Outbreak of War

Initially the war was regarded as a big adventure by many--especially the younger generation. For the many foreign volunteers who streamed to South Africa from Europe, America and Asia, the war presented an opportunity to see the world, possibly obtain fortune, and especially, to earn respect, admiration and social recognition. Most would change their point of view dramatically after only a few weeks on commando. It would be a war of bitter annihilation--not a war of glory.


President Paul Kruger and Sir Alfred Milner departing after the failed Bloemfontein conference in June 1899.

During the years that preceded the war, many attempts were made to try and avert a war by means of diplomacy. All of them failed. Subsequent events proved that the British High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milder, saw war as the only means by which to obtain control of South Africa and had actively done everything he could to bring about a war between Great Britain and the Transvaal.

President Kruger was an old man and a veteran of many battles. He did not want war with anybody, least of all the British Empire. He had once told his young State Secretary, Dr. Willem Leyds, "Young man, you don't know the English. I do. You should argue with them-dispute with them-negotiate with them -- but don't fight with them."

At the Bloemfontein Conference, Milner went out of his way to provoke hostilities until it became clear to Kruger that there would never be a chance to have peace. Finally he cried with tears in his eyes, "you want my country!" With that, the conference came to a dead end and two peoples embarked on a journey from which both would ultimately emerge tattered and much the worse for wear.

After the Bloemfontein Conference, both sides hastened to make preparations for a war that everybody knew would come. The Transvaal ordered all the war materials it could, whilst Britain openly started massing troops and war supplies along the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State Republic.

President Kruger from the South African Republic, and President Steyn of the Orange Free State Republic knew that if they would stand any chance of beating off the coming attack, they had to strike first--before the enemy was ready. In October 1899 the Republic delivered an ultimatum to the British Empire--demanding their full independent rights as republics, free of foreign interference. The ultimatum expired, upon which the commandos were dispatched to the fronts in haste. In England the news was greeted with joy by many. The British Prime Minister, Joseph Chamberlain, was of the opinion that the difficulties that were foreseen regarding a war in South Africa were greatly exaggerated. The general public seemed to think likewise, as they sang "We'll hang old Kruger on a sour apple tree," to the tune of "John Brown's Body." In England, the newspapers called it the "tea time war"--a war that would be over by tea time. In a more serious vein, it was openly declared that the war would be open by Christmas. Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

As for Kruger, he knew that the fight ahead would be one so great that all the many other battles of his entire life, would pale into insignificance. Yet, he had once firmly declared that, "the Republics are determined, if they must belong to England that a price will have to be paid which will stagger humanity." These words would prove to be prophetic.

The Republics March to War

An ammunition waggon of the State Artillery is being prepared to be railed to the front, as mountains of war supplies were being prepared to follow suit. 

Men were eager to take photographs to send to their loved ones at home. Of the large commandos who assembled so cheerfully for the picture, many would never return home. A large number would be captured during the war and sent to Prisoner of War camps, some would surrender and exit the war in that manner, and many others would turn traitor against their own people.

This might be part of the Irish Brigade under Colonel John Blake--proudly posing during the Boer offensive.

Initially the period at the fronts when the commandos waited for supplies and men to assemble, proved to be a time of fun and games, but that would not last long.