Britain was in its zenith in the Edwardian period. The British controlled the world’s greatest empire. Both the army and navy were enormous. British grandeur and greatness were universally acknowledged. The Scramble for Africa was ‘won’ by Britain with other European nations trailing in her footsteps. British control in Africa extended from Cairo to Cape Town. The first Boer War lasted a few months* but the signs of opposition were clear and continuing. The Boers were going to resist the further expansion of the British Empire on ‘their’ territory.
The second Boer War (1899-1902) was not a triumph for Britain. The Boers, a quasi-European nation, fought Britain to a standstill. Coming shortly after the tactical and technological triumph** at the battle of Omdurman (1898) Lord Kitchener had been confident that the Boers would be defeated. If the Boers had fought battles familiar to his officers they would indeed have been quickly defeated. The Boer belief in God didn’t extend to believing that He’d intervene on their side on the battlefield unlike the Mahdi troops at Omdurman. The Mahdi didn’t change their tactics, unlike the Boers, and suffered a crushing defeat.
The Boers fielded about 88,000 men and were opposed by half a million imperial*** troops. As predicted they were heading for defeat fighting a European style war against a superior enemy. Their tactical change to guerrilla warfare completely altered the dynamics of the war. 125 years earlier during the American War of Independence the British had faced these tactics and performed badly. Kitchener was a ruthless soldier and decided to attack the civilian population.
Kitchener’s scorched earth policy attacked every part of Boer society. The intention was starve the Boer nation into submission by destroying their food supplies. (The Soviet scorched earth tactic deprived the Nazi invaders of a local food supply meaning that supplies had to be brought from Germany, creating a logistical nightmare). Kitchener’s destruction of the land included ‘salting’ so that recovery to fertility would take a very long time. Additionally British troops poisoned wells making entire areas uninhabitable, driving the population away and depriving Boer guerrilla forces of sustenance. Finally Kitchener made the cost of opposing British rule completely intolerable with British troops burning down homesteads. So where did the destitute starving population go?
Lord Kitchener continued the war against women, children and black labourers with concentration camps. These camps were not Nazi death camps but were an extremely hostile environment with about 26,000 dying. The numbered 26,000 people were white: Additionally there were uncounted black victims. White and black alike died from starvation, disease and medical neglect. An entire nation was targeted for forced displacement. Kitchener took it that a guerrilla war meant that the nation had risen against Britain and so the entire nation should pay the price. Kitchener didn’t leave it there.
Static control positions along railway lines and the sub-division of the veldt with barbed wire constrained free movement. Psychological warfare, emotional terror tactics and starvation of the Boer guerrilla forces forced a peace. The Boers were defeated. British control of South Africa was firmly established and this was the final great imperial war prior to the dissolution of the empire in the 1950s and 60s. The Boers were defeated and Kitchener’s tactics opened up new frontiers in the horrors of war. This is Kitchener’s military legacy.
**Kitchener slaughtered the Mahdi troops with machine guns when they did full frontal attacks.
***Imperial troops means white troops from Australia, Canada and New Zealand.