Lies, damn lies and… ‘statistics’

Imagine my amusement when I came across this question on Quora, and the answer below:

How would history be different if the British had lost the Boer Wars in 1899-1902?


Tiaan van Schalkwyk, studied at University of Pretoria

Answered Feb 5, 2017

First some statistics about the Anglo-Boer War. Before the war started, the British had budgeted that the war would last 3 months at a million pounds per month. It ended up lasting almost 3 years and costing 270–290 million pounds. Even if you work it backwards it amounts to about 9 million pounds per month – far more than the estimated 1 million pounds per month.

During this time, around 7,000 Boer soldiers died, 25,000 British soldiers lost their lives, and while the records reflect different numbers, it is accepted that around 29,000 Boer woman and children died in British concentration camps (History records vary between 21,000 and 34,000). Also, a great number of blacks (again, the numbers aren’t clear) died. Estimates are between 15,000 to 20,000. Thats a total of around 80,000 people that died. The reason why i mention the numbers is because of the following fact: More than 650,000 horses died during the war – Most (like more than 90%) of them belonging to the British army. Considering just that one fact, one can see how the war’s cost had escalated so quickly.

Why is the money so important? For the following reason: The British HAD to win the war-if they didn’t, the British Empire would’ve been bankrupt (or very close to bankruptcy at the very least). Remember that winning the Anglo-Boer war would also mean that the victor gains all the gold mines (gold was discovered 13 years before the start of the war). Hence the Concentration camps and the British’ “Scorched Earth” policy, to force the Boers into surrendering.

Assuming that the Boers won the war, they would’ve left the British with a crippled empire, and thus be vulnerable to any other rising empire to “take over” so to speak. Remember that this was before the forming of the “League of Nations” (the precursor to the UN) and colonialism was still the popular means of expanding your nations economic wealth. Germany at that time was considered the next “rising empire” although still very small compared to the British empire that covered almost a third of the globe during the start of the Anglo-Boer war. Had the Boers crippled this empire, it would be reasonable to assume that the Germans would’ve advanced their plans to invade Europe. The 1st World War started 14 years after the Anglo-Boer war ended,and one might argue that it would’ve started sooner once Germany realized the crippling state of the British empire.

Also bear in mind that the Boers bought all their munitions and artillery [I guess you’ve never heard of the famous Long Toms?] from the Germans prior to the start of the war, hence the Germans would already have an alliance with the Boers should they decide to take on the crippling British. Imagine the psychological advantage this would give the Germans. Britain would have to fight a world war against an army that just defeated them and dumped them in economic turmoil. Germans would have all the financial backing they need (remember the gold mines?) and we might all have typed our Quora answer in German today…




Well, the old saying ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics’ leaps to mind… though perhaps one should add ‘and Apartheid-regime approved statistics’ to that. Such a pity that Meneer van Schalkwyk didn’t feel the need to provide a single reference to back-up his ‘statistics’… I wonder why that might be? Presumably the University of Pretoria doesn’t encourage such things, as long as the made-up ‘statistics’ maintain the myth of British aggression / incompetence and Boer victimhood / martial brilliance?

Anyway, let’s take a few of van Schalkwyk’s so-called ‘statistics’ and inject a bit of much-needed reality.

We are sagely informed that the British ‘budgeted that the war would last 3 months and cost £3m’. Shame that van Schalkwyk didn’t feel the need to support this outburst with any evidence whatsoever –  though this is hardly surprising, alas. Leaving aside the likelihood that he simply pulled these numbers out of his arse, the origin of the 3 month bit (though not the £3m part) might by Professor Nasson (himself also no fan of the British Empire). In his  book, The War for South Africa, Nasson claimed that the Salisbury Government figured on 75,000 men being required, the war lasting ‘between three and four months’ and costing ‘perhaps £10m or £11m’. Rather shattering his own case, however, Nasson then unthinkingly asserted that the British assumed ‘victory would be secured for no more than £600,000 a month’.[i] All very damning at first glance, but Nasson’s figure of 75,000 men is contradicted by the numbers put forward by Britain’s military planners (who clearly stated a figure of 200,000[ii]); and one doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that Nasson’s financials don’t quite add up—£600,000 into £11m is 18 months, not ‘between three and four’.

Also, one must bear in mind the inconvenient reality that Britain only started to mobilise her reserves on the 7th of October[iii] – a few days after the Transvaal mobilised, and in response to this distinctly warlike act. Without these reserves, Britain’s home-based battalions were woefully understrength – most by between 200-400 men. It was expected that the British army’s (one and only) regular Army Corps would take between three-and-four months to mobilise to theatre. Additionally, the 5th Infantry Division only started to mobilise on 11th November and orders to mobilise the 6th Division were only issued on the 2nd of December[iv] – almost two months after the Boers started the war by invading British territory – so quite how this tallies with the (completely unsubstantiated) claim that Britain thought she would win the war in three months is anyone’s guess. In fact, as even the rabidly anti-British Thomas Pakenham admits, just the mobilisation of the Army Corps cost £1 million[v] – which is exactly why Britain (which did not want or expect a war) did not mobilise it sooner.
So if the cost of merely mobilising the one-and-only standing Corps (ie. only about 35,000 men) was a £1 million, how does that fit with the claim that Britain budgeted just £3m for the whole war? As stated a moment ago, the reality is that pre-war intelligence reports stated Britain would need to deploy 200,000 men (ie. the equivalent of about six such Corps) in the event of war with the republics. And these men would not just have to be mobilised, they would obviously have to be fed and supplied throughout the conflict.

More interesting still is that, by early February 1900, Britain still did not have that many men in the theatre: total Imperial forces in southern Africa (including those bottled up in Kimberley and Ladysmith) just prior to Lord Roberts’ counter-offensive were only around 90,000[vi]. The reality is that, four months after the war started, Britain still only had less than half of the men in theatre which her planners said she needed to win it – so how does that square with van Schalkwyk’s (completely unreferenced) claims of Britain casually assuming a ‘three month war at a million a month’?
Revisionist history is easy when you simply make up your own self-serving statistics, or just unthinkingly regurgitate them from an Apartheid-era school text book.

For the benefit of Meneer van Schalkwyk, and rather than just pulling things out of the air like some seem to prefer, here are a couple of quotes which further shatter the notion of Britain’s leaders arrogantly expecting a cheap, three-month war:

A war in South Africa would be one of the most serious wars that could possibly be waged. It would be in the nature of a civil war. It would be a long war, a bitter war, and a costly war, and it would leave behind it the embers of a strife which, I believe, generations would hardly be long enough to extinguish.
Joe Chamberlain, speaking in 1896

…the most costly, unsatisfactory, and difficult of all the little wars which we could possibly undertake.
Joe Chamberlain, describing any potential war against the Transvaal[vii]

Moving on… quite what the numbers of those who died in the Concentration Camps have got to do with the question being asked is anyone’s guess, but it seems van Schalkwyk is one of those who simply HAS to mention them in every single discussion about the Boer War.
And, contrary to his claims, ’25,000’ British troops did not ‘lose their lives’ in the war – the number of Imperial deaths in the Boer War was actually 21,942[viii]. And as 13,720 of those died of disease, it shouldn’t really be that surprising that people in the Concentration Camps also died of disease: there was a LOT of disease around at the time.

In terms of horses, the British Empire used 519,000 horses in South Africa during the war, of which 347,000 died[ix]. So if, as we are assured in his (ahem) ‘statistics’, 650,000 horses died in total, that would mean the other 303,000 which died were Boer horses… and yet we are assured by van Schalkwyk that ‘like more than 90%’ of the horses which died were British. Yet more made-up ‘statistics’.

More entertaining still is van Schalkwyk’s completely unreferenced claim that Britain – the pre-eminent power of the Age, and the World’s banker – would have been ‘bankrupt’ if she lost the Boer War. This must be the most outlandishly ridiculous statement I have yet read on the Boer War – and I have read plenty of lunatic outbursts over the years. In reality, on the eve of the Boer War, and at a time when HM Forces were tasked with defending the largest and most geographically scattered empire in history, British defence spending in FY1898 was only around £39m, or just 2 per cent of GDP. Even while the Boer War was being fought (and bear in mind that, concurrently, HM forces also fought and won the War of the Golden Stool and took part in subduing the Boxer Rebellion), defence spending was only 6.91 per cent of GDP – hardly likely to ‘bankrupt’ Great Britain. This should be compared with the years running up to the Second World War, a time made famous by the policy of appeasement, and yet one in which defence spending was still much higher than during the Boer War period, being 8.72 per cent of GDP in FY1938 and 15.19 per cent in FY1939. During both World War One and Two, it was over 40 per cent of GDP and even during the Korean War, it was between nine and eleven per cent[x].
But we are asked to believe spending just 6.91% of GDP for a couple of years during the Boer War was about the bankrupt the Empire? I invite van Schalkwyk to provide a single scrap of evidence to support his claim that Britain was nearing bankruptcy in the late Victorian Era, and was only ‘saved’ from this ignominy by being lucky enough to have been attacked by Kruger’s gaggle (at exactly the right moment), and then going on to win the Boer War.

Which brings us to the alleged desperate need to ‘steal the gold mines’… steal from who, exactly? Prior to the war, the Gold mines were overwhelmingly owned by foreign (mainly British) investors… men like Cecil Rhodes and Alfred Beit – men who the Apartheid-regime approved version of events likes to blame for provoking the war… so is van Schalkwyk really trying to claim that Britain’s war aim was to seize them from the same British investors who are so often blamed for starting the war? That is patently ridiculous.
And, more importantly – it did not happen: the British Government did not snatch any gold mines off their owners. I invite van Schalkwyk to provide references which name those Johannesburg ‘Gold Bugs’ who had their privately-owned mines nationalized by the wicked British. Furthermore, Britain granted self-rule to the Transvaal just a couple of years after victory, and then essentially independence to a united South Africa just eight years after the war… so what financial benefit he is really trying to claim that London gained from (very briefly) having a far-flung, war devastated, colony in which some gold mines were situated?

Though clearly appealing to some, the whole Apartheid-era notion that the wicked old British Empire ‘needed’ to steel the gold mines is so ludicrously flawed as to be laughable. It is conveniently forgotten that the Transvaal’s economy was miniscule in comparison to Britain’s—perhaps only about the same as that of a city the size of Newcastle in the north east of England… and, really – who would go to war to capture Newcastle? Despite the heavy taxes levied on the mines by Kruger’s corrupt regime, the ZAR tax-take in the late 1890s was only around £3.5m[xi] compared to the British tax-take of around £265m[xii]—the lure of being able to add an extra 1.5% to HM Treasury’s tax-take is a ridiculously far-fetched justification for being desperate to seize the Transvaal, especially given that that is not how the British Empire acted in any case, as colonies were expected to be self-governing.
One should also remember that the British tax-take of £265m was collected at a time when Britain’s GDP was around £1800m—i.e. the tax-take was only about 15% of GDP, compared to today’s c.40%.[xiii] If, for some undisclosed reason, the British Government really was frantically desperate for an extra £3.5m, surely slightly increasing taxes at home would have been a more logical way of getting their hands on it, rather than hoping they’d be attacked by the Boers.

Here are a couple of quotes to torpedo van Schalkwyk’s surreal claims still further:

‘[Britain’s critics are] perfectly well aware that England will derive no benefit from the gold mines, nor will she take possession of them any more than she has done of the gold mines of Australia. They are private property.’[xiv]

‘The gold mines are private companies, with shares held by private shareholders, German and French, as well as British. Whether the British or the Boer flag flew over the country would not alienate a single share from any holder, nor would the wealth of Britain be any way greater … how is Britain the richer because her flag flies over the Rand? The Transvaal will be a self-governing colony, like all other British colonies, with its own finance minister, its own budget, its own taxes, even its own power of imposing duties upon British merchandise … We know all this because it is part of our British system, but it is not familiar to those nations who look upon their colonies as sources of direct revenue to the mother country.’
Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle

Despite all the nonsense one will hear around braais every weekend in South Africa (and also read in un-researched Quora answers), the reason why Britain had to fight (and win) the Boer War had nothing to do with gold, and everything to do with the fact that her colonies in the region were attacked and invaded by Boer forces. Her position in Southern Africa was thus threatened and the potential loss of the Naval Base at Simons Town would never be tolerated. Equally there was no chance Imperial Britain would simply turn her back on the hundreds of thousands of Loyalists, or the millions of blacks, who lived in the region.

Just two more of his made-up ‘statistics’ to de-bunk: as glorious and magnificent as it undoubtedly was, the British Empire never covered ‘a third of the world’ and certainly not at the start of the Boer War. The Empire only reached its greatest extent after the Great War (with the incorporation of some former German colonies) at which time it covered 24% of the world’s land[xv], or – for those who struggle with fractions – just under a quarter.
And as for the Great War ‘starting 14 years after the Boer War ended’… well, 1902 to 1914 is only 12 years, so it seems even that elementary ‘statistic’ eluded poor old van Schalkwyk.
One wonders what they teach at the University of Pretoria.


[i]Nasson, The War for South Africa, p. 90

[ii] Churchill, My Early Life, p. 228

[iii] Cook, The Rights and Wrongs of the Transvaal War, p. 241

[iv] Carver, National Army Museum Book of the Boer War, p. 13

[v] Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 82

[vi]Maurice, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.1, p. 443

[vii] Welsh, A History of South Africa, p. 270

[viii] Hall Handbook of the Boer War, p. 187

[ix] Hall Handbook of the Boer War, p. 237


[xi] Guyot, Boer Politics, p. 70/71

[xii] Bank of England publications: ‘ThreeCenturiesOfData.xls’

[xiii] Personal correspondence with Ryland Thomas, senior economist at the Bank of England

[xiv] Guyot, Boer Politics, p. 33

[xv] The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency

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