Having gone this far with the Boer War, it’s only fitting that we finish things off, even if there is very little else to talk about in terms of the “named” Irish units of the British military engaged in the conflict. Oh, there was fighting and killing to be done in the remaining years of seemingly endless guerrilla struggle, but in terms of anything resembling a large scale or multi-day engagement, the rest of the Boer War was mostly lacking. Looking up the Irish unit histories and notes of this period is a long, depressing list of garrison and patrol duty, punctuated by an occasional ambush or distant exchange of fire with a well-hidden and then vanishing enemy.
In the autumn of 1900, the Boer nations were in apparent disarray, their towns and capitals captured by the British and their armies scattered. The political leadership of both the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State, men like Paul Kruger, fled the country, in some cases never to return. Lord Roberts was hopeful that the fighting would be coming to an end, and that the formal annexation of the region could be completed.
But of course, the Boers were not willing to react to the setbacks in the manner that Britain expected. Before Pretoria fell a policy of guerrilla war, carried out by men like Christian De Wet, had been agreed upon, taking advantage of Boer mobility and local knowledge of terrain. And soon, the British realised that their control of the Boer nations extended only as far as where their troops were at any given time. The British, who had already been undone numerous times in regular engagements, now found themselves underprepared and undertrained to engage in an asymmetrical conflict.
The Boer commandos, in most cases operating near their own home areas, would hit railways, supply depots and other isolated British positions, and then vanish back into a countryside full of sympathisers willing to aid and hide them. There were some very notable successes in this period, as the typical Boer soldier was still more than a match for his British counter-parts, and in 1900 still had certain advantages in supplies that would vanish later. But still, there was a major problem for the Boers, namely that the guerrilla campaign lacked a strong strategic objective. The British were intent on turning both countries into colonies as part of a plan to federalize all of South Africa, and Boer capability to maintain their independence had been essentially eroded. Men fought on for different reasons, with a clear divide opening up between those who would soon be seeking a negotiated agreement with the British and the “bitter-enders”, who were content to fight and die to the last man.
British reactions to Boer attacks tended to have little material impact, as a regular army found itself unable to engage in regular battles. Lord Roberts was no longer in command at this stage, having gone home and been replaced by his right-hand man, Horatio Kitchener. Kitchener was a famous individual owing to his command in the Mahdist War, most notably at the Battle of Omdurman, the atypical colonial battle where British regulars had annihilated attacking natives. But his abilities were to be sorely tested in South Africa, where Kitchener soon found himself somewhat out of his depth, struggling to bring the conflict to a final end.
Kitchener’s tactics to accomplish this were forced to change over time. Sweeping movements over the veld could never be completely successful in the vastness of the South African countryside and the British would routinely drive Boer troops away from an area only for it to be reoccupied as soon as the British had left. Starting under Roberts and then more actively under his successor, the praise of farm-burning became more and more common-place, as both a retribution-tactic against those aiding the guerilla effort, and as a practical means of eliminating Boer sources of rest and supplies.
The farm-burning went hand-in-hand with a general policy of rounding-up Boer civilians in large parts of both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, relocating them to poorly-maintained and sanitised concentration camps, which eventually had opposition groups in Britain baying for blood. The death toll in such camps, from the spreading of disease, poor drinking water and lack of basic provisions, soon sky-rocketed, making a mockery of any effort to convince opponents that the British Empire was the welcoming beacon of western civilization it pertained to be.
From a military standpoint, Kitchener soon turned to a strategy of restricting Boer movement, establishing an intricate network of “blockhouses” and barbed wire barriers to try and stop commandos from criss-crossing the country-side at will. In combination with better organized sweeps and the growing lack of supplies available to the stretched Boers, these policies resulted in a gradual eroding of Boer military strength, from soldiers killed and captured, or others who simply took offered British terms and went home. Some Boers would even join British forces against former comrades. Hated as collaborators by many, they had chosen the winning side, as became more and more clear.
All throughout this time, Irish infantry and cavalry served, manning bridges and blockhouses, occupying towns and farms, and infrequently engaging with the actual enemy. Battalions were rotated in and out of South Africa, and if nothing else the Boer War was good experience for an army that had become too lackadaisical since the Crimea, and would again before 1914. Few Irish came out of this portion of the war with any kind of thrilling heroics or glory to their name, though the actions of Irish regiments in the regular phase of the conflict had inspired Queen Victoria and the British military to create a new “named” Irish regiment: the Irish Guards, who joined the other Foot Guard units as the military garrison of London and primary security for the monarchy.
De Wet and others were able to launch some spectacular but largely immaterial invasions of Cape Colony during the guerrilla phase, but by the latter half of 1901 the writing was on the wall. The Boer commandos were in large part short of food, forage for their horses and respite from British sweeps, their ability to move in veld limited and the larger aim of the struggle muddled. They could, and many did, fight on, but it had become clear that the only question was how much more the Boers could take.
By May of 1902, the Boer war effort had essentially collapsed, and the Treaty of Vereeniging, ending the war, was signed at the end of that month. Britain, desperate to bring the affair to a close owing to its exorbitant and unexpected cost in lives and capital, were generous in their terms, promising and delivering on granting the Boers self-government within a few years. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed, the amalgamation of the ex-Boer Republics with Natal and Cape Colony, wherein the Boers held all significant political power in exchange for loyalty to Britain. It was an ironic end to a war that was, on the surface, fought partially for native rights in the area, a cause that was now largely forgotten. Three of South Africa’s first four Prime Ministers would be Boer generals. Having lost the fight for their independence, they now forged on as the leaders of a larger and even more racially discriminatory state that would fight in both World Wars at Britain’s side before quitting the Empire democratically in 1961.
For the Irish regiments then, the Boer War was a harsh, and then a dull, plodding experience, that highlighted deficiencies in leadership and shortcomings in adapting to new weaponry and tactics, shortcomings that most major powers would soon find costing them thousands of lives on a daily basis. Irish units were at the heart of the eventually successful efforts to take over the Transvaal and Orange Free State, but the war, and their experiences, are little remembered today in Ireland, which is only just waking up to the reality of the Irish experience in World War One. We should, perhaps, take a step further back and remember the Irish who were led to disaster at Colenso and then the Tugela Heights, who got cut off and were left to their fate at Lindley and who prosecuted, as well as they were able, a grim guerrilla war for the furtherment of tarnished imperial ideals.
But we are not quite done with the Boer War, because there is was another aspect of the Irish experience there. As previously noted, there were plenty in Ireland who had sympathy for the Boers, those of the nationalist persuasion who saw Britain’s imperial overreach as an extension of their policy in holding Ireland. And of them, there were some ready to go the extra mile and actually serve as part of the Boer war effort. One of them was a chemist turned miner from Mayo, named John McBride.
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