Lady Smith waves goodbye to John Bull’s England, leaving on the arm of a Boer fighter – a German postcard, posted in the Netherlands in 1900. It has been forgotten that the Boer war (1899 – 1902) was a great radical cause at the end of the nineteenth century. The war was fought essentially to allow Britain to gain control of the Transvaal gold fields around Johannesburg. It was seen as a clear case of imperialism and the Boers (or Afrikaners) had wide international public support.

By the time this postcard was sent the Boers had actually lost the initiative. The seige of the town of Ladysmith, which began in November 1899 had ended. On 27th February 1900 the British pickets saw the Boer besiegers trek away across the veldt and a relief column of British troops marched into Ladysmith.

Very large numbers of anti-British postcards were produced, particularly in France and Germany. These are a few examples:

This postcard lampoons the British forces as toy soldiers being despatched by the Boers, using their "long Toms" or long range artillery.
A Russian ambulance corps - one of a number of volunteer units which came to the aid of the Boers.

Other postcards show the terrible price paid by the Boers as the war drew to a close. The British used scorched earth tactics, burning farms to the ground and sending women and children to ‘concentration camps.’

'The destruction of Boer farms and arrest of those living there'

These camps, which became notorious, were designed to deprive the Boers of food and other forms of assistance from their families, scattered across the veld in remote farms.

The price was terrible: 27,000 died in the camps, often of cholera.

The British feminist, Millicent Fawcett, led an official commission which wrote a scathing report attacking conditions in the camps.

A British physician, Dr Henry Becker, wrote: “First, they chose an ill-suited site for the camp. Then they supplied so little water that the people could neither wash themselves nor their clothes. Furthermore, they made no provision for sufficient waste removal. And lastly, they did not provide enough toilets for the overpopulation they had crammed into the camps.”

'A concentration camp close to Harrismith'

It was a tragic fate and the camps were one of the reasons why the Boers finally capitulated.

Britain deployed some 336,000 imperial and 83,000 colonial troops: a total of 448,000.

For their part the Boer republics were able to mobilize 87,360 fighters, a force that included 2,120 foreign volunteers.

Martin Plaut

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