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  • The Natal Campaign - 'Kitchener’s Concentration Camps' by Hugh Rethman

    The Natal Campaign 1 Boer children standing in front of their school at Merebank Concenration Camp. (Author's collection)

    When General Kitchener described the refugee camps for Boer civilians as ‘Concentration Camps’, an enormous PR blunder was commited. Of course he did not know that 40 years later Hitler would use the same words to describe his death camps, a situation which has been exploited to the full by the Boers and Britain’s enemies. For example ‘an entire generation of Afrikaners (Boers) perished in them’ [1]. And ‘the British were the first to dream up this perversity; Hitler only perfected them.’ [2]

    After the Boers were driven out of Natal and had suffered a series of defeats in set piece battles, they adopted guerrilla tactics. This meant that they left their wives and families in the custody of the British. This they were only too happy to do, their commander Gen Louis Botha saying to Gen de Wet, ‘we are only too thankful nowadays to know our wives are under English protection’ [3]. They had left the welfare of the entire non-combatant population of their Republics to the care of the British Army, an enormous humanitarian task.

    The Natal Campaign 2 Hospital at Merebank Concentration Camp. (Author's collection)

    The Army had to act as a welfare agency which not only provided protection, food and shelter for these people, but also provided schools for the children, hospitals for the sick etc, and all this had to be done in wartime conditions with the Boers constantly attacking British supply lines. Epidemics were sweeping the land, killing indiscriminately. Entry to the British camps was voluntary and many of those entering were seriously ill on arrival and apart from anything else introduced further illness [4]. The British army was not immune to the ravages of disease. Over twelve thousand soldiers died and sixty-six thousand were invalided back to Britain. These were fit young men in their prime whereas those entering the camps included the elderly and very young [5].

     

    As happens today, mistakes were made and when these became known a Ladies Committee was formed to investigate the alleged failings, which were promptly corrected by Lord Kitchener. In their report the Ladies, after detailing the faults which they had found in the organization of the camps, went on to report, ‘But in estimating the causes of bad health in the camps it is necessary to put on record the insanitary habits of the people….Their inability to see that what may be criminally dangerous in camp is part of the inadaptability to circumstance which constitutes so marked a characteristic of the people.’  The Commission went on to report, ‘Large numbers of the deaths in the concentration camps have been directly and obviously caused by noxious compounds given by Boer women to their children’ [6]. However it was the epidemics rife in South Africa at that time which was the principal cause of deaths in the camps. These peaked in October, 1901.

    The Natal Campaign 3 Inmates at Merebank Concentration Camp receiving the news that a Peace Accord had been signed. They could easily be a group of people going to the races at Royal Ascot and have no resemblance whatsoever to scenes which greeted the Allied forces when they liberated the Camps in Germany at the end of WW2. (Author's collection)

    Boers also set up Camps to care for their civilians. General Smuts said this about them, ‘I cannot help saying that I had never expected to be a witness of such scenes of misery. The women and children, suffering almost everyone of them from malaria, fever, and other diseases in consequence of privations and bad food, without physicians, without medicines, without any consolation in this world, almost without any clothes, and after hostile raids, without any food at all’ [ 7].

    Mr Keizer was a prominent civil servant in the Transvaal before and during the War being Landrost (Chief Magistrate) of Standerton in the Eastern Transvaal. He was interned when the British overran the district and was placed duly in the concentration camp at Standerton. Because of the respect in which the local Boers held him, the British appointed him head of the camp. A few years after the war he wrote to a colonial friend stating: ‘Why don’t you English demand a commission before it is too late to enquire into all this talk and lies about the camps. If the British were so beastly, why did they put me in charge of the Standerton Camp? – I can assure you there was nothing to complain of there.’ [8].

    9781445664217

    Hugh Rethman's new book The Natal Campaign: A Sacrifice Betrayed is available for purchase now.


    1. Gillings, ‘A Man of his Time’, 77.
    2. Johannesburg Sunday Times. 10.2.2013.
    3. Gen C. de Wet, ‘Three Years War’, 428/429.
    4. C. Martin, ‘The Concentration Camps’, 17.
    5. C. Martin, ‘Ibid’, 15.
    6. C. Martin, ‘Ibid’ 43.
    7. C. Martin, ‘Ibid’ 13/14.
    8. Papers ex Natal Carbineer R.J. Mason.

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