The Military Army Blog

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

  • The album contains more than 150 black and white images of the First Battalion Rifle Brigade during Boer War
  • They provide a fascinating record of their battles with the Boers in South Africa from 1899 to 1902
  • Annotated images show large parade of men before embarking on a ship on the Isle of Wight to take them to war
  • A young Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi both saw action in the war, which cost 22,000 British lives

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A rare and extraordinary photo album documenting a British army regiment in the the Boer War has been discovered after more than 100 years. The album contains more than 150 black and white images of the First Battalion Rifle Brigade and provide a fascinating record of their battles with the Boers in South Africa from 1899 to 1902. The annotated images show a large parade of men before embarking on a ship on the Isle of Wight to take them to South Africa in 1899.

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 searing 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 quell the opposition force meant the Empire was in decline

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

This photograph, featuring British soldiers relaxing, has an annotation saying it was taken in 1900 in Pretoria, South Africa

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

The Transvaal and Orange Free State were the two states in 1899 of what is today known as South Africa

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 but has now been made available for sale at Bellmans Auctioneers, West Sussex, for an estimated 600. Denise Kelly, valuer at Bellmans, said: ‘It 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.’

The auction takes place tomorrow.

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