Ouma’s Curtains

Isie Smuts and the Boer War

There is a lot to be said about South Africa’s most remarkable First Lady – Sybella (Isabelle – shortened to Isie or ‘Issie’) Margaretha Smuts, or as she was affectionally known by all – simply as .. “Ouma.” However to get a really good understanding of this petite but powerhouse of a woman, one only needs to know what she endured and did during and directly after the Boer War i.e. The South African War 1899-1902, and here one only has to look at her curtain rails – yup, simple curtain rails.

Not many know this, and its not in the official tour guide, but if you ever have the privilege to visit the humble correlated iron house that Jan and Isie Smuts lived in from 1910 in Irene, near Pretoria, now a museum – you may notice the family’s bamboo curtain rails, and they tell a story, so here goes;

Image: Bamboo curtain rails, Smuts House Museum, Irene – Picture: Peter Dickens

From the beginning of 1899 Jan Smuts was a leading legal and political figure in Kruger’s government of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (South African Republic, ZAR or Transvaal Republic). Smuts at the time lived with his wife Isie in a house on the corner of Troye and Walker streets in Sunnyside, Pretoria.

When the Boers declared war against the British on the 11th October 1899, it was with Smuts’ invasion plans that the Boer’s invaded the British Colonies of the Cape and Natal. War proved a highly trying time for Isie Smuts, but the worst was to come when Pretoria fell a mere 9 months into the war, and Isie bid farewell to her husband the evening of 4th June 1900 as he and General Botha rode away to take the ZAR government into the field with the other Boer commanders and commence the guerrilla warfare phase of the war, leaving Pretoria open for the British to occupy.

On occupying Pretoria the British took no time to gather whatever intelligence on the Boer army that they could, and Jan Smuts’ residence came into their sights. Using her initiative, Isie Smuts tore up all Jan’s letters written to her, except his first, and stuffed the scraps of paper into a cushion. She also rolled up Jan Smuts’ key documents and plans, deemed too important to destroy and hid them inside her ‘hollow’ bamboo curtain rails.

She also took the precaution of sewing gold sovereigns Jan Smuts had left her for a emergency, into a money belt. When she saw the enemy British soldiers approaching, “she dropped the belt into the boiling water of the kitchen copper” (Women South Africa Remembers” by Fay Jaff 1975), in spite of her protests the British soldiers entered her home, but still, she gave them freshly baked bread, still warm, from her oven.

During her separation from Jan Smuts, in August 1900 their baby son ‘Koosie’ died. Isie had to bear the burden alone, she wrote to Jan so he could learn of the loss by telegram, but the message never reached him. Jan Smuts also wrote to her, but she never received any of his letters in the first year of their separation.

By the beginning of 1901, Lord Kitchener, the British Chief of Staff, ordered that Isie Smuts be moved from Pretoria to a concentration camp in Pietermaritzburg. As a special concession, because of her status as Jan Smuts’ wife, Isie Smuts was afforded a small house near the camp. Isie packed up all their belongings and household items and effectively moved under ‘house arrest’ to Pietermaritzburg. She would pass her time making ‘comforts’ such as scarves for the women interned in the nearby camp.

Purposefully cut off from the outside world by the British, under house arrest, she was tormented with constant rumour that her husband had been killed, and likewise her husband was tormented whilst fighting in the field as he had no contact with his wife.

Eventually, a year after he departed Pretoria, in June 1901 she received her first letter from her husband, her response reveals the deep levels of trauma, she wrote, “I have read it and reread it so often that I know almost the whole by heart, and now I shall be able to live on those loving words for the many weary weeks to come . . .”

By special arrangement, Isie and Jan were allowed to see each other for a mere 24 hours in Standerton during a pause in the fighting. Isie was very ill at the time, war had taken a toll on her, she was prone to severe bouts of fatique and she weighed about 45kg. Her physical state distressed her husband, so he wrote to Lord Kitchener asking for permission to send her to Stellenbosch where her family could care for her, but his request was refused.

The couple were re-united some time after the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31st May 1902. Smuts urgently needed to go to the Cape Colony after the Peace was concluded to convince the acting Prime Minister, Thomas Graham to treat returning Cape Rebels fairly. On his return from Cape Town, Jan stopped in Pieter­maritzburg to see his wife and reassure himself that her health was improving. Their minds were put to rest by Doctors who said she would be well enough in 6 weeks to travel back to Pretoria. Smuts went ahead to re-claim his home which had been occupied by British Imperial Yeomanry during the war.

Between May 1902 and 1910, before Jan Smuts finally re-settled the family at Irene, the Smuts’ went about re-building their lives and having children. Isie Smuts was very understandably anti-British, given her treatment by them and her witness to the camps. She insisted on a Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek ‘ZAR’ Vierkleur (Four Colour) National Flag be present at each child’s birth, so they would be born under it and not under the occupier’s British Union Jack. In all, her first children were born when the ZAR existed as an independent Republic and she ensured all her remaining children when born, would be born under the Vierkleur (not a lot of people know this either – it’s not in mainstream accounts of the Smuts’ history). Not many people know this too, but according to the family, Jan Smuts, not surprisingly considering his experience of the war, also personally harboured a similar deep disregard for the British at this time.

Picture: The Smuts family at this time, superbly colourised by Jennifer Bosch

Isie’s Anglophobia did not stop there, she was totally anti-British, and openly hostile toward them. She even went so far as to stick stamps deliberately upside down on her letters, so as to make the King stand on his head. It was much later when Lord Paul Methuen, the Officer Commanding-in-Chief in South Africa, convinced her that the British were not all bad, he helped her overcome her prejudices to eventually support her husband in his efforts to reconcile the English and Afrikaner “races” to achieve peace, stability and ‘Union’ in South Africa.

Jan Smuts would also tease her and say she would be “punished” if any of her children married a Brit in the future, which ironically several of the Smuts children did, either marrying into wholly British or half English descendants. Isie’s future would see her rise to one of the most loved people in South Africa – English and Afrikaner alike – and she hit her stride during World War 2, during Jan Smuts’ second Prime Ministership, when she headed up the wartime ‘The Gifts and Comforts Fund’ in support of the men and women from South Africa fighting in the war, even visiting them in the combat zone, but that’s a remarkable story for another day.

In South Africa, one can still find people who swallowed Smuts’ political detractors rhetoric and will say that by reconciling with the British, he did not suffer or fully understand the indignity of the concentration camps. Utter poppycock, one only has to look at the fact that he not only lost family, he nearly lost his wife, such was his conviction to get a better peace for his countrymen by engaging guerrilla war tactics and becoming a ‘Bitter-einder’ in war already hopelessly lost. Of his reasoning for enduring the ‘Bitter-einder’ campaign Jan Smuts said “… two years more of war, the utter destruction of both Republics, losses in life and treasure … Aye, but it meant that every Boer, every child to be born in South Africa, was to have a prouder self-respect and a more erect carriage before the nations of the world.”

The journey for both Jan and Isie to overcome their hatred for the British and reconcile with them in 1910 for the good of all South Africans is one of the most generous and forgiving acts ever seen in South Africa, it was only seen again in 1994 when Nelson Mandela did the same (although the same could not be said of his wife).

Jan Smuts famously said “history writes the word ‘reconciliation’ over all her quarrels” and to anyone visiting the Smuts museum in future, look up at the simple curtain rails, and remember the courage of an ‘Ystervrou’ (iron woman) who endured during a highly destructive war, literally crippling her people and her remarkable journey to reconciliation with the enemy to the benefit of all.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

With grateful assistance from Philip Weyers (Jan Smuts’ Grandson) and the Jan Smuts Foundation and family. Large reference and thanks to “Women South Africa Remembers” by Fay Jaff (1975). Also, with much thanks and gratitude to Jenny B Colourisation. Photos below – Smuts House Museum in Irene, the author and his wife with Philip Weyers.

Beer, Bawd and Boers

The Great Beer Flood and the Boer War

So what does the Great London Beer Flood of 1814 have to do with the Boer War of 1899 decades later? A lot really, and it involves a banjo-playing prostitute (a ‘bawd’ in case you’re wondering about the old Middle English used in the headline), so – here’s the tale of how an artillery battery was financed during the South African War (1899-1902) a.k.a The Boer War by a very eccentric and colourful Lady.

The Beer

Let’s start at the beginning with the London Beer Flood of 1814, basically the flood was caused when a 6.7m heigh wooden fermentation vessel containing ‘Porter’ beer at Meux&Co’s Horse Shoe Brewery in London burst open. It dislodged and burst open another fermenter and storage barrels releasing around a million litres of beer. The resultant wave of beer swept into a slum, tragically killing 8 people as it flooded basements and knocked over walls. Although one person died of alcohol poisoning a couple of days later after hundreds of people collected the beer and mass drunkenness ensued.

Images: The Meux & Co’s Horse Shoe Brewery and Sir Henry Meux, 1st Baronet

The brewery was nearly bankrupted as a result, but was saved by the government after a rebate was given on the excise of the lost beer. Gradually the Meux&Co Brewery found it way back on its feet and became highly profitable. The Meux family (Meux is pronounced ‘Mews’) had a long association with beer and breweries, the owner of the Horse Shoe Brewery was Sir Henry Meux, 1st Baronet (1770-1841), the son of a brewer named Richard Meux (1734 – 1813). Sir Henry Meux would bequeath the brewing empire to his son, also named Henry, Sir Henry Meux, the 2nd Baronet (1817-1883), he headed up Meux&Co Brewery and also became a Member of Parliament. He in turn bequeathed the brewery and family fortune to his son, also Henry, Sir Henry Bruce Meux, the 3rd Baronet, who started managing the brewery from 1878.

Now, it is in Sir Henry Bruce Meux, the 3nd Baronet that we find a most remarkable figure. His wife. Lady Valerie Susan Meux.

The Bawd

Born in Devon in 1847, Valerie Langdon married Sir Henry Bruce Meux in 1878 and moved to his Hertfordshire estate. Langdon claimed to have been an actress, but was apparently on the stage for only a single season. By all accounts, she worked as a banjo-playing prostitute and barmaid under the name of Val Reece (or Val Langdon – her stage name) at the Casino de Venise in Holborn, central London, and it is here that she is believed to have met Sir Henry Bruce Meux.

Images; Sir Henry Meux with Lady Meux playing the Banjo and their Zebra drawn carriage in London.

She certainly struck the big time. Meux had a considerable estate, including 9,200 acres on the Marlborough Downs. He even commissioned James Whistler to paint three portraits of his wife, Valerie, Lady Meux. At Lady Meux’s request, Henry purchased from the City of London the Temple Bar Gate, which they preserved at their Theobalds Park estate. They re-opened and greatly extended the house, including installing a roller-skating rink (roller-skating is older than you think, invented in 1863 – it was initially dubbed ‘rinkomania’ in the 1870s).

Lady Meux took up the mantle of a London socialite, and a very eccentric one at that, she reportedly travelled around London in a carriage drawn by zebras.

Images: Portraits by James Whistler of Lady Meux

The Boers

During the South African War (1899-1902), early British reverses to the Boer invasions of the British Colonies and sieges of their towns leading to ‘Black Week’ in December 1899 made headline news and the defence of Ladysmith made a particular impression on Lady Meux.

When the Boers declared war against the British on 11th October 1899, Captain Hedworth Lambton was in command of HMS Powerful, which was posted in the China seas, HMS Powerful was a state-of-the-art Cruiser for its time and at the onset of hostilities it was immediately ordered to Durban. Knowing that the British forces at Ladysmith urgently needed more powerful guns, Captain Percy Scott from HMS Powerful’s sister ship, HMS Terrible, devised carriages to transport naval cannon, and Lambton led a Naval brigade to the rescue at Ladysmith with four twelve-pounders and two 4.7″ guns. The enthusiastic response in Britain to these Naval “heroes of Ladysmith” was enormous and made Captain Hedworth Lambton a well-known public figure. Queen Victoria even sent a telegram to him saying, “Pray express to the Naval Brigade my deep appreciation of the valuable services they have rendered with their guns.”

So impressed by their actions around the Ladysmith siege, Lady Meux, in her own patriotic way decided to do her bit for England and sprang into action. She ordered, six naval 12-pounders on special field carriages made by Armstrong of Elswick. The guns were sent directly to Lord Roberts in South Africa, because they had been refused by the War Office. The unit which manned these guns were known as the “Elswick Battery”. The battery was in action several times, including the Second Battle of Silkaatsnek near Rustenberg on the 2nd August 1900.

Images: The Elswick Battery Naval Guns donated by Lady Meux in South Africa during the Boer War.

Sir Henry Bruce Meux died on the 11th September 1900 at his Theobalds estate, the couple were childless and he was still a very wealthy man, thus leaving Lady Valerie Meux, now aged 48, one of the richest women in Britain with no heirs to the family fortune. She owned a string of race horses, entering them under the assumed name of ‘Mr Theobalds’, and won the Derby in 1901. She also collected a vast array ancient Egyptian artefacts.

When Captain Hedworth Lambton, the commander of the Naval Brigade at Ladysmith, returned to England, he called on Lady Meux at Theobalds to recount his adventures in South Africa and to praise the patriotic spirit of her gift. Lady Meux was “touched by this tribute” and wrote out a new will and testament making Lambton the chief heir to the large fortune left by her husband, including her house at Theobalds Park in Hertfordshire and a substantial interest in the Meux&Co Brewery. The only condition was that Lambton should change his name to Meux.

So, when Lady Meux died on 20 December 1910, Captain Hedworth Lambton without hesitation, promptly changed his name by royal licence to Meux, thereby enabling him to inherit her substantial fortune. By the end of the 1st World War, Sir Hedworth Meux GCB, KCVO (née Lambton) was a Full Admiral in the Royal Navy and the Naval aide-de-camp to King Edward VII.

Images: A Tea Cloth in the Ladysmith Siege museum celebrating the ‘Heroes of Ladysmith’ – Captain Hedworth Lambton top right and Admiral Sir Hedworth Meux (née Lambton) during WW1.

Back to the Beer

So what became of Meux&Co Brewery – can we still buy the beer? Well, sort of, you’re possibly drinking it now. When the Admiral of the Fleet, the Honourable Sir Hedworth Meux retired from the Royal Navy in 1921, in the same year Meux&Co Brewery was directed to move their production to the ‘Nine Elms’ brewery in Wandsworth which the Company had already purchased in 1914. The original ‘Horse Shoe’ brewery was demolished and today is the site of the Dominion Theatre, a Grade II listed art deco theatre in the heart of London.

In 1961 Meux&Co Brewery was sold to Friary, Holroyd and Healy’s Brewery of Guildford in Surrey. The company was renamed Friary Meux but only existed as an independent brewery until 1964, when it became part of the new national group, Allied Breweries. Through a series of more brewery mergers, the breweries ultimately merge with Carlsberg in 1992 and become Carlsberg-Tetley, which it is now part of the Carlsberg Group.

One for the road

In addition to my love of military history, I am also the owner of a Craft Beer Brewery in South Africa, and I love a good historic yarn like this, so I can only hoist one of our ice cold ‘Old Tin Hat’ beers to a Carlsberg Pilsner and say thank you once again to my good friend, Dennis Morton, who researched and directed me to this fantastic bit of history. Another toast to The Anglo Boer War and Related History Group (Facebook) and Iain Hayter.

Cheers!


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens with thanks to Dennis Morton.

A glass of brandy in the morning …

The last Boer War survivor

In 1992, the last Boer War survivor appeared at The Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in London and later laid a remembrance wreath at the base of the Cenotaph in Whitehall. He was 111 years old, his name – George Frederick Ives, born in Brighton, England on 17th November 1881 and he served in the British Army for 18 months and served in South Africa during The South African War (1899-1902). He was the last combatant survivor from either side and it was his last known public appearance.

It remains amazing that in living memory of many today, right up into the 90’s, stood a veteran of the Boer War, think about his longevity, he was still alive when Gulf War 1 broke out between 1990 and 1991 – he saw war from a horse drawn age, before the invention of the airplane – right up to jet-aircraft ‘shock and awe’ warfare and the nuclear age, we can only wonder now what he thought of it. This is his story.

At the on-set of the war from 11th October 1899, the British suffered tremendous set-backs when the Boer’s declared war and invaded the two British Colonies, the Boer sieges and shelling of British garrisons and civilians alike in Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley, incensed and immediately spurred many in the United Kingdom to join up and fight – including George Ives, citing “Black Week’ – the British losses to the Boers whilst attempting to relieve the sieges at the battles of Stormberg, Colenso and Magersfontein from the 10th to 17th December 1899 as his reason. George initially enlisted as Private in 2nd Volunteer Battalion, Bristol Engineers.

Clearly the British had a fight on their hands and by January 1901, George really wanted to get to South Africa, before the war he had experience training horses and considered himself a good jockey, so he attested to join the Imperial Yeomanry (voluntary mounted infantry) as a Trooper, number 21198. His height was 5’6, his eyes dark blue, hair black, and trade listed as a grocer. He trained in England until the end of February, when he proceeded to South Africa with the 1st (Wiltshire) Company, 1st Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry.

With the Yeomanry in support of Scottish troops, and thanks to his training on horses, George became a Cavalry Scout. He would spend days in the saddle as a messager often riding far into ‘enemy’ territory to connect between British detachments, he would regularly cover distances upwards of 80 km through enemy territory which he managed to do by taking two horses and hiding in the hills during daylight hours.

Horses were an important part of the military campaign in South Africa. Many, many years later in television interview George would chuckle and wryly observe that “There were lots of veterinaries but not many doctors. A horse cost £40 while a man was only worth a dollar.”

March 1st, 1901 to August 27, 1902, George fought on patrols in the Transvaal, Orange Free State and the Cape Colony. work in the hot South African sun riding on the open veldt, ‘water’ almost became an obsession for George. In the same interview many years later, George described what these patrols were like:

“We started out in the morning early, had a good camp breakfast, filled our water cans up with coffee, and we went. Before the sun was up any strength at all, nearly all the drink had gone. We was all day and we’d chew stones in our mouth and try and agitate a little saliva. Finally we got to the end of the trip and fell off the horse, the horse was thirsty too, and we’d throw some water in our mouths and on the back of our neck, and when we looked up [we] discovered there was two dead mules in the same pond, but it didn’t matter about mules rotting, you had to satisfy your thirst.” 

In the same interview Ives recalled his proudest moment during the war: 

“The most important [moment] was when the Captain had us fall in, get in line, it was after supper, at night, and when they were all there he said ‘Ives take ten paces forward’ and I stepped forward ten paces, and he says to the company: ‘here is the man who was scouting through 70 miles of enemy territory several times’. The captain then said give him a cheer, and they said ‘hoorah, hoorah’ and I went back in line.”

Trooper George Ives was discharged in England on September 3, 1902 and for his service in South Africa, he was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with clasps for Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal, South Africa 1901, and South Africa 1902.

Later Life

In 1902 George immigrated to Canada, in 1990, he told the Vancouver Sun that he flipped a coin – heads Canada, tails New Zealand. The coin came up heads, and George Ives became a farmer in British Columbia. When World War 1 broke out he volunteered again, but was rejected when they identified a heart murmur.

He would raise six children with his wife of 76 years, Kate (Kitty). He worked as a farmer, logger and then a boat builder, his wife died 1987 when she was 98.

Living in Aldergrove, he would regularly attend Remembrance Day celebrations, well into the 1980s in Aldergrove, George Frederick Ives would get onto his feet and stand attention for the moment of silence, and his identity as a Boer War veteran announced to the crowd, as well as his age – well over 100 at this stage.

When George Ives returned to the United Kingdom for the last time in November in 1992, he was deemed to be the oldest man to have flown the Atlantic. He was also accompanied by his youngest daughter (76) and his nurse. During his visit he had tea with the Queen Mother, Princess Diana, Lady Thatcher and had a tour of Downing Street.

Images: George Ives with Princess Diana (Left) and Margarat Thatcher (Right)

As far as the last surviving veterans of the Boer War goes, George outlived the last ‘Boer’ veteran, believed to be Pieter Arnoldus Krueler (1885–1986) – the famous ‘4’ war Boer, who served on the ZAR side during the Boer War, then in both World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and was a mercenary in the Congo Crisis – another very interesting figure from the Boer War (another contender for ‘oldest’ Boer fighter was Herman Carel Lubbe who died on 11 August 1985).

George Frederick Ives eventually died five months after his famous UK visit, back in Canada, in Aldergrove’s Jackman Manor at the age of 111 on April 12, 1993, the last surviving Boer War veteran and the oldest man in Canada at the time.

Secrets of Longevity

Take a learning on longevity here, George Ives, was married for 77 years, smoked for 89 years and his secret for longevity was a glass of brandy and water which he took at 3am every morning! George is officially the second oldest British military veteran ever, at 111 years, 146 days, his record was only broken on 1 November 2007 by World War 1’s last combatant British survivor Henry Allingham (who also funnily credited “cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women – and a good sense of humour” for his longevity). They just don’t make em like this anymore.

To see George Ives’ last interview follow this link


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

“God’s will”

I’ve recently looked at the ideology of Afrikanerdom, after taking some criticism for ‘bashing’ a small but very vocal sect of anti-Smuts Afrikaners (some even in my own family). I’ve contested that they do not epitomise Afrikanerdom but seem to think they do. It’s a complex subject, as ‘Afrikanerdom’ is as white as it is black, but bear with me.

When it comes to the ‘Boer War’ (The South African War 1899-1902), there are two very hotly debated areas, both ‘shape’ Afrikanerdom – certainly in the white sense of it. The first is the idea of the “Bitter-Einder” (the Bitter Enders), the group of Afrikaners who painfully decided to continue the war on ‘guerrilla principles’ after the ‘conventional phase’ ended and Pretoria fell. Some historians point to these guerrillas as having brought the catastrophe of the concentration camps and the scorched earth farm buring policy on themselves – they’re to blame as the British had little choice. Little is really understood as to ‘why’ they continued the fight, as the fight was clearly lost – sheer madness the only conclusion. But, it’s in the ‘why’ that we find Afrikanerdom.

The second hotly debated subject is Jan Smuts, his impact to South African politics and ‘Afrikaner’ identity spans 6 decades, no other ‘Afrikaner’ can hold a flame to it. His detractors fall on old National Party propaganda and political smearing and old family folklore to paint him as ‘turning British’ for reconciling the warring British and Boer races (and by some strange leap in logic some also point to him as responsible for the concentration camps). Little time is given to actually reading what Smuts said or wrote and a strange almost belligerent hatred overrides all reason.

Sir Winston Churchill said of Smuts that “He fought for his own country; he thought for the whole world.” by that he meant Smuts remained an Afrikaner patriot for one but also philosophised for all mankind. Churchill’s long time admiration for Smuts also lay in his abilities as one of the few successful Bitter-Einder Boer Generals, not in a need for him to identify as somehow British. Smuts’ context of Afrikanerdom is found in his justification for being a Bitter-Einder’ and there is nothing better to understand his mind and to understand the ground zero of 20th century ‘Afrikanerdom’ and the modern white Afrikaner psyche than to read what Smuts himself puts down.

What follows are some extracts .. they are well worth the read, and anyone who walks away from reading this still thinks that Jan Smuts is somehow ‘English’ needs their brain replaced – for they have never taken the time to read what the man actually wrote. Here’s an Afrikaner at heart – simple.

Image: General Jan Smuts (seated centre) with his Commando, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

This is a letter, written to W.T. Stead by Jan by Smuts whilst in the field with his commando at Vanrhynsdorp on 4 January 1902 (Source: Published from his private papers by Hancock and van der Poel) – it covers some excerpts as the full content is too long to publish here, but they more than adequately make the point.

“I know the difficulty of the modern man of action and intelligence, accustomed as he is to ideas of natural laws and physical or economical explanations of all phenomena, to understand or appreciate the tremendous force of faith in the affairs of the world, but unless he overcomes this difficulty the present war will, in all essential respects, remain for him an insoluble mystery. A mustard seed of real faith avails more in the affairs of the world than mountains of might or brute force – and only he who thoroughly understands this will be able to appreciate the true inwardness of the present struggle.

The condition of the two South African Republics in very truth baffles description. Not William the Conquerer himself created a more complete desert between the Tyne and the Humber in the eleventh century than Lord Kitchener has created in the twentieth. All living animals – horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, fowls, even dogs, have been killed, and generally in a manner too shocking to relate. More than once I set my commandos to kill the poor brutes which had been maimed by the British soldiery and then left by them to slow death and starvation; even four or five days after atrocities had been committed one would find these poor dumb brutes writhing in pain, and struggling and bleating for water and food among the dead. I have seen strong and brave men with tears in their eyes – totally overcome by the sight of this horrible suffering.

To me the saddest sight in this war has been the sufferings which women and children have endured to escape capture by the British columns. Like wild beasts they have been everywhere hunted out with Lee-Metford and Maxim and consigned to the death-in-life of the camps. For these reasons the brave Boer women have endured hardships and undergone privations such as one only reads of in the ancient records of Christian martyrdom. ‘They were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented (of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth’. (Hebrews XI: 37,38).

I do not ask what rules of international law sanction this rapine and ruin. I only state it as a fact – as a fact which I have seen with my own eyes and which is beyond all manner or doubt or dispute: quaeque ipse vidi et quorum pars magna fui. No wonder that for many burghers the state of their desolate country has become a sight too painful to bear; no wonder they prefer to continue the war beyond its borders.

The British military authorities adopted a policy of devastation and of treating non-combatant women and children as prisoners of war. They expected the Boers to quail before the absolute destruction of their property and the sufferings of their women and children. The said military authorities , however, made one fatal error in their calculations-an error which they will continue to make to the very end of the war. They had learnt in the case of all the tribes that with which they had come in contact during recent generations that one big defeat, followed by the burning of their chief town or kraal and the raiding of their cattle , was sufficient to utterly cow and prostrate them. And so they expected from the despised Boer. But the policy of spoliation and the infliction of suffering on non-combatants – so far from producing the expected result – had exactly the opposite effect. It raised the spirit of the Boers; it sent the iron deeper into the soul; that the God of Battles might not be with them yet the Spirit that dies not quench the smoking flax nor bruise the broken reed was with them to strengthen and sustain.

A second important consequence of this policy of spoliation has been the elimination from the Boer ranks of all those elements which are useless from a military point of view. The ordeal has been too terrible for the weak and the faint. First of all went the irresponsible braggarts who had clamoured for war and had called the peacemakers cowards and traitors. The man who expected to gain something from continuing in the field; the man who preferred to protect his property; the man who had lost all hope of a successful issue followed. There remain the stout-hearted and able-bodied – the men of physical courage, the men of moral endurance, whom self-respect and honour keep true to their country’s cause; the men of invincible hope in the future and child-like faith in God – truly a select band, the like of whom, I fondly think, is not to be found in the wide world today.

And these are the men whom Mr. Chamberlain, standing in the House of Commons, does not shrink from classifying as brigands and ruffians. These are the men against whom the High Commissioner (Milner) has the infantile audacity to hurl his proclamation of permanent banishment and universal confiscation.

‘How long is this war still going to last’ is the question asked by almost every Englishman who meets a Boer. The English are evidently weary and tired to death of the whole business. And no wonder, for their feeling of racial revenge must be pretty well satiated after the ruin and sorrows in which the Boers have been involved. For every thinking Briton, even the most hostile to the Boers, must feel in his heart of hearts, that this sorry business has added no glory and never will add any glory to the Empire – no military glory, for the odds were too uneven; the methods resorted to by the British too shocking to the humaner feelings of mankind, and the unique tenacity of the Boers has finally come to overshadow every other feature of war; no political glory, because the issue had become one of their freedom or subjugation. And mankind reserves its lasting honour for, and award its crown of glory only to, those who have striven for the highest ideals of humanity; who have made deathless sacrifices for liberty or justice or religion; and who by heroic self-sacrifice for the highest ends have raised and ennobled the ethical consciousness of mankind. But this much is certain, that the issue of glory is against the British Empire, and that the world has only seen another proof of universal moral law that they who deliberately seek glory shall not find it.

What are the principal moral forces operative within the area of the war today? I ask the question here because only he who thoroughly appreciates their character will be able to understand the factors on which the continuance and issue of the present war depend. The flower of the Boer army …. and who to a large extent still continue in the field today, were actuated by a vaguer but profounder aspiration …. purified and deepened a hundredfold by loss and suffering and sorrow during the course of the war, remains today the most vital and vitalizing force in the Boer mind, and must be carefully studied by all who wish to understand the true conditions of the continuance and issue of the present war.

The Boers, as a people, have an extraordinary faith in God. Theirs is not a God of the mechanical type …. Theirs is a God …. rather of the type of the Hebrew prophets – …; who from and with the passions and aspirations, the good and evil deeds of men, shapes the divine policy, moulding sin and sorrow, deeds of honour and of shame, like some potter at the wheel, into the divine ends of His world-government. The barbarous measures of the enemy, which bring a blush of shame to the fair face of Christian civilization, were expected by them, for had not Scripture to be fulfilled? All these things, and even worse, were foretold by the prophets, and with patience and resignation they are prepared to bear the yoke which not so much the enemy as God has laid on them; the inhuman proclamations of Lords Kitchener and Milner were read and pondered by them in the sacred writings before they were issued in SA, and the remarkable resemblance in the procedure of the Nebuchadnezzar of prophecy and the Kitchener of our day is to them only another confirmation of their belief that this is God’s work and that the final issue will also be His. …. this remarkable faith in God and in their destiny has only become stronger; broken and bleeding they have clung all the more passionately to the great hope, praying indeed that the cup of agony might be taken away from them, but never dashing it down in impatience or despair. For the Boers feel that they are not enduring themselves, and inflicting on their loved ones, mere useless suffering, as Lord Kitchener is so fond of reminding them, but that victory will yet be theirs, and the seed now sown in sorrow and tears will be reaped by posterity as a glorious harvest in the land that is far away…

This view, which will seem strange and intelligible to matter-of-fact politicians, is today held by the bulk of the Boers in the field. The Boers fight now in a spirit akin to that of the early Christian martyrs; they listen to reports of defeat and rapine, of the suffering of their wives and children in the prison camps, with that calm resignation which springs from the assurance that such is God’s will”.

Images: Lord Kitchener’s policy of Scotched Earth, Boer farmsteads been destroyed by British and Imperial Troops.

Images: British Boer War period concentration camps, colourised by Jenny B


Researched by Peter Dickens

With much thanks to ‘Boer War Crank’ on-line. Master images of a young Jan Smuts and concentration camp children – colourised thanks to Tinus Le Roux.

A Rebellious Family Streak

A friend of mine, Dennis Morton is a prolific researcher and he brought up this rather interesting history which highlights the rebellious nature and political dichotomy in white South African families perfectly. So, here’s how a Boer war rebel’s history massively impacted South Africa’s liberal political landscape.

The Irish Brigade

During the South African War 1899-1902 (the Boer War), a number of British, especially Irish found themselves in alignment with the Boer Republic cause. Many of them were working on mines in the Transvaal or had otherwise settled and repatriated in the two Boer Republics prior to hostilities. Not just Irish, these ‘burgers’ also constituted many other Britons – Scots and even the odd Englishman. At the onset of the war they volunteered to join a Boer ‘Kommando’, and this one was special, it was created by John MacBride and initially commanded by an American West Point officer – Colonel John Blake. The Commando was called ‘The Irish Brigade’ mainly because of its very Irish/Irish American slant. After Colonel Blake was wounded in action at the Battle of Modderspruit, shot in the arm, command of the Irish Brigade was handed to John MacBride. The Brigade then saw action in the siege of Ladysmith, however this was not a happy time for Irish Brigade as its members were not enthusiastic about siege tactics. After the Boer forces were beaten back from the Ladysmith by the British the Irish Brigade began to fall apart. It was resurrected again as a second Commando in Johannesburg under an Australian named Arthur Lynch and disbanded after the Battle of Bergendal.

To say the Irish Brigade was controversial is an understatement, the whole of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom in 1899 (the Irish Republic split came much later) and members of this Brigade ran the risk of high treason if caught, especially if their ‘citizenships’ to the Boer Republics were not in order when the war began, or if they joined and swore allegiance to the Boers during the war itself.

So, at the end of the war there are a couple of Irish Brigade Prisoners of War who were captured and sent to St. Helena (which was the main camp for Boer POW) and they needed to be repatriated, in their case – the United Kingdom. The issue of treason hangs heavily on both of them.

Firstly, Prisoner 3783, Thomas Enright, an Irishman, who at one time was in the British army during the Matabele War and had changed allegiance to the Boer Republics, joining the Irish Brigade. The issue been the date of his burger citizenship which exceeded the amnesty for who was and who was not considered a ‘Burger’. The cut off for amnesty on oaths of allegiance by ‘foreigners’ to the Boer Republics was given as 29th September 1899.

The second is Prisoner 15910, John Hodgson, a Scotsman born at Paisley in the United Kingdom, he emigrated to Southern Africa in 1891. He lived in Rhodesia and moved to the Orange River Colony until 1896. He took the oath of allegiance to the South African Republic – ZAR (Transvaal) on the 28th or 29th December 1899, which was after the amnesty date. He served in the Irish Brigade under Blake and was captured by the British on 19th November 1900.

Luckily for both these men, they are not prosecuted for treason (which carried the death sentence) and repatriated to the United Kingdom after some heady politicking. Here’s where we stop with Thomas Enright and follow the Scotsman, John Hodgson.

On John Hodgson’s repatriation he is immediately ostracised by the British community because of his role on the side of the Boer Republics and six months after his return to the United Kingdom, he illegally boarded a ship bound for Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Here he set up shop working as a book-keeper and by 1904 John Hodgson’s family reunited with him in the Cape. Now, here’s the interesting bit that so often plagues ‘white’ South African families, although John Hodgson joined the Boer forces as a rebel, he, like many other Boer veterans, also harboured liberal political beliefs. He supported legal equality and the extension of a non-racial franchise (vote to all – Black emancipation) in Southern Africa.

Liberalism in South Africa

John Hodgson’s daughter, did not fall far from the tree, John’s rebellious and highly liberal nature rubbed off on her, she was Violet Margaret Livingstone Hodgson, who later married another liberal, William Ballinger. Margarat Ballinger would go down as a powerhouse in liberal politics in South Africa.

Margarat Ballinger would become the first President of The South African Liberal Party when it formed in 1953 and she would serve from 1937 as a Member of Parliament alongside Jan Smuts and his heir apparent Jan Hofmeyr. Highly vocal, she represented the Eastern Cape on the ‘Native Representatives Council’.

By 1947 her plans included new training and municipal representation for South African blacks and improved consultation with the Native Representatives Council. Time Magazine called her the ‘Queen of the Blacks’. Time Magazine went on to say Ballinger was the “white hope” leading 24,000,000 blacks as part of an expanded British influence in Southern Africa. Her Parliamentary career would take a dramatic turn when the National Party came to power in 1948.

By 1953, the ‘liberal’ side of the United Party lay in tatters, both Jan Smuts and Jan Hofmeyr had passed away in the short years of the ‘Pure’ National Party’s first tenure in power between 1948 and 1953. The Progressive Party and Liberal Party of South Africa would take shape to fill the void left by Smuts and Hofmeyr. The Liberal Party of South Africa was founded by Alan Paton and other ‘liberal’ United Party dissidents. Alan Paton came in as a Vice President and Margarat Ballinger the party’s first President. Unlike the United Party, the Liberal Party did not mince its position on the ‘black question’ and stood for full ‘Black, Coloured and Indian’ political emancipation and opened its doors to all races, they stood on the complete opposite extreme to the National Government and Apartheid and to the ‘left’ of the United Party.

Margarat Ballinger strongly voiced her anti-Apartheid views, opened up three ‘Black’ schools in Soweto without ‘permission’ and was one of a vocal few white voices openly defying H.F. Verwoerd. In 1960 she left Parliament when the South African government abolished the Parliamentary seats representing Black South Africans.

The Apartheid government’s heavy clampdown on ‘white liberals’ after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 forced many Liberal Party members into exile and many others were subject to various ‘banning’ actions locally. By 1968 the Apartheid government made it illegal for members of different races to join a singular political party, and instead of abiding the legislation (which the Progressive Party and others did), the Liberal Party stood it’s ground and chose to disband rather than reject its black members.

Not without a passing shot, in 1960 Margarat Ballinger published a scathing critique of Apartheid in a book she wrote called “From Union to Apartheid – A Trek to Isolation”. Ironic considering her family’s journey as a supporter of the ‘Boer’ cause. Regarded today as a ‘must read’ for anyone studying this period of South African history and Liberalism. She also wrote a trilogy on Britain in South Africa, Bechuanaland and Basutoland. Margarat passed away in 1980, before she could see the end of Apartheid.

In Conclusion

So, there you have it, an unusual and very South African family story, a strong minded Brit turned Boer rebel and his equally strong minded daughter, one who would become a pioneer of woman and liberalism in South Africa. It also reminds us as to the complexities and paradoxes of The South African War 1899-1902 and the different political sentiments at play within the Boer Forces, some of which can still surprise many today.


Written by Peter Dickens with great thanks to Dennis Morton for his research and writings.

Hobhouse, Smuts and a … tree

It’s almost inevitable, whenever I blog about Smuts, somebody comes out the woodwork and immediately holds up Smuts as somehow accountable for the British concentration camps of the South African War (1899-1902) and by creating Union between the Boer Sates and British Colonies Smuts has the blood of 28,000 Boer woman and children on his hands. It’s a wild bit of logic and completely unfounded. So I’m going to challenge it, not with long boring historic missives, this logic is so stupid I’m going to bonk it on the head with a tree … yup  .. a tree!

My weaponised choice of tree … a Magnolia Grandiflora – part of the Rubber Tree family, and this particular one is planted right outside the entrance to Jan Smuts’ house in Irene – now a museum. Here’s my photo of it.

How did it get there? It was given to Jan Smuts by none other than Emily Hobhouse, the same person held up in South Africa as a sort of modern saint. Hobhouse was to become the champion of Afrikaner women and children in the concentration camps.  Hated by the British establishment, this “bloody woman” as they often referred her, continued a crusade to expose British maladministration of the camps back in the United Kingdom.  At her insistence commissions were put in place to look into the problem and stop the unusually high death rates and she went on a fund raising mission in the UK to help Boer woman and children. Her retort to her criticism “I’m not pro Boer, I’m British and this not our way”. 

What was Smuts doing at this time? Well, he was a ‘bittereinder’ – he was engaging guerrilla tactics, and very effectively at that. He was fighting to the bitter end – proving that actions whist governing and fighting in the field could actually work. As to concentration camps he was adding to the problem and he knew it, he needed to stop it quick so he did something about it.  Whist Kitchener was seeing successes as his scorched earth policy drove other Kommandos into submission, Smuts’ Kommando was having none of that, his Kommando is one of the few Boer success stories during this phase of the war.  

Smuts had taken his Kommando into the Cape Colony and right towards the end of the war he very successfully captured the copper mining town of Okiep and its surrounding towns – he did this as a last ditch effort to force the British to re-negotiate peace, and Smuts was again at that peace table to get a better deal for the Boers, he even drafted part of the Treaty of Vereeniging – the bits guaranteeing future self-governance. Instead of the political emancipation of Blacks, which the British wanted as peace term, Smuts was able to steer the peace agreement to put this thorny issue to a future independent South African parliament instead. By doing this Smuts guaranteed the survival of Boer culture, governance and identity, an inconvenient truth often glanced over by his modern day detractors. 

Did Smuts and his family escape the horrors of the concentration camps? No they did not, Isie Smuts, his wife, found herself under house arrest but insisted on being taken to a concentration camp. Other members of the Smuts family were not so lucky and landed up in the camps good and proper only to suffer the ravages of the system.  Smuts in suing for peace said “Comrades, we decided to stand to the bitter end. Let us now, like men, admit that that end has come for us, come in a more bitter shape than we ever thought.” One man in his Kommando shouted out ‘veraaier’ (traitor), the rest got Smuts’ point.

After the war, of all the Boer leaders it was Smuts and Emily Hobhouse and who became the strongest of friends. Hobhouse had previously been out to South Africa as part of the contingent to open the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein. Here she called on the Boers and their leaders to ‘forgive’ the British in the Old Testament manner of forgiveness ‘because they could’, to some this resonated, to many it did not. However of all the Boer leaders it was in Smuts that she found her biggest fan, and if it was not for Smuts, Hobhouse would be all but forgotten – bold statement I know, but here’s why.

General Smuts, General Beyers and Emily Hobhouse at a garden party in Pretoria

Emily Hobhouse was a tireless ‘liberal’, by today’s standards she would be considered a radical ‘libtard’, her protests and activities did not stop at the Boer War – she was a tireless campaigner of causes and an endless critic of British governance.  During WW1, Hobhouse was an ardent pacifist. She organised the writing, signing and publishing in January 1915 of the ‘Open Christmas Letter’ addressed ‘To the Women of Germany and Austria’. In an attempt to initiate a peace process, she also secretly met with the German foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow in Berlin, for which many in Britain branded her a traitor. 

Her popularity in her own country very damaged, but it was in Smuts that she found a confidant. So, back to the tree – She sent the seeds to Smuts and wrote to him:

“It is the Magnolia Grandiflora – my favourite of them – and I feel sure it would do well in Pretoria and if you give it a warm place it should also grow at Doornkloof, I think. Raised from seed the trees would be strong and hardy – do try it – do. You know the flowers, I suppose, large and white and powerfully sweet, if you touch them anywhere they turn brown. The leaf is also very handsome.”

Not just a pen pal, in all the correspondence Smuts found a kindred spirit in Hobhouse, Hobhouse would even advise Smuts on how to deal with things like the Maritz revolt and sometimes the relationship would even get to a very personal level, to the point that one could even raise a eyebrow or two. Smuts would call her the true warrior and he just a simple man that if left alone would just enjoy his surroundings. Hobhouse would lament that it was Smuts’ curse to be a warrior leader when he was really just a philosopher and botanist.  Hence the tree, she really got Smuts and understood him.

So back to the world of Emily Hobhouse, she had become generally despised by the British pubic and, not altogether surprising, by the governing elite, but she was also rejected by her own family. She died in London on the 8th June 1926 at the age of 66, alone and penniless. There were no mourners at her cremation, no clergymen even. 

It was merely the undertaker who placed her mortal remains in a casket. The casket was later shipped to South Africa and four months after her death thousands gathered to pay tribute to this tireless campaigner for human rights.  And who was there to bury her? – None other than Jan Smuts. 

At her funeral at the Vrouemonument (Women’s Monument) in Bloemfontein, Smuts stood up and gave her obituary and in his tiny, high pitched voice said to the thousands who had gathered “We stood alone in the world, friendless among the people, the smallest nation ranged against the mightiest empire on the earth. Then one small hand, the hand of a woman was stretched out to us. At that darkest hour when our race almost seemed doomed to destruction she appeared, as an angel, as a heaven sent messenger, and strangest of all she was an Englishwoman.”

In conclusion

Did Smuts contribute to the concentration camp crises, as a ‘Bittereinder’ alongside all the Boer generals taking the government and fight ‘to the veldt’ it would be hard to say he did not. Is he responsible for a ‘holocaust’ by ‘selling out to the British’ for creating the Union of South Africa – I’m afraid that’s pure hogwash.

So, back to the point, we just have to look at a simple tree to know that Smuts was no big fan of the British policy of ’empire’ in South Africa and he certainly was not a fan of their concentration camp system. The proof stands at Jan Smuts’ house, healthy to this day, over 100 years later and it is pure testament to that fact.

Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

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References: The Jan Smuts House Museum – Irene. Documentary by DSTV ‘Scorched Earth’. The Story of Emily Hobhouse, Pacifism and Hope Joshua Krook – New Intrigue. On Smuts’ role in the Treaty of Vereeniging reference: Meredith, Martin Diamonds, Gold and War. The Making of South Africa. London, Great Britain: Simon & Schuster.

Debunking the myth that the British invented the ‘concentration camp’

It’s an almost ingrained idea in South Africa that ‘concentration camps’ were invented by the British during the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) and there is an equally ingrained idea in some circles in South Africa which holds that the Nazi holocaust styled concentration camp simply followed on the lead set by the British in South Africa.

However, both of these ingrained concepts are untrue – they are myths.

This is not to say the concentration camps did not happen, they did.  It’s also not to say the concentration camp system in South Africa visited death to a civilian population on an unacceptably large and traumatic scale – they did.  It’s also not to ‘Boer Bash’ by way of any sort of ‘deniability’, the Boer nation suffered greatly under the concentration camp policy – no doubt about that at all.

It is to say that historic perspective and facts need to come to the fore to debunk myths and in the ‘concentration camps’ legacy in South Africa there are certainly a couple of myths – and they arose because of political expediency and the cognitive bias generated by the National party’s ‘Christian Nationalism’ education policy over five very long decades – so they are strongly rooted and tough to challenge.

There are three basic myths at play surrounding the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) concentration camps.

  1. That Concentration Camps first came into existence during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the British invented them.
  2. That Hitler modelled the Nazi concentration camp system on the British system used in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.
  3. That it was the Boer women and children in South Africa who experienced the indignity and tragedy of a concentration camp system, with no thanks to the British.

That’s a lot to take in for someone with an ingrained belief, so let’s start with each of these myths:

Did the British invent the ‘Concentration Camp’?

The straight answer is; No.

750px-Flag_of_Spain_(1785–1873,_1875–1931)The actual term ‘concentration camp’ was invented by the Spanish (as campo de concentración or campo de reconcentración) in 1896 – three years before the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1904) started.  It originated during The Cuban War of Independence (Guerra de Independencia cubana, 1895–98) was the last of three liberation wars that Cuba fought against Spain.

A rebellion had broken out in Cuba, then a Spanish colony in 1895.  The rebels, outnumbered by Spanish government troops, turned to guerrilla warfare (and here another myth which says the Boer’s invented ‘guerrilla warfare’ is debunked).

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Colon Cemetery, Havana, Cuba, 1898

In response to guerilla warfare the Spanish commander Valeriano Weyler ordered the civilians of Cuba to be ‘concentrated’ in concentration camps under guard so they could not provide the rebels with food, supplies or new recruits.

Initial rebel military actions against the Spanish had been very successful and it forced Spain to re-think how to conduct the war.  The first thing they did was replace their commander on the ground in Cuba, Arsenio Martinez Campos, who had for all intents and purposes failed to pacify the Cuban rebellion.  The Conservative Spanish government of Antonio Canovas del Castillo sent Valeriano Weyler out to Cuba to replace him. This change in command met the approval of most Spaniards back home in Spain, who thought him the proper man to crush the rebellion.

Valeriano Weyler reacted to the rebels’ guerilla tactics successes by introducing terror methods: periodic executions, mass exile of residents, forced concentration of civilians in certain cities or areas and the destruction of their farms and crops. Weyler’s methods reached their height on October 21, 1896, when he ordered all countryside residents and their livestock to gather within eight days in various fortified areas and towns occupied by his troops.

Hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their homes and were subjected to appalling and inhumane conditions in the crowded towns and cities.

Civilians interned into these concentration camps were in a perilous situation as poor sanitation quickly lead to deadly disease and combined with the lack of food an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the civilian population subjected to these concentration camps died during the three years of warfare. 

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Patients in San Carlo Hospital, Matanzas, in the last stages of starvation

In the end 225,000 ‘non combatant’ Cuban civilians died in just 18 months between 1896 and 1897.  That is some number, nearly a quarter of a million Cubans, and its a stain of blood which sits with modern Spain and one for which there has been little by way of reparation or apologies.

It also means Spain holds the rather dishonourable mantle of inventing the concentration camp system and even the term itself, not the British.

Then was South Africa the 2nd place where Concentration Camps were used?

The straight answer is again – No.

1024px-Flag_of_the_United_States_(1896-1908)The second country to operate concentration camps was the United States of America in September 1899 in the Philippines.  At this point in the historic time-line the British had not yet engaged the ‘Concentration Camp’ system in its full-blown manifestation in South Africa (which started in earnest at the beginning of 1901).

By 1899, the United States of America had recently acquired the Philippines from Spain, only to be confronted by a rebellion by Filipinos who wanted independence rather than American rule. Known as the  Philippine–American War or the Tagalog Insurgency 1899 – 1902 (same timing as the 2nd Anglo-Boer war more or less).

The Filipinos turned to guerrilla warfare and in response the Americans copied the Spanish solution used in Cuba earlier.

In September 1899, American military strategy shifted to suppression of the resistance, in coordination with the future president, William Howard Taft, then the U.S. civil administrator of the islands changed course. Tactics now became focused on the control of key areas with ‘Internment’ and ‘segregation’ of the civilian population in “zones of protection” from the guerrilla population which became defined as ‘concentration camps’.

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Government issuing rice to civilians in a Bauan concentration camp

Concentration camps were set up on the islands of Marinduque and Mindanao, and civilians from rebel-sympathising districts were forced to reside there. As in Cuba, the death rate in these concentration camps from disease was horrendous.

These “reconcentrados,” or concentration camps, were crowded and filled with disease; as the frustrations of guerrilla warfare grew, many U.S. fighters resorted to brutal retaliatory measures, one U.S. camp commandant referred to the concentration camps as the “suburbs of hell.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that around 20,000 Filipino and 4,000 U.S. combatants died in the fighting in the Philippines, and as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died as a result of violence, famine and disease, with most losses attributable to cholera.  Stanley Karnow observers that the American treatment of Filipino citizens “as cruel as any conflict in the annals of imperialism.”

The concentration camps policy was highly effective to the American War effort , As historian John M. Gates noted, “the policy kept the guerillas off-balance, short of supplies and in continuous flight from the U.S. army,  As a result many guerrilla bands, suffering from sickness, hunger and decreasing popular support, lost their will to fight.” America had won, but at what cost?

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A concentration camp in Tanauan, Batangas

As with the Spanish in Cuba, the United States of America generally also does not view their use of concentration camps as a crime against humanity, but rather as an extreme measure to stop ‘guerrilla warfare’ by cutting off the civilian support of the guerrilla fighters.

So, no apology from the United States for their status as the second country to use a concentration camp system, it also is not the last time they would use a ‘concentration camp’ system – they would use it again during the Vietnam War (more of that later).

Then was South Africa the 3rd place where Concentration Camps were used?

This time, sadly – the straight answer is – Yes.

1280px-Flag_of_the_United_KingdomThe third country to set up concentration camps was Britain, but they did not initially call them concentration camps, they called them ‘Government Laagers” and ‘Refugee Camps’.

The reasons were similar to that of Spain in Cuba and the USA in the Philippines; Britain was at war with the two Boer Republics of South Africa, which had turned to guerrilla warfare once their conventional field armies were defeated.  This stage is known as ‘Stage 3’ – The Guerrilla Phase of the South African War 1899-1902.

Stage 1 (Boer Success) and Stage 2 (British Response) end the ‘Conventional Phase’ of the war in late 1900 with the capture of Pretoria – Stage 3 – the Guerrilla Phase starts in earnest from the start of 1901 and lasts a year and a half ending May 1902.

The decision taken by the British was to hasten the end of the Guerrilla Phase, in essence the policy was to concentrate civilians located in conflict zones into government run camps (concentration camps) and destroy stock, crops, implements and farm buildings so the Boer guerrilla forces would run out of supplies and their support network would be crushed. As with the two previous situations perpetuated by Spain and the USA before, these British camps soon became rife with disease and thousands of people died, mostly from measles, pneumonia, typhoid and dysentery.

Why do the British refer to their ‘Concentration Camps’ as ‘Refugee Camps’ when they are clearly not?

The reason for the British sticking to the use of the term ‘Refugee Camps’ instead of ‘Concentration Camps’ is because these camps in South Africa actually started out as ‘refugee camps’: The first two of these camps (refugee camps) were established by the British to house the families of burghers who had surrendered voluntarily.

On the 22nd September 1900, Major-Gen J.G. Maxwell signalled that “… camps for burghers who voluntarily surrender are being formed at Pretoria and Bloemfontein.” As result of this military notice the first two ‘refugee’ camps were indeed established at Pretoria and Bloemfontein respectively.

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Imperial War Museum caption “A refugee Boer family, the wife in traditional black and white costume, surrounded by their possessions, at a railway station”.

The aim outlined by the British for these two refugee camps was supposedly to protect those families of Boers who had surrendered voluntarily. A proclamation was even issued by Lord Kitchener by 20th December 1900 which states that all burghers surrendering voluntarily, will be allowed to live with their families in ‘Government Laagers’ until the end of the war and their stock and property will be respected and paid for.

But (and its a big BUT), by 21st December 1900 (the very next day) Lord Kitchener comes up with a different intention completely, and this one does not the safe-keeping of people, property and stock in mind. In a stated  memorandum to general officers Lord Kitchener outlined the advantages of interning all women, children and men unfit for military services, also Blacks living on Boer farms, as this will be;

“the most effective method of limiting the endurance of the guerrillas … The women and children brought in should be divided in two categories, viz.: 1st. Refugees, and the families of Neutrals, non-combatants, and surrendered Burghers. 2nd. Those whose husbands, fathers and sons are on Commando. The preference in accommodation, etc. should of course be given to the first class. With regard to Natives, it is not intended to clear (Native) locations, but only such and their stock as are on Boer farms.”.

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A group of Boer children with a native African woman at a ‘refugee’ camp. Imperial War Museum image.

With that memorandum now writ, effectively by January 1901, the camps stopped becoming ‘Refugee Camps’ and became ‘Concentration Camps’ governed by forced removal, in effect – displacement camps of civilians forcibly removed from their farmsteads.

The British, for the sake of politically sanitizing this policy from a public opinion perspective, continued to call these camps as ‘Refugee Camps’ and in many circles in the United Kingdom they are still referred as such even today, a good example of this is the Imperial War Museum – when they any publish picture showing Boer families being rounded up on their way to a concentration camp they are almost always (and incorrectly) tagged as ‘refugees’ in the caption.

So how is it that Nazi German Concentration Camps are linked to the ‘British’ Concentration Camps?

2000px-Flag_of_the_German_Reich_(1935–1945)The answer is simply, because of Hermann Göring.

During a press interview Hermann Goring (the then spokesperson on behalf of Adolph Hitler), served to deflect a challenge from a British ambassador who protested about the Nazi concentration camps, and by using a ‘press stunt’ when he dramatically sprung up and quoted from a reference book that the British invented them in the first place (when in fact this is factually incorrect) and it just served as a skillful stroke of political deflection of which Hermann Göring was a past master.

Why a deflection? Because the German ‘Concentration Camps’ were fundamentally different from those initiated by the Spanish, and then the Americans and finally the British, their camps were all tactical responses to guerrilla warfare, whereas the Nazi ‘concentration camps’ started out for camps for political dissent in opposition to National Socialism (Nazism) as ‘re-education’ camps, as a central theme to them.

Socialist systems driven on nationalist lines, whether German Nazi or Russian/Chinese Communism all have in them this phenomenon to re-educate (and if necessary exterminate) anyone in their society not conforming to their idea of the ‘social hive’ or ‘community’.  The Soviet system of ‘Gulag’ re-education camps are no different to the early German Nazi concentration camps in their purpose (and as deadly).

Color-Photographs-of-Life-in-The-First-Nazi-Concentration-Camp-1933-7-640x400

German Nazi Concentration Camp for Political Prisioners

That the German ‘concentration camps’ later evolved into systematic pre-meditated murder with the idea of exterminating entire populations of specific races to solve an ideological problem, and it is an entirely different objective to those objectives behind the British concentration camps in South Africa.

In Nazi Germany and their occupied countries the ‘concentration camp’ evolved into the ‘extermination camp’ for people following the Jewish faith – primarily but not exclusive to Jews – the system also included other people not deemed Aryan enough within the confines of Nazi philosophy or conformist enough to their idea of socialism – gypsies (travellers), free-masons, homosexuals, communists and even the mentally ill all found themselves on the wrong side of Nazism.

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Auschwitz concentration camp for the extermination of Jews and other Nazi undesirables.

But, for some reason, certainly in some circles in South Africa, Hermann Göring’s master class in deflecting a press junket is held up as Gospel, now, in the hindsight of history who would really believe anything Hermann Göring came up with?

What’s the big difference between a Nazi concentration camp and a British concentration camp?

The fundamental differences between a Nazi concentration camp (re-education/extermination camp) and a British concentration camp (forced removal/refugee camp) are massive.

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Himmler’s report to Hitler detailing the executions of civilian prisoners – especially Jews.

For starters, unlike Nazi Germany, there is no historical document or any supporting record that the British embarked on the extermination of the Boer nation using systematic pre-meditated murder.  Not one document or letter whatsoever, whereas in the case of Nazi extermination camps there is an entire undeniable record of premeditated murder.

Secondly, the concentration camps in South Africa were isolated and relatively unguarded, mostly unfenced and they were relatively porous affairs where people came in and out and aid workers came in and out – very different to the Nazi German idea of lining people up on a train platform under armed escort without a suitable aid worker in sight and marching them straight into gas chambers and/or mass graves in their tens of thousands.

The fundamental difference however is in the core thinking behind the military objective requiring concentration camps, for the British the military objective was to bring a quick end to a guerrilla campaign initiated in the final phase of the South African war, They did this by rounding up civilians in support of Boer guerrillas, placing them into camps and cutting off these ‘commando’ guerilla groups from their supply of food, feed, ammunition and recruits.

On the other hand, the objective of the German concentration camps of WW2 was not to put an end to any form of guerrilla warfare whatsoever, it was to systematic exploit and exterminate entire populations along ideological lines of race superiority.

What is common in respect of both forms of concentration camp is that many people died, and in both respects that single act qualifies a tragedy and a failure of the human condition.

Did the deaths in the camps come about because of a hatred for the Boer race?

The answer simply to this question is – No.

The argument that the British concentration camps were designed to systematically wipe the Boer population from the planet by way of extermination because of race hate for Boers falls apart when you consider the British did not target only the ‘Boers’ for deportation to concentration camps.

The truth is the British targeted everybody who they perceived to be involved in the supply of horse feed, ammunition, weapons and food to guerrilla Boer commandos.  This included Black Africans in addition to the Boers themselves.

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Medical inspection inside a Black concentration camp as administered by the Native Refugee Department. Orange Free State, 1901. Photo research by Dr Garth Benneyworth.

The unfortunate truth that central to the concept of concentration camps to South Africa is simply railway supply.

When the British marched into Pretoria, raising the union jack in victory of the conventional war – they found themselves stretched deep into ‘hostile’ territory with extended and vulnerable supply lines stretching over hundreds of kilometres.

On losing their capital cities, the Boer strategy switched and they moved their government ‘into the field’ to embark on a ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ phase – with the intention to disrupt supply to the British now based in Bloemfontein and Pretoria and isolate the British into pockets (mainly along the railway lines).

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To do this they would need food, ammunition and feed supplied directly from their own farmsteads or supporters surrounding their chosen targets. The relatively easy targets were trains and train lines (due to isolation and expanse), and after many a locomotive steamed into Pretoria riddled with bullet holes or didn’t make it all, Lord Kitchener got fed up at the arrogance of Boer resistance after the war had been effectively ‘won’ in his eyes and he acted decisively.

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Locomotive No. 99 “KOMAAS” destroyed by the Boers near Middelburg.

Kitchener concentrated on restricting the freedom of movement of the Boer commandos and depriving them of local support. The railway lines and supply routes were critical, so he established 8000 fortified blockhouses along them and subdivided the land surrounding each of them into a protective radius.

Wherever and whenever an attack took place, or where sufficient threat existed to this system, Kitchener took to the policy of depopulating the radius area, burning down the farmsteads, killing the livestock and moving all the people – both Black and White (it mattered not to the British what colour they were) into their ‘Government Laagers’ which were in effect – concentration camps.

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British burning of Boer farmsteads as a tactic to cut the supplies to and support of Boer Commando’s food, feed, recruits and ammunition.

Two different systems of concentration camps existed in South Africa, one specifically for Blacks only and one mainly for Whites (these also contained Black servants and staff to Boer families).  Both were run very differently.  The outcome was however tragically the same for both. Disease, mainly water-bourne ones took hold and in the Boer civilian’s camps the official death toll is 26 370 people, whereas in the Black camps it is estimated that 20,000 people died (the official records here were not accurately kept by the British – as they were in the Boer camps).

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African women in a Black concentration camp in Klerksdorp,

For a deeper history on the Black concentration camps of The South African War (1899 – 1902) click on this link; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Another point to consider as to the tragedy of the British Concentration camps in South Africa, is that some of the British staff working in the camps died from the same diseases that the killed Boer inhabitants of these camps – a sure sign of poor management and lack of proper medical understanding, medicine and aid –  rather than a premeditated intention to murder.  The sad truth here, disease is indiscriminate.

Did we learn the lesson not to use concentration camps again?

The answer to that sadly is … No.

As said earlier, the Spanish and the Americans found the Concentration Camp system highly effective in bringing guerrilla warfare to an end – a grisly, painful, barbaric end yes, but and end none the same.  The British, rather sadly found the same – that despite the unacceptable damage to a civilian population, the tactic of concentration camps proved very succesful in bringing about a prompt end to what was proving to be a protracted war with an equally protracted affair of all round misery to civilian and combatant alike.

But at what price?  Such a tactic of rounding up civilian groupings and containing them so they cannot supply guerrilla fighters in the field has time and again brought unacceptable death rates to civilians – along with fundamental setbacks in a culture or population’s wellbeing and evolution.  The consequences of concentration camps, whether they are culturally, politically, economically or emotionally considered are far-reaching, highly negative and very deep.

Which brings us back to the United States of America, the second country to use a concentration camp system at the end of the 1800’s, because they were back at it again as late as the 1960’s – not even forty years ago – during the Vietnam War.

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US troops Burning villages in Vietnam

In Vietnam they would engage exactly the same system – create ‘firebases’ in ‘protected zones, whenever there was a ‘flashpoint’ of guerrilla activity they would starve the guerrillas of their means to fight by cutting off  their supplies (food and weapons), and they would do this by burning suspected villages and homesteads to the ground and moving all the affected civilian population into government-run ‘Strategic Hamlet’ camps – concentration camps in effect.

The only saving grace in all of this is that by the mid 1960’s medicine had moved on and diseases which had killed civilians in their droves in concentration camps at the end of the 1800’s could now be easily cured and even stopped in the 1960’s – as simply put better medical understanding, vaccination, antibiotics and penicillin had all come a long way by the end of the 1960’s – so too had government agencies handling civilian affairs during wartime.

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Villages in a ‘Strategic Hamlet’ – Vietnam War

So instead of getting any form of admission to running ‘concentration camps’ and wholesale displacement and civilian death in the Philippines and even later in Vietnam – what we get from modern-day America are bland, soulless American military definitions outlining incidents when they the accidentally kill a bunch of citizens – and they now call it unavoidable “collateral damage.”

From a military strategic and tactical perspective, in many respects, the techniques used by the Americans for fighting ‘guerrilla warfare’ in the Vietnam War during the 1960’s and early 1970’s is almost no different to the techniques used by the British fighting the same type of guerrilla warfare in 1901 and early 1902.  The Americans built ‘fire-bases’ to protect strategic points and fan out from to find Vietcong guerrillas, the British built ‘blockhouses’ next to protected strategic points and fanned out to find Boer guerrillas. The Americans rounded up Vietnamese civilians around flashpoints and burnt the farmsteads … the British did the same and burnt the farmsteads.  During the Vietnam War the Americans and their proxy state ran camps for displaced civilians under the strange alias of ‘The Strategic Hamlet Program’ – in effect concentration camps, the British ran camps for displaced civilians under the strange alias of ‘Government Laagers’ – in effect also concentration camps.

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Vietnam War ‘Strategic Hamlet’ – note the containment and defensive perimeter

So what’s the difference?  It’s the concept of ‘Total War’ that has blurred the lines, it starts to become almost impossible to separate the idea of combatants and non combatants from soldier and civilian – when civilians aid the soldiers by maintaining their combat readiness.  The ANC used the same excuse to bomb Southern Cross Aid offices, a civilian charity supplying the SADF with gift aid and the SADF even used the same excuse when a whole bunch of civilians came into the cross-fire at Cassinga in Angola during the Angolan Border War.

In conclusion

The impact of the British concentration camp policy in South Africa is far-reaching, deeply traumatic and still has bearing today as it’s an issue that requires national healing and international recognition.  It is not a light matter.  However, we have to be true to pursuing the facts and discarding the propaganda and politically motivated miss-truths.

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Boer women and children in a British Concentration Camp

So, we stand by the myth now debunked – the British did not invent the ‘concentration camp’, and certainly not the ‘concentration camp’ as we have come to know the system employed by the Nazis.

History however does show us that a policy to counter-act Guerrilla Warfare by herding civilians into concentration camps is generally a very bad idea from a purely humanitarian perspective, nothing of any good has come from it, its morally corrupt and the British (like the Americans and the Spanish before them) are complicit and guilty of using this policy, and it is to their eternal shame.

As to guerrilla warfare bringing on ‘total war’ and the consequences thereof it’s an American General, William Tecumseh Sherman whose comment rings so tragically true in this respect

“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueller it is, the sooner it will be over”. 


Written by Peter Dickens

Related work and links

The Black Concentration Camps of the Boer War; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Emily Hobhouse; I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

With sincere thanks to Tinus Le Roux for all the Boer War colourised images used in the article.  References include The Spanish Reconcentration Policy by PBS. The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare by John M. Gates. Imperial War Museum.

 

Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France!

My wife and I headed into a quaint neighbourhood of Paris to enjoy some traditional French Chanson music. When in Paris eh!. Our venue sported just about everything ‘French’, right down to the menu, wine list and sing along to Jacques Brel and Édith Piaf favourites.

30073135_2127175497511437_787967327737655482_oI glanced up at an art mural of the quarter depicting its early 20th Century heyday, and noticed its old landmark hotel was called the ‘Transvaal Hotel’, nipping outside I realised I was in the famous old ‘working class quarter’ of Paris, the epicentre of French equality and multiculturalism … Belleville … the birthplace and childhood home of Édith Piaf, with its panoramic view of the Paris at the Parc de Belleville, and I was standing in one its most well-known streets, leading to the Parc de Belleville, the ‘Rue du Transvaal’.

So what’s with all the references to the old Transvaal in middle of ‘working class’ Paris?  Put simply, the French during The South African War (1899 to 1902) had been fully in support of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (the Transvaal), in fact there are a number of ‘Rue du Transvaal’ in France and Belgium named after the old South African Republic.

In Belgium a Transvaal Streets are found at Anderlecht, Binche and Quiévrain and in France, Transvaal Streets are found at Berck, Boulogne-Billancourt, Bourgoin-Jallieu, Cateau-Cambrésis, Chalon-sur-Saône, Chambéry, Colombes, Dijon, Divion, La Garenne-Colombes, Guilvinec, Le Creusot, Limoges, Lyon, Marseilles, Nantes, Pessac, Rousies, Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, Saint-Avold and Thiers Wasquehal.

There is even a Rue du Botha which joins up with Rue du Transvaal in Belleville, named in honour of Louis Botha, the famous Boer General and then Commander-in-Chief of the Transvaal Forces, who went on to become the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa.

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But why such a strong support?  Simply put there is an aged old ‘hatred’ between the French and the English, and it’s because they are diametrically opposed to one another on one key thing, Republicanism versus Monarchism (not to mention a very long history of going to war against one another).

Deep in the French psyche and value system and inbred in every French citizen are their ‘Republican’ values Liberté, égalité, fraternité ou La Mort. The literal translation of this means ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, ‘brotherhood’ or we die. Values which are in sharp contrast to the English who idolise their monarchy and class based heritage even to this day (the French guillotined their monarchy and upper-class in favour of Republicanism and this motto).

31172198_2127175647511422_3871489692275261358_nIn their Republicanism and concepts of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood they found kindred “Brothers’ in the form of the Boers of The Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State Republic, a hard ‘working class’ and determined people (like themselves) seeking ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ from the oppressive yoke of British Class Elitism and Monarchism. The French fully supported the Boer cause for Republic autonomy and found Britain to be unduly pressuring them, and lets not forget – the Boers were up against their old enemy; “les rosbifs” (the roast beefs) – the English.

Unlike South Africa where the legacy of the South African War (1899 to 1902) and the two Boer Republics is gradually been erased from street names, place names and places of interest for the sake of this or that changing political convenience, the French will have none it.  In France they understand the need to preserve history, no matter how inconvenient, it is what has forged their identity, especially the nasty part of their past pre-revolution, and the equally nasty past of recent German occupation – all preserved.

In fact they surrendered their country in just six weeks of fighting when Nazi Germany invaded in 1940, simply because they understood the value of Paris, this landmark of European and historical heritage and did not want it bombed flat, as was the fate of so many other European capitals.  It is why Paris remains such a unique and beautiful bastion to historical heritage to this very day.

So, when next the ‘Springbok’ rugby team are in France about to give  ‘Les Bleus’ (The Blues) French national squad a pounding, take the time to extend a hand and say thank you to the French for preserving a very valuable South African historical legacy so quickly forgotten about in South Africa today and say in all honesty;

“Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive Paris, vive la France”.

Related articles and links

The 2nd Anglo Boer War – Churchill; Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War – Concentration Camps; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War – Emily Hobhouse; I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War – Kruger; Kruger “blunders” and declares war on the world’s Superpower!


Written by Peter Dickens

How South Africa forged Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’ from Boer captivity during the ‘South African War’ (1899 to 1902) – is the stuff of a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure book. Boy’s Own was a Victorian period magazine featuring great fictional adventures and deeds of Empire.

Boys_Own_Magazine_Feb_1855Because Churchill’s exploits in the South African War were marketed as a grand adventure, it vaulted this failing politician into the annuals of British heroism and resuscitated his career in a manner that can only be described as ‘stellar’.

It was this escape from a POW holding pen in Pretoria during the South African War that set up and ultimately forged Churchill into the juggernaut politician and statesman he was to become, without it Great Britain may never have had its great wartime leader and ‘saviour’ during World War 2 and by the same token the disaster at Gallipoli during World War 1 may even have never taken place.

So, let’s have a look at why South Africa is the epicentre of Churchill’s revived career and why by association this country gave the world a man who in 2002 was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton of all time’ placing him at the top of the most influential people in British history.

Let’s also examine why a lot of people would frankly have been very happy if the Boers had shot and killed him on the fateful day he was caught in Natal (an outcome which very nearly happened).  On the way we’ll also unravel some truths and myths.

Churchill’s South African ‘Adventure’

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Known as ‘Copperknob’ a colourised young Churchill at Harrow

To say Winston Churchill was an ambitious young man would be a classic example of English understatement. By the age of 25, the freckled-faced redhead had already written three books, run unsuccessfully for Parliament and participated in four wars on three continents. He was even nicknamed “Pushful, the Younger” because of his ambition, Churchill hungered for fame and glory unwavering in his belief that he would one day become Prime Minister. “I have faith in my star that I am intended to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother.  Unknown to him at this stage his ‘star’ was to align and bring him fame in South Africa.

Winston Churchill initially took part in the South African War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  Some war correspondents (like Churchill) tended to be retired commissioned officers with military experience attached to British Regiments or Formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.

Churchill as a war correspondent was generally disliked by the British upper officer class, they found him highly critical of their strategy, tactics and actions, they also found him impertinent, arrogant and nothing more than a meddling glory monger.  His ‘upper class elite’ and ‘political class’ heritage presented him as a double-edged sword to any Regiment or Division’s officer elite and they had no choice, simply put they had to just put up with him.

True to form, Churchill’s activities in South Africa literally read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel. Within two days of the Boer Republics declaring war on Great Britain on 11th October 1899, Britain started to mobilise their forces at home, in the Cape Colony and Natal their forces were relatively small frontier garrison forces supplemented by citizen force members (which they began to muster anticipating the coming hostilities), and they were hopelessly under-strength.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nIt a ‘myth’ that Britain had built up large forces to invade the Boer Republics before the start of the war.  The ‘truth’ is they were relatively unprepared and much weaker than the well equipped Boer forces – ‘Black November’ illustrates this perfectly.  The Boers had banked on a swift victory whilst Britain was weak, hence their ultimatum was followed immediately with a surprise Boer invasion of the British colonies – Natal and the Cape Colony.

The British decided to initially send General Sir Redvers Henry Buller and a small contingent of officers, a detachment of troops and a gaggle of journalists off to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to gauge troop strength ahead of sending any major expeditionary force requirements, they left on the Dunottar Castle on 14th October 1899.

Churchill had planned to publish his magnum opus in October 1899, “but when the middle of October came, we all had other things to think about”. He said, “the Boer ultimatum had not ticked out on the tape machines for an hour” and he was on his way to the Cape Colony, appointed as the principal War Correspondent of the Morning Post. He was to be paid £250 per month for four months (£ 1000 was a small fortune at the time), all expenses paid and he retained the copyright on his articles.

Churchill was first in with Buller’s fact-finding mission anticipating his big ‘scoop’.  Sailing with great haste and at high-speed, Churchill called the voyage with Buller as “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” The passage aside, in typical form Churchill even took his valet with him and a vast liquor cabinet that included 18 bottles of Scotch Whiskey also went in tow.

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Illustration of General Sir Redvers Buller on the Dunottar Castle, steaming at haste to Cape Town departing Britain on 14 Oct 1899

In those days before radio, they were completely cut off from the world while at sea. Approaching the Cape, a passing ship held up a blackboard on which was written: BOERS DEFEATED, THREE BATTLES, PENN SYMONS KILLED. A staff officer ventured to address Buller. “It looks as if it will all be over, sir.” Buller only said,“I dare say there will be enough left to give us a fight outside Pretoria.”

Churchill arrived with Buller in Cape Town on 31 Oct 1899, by this stage the siege of the British frontier town of Ladysmith was well underway, and the initial message of Boer ‘defeat’ was very incorrect.  Churchill could not believe his good fortune and endeavoured to be become the first British journalist to get to Ladysmith – against all odds – ahead of Buller’s fact-finding mission and way ahead of any sizeable expeditionary force (which only was to start landing in Cape Town from 10 November 1899).  In effect he was going to be the first to ‘ascertain’ the situation for the very apprehensive Britons back home, not Buller.

Churchill immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so.

They took a 700-mile undefended train ride up north to the Cape Colony’s frontier near Port Elizabeth, then they boarded a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of a violent Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days in very high seas, the pair arrived at Durban.  This ‘adventure’ had started to play out in an extraordinary way.

Capture 

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of any advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range of the artillery fire from the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armoured train.

The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899 using field artillery and heavy rifle fire, whilst trying to manoeuvre out of fire, the front truck hit an obstruction which was placed by the Boers on the track and it was tossed from the tracks. The Boers then opened up on the stalled train with field guns and rifle fire from a vantage position. With the front truck overturned, the engine and rear trucks remained on the tracks, still coupled to them.

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The wrecked part of the armoured train Churchill was travelling in

As shells roared around him and bullets pinged the sides of the armoured train, Churchill’s instincts as a trained military officer took over from his ‘journalist’ side, possibly even more in self-preservation. Acting like a decorated commander, Churchill braved the line of fire for more than an hour as he directed the soldiers to free the train. He also instructed the train driver, a civilian, who was injured and hiding to return to his post (he lied and convinced him that odds are it was not possible to get wounded twice in one day).  He became involved in un-coupling the section of the train which was not completely de-railed, the idea was to use this part of the train still on the tracks as a shield for the soldiers as they retreated to safety.

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Colourised image of Churchill next to the ambushed train – taken later in the war. Colourised by Tinus Le Roux

After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside, Churchill by this time had become separated from the part of the train on the tracks as it retreated. A number of men were taken prisoner, but a large section of the train, now loaded with men, had escaped.

Churchill made for cover to try to escape and found himself alone in a gully near the track. A Boer rode up and seated on his horse raised his rifle to bear at a range of 40 yards. Churchill went for a Mauser pistol he was carrying in his belt but it wasn’t there, whilst clearing the train he had taken it off and left it on the train, it was now safely making its way back without him and Churchill was unarmed.  So, as myths go Churchill was not simply an ‘unarmed’ journalist and as other myths go he also did not fire the pistol during the attack, but he certainly had every intension of shooting the Boer horseman (at his own admission).

In a flat dilemma, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer to surrender and walked out.  Whilst walking into captivity next to the Boer horseman Churchill suddenly realised he had two magazine clips on his person for the Mauser Pistol, which were loaded with ‘soft-nosed’ ammunition. Figuring this may get him into a lot of trouble (soft-nose ammunition makes a bigger striking wound than hard-nosed ammunition and was generally not thought of Kindly by soldiers – it still isn’t), he realised he had to get rid of them fast.

Churchill silently got rid of one magazine, whilst trying to dispose of the second the Boer caught him in the act and said in English, ‘What have you got there?’.  Quick thinking, Churchill gave a whopping lie and replied, “What is it?’ I picked it up”.  The Boer took the pistol magazine and threw it away.

With that Churchill went into captivity, protesting that he was just a civilian war correspondent and therefore not subject to a Prisoner of War status and should be released immediately.  The Boers would have none of it, they had captured a ‘great prize’ who had not behaved under fire in characteristically ‘civilian’ manner.

Passing Majuba 

Whilst his POW train passed Majuba hill on its way to Pretoria Churchill had time to think.  Majuba was the site of the British defeat in the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) twenty years earlier, to understand the deep causes of The South African War (2nd Anglo-Boer War), we need to understand the 1st Anglo-Boer War (like the 2nd World War is World War 1 Part 2, so too the case with the two Anglo-Boer Wars).

As inconvenient truths go the Transvaal was annexed by the British in 1881 at the invitation of the Boers to save them from an African revolt, the Boers did not take to British administration, especially as to how they dealt with the Black African’s claims and taxes and so kicked them out, this cumulated in the Battle at Majuba – and all this happened long before Gold was discovered in the Transvaal – think about that.

Mjuba

Graffiti scrawled by both sides in a house recaptured by the British in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. British graffiti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. Imperial War Museum image

This act of defeat and subsequent ceasefire agreement from the battle at Majuba was described by Churchill as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” as he pondered it whilst passing Majuba hill in his POW train going into captivity.  The general sentiment at the time amongst the British was that the South African War i.e. 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) was going to settle the disgrace and tentative ‘ceasefire’ of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) once and for all.

How history twists 

In one of the most ironic twists in history, after The South African War (1899 to 1902), when Boer Generals visited England to ask for some loan or assistance on behalf of their devastated country, Churchill was introduced at a private luncheon to their leader, General Louis Botha.  Churchill began with his story of his capture, Botha replied ‘Don’t you recognise me? I was that man. It was I who took you prisoner. I, myself,’

Churchill highly respected and valued Louis Botha after the war, he found the Union of South Africa’s first Prime Minister as “an acquaintance formed in strange circumstances and upon an almost unbelievable introduction ripened into a friendship which I greatly valued. I saw in this grand, rugged figure, the Father of his country, the wise and profound statesman, the farmer-warrior, the crafty hunter of the wilderness, the deep, sure man of solitude”.

In another strange twist of history, Kmdt Dolf De la Rey was in command of forces attacking the train is also credited with capturing Churchill (amongst others), much later on De la Rey in 1950’s, as an ageing Boer veteran of The South African War, joined Sailor Malan in his Torch protests against the National Party, such is the rich tapestry of Afrikaners against Apartheid.

Prisoner of War

Although the Boers allowed prisoners-of-war to purchase newspapers, cigarettes and beer, the future British Prime Minister despised his imprisonment “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life”. What frustrated Churchill even more than the loss of control was the possibility that he was missing out on further opportunities for glory. “I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement,” he lamented.

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Group of British Prisoners of War, with Churchill on the right. Imperial War Museum image

So, he decided to do something about it and escape, and the ramification of doing so would have massive historical consequence.  Here Winston Churchill himself sums up the randomness and sheer ‘luck’ this would all bring him.

“I was to escape, and by escaping was to gain a public reputation or notoriety which made me well-known henceforward among my countrymen, and made me acceptable as a candidate in a great many constituencies. I was also put in the position to earn the money which for many years assured my independence and the means of entering Parliament. Whereas if I had gone back on the engine, though I should perhaps have been praised and petted, I might well have been knocked on the head at Colenso a month later, as were several of my associates on Sir Redvers Buller’s Staff”.

Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’

In December 1899 Churchill’s plan to escape took shape.  He was held in a prison dedicated to British officers, it was a State Model school in central Pretoria converted to hold Prisoners of War.

He wrote.“The State Model Schools stood in the midst  of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated-iron fence about ten feet high, these boundaries offered little obstacle to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier” he then adds “No walls are so hard to pierce as living walls”.

In cohorts with two officers, Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Brockie (who was in fact a Sergeant Major who passed himself off as a Lieutenant in order to get better quarters).  They had noticed a ‘blank spot’ in the movements of Boer guards behind the latrines.  After a first attempt at escape was aborted, they had another go the next day.  Churchill was to go first followed by the other two.

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Churchill’s departing note

On the night of his escape, December 12, 1899 Churchill even had the gumption and cheek to leave a ‘Dear John’ departing note on his pillow thanking the Boer Republic for its hospitality, it read in part:

 “… I wish in leaving you thus hastily and unceremoniously to once more place on record my appreciation of the kindness which has been shown me and the other prisoners by you, the Commandant and Dr Gunning and my admiration of the chivalrous and humane character of the Republican forces.”

‘Churchill entered the small circular lavatory, waited some time monitoring the guards from the lavatory, he waited until the guards had turned their backs and this was his moment, he hesitated twice and then went for it, he scaled the wall and jumped, initially snagging himself on the ornamental metal spikes on top of the wall.

Once free he hid himself in a nearby shrub in the adjacent garden and waited for his partners, who did not arrive, he lay here for an hour with great impatience.  He overheard them speaking in Latin gibberish and mentioning his name, he risked a cough and they told him the game was up on the guard movements and they were not able to join him.

So, there he was, he considered going back and instead undertook to press on with his escape.  The escape was very poorly planned, he had only figured out how to get out of the prison, no real further thought had been given other than to head east. Churchill the ‘fugitive’ had no map, no compass, no intimate local knowledge, no ability to speak the local languages and just “four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit” in his pocket for food.  The compass and food had been with his colleagues, but he still possessed a seemingly superhuman level of self-belief that he could safely navigate the 300-mile journey through enemy territory.

On the ‘run’

Contrary to many myths, Churchill did not scarper out of Pretoria as a running fugitive only to ‘forge the mighty Apies’ river to freedom (that was all media hype).  In fact, he casually walked out of Pretoria.  He figured so as not to draw attention to himself he would just amble along in the middle of the road, in full view, humming a tune, pretending to be just a regular ‘Burgher’ on his way home.  He would later joke with Jan Smuts that there was a good chance he just walked straight past him.

Without ‘forging’ any river, he eventually found himself strolling along looking for a railway line, he figured he would follow the easterly tracks, the idea was to get to neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).  When he reached the eastern suburbs of Pretoria he sat down on a small bridge and for a little while contemplated as to how his ‘adventure’ was now panning out.

He resolved to turn South and eventually he struck a railway heading in an easterly direction, following it, all the while reasoning with himself that he would jump aboard a train and hide.  A coal train passed and he jumped aboard hiding amongst the sacks, and promptly went to sleep.  He awoke hungry and thirsty and needed sustenance, and to get a bearing (he was not sure the coal train had in fact run east) so he disembarked by jumping off.

His next effort to find another train proved entire futile, hungry, tired and thirsty he marched on with increasing hopelessness. By now he was desperate, that night he spotted a fire, thought it a Black African hamlet and hoped to fall on their tender mercy.  On approaching the fire, it turned out to be a railway siding and he overheard Dutch-Afrikaans been spoken.  But desperate and miserable he then resolved to ‘give up the game’ and approach a nearby house.  Chuck it all in, whatever comes, he hoped against hope there would be a sympathetic owner to his plight.

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Churchill’s ‘Wanted’ Poster

Meanwhile back in Pretoria and in the United Kingdom, news of his escape broke.  The British public and media shifted into a mode that can only be described as ecstatic, news stories broke on the ‘bravery’ of Winston Churchill giving the Boers the old ‘Agincourt salute’!

Good old stiff upper lip resistance stuff – in a sea of negative news on the heavy British battle losses over November and December this made for the only media ‘great news’ and positive propaganda for a public desperately keen on anything good coming from the war to date – and all thanks to only one man – Winston Churchill. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (The South African Republic) , also known as the ‘Transvaal’ Republic (abbreviated ‘ZAR’), went on the man-hunt and immediately put a bounty on Churchill’s head – £25 for the return of Churchill ‘Dead or Alive’.

The Transvaal Police (ZARP) circulated a telegram after Churchill escaped from prison and it gives a very accurate description of Churchill demeanour, it is also very telling of the saga unfolding for Churchill.  It read:

“Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.”

Throwing the dice 

Churchill, now in sheer desperation, cautiously approached the house and knocked on the door.  His odds were really 50/50 and he knew it, to dispel another myth, The South African War was not a clean-cut affair between the British and Afrikaners facing each other.

The South African Republic (ZAR) was rammed full of tens of thousands of mainly British mine workers and managers, who also worked the mining support infrastructure – like rail (they were the cause Britain cited as the Casus Belli for war in the first place), there were more Britons living along the Transvaal gold reef’s towns in the Republic than Boers.  Equally there were more Afrikaners with British Cape Colony citizenship in the Cape Colony than Britons.

At the beginning of the war, English and Afrikaners with citizenships on either side of the fence, if caught siding with one or other cause were generally executed for treason by either the British or Boers – this kept most of them at bay and non-hostile one way or the other. Also, there were many Afrikaners living in the two Boer Republics and most in the Cape Colony who were in fact sympathetic to the British cause, as there were also many English ZAR citizens sympathetic with the Boer cause.  The next phase of Churchill’s ‘adventure’ illustrates this perfectly.

On knocking on the door, a light came on and a man asked in Dutch-Afrikaans “Wie is daar (Whose there)”. Winston went into shock, the game was up, so he immediately lied and said; “I want help; I have had an accident”. The door opened, and the man said in English this time “What do you want?” Not sure of the status of things Winston carried on lying and said; “I am a burgher, I have had an accident. I was going to join my commando at Komati Poort. I have fallen off the train. We were skylarking. I have been unconscious for hours. I think I have dislocated my shoulder”.  He had in all honestly no clue what to say next.

The stranger regarded Winston intently and ushered him in pointing to a room with one hand whilst holding a revolver in the other.  Winston Churchill half expected to be shot in the back of the head there and then.  He chose to come clean and said; “I am Winston Churchill, War Correspondent of the Morning Post. I escaped last night from Pretoria. I am making my way to the frontier. I have plenty of money. Will you help me?”

Now here’s where Winston just got lucky, his host responded; ‘Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

Brave words from the host, and here’s why, it turns out that Churchill’s new host was John Howard, an Englishman managing Transvaal Collieries. He had become a naturalised citizen of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and he had bribed the local Boer Field Cornet, so he would not be called up to his Commando and fight the British.  His team was all of British heritage and had been allowed to stay if they remained ‘neutral’.

‘Verraaiers’ (traitors) everywhere!

John Howard and some of his compatriots resolved to hide Churchill under-ground in a nearby coal mine whilst they figured out the next move.  They ran a tremendous risk, had they been caught they would have been shot as traitors and collaborators, especially John Howard who would have been shot outright.

Churchill sat it out in a mine shaft with food provisions given to him, his only company the many rats.  On the fifth day of his escape, John Howard hatched an escape plan for Churchill.  In the neighbourhood of the mine there lived an Afrikaner named Burgener, who was sending a consignment of wool by rail to Delagoa Bay on the 19th December.  Burgener was an Afrikaner ZAR citizen sympathetic to the British cause.

Howard had secretly met with Burgener, told him of Churchill and they agreed to smuggle Churchill into a specially adapted wool bale on the train and take him to safety.  Phew, supreme treason this, had this Boer ‘turncoat’ been caught he would surly have faced a ZAR firing squad or noose.  Burgener was also to accompany Churchill all the way to Portuguese East Arica and safely see him through – now not many people know this part of the narrative, it’s inconvenient to highlight a ‘Afrikaner’ collaborator in all of this.

What all this skullduggery means, the idea of broad partisan loyalty to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’s cause is simply a myth – thousands of ZAR citizens, English and even some Afrikaans were not behind Kruger’s politics or his cabal.

Do you know who I am?

In the middle of the night on the 19th December, Churchill was taken the train loaded with wool bales, Howard pointed the spot made available for Churchill to hide and Winston snuck away into the centre of the specially modified wool bale (with enough space to sit up in), he was given a revolver and food (chicken, meat and bottles of cold tea) – a small space enabled him to see out.  Off the train trekked, final stop, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).

Once safely over the border into neutral Portuguese territory, he emerged from his wool bale sang and shouted in jubilation whilst firing his revolver into the air.

Once in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), he carefully disembarked the train and saw Mr Burgener (the Afrikaner who had helped him), Burgener then pointed him to the British Consulate.  He marched in expecting a rousing reception – he got none of it.  Instead a terse British civil servant told him to ‘Be off,‘ the Consulate was closed, he added; ‘The Consul cannot see you to-day. Come to his office at nine tomorrow, if you want anything.’

At this point Churchill spat his dummy in the reception area, in a typical ‘do you know who I am’ rant he demanded to see the Consular who was duly called, happily the weekly streamer to Durban was leaving that night, he embarked immediately and arrived in Durban to the jubilant reception he was expecting.

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Churchill addresses the crowd at Durban following his escape from Pretoria and return via Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)

Becoming a ‘Caesar’

In Durban, Sir Redvers Buller was preparing his next push to relieve the siege at Ladysmith, Winston decided he wanted to re-engage his military commission and get into the fight properly as a British Army officer.  His problem, his contract with the Morning Post,which did not allow him as a correspondent to take part in soldiering, and Buller who had a strict military only doctrine.  So, he struck a unique agreement with Buller, he would do both jobs, the Morning Post would pay him and the British Army would not.  In another first, Churchill became the world’s first ’embedded’ journalist.

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Colourised portrait of Winston Churchill as part of the South African Light Horse

With that he eagerly found himself back in uniform and off to war, with a lieutenant’s commission in the South African Light Horse.  In his words; “I stitched my badges of rank to my khaki coat and stuck the long plume of feathers from the tail of the sakabulu bird in my hat, and lived from day-to-day in perfect happiness”.

Churchill took part in the famous battle of Spionkop outside Ladysmith from 23-24 January 1900, he acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spionkop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene:“Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”

He fought a number of skirmishes and battles to relieve Ladysmith, watching the final attack on the Boer position by the Irish Brigade, a desperate affair and out of twelve hundred Irish who assaulted, both colonels, three majors, twenty officers and six hundred soldiers had fallen killed or wounded.  The path to Ladysmith was clear, and Churchill was front and forward riding into Ladysmith in triumph, he said; “We all rode together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out, Ladysmith. It was a thrilling moment”.

This highlights another inconveniently overlooked fact of The South African War (especially in context of Boer and Black concentration camps later in the war), British civilians, women and children included, suffered heavily under Boer siege tactics, they were forced to live in nearby caves and bunkers (in Ladysmith) and in mine shafts (Kimberley) to avoid the indiscriminate shelling of their cities, many died of shrapnel and disease brought about from the ravages of war.  At near starvation they were emancipated.  They were described by their liberators as ‘ghosts’. Churchill’s account of entering Ladysmith recalls; “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome”.

Besides his harrowing images at Ladysmith, in Churchill’s writings during the campaign, he chastised British hatred for the Boer, calling for them to be treated with “generosity and tolerance” and urging a “speedy peace”.  His call was to fall on deaf ears, especially Kitchener’s who only got he ‘speedy peace’ part.

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British dead in their tench on top of Spionkop, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

Fighting on into the Orange Free State Republic, he was nearly captured again when he found himself well forward and isolated observing Boer movements, they attacked his position and his horse bolted under fire, Winston ran for his life under heavy fire with bullets whizzing around him, his savour came when another officer rode up to him, gave him a stirrup, hoisted him up, the horse was wounded but they still rode with Winston in tandem out of immediate danger.

He was front and forward again when the British eventually marched on Pretoria in June 1900.  He watched the last Boer fighting forces leaving Pretoria on a train and he and his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, took the opportunity to get ahead of the rest of the troops and he rode into Pretoria like a conquering Caesar.  He immediately found his way to the State Model School POW prison, the very prison he had escaped from at the beginning of the war, here he demanded and received the surrender of 52 Boer prison camp guards.  The relieved British officers in the prison produced a British Union Jack (flag), they took down the Transvaal ‘Vierkleur’ and hosted the British Union flag – the first time a British flag re-appeared flying over Pretoria since Pretoria was annexed by Britain as a colony at the invitation of the Boers (see 1st Anglo-Boer War) in 1880, twenty years earlier.

14516334_10154528497944476_6692268421857196301_nAfter the victory in Pretoria, Winston returned to Cape Town and sailed for Britain in July 1900, on the very same ship he had arrived on, the Dunottar Castle. While he had still been in South Africa, his Morning Post despatches had been published as London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and they sold like wildfire.  He arrived a national hero, nearly god-like, adored by millions.

A future fan base

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Portrait of a young Winston Churchill during his MP days, 1904

There’s a lot not to like about Churchill, his warmongering nature and ability to lie at will, dithering between politician, journalist and army officer all for personal advancement for starters.  But there’s a lot to like in addition when you consider this.

What a Victorian Boy’s Own adventure! Think about it; the story starts with bang! The hero heads off to war on an urgent sea passage to the Cape Colony, braving high seas and a tropical storm to get to Durban.  In Natal he then single-handedly saves an entire British armoured train and its troop from certain death.

Captured by a skilful and determined enemy, he then escapes a POW prison in Pretoria with a ‘dead or alive’ bounty on his head, the subject of an extensive man-hunt for 300 miles and eventually – intrigue, he’s smuggled out the country to freedom by a group of traitors.

He promptly then re-joins the fight and takes part in the epic Battle of Spoinkop, then he’s on to relieve the starved and besieged British folk in Ladysmith riding in triumph. He then fights his way up Africa to take the enemies ‘prize,’ the capital city of Pretoria.

In a perfect ending to the adventure our hero races in to relieve imprisoned British comrades from the same prison he escaped from, and it all ends with the raising the first British Union Flag of the war flying high above the conquered capital.

In all the hero risks being shot in the head on more than five separate occasions, bravery on an almost unsurpassed level – all for Queen and Empire.

You could not make this stuff up! How Churchill did not earn a Victoria Cross is a matter of conjecture (and a topic of many discussions). To the average Victorian prepubescent boy this was an epic ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure, the difference with fiction, it was all true – and a generation of Churchill fans was born.

A fall from Grace

With a stellar career in front of him, as World War 1 churned on Churchill found himself as the 1st Lord of Admiralty, he asked the Prime Minister “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Churchill, believed he had the solution for breaking the impasse—a second front.

Churchill fancied himself a military strategist, he said. “I have it in me to be a successful soldier. I can visualize great movements and combinations,” He proposed attacking the Dardanelles in Turkey and opening a second front.  This was Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ theory – and ironically he made the same mistake with the Italy Campaign of the Second World War, and like Italy later, Turkey proved a ‘tough old gut’ in World War One.

The Gallipoli campaign was an outright failure, the Battle of Gallipoli became a slaughter and quickly morphed into a stalemate just as bloody, just as pointless as that on the Western Front.

In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post. “I am the victim of a political intrigue,” he cried to a close friend. “I am finished!”

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Churchill (right), back from the trenches in WW1 wearing a French Adrian helmet; the officer to his left is Maj. Archibald Sinclair

Displaying his typical dogmatic determination, he resigned to make good his character, and he did this is a most remarkable way, he joined the Army again and chose to spend his time in his ‘political wilderness’ fighting in front line trenches in France, slogging in the blood and mud as a Lt. Colonel with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. After several brushes with death, he returned to politics in 1917 as the Munitions Minister, from his experiences in the front lines he wrote of the urgent need for the armoured ‘tracked caterpillars’ to traverse the mud and ‘no-mans land’ – his involvement with a group of innovators to resolve the problem led to the development of the battle tank and warfare was forever changed.

Destiny 

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon re-joining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germany’s re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged, and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.

It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s Nazi forces at the on-set of the Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern European democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact), and here’s another obscure fact – South Africa had a big role in shaping Churchill, his ‘adventure’ in South Africa took him from a minor politician to a political giant with a near demigod status, even failures like Gallipoli could not unseat his destiny – South Africa both directly and indirectly shaped this future.

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Winston Churchill (Colorised by Mads Madsen)

Related Works and Links

Winston Churchill and Louis Botha: The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

The 1st Boer War; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Winston Churchill and Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

Winston Churchill and Smuts; Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

The Transvaal; Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and extracts

My Early Life. A Roving Commission. Author: Churchill, Winston S, published October 1930. The Daring Escape That Forged Winston Churchill by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel, November 2016. Winston Churchill’s World War Disaster by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel. Churchill’s capture and escape – November-December 1899, blog by Robin Smith. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.

The international ‘Boy’ Scout movement’s wartime origin in South Africa

Ever wondered why South Africa has two separate ‘Boy/Girl Scout’ youth movements, one based on the International Scout movement started by Robert Baden-Powell called the ‘Scouts’ and one called ‘Voortrekkers’ primarily aimed at Afrikaner youth only?

They are both great movements aimed at equipping the youth with life skills and a sense of the ‘outdoors’.  So why the need for a separate Afrikaner one?  Well, it all goes back to The 2nd Anglo-Boer War, and the inspiration for the International Boy Scout movement.

So how did this come about?

Boer Forces lay siege to Mafeking

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Robert Baden-Powell

The start of the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1899, came when the Boer’s declared war on the British and invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape whilst the colonies were relatively weakly defended.

Much sabre rattling over British miner’s citizen rights in the Transvaal and Imperial Expansionism had preceded the invasion and as the clouds of war began to build, without a full expeditionary force or the ‘Causus Belle’ to raise one, the British compromised by building up local regiments of Mounted Rifles made up of citiz­ens in their colonies of Natal and the Cape.  One such commander up for this task, and who was already in South Africa, with experience fighting Zulu and Matabele wars was a certain ‘Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’.

Initially  instructed to maintain a mobile mounted force on the frontier with the Boer Republics. Baden-Powell and his officers had three tasks: to resist any Boer invasion of the Natal Colony, and in the event of an invasion to draw the Boers away from the coastal ports to enable the relieving British expeditionary force to land  and finally by show of force to discourage the local Afrikaners in the Cape and Natal from supporting the Boers of the Orange Free State and Transvaal (ZAR) Republics.

More than just maintaining a mobile mounted citizen force, Baden-Powell used initiative and also amassed stores and a garrison at Mafeking. While engaged in this, he and much of his intended mobile force was at Mafeking when the town was surrounded and laid to siege by a Boer army.

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General Piet Cronje’s 94-pounder Creusot ‘Long Tom’ gun been aimed at Mafeking during the siege.

Mafeking was located right on the boundary where the British Cape Colony and the Boer Transvaal met, it was a ‘frontier town’ and the most remote British town, it could not be more further flung from its capital in Cape Town. It was however still a ‘British’ town and during this Siege of Mafeking, Colonel Baden-Powell and his 2,000 men defended the town as best they could from the 8,000 Boers who continued to shell the town and tried to starve and bomb it into a surrender.

Whilst Baden-Powell and his small force defended Mafeking and sat out the bombardment and starvation, the British amassed their Expeditionary Force destined from the United Kingdom via Cape Town – to take back their besieged towns of Kimberley and Mafeking in the Cape Colony and Ladysmith in the Natal Colony.

This horrendous siege of Mafeking’s civilians and military garrison lasted 217 days from October 1899 to May 1900, and turned Robert Baden-Powell into a national British hero.

The Mafeking Cadet Corps, 1899-1900

Because of the shortage of military manpower in Mafeking, Baden-Powell was quick to put 18 volunteer British adolescents in the Mafeking Cadet Corps to use.  These cadets were used during the siege to support the British troops defending Mafeking.  They were tasked to carry messages around the town and to out­lying fortifications.  They were also used to help with the wounded and act as lookouts, warn­ing the townspeople when the Boer siege guns were aimed and fired at different parts of the town.

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Boer artillery firing on Mafeking

These tasks freed up adult men for military duties and kept these young cadets occupied during the Siege. The boys took their new job with pride, instead of running around collecting used or parts of shells, they now actually participated in the war, and were soon a recognised part of the town defences. The corps was quickly grown from 18 to 38 volunteer white boys below ‘fighting’ age (some sources indicate 40 Cadets).

Their leader was the 13-year-old Warner Goodyear, who became their Sergeant-Major. They were given khaki uniforms and a wide-brimmed hat which they wore with one side turned up (known as a ‘slouch’ hat), and a Glengarry cap, and the towns people easily identified them and often commented on their smartness.

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The original group of Mafeking Cadet Corps

At first the Cadets used donkeys for mobility, but as the siege ran on, food became scarce and the donkeys became dinner. From then on, the cadets used bicycles instead, often cycling in hazardous conditions as they delivered messages whilst under heavy artillery fire. In one famous story, Baden-Powell related the following conversation with one of the cadets: I said to one of these boys on one occasion, when he came in through rather a heavy fire: ‘You will get hit one of these days riding about like that when shells are flying’. And he replied ‘I pedal so quick, Sir, they’d never catch me’.

2010215_warnergoodyearmafekingThe town produced its own postage stamps, known as “Mafeking Blues”, for postage during the siege. Since all the letters were delivered by the Cadets, the town even issued a new stamp in honour of them, the new design showed the leader of the Cadet Corps, Warner Goodyear,  seated on his bicycle. After the siege, the special Mafeking stamps became collectors’ items all over the British Empire.

The Mafeking stamps were unusual among the stamps of the British Empire at that time, because they did not depict the monarch. Warner Goodyear, died in 1912 in a sporting accident at the early age of 26.

Frankie Brown, a 9-year-old boy, was killed by a shell during the siege, and is sometimes claimed as a cadet casualty, although it is unlikely that he was a cadet. The youngest cadets on the nominal roll were aged 11.

The siege was finally lifted on 17 May 1900, when a flying column of some 2,000 British soldiers, including many South African volunteers from Kimberley, commanded by Colonel B. T. Mahon of the army of Lord Roberts, relieved the town after fighting their way in. Among the relieving force was Major Baden Baden-Powell, brother of the town garrison commander Colonel Robert Baden-Powell.

At the end of the siege, 24 cadets were awarded the Defence of Mafeking bar to the Queen’s South Africa Medal.

Inspiration to start the Scouts 

These cadets are considered within the Scouts as the forerunners of the Boy Scout movement because they were one of Baden-Powell’s inspirations in creating the Scout movement in 1907.  Baden-Powell during his early military career in Rhodesia and Natal had started to write on military scouting, and the survival of such military scouts in extreme environments.

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The Mafeking Cadet Corps, published in the book “Petticoat In Mafeking. The Siege Letters of Ada Cock “There are 45 Cadets in the Image, taken some time after the siege had ended.

He had not however turned this thinking to include ‘Boys’, however during the siege of Mafeking  he was sufficiently impressed by the Mafeking Cadets, with both the courage and the equanimity with which they performed their tasks, and he was to use them later as an object lesson in the first chapter of Scouting for Boys.

After the 2nd Anglo Boer War ended in May 1902, Baden-Powell returned to the United Kingdom in 1903 as a national hero.  He was familiar with a organis­ation called The Boys’ Brigade, founded by his friend William Alexander Smith back in 1883.  Members of the Boys’ Brigade were encouraged to combine drill and fun activities with Christian values.  At the same time his manual on military scouting ‘Aids to Scouting’ was selling quite well (no doubt off the back of his new found popularity) and was being used in Britain by teachers and adult leaders of youth organisations.

With encouragement from William Alexander Smith, and inspired by the conduct of the boys in the Mafeking Cadet Corps Baden-Powell decided to re-write ‘Aids to Scouting’ to suit a younger market.

This final document described outdoor activities, character development, citizenship and personal fitness as the core values of boy scouts, and most important, it omitted all military content.

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Two important events also happened in 1907. Firstly Baden-Powell went on an extensive speaking tour arranged by his publisher, Arthur Pearson, to promote the new book. He was well received wherever he travelled in Britain. Secondly Baden-Powell organised a camp on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour Dorset to test out his ideas for a Boy Scout Movement. Only 20 lads turned up: half from local Boys’ Brigade compan­ies and half school boys whose fathers knew Baden-Powell. But in a very important sense, this camp marked the formal beg­inning of the scouting movement.

The next year, 1908, scout packs were established across the country, all following the principles laid out in Baden-Powell’s book.  The first national Scout Rally was held at Crystal Palace in 1909. By 1920, the first worldwide Scout Jamboree took place in Olympia in West Kensington, under Baden-Powell’s leadership. Soon after this event  Baden-Powell was made a Baronet, and the rest – Cubs, Scouts, Sea Scouts, Air Scouts, Girl Guides etc. is history.

Scouting in South Africa

Typical to South Africa, put two of us in the same room and we will come up with three political parties.  This is true when it came to the founding of the ‘Voortrekkers, the Africans equivalent scout movement.  The initial tenants of ‘Apartheid’ did not really form on how to keep Blacks and Whites apart, early Apartheid philosophy focussed on how to keep the Afrikaner and English South African youth on separate socialization trajectories, with their own respective primary and high schools, sports leagues, universities and youth movements/organisations – almost every youth institution was defined as those for the ‘English’ and those for the ‘Afrikaner’.

The original concept of a separate youth scouting movement for Afrikaners was formulated by Dr. C.F. Visser in 1913 in Bloemfontein, and early on in its formulation it was already at loggerheads with the Scout movement started by Baden-Powell.  The formation of the Voortrekkers coincided with the growth of Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa, post the 2nd Anglo Boer War.  The Nationalist were anti-British and for good reason, the British has decimated the Afrikaner ‘Boer’ peoples and sitting deeply in their consciousness then (and now) was hatred, especially fuelled by the British concentration camp system, where disease took hold of deported Boer families, killing thousands of Boer women and children during the war.

The Voortrekkers was formed as the Afrikaans-language alternative in opposition to the largely English-speaking Boy Scout movement, which had a strong and overt British heritage.  The Scout movement was equally nationalistic in its initial appeal to British youth and it carried with it a 2nd Anglo Boer war inspiration and root along with a British Boer War Commander as a founder – all of which was very much despised by the Afrikaner Nationalists.

Even initial efforts by Dr Visser to consolidate the Voortrekkers under the ‘broad church’ of the more global Boy Scout movement met with resistance – both by Afrikaner Nationalists and by the directors of the Boy Scout Movement.

Issues arose over the differences of language, culture and history.  There were also further complications hinging upon religious declarations or beliefs, the religious tone of the Voortrekkers was more than that of the Scouting Movement programme. The values and principles of the Voortrekker organisation ran along Afrikaner Nationalism lines and this proved highly problematic as it politicised the movement. Therefore no agreement could be reached.

The Voortrekkers and Scouts continue to exist in parallel to one another in South Africa, the Voortrekkers still appealing to mainly white Afrikaans youth based on cultural assimilation and the Scouts are now a very multiracial youth movement in South Africa having now undergone some transformation to become more inclusive of communities outside of the ‘white English’ one.

Both are doing an excellent job in building youth skills in the appreciation and arts of outdoor living, basic life skills and value building – but both are going it very much in their own respective way.

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Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Sources and extracts include Wikipedia and The imperial War Museum.  Additional information and images gleaned from South African Scout and Voortrekker official websites.