- Name: William Eagleson GORDON
- D.O.B: 4th May, 1866
- D.O.A: 11th Jul, 1900
- D.O.D: 10th Mar, 1941
- Award: Victoria Cross
- Occupation at time of action: Captain, 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders
- Book: The Complete History - Volume 1
The Second Boer War 1899 - 1902
1899 - 1902
In the settlement following the Napoleonic Wars the sovereignty of the Cape of Good Hope
was transferred from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom, which had in fact been the
occupying power for all but four of the preceding twenty years. Many of the Dutch settlers
in South Africa were unhappy at this change and felt marginalized by new British immigrants.
They were further alienated in the 1830s when the British abolished slavery and the
compensation offered to them proved wholly inadequate. Many began to move north to lands
beyond British control (The Great Trek) and by the middle of the century they had established
two independent republics, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (The
Transvaal). The relationship of these with the Imperial power was never easy and by the 1870s
British statesmen were considering incorporating them in a South African federation. In 1877
Britain annexed the Transvaal, but this led to the First Boer War of 1880-1881 (see Chapter 3,
‘Wars of Empire’) and to Britain being forced to accept its effective independence.
Whether or not this position was viable in the long term, it was quickly destabilized by the rapid development of the region’s mineral resources. In 1886 the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal was declared a public gold field. Johannesburg was founded the following year and within ten years it had a population of over 100,000. Half of these were immigrants, the largely British ‘Uitlanders’. They were seen by the Boers as a threat to their distinctive culture and denied any political rights. The Jameson Raid of December 1895, inspired by Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape since 1890 and an Imperial visionary, was intended to enfranchise the ‘Uitlanders’ and lead to a federation. Its failure only worsened relations with the Boers. The appointment in 1897 of Sir Alfred Milner as High Commissioner for South Africa ensured that British pressure would continue. Negotiations in May 1899 between Milner and Paul Kruger, President of the South African Republic, were inconclusive, and Milner asked for British troops to be sent to the Cape to strengthen his hand. On 9 October Kruger issued an ultimatum which, among other things, demanded that British troops should be instantly withdrawn from the Transvaal border, that troops landed since 1 June 1899 should be withdrawn and that any British troops on the high seas should not land in South Africa. This was rejected and the Boers declared war.
The most exposed British garrisons, at Kimberley and Mafeking on the rail route north to Rhodesia, were quickly besieged and the Boers sent troops into the northern Cape in the hope of attracting the support of the large Boer population there. However, the main thrust of their attack was against northern Natal. By 2 November Sir George White was besieged in Ladysmith. Sir Redvers Buller, the British commander, had originally intended to push north from Cape Colony through the Free State to Pretoria. Now, leaving enough troops behind to protect the northern Cape and, under Lord Methuen, to attempt the relief of Kimberley, he 484 • the victoria cross and the george cross The Victoria Cross George Cross pages 04/10/2013 10:41 Page 484 sailed to Natal to assist White at Ladysmith. Early British reverses led to Field Marshal Lord Roberts being sent out to take charge of the conduct of the war. On 13 March 1900 Roberts entered Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State. Buller, who had at last relieved Ladysmith on 28 February, was now able to march north from Natal to join him and on 5 June British troops entered Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal.
With the capture of the capitals, the British assumed that the war was over. Both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal had been annexed and Kruger had sailed for France on 19 October 1900. However, Boer commandos, drawn from and supported by the local Boer population, still controlled the countryside. In October, General Buller sailed for home and Roberts followed him in November. It was left to Lord Kitchener to take charge of the guerrilla war that had broken out. Assisted by the sheer weight of troop numbers at his disposal, he eventually succeeded in quelling it by erecting across the country lines of blockhouses and hundreds of miles of barbed wire fences. More controversially, he also adopted a scorched earth policy, clearing the Boer population from their land and concentrating them in camps, where many fell victim to measles or typhoid. Captured Boers were deported to Bermuda, Ceylon, India and St Helena. In March 1902 the effectiveness of these measures, together with the increasingly conciliatory attitude of the British government, led to peace negotiations. These were concluded at Vereeniging on 31 May 1902 and the final peace terms were signed late that evening at Pretoria. This guaranteed the status of the Dutch language and provided for the eventual self-government of the two Boer states, implemented in 1907. In 1910 both joined the new Union of South Africa.
The Boer War was by far the largest of all the Imperial campaigns. Nearly 450,000 British troops served in South Africa. Of these, 50,000 came from South Africa itself and another 50,000 from India, the Dominions and other colonies. Nearly 6,000 were killed in action and 16,000 died of their wounds or from disease. VC awards for actions in the war numbered 78.
A further eleven awards of the VC, together with the first awards of the AM, EM and the EGM to be converted to the GC, were made in the period between the end of the Boer War and the beginning of the First World War.
On the 11th July, 1900, during the action near Leehoehoek (or Doornbosch Fontein), near Krugersdorp, a party of men, accompanied by Captains Younger* and Allan, having succeeded in dragging an artillery waggon under cover when its horses were unable to do so by reason of the heavy and accurate fire of the enemy, Captain Gordon called for volunteers to go out with him to try to bring in one of the guns. He went out alone to the nearest gun under a heavy fire, and with the greatest coolness fastened a drag-rope to the gun and then beckoned to the men, who immediately doubled out to join him in accordance with his previous instructions. While moving the gun, Captain Younger and three men were hit. Seeing that further attempts would only result in further casualties, Captain Gordon ordered the remainder of the party under cover of the kopje again, and, having seen the wounded safely away, himself retired. Captain Gordon’s conduct, under a particularly heavy and most accurate fire at only 850 yards range, was most admirable, and his manner of handling his men most masterly; his devotion on every occasion that his Battalion has been under fire has been remarkable.