The Great Wall, intended as protective shield against the barbaric races from the steppes, is a many repeated attempt to arrest time. As we know today, it did not work. Time simply cannot be arrested. 

Max Fritsch, Translated from Die Chinesische Mauer.

The Hinge Factor. How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History., Durschmied, E., Coronet Books., London., 1999., p. 331


The blockhouses originated as a means of protecting the railways under British control. When lord Kitchener saw that the blockhouse lines also impeded Boer movements to some extent, he decided to extend them and to thus carve up South Africa into blocks where the commandoes could be contained.

The blockhouse project was something unprecedented in military history. A project so enormous that it blows the mind: Soon 8,000 blockhouses were built over a distance of 3,700 miles. By late 1901, these had been extended to cover an absolutely astounding 31,700 miles! They were meant to shorten the war, yet although they hindered Boer movements, they never stopped them. General Christiaan De Wet, the kind of the Blockhousebusters, contemptuously called it the "Blockhouse system."

Stone blockhouse at Modderrivier Battlefield

The first of the blockhouses were beautiful structures, craftily built from dressed stone. This particular one guarded the railway bridge across the Modder river. The famous Boer trenches ran approximately where the wheat fields end. The river itself is not visible on the picture, but flows only a few paces further back.

Corrugated iron blockhouse in Bloemfontein

As the War progressed, a much cheaper and quicker method of constructing blockhouses was developed by the military engineers. Most were round, with a diameter of 12 feet. Inside this corrugated iron cylinder would then be placed a second one which had a diameter of 2 feet smaller. The cavity between the two  structures was then filled with stones and soil. This particular model is one of the very few of its kind which survived. It was moved and rebuilt at the Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein, OFS. The stone wall around it is common.

Reconstructed blockhouse at Ladysmith

This particular blockhouse is a reconstructed one and forms the private museum of Dough McMaster of Ladysmith. It was built according to the original plans of existing square blockhouses. Note the stone walls surrounding the blockhouse. These were sometimes built by bored soldiers who felt that extra protection would be comforting.  Some others whiled the time away by creating elaborate stone gardens around their blockhouses, or beautifying the surroundings in some way or other. There is also a definite reason why the stone-walled entrance was built in an L-shape, or somehow curved -- it was so one could not shoot into the entrance.

Armed blacks in front of corrugated steel blockhouse

At one point the blockhouses were keeping so many British soldiers out of active service, that only 50,000 were available for maneuvers.  Accordingly large numbers of blacks were armed and told to guard the blockhouse lines.  The Boers took great exception to this because officially the blacks were to have been kept out of the warm, for there was a gentleman's agreement that it would be an "all-white" war. But to the British authorities the temptation was too great. Black soldiers could be paid far less, (or sometimes nothing at all), they cost less to feed and there were no war pensions to be paid to their widows.


Present-day ruined blockhouse near Dullstroom

These are the present-day ruins of a blockhouse just outside of Dullstroom, on the road to Lydenburg, in the eastern Transvaal.  This blockhouse was built in a horseshoe shape and is open at the rear. 

Acknowledgements: Black-and-white photograph by the courtesy of the National Archives in Pretoria. All colour photographs by H Labuschagne