|Concentration Camps in the Boer Conflict
An analysis of the Second Boer War 1899-1902
Professor Ole Molvig
HIST 285 Capstone Assignment
The words ‘concentration camp’ convey the despair and ultimate desolation of a group of humanity facing possible extinction. Operated by Nazi Germany in World War Two, these camps have come to symbolize the plight of human beings facing organized slaughter, symbolizing the final degradation of morality and civilized norms in armed conflict.
However, concentration camps did not always serve this purpose and appeared long before either Nazis or fascism, most notably during the Second Boer War of 1898-1902. These camps were in fact first implemented for limited strategic purposes that bore no intention of annihilating a civilian population. Instead, the British Empire first employed these camps in order to counter the highly successful Boer strategy of irregular warfare. Though originally devised solely as an anti-guerrilla tactic, the widespread use of concentration camps broke the psychological barriers that had until then constrained the conduct governing ‘civilized’ warfare of the time, and made acceptable to European nations the total war tactics that would later be used to disastrous effect in the World Wars. These concentration camps combined with scorched earth tactics advanced principles of modern total warfare in three major ways: these camps affirmed the superiority of achieving cold-hearted strategic objectives that did not differentiate between combatants and civilian as military targets, they destroyed the basic civil treatment whites in colonial conflict had previously enjoyed over other races, and removed both the moral and strategic prohibition on targeting women and children during wartime. Through these methods, British use of concentration camps advanced the principles of modern total war in which both soldiers and civilians, regardless of race, age, or gender could be considered military targets.
The idea of total war originated from Carl Von Clausewitz, who stated that “The plan of war comprehends the whole military act, which must have one final determinate object in which all particular objects [resources] must be absorbed.”1 Through this definition, Clausewitz analyzed a conception of war which advocated the employment of every available means in order to achieve military victory. There have been few examples of total war more apparent than the World Wars, in which over 40 million civilians lost their lives and tactics such as unrestricted submarine warfare and the firebombing of the cities of Dresden and Tokyo clearly demonstrated that it had become an acceptable military strategy to target civilians during wartime. The total war tactics that devastated Europe during these conflicts shocked the world and led to an international outcry over the sheer ruthlessness of modern warfare as citizens questioned how such a calamity could have developed. The Second Boer War helped advance these total war principles, by making the brutal tactics that occurred during this conflict both acceptable and well known.
The Second Boer War
The Second Boer War began as a struggle over the control of precious metals in South Africa.2 In 1886 gold had recently been discovered in Transvaal and the Orange Free State, which piqued the interests of the British Empire who attempted to seize these valuable resources from the Boer republics. After discovery, the Boer nations did not have the manpower or the resources necessary to extract gold, and needed to import British assistance from their territories in Natal and Cape Colony. This influx of English workers led to tensions between the British and the Boers, which eventually escalated into open conflict. According to one Boer account, “The war was inevitable. The British government had made up its mind to force the issue…but Transvaalers were also spoiling for a fight.”3 There had already been continuous animosity between the two states for many years, and dispute over a valuable resource escalated disagreement into open conflict.
Violence erupted in October 1899, and combination of superior rifle technology, geography, and irregular tactics allowed the Boers to annihilate the British Commonwealth armies, eventually forcing the British Empire to implement total war tactics to achieve strategic victory. At the beginning of the conflict, the Boers had equipped their army with modern rifle technology that would prove disastrous to British infantry tactics. The president of Transvaal, Paul Kruger, had purchased German Mauser 303 rifles for his militia in the months leading to conflict which contained smokeless cartridges and were accurate at much longer range than British firearms. These weapons proved devastating against British infantry line formations that emphasized line order and thus prepared soldiers to “march proud and becoming into a valley of death” instead of dispersing and taking cover.4
With the advantage of the vast expanse of the South African veldt and irregular commando tactics, the Boers devastated the British in a preemptive invasion of Natal in 1899 and nearly defeated the British before reinforcements could arrive. The Boers took full advantage of the terrain of the savanna with tactics suited to dispersion and cover. As The Liberal Review put it, “The modern rifle is primarily a guerilla weapon, as it tends to put the civilian on a level with the regular.”5 The Boers agreed. Their main infantry unit, called a commando, consisted of approximately 20 men trained in long-range sniping, free of a strict chain of command, who were also taught to retreat when facing a massed British attack. Many of these units were horsed, and quite successfully used speed and knowledge of the terrain in order to disrupt supply convoys and capture small units of Commonwealth soldiers. In many instances, after Boer tactical victory, “The white flag was raised…and the haul was good this time, there were 1,100 prisoners.”6 By dividing and disrupting the conventional British army, the Burghers, or Boer citizens, managed to annihilate much of the existing defenses of the English colonies and laid siege to cities such as Mafeking and Kimberly. By the time that British reinforcements arrived, they faced an enemy in a dominant position, who used irregular warfare tactics and had great knowledge of the terrain.
The British Empire’s overwhelming manpower and military resources marshaled from three quarters of the globe consistently failed against the Boers, and forced them to adopt anti-guerilla total war tactics in order to sequester the Boer commando units and effectively use the Empire’s massive strategic advantage. The commando’s tactics proved extremely successful and frustrated a British military unable to engage with the guerrilla units. As Michael Rimington of the 6th Dragoons stated, “you would hardly call it fighting: long-range sniping is most of it.”7
Facing an impasse, the British military began to proceed with a scorched-earth farm burning campaign, yet faced legal restrictions against openly declaring total war. The British Manual of Military Law in 1898 prohibited “soldiers from entering private houses or molesting the civil population in any way” and warned that the “infliction of any injury beyond that which is required to produce disability is needless cruelty.”8 In addition to British national law, the Hague Convention of 1899 had affirmed the illegality of treating civilians as military targets. The agreement stated “any compulsion of the population in occupied territory…is prohibited. Private Property must not be destroyed or confiscated.9” Within the context of both British military law and international treaty, total war tactics against a civilian population were thus expressly prohibited.
The British Empire bypassed both international and military law by claiming that civilian structures in the Boer conflict were “camps of the enemy.”10 Because the irregular nature of the conflict did in fact provide ambiguity between Boer commandos and civilians, the Commonwealth could legitimately defend, in some cases, the destruction of civilian property. Oftentimes, British soldiers would visit farms and homesteads to demand the loyalty and submission of the civilians found there, yet they would find the same individuals fighting for the Boer cause a few weeks later on the battlefield. Thus, the British Empire failed to secure the loyalty of the existing populace through force and sworn oath, stifling their efforts to reduce the supplies available for commando units. Having failed to secure allegiance by traditional methods, “the policy of farm burning and ‘concentration’ became justified on the grounds that the Boers were no longer fighting in a regular manner.”11 However, the British abused the policy of “camps of the enemy” which applied only in certain circumstances and began systematically targeting all Boer homesteads for destruction. In this way, the British blurred the distinction between civilian and soldier as British soldiers now had a specific task to destroy civilian property.
The British farm burning policy attempted to destroy the psychological morale of the Boer commandos as well as diminish their supply of food and shelter through “burning the farms of our opponents of war, breaking down water dams, and bringing agriculture to a deadlock throughout an immense area dependent on existence for such pursuits.”12 Thus, after 1900, the Commonwealth began to systematically dynamite homesteads as part of their scorched-earth policy. Official reports began to tally the number of farmhouses burnt, and any excuse became sufficient in order to continue the destruction of civilian property in occupied territory. According to Michael Rimington,
“I do not gather that any special reason or cause is proved against the farms burnt. If Boers have used the farm, if the owner is on commando, if the line within a certain distance has been blown up; or even if there are Boers in some of the neighborhoods who persist in fighting…Anyway we find one reason or another that covers pretty nearly every farm we come to.”
The destruction of Boer homesteads by British soldiers proceeded at a rapid pace. Official reports commented upon the hasty process of property demolition with common tallies such as “today eighteen houses were wholly or partially burnt in the Jacobsdal district alone.”13 Often, the only Burghers occupying the homes when the British soldiers arrived were the elderly, women, and children who were unable to fight in the commando units. The policy of methodically burning Boer shelters shattered the livelihoods of many of these dependent family members; in many cases they had to be taken into custody in order to prevent starvation. Through this scorched earth policy, the British began the process of the dispersion of the Boer population and provided the legal rational of “camps of the enemy” for attacking civilian targets.
As the British army advanced into Transvaal and the Orange Free State to implement scorched earth tactics, the irregular nature of the Boer war continued unabated and further total war measures were soon deemed to be necessary for victory. The Commonwealth soon realized that incinerating farmsteads did not reduce the commando’s fighting ability, and thus adopted measures to further limit the movement of Boer fighters. These new tactics called for a chain of blockhouse forts connected by barbed wire and railroad in order to partition the open savanna of Transvaal in into manageable tracts of territory for military operations. The British hoped to simultaneously constrain the movement of the Boers while gaining the ability to move British columns by train, which would allow them to attack with precision and rapidity.
These combined tactics proved very successful, as both the blockhouses and burned farms began to exact a heavy toll on the Boer fighters. The blockhouses were prefabricated, constructed with corrugated steel, and had both a retractable ladder set to an entrance eight feet above the ground and a machine gun platform to repeal Boer raiders.14 Combined with railways and barbed wire fences, these fortress lines rapidly proved their strategic worth and the British Empire began a swift expansion of this strategy. By the end of the Boer war, General Herbert Kitchener, a leading British General, had over 8,000 of these forts traversing Natal and Transvaal.15 The combination of burning farms and fencing in the open veldt allowed the Commonwealth to counter Boer guerilla tactics and slowly win the Second Boer War.
The expansion of blockhouses and railway lines throughout South Africa also had another important effect: the British Empire acquired the technical means to deport the civilians of the Boer nation away from the zone of conflict. In their attempt to combat guerilla tactics, the British unwittingly provided the logistical framework that allowed for the possibility of uprooting an entire population. Combined with the legal precedent of “enemy camp” set by the British farm-burning campaign, the blockhouses and railway lines provided both a means and motivation for the internment of Boer nationals in concentration camps.
The Concentration Camps
Perspective about British total war tactics during the Second Boer war can be gained through comparison with the conflict in which total war tactics were first implemented, in the American Civil War. During the Civil War conflict, General William Tecumseh Sherman embarked upon a Savannah Campaign through the American South with the purpose of inflicting as much damage as possible in order to force the South to capitulate and bring the conflict to a more rapid close. General Sherman became famous for “Sherman’s neckties” in which railroad ties were heated up and twisted around trees in order to ensure that the railroads remained permanently destroyed, and also notoriously allowed his troops to burn Atlanta to the ground.16 Moreover, poorly managed prisoner of war camps, such as Andersonville, led to exceptionally high inmate deaths since there almost no infrastructure existed to support the massive inmate population.17 Brutal total war tactics implemented during the American Civil War, led to unprecedented violence and devastation. However, the strategies used during the American Civil War lacked the large-scale, semi-permanent organization with the universal inclusion of all races, women, and children that allowed the British during the Second Boer War to set a precedent for inclusion of civilians during conflict that would later occur during the World Wars. Most importantly, in the United States, total war tactics did not lead to large scale removal and incarceration of the civilian population of the American South.
The erection of concentration camps in Natal began for practical purposes. The British faced a recalcitrant civilian population, who could not be stopped from providing aid to the Boer commandoes and remained defiant even as their soldiers were slaughtered and homesteads burned. British soldiers questioning women in the veldt received answers such as “of course we shall go on fighting…as long as may be necessary or until you go away.”18 Faced with an increasingly resistant population despite a lack of shelter and fighting a losing war, the British decided to remove from the countryside anything and anyone that could be useful to the commandoes, including civilians.19
General Kitchener, the commander of the Commonwealth forces, declared in December 1900:
“The General Commander in Chief is desirous that all possible means shall be taken to stop the present guerilla warfare. Of the various measure suggested…one that is strongly recommended is the removal of all men, women, children, and natives from the districts which the enemy’s band persistently occupy. The women and children brought in should be divided in two categories. 1st, refugees, and families of neutrals. 2nd Those whose husband’s fathers and sons are on commando… It should be clearly explained to burghers in the field, that, if they voluntarily surrender, they will be allowed to live with the families in the camps until it is safe for them to return home.”20
The general’s statement makes it abundantly clear that the British Empire regarded concentration camps as an acceptable military tactic. With the declaration that unarmed Boers were to be put into concentration camps and that these prisoners were to be separated on the basis of their wartime allegiance above other factors, the British government broke many norms governing warfare during this era. For the first time, it had become both technically feasible acceptable for a government to systematically remove an entire population from a battlefield area for strategic purposes.
Though the British military had begun the internment of the Boer nation into concentration camps, they did not officially demonize the Boer population. Rather, the British emphasized a positive image of the Burghers to the British public which contrasted directly with their abysmal wartime treatment. British military testimonial emphasized the similarities and mutual civility between themselves and the Boers. According to Basil Williams, a soldier tasked with burning farmhouses, “We hardly ever left a farm, even when we had been conducting somewhat forced sales for the battery, without having a piece of bread or a glass of milk offered to us by a woman who had been grieving a dead husband minutes previously.”21 This image of fair treatment and understanding even extended to the battlefield where a captured British soldier often “had nothing but praise for his captors” and that British prisoners “were always treated as an honorable foe expects to be treated.”22 Throughout this conflict, the British military emphasized the similarities between the English and the Boers, seemingly undue given the brutal treatment that these Burghers received at British hands.
This courtesy extended even to the national British media. Though sometimes tinged with jingoism and nationalist tendencies, the British media failed to characterize the Boers as outlandish or inhuman, and instead portrayed these peoples as worthy foes. Many British journalists stated that the war had been fought to remedy “the uncertainty as to which was the master of the two white races of South Africa.”23 Though the treatment of the Boers by the British media varied among newspapers, British publications dedicated to understanding the Boer sympathies demonstrated the degree to which journalists failed to dehumanize their enemy during wartime. Books such as With the Boer Forces written by known Boer sympathizers were popular during the time period, and there seems to be a concerted effort to characterize the Boers as fair combatants.24 From the reports of the British media and the military establishment, the British did not consider the Boer population as subhuman and instead characterized them as fair and worthy foes. By portraying the Boers as civilized combatants yet subjecting them to the dire conditions of the concentration camps, the British military regularized total war practices as acceptable and rational during wartime circumstances. These depictions turned a formerly extreme and exceptional practice into a normal strategic tool of the military that could be used against any foe.
Race and Concentration Camps
Surprisingly, this civil depiction also extended to the black population of South Africa. Though racism predominated throughout these times and the Boer War began at the height of European colonization, the British claimed the same fundamental strategic rationale without racial overtones that interned both blacks and Boers in concentration camps. This departs significantly from the treatment that the blacks and other native populations received in the colonial wars during much of the 19th century, as white Europeans often treated those who inhabited the territories they sought as mere pawns or slaves. Thus during the Second Boer War, the British failed to dehumanize the black population they interned in concentration camps and further regularized these total war practices as a normal strategic tool for the military to be used on any population regardless of ethnicity.
Race relations during the turn of the 20th century had anything but an equitable image. In the same year that the Boer War began, the United States crushed the native population of Manila while King Leopold of Belgium enacted exceedingly harsh treatment and widespread mutilation of rebelling native Africans enslaved to rubber plantations in the Congo Free State. This worldwide violence occurred under the guise of colonial ideology and racial prejudice. The ruthless practices used against native populations, common in colonies during this time period, were not at all acceptable practices for use against a white population. The ideology of “White Man’s Burden,” a poem representing a dominant ideology written by Rudyard Kipling in the same year that the Boer War began, justified these worldwide colonial conflicts on the basis of continued white domination. 25 For these reasons, the Second Boer War proved a remarkable transformation as harsh treatment during times of conflict became acceptable regardless of race.
The importance of this official image of equitable treatment became apparent in comparison to Spanish behavior during the Cuban revolt of 1895. During this insurrection, the population proved difficult for the Spanish to quell due to the adoption of guerilla tactics by the native population; General Weyler ‘The Butcher’ responded by forcing the population of the island into fortified camps in 1897. The Spanish neglected to provide supplies for the Cubans, which created highly inhumane conditions, and by some estimates killed up to 200,000 or nearly one third of the local and largely black population.26 Though they were the first to use armed camps as a military anti-guerrilla tactic, the Iberian version of concentration camps failed to break the psychological norms governing warfare of the day and did not necessarily entail a departure from regular colonial conflict at the turn of the 20th century. This continuity stems from the fact that the Spanish interned a colonized population made up in a large part of African ancestry, and not a largely independent white nation of European descent.27 The Spanish held calcified colonial prejudices against the Cubans, whereas the British took great pains not to create official discrimination against the Boers. Since the Spanish treatment of Cubans during the revolt remained firmly within traditional colonial and racial dispositions, the construction of armed camps did not significantly influence the development of modern total war.
In light of Spanish practices, British rationale behind the treatment of Boers and native Africans shattered wartime European norms. Fundamentally during the Second Boer War, “the reason that black concentration camps were established was for the same reason that white ones were established.”28 This action is astonishing, and represents a break from the previous colonial rationale of European domination over other races towards a more equitable military reasoning that treats all enemy parties equally poorly, regardless of civilian or combatant status.
Many Boers and Africans were separated by race into different concentration camps. However, many camps were also unsegregated, and the similar experiences shared by blacks and whites during wartime led to the understanding that the British Empire treated both groups very similarly. Over the course of the war, more than 100,000 Boers were interned and approximately 30,000 perished in the camps. A similar number of blacks faced imprisonment, and the South African Government estimates that nearly 20,000 lost their lives (Emily Hobhouse, a human rights activist, reported 13,315).29 Both the Africans and Afrikaners faced astronomically high casualties at the hands of the British in extremely similar circumstances. As Liz Stanley explains, “In regards to Black people… they not only died and were buried with Boers but were sometimes in authority over Boer concentration camp inhabitants.”30 Thus, the concentration camps were not organized by racial hierarchy and largely treated inmates of different ethnic backgrounds in the same manner.
As it is difficult to understand the racial prejudice of a population through limited literary sources alone, concentration camp records can assist in understanding British distinctions between the Boers and blacks in Natal and the Orange Free State.
This document details the concentration camp deaths at Vryburg over a one month period. Though the British had an official policy of segregating blacks and whites into different camps, this procedure clearly had not been enforced, and in fact many concentration camps such as Vryburg and Brandfort throughout South Africa contained sizeable portions of all races detained in war.31 As many camps seemingly were multiethnic in nature, the British detained both Caucasians and Africans for the same military goals and forced them to live and die together in internment. These actions expanded the conception of total war to include every civilian, regardless of race.
Even more revealing, the British government did not clearly label the prisoners within the concentration camps according to race. Racial categorization varied among each camp, and included a multitude of categories other than white and black. In the concentration camp of Barberton, bureaucrats recorded ethnicity according to their original ‘tribe,’ and not with the broader racial category they fit into. These records indicated that not only did the British disregard race as they housed the civilian population of the Orange Free State and Transvaal in the camps, they did not even have ‘black’ or ‘white’ as singular race unto itself. The detail to which the recordkeeping went to identify each person’s tribe clearly negated any assumptions that race may have been a factor in concentration camp internment during the Boer war.
It also seems as if the Boers themselves did not self-identify as a white race alone, which further confuses arguments that the concentration camps were run according to racial ideology. In Boer/European culture the term Burgher can be used to describe a citizen of a certain polity. As these records indicate, ‘Colored Burgher’ would therefore describe a citizen of African descent who fully identified with the Boer cause. Even more telling, the label of ‘Colored Dutch’ fused two formerly racial terms together, and connoted that the individual may have dark skin but claims to be a member of the Boer community. Since the Boers themselves seemed not to have been an exclusively Caucasian ethnic community, it would have been even more difficult for the British to discriminate military actions based upon racial prejudice. It seems that the British Empire treated Boers and blacks somewhat equally in military policy, furthering the total war conception that all races were equal targets in conflict.
Conditions within the Concentration Camps
Conditions within the concentration camps were completely appalling. Disease ran rampant throughout overcrowded sites, and a shortage of hospital facilities allowed diseases such as cholera to run rampant throughout the concentration camps. A large percentage of these deaths fell upon children. According to the British Medical Journal in 1901, 278.4 out of 1,000 children in the concentration camps perished every year. The author points out that “if the present conditions within the concentration camps continued for three years, all the Boer children would be annihilated.”32
The discovery of the horrific death rate among the Burgher population confined to the camps high forced the British to send an official commission to analyze the state of the camps and provide recommendations in order to improve conditions.33 The official report of the Concentration Camps Commission had three stated aims: determine how to allocate charitable funding so as to provide the most effective improvement of the Boer condition, analyze the condition of each camp and provide recommendations for improvement, and consider whether the location of the camp was sufficient of whether it needed to be moved to a better geographical location.34 As the Concentration Camps Commission inspected sites throughout Natal and Transvaal, they gave an extremely positive analysis of the conditions within the concentration camp facilities. According to the report, “considering the ample provision of all necessaries for the healthy, and luxuries for the sick which has been made, it is rather difficult to find a suitable channel in which to direct the flow of private charity.35” As the Commission examined the camps, it deemed much of the organization and management of these sites quite sufficient and often considered the concentration camps well provisioned and adequately run.
This opinion clearly runs counter to the death rate concentration camp inmates, and in order to confront this disparity, the Commission reported,
“Considering the favorable opinion which our commission has formed in the majority of cases on details of camp management which have bearing on health, we are brought face-to-face with a difficult problem: How to account for the extraordinarily high death rate which has prevailed at one time or another in every camp in the Orange River Colony and Transvaal?”36
The Concentration Camp Commission largely dismissed British responsibility, using a twofold explanation to analyze the deaths of many imprisoned Boers. Admitting that “the heavy part of the death rate is children under five,” the government commission first described the need to understand the concentration camp deaths within the context of the normal Boer death rate which the Commission suspected “was extremely high compared to European standards,” using an occurrence in which a Boer woman had lost nine out of ten children as an example.37 In addition, the Concentration Camp Commission stressed the unsanitary conditions created by war and that environmental chaos may be responsible for these deaths. Secondly, the Commission blamed the habits of the Boers themselves, stating that “every superintendent had to wage war against the insanitary habits of the people.” They blamed the Boers for practicing destructive folk medicine and keeping in close contact with the sick and poor personal hygiene. Using these claims, the Concentration Camp Commission absolved the British Empire of responsibility for massacring Boer inmates, instead blaming these deaths on natural circumstances and the lifestyle of the Boers themselves.
The British Government in effect made it both acceptable for a nation to remove an entire population from an area for strategic military objectives and absolved themselves of responsibility when large numbers of this population died while in its custody. Out of a total population of around 100,000 at the start of hostilities, official records estimate that 27,927 civilian Boers died in concentration camps, some 26,000 of which were women and children.38 Combined with around 10,000 combat deaths, these appalling statistics suggest that the British presided over the near-genocide of Boer population, setting a clear precedent for the devastation that total war tactics could wreak upon a population.
Women and Children in the Camps
The British treatment of women and children during the war can be considered even more appalling than the volume of casualties itself. Despite violations of both internal military law and international treaty, the British Empire systematically persecuted women and children in order to achieve strategic military aims. These policies resulted in twice as many civilian casualties among women and children than Boer commando soldiers, a much higher civilian/military casualty ratio than occurred during both World Wars.39 Moreover, the British broke the cherished code of “chivalric soldier”, which had protected the sanctity of Exposed European women and children in an exposed European Colonial world.40 By detaining women and children in the concentration camps, the British Empire committed both an illegal and immoral act according to their own legal code and social norms, relying only on cold rational calculation in order to attempt to bring the Boer conflict to a close.
British ruthlessness towards women and children during the war extended even further, as a half-ration system starved camp “undesirables,” or families who still had soldiers out fighting. Under this scheme, women and children who had family members actively fighting were given only half the normal camp rations in order to provide an incentive for the Boer commando to surrender.41 Using the data from the Bethulie Concentration camp, this corresponds to 8 ounces of meal, 2 ounces of sugar, and ½ an ounce of coffee per day. With half rations, it appeared that meat was rarely served at all.42 In effect, the British used women and children as a weapon of war in order to hold the Boer commandoes hostage and induce them to surrender. This policy of withholding sustenance likely increased the death rate among ‘undesirable’ women and children, further emphasizing brutal British total war policies that treated civilian women and children as they would enemy prisoners of war.
During the Second Boer War, the British successfully turned civilian women and children into weapons of war while at the same time ‘normalizing’ this strategy by refusing to claim that these actions were exceptional circumstances or practiced upon a subhuman population. Conversely, the concentration camps resulted from a rationally calculated military strategy to reduce the amount of aid given to commandoes in the field and to demoralize the Boer soldier. The policy of half rations provided even further incentive to surrender, and in effect held each Boer’s family hostage until the hostilities ended. This British concentration camp policy had its justification solely based upon rational calculation as to what actions could bring the Boer conflict to a close more rapidly. This rationale permeated through not only the British military but its citizenry as well, evinced by the response of one prominent Anglican clergyman who refused to contribute aid to Boer women and children in the concentration camps as he believed it may “prolong the war.”43
International Outcry and Human Rights
Fortunately, the atrocious British treatment of civilians during this conflict did not go unnoticed. International outcry arose over the condition of women and children in the camps, and a reformist by the name of Emily Hobhouse came to represent human rights during the Boer conflict. She led a human rights campaign gained world attention and created such condemnation that she eventually succeeded in both illuminating the horrendous conditions imposed upon civilians during this conflict and significantly ameliorating their living circumstances.
Emily Hobhouse became involved in the Boer War at the request of the women’s branch of the South African Conciliation Committee, who sent her to South Africa to for the purpose of distributing supplies in 1901. As she arrived, Ms. Hobhouse encountered the awful conditions in the concentration camps and described in detail what she encountered to the British government, sending them the “Report of a Visit to the Camps of Women and Children in the Cape and Orange River Colonies” in 1901. In this report she made many dire predictions, stating “to keep these camps going is murder to the children” and “thousands, physically unfit, are placed in the conditions of life in which they have not strength to endure.”44 These claims alarmed both the British government and citizenry, and Emily Hobhouse quickly gained fame for her advocacy of women and children in South Africa.
These statements completely contradicted government statements about the camps in South Africa. The War Secretary at the time, St. John Broderick, first called the concentration camps “volunteer summer camps” in which the Boers had been interned of their own accord and were living comfortably.45 These declarations were corroborated by The Times, which claimed “Neither sentries nor fences are necessary to prevent desertions from the camps. The occupants can come and go as they will.”46 For this reason Miss Hobhouse’s report caused great consternation and she received immediate fame as both the members of the British parliament and the public learned of the full extent of the atrocities that were committed in their name in South Africa.
Ms. Hobhouse had placed considerable pressure on members of parliament, and clearly raised the plight of the Boer woman and children throughout the Commonwealth and brought publicity to their plight. After her first report on the concentration camps, newspapers credited her with the reforms that immediately ensued; as one claimed that “every one of the remedies that has been introduced of late [in the camps] is solely due to Miss Hobhouse’s initiatives and perseverance.” The publicity garnered by this report in fact forced the British government to organize the Concentration Camp Commission headed by Millicent Fawcent to investigate Emily Hobhouse’s claims. Eventually, Ms. Hobhouse and her allies in parliament succeeded in reforming the concentration camps when, “Miss Hobhouse in particular, and the bulk of the Liberal opposition have won a great victory. Mr. Brodrick has at last announced his conversion to their view that the camps should be broken up.”47
During this era, Great Britain controlled nearly 10 million square miles of territory and claimed dominion over nearly 400 million people, and any notion that spread throughout Great Britain also impacted nearly a quarter of the globe under its control. Since it was the British who implemented the concentration camps in South Africa and not a lesser power, their treatment of to the civilian Boer populace immediately created international notoriety and exposure on a much greater level than what would have occurred to any other nation during the time period.
In addition to this publicity, areas outside of British control learned of the Boer concentration camp controversy and British use of total war tactics. The Watchmen, an American periodical, reported on the British controversy stating, “Americans certainly do not believe this reconcentration to be a military necessity.”48 Even in Europe, continental nations began to write about the treatment of Boer civilians. According to the New Tilburg Courant, “hot aantal koortskien bedroeg per dag 10 a 15 zoodat't hospitaal te klein bleek en velsn met een ziek lichaam in dein toestand moesten blijven vortleven,” remarking upon the atrocity of seeing pale and heaving sick Boer children within the concentration camp hospitals.49 Due to the enormous size of the British Empire at this time, Emily Hobhouse managed to spread international awareness about the condition of Boer civilians throughout much of the world.
Because of Emily Hobhouse, the British government not only set precedent by using total war methods in conflict, these actions ensured that both the Commonwealth and the international community knew about these practices in depth which elicited international reaction. In a very real sense the actual actions of the British government mattered far less than the international impression of British total war strategy that Ms. Hobhouse espoused to the world. In this manner, Emily Hobhouse helped the Boer conflict become a precedent for modern total war by illuminating of British action through controversy, which would cement the image of a brutal British total war policy in the minds of the international community.
After the War
During World War One, the British Journal Fortnightly Review claimed,
“When the horrors of the present struggle come to be viewed by posterity, it will be a source of pride to all persons of British blood that neither the government nor the people of the United Kingdom were responsible for opening the gates of hell and the fiendish spirit of German militarism to prey upon humanity.”50
With statements like this, the British public denied any responsibility for contributing to the development of total war used throughout the duration of World War One. The English instead actively forgot their imperial legacy and focused on the apparently atrocious tactics of the German nation the British had first used at the turn of the 20th century. In this manner, Commonwealth Empire began to condemn the German total war tactics that were developed throughout the Second Boer War.
The British claimed that the Germans violated “the rule to observe even in war certain humane and reasonable limitations. The pillage or unnecessary destruction of private property, and the slaughter or ill-treatment of non-combatants has long been forbidden.”51 Many English characterized German actions as heinous because “the Hague convention was arbitrarily set aside” in Belgium and that German application of total war tactics constituted unprecedented illegal warfare.52 In this manner, the British absolved themselves of responsibility for total war policy by instead blaming the Germans for implementing these tactics; foregoing their extensive imperial legacy with past violations of both international and military law during the Boer conflict. The British may have excused themselves of previous conduct; however “The three men who conducted the war were Mr. Askith, Lord Kitchener, and Mr. Churchill,” who also happened to be prominently involved at the beginning of the Second Boer War.”53
Though the British may have overlooked their past military in the Second Boer, the Germans did not. They chartered an official review of the Boer War in 1904 and analyzed British military tactics and strategies for dealing with the Boer combatants. Throughout this examination, the Germans analyzed the conflict scientifically and attempted to understand how British performance could have been improved throughout the struggle. According to The Speaker, “The German account of the Boer war is just what one would have expected it to be. It is the judgment of critics who have come to regard warfare as wholly technical and mechanical.”54 With this controlled analysis, the lessons that the Germans drew from the Second Boer War entirely focused upon the efficiency of the British military and dismissed aside negative moral or ethical judgment regarding the use of total war tactics. In fact, the Germans claimed the opposite and defended British morality, and asserted
“In view of the many errors that were disseminated by a badly informed press throughout the world, as to the conduct of the English, it seems to be the duty of a truth loving historical account…to lay stress on the fact that the behavior of the British was invariably thoroughly chivalrous and humane, so long as they were opposed by the Boer forces.”55
Instead, the German review of military strategy during the Second Boer War criticized the British for a failure to be ruthless and inability to use the considerable British strategic advantage to full effect. The Germans concluded that the inability to “to sacrifice ruthlessly, when necessary,” and “fight to the last man” condemned the British to a long and costly conflict that could have been resolved more efficiently.56 This followed from the German conception of the “scientific method that efficiency in warfare can only come, according to German dogma, from drill and discipline.”57 In this manner, the Germans not only agreed with the British military and total war tactics were acceptable during conflict but criticized the Commonwealth Empire for failing to be ruthless enough.
As World War One developed and total war tactics used by the British began to be implemented by the Germans throughout continental Europe, the Allies claimed that this barbarous must be stopped at any cost. The Bryce Committee on Alleged German Outrages detailed the depth of alleged German depravity for propaganda use to the British and American public. In response, the Germans “called for a bitter counter attack recounting British imperialism. British treatment of the Boers in particular was given special attention in Germany’s press.”58 Thus, the German military both acknowledged the British development of total war tactics and used British conduct during the Second Boer War as a defense for targeting civilians during World War One. Despite the criticism of the international press, the Germans continued to implement total war policy which increasingly became accepted on both sides of the conflict as the years progressed. As the Germans both studied British total war policy and used these actions in their own defense years later, it remains undeniable that British strategy during the Second Boer War both developed and normalized of total war tactics implemented during World War One and later in the 20th century.
The modern conception of concentration camps in many ways could not be more different that their actual usage during the Second Boer War. The Nazi concentration camps, more aptly named death camps, had been founded upon ideological hatred and a racial supremacy that advocated the cleansing of undesirable groups in society. These camps became part of the “Final Solution” in which the organized genocide of the Jewish population during World War Two began, representing the ultimate supremacy of racist ideological thought over rational military action. Concentration camps during the Second Boer War were the result of a rational strategic military calculation that held military supremacy over any underlying ideological racial hatred. The deaths in these camps were a byproduct of military policy and coercion against combatants and not the goal of the British government, whereas genocide constituted the ultimate aim of the Nazi establishment. Though the modern association with concentration camps evokes Nazi genocidal action, concentration camps in the Second Boer War had been formed under much different circumstances and instead advanced the principles of total war used in World War One subsequent years.
The British actions during the Second Boer War advanced the principles of total war in contrast to ideological discrimination and broke the psychological barriers constraining acceptable warfare during this time. Though the Commonwealth did not pioneer the total war tactics, they put to use during this conflict, the semi-permanent, large-scale organization of internment camps for the indiscriminant incarceration of civilians regardless of race, gender, or age. This action constituted an unprecedented application of this total war strategy. The lack of official dehumanization that occurred and the general acceptance of placing a worthy foe within these horrible conditions also set further precedent: a harsh total war military tactic was unleashed on a normal population and made such as tactic acceptable for use against a great number of potential adversaries. Since these events occurred within a large empire and a controversy ensured that the international community knew of British total war policy, the British use of farm burning and concentration camps advanced the principles of modern total war by making it acceptable to target an entire civilian population regardless of race, gender, or age for strategic military purposes; principles later used increasingly in the conflicts of the 20th century.
A Concentration Camp
This is Lizze Van Zyl. She became a poster child for Emily Hobhouse’s human rights movement.
A burning farm, part of the British scorched earth campaign.
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Figure C: Stanley, Liz. Mourning becomes-- post/memory, commemoration and the concentration camps of the South African War. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2008. P. 200
Figure D: Stanley, Liz. Mourning becomes-- post/memory, commemoration and the concentration camps of the South African War. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2008. P. 207, 209
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Figure G: "Boer War BoerWar.info." Boer War BoerWar.info. http://boerwar.info/ (accessed December 8, 2010).