This year's elections will no doubt provide plenty of opportunity to attack "colonialism" and "imperialism". The 120th anniversary of the start of one of the worst episodes in the long history of British imperialism is likely to pass unnoticed, however. It was on 11th October 1899 that the Boer War – strictly speaking, the Second Anglo-Boer War – broke out.
Like the Second World War, which broke out 40 years later when Adolf Hitler's armies invaded Poland, it was engineered by one man – Sir Alfred Milner, British high commissioner in South Africa. He was able to manoeuvre his superiors in London – among them the gung-ho colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and the prime minister, Lord Salisbury – into bringing about his war to crush Paul Kruger's Transvaal republic and so assert British supremacy.
Milner's pretext was the denial by Kruger of franchise rights to the uitlanders in the Transvaal. Here too there are parallels with Hitler. The maltreatment of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia was the Nazi leader's pretext for seeking to annex parts of that country. Hitler was furious that the concessions which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Joseph's son) forced upon the Czechs at Munich enabled him to achieve his objectives short of declaring war. It was not long before he invaded Czechoslovakia anyway.
So also, Milner contemptuously brushed aside all the concessions that Kruger's government – under pressure from Afrikaners in the Cape – was offering. Milner, who met each concession by escalating his demands, was not interested in diplomacy or compromise. "It's our country you want," said Kruger, bitterly and accurately.
"Sir Alfred Milner's war" – as the historian G H L Le May described it – brought 450 000 British troops to South Africa to crush a very much smaller number of armed Boers, who signed peace terms on 31st May 1902 only when they recognised that to keep on fighting would destroy their nation. But the war is most notorious for the deaths of 27 000 Boer women and children in concentration camps, along with some 14 000 blacks (though the black victims are often forgotten).
The camps were established to accommodate families whose farms and homes were burnt by the British when the Boers switched to guerrilla warfare after declining to surrender when the British captured Pretoria. This policy was initiated by the British commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts, and later extended by his successor, Lord Kitchener. It horrified none other than Milner himself, who described it as "barbarous" – a phrase echoed across Europe when the British Liberal opposition leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, adopted it to accuse his country's armies of "methods of barbarism".