Read CHAPTER XII - THE CONCENTRATION CAMPS of The Petticoat Commando Boer Women in Secret Service , free online book, by Johanna Brandt, on ReadCentral.com.

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 farms.

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 Christian nations.

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 towns.

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 homes.

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 farms.

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 of concentration.

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 inmates!

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 and death.

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 great.

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 with extinction.

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 States.

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 years.

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.