Out of Africa

Britain had two more military engagements on the continent of Africa before the end of the 19th century, the first was to return The Sudan to Egyptian control, the second was the outbreak of the Boer War, the Sudan War starting in 1898.

Since the Murder of General Gordon in Khartoum the British/Egyptian army had intended to avenge him and take back Sudan as the southern province of Egypt.  The fast rising British officer, General Herbert Kitchener, prepared well for the incursion.  A railway was constructed parallel with the River Nile for troops and guns with gunboats on the river.

The late Mahdi’s forces, known as Dervishes, were engaged in the one-sided Battle of Omdurman.  Although numerous and fierce horsemen, outnumbering the attackers by more that 2.5 to 1, they were overwhelmed by the Anglo-Egyptian artillery, machine gun and rifle fire against their muskets and swords.  Some elements of the army bayoneted the Mahdist wounded as their revenge and plundered nearby Khartoum.  Anglo/Egyptian control of the country was restored.

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The British Infantry Line at the Battle of Omdurman

In 1886, the discovery of gold in the Transvaal had led to an influx of prospectors known to the Afrikaners as ‘Uitlanders’.  A settlement grew up which was to become the city of Johannesburg but the Uitlanders were denied civic rights such as voting.  When the British protested strongly the Afrikaners’  leader, Paul Kruger, declared war.  Initially, the Boers demonstrated their fighting skills again and besieged the towns of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking and won most of the battles.

This time marked the first occasion of Empire forces joining the British and together they relieved the sieges of all three towns and went on to what appeared to be the end of the war after a year.  The Boers, however, had not capitulated.

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Majuba Hill – First Boer War

For another two years they continued the war as guerrilla groups harassing their opponents by surprise raids, disrupting their supplies and destroying enemy communication links.  They were supported by their families which prompted the Allied commander, General Kitchener, to institute what later became known as concentration camps, in which the Boer families were incarcerated for the remainder of the war.  Many thousands of people died in these camps, mostly women and children, not from brutality but from starvation and disease.  These were crimes of repression and neglect which brought down opprobrium from around the world, not least from many in Britain.  By modern definition they were war crimes.  The most vociferous condemnation though came from Germany, which had supported and armed the Boers throughout both wars.  These tactics brought an end to this highly unpopular war in 1902.

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Concentration Camp – Phase Two of the Boer War

The war marked the end of long established British military practices.  It was the last war in which the army wore red tunics or fired standing awaiting the order.  They learned to find cover and fire on opportunity, as demonstrated by their allies and their enemy.  They would also be much better trained in marksmanship – as it happened, before their next engagement – in 1914!

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Jan Smuts with Winston Churchill – North Africa

One of the Boer guerrilla group leaders, Jan Smuts, was to lead negotiations, which led to the incorporation of The Dominion of South Africa into the British Empire in 1909.  The dominion was allied to Britain in both world wars.  Jan Smuts was to become a valued adviser to Lloyd George in WWI and Winston Churchill in WWII.

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