Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The South African War

The war was the greatest challenge to British Imperial power since the Indian Mutiny. It was the most extensive and costly war fought by Britain between the defeat of Napoleon and the First World War. It pitted almost 450,000 imperial troops against 87,000 republican burghers (the Boers) and foreign volunteers, only half of whom were in the field at any time. It cost Britain £230 million, resulted in the deaths (mainly from disease) of some 22,000 soldiers on the British side, about 34,000 Boer civilians and combatants and an unknown number of Africans. But fewer British troops fell in the thirty-one months of conflict than fell in the first thirty-one minutes of the Somme.

The war had many modern characteristics. Though the bioscope, invented four years before, music-hall audiences could see moving pictures from South Africa. The war also saw a vast outpouring of stories and poems from writers like Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace. The war correspondent came into his own – Churchill filed reports for the Morning Post, and used his experiences to launch his political career. For the first time generals knew they had to have a good relationship with the press corps. Press ‘spin’ created a war hero in the person of Baden-Powell. The war was wildly popular (at first) though there was a sizeable anti-war press: the Manchester Guardian, the Morning Star and (from 1901) the Daily News.

Click here to listen to an audio of a 1901 performance of 'Goodbye, Dolly Gray'.

Britain’s earlier colonial wars – Mahdist (Sudanese), Zulu, Asante, and Afghan – were no preparation for the sort of war she faced in South Africa. The Boers were mobile and resourceful, excellent shots and horsemen, were fighting (without a uniform) in territory they knew, and were well armed. Though they were portrayed as plucky farmers fighting a great empire, they harboured their own imperialist ambitions. On 4 September 1899 Jan Smuts (left) ent a top secret memorandum to the Transvaal Executive:
‘South Africa stands on the eve of a frightful blood-bath out of which our Volk shall come … either as … hewers of wood and drawers of water for a hated race, or as victors, founders of a United South Africa, of one of the great empires of the world … an Afrikaans republic in South Africa stretching from Table Bay to the Zambezi.’
Lord Salisbury, the prime minister who presided over the war, had a deep hatred for war: ‘a horrible and barbarous thing’. But he had formed a low opinion of the Boers since he came into contact with them in Cape Town in 1851:
‘as degraded a set of savages as any white men in the world: many of them can’t read – few of them can write’.
He had felt humiliated by Gladstone’s concessions after the British defeat at Majuba Hill in the First Boer War.

The war produced great bitterness in British domestic politics, dividing the nation in the same way that the Dreyfus affair divided France. ‘Pro-Boer’ became a term of abuse, and the queen declared herself
‘shocked at the shameful want of patriotism of the Opposition’.
Victorian regard for individual liberty meant that conscription was out of the question so the whole war was fought on a volunteer basis. As they embarked for South Africa troops were handed Songs for England, the war poetry of Alfred Austin.

The first phase
In the first phase of the war the Boers took the offensive by invading Cape Colony and Natal Colony between October 1899 and January 1900. The British fell back on the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley, which were besieged by the Boers. In ‘Black Week’ (10-15 December, 1899) Britain suffered a series of devastating losses at Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colenso. At Magersfontein the Boer general Koos de la Rey devised a plan to dig trenches in an unconventional place to fool the British and give his riflemen a greater firing range. The result was the loss of nearly 1,000 British soldiers to the Boers’ fifty.

These disasters wrong-footed the government though at the close of Black Week the queen famously told Balfour:
‘We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat’.
Sir Redvers Buller was superseded as chief commander and replaced by Field Marshal Lord Roberts, with Kitchener as his second in command. Roberts gave orders to Buller that he was to do nothing until they had arrived, but Buller attempted one last chance of a victory. On 24 January 1900 the disastrous battle of Spion Kop was fought under the incompetent command of Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Warren (the police commissioner who had failed to catch Jack the Ripper or prevent Bloody Sunday). The East Lancs Regiment were ordered to halt on the wrong hill peak in thick fog, where they were massacred on three sides. The next day the Boers photographed the British dead on the battlefield and published the pictures all over the world.

Some of the British survivors went to a football match to see Liverpool play. At the rear of one of the goals was a hill that reminded them of Spion Kop. The rest is well known.

The pro-Boers
Although there were moves to impeach the War Secretary, Lord Lansdowne, and there were fierce exchanges in the Lords between Salisbury and Rosebery, the Liberal leader, the government was in no danger for the Liberal Opposition was bitterly divided. The leaders of the pro-Boer faction were Harcourt, Morley, Labouchere, and Lloyd George. Behind them was a network of radical, labour, and trade union organizations, and the anti-war cause drew some liberals closer to labour. The journalist W T Stead was the leading light of the Stop-the-War Committee. Altogether, some 60-70 Liberal MPs were ‘pro-Boer’, but about the same number were Liberal Imperialists, led by Rosebery. Josephine Butler broke with her fellow radical Liberals when she supported British policy in South Africa. The Liberal spokesman in the Commons, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) attempted to steer a middle cause. He found it impossible to defend Kruger’s violent overthrow of Gladstone’s post Majuba settlement and he was wary of attacking the war when British troops were dying.

The second phase
In February 1900 reinforcements arrived in South Africa under Lord Roberts and the fortunes of war changed. The British then advanced into the two republics. On 18 February General Cronje was surrounded by Roberts at Paardeburg in the Orange Free State and he surrendered, with his 4,000 starving men, nine days later. On 28 February Buller relieved Ladysmith (idealized here by the artist John Henry Frederick Bacon) from its four month siege. This was generally seen as a turning of the tide. Schoolchildren were given a half day’s holiday, Stock Exchange trading was suspended and Kruger was burned in effigy. Bloemfontein was captured on 13 March.

At Mafeking Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’s small contingent, which included Salisbury’s son, Lord Edward Cecil, continued to beat off Boer attacks. With 700 regular troops and 300 local volunteers, 1,000 white civilians and 7,000 non-combatant natives, Boer troops were tied down for seven months. By the use of homing pigeons and African runners they anaged to keep in regular touch with the outside world, and as the months passed, they gradually learned that they were becoming national heroes. On 17 May Mafeking was relieved after a 217 day siege. At 9.20 the same night the Lord Mayor announced the news at the Mansion House. That night millions of people emptied onto the streets of London. Churchill later believed that the crowds were greater than in 1918, Rebecca West that they were greater than in 1945. On 5 June Pretoria was captured. Kruger fled to Portuguese and Dutch protection and formal resistance ended. (He was taken to the Netherlands in a Dutch ship and died in exile in Switzerland in 1904. His body was brought back to Pretoria for burial. His house in Pretoria is now a museum.)

Many British observers now believed that the war was all but over. By September both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal had been annexed as colonies of the British Crown. Roberts returned to England leaving Kitchener in charge.

The ‘khaki election’

At home the ‘khaki election’ was called and was fought between 28 September and 24 October. Chamberlain’s campaign showed a determination to capitalize on patriotic fervour. The principal slogan of the election was:
‘A seat lost by the Government is a seat gained by the Boers’.
However, the extent to which the campaign was dominated by the war has been exaggerated. Liberal pro-Boers did not perform significantly better than Liberal Imperialists. The Unionists gained over 51.1% of the UK vote (1,797,444) to the Liberals’ 44.6% (1,568,141), the Irish Nationalists’ 2.5% (90,076) and the Labour Representation Committee 63,304 (1.8%). For the first time since Palmerston in 1865 an incumbent government had won a general election, even though their overall majority fell by 16 seats, and the general turn-out was down (74.6%). Churchill won Oldham from the Liberals, but on a swing of only 6%, which was just enough to gain the seat.

Salisbury, who distrusted the jingoism of the electorate and the democracy that had given him three landslide victories, constructed an administration full of his family and associates. His nephew Arthur Balfour was First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the Commons; another nephew was President of the Board of Trade; his son-in-law was First Lord of the Admiralty and his eldest son Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. In the Lords Rosebery ironically congratulated Salisbury
‘on being the head of a family with the most remarkable genius for administration that has ever been known’.
The radical Liberal Labouchere dubbed the new administration the ‘Hotel Cecil’

The third phase
In the third phase of the war, the Boer commanders abandoned conventional engagements and waged the first of the twentieth century’s anti-colonial guerrilla wars, attacking telegraph wires and railroads. These new tactics changed the strategy of the war and made the traditionally large British military formations ineffective.

In March 1901 Kitchener, devised a scorched earth policy that eventually led to the destruction of 30,000 farmhouses and about 40 small towns. He also built 8,000 blockhouses linked by 3,700 miles of barbed wire in a defensive line that eventually stretched for over 4,000 miles, from which they conducted ‘sweeps’ across the veldt in an attempt to trap and isolate the enemy. Eventually over half the Boer male population of military age had been taken prisoner.

The concentration camps

The civilian population were rounded into concentration camps – a term which did not then carry its later malign meaning. Once the harsh policy of homestead burning was adopted, there was often no alternative accommodation on the veldt, and British commanders saw the policy as a humane alternative to leaving the Boer women to ‘be insulted or molested by natives’. A total of 45 tented camps were built for Boer internees and 64 for black Africans. The Boer camps held mainly the elderly, women and children. Attendance was largely voluntary, though in practice most of the internees had nowhere else to go. Voluntary schools were established in the camps and nearly twice as many Boer children received regular schooling received schooling during the war than before it. But the overcrowded conditions, poor diet and inadequate hygiene (often owing to the Boers’ own lack of sanitary knowledge) led to a large number of deaths – about 4,000 Boer adults and 16,000 children (25% of the inmates) and 12% of the black Africans died (though the African statistics are unreliable).

See here for an Afrikaner version of this story.

Between December 1900 and May 1901 Emily Hobhouse (1860-1926) visited the camps on behalf of the Women and Children’s Distress Fund, and her exposure of the conditions received wide publicity: she described what she saw as ‘crass male ignorance, stupidity, helplessness, and muddling’. But she also found that the conditions in the camps varied, depending on such factors as the superintendence, supply of fuel and water, and the date the camps were constructed.

In June 1901 she met Campbell-Bannerman. Following this meeting, on 14 June, he delivered a speech to the National Reform Union at the Holborn Restaurant before a predominantly pro-Boer audience, which included Harcourt and Morley:
‘A phrase often used was that “war is war”, but when one came to ask about it, one was told that no war was going on, that it was not war. When was a war not a war? When it was carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa’.
This led to a press uproar. On 17 June Lloyd George accused the government of ‘a deliberate and settled policy’ of ‘extermination’. Outraged, the Liberal Imperialists threatened secession from the party and on 20 June Asquith publicly rebuked his leader. One insider described it as ‘war to the knife and fork’ within the Liberal Party. Speaking in the Commons, Lloyd George declared:
‘A war of annexation against a proud people must be a war of extermination … the savagery that follows will stain the name of this country.’
It was a common feature of pro-Boer propaganda not only to accuse the British army of deliberate cruelty – a tactic that delighted the Irish nationalists - but also to idealize the enemy. The Boers were presented as courageous and simple farming people and set in opposition to the shady Jewish speculators of Johannesburg.

Between August and December 1901 the all-female Fawcett Commission, headed by the suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, visited the (white) camps, confirmed Emily Hobhouse’s findings, and made some useful recommendations (such as the sterilization of linen). In November 1901 Salisbury ordered a relaxation of the farm-burning policy.

By this time the ruthless British tactics were slowly working and the Boer ‘bitter-enders’ came to realize the futility of further resistance. The British too were wearying of the war – even the Primrose League Gazette reported the feeling in the working-class areas that the war ought to have been over by now.

The Treaty of Vereeniging
The Boers signed the treaty of Vereeniging (at Melrose House, Pretoria) on 31 May 1902 and formally recognized the British annexation of the two republics. But it was not a total defeat for the Boers. The British had not gained total predominance in South Africa and it was widely recognized that the Afrikaners would have to be incorporated into an eventual political settlement. English was to be the official language, but Afrikaans was to be taught in schools if the parents wished it, and to be allowed in the law courts; the British government was to grant £3m towards rebuilding and restocking farms. By the time the treaty was signed the British had largely lost interest in a war that in its last phase was costing the government £1.5m a week and forcing large increases in duties and income tax. The politicians, too, tried to forget it. The Conservatives had presided incompetently over its conduct and the Liberals had exposed their deep divisions.

Reconstruction and Unification
Now based in the Transvaal, Milner embarked on the post-war reconstruction of a devastated country. He was assisted by a group of young Oxford graduates known as his ‘Kindergarten’. The most serious grievances of the mine magnates were removed and an efficient bureaucracy was established. His policy of bringing in white people of British descent to outnumber the Boers failed as the British preferred to go to Canada or Australia. But the acute shortage of African labour was resolved by the importation of 60,000 Chinese, despite the bitter opposition of white workers. By the time he left in 1905 he had established the infrastructure for the development of the modern South African state.

After the war the Boer landlords were encouraged to return to their farms and African hopes of land redistribution were dashed. They were effectively disarmed, systematically taxed for the first time, forced into segregated areas and denied the vote. The foundations of apartheid were laid during British rule.

By 1906-7 the British were sufficiently confident of the new order they had established to grant self-governing institutions to white males. In 1910 in accordance with the Union of South Africa Act of the previous year, South Africa was incorporated fully into the British Empire with the conciliatory Louis Botha as Prime Minister; power was devolved to the white minority in a Boer-dominated union.