Public perceptions and narratives of The Boer War and its legacy.

The Boer War, specifically the second Boer war, began on October 11th 1899 and ended on May 21st 1902.
This article sets out to discuss the public perceptions and opinions surrounding the Boer war. This project also will reflect on how the Boer war is perceived today, analysing the impacts the war has now, and how this event in history has aided the changing narratives surrounding the discussion of war. It will also reflect on the time’s arrogance of imperialism and whether or not this has seen much change today. All to conclude with the legacy that the Boer war has today.

The beginnings of the Boer war

The British army’s attitude going into the Boer war was based on the assumption that due to their military having more manpower and experience with fighting in colonial wars, that they were going to be able to succeed in this war with ease. What was quickly discovered is that the Boer war was going to be a lot different to the colonial wars they had dealt with before now.

The political outlook of the Boer war

Politically, the attitude towards the war was that of uncertainty but a so-called necessity from the more conservative side of parliament. In John Gooch’s book, ‘The Boer war’, [1] he details how PM Salisbury did not have much faith in the military’s abilities to succeed in the war. (Although he did place his trust with his sectary of state for war.) [2] This attitude of uncertainty in the ability to successfully carry out this war was mirrored in the army’s first general for the war, Buller. Gooch states that Buller was not confident in himself and had no plans to go into the war. [3]

While the conservative attitude towards the war was imperialistic and colonial, the liberal party were more divided over the Boer war. With many members being against the war and some supporting. Most notably David Llyod George, who would later become prime minister in 1916, played a part in bringing the Hobhouse reports to parliament’s attention while also strongly showing his opposition by highlighting how other politicians were using the war for financial gains. Many within the liberal party did not want to risk a party spilt between imperialist liberals and anti-war, pro-Boer liberals. MP Henry Campbell Bannerman was one such individual, who opposed the war but did not want to risk a party spilt. [4]

Considering the origins of the war being related to the discovery of gold in Transvaal in 1886, [5] it is clear to see the link between politicians and the finical gains that could come from the war. Many accused MP Joseph Chamberlin of such connections. [6] Despite these finical gain accusations politicians faced, the main drive behind public opposition towards to war was mostly based on the humanitarian issues, with many who opposed the war being tying their views in with their religion.


The British army was not prepared for the war, they had not anticipated the Boer’s advantage. The Boers had knowledge of the land and its farmers and the trust of the local people. Meanwhile, the British did not have accurate maps of the terrain they were fighting in, with places such as the Orange Free State and the Transvaal having never been mapped by the British. All this showcases how the British army had a sense of superiority going into the Boer war, despite the Boer’s clear advantages, via their failure to plan and prepare for the war. [7]

The Boer’s were also aided by Germany and France, with both governments providing them with weapons, for instance, the Germans sent over mouser riffles. [8] This would have significantly lessened some gaps in the technological availability between the Boers and the British as they both had access to current weaponry.

There were three changes made to leadership during the course of the Boer war. Initially, the war was led by Redvers Buller, then by Earl Roberts and then Horatio Herbert Kitchener. Under Kitchener, the war tactics became much more inhumane and aggressive. The Army justified its cruelty through claims that they were giving work opportunities to the women and children, such as delivering messages.

Cruelty in the Boer war

Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ tactic was implicated during his time as general to prevent the Boer’s from using the land for resources after an attack by ‘scorching’ (setting fire) to the terrain. This enabled the Boer forces from recuperating after an attack while also halting the Boer’s usage of guerrilla warfare by giving them nowhere to momentarily disguise their ranks. While this affected the soldiers, it affected the local people the most.

The British army initially set up ‘refugee camps’ for civilians during the war but these camps later became concentration camps after Kitchener took charge due to his scorched earth policy. Conditions in the camps were poor, there were not many supplies to go around nor was there a high standard of hygiene, many people caught diseases. The causalities from the concentration camps were high and there was little done to fix the conditions during the war despite the both domestic and international backlash.

The most well-known attempt to bring much needed attention to the concentration camps, were the Hobhouse reports. A written report of the conditions within the British concentration camps in South Africa by Emily Hobhouse, who had permission to visit numerous camps across South Africa. She later formed a relief fund for South African women and children. [9]

Despite the undebatable unethical tactics during the Boer war, the generals behind such cruelty did not receive any widespread resentment for their actions. In fact, with the exception of Buller, both Kitchener and Roberts were praised for their part in the war. While Buller faced criticism for his part in the war, having been the leader when the British army was ill prepared and naïve, earning himself the nickname ‘sir reverse’. Robert was praised for taking over from Buller and turning the war around in their favour. Meanwhile, Kitchener became one of the most notable individuals in British warfare.

While many people today may not know about Britain’s history with its cruel use of concentration camps, many people today can recognise Kitchener’s face, even if they do not know his name or his actions in the Boer war. More people in Britain will know Kitchener as the secretary of state for war in World War one or for his most famous and influential recruitment posters. In a disheartening manner, the legacy of the Boer war being a lesson in the cruelty of concentration camps is overshadowed by Kitchener’s controversial figure. His actions in the Boer war which assisted his growing reputation in warfare and glamourisation of the war and his name assisted him in becoming the sectary of state for war in 1914.

In many ways, such instances as these showcase Britain’s attitude towards its imperial history, as there are many praised imperialists that are known for their more likeable actions than their unacceptable or unpleasant actions. As seen can be seen with two other significant influencers in the romanticisation of the Boer War and Britain’s empire, for instance, Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill. [10]

Reporting on the Boer war

Advancements in technology meant that during the Boer war telegrams could be sent back home quickly, ensuring everyone back in Britain got news of the events unfolding faster than wars before it. Newspapers reporting on the war were mostly in the conservative party’s favour, therefore, producing pro-war content. Any news sources owned by the army also were heavily censored. The most notoriously anti-war newspaper at the time was the Manchester Guardian, it was the newspaper responsible for publishing the Hobhouse reports. Individuals such as Winston Churchill, who would later become Prime Minister, was a war correspondent for the Morning Post. [11]

Along with advancements in reporting on the war, photographs of the war were also taken and delivered back to the United Kingdom. An example of the impact of photography in the Boer war can be seen through Sion Kop, where as its aftermath, photographs of dead British soldiers on top of a hill were published, adding to the growing opposition of the war and criticisms of Buller’s leadership. This event was not published in most conservative newspapers but garnered the attention of Queen Victoria who sent over donations of chocolate and clothes to the British forces in South Africa in response.

With these advancements in technology, a more honest portrayal of the realities of war could be realised by the British public (who unless had some experience with the effects of war) who previously only had idealised heroic tales to build their comprehension of the realities of war. [12]

Public attitudes to the Boer war and their legacy

The public response to any incompetence and cruelty from the British army inflicted on the Boers during the time was mixed with anti-war sentiment and with patriotic imperialism.  

In Britain, not only did the families of the soldiers fighting in the war show interest in the reporting of the war but there was a growing large public interest in the Boer war. This growing interest stemmed from the ever-present ever-growing sense of patriotism and positive attitude towards imperialism. Due to this, the Boer war is a point in Britain’s history that highlights the nation’s relationship with the empire and its jingoism so evidently that it is almost criminal how overlooked this war is in the education of British history.

During the period of the Boer War, there were numerous forms of popular culture and media that promoted imperialism and jingoism, for example, the Boys of our empire magazine. A magazine targeted towards young boys that romanticised the British empire by making out wars and conflicts to be adventurous.

Poetry has been a consistent form of expression for soldiers during the war, in the 1890’s more poetry anthologies were published than in previous decades. [13] Steve Attridge, in his book, ‘nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture, [14] highlights William Earnest Henley as a key figure behind pro imperialistic poetry during the Boer war. He also highlights Thomas Hardy poetry, which contrastingly to Henley, was critical of the war but also fell prey to praising the supposed heroism of a soldier’s sacrifice. [15] The themes of heroism and sacrifice during the tragedy of war that the poets of the Boer war executed in their writings would continue on to the poets of the first world war. With this in mind, it can be said that poetry is another key part of the ongoing legacy of the Boer war. [16]

Jingoistic attitudes were promoted in popular culture by influential writers as well, such as Rudyard Kipling. His work was often colonial and racist, justifying colonialism as “the white man’s burden” in one of his poems.

During the Boer war, many individuals were put on a heroic pedestal to the public, which painted the war in a romanticised way. For instance, Baden Powell who sent out telegraphs during Mafeking, (A well-known name today due to girl guiding associations.) was elevated as a hero in war. Another example of how individuals were presented in a heroic manner rather than as victims of war.

Attridge delves into the importance of music halls in Victorian popular culture and their effects on the public opinion of the war. Therefore, music halls were devices used to represent current affairs, often working faster than any publications or news sources. [17] He states that many historians reflecting on the impact of music halls view the entertainment produced to be reflective of the upper-class’ and middle classes imperialistic views as most dramas presented in its halls were a pro empire. Music-halls were also used for in sighting propaganda and justifying jingoistic, xenophobic, and racist attitudes towards those Britain was actively fighting and oppressing. One example being, Paul Kruger, the president of the Boer’s representation in purely antagonistic roles. [18] This was a biased portrayal as it was not representative of the wider connotations that the Boer’s had. Made worse when considering that the Victorian’s were capable of representing the complexities of a soldiers experiences in the war, highlighting just how partisan the music halls were. 

With Attridge’s explanations of the music halls, it is clear to see how widespread and normalised jingoistic attitudes were in Britain during the Boer war. And while Attridge implies this support for this particular flavour of nationalism quickly declined as the empire went into decline, it can be argued this change was only present in due to a rise in humanitarian concerns in the war due to the impact of World War One. Therefore, in the current day wartime patriotism has been replaced with a nostalgic patriotism for an empire long gone. [19]

The British imperialistic attitude of then and the lingering taste of it now has and will always be conceited and cold heart hearted. 

Anti-war sentiment during the Boer war

According to Stephen Koss, in his book ‘The Pro Boers’ the anti-war sentiment during the Boer war was not based on a common identity. Instead, those who opposed the war were actively setting out to change the attitudes surrounding the war. Some were disgusted by the actions taken during the war and some were against the reasons for the war. Many were set out to redefine imperial relationships and stop the war all together. Either way, the discussion around war was changing. Now, with improvements in news and technology, more people could know about the war and form their own opinions. More truthful representations of the realities of war were represented. The invincibility of an empire was put more into question as with events such as Black week saw the British crushed by who they saw as a force weaker to their armies. The Boer war further questioned the morality of an empire. With its cruel war tactics and with the unjustified finical gains behind Britain engaging in the Boer war, many domestically found themselves being pro-Boer rather than supporting their own country in war. [20]

Concluding remarks

Educating and acknowledging both the good, bad and the ugly aspects of history is a topic Britain seems hesitant to address. The Boer war is a shining example of an event in history that should be more educated to the public. Instead, the Boer war is widely overlooked and overshadowed by other events in history. Avoiding the brutalities in the war when the one committing the atrocities is close to home, is a common theme in Britain’s (and many other countries with imperial pasts) approach to education on its history. This present attitude today suggests that although anti-war sentiment during the Boer war did raise the voice of anti-imperialist sentiment domestically in Britain, the tie to imperialist sentiment remains. Meaning not much has changed and Britain is still divided between those who romanticise and praise the old empire and those who oppose the glorification of colonialism.

Another aspect of the war legacy is how significant it was in increasing public interest in war, due to its influential figures, pop culture and technological advancements which allowed the news to send quicker than before. For better or for worse, there was now a growing public interest in the war that was becoming less glorified and more open to the morbid realities, due to photography and growing anti-war sentiments.

Anti-war sentiment was arguably stronger coming away from the Boer war, as evident through the Liberal party’s majority [21] in the following election after the war in 1906. There had been an attitude shift with the public. While this political shift has not been a consistent factor in the modern day, anti-war sentiment is most certainly the stance of the majority within Britain now compared to then.

The Boer War also shattered the former expectation that the British empire’s army was ‘invincible’. While Britain was certainly no stranger to losing wars, it had an attitude of superiority, particularly when concerning colonial wars. Hence, not only taking the Boer war as experience for the wars to come but as another reminder, not to underestimate who you are up against.

[1] John Gooch (2000). The Boer war. London: Frank Cass publishers.

[2] John Gooch (2000). The Boer war. London: Frank Cass publishers. Introduction. Pages: xiii to xvi.

[3] John Gooch (2000). The Boer war. London: Frank Cass publishers. Introduction. Page: xv.

[4] Stephan Koss (1973). The Pro-Boers. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. Intorcudcution. Page xviii to page xxvi.

[5] Stephan Koss (1973). The Pro-Boers. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. Chronology of events. Pages xxxix to x1.

[6] Stephan Koss (1973). The Pro-Boers. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. Introduction. Page xviii.

[7] John Gooch (2000). The Boer war. London: Frank Cass publishers. Introduction. Page: xvii to xix.

[8] John Gooch (2000). The Boer war. London: Frank Cass publishers. Introduction. Page: xvii.

[9] Stephan Koss (1973). The Pro-Boers. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. Introduction. Page xxxvi.

[10] Steve Attridge (2003) Nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture. Reconstruction of the Hero. Page 175.

[11] Stephan Koss (1973). The Pro-Boers. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. Introduction. Page xxx to xxxii.

[12] John Gooch (2000). The Boer war. London: Frank Cass publishers. ‘To the Front’: British Newspaper Advertising and the Boer war, Glenn R. Wilkinson. Page 203 to 212.

[13] Steve Attridge (2003) Nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture. Popular Poetry of the Boer War. Page 107.

[14] Steve Attridge (2003) Nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture. Popular Poetry of the Boer War.

[15] Steve Attridge (2003) Nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture. Popular Poetry of the Boer War. Page 107 to 108.

[16] Steve Attridge (2003) Nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture. Popular Poetry of the Boer War. Page 107 to 138.

[17] Steve Attridge (2003) Nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture. The Music Hall. Page 22 to 23.

[18] Steve Attridge (2003) Nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture. The Music Hall. Page 24 to 25.

[19] [16] Steve Attridge (2003) Nationalism, imperialism and identity in late Victorian culture. The Music Hall. Pages 16 to 43.

[20] Stephan Koss (1973). The Pro-Boers. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. Introduction. Page xxxiv to xxxvii.

[21] Stephan Koss (1973). The Pro-Boers. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press. Introduction. Page xxxvii to X1.