On this day, back in 1899, republican forces invaded British territory, starting the Boer War. Outnumbering the scattered Imperial garrisons, the invading Commandos advanced deep into Natal and the Cape Colony, enjoying a looting spree and soon placing three towns – Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith – under siege. Completely unable to take them by storm, the Boers instead subjected the garrisons and residents (including hundreds of women and children) to months of indiscriminate bombardment while attempting to starve the towns into submission, or let disease work its magic.
Despite being well reported at the time, this has been largely overlooked in the indecent haste to pretend that the Boers were the noble, innocent victims of unprovoked aggression by the dastardly British. Let us leave aside Apartheid-era myth, however, and focus on the reality of what those unfortunate townspeople endured. At the start of the Siege of Ladysmith, for example, Commandant-General Piet Joubert, commander of the Transvaal invasion forces, refused a request that the infirm and civilians be evacuated from the town. Instead, he agreed to a ‘neutral camp’ being established within the siege lines[i] – meaning those who chose to move there would still suffer from starvation and disease. Meanwhile, the Boer gunners:
‘…began to turn their attention to those buildings which were flying the Red Cross flag, and which were being used as hospitals for the wounded. The Town Hall and Sanatorium were both struck three or four times. One shell entered the Town Hall and killed a wounded man who was lying in bed, and wounded eight others. The churches also, which were used as hospitals, were struck, so that Sir George White ordered that all the Red Cross flags were to be taken down, as they were disregarded by the Boers and only tended to attract their shell fire. In reply to Sir George White’s remonstrance, General Joubert stated that he would respect no Red Cross flag in the town.’[ii]
During the siege, the Boers lobbed over 18,000 shells into the town.[iii]
Also forgotten, or perhaps deliberately overlooked, is the fact that the same diseases which would later kill so many people in the concentration camps, also decimated malnourished[iv] loyalist townsfolk trapped in Ladysmith during the siege. At Ladysmith, this was not entirely an act of God, however: Boer attempts to poison the Klip River (which flows through Ladysmith, and supplied the town’s drinking water) were foiled by use of filtration and the ingenuity of a Mr Binnie – a civil engineer employed by the Natal Government – and the Engineering Officer of the HMS Powerful, who together devised and built three condensers to sterilise the drinking water supply.[v]
The hastily erected hospital out at the ‘neutral camp’ at Intombi was initially established to cater for 300 patients. By the end of November 1899, in addition to those who had been wounded in action, there were 15 cases of ‘enteric’ (a euphemism for typhoid[vi]) and 72 cases of dysentery. Within a month, this had risen to 441 cases of enteric and 361 of dysentery. Over the same period, the weekly death rate had risen from five a week to 23 a week and was still accelerating.[vii] By the time the siege was lifted, the remains of 1,600 people were buried in the graveyard next to the hospital, victims of enteric, dysentery, and wounds.[viii]
Their attempts to storm the town repulsed with heavy losses, and the starving townsfolk – who were by then existing on a subsistence diet of horse flesh – enduring the shelling with stiff-upper-lipped stoicism, the Boers resorted to even more drastic measures:
‘In mid-January, with the assistance of 1,200 black labourers, the Boers began to construct a wall of sandbags across the Klip River in a narrow defile near Mbulwana [ie. downstream from Ladysmith]. It was hoped that the dammed water would flood the plain on which Ladysmith was situated’.[ix]
Luckily, a Royal Navy 12-pdr, firing from Caesar’s Camp, was able to target the effort, thus restricting the construction work to night time. This meant that the dam was still uncompleted by the time General Buller smashed through the Boer defences at the Battle of Tugela Heights, and raised the Siege of Ladysmith on 28 February, 1900 – after 119 days of starvation, disease, death and misery.
I recently read a description of a rather more recent siege, that of Sarajevo in the 1990s, and was struck by the similarities:
‘[the besieging forces held] the high ground that presses in on this cupped hand of a city and set about imposing one of the cruelest sieges in modern warfare. The lights went out, taps ran dry and supplies dwindled to a trickle, condemning 400,000 Sarajevans to survive on the collapsing skeleton of their home town. Their tormentors suffered no such supply problems and were able to dictate the nature and pace of their assault.
With their soldiers on the frontlines unable to advance, Bosnian Serb commanders sought to wear down their enemy by pounding them with artillery dug in on the nearby hilltops. When they ran out of military targets they kept on firing, wantonly destroying religious buildings, assembly halls, hospitals, newspaper offices, libraries… and when they ran out of those, they kept up their barrage, firing with deliberate cruelty – actions that were later to be successfully prosecuted as war crimes’.[x]
Of course, the big difference is that those who ordered the pouring of artillery fire into Sarajevo were convicted of war crimes… whereas, and in stark contrast, the Boers were somehow able to reinvent themselves as the innocent victim of a war they started, and which they fought by ignoring all the established rules of war.
Most remarkably of all is that this self-pitying fallacy is still unthinkingly believed and championed by willfully ignorant people to this day.
[i] Watt, The Siege of Ladysmith, p.7
[ii] Stott, The Boer Invasion of Natal, p.182
[iii] Watt, The Siege of Ladysmith, p.27
[iv] Watt, The Siege of Ladysmith, p.16
[v] Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, Volume 4, p.523
[vi] It was found that telling a patient he had typhoid tended to make him feel he had no chance of survival.
[vii] Rethman, Friends and Enemies, p.198
[viii] Knox, Buller’s Campaign with the Natal Field Force, p.237
[ix] Watt, The Siege of Ladysmith, p.23
[x] Butcher, The Trigger, p.xxi