Field Marshal Roberts – Detain Boer civilians and burn their homes
16 June 1900
In October 1899, Boer settlers in the Transvaal and Orange Free, faced with a tightening circle of British troops advancing from Cape Colony and Natal, had declared a war against Britain. It was a desperate act of rebellion. The British were confident it could be crushed within a few days, but they soon discovered that it was hard to defeat an enemy, which rather than fight in the open, operated as a guerrilla insurgency, living off the land and from supplies and shelter supplied by the surrounding settler population.
Field Marshal Lord Roberts, who had arrived in January 1900 to command British forces, decided drastic measures were necessary. His military operations had been hampered by Boer attacks on bridges, telegraph lines and railway lines, which tied down large numbers of troops to defend vulnerable points and in repair works. So on 16 June 1900, he issued a proclamation declaring that any such act of sabotage would be met be reprisals against civilians, including the burning of any farm or homestead ‘in the vicinity’ and the detention of the ‘principal civil residents,’ who would be automatically deemed guilty of ‘aiding and abetting the offenders.’1
The definition of ‘the vicinity’ was interpreted, according to some British newspaper reports, to mean that reprisals would be inflicted only on the nearest farm, while according to other correspondents, the understanding of the proclamation was that if Boers ‘do not leave the (railway) line alone, all Boer farms will be demolished within five miles of the railway.’2 In September, Roberts made it clear that his own interpretation was wider still, declaring that the land within a ten mile radius of any such incident could be ‘cleared.’ This meant that, without needing any evidence of complicity, Boer farms could be burned down, civilians detained and livestock and crops seized over an area of over three hundred square miles.3
Boer resistance continued, despite the indiscriminate reprisals, and the following month Roberts ordered General Sir Archibald Hunter to simply ‘lay the country waste.’4 By October, he was eagerly carrying out Robert’s instruction, even burning the houses of a village which had already been ‘looted by Boers’ who had targeted the stores, hotel and hospital.’5 The Pall Mall Gazette, under the headline ‘Bothaville Burned by Our Troops’, reported that ‘the village… was soon a heap of smoking ruins,’ adding that ‘General Hunter’s column’ arrived at Kroonstad about fifty miles to the north east on 26 October, and that ‘the farms on the way from Bothaville were (also) destroyed.’6
- Martin Bossenbroek, The Boer War, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2018 and Jane Samson ( editor ), The British Empire, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 228.
- The ‘nearest farm’ would be the subject of a reprisal according to ‘Treachery: A Proclamation,’ The South Wales Daily News, 22 June 1900, ‘Latest from Pretoria,’ The Yorkshire Post, 25 June 1900, p. 5 and ‘Lesson for De Wet,’ The Cheltenham Chronicle, 23 June 1900, p. 3 but according to ‘War Items,’ St. Andrews Citizen, 23 June 1900, p. 5 ‘war correspondents at the front’ had stated that farms within five miles of any sabotaged railway line would be ‘demolished’.
- John Boje, An Imperfect Occupation: Enduring the South African War, The University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2015, p. 49.
- ‘Bothaville Looted by Boers,’ The Nottingham Journal, 29 October 1900, p. 5.
- ‘Bothaville Burned by Our Troops,’ The Pall Mall Gazette, 1 November 1900, p. 7.
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