Monday, December 24, 2012

Scorched Earth: Kitchener's Boer War Counterinsurgency

A large group of horsemen of the Imperial
Yeomanry galloping over a plain. © IWM (Q 72318)
The old myth of the Boer War as one of the last gentlemanly wars, tied to romantic visions of honourable combatant knights, has long been revised and retired.  The conflict had no lack of ferocity and destruction, and the line between combatants and non-combatants was very much blurred.  The guerilla tactics of Boer commandos from 1900 posed a serious difficulty to the British Army. Attempts to curb the mobility of small groups of mounted riflemen included the use of blockhouses and barbed wire, with mobile columns attempting to press the Boers towards these defences. Ian Beckett notes in Modern Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies(2001) that a more controversial method was the establishment of “concentration camps”, the destruction of houses and crops and the removal of livestock.

After the fall of Bloemfontein in the spring of 1900, Field Marshal Lord Roberts had ordered the protection of Boer property and allowed Boers considered loyal to return to their homes. After guerrillasbegan to emerge in the summer, however, Roberts ordered the destruction of houses close to vulnerable communications infrastructure. Other efforts to detract from guerrilla attacks were collective fines and the compulsion of Boer civilians to ride on trains.
Roberts policies may be deemed moderate. He rescinded less discriminate policies, and ordered the destruction of only those houses which were proven to be used by Boer fighters. From December of 1900, however, Roberts' successor Lord Kitchener extended the internment system to includeboth military prisoners and civilian refugees. Kitchener attempted to remove the entire Boer population from the veld. As he wrote in March 1901, "The refugee camps for women and surrendered boers [sic] are I am sure doing good work[;] it enables a man to surrender and not lose his stock and movable property . .. The women left in farms give complete intelligence to the boers of all our movements and feed the commandos in their neighbourhood". (Krebs, History Workshop, No. 33, p. 41)  
Kitchener’s internment policy was aimed at women as well, who were thought to be key figures in motivating the Boers. Women were originally rounded up to prevent them from spying for the Boers.  Yet as Paula Krebs suggests, this motivation was kept quiet, as it would admit that the women were incarcerated due to their military activities.  (Krebs, p.42)  Liberals and Irish M.P.s had been arguing that those in the camps were prisoners of war, not refugees.  In March of 1901, an exchange in the House of Commons evoked the gendered nature of imperialism.  Irish M.P. John Dillon asked, "What civilised government ever deported women? Had it come to this, that this Empire was afraid of women."  (Krebs, p.42)
"Garden of Remembrance, Aliwal North" 
Concentration Camp Memorial
License Creative Commons
AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by G Bayliss
Beckett suggests that some women were held hostage to provoke Boer surrenders. Many women and children were condemned to a nomadic existence when their homes were razed.  Inside the camps, Boer children were subject to colonial indoctrination.  Research by Paul Zietsman notes that education provided in concentration camps attempted to Anglicize Boer children, which shows parallels with colonial aboriginal policies of assimilation behind residential schools. These policies invoked further political controversy back in Britain, especially when poor management of the camps led to the deaths of nearly one quarter of the 116,000 civilians detained.  When camp tents began to be populated by women and children, Britain, and especially British women, were alerted to a potential cause. 
After the uproar regarding the camps, Kitchener still claimed that their functional value outweighed the dissent.  In 1901, Kitchener claimed, "I wish I could get rid of these camps but it is the only way to settle the country and enable the men to leave their commandos and come in to their families without being caught and tried for desertion." (Krebs, p.43)
Typical group of Boer farmers at "Compensation" claims tent after war.Rodolphe Lemieux / Library and Archives Canada 1902-1903.
The success of these efforts is still debated among military historians.  It would not be the last time that the tactics of counterinsurgency led to political turmoil domestically.  Curiously, the tactic of burning farms was not as controversial as the camps themselves.  By May of 1902, somewhere in the range of 30,000 homes had been razed along with many acres of crops.  Larry Addington noted that Kitchener's tactics were very "un-Victorian", and observes the "systematic sweeps through Boer country foreshadowed American 'Search and Destroy' tactics during the Vietnam War nearly seventy years later." (Addington, Patterns of War since the Eighteenth Century, p.124).  Death rates are a matter of some debate, but figures of 25,000 Boer deaths, along with 12,000 black Africans.  The conflicts' brutal policy against non-combatants and domestic outrage at the harder facets of suppresion, resonate with students of twentieth-century counterinsurgency.

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