The first modern insurgency—and how the British crushed it.
The war in South Africa was over.
Field Marshal Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts, the legendary British commander, marched his 38,000 men into the main plaza in Pretoria, then capital of the Boer confederation. It was 2:15 on the afternoon of June 5, 1900. They had marched 300 miles across the Transvaal wilderness in just 34 days, meeting very little Boer resistance. Roberts had taken Johannesburg and its gold mines a week earlier. The citizens of Pretoria, knowing they were next, had basically handed the city to Roberts by fleeing in terror.
Riding at Roberts’ side was Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener. Both men had made their reputations in Britain’s imperial wars—Roberts was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery during the 1857 Indian Rebellion, while Kitchener was fresh from decisive victories in North Africa that led to the reoccupation of Khartoum in the Sudan. The white-haired Roberts was 67, and Kitchener, with his fierce black mustache that seemed to spread from one ear to the other, almost 20 years younger. Together they represented the past and future of British imperial military power.
This was Britain’s second war with the Boers. The first, 19 years earlier, had been a humiliation. Its signature British defeat was the rout of Sir George Colley’s forces atop Majuba Hill. Colley himself took a sniper’s bullet through the head as he turned to retreat. Within days Britain sued for peace.
Now, as Roberts’ men snapped to attention, the aging Union Jack that once flew over Majuba was run up the flagpole in Pretoria. Roberts was linking the finale of both wars, replacing the memory of Colley’s epic blunder with his own epic triumph. All he needed was for the Boers to come forth and discuss terms.
Two days later, Boer leader Christiaan de Wet did step forward. But surrender was the last thing on his mind. Striking with lightning speed, the guerrilla leader and his band of commandos killed or captured more than 700 British soldiers near the railway line in Roodewal. They also captured more provisions, arms and ammunition than at any previous point in the war—so much that de Wet expressed deep regret about having to leave most of it behind.
So began a two-year game of cat and mouse between de Wet and Kitchener. The tactics and consequences would serve as foreshadowing for guerrilla wars of the 20th century— as well as the means used to crush them.
“I should like to be present at their meeting, for meet they must,” wrote a New York Times correspondent of the much-anticipated clash between the British and de Wet’s Boer forces. The reporter added: “If [de Wet] is not killed in one of his forays. That he lives is the expressed wish of all the English officers and of Kitchener himself.”
“I will give Lord Roberts three years to catch me,” de Wet had reportedly boasted to friends. “I will give Kitchener three months.”
Actually, just three days would pass until their next encounter: Advancing with a force of more than 12,000 men and anticipating that de Wet remained in the vicinity of Roodewal, Kitchener surprised the Boers as they prepared to demolish the rail line into Pretoria, seeking to deprive British troops of sorely needed foodstuffs.
“But my plan was to come to nothing,” wrote de Wet. British and Boer forces engaged one another in the night near the Leeuwspruit railway bridge. A train happened to approach from the British side of the lines, recalled de Wet, “on which the burghers opened such a fierce fire that it was speedily brought to a standstill. General [C.C.] Froneman at once gave orders to storm the train, but his men did not carry out his orders.”
The Boers had no way of knowing, but Kitchener himself was on board. Had the Boers attacked the train, de Wet seethed, “Lord Kitchener would have fallen into our hands!”
Instead, Kitchener offloaded a horse from one of the rail cars, mounted up and raced alone into the night—escaping what would have been a humiliating capture by de Wet.
Ubique means, ‘They’ve caught de Wet, an’ now we shan’t be long.’
Ubique means, ‘I much regret, the beggar’s goin’ strong!’
—Rudyard Kipling, Ubique
Roodewal was not the first time the British had heard of de Wet. He was 45 and arguably the most famous Boer general. Born in the Orange Free State in 1854, the year Britain granted it independence as a republic, he had spent his entire life defending that freedom. In 1865 the 11-year old de Wet fought alongside his father in the second of a series of wars against the Basotho tribe. Sixteen years later, de Wet participated in the storming of Majuba Hill. “Give me one man like de Wet, and I will send home one-third the army,” Kitchener reportedly said.
The Boer leader was a broad-shouldered man who favored homburg hats and knee-high leather riding boots. De Wet spoke with a lisp, which might have prevented him becoming such a leader of men were it not for his furious temper and profound ability to preach fire and brimstone about the cause of Afrikaner independence.
In the early years of what has since become known as South Africa, it was the Dutch ancestors of the Afrikaners who settled the southern tip of the continent. The Dutch East India Company, needing a long-range supply port for its ships traveling between Europe and the spice-rich lands along the Indian Ocean, established Cape Town in 1652. British ships and such famous voyagers as Captain James Cook made the Cape Colony a regular stop on any long journey, but it remained profoundly Dutch.
In the lead-up to the Napoleonic Wars, however, Britain seized the region to better control the seas. The colony soon split between the more urban British and the agriculturally oriented longtime residents, who had rechristened themselves as trekboers (“wandering farmers”). This was later shortened to Boers. To them, the arrogant, easily sunburned Britons were rooineks (“rednecks”) giving rise to the derogatory term still in use today.
The Boers were a blend of Dutch, German, Flemish and French Huguenots who had come to the region as colonists during the reign of the Dutch East India Company. Boers were renowned for their independence and piety and were defiantly anti-government. As farmers who often spent their days hunting, they were expert trackers, crack shots and formidable horsemen.
Such were also the basic skills required of a soldier. As part of the Cape Colony’s defense system against hostile African tribes, men between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to make themselves available for military service in case of attack. When called, each man mobilized with his own horse, rifle, ammunition and enough food to last eight days. This mobile force would become the model for de Wet’s commandos.
In the mid-1830s, fed up with British rule, the Boers abandoned the Cape Colony and embarked on what became known as the Great Trek. This 12,000- person exodus sent Boers en masse to the north and east in search of farmland beyond the reach of British rule. Just as with the westward migration occurring simultaneously in America, the newcomers warred with the native inhabitants. Hostilities between the Boers and the Basotho and Zulu were brutal and deadly, killing thousands on each side. Within a decade, however, the Boer had their farms. Soon after, they established the independent republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal.
But the discovery of diamonds and gold in those regions in the 1870s and 1880s roused British interest. “The metal is so uniformly distributed,” war correspondent and Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of the Rand gold mines, “that the enterprise can claim a certainty which is not usually associated with the industry. It is quarrying rather than mining.” Years of diplomatic maneuvering followed, but the descent into a second Boer War is all but traceable to Conan Doyle’s simple observation. In an era long before oil became the currency of war, it was gold and gems that sent an empire on the march—not once, but twice.
The Boers were the first military force of European heritage the British had faced since the Crimean War. But the Boers did not comprise a standing army, and their hit-and-run guerrilla tactics had more in common with forces the British had faced in Afghanistan, India and the Sudan. The burghers, as Boer citizens were known, elected their top military officers. The service of all citizen soldiers was gratis, with few exceptions. A typical military unit was composed of men from a single region and was known as a commando. Each burgher would train individually for battle, as the commando met only sporadically at a wapenschouw (field day, from the Old English for “weapon show”). At the close of battle, Boer units disbanded, and the men returned to their farms. Loosely organized as their commando system may have been, the Boers had perfected it long before the Great Trek and Zulu wars. Roberts and Kitchener may have captured Pretoria, but they were caught up in conventional military thinking. The commando system was alive and well all around them, able to rise up and go to ground at a moment’s notice. The solution, as the British learned all too well after the massacre at Roodewal, lay in not just holding key cities, but also capturing key commando leaders. And none was more determined to elude them than de Wet, who had vowed never to let his men surrender.
Six weeks after Roodewal, the British found de Wet again. They had trapped the Boer commander, along with three other guerrilla leaders, within the Brandwater Basin, amid the peaks of the Orange Free State. Dividing the 9,000 Boers into four separate columns, de Wet and the other leaders attempted to break out through the high passes.
Only two of the columns made it. De Wet and 2,000 burghers rode to freedom, even as the British captured 4,000 others. To de Wet’s horror, many of the Boers had given up voluntarily. “A more senseless course of action could hardly be imagined,” he later wrote.
De Wet and his band took it upon themselves to wreak havoc on the British forces. Between July and November, his men cut communication lines, destroyed railways, captured supplies and ammunition and generally hit the enemy when and where they least expected it. The British ran themselves ragged giving chase. “The enemy had not been able to pursue the laager [camp], as their draft-cattle and horses were so completely exhausted that they had fallen down dead in heaps,” wrote de Wet. “I would soon begin again to wreck railway lines and telegraph wires.…I had made it a rule to never to be in the neighborhood of a railway without interrupting the enemy’s means of communication.” At one point his swath of destruction was so great that de Wet was forced to repeat himself. “The bridge I had destroyed had been rebuilt,” he lamented in September, “and so I was forced to burn it again.”
Burghers rallied to his cause, and his army swelled. Roberts’ controversial tactic of burning Boer farms brought hundreds of newly homeless recruits. De Wet’s whereabouts became the world’s greatest mystery, as correspondents marveled at his ability to disappear. By the end of November, Roberts was no closer to finding him than he had been in June. In the British Empire’s version of “mission accomplished,” Roberts declared victory, handed over command to Kitchener and returned to London a hero.
In December 1900, Kitchener set a trap. Suspecting that de Wet might attempt to cross the Orange River, the border between the Cape Colony and the Orange Free State, he positioned men at all bridges and fords. With the river at flood stage, de Wet had no other means of reaching the opposite bank. “We reached the Orange River…but alas! what a sight met our eyes!” wrote de Wet. “The river was quite impassable, owing to the floods, and, in addition, the ford was held by English troops.…Oh, the English had caught me at last!”
Kitchener had given the British orders not to take prisoners. All through the evening, de Wet and his men raced from bridge to bridge, searching for that elusive unguarded crossing. “They had ‘cornered’ me, to use one of their own favorite expressions,” he lamented.
Just before sunset, de Wet’s persistence was rewarded. The Boers found an unguarded ford 12 miles upriver.
A furious Kitchener gave chase. This time the Boer leader led his men on a daring dash through a gap in Kitchener’s lines. “The distance,” de Wet wrote of their sprint to freedom, “[was] 3,000 paces. Over these terrible 3,000 paces our burghers raced, while a storm of bullets was poured in upon them from both sides. And of all that force—8,000 strong—no single man was killed.”
In another echo of the American West, Kitchener ordered the plains of the Boer homeland be fenced. But instead of livestock, he was enclosing men. Each length of barbed wire was five strands high and connected to fortified blockhouses a few hundred yards apart. Some blockhouses were round, others sharply angled. Each had an iron roof and gun slits about four feet from the ground. “Narrower and narrower did the circle become,” wrote de Wet, “hemming us in more closely at every moment.…The English seemed to think that a Boer might be netted like a fish.”
They were right. Little by little, the British captured more and more burghers and their cattle. Kitchener increased the pressure by intensifying his scorched-earth campaign. His troops forced families from their homes at gunpoint, then moved in to fire the structure and fields. The British then led these homeless women and children to another of Kitchener’s tools of persuasion—the concentration camp.
De Wet remained at large but felt the effects of these heartbreaking tactics at a logistical level: Burghers took to leaving their family wagons at home when joining their commando units, so their wives and children might flee in advance of the British. But this diminished the Boers’ ability to transport ammunition and supplies.
Kitchener’s three-pronged tactic of fencing, farm burning and civilian internment was working. But his inability to capture de Wet made the burgher commando a folk hero in the British press, while Kitchener’s cruel tactic of turning out families, destroying their homes and then interning them for fear they would seek revenge made him a lightning rod for controversy.
The concentration camps, in particular, were considered “a method of barbarism,” as one parliament member decried. Kitchener did not invent them, but they were in vogue among military thinkers at the time. A few years earlier, the Spanish had used concentration camps to suppress Cuban rebels, and the United States had used them to similar effect in the Philippines.
But what had begun as an impulsive British desire to punish rebels and their families soon turned into a tragedy. An estimated 160,000 women, children and elderly men were incarcerated (if captured, their POW husbands were shipped to Ceylon or St. Helena). The camps were rife with dysentery, cholera, measles and typhoid. The British had built them for military purposes with little regard to location, causing many deaths from exposure in the winter. In all, according to a postwar investigation by Transvaal archivist P.L.A. Goldman, 26,521 women and children and 1,421 old men died in the camps. The numbers are even more startling when one considers that total British war casualties numbered 21,942 and the Boer commandos lost between 7,000 and 9,000.
None of those statistics bothered Kitchener as much as his inability to capture Christiaan de Wet. By December 1901, 18 months after the fall of Pretoria, de Wet was still at large. Kitchener had conducted three intensive “de Wet hunts,” to no avail. The full weight of the war had fallen on Kitchener’s shoulders, and the workaholic commander was starting to show signs of strain. “His gifts were those of an administrator who practiced rigid economy and who had an inordinate capacity for hard work,” wrote South African historian S. Burridge Spies. “These gifts and his resolution and drive were offset, however, by his reluctance to delegate authority, by his rigid and at times stubborn adherence to his chosen course of action, and by the fact that he often neglected the human element in his calculations.”
At no time was this more obvious than in December 1901. Fencing the veld was yielding roughly 1,000 prisoners a month, which was a coup but certainly not the sort of number that would end the Boer conflict anytime soon. Farm burning had backfired in many ways, as British troops had gotten into the habit of burning all farms, even those of British sympathizers, who were quick to complain to Kitchener’s superiors back in London. And the uproar about the concentration camps had become so great that British military officials had been forced to let an independent humanitarian group investigate. Kitchener, for his part, blamed the unsanitary habits of Boers for the casualty rate.
On Christmas Day, 1901, came the devastating news that the unstoppable de Wet had struck again. At 2 a.m. de Wet had led 600 men up a steep gully in a surprise attack against a blockhouse at Tweefontein. Walking in their stocking feet so as not to be heard, de Wet and his men came up over the crest of the ravine and raced down onto the British tents. They fired as they ran, killing many in their sleep. The British rallied, and for 40 minutes the two sides fought in brutal combat, some of it hand to hand. When it was over, 300 of the 550 British soldiers stationed there were dead or wounded. The Boers were so short of clothing from their months on the run that some wore women’s dresses. The next day, before setting the remaining 250 British free, the Boers stripped them naked and took their clothes.
“It is very sad and depressing that the Boers are able to strike such blows,” Kitchener wrote, adding that “desperate men” were always a threat in the night.
Just when it seemed the guerrilla war might drag on forever, Kitchener’s “stubborn adherence to his own course of action” paid off. On Feb. 5, 1902, his line of blockhouses and barbed wire was finally complete, with some 8,000 blockhouses and nearly 4,000 miles of fence. Supplementing his own forces with specially armed black African troops, he began a series of sweeps designed to end the Boer War once and for all.
“In the northern section, the Boers made a most desperate effort to break through,” reported The New York Times on February 14. “The British pickets opened a terrible fire, and the Boers were everywhere met with a relentless hail of bullets.…This lasted for some 20 minutes, when gradually the rattle died down until only the crack of single shots was heard. Then all was again quiet. The Boers’ attempt to break the British circle had failed. A few of them succeeded in crossing the line, and among these was General de Wet.”
But over time, Kitchener’s relentless sweeps paid off. Many commandos were starving, thanks to Kitchener’s destruction of farms and livestock. Morale was disastrously low among those whose wives and children were interned. And many more were anxious about family members who had escaped the camps only to roam the veld, easy prey for roving bands of British soldiers, hostile Africans and wild animals. The time had clearly come to talk peace.
Fittingly, Kitchener and de Wet met face to face for the first time in Pretoria. The date was May 19, 1902, a Monday. They shook hands and sat down at the negotiating table in Melrose House, Kitchener’s stately Pretoria headquarters. Kitchener was uncharacteristically humorous, attempting a few light jokes. De Wet was as defiant as ever, promising to continue the fight if talks broke down. As the talks continued over the next 10 days, Kitchener managed to pull de Wet aside so the two of them could craft a “civil” surrender. Of the two British negotiators, it was Kitchener who insisted on lenient terms.
The treaty was signed at 10:30 p.m. on May 31. Kitchener sat at the head of the dining room table. De Wet sat at his right hand.
The two men turned to one another afterward. “We are good friends now,” said a weary Kitchener.
Then, and only then, did de Wet ride out and order his men to lay down their arms.
For further reading, Martin Dugard recommends: The Boer War, by Denis Judd and Keith Surridge, and The Boer War, by Thomas Pakenham. Christiaan de Wet’s Three Years’ War offers the most vivid descriptions.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.