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This Day in History – The Boer War [video]

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The Second Boer War (DutchTweede BoerenoorlogAfrikaansTweede Vryheidsoorlog, “Second Freedom War”), known variously as the Boer WarAnglo-Boer WarSouth African War or Anglo-Boer South African War, started on 11 October 1899 and ended on 31 May 1902. Britain defeated two Boer states in South Africa: the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. Britain was aided by its Cape Colony, the Colony of Natal and some native African allies. The British war effort was further supported by volunteers from the British Empire, including Southern Africa, the Australian colonies, Canada, India and New Zealand. All other nations were neutral, but public opinion in them was largely hostile to Britain. Inside Britain and its Empire there also was significant opposition to the Second Boer War, including by the future Distributist group around GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

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Britain was overconfident and under-prepared. The Boers were very well armed and struck first, besieging LadysmithKimberley, and Mafeking in early 1900, and winning important battles at Colenso, Magersfontein and Stormberg. Staggered, Britain brought in large numbers of soldiers and fought back. General Redvers Buller was replaced by Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener. They relieved the three besieged cities, and invaded the two Boer republics in late 1900. The onward marches of the British Army were so overwhelming that the Boers did not fight staged battles in defense of their homeland. Britain quickly seized control of all of the Orange Free State and Transvaal, as the civilian leadership went into hiding or exile. In conventional terms, the war was over. Britain officially annexed the two countries in 1900, and called a “khaki election” to give the government another six years of power in London.

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However, the Boers refused to surrender. They reverted to guerrilla warfare under new generals Louis BothaJan SmutsChristiaan de Wet and Koos de la Rey. Two more years of surprise attacks and quick escapes followed. As guerrillas without uniforms, the Boer fighters easily blended into the farmlands, which provided hiding places, supplies, and horses. Britain’s solution was to set up complex nets of block houses, strong points, and barbed wire fences, partitioning off the entire conquered territory. The civilian farmers were relocated into concentration camps, where very large proportions died of disease, especially the children, who mostly lacked immunities. Then Britain’s mounted infantry units systematically tracked down the highly mobile Boer guerrilla units. The battles at this stage were small operations with few combat casualties (most of the dead were victims of disease.) The war ended in surrender and British terms at the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902. The British successfully won over the Boer leaders, who now gave full support to the new political system. Both former republics were incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1910, which Boers controlled.

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