Birth of the modern British Army: Rare photographic find in the in UK records soldiers heading off to bash the Boers in Empire’s first major conflict of the 20th Century

Jan 12, 2018 | Foxhole |

By Matt Hunter

A rare and extraordinary photo album showing British troops fighting the Boer War has been made public by the descendants of army captain Charles Lamb of Hastings, East Sussex, who fought in the conflict. It contained more than 150 black and white photographs of the First Battalion Rifle Brigade providing a fascinating record of their battles with the Boers in South Africa from 1899 to 1902,. The war was the first major conflict of the 20th Century, claiming tens of thousands of lives on both sides and signalling the birth of the modern British Army. The Boer War lasted two years and eight months, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. It is rare for such striking photography to emerge so long after the battle, but these photographs cover soldiers fighting, resting and being treated for injuries.    

 

Both sides suffered huge casualties in the Battle of Spion Kop.    

 

Cavalry, which were still a key part of the British Army in the late 19th century, are seen in this photograph with artillery  

 

 

British soldiers, who included troops from New Zealand and Australia, had to fight the Boers in often extreme temperatures in South Africa      

 

Although traditional artillery was used by both sides during the war it was one of the first conflicts to feature guerrilla warfare    

 

There was concern in Britain that the country’s failure to squash the opposition force meant the Empire was in decline     

 

The Second Boer War lasted three years from 1899 to 1902 and would claim around 22,000 British and 12,000 African lives    

 

This photograph, featuring Boer soldiers relaxing, has an annotation saying Artillery War 1900    

 

As well as the thousands of soldiers who died around 30,000 Boer civilians were taken to concentration camps     

 

British officers are shown here with annotations featuring their names and whether they died or were wounded in the war    

 

Despite the British Army’s vast numbers, officers struggled to combat the much smaller but well-trained and mobile Boers    

 

The rifle brigade feature in this photograph taken between 1899 and 1900 during the Boer War      

 

A large parade of men before embarking on a ship on the Isle of Wight to take them to South Africa in 1899    

 

A WAR WHICH CLAIMED 22,000 BRITISH LIVES 

The second Boer War broke out after tensions between Britain and the Boers failed to heal following the first war in 1880-1881. The Transvaal and Orange Free State were the two states in 1899 of what is today known as South Africa. But Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch and French settlers, were angry as they had to pay high rates of taxes and wanted equal rights to those in the British colonies of Cape Colony and Natal.

To make matters worse thousands of mainly British Uitlanders (foreigners) had come to the Transvaal for the gold rush. The Second Boer War lasted three years from 1899 to 1902 and would claim 22,000 British and 12,000 African lives. Around 25,000 Afrikaners also died in the war, most of them in concentration camps. Despite the British Army’s vast numbers, officers struggled to combat the much smaller but well-trained and mobile Boers. 

In one week – 10-15 December 1899 – the Boers won a number of battles and besieged the key towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley. The British were cut off in Ladysmith after being surrounded by the Boers in early November 1899. Some top officers escaped on the last train but the remaining soldiers had to dig in defend the town in east South Africa. The siege lasted almost 120 days and finally ended when increasing numbers of British troops overwhelmed the Boers.  

Another famous battle was for Spion Kop, 24 miles from Ladysmith, which resulted in a victory for the Boers. As it was the highest peak in the region it was a key target for the British to capture.  British troops had captured the summit by surprise in late January 1900 but morning fog blinded them from seeing they were overlooked by Boer guns on surrounding hills. Boers then fired down on the British who had dug poor defensive positions. The battle would claim 350 British lives and almost 1,000 wounded. 

The British eventually won by the Army’s sheer numbers while officers used a ‘scorched earth policy’ to cut off supplies to the Boers.

 

This photograph is annotated describing the picture showing artillery on Zwartkop firing at Boer trenches  

 

The action highlighted in the photographs took place in Ladysmith, Spion Kop and St. Pieters. Winston Churchill saw action in the Second Boer War as a young army officer before embarking on his political career and then serving in the First World War. And Mahatma Gandhi, who later led India to independence, volunteered as a stretcher-bearer for the Boer side.     

One harrowing photo shows a number of fallen soldiers at Spion Kop after the battle. Numerous English football clubs later named banks of terraces after the steep hill in South Africa. Other images depict British soldiers in the heat of battle, either shooting or shelling the enemy, them laid up on a hospital ship as well as numerous Boer prisoners. One of the most poignant images shows a large group of officers of the Rifle Brigade taken at the start of the war which was annotated afterwards to reveal those who were killed and injured. The album belonged to Captain Charles Lamb of Hastings, East Sussex. It is not known if he took the photos or collected them but he did annotate them.  

 

Mahatma Gandhi, who later led India to independence, volunteered as a stretcher-bearer for the Boer side.    

 

The British Army used a scored earth policy to remove resources including farm land from the Boers    

 

The British eventually won by the Army’s sheer numbers while officers used a ‘scorched earth policy’ to cut off supplies to the Boers

 

The album has been held by his family ever since. IIt is incredibly rare to come across such a comprehensive photograph album from the Boer War. ‘It charts this battalion of the Rifle Brigade from leaving England, to engaging in battle and the end of the conflict three years later. ‘What is extraordinary is that quite clearly the person who took these pictures was quite often stood in the middle of where there was a battle raging.’