Scorched Earth Policy and Descturction

"When is a War not a War? When it is carried on by methods of Barbarism in South Africa."

(Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Leader of the Liberal Opposition Party in Britain: at a meeting of the National Reform Union, June, 14. 1901)


This section depicts the destruction that was wrought during the period when General Lord Kitchener exercised his well-known "Scorched Earth Policy", whereby all Boer farms were destroyed, and the inhabitants taken to concentration death camps.

It was in these camps that between 25,000 and 29,000 Boer women and children died, not to mention the more than 15,000 thousand  black people whose deaths and numbers were never properly recorded. This method of warfare has left seeds of bitterness which today, after one hundred years, has still not entirely disappeared.

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Burnt and trampled grain

British soldiers busy dragging grain out of a barn and setting it alight so that Boer commandos and farm inhabitants would not have supplies.

"... the enemy came to our house and took as many articles as they desired out of the house. There were whites and coloureds. They were very brutal and took all our food. They threatened to set my house alight. One of the soldiers threatened to shoot my daughter because she objected against their throwing our belongings onto the ground. One of the officers ordered the soldier to shoot my daughter. I believe it was general Knox' column. They threw the flour out the door of the house and then shot a horse and left it there. They were extremely brutal. Whites as well as coloureds. The house on Slootkraal has since been burnt down by the enemy..." E.C. Steyn., Vroueleed, Die Lotgevalle van die vroue en kinders buite die konsentrasiekampe 1899-1902. ., p.74

"We sat down and had a nice song round the piano. Then we just piled up the furniture and set fire to the farm. All columns were doing it... The idea was to starve the Boojers out."  Pte Bowers, interview, tape recorded in 1970, describing Roberts's farm burning in October 1900. "The Boer War," Thomas Pakenham, p. 429

Rimington's Scouts

Rimington's Scouts are having a brew in the looted interior of a Boer farmhouse. Pianos, harmoniums and furniture were frequently broken up to be used as firewood by soldiers on the highveld, where wood was scarce. The photo caption read: "Rimington Scouts enjoying lunch in a Boer home wrecked by kaffirs. Jaasfontein, S.A." TAB1283

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Lonely farmhouse burning

This became a common scene on the highveld: a lonely farmhouse, set alight to burn to the ground, by passing British columns.

"[The British]...burnt the house of L. Odendaal and started to bomb my house using a lyddite gun and also with Lee-Metfort rifles. After they had fired a number of shots I was forced to hide... until the shooting had ceased. My house was totally shot to pieces." J.P.J Venter.,Vroueleed, Die Lotgevalle van die vroue en kinders buite die konsentrasiekampe 1899-1902. p.83-84

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Burning Farmhouse and Stores

Two burning farmhouses and stores, sending pillars of smoke to the heavens. The British columns' route could usually be traced by the chains for burning farmhouses.

"The Kakis were around my house. Then an officer dismounted and without speaking, he marched into the house and commanded the armed blacks: "Come boys, break it down, break it down!" They began to break down my house, carried out the household objects, broke up the floor boards, broke down the doors, destroyed all food, and all the chickens. The pigs were killed and everything which was killed, was carried away, so that we three families with fourteen children only had one broken house, and one dead pig with which to survive." C.J.S. van der Merwe., Vroueleed, Die Lotgevalle van die vroue en kinders buite die konsentrasiekampe 1899-1902.

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Only Walls and Chimney Left

Another house stands as a grim testimony of a scorched earth policy...

"[On] the 20th of January 1902 they [Rimington's column] set my house alight. Since there was nobody to carry me out of the house, I was forced to struggle out of the house on my own in order to escape being burnt." H.M. van Rooyen. [After having just given birth].Vroueleed, Die Lotgevalle van die vroue en kinders buite die konsentrasiekampe 1899-1902., p.113-114

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Destroyed Farmhouse and Outbuildings

Eventually, virtually most of all  the houses on farms in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State had been destroyed or ravaged. Even the smaller country towns were mostly completely destroyed.

"When the house was burning, one of the troops took my little baby of twenty days old and threatened to throw it into the fire, despite my pleading. As he stood on the verge of throwing my child into the fire, one of the officers came and took the child out of his hands and returned it to me." M.M. Joubert concerning houseburning by Rimington's scouts., Vroueleed, Die Lotgevalle van die vroue en kinders buite die konsentrasiekampe 1899-1902. p. 106

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The collumn approaches general Botha's farm via the long tree-lined avenue.

The soldiers assemble for the show.


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Before the blast...

The blast...

After the explosion...

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Botha's House goes sky-high

In accordance with the British "scorched earth policy," the house of Commandant-General Louis Botha is dynamited, while a photographer stands ready to capture the action on film. These pictures were sent to general Botha in the field. It was hoped that the sight of the Boer commander-in-chief's house being destroyed would motivate him to surrender. It made no difference. It is said that Botha never returned to his home again after the war. General Botha built this house with his own hands before the war.

General Christiaan De Wet's home, Renosterfontein, near Kroonstad, after destruction.

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Sheep and cattle killed in a kraal

According to the "Scorched Earth Policy," the land had to be made uninhabitable for the Boers. Here an entire stockade of sheep and cattle has been killed by soldiers so as to deny the enemy all forms of sustenance.

"Our sheep they killed in heaps and then burnt them on the farm Kollerfontein... I found my own ram. His right leg had been cut off and was still bleeding. His legs were nearly off. The head had been hacked off in front of its eyes and I then slit it's throat." Henry Collins.,  Kroonstad concentration camp. Stemme uit die Vrouekampe, Gedurende die Tweede Vryheids Oorlog Tussen Boer en Brit van 1899-1902., Maritz, J, ed., Bienedell Uitgewers, 1993, p.70.

Dead livestock surrounds this picturesque home.

Ten minutes to get out

Women and children were often given ten minutes to clear their personal belongings that could be carried, before their homesteads would be set alight or blown up. This picture seems to show a family of Boer women in white bonnets, apparently crying or holding their faces in their barn, while a passing British column lingers outside.

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Boer church destroyed

The number of churches thus destroyed is not known, but it is likely that the churches in most of the small towns were destroyed. This is the Carolina church. It was restored after the war and is in good order today.

Carolina Church Destroyed

During the latter stages of the war, fuel on the highveld became so scarce that churces often became a handy supply of firewood during cold winter months. Floors, roofs and furniture was readily used for cooking and heating.

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Soldiers looting Boer homes

A piano and harmonium loaded onto a wagon by soldiers. The house was probably burnt down soon afterwards, and its inhabitants sent off to a concentration camp.

"After the troops had gone I had nothing to eat and all the objects in the house had been thrown about. When I begged one of the officers to leave a little food for my children, he hit me with his fist so that I nearly fell to the ground." P.C. Saayman. Vroueleed, Die Lotgevalle van die vroue en kinders buite die konsentrasiekampe 1899-1902., P. 70

These Boer families were fortunate. They are being transported to concentration camps in open waggons by General French's column. The pictures shows them corssing Blood River at De Jagersdrift.

A Boer refugee laager. It is not clear whether this is one of the trekking laagers of women and children who were always on the move in an effort to try and escape capture by the British collumns, or whether this is a laager after capture. It may have been the latter case, since this picture was also indicated to have been taken at De Jagersdrift.

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Women and Children Transported in Open Cattle Trucks

Many were transported in open coal railway trucks -- regardless of the scorching heat of summer, or the often sub-zero temperatures of winter.

"When we arrived at the station it was raining and we had to sit in the open truck without any shelter. My mother eventually pulled some of the blankets over us. At last there arrived a goods train and we nine families had to get into the coal and cattle trucks. One of the women was with child and  on the way to Potchefstroom her baby was born in that truck. It was very rainy and we got more rain on the way to Potchefstroom. The woman died about a week later in Potchefstroom. The baby lived for two months and then also died." A.E.C. Viljoen., Kampkinders, 1900-1902 -- 'n Gedenkboek., Van Schoor, M..C.E & Coetzee, C.G., Dreyer Drukkers., Bloemfontein., 1982., p.1.9

Camp diaries, memoirs and letters make frequent mention of how the draught animals suffered during the forced convoy marches to the concentration camps. There was often a great sense of urgency to reach a safe point of destination, which caused the columns to have to move at high speed. Since oxen are powerful draught animals, but lack speed and stamina to continue over long distances without adequate rest and grazing, many animals became weakened. In camp memoirs it is often recorded how exhausted cattle were shot as soon as they could not move any longer. The above picture presents an illustration of this fact. Sometimes the draught oxen were shot at the yoke, in which case the team was forced to continue so that the ox waggon would roll across the stricken beast's back. From written camp memoirs one gets the impression that the women and children on their way to concentration camps could still understand their own captivity, but they found the cruelty towards animals particularly disturbing.

More sheep driven against a hillside for execution.

This picture shows a herd of sheep being driven together so that they could be killed. Sheep numbering in the millions were machine gunned, or chased into the long grass whereupon the grass would be set alight, or simply bayoneted to death.'

First destruction and then capture

In many cases farm homesteads were initially simply burnt down and the inhabitants left to take refuge on the open plains. The reasoning was that the social plight of the women and children would force the Boers who were still fighting in the field, to consider the situation hopeless and to surrender. The women and children surprised the British authorities by surviving fairly well without shelter and conventional sources of food. Accordingly, columns came along later in the war, which aimed at collecting even these drifting refugees from the ruined shells of their former homes so that they too, could be taken to the concentration camps as the captivity of their families seemed to have a greater demoralizing effect on the Burghers. Sometimes columns simply visited ruined farms in order to collect fuel since the open veldt provided little firewood, which the British army was always in great need of.


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Boer Family With Entire Worldly Possessions

A Boer family has been newly off-loaded at an unknown concentration camp. Surrounding them are the only possessions that they have left in the world. With nothing physical left to lose, all these people still had left to lose were their lives and those of their loved ones.

"Even one's mouth was filled with sand. From about ten o'clock till after five one couldn't do anything save lie on the floor and cover oneself with a rug or something, otherwise one would eventually be covered with sand... and so it continued for months with the exception of a few quiet days in-between. Everybody was fed up with the situation." A.C. Heymans., Kampkinders, 1900-1902 -- 'n Gedenkboek, Van Schoor, M.C.E & Coetzee, C.G, Dreyer Drukkers, Bloemfontein, 1982, p.20

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The Crying Woman

A striking picture that tells its own story. This show a young Boer woman who appears to be trying to hide her tears from her companions. The picture suggests that she has just been deposited at a concentration camp. Around her, a few of the women are trying to organize the few belongings that they had somehow managed to bring along.

Her entire bearing and body language seems to explain her feelings: "What in the world is happening to us?"

Returning Home After the War
Photo: H Labuschagne

Returning home after the war, meant a time of great hardship for nearly every family. Most had lost everything but the land they stood on, and many were destined to lose even that quite soon. Over 33,000 homes across the Transvaal and Free State were destroyed, and many small towns suffered the same fate. Practically every family had lost their home.

The Boer survivors returned to their devastated farms in the middle of a particularly cold and bitter winter. They did not know it yet, but the coming season would add to their misfortunes by being a year of drought. On most farms only the broken ruins of what had once been homes and sheds were still standing. Commandant Red David Joubert, for example, had to live with his wife under a triangular lean-to shelter made from burnt corrugated iron roof sheets which he salvaged from the ruins of his house. He had lost one arm during the war, but was fortunate in still having his wife and some children. 

Many men returned to their farms to wait for the return of their families from the concentration camps - only to find that the entire family had perished, or that the wife, or some of the children were missing. Mothers and wives returned to find out that their husbands and sons had long since died on the battlefield or in banishment. Some had to wait for many months for the return of their menfolk from prisoner of war camps in Bermuda, Ceylon, St. Helena and India, or from internment in Portugal. In the absence of their men, they had to do what they could do try and build up some kind of a life again. 

The picture above is of the little rondavel that the father of Mr Willie Klingenberg of Piet Retief in the South-Eastern Transvaal, built upon his return from the war. He built this little shack from the bricks that he could salvage from the ruins of his home. In this humble home, he and his family had to live until such time as they could rebuild their lives again. Many families had lost every penny they owned. On many farms, not a single farm animal survived and not a single seed was available to plan. Yet, they were the sons and daughters of a hardy pioneer generation, and they simply made life work out despite all the obstacles.

My own great-grandmother returned while her husband was still a prisoner of war in Ceylon. She was 25 years old and had four little children to look after until her husband could return. Her house was nothing but a pile of ash from which only a few blackened iron and brass articles could be salvaged. In a field, she had buried two trunks with some articles of clothing before the war. These were recovered, but besides that, there was nothing. She set snares for small game, and although the family experiences some hunger in the beginning, at least they were able to survive in this way. Every family had its own little story of survival to tell.

There were others, however, for whom the story was different. Sometimes, out of a family of eight, nine, or occasionally eleven or twelve members, only one would return. Some were children. Young little orphans who were the sole survivors. Ultimately the Anglo-Boer War, would have effects that would ripple across time like a stone, thrown into a pond. These ripples would affect succeeding generations, long after the original survivors weren't there anymore. Some say, the socio-economic effect of the Boer War can be seen in the Afrikaner to this day. It was a war that left an indelible mark for a hundred years.

Those families who had homes to return to, of which the walls were still standing, were fortunate. Many homes were in such a state of ruin that they had to be rebuilt from scratch.


Occasionally it was possibly to repair some of the wholes, which might possibly be what happened in the case of the house in the picture above. It seems to have had a tarpaulin roof fitted.


Acknowledgement: All photos courtesy of the National Archives in Pretoria, South Africa.