The daily television diet of the humanitarian excesses of the current Russian War on the Ukraine remind us all of the horror of warfare and its effect on the civilian populations caught in the middle. This is a war which engages the houses, neighbourhoods, plants, power stations, dams, factories and farms of the Ukraine as the Russian forces seek to destroy them in a callous effort to ‘punish’ the Ukrainians and to impair the Ukrainian basic infrastructure. There is a massive displacement of the population and a policy of forced deportation. A “scorched earth” program is the leitmotiv of the Russian military plan. This includes the forcible deportation of Ukrainians to camps in neighbouring states aligned with Russia; with no immediate prospects of their release and return home.
While the capture and enslavement of foreign nations has been a feature of pre-Biblical times (“By the Rivers of Babylon”, etc.) the capture and disappearance of civilian personnel has risen to an art form in the Soviet Union and carried out in post-Soviet culture by the Russians. Whole populations, like the Crimean Tatars, were forcibly deported to Central Asia and the Gulag by Beria and the NKVD. Other ethnic groups suffered similar fates. These forcible deportations became a key Soviet policy as the Second World War was ending. This included almost 30,000 Greek children who never came home.
However, this policy of scorched earth, concentration camps and forced exile was perfected earlier by the British Government at the turn of the century in its war with the Boers in South Africa. These policies have been largely forgotten by the world and appear as a footnote in serious studies of warfare
Today’s media, television, newspaper columns and editorial pages, concentrate on the conduct of the Russian war in the Ukraine as well as concentrating on the ‘woke’ coverage of demands for the removal of the reminders of colonial history; especially that of Africa and the policies of the slave trades. Statues are being torn down; slave trade profiteers’ names are removed from buildings and city streets and changes in educational curricula demanded to expunge positive references to these perpetrators.
It is not difficult to understand the outrage of the vox populi at the excesses and cruelty associated with Britain’s colonial history, especially against such villains as Cecil Rhodes and the other notables. What is more difficult to understand for someone who has studied African history is the wilful exclusion from the category of the “wronged” and “victims” of these policies, the Boers of South Africa during and after the Second-Boer War 1899-1902.
Problems started in earnest between the British and the Boers when they found gold and diamonds in the two Boer Republics (the Transvaal and the Orange Free State) and Mashonaland (now Zimbabwe). The Republics were set up by the Boers after the Great Trek (1835-1840) which was a mass migration of Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the British-run Cape Colony, who left the Cape and travelled eastward by wagon train, into the interior of the continent, in order to live beyond the reach of the British colonial administration.
While the Boers controlled their own affairs, which included struggles against the indigenous owners of the lands they farmed, they established themselves as self-governing states. British aims were more ambitious. The British aspired to expand British control over all of Southern Africa. This ambition took on a new urgency with the discovery of gold and diamonds. The British issued a Royal Charter to the British South Africa Company (‘BSAC’), similar to charter it had issued to the East-India Corporation earlier in India, which empowered the BSAC under Cecil Rhodes to take over the running of the administration of Southern Africa (including Mashonaland), exploit its minerals, and drive the Portuguese from its colony in Mozambique. The British Government created a large, mercenary army to support the BSAC, which it backed up with regular troops.
At the start of hostilities, the Afrikaners had more troops available, could live off the land; and had a better grasp of how African Wars should be fought. The Boer War was a serious jolt for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in volleys controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops fighting in close order. These tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers armed with modern weapons. These were not colonials or native soldiers.
In the months before hostilities the Boer commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles and a number of modern field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot. The commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into a fighting force through a strong sense of community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover there might be. The preponderance of the Boer forces was countrymen, running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural Boers brought a lifetime of marksmanship to the war, an important edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of magazine rifles. With strong field craft skills and high mobility, the Boers were natural mounted infantry.
Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police units, the Boers wore their everyday civilian clothes throughout the war. The pressure of constant conflict gradually reduced the Boer numbers. After the first month or so the Boers lost their numerical superiority, spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British forces that regularly outnumbered them.
British tactics, little changed from the Crimea, were incapable of winning battles against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake; Buller; Methuen, Roberts, and Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to force Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of infantry assaults; with the same disastrous consequences as Colenso, Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop which had cost many British lives.
By early 1900 the Afrikaners had beaten the British at four battles and had Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking under siege. A new British command under Roberts and his chief of staff Kitchener decided on a new strategy. They agreed to apply a Scorched Earth policy so that the Boers and local people had no cover and no food. They burnt down Boer farms; they stole or destroyed their livestock; and they took their women and children as hostages. They herded these into concentration camps. The British set up some 50 concentration camps. These were appalling places with little food, medicine, or basic hygiene
The British committed themselves to a policy of “Ethnic Cleansing” and “Genocide” in the conduct of the Boer War. They killed 24,000 Boer children (50% of the Boer child population) and 3,600 Boer women. To do this, the British established concentration camps to hold Boer captives. The British set up concentration camps for the families of the Boers and applied a scorched earth policy in the Transvaal and Orange Free State because they could not cope with guerrilla warfare. As Boer farms were destroyed by the British under their scorched earth policy - including the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields - to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base many tens of thousands of women and children were forcibly moved into the concentration camps.
Eventually, there were a total of 45 tented camps built for Boer internees and 64 for black Africans. Between June 1901 and May 1902, 115,000 people were brought into the concentration camps. Of the 28,000 Boer men captured as prisoners of war, 25,630 were sent overseas. The vast majority of Boers remaining in the local camps were women and children. Over 26,000 women and children were to perish in these concentration camps.
The camps were poorly administered from the outset and became increasingly overcrowded when Kitchener's troops expanded the internment strategy on a vast scale. Conditions were terrible for the health of the internees, mainly due to neglect, poor hygiene, bad sanitation, and food shortages. The food rations were meagre, there was a two-tier allocation policy whereby wives and children of men who were still fighting were routinely given smaller rations than others. The inadequate shelter, poor diet, inadequate hygiene, and overcrowding led to malnutrition and endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid, and dysentery to which the children were particularly vulnerable. Coupled with a shortage of medical facilities many of the internees died.
It was not just Boers who were kept in concentration camps. Black South Africans were held in even worse conditions by the British. Removed from farms or other areas, at least 14 000 Black people are believed to have died in these concentration camps. Unlike the Boer prison camps, the Black prisoners were mostly left to fend for themselves and were not given any rations at all. They were expected to grow food or find work. In a few instances this actually improved their chances of survival because they were able to get out of the camps which were hellholes of infection and disease.
By the time of the battles of Val Krantz and Pieters (28th February 1900 at the Tugela River) the British outnumbered the Boers by almost three to one. The Boers chose to avoid direct battles and engaged in protracted hard-fought guerrilla warfare against the British forces. This lasted a further eighteen months, during which the Boers raided targets such as British troop columns, telegraph sites, railways, and storage depots. The British retaliated by sending many prisoners of war overseas to penal colonies they set up. The first overseas (off African mainland) camps were opened in Saint Helena, which ultimately received about 5,000 POWs. About 5,000 POWs were sent to Ceylon. Other POWs were sent to Bermuda and India. Some POWs were even sent outside the British Empire, with 1,443 Boers (mostly POWs) sent to Portugal.
In all, the war had cost around 75,000 lives; 22,000 British soldiers (7,792 battle casualties, the rest through disease), between 6,000 and 7,000 Boer soldiers, and, mainly in the concentration camps, between 26,000 to 28,000 Boer civilians (mainly women and children) and perhaps 20,000 black Africans (both on the battlefield and in the concentration camps).
With a history like this it is time for ‘woke’ protestors to pay attention to what lay behind Cecil Rhodes and his policies in Southern Africa; the wholesale British Government policies of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Why not tear down the statues of Lord Kitchener or Lord Salisbury as well? Camps were set up like this again in Kenya as part of the battle to combat the Mau Mau. Perhaps, one day there will be “woke” Russians tearing down statues of Putin, Shoigu and their ilk; an unlikely event.