The Second Boer War – Concentration Camps, Expansion and Guerrilla Warfare

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Thinking of significant events and action of the 20th century, concentration camps are something that spring to mind. The sheer horror and repugnant actions committed by one race of people against another; the death toll in the thousands and millions in some cases all exemplify the disgusting concept. Of course the number of people and the level of atrocities committed by the Nazis with their death camps, and those by Stalin with his Gulags, are the worst this world may have ever seen.

However there are lesser known use of concentration camps, and one case in particular is that that reeks of hypocrisy given the enforcers later rejection of concentration camps in World War II; the instance that is being highlighted is, of course, the British use of concentration camps in the Boer War. It isn’t as well known that the British in the second Boer war operated concentration camps between 1900-1902, when compared to other cases such as the Nazis.

As they always are, these camps were given a much less hostile name, such as Hitler called his ones “work camps”, the British called theirs “refugee camps”. The British after a time introduced new tactics to break the guerrilla fighters resolve and before too long their tactics resorted to “the clearance of civilians – uprooting an entire nation”[1]. It sounds very similar to tactics used by other countries involved in wars and conflicts, this area the British got involved with underpinned a lot of the hypocrisy they are guilty of for most of the major political events in the twentieth century.

To maybe understand more why the British sought to use these tactics, it is important to look at the context and the detail of the conflict. The British had previously taken land from the Boers and encouraged migration of British people into the area, which obviously made them at odds with the Boers. The Boer war was particularly interesting because the British may have been beaten if things turned out a different way. The British were used to fighting empires, men who were trained and regimented, but the men they fought against were neither and they therefore were presented with a challenge as the Boers presented a mobile and innovative approach to warfare. The average Boers who made up their Commandos were farmers who had spent almost all their working life in the saddle, both as farmers and hunters. They depended on their horses and rifles and so were skilled stalkers and marksmen. As hunters they had learned to fire from cover and to make the first shot count.

This would have worked in their favour; however, in the period of what is known as the first stage of the Boer war, the only real military interaction between the Boers and the British involved sieges. In retrospect, the Boer decision to commit themselves to the tactic of sieges was regarded as a mistake, and one of the best examples of the Boers’ lack of strategic vision.

However this is completely justified as they should not have needed strategic decisions as they were not looking to expand their territory as the British were, they just wanted to keep their own. So ultimately the ideas of using the tactic of sieges had little in its favour. Of the seven sieges in the First Boer War, the Boers had won none, showing that this tactic was probably not the best one to adopt. More importantly, it handed the initiative back to the British and allowed them time to recover, which they then did. Generally speaking, throughout the campaign, the Boers were too defensive and passive, wasting the opportunities they had for victory. Yet that passiveness also testified to the fact that they had no desire to conquer British territory, but only to preserve their ability to rule in their own territory. This is why this is one of the most significant events in the 20th century for me as it shows that a country lost a huge part of a war, because they were too defensive. This may be criticised about a war between two huge armies, but this was about an empire and a much smaller group of people trying to just keep the power to rule their own land. It shows a perfect example of the expansionism and taking over of land that is prevalent throughout a lot of the 20th century.

However later in the conflict it shows that the Boers had adapted and started using guerrilla warfare. This is a tactic that has worked well for other peoples in various wars such as the Vietcong in the Vietnam War, whose small scale guerrilla tactics defeated the most technologically advanced country in the world. In fact the use of guerrilla warfare was so effective in the second Boer war, that it was their use of it that ultimately led to the British decision to use their concentration camps and their very controversial “scorched earth” policy of destroying a huge amount of Boer homeland. What occurred in the death camps was horrific; it led to the deaths of “between 20,000 to 28,000 Boer civilians (mainly women and children) and the long term effects were numerous such as it led to Destitute Boers and black Africans swelling the numbers of the unskilled urban poor. While I personally think the events were terrible and close to genocidal, it has been argued that the use of concentration camps was “not a deliberately genocidal policy; rather it was the result of [a] disastrous lack of foresight and rank incompetence on [the] part of the [British] military”.[2] Whichever way you look at it, this conflict showed a number of elements that would come to define the 20th century for a number of very bad reasons. It was the first full use of concentration camps in the twentieth century in warfare, it showed that guerrilla tactics can be very effective against large and powerful armies and it showed a terrible lust for expansion that we would come to see in the Nazis and the Soviet Union; if anything, the Boer War’s significance lies in its eerie composition, that would be all too predictive of later traits in global politics in the coming century.

[1] Pakenham 1979

[2] Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order, p. 250

Written by Sam Toombs. Edited by Simon Renwick.