The Boer War of 1899-1902 was preceded by more than a century of conflict between the Boers (Dutch settlers) and the British Empire. One of the key disputes between the two sides at the end of the 19th Century was who would control and benefit most from the enormous wealth of the Witwatersrand gold mines.
The conflict between the British and the Boers began during the Napoleonic Wars. A British military expedition landed in Cape Colony where they defeated Dutch forces at the battle of Blaauwberg in 1806. In 1814 the British formally acquired Cape Colony and encouraged immigration by British settlers. Angered by aspects of British administration, especially the abolition of slavery in 1834, many Boers chose to leave Cape Colony in what became known as the Great Trek.
The Boer Trekkers migrated first to Natal and then, after that was annexed by Britain in 1843, northwards into the interior where they established two independent Boer republics. These were the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal republic) and the Orange Free State.
In 1877 the British attempted to annex the Transvaal. This led to the First Boer War in 1880-81 in which the British suffered a series of defeats, particularly at the Battle of Majuba Hill in 1881. The war restored the independence of the two republics, subject to certain conditions, but tensions remained.
The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1866 had prompted a huge influx of foreigners to the borders of the Orange Free State. Then in 1886 gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand area of the Transvaal, making it the richest and potentially the most powerful nation in South Africa. However, the country lacked both the manpower and the industrial expertise to develop the resource and so, reluctantly, agreed to allow the immigration of uitlanders (foreigners), mainly from Britain. Huge numbers of uitlanders arrived in the Transvaal seeking their fortune. Inevitably this led to confrontations with the Boers who feared that once again their independence was being jeopardised.
British expansionist ideas, propagated most forcefully by Cecil Rhodes, escalated tensions further and led to the failed Jameson Raid of 1895. Attempts were made to resolve the key areas of dispute between the British and the Boers – namely, the status of the uitlanders within the Transvaal, control of the gold mining industry and the determination of the British to bring the Transvaal and the Orange Free State into a federation under British control.
However, negotiations at Bloemfontein in June 1899 failed. In September, Britain demanded full voting rights and representation for uitlanders in the Transvaal, something that was unacceptable to the Boers. On October 9, Boer leader Paul Kruger warned the British government that unless it withdrew all its troops from the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State within 48 hours then the two republics would declare war. The British refused the ultimatum and the Second Boer War began.
The war had three distinct phases. In the first, the Boers struck into Natal and the Cape Colony and laid siege to the British garrisons of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. They also won victories at Spion Kop, Magersfontein and Colenso.
The second phase saw the British greatly increase troop numbers in South Africa. Under the command of Lord Roberts they launched a major offensive in 1900 and successfully relieved the besieged garrisons. After securing Natal and the Cape Colony, British troops invaded the Transvaal, and in June 1900 captured the republic’s capital, Pretoria.
The third phase began in March 1900, when the Boers launched what was to be a bitter, two-year guerrilla campaign against British forces – raiding troop columns, telegraph sites and railways and storage depots. The British, now under the command of Lord Kitchener, responded by destroying Boer farms and moving civilians into concentration camps.
As the war dragged on it became less popular in Britain, especially after revelations in the press about the conditions in the concentration camps where as many as 26,000 Afrikaner women and children died of hunger and disease. The Boers finally surrendered on May 31 1902. Under the Treaty of Vereening the Transvaal and Orange Free State were absorbed into the British Empire on the promise of self-government in the future. This was fulfilled in 1910 with the creation of the Union of South Africa.
For Britain, the war was the longest, the most expensive (£200 million, or £22 billion at 2015 prices), and the bloodiest conflict between 1815 and 1914.
The 2nd Hampshire formed part of the British reinforcements sent to South Africa in 1900. The battalion, posted to 14th Brigade of the 7th Division, departed Southampton on January 4 and arrived at the Cape on January 23. They joined a contingent of 35 men, under Lieutenant Francis Geary, who had been sent out from England in October 1899 to join the 2nd Mounted Infantry.
Shortly afterwards, the 2nd Hampshire moved by train to the front where F Company, under Major Norman Welch, was detached to join the 7th Mounted Infantry (M.I.). The remaining companies accompanied the 7th Division, along with the 8th and 9th Divisions and the British cavalry, in a march northeastwards to cut off the retreat of Boer forces under General Piet Cronje. The 7th Division, including the Hampshires, were occupied mainly in protecting slow moving convoys of ox-drawn wagons. This kept them out of the main fighting which led to Cronje’s surrender at Paardeberg on February 27, 1900, but their work was nevertheless essential to that success.
By contrast, both Hampshire Mounted Infantry detachments were involved in heavy fighting. The 7th M.I. saw action at Ramdam, Jacobsdal and Waterval Drift where one subaltern and one private were wounded, the regiment’s first casualties in South Africa. They were engaged again at Paardeberg where six men were wounded. The 2nd M.I. were also in action at Paardeberg, but suffered no casualties.
After Cronje’s surrender, Lord Roberts swiftly occupied Bloemfontein but there then followed a six-week halt in operations as the British reorganised their transport and communications. During this time, a cavalry brigade made up partly of 2nd Hampshire M.I., was ambushed by a strong Boer contingent at Sannah’s Post, east of Bloemfontein. The leader of the Hampshire section, Lieutenant Geary, died in the fighting, killed in a gallant stand against overwhelming odds.
The regiment was in action again on March 29, 1900 as part of 7th Division’s attack against a 4,000-strong Boer force threatening repairs to a railway bridge at Karree Siding, north of Bloemfontein. This time the Hampshires were in the thick of the fighting, but they found the Boers elusive opponents. The open ground and excellent Boer marksmanship slowed the British advance and although the Boers were eventually driven off they suffered few casualties. British casualties numbered fewer than 200, including a dozen Hampshire men. Drummer Macdonald was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for collecting ammunition from wounded men and distributing it to others who needed it.
The British advanced again at the end of April, and over the following five weeks virtually cleared the enemy from Northern Natal before occupying Johannesburg (May 31) and the Boer capital, Pretoria (June 5). Fighting opportunities for the infantry were again limited as the Boers refused to be drawn into pitched battle – even Johannesburg and Pretoria were abandoned uncontested. However, both the 7th M.I. and the 2nd M.I. were constantly in action, culminating in the successful action at Doornkop which sealed Johannesburg’s fate.
The 2nd Hampshire entered Johannesburg and marched past Lord Roberts – they were the only infantry regiment present who had been with him at the reoccupation of Kabul. Most men had puttees wound round their feet, their boots being quite worn out after weeks of strenuous marching (they covered 217 miles in 21 days of marching during May), and their shirts were sticking out of holes in their trousers.
At Pretoria the 2nd Hampshire occupied several of the forts as well as the barracks of the Transvaal Artillery whose drums they seized. These were sent to Winchester. The battalion remained garrisoned at Pretoria until April 1901, a period which saw it engaged in hard, rather than exciting, work although one company was selected as bodyguard to Lord Kitchener after he replaced Roberts as Commander-in-Chief.
The same could not be said of the Hampshire M.I. Both detachments saw action at Diamond Hill (June 11) and later at Brandwater Basin in the Orange Free State (July 31) where they helped to secure the surrender of 4,000 Boers. In November 1900, the 7th M.I. cornered General Christiaan De Wet’s guerrilla force at Bothaville in the east of the Free State. De Wet’s men fought desperately and 25 were killed although De Wet himself managed to slip away along with most his men. The British also captured 130 Boers along with seven guns, although not before the redoubtable Major Welch had been mortally wounded. His death cost the Hampshire ‘an officer of amazing fearlessness, a magnificent horseman and a fine leader’.
The 7th M.I. then relieved Dewetsdorp which De Wet had seized on November 23 and vigorously pursued the Boer leader around the south-east of the Free State. However, De Wet proved an elusive enemy and evaded capture.
The 2nd M.I. had also been involved in chasing De Wett, pursuing him into the Transvaal after he extricated himself from the Brandwater Basin. The column had one sharp action in the Vredfort Hills (July 24) and was present at Nooitgedacht when the British camp there was attacked in great force (December 13).
In April 1901 the 2nd Hampshire left Pretoria and took up duty on the railway line to Delgoa Bay with five companies at Barberton, one at Koomati Poort and two at intermediate stations. While Barberton was healthy enough, the stations down the line, particularly Koomati Poort, were rife with malaria and other diseases and by July more than 300 had been struck down sick.
Significant work, however, was achieved on the blockhouse line along the railway, some 30 having been constructed. These were typically garrisoned by an NCO and four men and helped to protect vulnerable spots on the line. When linked up with wire they also helped to restrict Boer movements.
During 1901 the 2nd Hampshire received nearly 300 men as reinforcements. However, 470 NCOs and other ranks returned to England, mostly invalided. These included men from the regiment’s 1st Volunteer Company which was serving alongside the fighting units. Deaths totalled 30, mainly from disease, but several as a result of accidents. Most of the casualties in action came from the Mounted Infantry who, following the dispersion of the main Boer forces in September 1900 and the onset of guerrilla warfare, increasingly monopolised the fighting.
The 2nd M.I. started 1901 in Western Transvaal. On 24 January they were involved in a sharp exchange at Olifants Nek, helping to retake a post which had been overrun by Boers. At the end of March, at Taaisbosch Spruit, they scored a significant success over General Jan Smuts’ commando, taking 130 prisoners as well as three field guns and two machineguns. In August the 2nd M.I. were in action again between Thaba’nchu and Edenburg, charging a party of Boers and killing and capturing many. After a further significant clash at Greylingstad in October, the section took part in General Bruce Hamilton’s great sweep in the Eastern Transvaal in December which yielded more than 500 prisoners and effectively clipped the wings of General Louis Botha (later the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa).
In an effort to starve the Boers into submission, the 2nd M. I. also helped to clear the country of cattle and supplies, first in the Transvaal and then in the Free State.
The 7th M.I. were equally busy during 1901. First, they were involved in a vigorous pursuit of De Wet in the Free State before embarking on a long spell of farm clearing around Bloemfontein, tedious, but ultimately very effective, work. After a stint holding drifts (fords) along the Modder River, the 7th M.I. moved to the Eastern Free State to operate round Jacobsdal, Magersfontein and Philipolis and at Mokari Drift on the Caledon River before heading into the Eastern Transvaal. Here the section were engaged for the remainder of the year in sweeping and clearing the area.
The 7th M.I. had one very hard fight in 1902. On 4 January they were part of an advance guard to a column moving up the Ermelo-Amsterdam road near Wakkerstroon when Boers were sighted. Major Vallentin of the Somerset Light Infantry, who was commanding them, set off in pursuit, only to be attacked in front and on both flanks by a large enemy force. The Hampshire section, under Captain Edward Leigh, had been left behind as a support but with 35 men away fetching remounts and a patrol having been sent forward, Leigh had barely 20 men at his disposal. These he pushed forward on to a ridge where they attempted to give Vallentin’s retiring troops time to rally. Leigh and his men put up a desperate defence against overwhelming odds, fighting on until only four Hampshires remained unhit. Their action enabled Vallentin to rally his men though he himself was killed. The main British force eventually sent forward reinforcements and the Boers retired, leaving eight Hampshires dead or dying, including Company Sergeant Major Weston and Sergeant Weston. Captain Leigh himself was wounded but survived.
In March 1902 the 2nd Hampshire received orders to transfer from Barberton to Johannesburg. The move was marked by a serious railway accident which killed 42 men and injured 38 others. More about the crash is here
Boer resistance finally broke down in the spring of 1902 down and the signing of peace on 31 May brought the war to an end.
The regiment lost four officers and 15 men killed during the war with four and 37 wounded. Of these the company with the 7th M.I. suffered the heaviest losses, with one officer and 12 men killed and two officers and 19 men wounded. Another 46 men were lost in accidents, mainly in the Barberton rail crash, and 73 to disease. One officer and 18 men were captured. The figures reflect the character of the infantry’s role in the war – only in the early stages on the Kimberley line, in the relief of Ladysmith and in the opening stages of Paardeberg were infantry losses heavy. After the occupation of Pretoria they saw less and less fighting.
Battle honours for the campaign were only grudgingly given, but the regiment received both ‘South Africa’ 1900-02 and ‘Paardeburg’ while Lieutenant Colonel Howard Smith was made a Companion, Order of the Bath (CB). There were Brevets for Captain Francis Bowker and Captain Percy Hicks and Distinguished Conduct Medals for Quarter Master Sergeant Davies and Sergeant Williams.