There are a great many myths and misconceptions which surround the Boer War, but arguably the biggest of the lot is that of ‘who started it?’. On the face of it, this is a fairly straight-forward question to answer – or so one would think. It is undeniable, for example, that the republics mobilised first, and equally so that it was they who issued an Ultimatum and then declared war. It is also undeniable that, upon declaring war, it was the republics who then sent invasion forces across their borders (in all directions) to capture and annex British territory.
Nevertheless, even these blatant, indisputable historical realities do not deter their voluble gaggle of latter-day apologists from shamelessly peddling the falsehood that ‘the British attacked us!’ – nonsense which is unthinkingly lapped up by many.
The notion of the war being sparked by a British attack on the Transvaal is patently false. Negotiations had, of course, been taking place between HM Government and that of Kruger’s republic, and the British were indeed bringing diplomatic pressure to bear on his regime to address the blatant unfairness of the republic’s franchise rules. Using diplomatic means in this way was hardly unique in history, however: during 1941, for example, the US was locked in negotiations with Japan, and was putting infinitely stronger diplomatic pressure on them than the British ever had on the Transvaal – including freezing their assets, closing the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping, and slapping an embargo on oil supplies[i]. Few seriously claim that this means the USA were the ones who started the conflict with Japan in the Second World War; these were non-military measures, aimed at resolving the crisis without resorting to war – the sort of ‘sanctions’, indeed, so liked by those who today oppose any and all military action.
A handful of Kruger’s modern-day apologists do admit – very grudgingly – that the Boers were indeed the ones who started the war by attacking the British. However, they then seek to twist and turn their way out of this awkward predicament, by squealing that the wicked Brits ‘forced’ them to attack, and thus Kruger’s invasions of British territory were not really aggressive in nature at all, but actually completely innocent, and perfectly legitimate, ‘pre-emptive attacks’.
Unfortunately for those eager to hide behind this fig leaf of supposed ‘legitimacy’, Kruger’s invasions would most certainly not qualify as legitimate pre-emptive attacks under the ‘Caroline test’[ii], a customary international law dating from the 19th Century, and which was reaffirmed by the Nuremberg Trails after World War 2. The operative phrase of the Caroline test was that the necessity for pre-emptive self-defence must be “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation” – this was later refined to: “an instant and overwhelming necessity”
Furthermore, to ‘pass’ the Caroline test, the pre-emptive strike must meet two distinct requirements:
· The use of force must be necessary because the threat is imminent and thus pursuing peaceful alternatives is not an option (ie. necessity)
· The response must be proportionate to the threat (ie. proportionality)
None of which even remotely describes Kruger’s situation in October 1899, nor his response to that situation. The ‘threat’ to the Transvaal in October 1899 was certainly not ‘imminent’ – indeed, it was almost non-existent. And even had the British been massing invasion forces on Kruger’s borders (which they were not), responding by launching pre-emptive attacks aimed, not at shattering such forces before they could strike, but instead at capturing and annexing Natal, Bechuanaland, Griqualand West and most of the Cape Colony, would not be considered to be a ‘proportionate’ reaction to this.
As the need to reaffirm the long-standing Caroline test at the Nuremberg Trials suggests, the attempt to justify blatant acts of aggression by claiming them to be ‘pre-emptive attacks’ has been used by plenty of other unsavoury regimes throughout history; amazingly, even Hitler’s invasion of the USSR is excused by some as a ‘pre-emptive strike’, launched in the nick-of-time and only because Stalin was planning to do exactly the same to Germany. Despite the fact that Stalin was an unelected, psychopathic dictator, that the USSR had recently invaded and annexed the Baltic States, plus parts of Finland, Poland and Romania, and that hundreds of thousands of Red Army troops were indeed on the border, other than a few neo-Nazis, no one takes this attempted white-washing of Hitler’s blatant aggression seriously.
And yet, if anything, the notion that the Boer invasions of 1899 were legitimate ‘pre-emptive’ attacks is actually even more ludicrous than the claims that Germany’s 1941 invasion of the USSR was. The phrase suggests, of course, that Kruger launched in his invasions to ‘pre-empt’ an imminent British invasion – as though hundreds of thousands of Imperial troops were massing on the borders, threats had been issued and the republican leadership had intelligence reports confirming an attack could happen at any moment.
Needless to say, this quite simply was not the case, and even just a few weeks before the Boers invaded, the British were still blissfully unaware of what was looming. The officer commanding Her Majesty’s troops in South Africa, Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler, had ‘been informed that there was no special reason to fear immediate war and was ordered to curtail long-authorized military expenditure’ and though the Rhodesian authorities asked the Imperial Government for arms, the War Office continued to cut down establishments. When a group of prominent Uitlanders approached General Butler, offering to raise a regiment of Light Horse from those expelled from / fleeing Johannesburg, he replied: ‘England is not preparing for war, even if the Transvaal is preparing.’
The post-war 1903 Royal Commission highlighted the lack of any plan for war in South Africa as one of its primary findings. When this astonishing failing was revealed, The Spectator thundered that the report was so damning as to be ‘surely one of the most amazing documents to which a General can ever have had to sign his name. Not only had there been no preparation for the Boer War, but there had been no preparation for any war of any kind whatever. Every arrangement that was made seems to have been made on the supposition that the British nation, even three weeks before the Boer commandos marched into Natal, was about to enjoy the blessings of eternal peace.’
Quite simply, and as much as it upsets their latter-day apologists, far from being poised to strike a moment’s notice, the British army had absolutely no plan in place for war in South Africa, let alone one to invade the Boer republics.
And as well as having no intention of, or plan to, invade the republics, HM Government had no troops to do it with either. Pre-war intelligence estimates reckoned the British army would need to field 200,000 men in the event of war with the Boers, yet there was only about 10% of that number in theatre when Kruger launched his invasions – confirming without a shadow of doubt that no British attack was ‘imminent’ (and one should also bear in mind that Britain’s standing regular army was only 227,300 strong in any case). Furthermore, those few Imperial troops which were in theatre were by no means massing on the borders of the republics: in Natal, the bulk were in Ladysmith, well back from the frontier, while – under intense pressure from the Natalian government and against the wishes of the High Command – Yule’s 8th Brigade had been moved to Dundee to defend the coal mines there. The tiny Imperial garrisons in Kimberley and Mafeking cannot be construed by any rational person as ‘invasion forces’.
Of course, the strategic / political situation could conceivably have changed over the next few years, but that is not the same as any such threat being ‘imminent’. Such crystal ball gazing, thumb-sucking and guess work is hardly justification for invading ones neighbours and annexing great tracts of their land, and would most certainly fail the Caroline test.
To further shatter the cosy fantasy that Kruger’s invasions of 1899 were legitimate ‘pre-emptive attacks’, it is probably worth taking a moment to compare the situation in which the Transvaal found itself in October 1899, to that of Israel in June 1967 – the month her armed forces launched what is arguably the most cited pre-emptive attack in military history.
In May, 1967, Egypt’s General Nasser, fearful of looking weak in the face of an ongoing spat between Israel and Syria (and ever eager to be seen as the leader of the Arab world) demanded the withdrawal of the UN peace keepers (UNEF)[iii] which acted as a buffer force in the Sinai Desert. Casting aside the Egyptian High Command’s established “Khair” plan (which saw Egyptian units holding defensive positions deep in the Sinai Desert, well away from the frontier), Nasser instead demanded they mass on the border with Israel, and mobilised his reserves on the 20th of May:
A momentum was gathering that could seriously erode Israel’s deterrence power, to the point where the Arabs felt free to attack. That danger seemed to skyrocket between the nights of May 15 and 16. Initial IDF estimates had put the size of the Egyptian buildup at one division (10,000 men), this in addition to the 30,000 troops already stationed in Sinai and the 10,000-man Palestine Liberation Army division maintained in Gaza. Then the numbers jumped threefold. The 2nd and 7th Infantry Divisions had also crossed the Suez Canal, and the 6th Armored Division was not far behind. Significantly, the 4th Division under the command of Maj. Gen. Sidqi al-Ghul had crossed the Canal and dug in at Bir al-Thamada. Each of these units comprised 15,000 men, close to 100 T–54 and T–55 tanks, 150 armored personnel carriers, and a range of Soviet artillery: howitzers, heavy mortars, Katyusha rockets, and SU–100 anti-tank guns. Along with these forces came vast amounts of ammunition, MiG–17 and 21 fighters, and—IDF intelligence believed—canisters of poison gas.
As well as this enormous build-up on Israel’s south-west border, on the 22nd of May, Egyptian forces also blocked the Straits of Tiran (and thus the southern port of Eilat, through which 90% of Israel’s oil arrived) for the first time since the 1956 Suez Crisis: an action which was itself an act of war under international law.
In addition to the military build-up, and the blockading of Eilat, Nasser and his allies took to the airwaves to issue endless threats to Israel:
“Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight . . . The mining of Sharm el Sheikh is a confrontation with Israel. Adopting this measure obligates us to be ready to embark on a general war with Israel.” – Nasser, May 27, 1967
“We plan to open a general assault on Israel. This will be total war. Our basic aim is the destruction of Israel.”– Nasser, May 28, 1967
“The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel . . . . to face the challenge, while standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived. We have reached the stage of serious action and not declarations.” – Nasser, May, 30, 1967 after signing a defense pact with Jordan’s King Hussein
“The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear – to wipe Israel off the map. We shall, God willing, meet in Tel Aviv and Haifa.” – President Abdel Rahman Aref of Iraq, May 31, 1967
“We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants and as for the survivors – if there are any – the boats are ready to deport them.” – Shukairy, Palestinian leader, June 1, 1967, speaking at a Friday sermon in Jerusalem
“We want war. War is the only way to settle the problem of Israel. The Arabs are ready.” – Yemeni Foreign Minister Salam
Cairo Radio also gleefully joined the party:
May 19, 1967: “This is our chance Arabs, to deal Israel a mortal blow of annihilation, to blot out its entire presence in our holy land”
May 22, 1967: “The Arab people is firmly resolved to wipe Israel off the map”
May 25, 1967: “The Gulf of Aqaba, by the dictum of history and the protection of our soldiers, is Arab, Arab, Arab.”
May 27, 1967: “We challenge you, Eshkol, to try all your weapons. Put them to the test; they will spell Israel’s death and annihilation.”
May 30, 1967: “With the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel is faced with two alternatives either of which will destroy it; it will either be strangled to death by the Arab military and economic boycott, or it will perish by the fire of the Arab forces encompassing it from the South from the North and from the East.”
Needless to say, the Transvaal of 1899 was under absolutely nothing like this sort of threat or pressure. Lord Salisbury had not built a multi-national coalition, openly hell-bent on wiping the republic off the map. ‘Pushful’ Joe Chamberlain was not ranting about the destruction of the Transvaal, nor was Lord Milner issuing threats of annihilation. Imperial troops were not massing on her borders at all sides, nor was she under a crippling blockade.
To the confused bewilderment of her enemies, Israel decided to strike first, launching devastating attacks against several of her neighbours on the 5th of June. This onslaught continued until the 10th – which marked the end of what became known as the Six-Day War. Perhaps fearful that world opinion would be against them, Israel had initially pretended that they were attacked first, with the Israeli Ambassador to the UN being instructed to: “inform immediately the President of the Sec. Co. that Israel is now engaged in repelling Egyptian land and air forces.” Israeli delegates to the UN maintained this fiction for a short time, swearing blind at an emergency Security Council meeting on the 5th June that “in the early hours of this morning Egyptian armoured columns moved in an offensive thrust against Israel’s borders. At the same time Egyptian planes took off from airfields in Sinai and struck out towards Israel. Egyptian artillery in the Gaza strip shelled the Israel villages of Kissufim, Nahal-Oz and Ein Hashelosha…”
US intelligence quickly confirmed these claims to be fabrications but even after Israel confessed they had indeed launched a pre-emptive strike, most observers – outside the Arab world, at least – initially considered this to be a justified response to the situation Israel found itself to be in. Even the UN Charter seemed to concur:
Why? Because the threats were incontestably imminent. Egypt and other Arab states began moving troops to the Israeli borders, occupying the Sinai Peninsula, the west bank and Gaza strip. This was a clear strategy to surround Israel and consequently was a clear threat to the freedom of Israel. Israel claimed its attack was defensive in nature and necessary to forestall an Arab invasion. This reflects Walzer’s[iv] case for a just pre-emptive war on the grounds of these three pillars. First, a manifest intent to injure, second, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and third, a general situation in which waiting or doing anything other than fighting greatly magnifies the risk.
Pre-emptive war is universally recognized as an anticipatory use of force… when both individuals and states defend themselves against violence that is imminent but not actual; they can fire the first shots if they know themselves about to be attacked.
Despite Walzer’s definitions, none of this is entirely set in stone, however. Modern day proponents of pre-emptive action often cite Article 51 of the United Nations Charter which explicitly protects “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” The prevailing view, however, is that Article 51 clearly states that pre-emptive action is not permissible merely on the perception of the possibility of an attack: “there is no self-appointed right to attack another state because of fear that the state is making plans or developing weapons usable in a hypothetical campaign.”
Ultimately, whether or not a given pre-emptive war is ‘justified’ really comes down to the interpretation of what constitutes an ‘imminent threat’, as one astute observer points out:
It is this confusion and blurred definition which leads to states acting out of aggression and uncertainty rather than a solid justified move which can constitute a pre-emptive war.
Given that the Israeli of June 1967 was under infinitely greater – and infinitely more imminent – threat than was the Transvaal of October 1899, it is interesting to note that recently some have started doubting the legitimacy of Israel’s ‘pre-emptive’ strike, claiming that, although it comes close, it would not actually pass the ‘Caroline test’:
“The closest case that might have, but is now regarded as not having met the Caroline test, was Israel’s first strike against Egypt in 1967. Few regard it as a good example of a permissible anticipatory attack under the Caroline test, especially after it became clear following the attack that there was no overwhelming threat that justified the attack to ensure Israel’s survival. Many States criticized the attack, which made it clear that the attack would not serve as a precedent to legitimize “a general right of anticipatory self defense.”
“Commentators have defended Israel’s attack on Egypt in 1967 on the same logic. Israel stated that it had convincing intelligence that Egypt would attack and that Egyptian preparations were underway. We now know that Israel acted on less than convincing evidence. Thus, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war does not provide an actual example of lawful anticipatory self-defense.”
Writing in 2007, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephan Walt of Harvard University declared that, despite all the threats and military build-up, newly released documents proved that ‘the Arabs did not intend to initiate war against Israel in the late spring of 1967, much less try to destroy the Jewish State’.
Michael Mandel of Osgoode Hall Law School described the Six-Day War as ‘a war of choice, launched by Israel at a propitious moment when Israel was fairly confident of victory, to ward off a looming threat from Egypt, real enough, but certainly not imminent’. Richard Falk, writing in 2012, took a similar line, asserting that the view that Israel acted in self-defence was ‘increasingly contested by diplomatic historians…’ the reality instead being that Israel saw ‘an opportunity to destroy the military capabilities’ of her neighbours, and ‘a war of aggression was portrayed as a war of necessity’.
So if even Israel in 1967 – a nation surrounded by enemies who were openly calling for her annihilation and who had blockaded the port through which 90% of her oil arrived – did not have a cast-iron case for launching pre-emptive strikes, how on earth can anyone claim the Transvaal did? While her Arab enemies were massed on Israel’s borders in 1967, the Transvaal of 1899 was in totally different position. Britain’s army was scattered in penny-packets all across the globe and it was the Boer republics which enjoyed significant numerical superiority in Southern Africa. No one could deny that Israel was in much more imminent danger than the Transvaal ever was, and yet we have seen that today many observers nevertheless claim that even the Israeli ‘pre-emptive’ attacks were actually unjustified acts of aggression, aimed at smashing their enemies and seizing territory to give their defences strategic depth.
What is interesting is that, while today’s historians and students of strategic studies quite rightly ponder whether or not Israel really did face ‘imminent destruction’ which warranted a ‘pre-emptive strike’, there are very few who ever bother to ask the same question about the Transvaal, even though it quite clearly was under much less threat than Israel; indeed, it can be reasonably argued that it was actually under no threat whatsoever.
Though those who eagerly lap up Apartheid-era propaganda will never admit this, the Boer invasions were by no means legitimate ‘pre-emptive attacks’ as they utterly fail the Caroline test. Regardless of the tensions and the on-going diplomatic spat in late 1899, no one could seriously claim that the Transvaal was in imminent danger of invasion – that is complete nonsense: Britain had not issued any such threats and had a tiny number of troops in theatre, even if one includes the reinforcements en route.
Instead, and rather like Richard Falk’s description of the Six-Day War, Kruger actually launched ‘a war of aggression… portrayed as a war of necessity’. It is undeniable that Kruger had many other options available to him in October 1899 – it’s just that none of them interested him in the least. His aim was never to ‘pre-empt’ a mythical invasion, but rather to drive the British out of Southern Africa. There is no doubt that, had the UN been around at the time, they would have roundly condemned his aggressive action, rather than buying into the revisionist fallacy that his invasions were justified ‘pre-emptive attacks’.
Though some desperately attempt to mask his aggression with a veneer of legitimacy, perhaps Kruger’s decision to attack the British Empire is best summed up by President Truman: “There is nothing more foolish than to think that war can be stopped by war. You don’t ‘prevent’ anything by war except peace”
[i] Japan imported 93% of her copper and 80% of her oil and gasoline from the US at the time
[ii] In 1837, there was a rebellion by settlers in Upper Canada / Ontario. Some of their American supporters sent them supplies in a boat called the Caroline, but British forces responded to this by entering the officially neutral USA, capturing the Caroline, setting her on fire and then – for good measure – sending her over Niagara Falls. The British maintained this was an act of self-defence, while the American authorities took a different view.
[iii] UNEF: United Nations Emergency Force. This was the first such UN peace keeping mission in its history, with a multinational force sent to the Sinai in the wake of the Suez Crisis of 1956 to act as a buffer between Nasser’s Egypt and Israel
[iv] Michael Walzer, ‘Just and Unjust Wars – A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations’