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A Shameful Legacy: How Britain invented the concentration camp

A Shameful Legacy: How Britain invented the concentration camp

Concentration camps were utilised by the British Army at the turn of the 20th century during the Boer War. Author and self-professed ‘history buff’ Stephen Cowell deals with this dark side of warfare in his new novel, Broome Park. Here, he reveals the unpleasant truth of these camps, and explains how the actions of a few brave women helped ensure they would never be used again in British warfare.

Mention the words Concentration camp in Britain and almost invariably the first image people form is of Belsen, Auschwitz, Dachau and other infamous locations associated with Nazi Germany in the years 1933 to 1945. The images of liberated camps are sketched indelibly in our minds as just about the closest depiction of true evil that mankind has ever sunk to. The harrowed faces, the pitiful eyes, walking skeletons, the gas chambers, conjure up everything we think a civilised nation or indeed humanity as a whole should abhor and fight tooth and nail to prevent.

Rarely if at all do the minds of British people turn to images of camps set up and run by the British Army when the words concentration camp are uttered. School curriculums endlessly examine the horrors of the Nazi system but seldom, if at all, do they turn to the actions of the British in the Boer war. Few students leaving school now would be able to recount anything of the Boer War and its legacy. Even fewer would state, or know, that concentration camps were first set up as a deliberate policy and tactic of war by the British Army led by Lord Kitchener during the period 1900 to 1902.

For many years, if the Boer war was taught at school it was in the context of the growth of the empire: heroic acts, the relief of besieged towns such as Ladysmith and Mafeking, Baden Powell and Thomas Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’. It certainly did not dwell on the vast network of concentration camps that were set up to hold Boer women and children who were physically herded, often in open rail carts, from their farms and imprisoned in a network of austere, secure and utterly wretched locations.

How did it come about that Britain, at that time the world’s dominant military power, should adopt a ‘scorched earth’ strategy, pursuing the destruction of all Boer means of feeding and maintaining themselves, and devise the establishment of scores of camps often housing thousands of prisoners in terrible conditions? Just as importantly, how could it be that this shameful policy is so little known about today?   

Tents in the Bloemfontein concentration camp during the Boer War. Photo by The National Archives UK, licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0)

From 1899 to 1902 a bitter war engulfed the area that we now call “South Africa”. Britain sought to incorporate the independent Boer Republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State into a federation under British control – and ensure the benefits of the huge gold and mineral deposits in the Transvaal came Britain’s way. Initially, the Boers enjoyed major success against an ill-prepared and arrogant British Army dismissive of the Boer soldiers. The British, however, suffered a series of defeats in 1900 and Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith were besieged. The newspapers back in Britain reported of the heroic defence of these towns and the nation waited with baited breath for daily news of what was happening so far away. Field Marshall Lord Roberts was appointed and a massive reinforcement took place. At one time over 400,000 troops were stationed in South Africa. Roberts and his deputy, Kitchener, reversed the initial setbacks and there was national rejoicing when the besieged towns were relieved.

It was now that the scene was set for one of the most controversial periods of British imperial history. Realising that fighting a conventional war against the massively greater forces of the British and its allies would lead to certain defeat, the Boers switched to commando–type raids hoping to tie down tens of thousands of British troops and thus prolonging the war and increasing its cost. They hoped this would bring the British to the negotiating table.

Kitchener, in charge when Roberts returned home a hero, was, however, having none of this and he introduced brutal, draconian measures. He established a series of blockhouses and barbed-wire fences across great swathes of the high veldt, with a view to confining the Boers attacks to areas where he would concentrate his forces. He also began to systematically burn Boer farms and relocated those displaced into concentration camps. These tactics, shocking to us today, forced the Boers to abandon the fight and sign the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902.

The conditions in the camps were appalling. No preparations had been made for their establishment; dysentery and malnutrition were rife and death rates, particularly among young children, were horrific. In my new historical novel, Broome Park, I write about these camps through the eyes of female protagonist Jane Dunhaughton, who leaves her native England to become a humanitarian worker in the Boer War:

“It was though the suffering of the children that hit the hardest. The children deprived of all stimulation, cold then hot, scared and starving were often too weak to eat and susceptible to all manner of illness, particularly typhoid. They lay around the tents with nowhere to go and nothing to do, weak and demoralised.”

Author Stephen Cowell captures the horror of Boer concentration camps within his debut novel, Broome Park.

In my research for the novel, I came across the fact that conditions were so bad that many Boer women handed their babies over the barbed-wire fences to South African women who were concerned at their plight. I make this a central feature of my narrative.

The conditions in the camps were brought to the attention of the British public by a remarkably courageous and compassionate English humanitarian, Emily Hobhouse. She went to South Africa to help distribute aid to those affected by the war. She was expecting to find just one camp but was horrified to discover there were over 40. Hobhouse wrote a report about the conditions in the camps, which she submitted to the British Government when she returned to England in June 1901. The report caused a massive sensation and Hobhouse herself received scathing attacks from the press and the British authorities. They denied that there was anything but dutiful care for women and children in the camps. The nation was polarised as a result, with leading liberals such as Lloyd George likening the government to “Herod who crushed a race by killing all the young children”. American newspapers, meanwhile, referred to “British death camps”. It has been estimated that 25,000 died in the British concentration camps. 

The campaign of Emily Hobhouse, whom my young protagonist, Jane, accompanies to South Africa, led to the Government appointing a commission to investigate the conditions in the camps. The importance of this commission lay in the fact that it comprised entirely of women and was led by Millicent Fawcett a leading campaigner for women’s suffrage. It marks an important point in time when it became clear that from then on it would not be possible to hide the unpleasant truth of inhumane practices just because there was a war on. It was also clear that it was women who were going to rail first against unacceptable practices and would campaign for the rights of women and children as victims of conflict.

Broome Park by Stephen Cowell (Olympia Publishers) is out now on Amazon, priced £9.99 in paperback and £3.99 as an eBook.

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