Years of simmering tensions between the British and the South African republic of Transvaal finally came to a culminating boil in October 1899. The Boer War began with the British fighting for South African paramountcy against the Transvaal (ZAR) and their republican ally, the Orange Free State (OFS). The struggle of these two Boer republics struck a cord in Russia. Just before Boer forces dealt British forces their first bloody nose near Dundee, the Novoye Vremya newspaper of Russia wrote fondly about the Boers in an October 16th article. “These God-fearing farmers spilling blood for the freedom of their Fatherland will forever be closer to the heart of the Holy Rus than our sworn enemy, the cold and haughty England.”
As October passed, the Boer national anthem was hummed throughout Russian pubs and taverns. Many Russian men saw much in common with the deeply religious, very tall and tough freedom fighters of the ZAR and OFS. Churches took up collections for the Boer forces. A captured Boer general was even sent a humongous silver wine bowl carrying sheets of paper imprinted with over 70,000 Russian well-wishers’ signatures. The Russian government even made at least ostensible efforts to create an anti-British alliance with France and Germany after war erupted. However, France and Germany had other fish to fry. Both were embroiled in a dispute over regions that should ring familiar: Alsace and Lorraine. Russian Emperor Nicholas II also made a transparent bluff towards the British by partially mobilizing their Caucasus Army Corps near Britain’s Asian holdings. The sorry bluff was to no avail.
Only 225 Russians were willing and able to afford the journey to fight alongside the Boers. Subordination to military command was not a hallmark of Boer armies at the time or in the past. Boers would come and go as they pleased to their units, and were much more prone than their British counterparts to retreating without authorization. Russian volunteer Lieutenant Colonel Evgeny Maximov rose to the rank of general and greatly improved Boer reconnaissance. Maximov helped instill more needed subordination to military command, at least where he operated. Two Russian Red Cross units earned Boer respect-respect that was rare for Europeans-for their work as the largest contingent of European medics in South Africa.
One animal would undermine all of this Russian heroism and support. Scandal broke in September 1901 bringing the sale of 40,000 Russian horses to British forces to light. The Russian government tried as much as possible to “sabotage” these sales, but they remained legal.
Further reading on this subject can be done in the following works, primarily in Egorov’s:
Davidson, Apollon. “The Study of South African History in the Soviet Union.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 25, no. 1 (1992): 2-13. Accessed June 15, 2020. doi:10.2307/220141.
Egorov, Boris. “Why Russia wanted but couldn’t save the Boers from the British.” Russia Beyond. Last modified January 17, 2020. https://www.rbth.com/history/331562-why-russia-helped-boers.
Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. London: Abacus, 1979.