Epic sieges: Boer and British participation and Imperial perspectives

Epic sieges: Boer and British participation and Imperial perspectives


Although the British and Boers had a tradition of conducting siege warfare, the sieges of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith have always attracted controversy. With hindsight many historians argue that the Boers should have pressed home their early advantages by sustaining their advance into British territory rather than wasting men, ammunition, and time in sieges that ultimately proved futile. Similarly British historians complain that the sieges wrecked Buller’s strategy and led into costly relief expeditions. Arguably these sieges may have been unavoidable, especially in respect of Mafeking and Ladysmith, and even if their largely passive, artillery-based conduct could have been more robust, it too was in keeping with the culture of a risk-averse citizen army.

After the reports of ‘empty’ battlefields, and the shock of defeats and surrenders, British and imperial opinion took comfort from the determination displayed by those besieged. The siege commentary – uncensored letters, diaries, and later images and materials – reported in the British press testified to the impression that these events were a test of wills, leadership, resilience, and above all, pluck. They stirred memories (and myths) about previous colonial sieges, and provided insights upon the emotions aroused by these events (beyond the monotony and boredom) and the perceptions of the enemy, the involvement of Blacks, and the sense of imperial destiny.

Underused by many historians, this evidence provides scant support for the radical critiques of Gardner (1966), Price (1972), Judd and Surridge (2002) and Porter (2012) while amplifying the writings on popular imperialism by MacKenzie (1992, 1993 & 1998), Richards (2001) and Spiers (2006). By reviewing experiences in all three sieges, fresh light can be shed on British and colonial attitudes, concerns about Boer tactics, and the eruption of extraordinary scenes across the English-speaking empire after the relief of Mafeking.


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