Many of the soldiers who fought for the British Empire in World War I, including those in Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, were veterans of the Boer War, also known as the South African War or the Anglo-Boer War. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
What is the Boer War? It was two wars that occurred in South Africa involving the Boers, of Dutch decent, and the British.
The first war was in 1880-1881 and was a revolt by the Boers against British annexation of their territory, Transvaal. The war lasted less than a year and resulted in Britain controlling foreign affairs, and Transvaal controlling all internal affairs.
What Happened During the Second War?
The Second Boer War began in October 1899. The British fought against Transvaal and the Orange Free State in what is modern day South Africa.
Tensions began almost as soon as the First Boer War ended. Gold was discovered in Witwatersrand, and diamonds previously were discovered in Kimberly. Both discoveries brought a large number of foreigners into the region.
The number of foreigners soon was greater than the Boer population, and they demanded voting rights, something the British resisted.
Diplomatic negotiations failed to end the conflict peacefully.
The Boers were effective guerrilla fighters, a tactic they had used in the first war. To combat this, the British instituted a scorched-earth policy. Towns, farms and crops were burned, and livestock was killed. This strategy was meant to deprive the Boers of their food sources.
Women and children from the burnt settlements were put into concentration camps. Native Africans also were imprisoned because it was thought they might aid the Boers in finding food. It is estimated 48,000 people died in the concentration camps from malnutrition and disease.
The most heartbreaking case is perhaps that of Lizzie van Zyl who died of typhoid at age seven in 1901. She and her mother were imprisoned in a concentration camp and separated.
Lizzie was given the lowest amount of rations possible and, starving, was moved to a hospital. At the hospital, Lizzie repeatedly cried out for her mother, but the medical staff refused to comfort her and even label her as an idiot (a Victorian mental health diagnosis) for not speaking English.
Lizzie’s photo was taken and used in British propaganda as proof the Boers neglected their children.
Activist Emily Hobhouse, however, used the photo to bring attention to conditions in the camps.
“She was a frail, weak little child in desperate need of good care,” Hobhouse reported. “Yet, because her mother was one of the ‘undesirables’ due to the fact that her father neither surrendered nor betrayed his people, Lizzie was placed on the lowest rations and so perished with hunger that, after a month in the camp, she was transferred to the new small hospital.”
Canada and the Boer War
In Canada, the electorate was divided over whether the nation should participate. Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier devised a compromise: Canadians could volunteer, but they would be supplied and funded by the British. Nearly 7,400 volunteered and 270 died.
Soldiers from British dominions were used to enforce the scorched-earth policy. Canadians fought in four major battles – Paardeberberg, Zand River, Doornkop and Leliefontein. They would receive a reputation for bravery.
Dr. John McCrae, who would become famous for writing “In Flanders Fields” a decade and half later, is perhaps the most famous Canadian to serve in the Boer War.
Miscellaneous Facts about the Boer War
The war ended in May 1902 with a Boer surrender.
- The British fought alongside troops from Canada, Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand as well as those from the African colonies of Natal and Cape Colony.
- It was the longest, bloodiest war since the British fought Napoleon.
- More soldiers died of diseases such as typhoid than died from warfare.
- The war also marked the first time the British army wore khaki uniforms.
- The Boer War led directly to the formation of the Dominion of South Africa in 1910 composed of Transvaal, Orange River, Natal and Cape Colony.
Updated: 26 October 2020