For a small moment have I forsaken
thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.
In a little wrath I hid My face from thee for
a moment; but with everlasting kindness will
I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. Isa.
li and 8.
The hand which holds my pen to-day trembles.
From the beginning it was not my intention
to touch upon the Concentration Camps, but this story
of the war would be incomplete without at least a
brief outline of that which played so important a
part during the war.
After the occupation of Pretoria,
and when it was found that hostilities, instead of
coming to an end, were continued under what the English
called a system of “guerilla” warfare,
and that the Boer forces, instead of being compelled
to surrender through starvation or exhaustion, continued
to thrive and increase in numbers, the military authorities
found it necessary to adopt entirely new tactics.
But subsequent events showed that no greater strategical
error was ever committed.
Let me explain briefly for the benefit
of those of my readers who have forgotten the details
of the great South African war.
The Boer Republics had no organised
force. In the event of war against natives or
against some foreign Power, the burghers were called
up from their farms, the husbands, fathers, sons of
the nation, to fight for home and fatherland.
This left the women and children unprotected on the
farms, but not unprovided for, for it is an historical
fact that the Boer women in time of war carried on
their farming operations with greater vigour than
during times of peace. Fruit trees were tended,
fields were ploughed, and harvests brought in with
redoubled energy, with the result that crops increased
and live-stock multiplied.
From the natives they had nothing
to fear in fact, their work was carried
on with the help of native servants only. It soon
became evident to the British military authorities
that the Boer forces were being supplied with necessaries
in the way of food and clothing by the women on the
From the Boer point of view this was
right and good, but it was perfectly natural that
the English should resent it, and, in isolated cases,
where it was known beyond doubt to have taken place,
the houses were destroyed, and the women and children
removed to the towns as prisoners of war.
As time went on and the women continued
to provide their men with the necessaries of life,
the British authorities decided to lay the entire
country waste, with the intention of depriving the
Boer commandos of all means of subsistence and forcing
them, through starvation, into a speedy surrender.
A systematic devastation of the two
Boer Republics then took place. Only the towns
were spared; for the rest, the farms and homesteads
and even small villages, throughout the length and
breadth of the country, were laid waste. Trees
were cut down, crops destroyed, homes, pillaged of
valuables, burnt with everything they contained, and
the women and children removed to camps in the districts
to which they belonged.
Now, we are well aware that a savage
foe would have left these helpless victims of the
unavoidable circumstances of war on the veld to die,
but the English are not only not savages and heathens,
but they are one of the most civilised and humane
Concentration Camps were formed in
every part of the country, and the women and children
placed in tents on the open veld, near the railway
lines where possible, or in close proximity to the
The work of devastation, carried out
by some British officers with loathing and distaste,
and by others with fiendish exultation, was not completed
in a few weeks or months. It was carried on right
through from the time when the policy was decided
on until peace was declared, and in the end nothing
was left but the blackened ruins of once prosperous
If ever there was a war of surprises,
it was the Anglo-Boer war.
Instead of hostilities being brought
to a speedy termination by the demolition of the farms,
the Boer forces gathered and increased in strength
and numbers by the addition to their ranks of men who
had left the commandos and were again living on their
Wives and children gone, homes devastated,
there was nothing left for the men to live for.
Instead of being brought to submission
by the drastic measures taken to compel them to surrender,
they were transformed into raging lions, with but
one object in view, the expulsion of their enemy from
the land of their birth.
Not alone in the towns did the secret
service do its work. As the camps grew in size
and close supervision became more difficult, the spies
crept in and out, bearing with them the information
wanted by the Boer leaders, concerning the condition
of the inmates.
In nine cases out of ten the earnest
request of the women to their men was to fight to
the bitter end not to surrender on their
account, but to let them die in captivity sooner than
yield for the sake of them and their children.
Perhaps I may be allowed to say here
that when Hansie was in the Irene Camp as volunteer
nurse she knew nothing of the work of the spies.
Love and pity drew her to the scene of suffering.
The British did not count the cost
when they began the system of gathering in the Boer
families, any more than they did when they began their
“walk over” to Pretoria.
Not only had they to support women
and children for an indefinite period after the devastation
of the farms, but the entire maintenance of the scattered
Boer forces fell to their lot. During nearly two
years the Boers lived on the enemy, took their convoys,
wrecked their trains, helped themselves to horses,
clothing, ammunition, provisions everything,
in fact, that they required for the continuation of
the war. To tell the truth, there was hardly a
Mauser rifle to be found in the possession of the
Boers at the end of the war, they having destroyed
the rifles with which they began the war, for want
of Mauser ammunition, and using only the Lee Metfords
of the enemy.
Sickness broke out in the camps scarlet
fever, measles, whooping-cough, enteric, pneumonia,
and a thousand ills brought by exposure, overcrowding,
underfeeding, and untold hardships.
Expectant mothers, tender babes, the
aged and infirm, torn from their homes and herded
together under conditions impossible to describe,
exposed to the bitter inclemency of the South African
winters and the scorching, germ-breeding heat of the
summer, succumbed in their thousands, while daily,
fresh people, ruddy, healthy, straight from their
wholesome life on the farms, were brought into the
infected camps and left to face sickness and the imminent
risk of death.
Over twenty thousand dead women and
children stand recorded in the books of the Burgher
Camps Department to-day, as the victims of this policy
Over twenty thousand women and children
within two years! While the total number of fighting
men lost on the Boer side, in battle and in captivity,
amounts to four thousand throughout the entire war.
That this appalling result was wholly
unlooked for, we do not doubt, but nothing could be
done to prevent the high mortality until many months
after the worst period was over and only the strongest
remained in the camps. It was indeed a case of
the survival of the fittest.
Let me briefly relate a tragic event
of the war to show what the people of the camps went
through and what little cause for surprise there is
in the unprecedented death-rate.
During the winter of 1901 a blizzard
passed over the High Veld, the site of so many Concentration
Camps, in the Balmoral district, and overtook a young
lieutenant, W. St. Clare McLaren, of the First Argyll
and Sutherland Highlanders (the friend and playmate
of Hansie’s childhood’s years at Heidelberg)
with his men.
They were without shelter, their commissariat
waggons being some way ahead, and crept under a tarpaulin
for protection from the fierce and bitterly cold blast.
During that awful night Mr. McLaren
took off his overcoat to cover up the perishing body
of his major, and when morning came he was found dead
with five of his men, while around them, stiffly frozen,
lay the bodies of six hundred mules.
The brave and heroic heart was stilled
for ever, a young and noble life was lost in performing
an act of rare self-sacrifice; but far away in “bonnie
Scotland” a widowed mother, smiling bravely through
her tears, thanked God for the privilege of cherishing
such a memory.
Small wonder to us then, when tragedies
such as this were brought home to us, that in the
camps the thin tents, torn to ribbons by the storm,
afforded no protection to the scantily-clothed, half-famished
That the death-rate was not higher
during the winter months we owe entirely to the overcrowding
of the tents, there being in Hansie’s ward at
Irene many bell-tents, destined to accommodate six,
holding from sixteen to twenty-three persons for many
months. But what was an advantage during the
winter months became a source of great danger when
the heat of summer came.
To return to our story.
It was Hansie’s privilege yes,
privilege to act as one of the volunteer
nurses from Pretoria during that very winter of 1901,
and though it is not my intention to record in this
book the experience connected with that period, I
do not think it will be out of place here to mention
an important result of that sojourn at Irene.
Mrs. van Warmelo visited her daughter
in the camp for the first time on May 21st, and she
was so much impressed by the misery she had witnessed
that, on her return to Pretoria that night, she could
not sleep, but tossed from side to side, thinking
of some way to save her country-women from suffering
Suddenly she was inspired by the thought,
“Write a petition to the Consuls!”
It was 3 a.m. when she got out of
bed to fetch her writing-materials from the dining-room,
and she then and there wrote a passionate appeal for
help to the Diplomatic Corps in Pretoria.
The Consul-General for the Netherlands,
Mr. Domela Nieuwenhuis, to whom she took the petition
the following morning, advised her to lay it before
the Portuguese Consul, Mr. Cinatti, who, as the doyen
of the Diplomatic Corps, would bring the matter before
the other Consuls, if he thought it advisable.
Mr. Cinatti, after reading the petition,
said the matter could certainly be taken up if Mrs.
van Warmelo would get a few leading women in Pretoria
to sign the petition.
This was done within a few days.
Under injunctions to observe the strictest
secrecy, nine prominent Boer women signed the document,
and it was once more laid before the senior member
of the Diplomatic Corps, who immediately called a
meeting of the Consuls, the result of which was that
a copy of the petition, translated into French, was
sent by the first mail to each of the ten different
Powers they represented and also to Lord Kitchener.
General Maxwell, soon after these
were dispatched, asked Mr. Cinatti to see him at once
in his office at Government Buildings, where, in a
long interview with him, he demanded from Mr. Cinatti
the names of the nine signatories.
Mr. Cinatti said he was not at liberty
to disclose them that, in fact, they were
not known (with the exception of the writer of the
petition) to the other Consuls. General Maxwell
then pressed him to give him that name only, as he
particularly wished to know who had drawn up the petition.
This was refused, fortunately for
Mrs. van Warmelo, for the penalty would have been
The military authorities left no stone
unturned afterwards to find out who the women petitioners
were, but without success, thanks to the great precautions
taken by the Portuguese Consul.
A full month passed and no reply came
from Lord Kitchener.
A second petition, more strongly worded
than the first, was then drawn up, imploring the Consuls
to intercede on behalf of the victims of the Concentration
Camps and to inform the Powers represented by them,
of the death-rate which threatened the Boer nation
Again a meeting of the Consuls was
called, at which three of them were appointed to form
a committee of investigation:
Consul Cinatti, Consul-General for Portugal.
Baron Pitner, Consul-General for Austria.
Baron Ostmann, Consul-General for Germany.
Some of the other members at the meeting were:
M. Domela Nieuwenhuis, Consul-General
for the Netherlands.
M. Aubert, Consul-General for France.
Mr. Gordon, Consul-General for United
The latter lived in Johannesburg,
but attended all the meetings held in Pretoria in
connection with the Concentration Camps.
From General Maxwell the committee
of investigation got permission to inspect the Camp
at Irene, called the “Model Camp,” and
with the statistics obtained there, as well as the
official statistics of all the camps in the Transvaal,
the Diplomatic Corps drew up a report, which went
to prove that unless immediate steps were taken to
arrest the appalling death-rate, the Boer population
in the camps would be extinct within a period of three
Copies of this report were sent to
the Military Governor and Lord Kitchener, and to ten
foreign Powers, with copies of the second petition.
What diplomatic correspondence then
passed between England and the foreign Powers we shall
never know, for the utmost secrecy was observed throughout;
but what we do know is, that the famous commission
of inquiry, the “Whitewash Committee,”
so-called by the Pro-Boers in England, was very soon
afterwards sent out. It consisted of six English
ladies, and as a result of their investigations some
of the inland camps were removed to the coast, the
rations increased, additional medical and other comforts
provided, and the general condition of the camps improved
to such an extent that after some months the death-rate
decreased considerably, continuing to do so until
it became nearly normal. But, as I have said before,
not until over 20,000 women and children had been
sacrificed as a direct result of being torn from their
homes, exposed to the elements, and herded together
under conditions which only the strongest could survive.
It would take too much space to insert copies of the
petitions here, but they are to be found in Hansie’s
Dutch book on the Irene Concentration Camp, published
in Holland from her diary a year after the war.