The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

The Guerrilla Campaign

June 1900 - May 1902

De Wet’s strategy adopted

After the fall of Bloemfontein and soon after Salisbury's telegram making it clear what British war aims were, the Boer leaders including the leading generals from both states met at Kroonstadt on March 17 to discuss how to continue the fight. It was agreed to prosecute the war more energetically than ever but how? De Wet suggested that his men be given time to go home and recuperate. De Wet wanted a more mobile force of fully committed men. He wanted to do away with the wagons that accompanied the troops and to focus more on striking at the enemy's lines of communication rather than full frontal attacks or defensive positions in front of Robert's large force. De Wet's ideas were accepted in principal and over the next few months were gradually universally accepted. There were a few formal face to face encounters during Robert's advance but Diamond Hill on 1 June was the last such encounter after which the Boer forces resorted to guerrilla tactics to try to force the British to the peace table (and accept the independence of the republics).


700 British soldiers taken at Kroonstadt

The capture of Bloemfontein, Johannesburg and Pretoria and the capture of Generals Cronje and Prinsloo by themselves did not mean the end of war. The leading Boer generals did meet north of Pretoria to discuss peace. Mrs Botha, who was a captive of the British in Pretoria was sent to her husband to arrange a meeting between Botha and Roberts but before this could be arranged there was a gap in the deliberations of the Generals and during this time de Wet hit the news. He attacked three garrisons along the railway line north of Kroonstadt achieving complete success. 700 British soldiers were captured and great quantities of supplies were captured (at one place to the value of £100,000. He wrecked an important bridge and destroyed the railway track for several miles. Roberts' communications were completely broken and his response was to issue a proclamation that any attack on the railway could only be made with the connivance of local people who would be made prisoners of war and have their homes burnt. Hostages might even be taken to ensure safe passage of trains.


The Boers played havoc with the British lines of communication

The Boers had huge areas of land in which they could continue the war and hope to force the British to the negotiating table. The British only held the land on which they stood whilst the Boers could play havoc with the British lines of communication and supply. Railway lines and telegraphic lines could be cut. Garrisons could be harried and sometimes captured. Supply columns could be captured and deprive the troops of rations, clothing and letters. The British troops never knew when De Wet and the others  would strike next and it put them on constant edge. The British troops knew that they were never safe if they were on garrison duty or accompanying a supply column.


De Wet epitomised the Boer guerrilla of this time who was prepared to fight to the bitter end. The commandos were now much smaller in number, usually about 2,000 and were far more mobile as they dispensed with heavy wagons relying on living on the land and taking what they could from the British to sustain them.


Waterval and Sannas Post  - typical guerrilla actions

Typical of De Wet's action in 1900 were the actions at Waterval and Sanna's Post. In February 1900 De Wet with 1,000 men had swooped on a huge undefended supply camp at Waterval and stampeded 3,000 oxen and captured 200 hundred wagons containing supplies of bully beef, medicines and bandages without which the army could not fight. Two months later the De Wet brothers launched a double attack on the water pumping station at Sanna's Post that provided the water of Bloemfontein. As a result of the destruction of this facility Bloemfontein was without water and this contributed to the deaths of 1000 troops in the town over the next month from enteric fever.


The narrow gauge, single track railway was the British army's lifeline and the Boer guerrillas focused their efforts on disrupting the supply route. Bridges were blown up as were telegraph lines. Small garrisons were attacked and men captured and the British never knew when the Boers would strike next. Most of the time they never even knew in what region De Wet was in until he attacked. Even though the numbers of Boers active in the field was falling a more and more Boers went home or signed the oath of allegiance, there were enough Boers left (20,000-25,000) to do a lot of damage. It was quite clear from De Wets actions that the Boer spirit was far from broken.


Farm Burnings

To deal with guerrilla warfare Roberts and then Kitchener were to take quite extraordinary steps and for some they were methods of barbarism (Campbell-Bannerman). He established garrisons in the principal towns and outposts defending important positions. He then created flying columns to flash out the guerrillas but the columns were too slow-columns were often 3-5 miles long and the horses were loaded up with up to 20 stone of equipment.


Even before official action was taken, British soldiers had begun to resort to looting farms to provide themselves with wood and food, especially after Waterval. On June 1 Roberts issued a proclamation that from the 14th say8ing that anyone found to be bearing arms in the OFS would be treated as a rebel. What this meant was that their property would be confiscated and their farm burned down. This was later extended to the Transvaal once that had been annexed. Between June and November 1900 more than 600 farms were burnt. Roberts also issued proclamations that where a railway line had been blown up all buildings within a ten mile radius would be burnt down. It was a policy that evoked strong feelings of resentment among the Afrikaners and mixed feelings amongst British troops. It no doubt was of some benefit to the British as it made it very difficult for Boers to find food and by the end of the war all their efforts were going into trying to find food and clothing to sustain their efforts in the field. Eventually the burning was totally indiscriminate and carried out by columns of soldiers tasked with the job of not just burning farms but laying waste to all the countryside in a scorched policy that was aimed at denying those Boers still at large of anything that might be of use. When families knew of an approaching column of British troops they would quickly gather a few things and hide out, often in nearby caves until the soldiers had gone but sometimes to return to find their house burnt down.

Troops would arrive at farms unannounced and families were given a brief time to get together some possessions before the house and contents were set alight. Animals were rounded  up and slaughtered, sometimes burnt. By the end of the war some 30,000 farms had been burned down.


Concentration Camps

In the summer of 1900 Roberts set up the first of 46 concentration camps. Initially he set up camps to provide shelter and protection for those who had taken the oath of allegiance (the 'hensoppers') from acts of vengeance by their Boers but as the war went on those families who had been burnt out were taken to camps. At one time there were as many as 160,000 inmates. By October 1901 these camps had achieved a terrible notoriety and questions were being raised in Parliament about conditions within them. Overcrowding, insanitary conditions, an imbalanced diet and inadequate planning caused a huge loss of life as the women and children from isolated farms suffered from a variety of diseases such as measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, typhoid. In all over 28,000 Afrikaner  women and children died in these camps and many more blacks who were in separate camps but of whom there are no records but it is thought that about 20,000 died. In October 1901 alone there were 3,156 deaths and the average death rate was running at 344 per thousand.


The camps were divided into two; the refugees (hensoppers) of non-combatants and the families of men who were still on commando. Conditions were a lot worse for the second group for whom food rations were minimal and fresh fruit and vegetables were almost unheard of. The inmates were kept in bell tents which in summer were stifling hot and in winter with the frost, bitterly cold. Water was often infected and sanitary conditions appalling as the cess pits were rarely emptied. It was the rule that when a child was ill it would have to be taken to the hospital and the mother was not allowed to visit. With there being only one doctor and a few nurses in cramped conditions those who were sent to hospital often did not emerge alive. Mothers would therefore hide any child who became sick. Living in isolated communities meant that the Boers did not have access to modern medicine and the culture of hospitalization was completely alien to them which built up mistrust between doctor and inmate.




Christian de Wet, the guerrilla leader who tormented the British by his constant harrying of the their  lines of communication

Boer commandos

General Botha

Boers disrupted the telegraph and railway  lines

Farm burnings

Concentration camps