Regrouped into small, mobile units, Boer commandos became adept at guerrilla warfare, sabotaging railway lines, ambushing supply columns, destroying bridges, severing telegraph wires and raiding depots, running rings around British forces with hit-and-run tactics. Their leaders - Louis Botha in the eastern Transvaal; Koos de la Rey and Jan Smuts in the western Transvaal; Christiaan de Wet in the Orange Free State - grew into legendary figures. De Wet’s exploits, in particular, confounded the British at every turn. During July and August 1900, the British chased De Wet for six weeks across the Free State and the Transvaal, deploying more than 30,000 troops in a bid to catch him. In November, with British forces in hot pursuit, he briefly captured a British garrison at De Wets Dorp, a Free State village named after his father. In February 1901, he crossed the Orange River into the Cape Colony, hoping to inspire rebellion there, outrunning fifteen British columns sent to capture him for six weeks, before returning to the Free State.
The British high command was totally unprepared for this kind of warfare. Their forces, short of mounted troops, scouts and intelligence, lumbered about the countryside in large numbers but with little effect. ‘As for our wandering columns,’ wrote Captain March Phillipps, in his book With Rimington, ‘they have about as much chance of catching the Boers on the veldt as a Lord Mayor’s procession would have of catching a highwayman on Hounslow Heath . . . [The Boers] are all around and about us like water round a ship, parting before our bows and reuniting round our stern. Our passage makes no impression and leaves no visible trace.’
Unable to get to grips with Boer commandos, the British high command adopted increasingly brutal tactics towards the civilian population who supported them. Before he left for England, Roberts initiated a policy of collective punishment of civilians living in the vicinity of guerrilla attacks, burning down farms, destroying reservoirs and seizing livestock. ‘Unless the people generally are made to suffer for the misdeeds of those in arms against us,’ said Roberts in September 1900, ‘the war will never end.’
In a letter from Frankfort in the Orange Free State in November 1900, Captain Phillipps wrote:
Farm-burning goes merrily on, and our course through the country is marked as in prehistoric ages by pillars of smoke by day and fire by night. We usually burn from six to a dozen farms a day; these being about all that in this sparsely-inhabited country we encounter. I do not gather that any special reason or cause is alleged or proved against the farms burnt. If Boers have used the farm; if the owner is on commando; if the [railway] line within a certain distance has been blown up; or even if there are Boers in the neighbourhood who persist in fighting - these are some of the reasons. Of course the people living in the farms have no say in these matters, and are quite powerless to interfere with the plans of the fighting Boers. Anyway, we find that one reason or another generally covers pretty nearly every farm we come to, and so to save trouble we burn the lot without enquiry; unless indeed, which sometimes happens, some names are given in before marching in the morning of farms to be spared.
In another letter, written from Kronstadt, he described a particular farm-burning incident:
I had to go myself the other day, at the General’s bidding, to burn a farm near the line of march. We got to the place and I gave the inmates, three women and some children, ten minutes to clear their clothes and things out of the house, and my men then fetched bundles of straw and we proceeded to burn it down. The old grandmother was very angry . . . Most of them, however, were too miserable to curse. The women cried and the children stood by holding on to them and looking with large frightened eyes at the burning house. They won’t forget that sight, I’ll bet a sovereign, not even when they grow up. We rode away and left them, a forlorn little group, standing among their household goods - beds, furniture, and gimcracks strewn about the veldt; the crackling of the fire in their ears, and smoke and flame streaming overhead. The worst moment is when you first come to the house. The people thought we had called for refreshments, and one of the women went to get milk. Then we had to tell them that we had come to burn the place down. I simply didn’t know which way to look . . .
Phillipps was struck by the resilience of Boer families facing such destruction: ‘Husbands and sons in the hill fighting. Homes in the valley blazing, and they sitting and watching it all, almost always with the same fortitude, the same patience, and the same resolve.’ And he described a memorable act of defiance:
At another farm a small girl interrupted her preparation for departure to play indignantly their national anthem at us on an old piano. We were carting people off. It was raining hard and blowing - a miserable, hurried home-leaving; ransacked house, muddy soldiers, a distracted mother saving one or two trifles and pushing along her children to the ox-waggon outside, and this poor little wretch in the midst of it pulling herself to strum a final defiance . . .
He questioned the whole purpose of the campaign:
We can’t exterminate the Dutch or seriously reduce their numbers. We can do enough to make hatred of England and thirst for revenge the first duty of every Dutchman, and we can’t effectively reduce the numbers of the men who will carry that duty out. Of course it is not a question of the war only. It is a question of governing the country afterwards.
Other officers thought the results were justified. Captain R. F. Talbot of the Royal Horse Artillery wrote in his diary:
I went out this morning with some of my men ostensibly to get vegetables, but joined the provost marshal and the sappers in a farm burning party, and we burnt and blew up two farms with gun-cotton, turning out the inhabitants first. It is a bit sickening at first turning out the women and children, but they are such brutes and the former all spies; we don’t mind it now. Only those are done which belong to men who are sniping or otherwise behaving badly.
Destitute families were at first left to drift through the countryside, fending for themselves, taking whatever shelter they could get. Some found refuge on other farms; some made their way to towns; some were taken in by African kraals. As their numbers grew, the British authorities decided in September 1900 to set up what initially were called ‘refugee camps’. By December, there were nine such camps. As well as housing Boer families displaced by Roberts’ scorched-earth tactics, they were used to accommodate the families of hensoppers - surrendered burghers - fearful of reprisal. From the start, the camps were placed under direct military control.
When Kitchener took over command in December 1900, he developed more systematically both Roberts’ scorched-earth policy and the wider practice of population clearance from hostile rural areas. A military engineer of iron resolve, already renowned for his use of ruthless methods, Kitchener had won fame for his campaign to crush the Mahdi’s Dervish army in the Sudan, and as a reward, had been raised to the peerage, choosing the title of Kitchener of Khartoum. He regarded Boer women as being as much of an obstacle in the way of military victory as Boer fighters. ‘The women question is always cropping up,’ he said five days after assuming command. ‘There is no doubt the women are keeping up the war and are far more bitter than the men.’ The position of ‘women left in farms’ continued to exercise him. ‘Every farm,’ he remarked to one of his generals, ‘is an intelligence agency and a supply depot so that it is almost impossible to surround or catch’ the enemy. The solution he devised was the mass removal of Boer women and children from farms into what were called concentration camps. Their removal, he believed, would not only deprive Boer fighters of food and intelligence, it would hasten the end of the war by inducing them to surrender. ‘It was thought that pressure might be brought to bear on the commandos through their womenfolk and that they would not be able to bear separation from their families,’ recalled a British intelligence officer. ‘It was apparently expected that the Boers would be prepared to abandon war for the sake of love.’
Another central part of Kitchener’s strategy was the construction of a network of fortifications - blockhouses and barbed-wire barricades - strung out across the veld, intended to restrict commando movements and to trap them. Thousands of miles of blockhouse lines were built in the Transvaal and the Free State covering them like a spider’s web.
In January 1901, Kitchener embarked on a series of military ‘drives’ to flush out Boer guerrillas, ‘scouring’ rural districts bare of all their means of support - horses, cattle, sheep, livestock, crops, women and children. Whole areas were laid waste, left as blackened and desolate patches on the landscape. Thousands of Boer refugees, carrying what few possessions they were allowed to take with them, were dumped into concentration camps. Africans were caught up in the same sweeps and sent to their own concentration camps.
Kitchener’s measures had little discernible effect, other than to deepen Boer hatred of the British. ‘It is a most difficult problem,’ Kitchener remarked in February, ‘an enemy that always escapes, a country so vast that there is always room to escape, supplies such as they want abundant almost everywhere.’ When Kitchener learned, therefore, that Louis Botha was willing to discuss a possible peace settlement, he pursued the idea vigorously, using Botha’s wife as an intermediary to arrange a meeting with him at Middelburg at the end of February.
Nothing came of their talks, however. While Kitchener sought compromise, Milner, given overall charge of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, insisted on nothing less than ‘unconditional surrender’. There was, he wrote to a friend, ‘no room for compromise in South Africa’. What he wanted, he said, was ‘to knock the bottom out of the “great Afrikander nation” for ever and ever, Amen’. He adamantly refused to allow a full amnesty for all Boer combatants, in particular for Cape rebels. Kitchener blamed Milner’s intransigence over the amnesty issue for the collapse of the talks with Botha. ‘Milner’s views may be strictly just, but to my mind they are vindictive, ’ he told St John Brodrick, Britain’s new war minister. ‘We are now carrying on a war to be able to put two or three hundred Dutchmen in prison at the end of it. It seems to me absurd.’
But in reality, the gulf between the two sides was much wider: the Boers still wanted their independence. Botha’s willingness to meet Kitchener in the first place angered President Steyn and many other Free Staters. In June 1901, Boer leaders meeting in the eastern Transvaal agreed a joint statement rejecting British terms: ‘No peace shall be made, and no peace proposals entertained which do not ensure our independence, and our existence as a nation, or which do not satisfactorily provide for the interests of our Colonial brothers.’
As Kitchener’s military drives swept increasing numbers of ‘refugees’ into concentration camps, conditions there rapidly deteriorated. Kitchener made no adequate preparations for their welfare. Women and children were given only meagre food rations and minimal shelter; they were often left short of water and basic necessities. Latrine facilities were rudimentary: unemptied buckets stood in the sun for hours. Little medical assistance was provided. As disease and malnutrition took hold, the death rate began to climb.
British ministers were well aware of how dire conditions were. ‘Pretty bad reports have been received here of the state of the Bloemfontein laager in [January],’ the war minister, Brodrick, cabled to Kitchener. He cited ‘insufficient water, milk rations, typhoid prevalent, children sick, no soap, no forage for cows, insufficient medical attention . . .’ And he asked Kitchener for a full report to help defend himself from political attack. ‘I think I shall have a hot time over these probably in most cases inevitable sufferings or privations - war of course is war . . .’ Kitchener replied that he had everything under control and pronounced the inmates to be ‘happy’.
It was not until a lone Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, made her own investigation that the scandal of the concentration camps reached public attention. A 41-year-old Quaker, Hobhouse travelled to the war zones in January 1901 on behalf of a relief fund, the South African Women and Children Distress Fund, taking twelve tons of clothes and home comforts to distribute to camp inmates. She called first at Bloemfontein, the largest camp in the Orange River Colony, where she found 1,800 people living in tents on the bare veld with ‘not a vestige of a tree in any direction, nor shade of any description’. What struck her was not merely the hardship of the place, but the death rate:
I began to compare a parish I had known at home of 2,000 people where a funeral was an event - and usually of an old person. Here some twenty to twenty-five were carried away daily . . . The full realization of the position dawned upon me - it was a death-rate such as had never been known except in times of the Great Plagues . . . The whole talk was of death - who died yesterday, who lay dying today, who would be dead tomorrow.
In her book The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell, she detailed her findings of the Bloemfontein camp:
The shelter was totally insufficient. When the 8, 10 or 12 persons who occupied a bell-tent were all packed into it, either to escape from the fierceness of the sun or dust or rainstorms, there was no room to move, and the atmosphere was indescribable, even with duly lifted flaps. There was no soap provided. The water supplied would not go round. No kartels [bedsteads] or mattresses were to be had. Those, and they were the majority, who could not buy these things must go without. Fuel was scanty . . . The [food] ration was sufficiently small, but when . . . the actual amount did not come up to the scale, it became a starvation rate.
The soldiers in charge, she said, had little idea of how to cope. In letters home, she accused them of ‘crass male ignorance, stupidity, helplessness and muddling’.
From Bloemfontein she travelled to other camps finding similar conditions. By the time she returned to Bloemfontein in April, the numbers there had doubled.
More and more are coming in. A new sweeping movement has begun resulting in hundreds and thousands of these unfortunate people either crowding into already crowded camps or else being dumped down to form a new one, where nothing is at hand to shelter them. Colonel says, what can he do? The General wires: ‘Expect 500 or 1000 at such a place.’ And he has nothing to send there to provide for them . . . No wonder sickness abounds. Since I left here six weeks ago there have been 62 deaths in camp, and the doctor himself is down with enteric [typhoid]. Two of the Boer girls we had trained as nurses and who were doing good work are dead, too . . .
Appalled by what she had witnessed, Emily Hobhouse sailed back to England in May determined to expose the brutality of Kitchener’s scorched-earth policy and the death and suffering occurring in the concentration camps. Her cause was taken up by opposition politicians critical of the war. After meeting Hobhouse, the Liberal leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, referred to ‘methods of barbarism’ that he said the British military were using; in a parliamentary debate, he described the countryside outside the towns as a ‘howling wilderness’. Another Liberal politician, David Lloyd George, accused the government of pursuing what was in effect ‘a policy of extermination’ against women and children. ‘When children are being treated in this way and dying, we are simply ranging the deepest passions of the human heart against British rule in Africa,’ he told parliament in June. ‘It will always be remembered that this is the way British rule started there, and this is the method by which it was brought about.’
The war minister, Brodrick, shrugged off all such criticism. The army’s policy of sweeping the countryside, he said, had been forced upon it by guerrilla activity. The camps were necessary to protect families who would otherwise starve on the veld. Conditions in the camps were improving; mortality rates were falling. ‘It is urged that we have not done sufficient to make these camps sanitary, and to preserve human life. I deny it altogether.’
As Kitchener’s sweeps continued, ever greater numbers were packed into the camps: in August, the camps’ population reached 105,000 whites and 32,000 blacks. With epidemics of typhoid and measles raging, the death rate rose month by month: in August, 2,666; in September, 2,752; in October, 3,205. It was not until an official all-ladies commission issued their own damning verdict in December that the government saw fit to take remedial measures. In all, some 26,000 Boers died in concentration camps from disease and malnutrition, most of them children under the age of sixteen - about one tenth of the Boer populations of the old republics. In black concentration camps, where the population eventually rose to 116,000, some 14,000 died, most of them children.
In one last effort to stir up rebellion in the Cape Colony, Smuts crossed the Orange River boundary in September 1901 with a hand-picked commando of 250 Transvaalers. Though previous incursions had met with little success, Smuts was convinced of the potential for rebellion. Even British officials acknowledged that half of the Colony’s white population was ‘more-or-less’ pro-Boer and that the greater part of the Colony was ‘in a half suppressed state of secret rebellion’.
For six weeks, Smuts’ commando made its way through the mountain ranges of the eastern Cape, clashing repeatedly with British patrols, losing men and horses, struggling through heavy rains. ‘By day we were wet and cold, and the nights were evil dreams,’ wrote Deneys Reitz, a member of the commando. ‘Dry fuel was almost unprocurable, and after a weary day we had to spend the hours of darkness cowering together to snatch a little sleep on some muddy mountain-side, or in an equally sodden valley.’ The night of the ‘Great Rain’ was the worst.
Our guide lost his way; we went floundering ankle-deep in mud and water, our poor, weakened horses stumbling and slipping at every turn; the rain beat down on us, and the cold was awful. Towards midnight it began to sleet. The grain-bag which I wore froze solid on my body, like a coat of mail, and I believe that if we had not kept moving every one of us would have died. We had known two years of war, but we came nearer to despair that night than I care to remember.
In October, Smuts broke further west, into the open plains of the Karoo, collecting recruits as he went and fetching up in Namaqualand, a remote part of the western Cape of little interest to British forces. He was free to roam about at will, but to no discernible effect. He whiled away the time reading copies of books he managed to acquire along the way, such as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Überweg’s History of Philosophy. ‘On the whole we were much hampered by want of literature, many of the Boers highly educated,’ wrote Smuts, ‘and one of the pleasures of capturing an English convoy was the number of English books found among the officers’ kit.’
The fortunes of other Boer commanders - De Wet in the Free State, Botha in the eastern Transvaal, De la Rey in the western Transvaal - had meanwhile turned for the worse. Facing overwhelming British numbers and increasingly hemmed in by blockhouse lines, they were confined to areas that Kitchener’s scorched-earth programme had reduced to a wasteland. In a despatch to London, Milner described the Free State as ‘virtually a desert’. Cattle and sheep had been slaughtered or carried away on such a scale that Boers in the Free State had lost half of their herds, those in the Transvaal, three-quarters. Some 30,000 farmsteads had been destroyed; whole villages had been razed to the ground. Shortly after the end of the war, a rising Labour politician, Ramsay MacDonald, described what he found at Lindley, a Free State village that had periodically served as President Steyn’s headquarters:
It was as though I had slept among ancient ruins of the desert. Every house, without a single exception was burnt; the church in the square was burnt . . . Although taken and retaken many times, the place stood practically untouched until February 1902, when a British column entered it unmolested, found it absolutely deserted and proceeded to burn it. The houses are so separated from each other by gardens that the greatest care must be taken to set every one alight. From inquiries I made from our officers and from our host, who was the chief intelligence officer for the district, there was no earthly reason why Lindley should have been torched . . . The whole journey was through a land of sorrow and destruction, of mourning and hate.
Constantly harassed by British patrols, short of food, arms, ammunition and horses, Boer commandos struggled just to survive. Known as bittereinders, they were determined to fight to the last but managed to achieve little, making only occasional forays against the enemy. In March 1902, De la Rey succeeded in capturing a British general, Lord Methuen, and 600 troops, but, having no means of holding them, was obliged to let them return to the nearest British base. A few weeks later when commando delegates from the eastern Transvaal met to consider a peace initiative, their dishevelled appearance shocked Deneys Reitz. ‘Nothing could have proved more clearly how nearly the Boer cause was spent than those starving, ragged men, clad in skins or sacking, their bodies covered with sores, from lack of salt and food,’ he wrote. ‘Their spirit was undaunted, but they had reached the limits of physical endurance.’
Only remnants of the Boer armies that had marched out with such confidence at the start of the war remained in the field. Nearly 7,000 Boer combatants had died. Thousands had been captured and deported to prison camps in Bermuda, Ceylon, India and St Helena to make sure they would not fight again. Thousands more - hensoppers - had surrendered, passively accepting British rule. Some hensoppers had become ‘joiners’, agreeing to serve with British forces as guides and scouts. In the Transvaal, they were formed into National Scouts; in the Free State, they were known as the Orange River Colony Volunteers. Many joiners objected to the way Boer commanders insisted on continuing the fight at great cost even though there was no possibility of military success. Among them was Christiaan de Wet’s brother, General Piet de Wet, who joined the Orange River Colony Volunteers. By April 1902, some 4,000 Boers were collaborating with British forces.
Kitchener was quick to exploit these divisions within Boer ranks. ‘There are already two parties amongst them ready to fly at each other’s throats,’ he wrote to Brodrick, ‘and if the Boers could be induced to hate each other more than they hate the British, the British objective would be obtained.’ In the long term there would also be political advantages. ‘We shall have a party among the Boers themselves depending entirely on British continuity of rule out here.’
With massive military might at his disposal, Kitchener was keen to wind up the war as rapidly as possible. His army by now numbered 250,000 men. He had built 8,000 blockhouses and 3,700 miles of barbed-wire barricades and was able to conduct drives against Boer commandos on a huge scale. In February 1902, he deployed 9,000 men to form a continuous cordon fifty-four miles long - one man every twelve yards advancing steadily forward - in an attempt to trap De Wet and Steyn, with another 8,000 men stationed along blockhouse lines and eight armoured cars patrolling the railway. His ‘bag’ was 300 burghers but De Wet managed to escape. In March, he launched a similar drive against De Wet, this time sweeping up 800 burghers, but still De Wet evaded capture. As well as white troops, Kitchener made increasing use of Africans as scouts, spies and armed guards.
Kitchener also changed his tactics towards Boer civilians - women and children - living in rural areas. While continuing to destroy farms, he instructed his column commanders to leave them where they found them instead of packing them off to concentration camps. The burden of caring for destitute Boer families thus fell on the commandos. Some 13,000 women and children were said to be homeless, wandering across the veld, exposed to the vagaries of the weather and the danger of black attack. Their plight weighed heavily on Boer leaders and became another factor propelling them towards negotiations.