of British brutality were freely circulated and believed all over the European Continent. From first to last, however, one fact had been conspicuous. While the press of nearly all Europe united in denouncing the British, the Powers had recognised the futility of any intervention in a war which would involve fighting not with British armies but with British fleets. The British command of the sea was so decisive that the Powers, whatever their inclinations might be, had no choice but to leave the Boer States to take care of themselves. {Ed. The concept of concentration camps as developed by Britain in the Boer War was later adapted by Hitler in WWII]

End of the War
Meanwhile Lord Kitchener, with imperturbable persistency, drew the lines of his block-houses across the country until he had at last formed an impenetrable net, pressing ever closer and closer upon the Boers, who still fought on until at last that indomitable people recognised that extermination was the only alternative to submission. In March 1902 they opened negotiations, which were conducted on behalf of the British with unfailing tact and firmness by Lord Kitchener. On May 31st the provisional government signed the treaty which terminated the war.

The republics were incorporated in the British Empire, in the first instance as Crown colonies, but with the promise or at least the hope that before long they might be placed in the same position as the colonies which enjoyed responsible government Great Britain provided them with £3,000,000 in order to establish them on a. working financial basis; and the use of the Dutch language was to be permitted in the schools and law courts. Broadly speaking, it was resolved that the conquered states should not be treated as subject nationalities which must be kept in subjection with a strong hand; the way was prepared instead for accepting them as free and loyal denizens of the British Empire.



This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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