Judd and Surridge have written a comprehensive yet approachable book about the Second Boer War in The Boer War: A History. This conflict between the British coastal Cape Colony of South Africa and the two independent Boer Republics, the Transvaal, and Orange Free State, in the interior, lasted from October 1899 to October 1902.
The Boers were descendants of seventeenth century Dutch and French religious dissenters who sought refuge in South Africa. So, this was a white man’s, colonial war, in a country overwhelming black. Rich gold and diamond fields were discovered in the Boer Republics, and Great Britain, eager for this wealth and to consolidate their hold on all of South Africa, sought an excuse for war.
They found one, and the British initially lost many of the opening battles due to a shortage of men and equipment, and a lack of knowledge of the country (which of course the Boers knew very well). The British believed this would be a short war, and everyone would be home by Christmas. This common refrain about the quick war proved to be untrue in this case as well. The British got bogged down in sieges of important inland towns, and only when the Empire could marshal large numbers of men, over half a million, did the scales finally tip.
But even with the conquest of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, hostilities did not end. The Boers, accustomed to operating in small units called commandos, began a guerrilla war against the British, extending the expensive conflict, which was increasingly unpopular at home. In attempts to stop Boer farmers, mostly women and children, from supplying food to commando units, the British burned Boer farms suspected of collusion, or sometimes just in the wrong location, and incarcerated Boer civilians in concentration camps. Conditions in many were deplorable, and thousands of civilians died of undernourishment and disease.
The Boer War, occurring on the cusp of the twentieth century, became a marker signifying the limitation of being a Great Power. Judd and Surridge show again and again how Great Britain could not completely defeat the Boers – or only did after paying a far greater cost than they estimated. We have seen this again and again in the hundred years since the Boer War, in different places among different combatants. A smaller force, on its home turf, can either win a war against a war larger adversary, or make them pay a heavy price for their occupation.