Antiqua Print Gallery First Boer War
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First Boer War

The First Boer War (Dutch: Eerste Boerenoorlog, Afrikaans: Eerste Vryheidsoorlog, literally First Freedom War) also known as the First Anglo-Boer War or the Transvaal War, was fought from 16 December 1880 until 23 March 1881.

Outbreak of War

With the defeat of the Zulus, and the Pedi, the Transvaal Boers were able to give voice to the growing resentment against the 1877 British annexation of the Transvaal and complained that it had been a violation of the Sand River Convention of 1852, and the Bloemfontein Convention of 1854.
Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, after returning briefly to India, finally took over as Governor of Natal, Transvaal, High Commissioner of S.E.Africa and Military Commander in July 1880. Multiple commitments prevented Colley from visiting the Transvaal where he knew many of the senior Boers. Instead he relied on reports from the Administrator, Sir Owen Lanyon, who had no understanding of the Boer mood or capability. Belatedly Lanyon asked for troop reinforcements in December 1880 but was overtaken by events.
The Boers on 16 December 1880 revolted and took action at Bronkhorstspruit against a British column of the 94th Foot, who were returning to reinforce Pretoria.

1880-81 War

After Transvaal formally declared independence from the United Kingdom, the war began on 16 December 1880 with shots fired by Transvaal Boers at Potchefstroom. It led to the action at Bronkhorstspruit on 20 December 1880, where the Boers ambushed and destroyed a British Army convoy. From 22 December 1880 to 6 January 1881, British army garrisons all over the Transvaal became besieged.
Although generally called a war, the actual engagements were of a relatively minor nature considering the few men involved on both sides and the short duration of the combat, lasting some ten weeks of sporadic action.
The fiercely independent Boers had no regular army. When danger threatened, all the men in a district would form a militia organized into military units called commandos and would elect officers. Being civilian militia, each man wore what they wished, usually everyday neutral or earthtone khaki farming clothes such as a jacket, trousers and slouch hat. Each man brought his own weapon, usually a hunting rifle, and his own horses. The average Boer citizens who made up their commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working life in the saddle, and because they had to depend on both their horse and their rifle for almost all of their meat, they were skilled hunters and expert marksmen. Most of the Boers had single-shot breech loading rifle such as the Westley Richards, the Martini-Henry, or the Remington Rolling Block. Only a few had repeaters like the Winchester or the Swiss Vetterli. As hunters they had learned to fire from cover, from a prone position and to make the first shot count, knowing that if they missed the game would be long gone. At community gatherings, there often held target shooting competitions using targets such as hens eggs perched on posts over 100 yards away. The Boer commandos made for expert light cavalry, able to use every scrap of cover from which they could pour accurate and destructive fire at the British with their breech loading rifles.
The British infantry uniforms at that date were red jackets, blue trousers with red piping to the side, white pith helmets and pipe clayed equipment, a stark contrast to the African landscape. The Highlanders wore the kilt. The standard infantry weapon was the Martini Henry single shot breech loading rifle with a long sword bayonet. Gunners of the Royal Artillery wore blue jackets. This enabled the Boer marksmen to easily snipe at British troops from a distance. The Boers carried no bayonet leaving them at a substantial disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided so far as possible. Drawing on years of experience of fighting frontier skirmishes, they relied more on mobility, stealth, marksmanship and initiative while the British emphasized the traditional military values of command, discipline, formation and synchronized firepower. The average British soldier was not trained to be a marksman and got little target practice. What shooting training British soldiers had was mainly as a unit firing in volleys on command.
At the first battle at Bronkhorstspruit, Lieutenant-Colonel Anstruther and 120 men of the 94th Foot (Connaught Rangers) were dead or wounded by Boer fire within minutes of the first shots. Boer losses totalled 2 killed and 5 wounded. This mainly Irish regiment was marching westwards towards Pretoria, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Anstruther, when halted by a Boer commando group. Its leader, Piet Joubert, ordered Anstruther and the column to turn back stating that the territory was now again a Boer Republic and therefore any further advance by the British would be deemed an act of war. Anstruther refused and ordered that ammunition be distributed. The Boers opened fire and the ambushed British troops were annihilated. With the majority of his troops dead or wounded, the dying Anstruther ordered surrender.
The Boer uprising caught by surprise the six small British forts scattered around Transvaal, housing some 2,000 troops between them, including irregulars with as few as fifty men at Lydenburg in the east where Anstruther had just left. Being isolated and with so few troops all the forts could do was prepare for sieges, and wait to be relieved. The other five forts, with a minimum of fifty miles between any two, were at Wakkerstroom and Standerton in the south, Marabastadt in the north and Potchefstroom and Rustenburg in the west.
The three main engagements of the war were all within about sixteen miles of each other, centred on the Battles of Laing’s Nek (28/1/81), Ingogo River (8/2/81) and the rout at Majuba Hill (27/2/81). These battles were the outcome of Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley’s attempts to relieve the besieged forts. Although Colley had requested reinforcements these would not reach him until mid-February. He was however convinced that the garrisons would not survive until then. Consequently, at Newcastle, near the Transvaal border he mustered a relief column (the Natal Field Force) of available men although this amounted to only 1,200 men. Colley’s force was further weakened in that few were mounted, a serious disadvantage in the terrain and type of warfare. Most Boers were mounted and good riders. Nonetheless, Colley’s force set out on 24 January 1881 northwards for Laing’s Nek on route to relieve Wakkerstroom and Standerton, the nearest forts.
At the Battle of Laing's Nek on 28 January 1881 the Natal Field Force under Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley attempted with cavalry and infantry attacks to break through the Boer positions on the Drakensberg mountain range to relieve their garrisons. The British were repulsed with heavy losses by the Boers under the command of Piet Joubert. Of the 480 British troops who made the charges, 150 never returned. Furthermore, sharpshooting Boers had killed and wounded many senior officers.
Further actions included the Battle of Schuinshoogte (also known as Ingogo) on 8 February 1881, where another British force barely escaped destruction. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley had sought refuge with the Natal Field Force at Mount Prospect, three miles to the south to await reinforcements. However, Colley was soon back into action. On the 7th February a mail escort on its way to Newcastle had been attacked by the Boers and forced back to Mount Prospect. The next day Colley, determined to keep his supplies and communication route open, escorted the mail wagon personally and this time with a larger escort. The Boer attacked the convoy at the Ingogo River crossing, but with a stronger force of some 300 men. The fire-power was evenly matched and the fight continued for several hours, but the Boer marksmen dominated the action until darkness and a storm permitted Colley and the remainder of his troops to retreat back to Mount Prospect. In this engagement the British lost 139 officers and men, half the original force that had set out to escort the mail convoy.
On 14 February hostilities were suspended, awaiting the outcome of peace negotiations initiated by an offer from Kruger. During this time Colley’s promised reinforcements arrived with more to follow. The British government in the meantime had offered a Royal Commission investigation and possible troop withdrawal, and their attitude to the Boers was conciliatory. Colley was critical of this stance and, whilst waiting for Kruger’s final agreement, decided to attack again with a view to enabling the British government to negotiate from a position of strength. Unfortunately this resulted in the disaster of the Battle of Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881, the greatest humiliation for the British.
On 26 February 1881, Colley led a night march of some 360 men to the top of Majuba Hill that overlooked the main Boer position. Early the next morning the Boers saw Colley occupying the summit, and started to ascend the hill. The Boers, shooting accurately and using all available natural cover, advanced towards the trapped British position. Several Boer groups stormed the hill and drove off the British at great cost to the British including the loss of Major-General Colley. Many of the British were killed or wounded, some falling to their deaths down the mountain. This had such an impact that during the Second Boer War, one of the British slogans was Remember Majuba. The Boers suffered only one killed and five wounded.
Hostilities continued until 6 March 1881, when a truce was declared, ironically on the same terms that Colley had disparaged. The Transvaal forts had endured, contrary to Colley’s forecast, with the sieges being generally uneventful, the Boers content to wait for hunger and sickness to strike. The forts had suffered only light casualties as an outcome of sporadic engagements, except at Potchefstroom, where twenty-four were killed, and seventeen at Pretoria, in each case resulting from occasional raids on Boer positions.
Although the Boers exploited their advantages to the full, their unconventional tactics, marksman skills and mobility do not fully explain the heavy losses of the British. Like the Boers, British soldiers were equipped with breech-loading rifles (the Martini-Henry) but they were (unlike the Boers) professionals and the British Army had previously fought campaigns in difficult terrains and against elusive enemy such as the tribesmen of the Northern Territories in modern day Afghanistan. Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the British command and Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, in particular, but poor intelligence and bad communications played their part. At Laing’s Nek it seems that Colley not only underestimated the Boer capabilities but had been misinformed of and was surprised by the strength of the Boers forces. The confrontation at Ingogo Nek was perhaps rash given that reserves were on their way, and Colley had by then experienced the Boer strength and capabilities. Indeed, questions must also be asked as to whether the convoy should have proceeded at all when it was known to be vulnerable to attack, and whether it was necessary for Colley himself to take command of the British guard. Colley's decision to initiate the attack at Majuba Hill when truce discussions were already underway appears to have been foolhardy particularly as there was limited strategic value as the Boer positions were out of rifle range from the summit. Once the Battle of Majuba Hill was under way Colley’s command and understanding of the dire situation seemed to deteriorate as the day went on as he sent unclear signals to the British forces at Mount Prospect by heliograph, first requesting reinforcements and the next stating that the Boers were retreating. The consequences of the poor leadership, intelligence and communications were the deaths of many British soldiers.

1881 Peace

The British government of William Gladstone were conciliatory as they realised that any further action would require substantial troop reinforcements, and it was likely that the war would be costly, messy and protracted. Unwilling to get bogged down in a distant war with apparently minimal returns (the Transvaal at the time had no known mineral resources, or other significant resources, being essentially a cattle and sheep agricultural economy), the British government ordered a truce.
Under instructions from the British government, Sir Evelyn Wood (who had replaced Colley upon his death on 27 February 1881) signed an armistice to end the war, and subsequently a peace treaty was signed with Kruger at O'Neil's Cottage on 6 March. In the final peace treaty on 23 March 1881, the British agreed to Boer self-government in the Transvaal under a theoretical British oversight, the Boers accepting the Queen’s nominal rule and British control over African affairs and native districts. A three-man Royal Commission drew up the Pretoria Convention, which was ratified on 25 October 1881, by the Transvaal Volksraad (parliament). This led to the withdrawal of the last British troops.
When in 1886 a second major mineral find was made at an outcrop on a large ridge some thirty miles south of the Boer capital at Pretoria, it reignited British imperial interests. The ridge, known locally as the "Witwatersrand" (literally "white water ridge" - a watershed) contained the world's largest deposit of gold-bearing ore. Although it was not as rich as gold finds in Canada and Australia, its consistency made it especially well-suited to industrial mining methods.
By 1899, when tensions erupted once more into the Second Boer War, the lure of gold made it worth committing the resources of the British Empire and incurring the huge costs required to win the war.

(Source Wikipedia)