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Wednesday, November 10, 1999 Published at 15:13 GMT

World: Africa

Imperialism in the dock - the Boer War

Flashpoint: South Africa in 1899

It was called "The Last of the Gentleman's Wars", but the Boer War, of 1899-1902 was in fact far from gentlemanly.

It took the vast force of the British Army three years of fighting, three huge sieges and many battles with considerable loss of life, to overwhelm the Boers (Afrikaners) and achieve victory.

At least 25,000 Afrikaners died in the war, most of them in concentration camps. The war also claimed 22,000 British and 12,000 African lives.

And now the descendants of the Boers want an apology from the Queen.

[ image: Boers besiege Mafeking]
Boers besiege Mafeking
South Africa in 1899 was an uneasy mix of Boer states, the Transvaal and Orange Free State, occupied by Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch and French settlers, and the British self-governing colonies of Cape Colony and Natal.

But to make matters worse between the Boers and the British, thousands of Uitlanders (foreigners, mainly English) had been drawn to the Transvaal by the gold rush.

By the 1890s they were paying a considerable amount of tax and demanded equal rights.

But the Afrikaners refused and when the British refused a demand to stop reinforcing their troops around the Transvaal, war broke out.

In the end, the Afrikaners were subjected to British rule.

[ image: Women wash their clothes at a concentration camp]
Women wash their clothes at a concentration camp
But in the intervening years, the bloodshed and cost on both sides was immense.

During the first phase, the militarily weak British - fighting in a hostile country over difficult terrain with long lines of communications - were put on the back foot.

Boer armies attacked on two fronts, into Natal from the Transvaal and into the northern Cape from the Orange Free State.

In the course of Black Week (10-15 December 1899) the Boers defeated the British in a number of major engagements and besieged the key towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley.

However, large numbers of British reinforcements were being landed, and slowly the war turned in Britain's favour.

The British, under Lord Kitchener and Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts, relieved the besieged towns, beat the Boers in the field, and took Bloemfontein in February 1900, followed by Johannesburg and Pretoria in May and June.

[ image: A farm is burned in the scorched earth policy]
A farm is burned in the scorched earth policy
But the war was by no means over, and at the end of 1900 it entered upon its most destructive phase.

For 15 months Boer commandos attacked British bases and Kitchener responded a scorched-earth policy.

The farms of Boers and Africans were destroyed and the Boer inhabitants of the countryside were rounded up and held in concentration camps.

The plight of the Boer women and children in these camps became an international outrage - more than 20,000 died in the carelessly run, unhygienic camps.

The commandos continued their attacks, many of them deep into the Cape Colony, General Jan Smuts leading his forces to within 80km (50 miles) of Cape Town.

But Kitchener's drastic and brutal methods slowly paid off. The Boers had unsuccessfully sued for peace in March 1901; finally, they accepted the loss of their independence by the Peace of Vereeniging.

While certain Afrikaners are calling for an apology from the Queen, Sussex University lecturer Dr Saul Dubow, an expert in modern South African history, told BBC News Online that their demands were "specious".

He said: "Overall, the British were the aggressors, but the primary blame for the deaths in the concentration camps has much more to do with incompetence and lack of medical care than a deliberate attempt to kill.

"It seems specious to demand an apology 100 years on.

"It cheapens and reduces history to a morality tale and an apology in this context does not serve any purpose."

Photographs courtesy of the Anglo Boer Museum.

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