First African War
1582 South African soldiers ready to fight the British





Eastern and South Africa


French victory; Treaty of Paris (1883)


French Empire
South African Republic

United Kingdom


Louis Briere de l'Isle
Paul Kruger

George Pomeroy Colley




Casualties and Losses




The causes of the First African War goes back to 1877 when the British, in their plan to rebuild an African Empire, annexed the South African Republic and the Orange Free State for the purpose of taking the diamonds that lay underneath the two countries. But the Boers, Dutch-based people who live in South Africa following the area's annexation by Britain after the Dutch defeat in the First European War, were determined to keep their independence. They sent representatives to Paris to ask France to intervene against the British annexation, but the French remained against the idea as they had more to gain from allowing the British annexation, mainly the Treaty of Edinburgh. The Treaty dictated in 1878, stated that in exchange for France recognizing the British annexation of South Africa, the British wouldn't interfere with the French taking of Madagascar.

But the British did not fully apply this deal to all of their citizens, multiple British companies set up trading posts in Madagascar, mostly because of its positioning between South Africa and India. The French enforced the treaty by entering any British port on Madagascar with their navy and forcing the people who lived their to leave. No casualties were reported until the Raleigh Incident, on October 25, 1879, the HMS Raleigh, a British frigate, was sunk by the French battleship Devastation while the Raleigh was in harbor in Madagascar. The British were outraged, but the French accused the British of not only defying the Treaty of Edinburgh, but for sending their own navy into what became known to the French government as Port pirates (Pirate ports). The French officially declared the treaty null and void as of January 1, 1880, and just four weeks later, the French declared war on Britain.

War in South Africa

With the beginning of the war 8,000 French soldiers, serving under three separate regiments, were landed of the eastern coast of South African from Madagascar, and were sent to take Cape Town, the British colonial capital. They landed in three separate ports, Durban, East London, and Port Elizabeth, facing little threat within the ports themselves, but their greater threat came when they began to march into the Colony. The British had about 5,000 soldiers regularly stationed in the area at the time, but that number was doubled recently under the threat of a French invasion, only making the French invasion the ever more costly. The march of French soldiers from East London to Bisho itself cost the French 200 soldiers, and French soldiers marching from Durban to Pietermaritzburg cost that regiment 240 soldiers, showing the outlook for the rest of the campaign as a grim forecast.

Although the initial campaign was costly to the French, the British suffered more, as they lost 490 soldiers in the beginning of the campaign. But the British also faced a threat from within as 9,000 South African soldiers, supported by 2,000 volunteers from the Cape Colony, attacked from the north, and took some attention away from the French, as the superior British Army sent 2,500 of their soldiers to take out the widely untrained enemy. The French managed to take the town of Kokstad, a small British missionary town defended by 500 British soldiers, and then marched largely uncontested to Queenstown, defended by 1,200 British soldiers. There the French, numbering at 5,000, attacked the city with light artillery, and four of their American-made Gatling guns. But the British held out with a staunch resistance, and put the French operation in danger of failing. But the French were reinforced with 2,000 more soldiers just two days after the beginning of the battle, and their numbers allowed them to break the British hold of the town, and forced the British to retreat west.

Meanwhile, the British were receiving major victories in the north, but their losses in the south forced them to take away their soldiers in the north and send them to defend a more centralized position to withstand the combined attack. The British fortified town at Middelburg, defended by 3,000 British soldiers, became their last major point of resistance in the east of South Africa. French artillery bombarded the town, and their infantry formed into four waves, which seemed an ideal strategy. However, when the British deployed their own Gatling guns, the first wave, of 850 men, was mowed down, and only around 400 French soldiers returned to their lines. But when French artillery focused on where they knew the British Gatling guns were located, they rained down artillery shells on the positions, and their second and third waves proved more successful in capturing the town. The fourth wave just completely destroyed the enemy's will to fight, and the British soldiers left in the town, finally surrendered themselves and the town.

The British set up their next main points of defense at Beaufort West and Victoria West, where they stationed 1,500 soldiers in each of the towns, both of them regiments newly arriving from other African colonies. The French and Boers planned to flank the British in the towns, and then march from their to Cape Town, the last major city in South Africa held by the British. The British at Beaufort West were armed with 10 Gatling guns, and the Boers, coming from the north, weren't assisted by artillery, and they were unable to advance on the British defenses. The Boers instead decided to use their most potent weapon against the Gatling guns, snipers. The Boers placed snipers on a hill above a British position where four of the guns were placed, they used new highly accurate rifles acquired from the French to shoot the soldiers using the guns. The British were surprised by this tactic, and the Boers used it as a chance to attack the British lines, where they then entered the town, and took out the British soldiers left in the area. The French, meanwhile, were unable to defeat the British with their first attack, so instead resorted to destroying a large part of the town with their artillery, although costly in civilian lives, the attack forced the British to retreat south to Cape Town.

With their continued advance, the French and Boers came to the city of Worcester, their last major enemy base until they marched for Cape Town. The town was lightly defended by only 500 men, but they were prepared to take as many enemy soldiers with them if they had to defend the town. They were 500 men of the elite British Rifle Brigade, and were armed with the latest British sharpshooter rifles, and were placed in multiple positions in the town and around it. Although the French guns were capable of destroying close-range targets, they couldn't fire from the distance they had to stay at to avoid the enemy's sharpshooters. The French sent 2,000 soldiers in a mass attack to storm the enemy's position and killed the enemy sharpshooters. But in the attack, the French lost 80 men to the British sharpshooters, but they still pushed on and killed or captured all of the British soldiers, allowing their artillery to support the infantry when they attacked the town, winning the French the battle.

With their advance to Cape Town complete, the French had one last major British city to take before they won South Africa. The city of Cape Town was defended by 3,500 British soldiers, but was attacked by over 5,000 French and South African soldiers, with high morale and lots of experience from their long advance to the city from the eastern shore. The French bombarded the city heavily with their artillery, and their infantry stormed a city which was half destroyed by the time they entered it, forcing them to fight an enemy hiding in rubble. But, always persistent the French Army pushed forward and much of the city fell to them by March of 1882, just 2-and-a-half weeks into the battle. But the British still held out in the port of the city, but the British people were growing heavily against the war, and ordered an end to the fighting. Finally, with his choices slim, the British Prime Minister ordered the British Navy to rescue and evacuate the British troops left in the city, forcing the British in the city to request a ceasefire so they could safely leave the city, the French agreed, and the city was evacuated of British soldiers on March 22, 1802, ending the fighting in South Africa.

War at Sea

Although the fighting in South Africa was purely land-based fighting, the fighting around Madagascar was almost completely on water. The British Navy based in South Africa only consisted of some frigates when the fighting began in 1880, while the French already had a fleet with one of their battleships in it, the Redoutable. The first engagement took place at the Battle of the Barren Islands where the French fleet with the Redoubtable won a strong victory and sunk 4 British ships. But the British reinforced their ports in South Africa with multiple cruisers and battleships, eventually followed by a similar action of the French Navy. The British soon began plans for a return engagement which they were sure would defeat the French and send them back to their bases in the Mediterranean. But what ensued, the Battle of Juan de Nova Island, would be more climactic then the British had planned.

A British fleet of two battleships, five cruisers, and eight frigates sailed for the French naval base at Juan de Nova Island, defended by 400 French soldiers, armed with anti-ship guns. And stationed there were two French battleships, seven cruisers, and five frigates, which the British hoped to destroy. The British entered the harbor on the eastern side of the island, but found no ships in the harbor, only anti-ship guns, which fired upon the British ships with an unrelenting rage. Two British ships were moderately damaged in the fighting, but the British continued to fire on the French coast, even though they were unable destroy the coastal artillery. The British moved into the harbor to get a closer shot at the coastal artillery, but found themselves drawn into a trap, the British were surrounded by the French ships. Being caught between the firing of French ships and French artillery, the British were forced to retreat, and destroyed an enemy cruiser in the process of their escape. In the end, one of the British battleships was heavily damaged, the battleship received light repairs in harbor in Cape Town, but then had to return to Britain to receive proper repairs. Along the damaged battleship, three cruisers and one frigate were heavily damaged or destroyed in the battle, to the French losses of just 2 frigates.

By 1882 the British were suffering heavy losses at land and sea, forcing them to sue for peace in April of 1882, after the fall of Cape Town.

Treaty of Paris (1883)

The 1883 Treaty of Paris officially ended the First African War on May 9, 1883 and in the treaty the British Cape Colony was given to France, and Britain was forced to recognize the South African Republic as an independent state. But even though South Africa had just won its independence, a group of 200 French soldiers, working in secret, seized the government office in Pretoria in 1888 and established a government made of French military officers, and the new pro-French parliament declared the South African Republic defunct as of October 1, 1888.

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