‘the better team’

‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.’
Joseph Goebbels

Though I am not a member of it (or indeed, on Facebook at all, thank Christ), I have been kept amused by the goings-on over on some sort of Boer War Colourised Photographs Facebook group. Despite being set up to – ostensibly – share and comment on photos, it appears to have rapidly descended into a hang-out for the worst type of True Believers, all keen to wallow in their very own pity-party: quelle surprise.

Here is a recent example, in which the spectacularly-ignorant Harvey Grohmann got the ball rolling, prompting the equally deluded Johan Gerber to spew out some utter nonsense:

Clutching at their pearls in faux horror, while pretending that – shock! horror! – the ‘wicked’ British ‘invented the concentration camp’ is a perennial favourite of the True Believers[1]. As are their never-ending, and completely disingenuous, attempts to equate the British refugee / concentration camps of the Boer War, with the Nazi death camps of the Second World War. Even though these claims are both completely false (as Mr Beazley inconveniently pointed out to the mindless mob), they are still crowd-pleasers among the more thick-headed and deluded Defenders of the Myth. No doubt they will remain so for a long time, and clearly nothing as irrelevant as troublesome ‘facts’, ‘evidence’, or ‘historical reality’ will ever disabuse the brainwashed Faithful.

As entertainingly deluded as Mr Grohmann’s self-pitying comment was, the follow-up from Mr Gerber was even more ridiculous still. His bizarre take on the industrial mass-murder of 6 million Jews is that Nazi Germany used their Death Camps simply to ‘beat another nation’ – which nation would that be, Mr Gerber doesn’t say, and nor can he, because that is rubbish. And does Mr Gerber really excuse the Holocaust – one of the very few completely undeniable attempts at genocide in modern history – as simply being done to ‘beat another nation’?

But let us move on from that decidedly unpleasant throwaway comment about the gassing of 6 million innocents, and instead look at his far-fetched claim that, in the Boer War, Britain established refugee camps ‘to beat a better team’.

As ludicrous as such things sound to educated people, one always has to remember that, when it comes to the myths of the Boer War, they were dreamed-up and perpetuated for the soul purpose of convincing wide-eyed and dim-witted people that they were somehow belonged to God’s Chosen People; an invincible race of noble warriors who brought down an Empire, and who won every battle they ever fought, despite always being outnumbered by at least 100:1[2].

And this myth of the superhuman Boer did not come about by accident. As Professor Nasson put it, carefully building the fable of martial brilliance was a crucial building-block in the nationalist Afrikaner history: ‘a myth of national origin’[3] if you will. Few Afrikaans books on the war emerged until the 1930s, but thereafter they started coming thick and fast, all seeking to portray the national character as:

‘…wiry, valiant, and persevering … it was equally vital to commemorate superhuman bravado, exemplified by the gritty epic of bittereinder resistance and the seemingly clairvoyant genius of the younger Boer generalship … the courage and determination of the diehard Boer fighters revealed those character traits supposedly typical of the Afrikaner.[4]

It is remarkable that so many are still so desperate to believe such rubbish, but good propaganda relies on telling ill-educated and impressionable people something they passionately want to believe in – to ‘canalise’ their thinking, as it were. Once you have people who need all this to be true, then the rest is easy. As the saying goes: ‘it is easier to fool someone, than to convince him he has been fooled’ – especially when the myths have long been such a fundamental part of the ‘Boer’ identity, and continue to provide such an important emotional crutch to those who so clearly need one.

But despite the enthusiasm this propaganda was received with in certain quarters, there was one rather inconvenient fly-in-the-ointment – the simple, undeniable, fact that this self-declared Master Race of superhuman warriors (the ‘best team’, as Mr Gerber wants us believe), well… err… lost.

And not only lost, but actually lost rather badly, and rather quickly.

Despite enjoying every advantage when they brainlessly started the war – numbers, positions, surprise, readiness etc – the Boer invasions of British territory were a complete failure. ‘The best team’ (ahem) wasn’t even able to capture little, isolated Mafeking – despite it only being held by a scratch force of hastily-raised, and heavily outnumbered, local forces and police. And as they failed so miserably at Mafeking, it is perhaps no surprise that the ‘best team’ also proved utterly incapable of taking either Kimberley or Ladysmith – let alone Durban or Cape Town.

And so – even before the British had managed to rush reinforcements to the theatre – the myth starts to unravel rather embarrassingly… but only if one is open-minded and intelligent enough to admit it. With their invasions of Natal and the Cape Colony stopped dead, and their dreams of eating bananas in Durban[5] thwarted within a few weeks, the ‘best team’ had no choice but to give up on their ridiculous ambitions of building their Empire ‘from the Zambezi to the Cape’.[6] Instead, they desperately attempted to cling on to the British territory they had grabbed, but – within just another couple of months – they were turfed out of that too.

Indeed, a quick look at the timescales is instructive. Outnumbering the scattered and unprepared imperial garrison by around 2.5:1, Kruger launched his insane Crusade against Britain, and invaded Imperial territory on October 11th 1899. Despite fighting a war over 6000 miles from home, and having to ship in forces from around the globe, the British army not only completely defeated these invasions, but had captured Bloemfontein by March 13th 1900[7] – just some 5 months later. And, what is more, and despite the vast distances involved, Pretoria fell less than three months thereafter[8].

Needless to say, there is nothing in any of that which supports Mr Gerber’s baseless and self-serving claim that the Boers were ‘the best team’. Of course, the True Believers’ response to this reality check is to squawk and scream that this was all due to ‘overwhelming numbers’ of British troops. Though it makes Defenders of the Myth feel a bit better about themselves, it totally ignores the fact that, when the Boers were the ones who enjoyed ‘overwhelming numbers’ in the first few weeks of the war, they proved totally incapable of taking even little Mafeking[9].

Furthermore, the notion that Britain deployed ‘overwhelming numbers’ in the Conventional Phase of the war is not actually true, and one should not be fooled (or consoled?) by the oft-spouted nonsense about the British army fielding ‘half a million men’. In reality, as late as 4 February 1900 – ie. almost four months after the Boer invasions and just before Lord Roberts launched his war-winning counter-offensive and Buller broke through in Natal – Imperial strength was only marginally greater than the total Boer forces available: ‘the effective strength of fighting men in Cape Colony, exclusive of the seven militia battalions and the garrisons of Mafeking and Kimberley, was 51,900’. In Natal, it was ‘34,830, of whom 9,780 were in Ladysmith’.[10]

So – apart from winning a handful of much-trumpeted defensive battles[11] (which achieved virtually nothing but to delay British victory by a few days) – the (ahem) ‘best team’ clearly did rather badly during the Conventional Phase of the war. And so, those few True Believers intelligent enough to accept this reality instead desperately grasp at the fig leaf of the (ahem) ‘successful’[12] Guerrilla War / terrorist campaign. Anything, indeed, to keep their much-loved myth alive a little longer.

But – leaving aside all the Apartheid-era propaganda – what was so impressive about the performance of the Boers in the Guerrilla War? As much as it upsets the brainwashed Faithful to hear it, the fact is that the Boer terrorists were being rounded up at a rate of 1,500 a month[13] throughout the less-than-two years[14] they managed to keep their pointless campaign staggering-on. And though the myths maintain that keeping the fight going for less-than-two years was some sort of incredible feat, the reality – as I have covered in previous articles – is that the average length of a counter-terrorism / guerrilla war in the 20th Century was 9 years[15]. So, however Kruger’s modern-day apologists want to desperately spin it, the ‘best team’ only managed less than a quarter of the average, as I explored in this article:


Despite all this, with fingers stuck in ears and screaming ‘la-la-la-la I can’t hear you!’, the more pig-headed True Believers are still not ready to give up on their beloved farcical myths. Instead, they frantically return to their favourite excuse, and squeal that the Guerrilla Phase was only won so quickly because Britain was forced to flood South Africa with countless millions of men.

Again, and just like the claims pertaining to the Conventional Phase, this is yet more nonsense. Though Imperial forces in southern Africa peaked at around 230,000 for a brief period,[16] for the majority of the guerrilla war, Kitchener had a total of between 195,000 and 200,000 men[17] under his command – a figure which included not only the regular British army troops and reservists, but also the yeomanry regiments, locally-raised auxiliary forces, colonial volunteers, mounted police, and the part-timers of the town guards and DMTs. Furthermore, about a tenth of Kitchener’s army—some 20,000 men—was unavailable at any given time due to sickness or leave.[18]

Worse still, such was the massive commitment to protecting his lines of communications and garrisoning towns for fear of rebellion, that only about 22,000 troops were available for offensive ops in the flying columns and, of these, only 13,000 were in combat units.[19] Indeed, manpower shortages led to Kitchener having to reduce the garrisons of many blockhouses first from eight to six, and then down to only four men.[20]

By way of comparison, 20,779 bitter-einders turned themselves in at the surrender in May 1902.[21] As the Imperials accounted for 29,952 Boers (killed, wounded and, overwhelmingly, taken prisoner) between January 1901 and the final surrender, this means there were at least 50,371 Boers still fighting (though certainly not all in the field at the time, obviously) on 1 January 1901.[22] Suddenly the odds no longer look so outrageously overwhelming as is always so breathlessly claimed, and nor are they in any way exceptional for such warfare.

To put these figures into some sort of perspective, in another guerrilla war of the period, American Brigadier-General Nelson Miles was put in charge of hunting down Geronimo and his followers in April 1886. Miles commanded 5,000 soldiers, 500 Apache scouts, 100 Navajo scouts and thousands of civilian militia. This was the force deemed necessary to find and destroy Geronimo and his 24 warriors.

Perhaps more pertinently, about 50 years after the Boer War, British and Imperial troops were embroiled in another guerrilla war, this time in Malaya. Dragging on for 12 years – ie. more than 6 times longer than the ‘best team’ managed – it took well over 200,000 troops, police, and home guard volunteers[23] to find, contain, and defeat just 5,000 communist terrorists.[24]

And perhaps even more importantly – though totally ignored by most – by the time of the Malayan Emergency, counter-insurgency forces could expect to operate in conditions of complete air supremacy, and with the support of helicopters, secure radio comms, heavy bombers, armoured vehicles, and long-range artillery fire bases – technological advances which have overwhelmingly benefited the ‘conventional’ forces, rather than the terrorists. These were advances Lord Kitchener could only have dreamed of as, in stark contrast, during the Guerrilla Phase of the Boer War, there was little difference in the weapons and technology deployed by the Imperial forces and the bitter-einders: both sides essentially relied on rifle-armed horsemen. There was certainly nothing like the vast disparity in technology one can find between the counter insurgency forces and the terrorists in later guerilla wars such as Vietnam, or the recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even with these modern-day advantages, the simple reality remains that, to win a guerrilla war / counter-terrorism campaign, large numbers of conventional troops, police, and paramilitaries are needed, and the Boer War was certainly not unique in this regard. The theoretical ratio (counter-insurgency forces to guerrillas) needed to defeat a terrorist campaign is ten to one.[25] Indeed, this figure is still used by military planners today; as recently as 2007, the US Department of Defence produced a document entitled Handbook on Counter Insurgency which quotes this as the rule-of-thumb ratio for such operations.[26]

So, the simple, uncomfortable, reality is that the (ahem) ‘best team’, was defeated in less than quarter of the average time for such conflicts, by a British army which deployed far fewer troops than would be used today, and which enjoyed no significant advantage in technology. All of which leaves the comfort blanket provided by claims of Boer martial brilliance in shredded tatters.

And so, in a final, and rather pathetic, clutching at straws, the Defenders of the Myth instead start to frantically bleat that it was only because of ‘the camps’ that British victory was so swiftly achieved. Of course, this ridiculous claim completely ignores the fact that the Boers proved so ineffective when they invaded Natal and the Cape, and were incapable of taking defended towns. It also ignores the fact that the Boers were defeated so rapidly in the Conventional Phase of the war, the morale of the (ahem) ‘best team’ collapsing and the burghers surrendering in their thousands.

Despite all that, we are still asked by a few frazzled fanatics to pretend that – despite, by any objective measure, having performed so poorly in the first year or so of the war – the Boers were only ‘finally’ defeated because (much later) the British established refugee camps to house and feed those who were either targeted, or so readily abandoned, by the republican terrorists.

This is the levels of desperation the True Believers are reduced to, and one is left feeling a degree of pity for them, as this final, illogical, ‘last stand’ to defend Apartheid-era myths also quickly collapses under any sort of scrutiny. Far from being an attempt to force the terrorists into submission, the camps were actually established to protect people from the bitter-einders, as Professor Walker made clear: The first of them had been opened at Krugersdorp as a shelter for refugees, whose numbers grew after Kitchener had failed to persuade Botha to leave surrendered burghers unmolested on their farms’.[27]

What is more, and as Emanoel Lee made very clear in his history of the conflict, ‘Concentration camps in the Boer War must not be confused with the German camps of the Second World War. The British camps were set up for an entirely different reason and were meant to house the refugees in comfort and safety’. Quite how that reality squares with the self-pitying rubbish spewed out by the Grohmann and Gerber comedy duo – and so eagerly lapped-up by the hoi polloi on that Facebook echo chamber – is anyone’s guess.

Despite the determination of many to present Kitchener as some sort of pantomime villain, he cannot in any way be held responsible for the establishment of the camps. And though the first camps were set up while his predecessor, Lord Roberts, was still in command, they were not his brainchild either. Indeed, more than anyone, the diehard Boer high command was responsible for having brought the camps into being. Studiously ignored by True Believers today, poverty among the white population was an enormous pre-war problem in the Transvaal[28] and, as Roberts advanced into the Boer republics in 1900, he inherited a massive refugee problem at the outset. Thousands of destitute republican non-combatants fled the fighting (1,200 such refugees arrived at Klerksdorp alone, for example) but the republican leadership displayed neither the inclination, nor the means, to care for these unfortunates. Indeed, Botha even urged would-be refugees to remain where they were, announcing that the time had come for them to sacrifice their families, cattle, and everything else to retain their independence. President Steyn coldly agreed:

‘We must not think of our wives and children anymore … it is but a short time that our women and children will suffer.’[29]

As the British pushed into the Transvaal, far from capturing and imprisoning these wretched refugees, Lord Roberts arranged transport for over 2,000 such women and children to be sent to their menfolk in republican-held Barberton. When this town was captured a few months later, however, the Boers simply abandoned these refugees again, and the British were left with around 2,500 poverty-stricken women and children to care for.[30] As Elizabeth van Heyningen states in her groundbreaking study of the camps: ‘Boer leaders had in fact already taken their first difficult decision in the policies that would lead to the camps: to leave their families to fend for themselves.

General Christiaan de Wet showed he was as uncaring as he was incompetent, declaring, ‘Their sufferings are among what we may call the necessary circumstances of the war’.[31]

The bitter-einders actually took advantage of the shelter and relative safety the camps offered. An Imperial intelligence agent, Napier Devitt, captured an order written by General Botha; the original was in Dutch but the translation reads as follows:

‘In consequence of the moving about of commandos many of the wives and families of the burghers are disposed to attach themselves to our forces and thereby cause hindrance to our operations. As the enemy has destroyed our farms, thereby causing the families of the burghers to be homeless, all officers are requested to see that such persons do not follow the commandos as the responsibility for their food and shelter rests upon the enemy.’[32]

Mistakes were certainly made, and there is little doubt that some camps could have been better managed from the outset, but it is also totally unreasonable to blame the Imperial authorities for the deaths of all those who died from measles and typhoid, just because they happened to be living in a camp at the moment they succumbed. Even today, thousands of people die in refugee camps and hospitals every day all over the world, and rarely is this considered the fault of the institution. It is also unreasonable to put all the blame for the existence of the camps on the British, when they were initially set up to house refugees who were being terrorized, not by Imperial troops, but by marauding bands of bitter-einders, whose significant portion of the blame is rarely if ever mentioned. Conversely, it is conveniently forgotten that in plans drawn up by President Steyn and General de Wet for the invasion of the Cape Colony, the captured women and children were to be housed in similar camps.[33]

Despite the ghoulish tales the Defenders of the Myth like to tell one another, the British concentration camps were never part of any military strategy; they were a ‘terrible, unexpected by-product of the guerrilla war’, a humanitarian response to the refugee crisis started by the Boers and exacerbated by the Imperial scorched-earth policy, and as such were essential—in spite of presenting an open goal to the Boer propaganda machine and the anti-war lobby in Europe.

If, as some prefer to claim, they were a calculated scheme to bring the Boers to the negotiating table, then the camps failed spectacularly in this regard. With the British housing, protecting, and feeding their women and children, the bitter-einders were able to continue their aimless guerrilla war with carefree abandon, cheerfully absolving themselves of all responsibility for their civilian population: their own kith and kin. As it was, the Imperial authorities proved keener to help Boer refugees than to look after their own people, and were even criticized by some long-suffering Loyalists for doing so. General De Wet took it a step further, openly advocating handing all those women and children still with the Boers over to the British—even his own wife was a long-term resident of one of the camps.[34]

Though much-maligned by some today, it was only due to the hard work and dedication of those who ran the camps that:

‘Botha was then able to express his thankfulness that so many of the Boers’ families were in British hands, and Steyn could urge the fighting-men to go on with the war while the British looked after their families … less note has been taken of the heavy loss of life in the similar Loyalist and Native camps or among the overworked staffs in all of them.[35]

And so, if anything, by letting the bitter-einders cheerfully wash their hands of any responsibility for their own people, and taking over that duty of care – if not always perfectly – Britain probably extended the war. Perhaps no one summed up this reality better than General Louis Botha himself: ‘…one is only too thankful nowadays to know that our wives are under English protection’.[36]

So no, Mr Gerber: the Boers were certainly not the ‘best team’ – that is an inter-galactically ridiculous claim. Kruger’s crackpot invasions were an abject disaster, and the Boers were then swiftly defeated in the conventional war. What is more, and despite all the National Party propaganda, the bitter-einders were then ridden to ground in a remarkably short guerrilla war – despite having happily abandoned their people to be cared for by the enemy.


[1] And, indeed, of their fellow travellers on the British Left – what truly bizarre bed fellows

[2] Or whatever other ratio pops into one’s head after a bottle of Klippies.

[3] Nasson, The War for South Africa, p.285

[4] Ibid, p.287

[5] Pakenham, The Boer War, p.168

[6] Farrelly, The Settlement After the War, p.173

[7] This had been preceded by the mass Boer surrender at Paardeberg, where – completely out-Generaled by Lord Roberts – General Cronje capitulated with over 4000 men

[8] This was swiftly followed by De Wet’s calamitously brainless decision to lead thousands of men into the Brandwater Basin, and then run way, leaving another 4000 of them behind to be captured. The ‘best team’, indeed. https://www.chrisash.co.za/2018/07/30/on-this-day-in-1900-boer-surrender-at-the-brandwater-basin/

[9] And struggling for over six weeks to take the one-horse-town of Kuruman – despite enjoying a 10:1 advantage

[10] Carver, The National Army Museum Book of the Boer War, p.54

[11] Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop – none of which gained the invading Boers a single inch of territory

[12] ie. the one they lost

[13] Maurice, History of the War in South Africa 1899‒1902, Vol.4, p.705

[14] Obviously, picking the date that the Conventional War descended into the Guerrilla War is something of an arbitrary exercise, but most agree that it is somewhere around the Battle of Diamond Hill (11-12 June 1900), or the Battle of Bergendal (27 August 1900) – taking either as a ‘start date’, means the Guerrilla War lasted under 2 years.

[15] Ricks, Fiasco, p.433

[16] Warner, Kitchener: The Man Behind the Legend, p.123

[17] Ibid, p,131

[18] Lee, To the Bitter End, p.137

[19] Carver, p. 202

[20] Hamilton, The Happy Warrior, p. 187

[21] Maurice, Vol. 4, p. 705

[22] Ibid, p. 705

[23] Made up of about 30,000 British and other Imperial troops, 40,000 police, 44,000 special constables and enormous numbers of home-guard units.

[24] Warner, p,124

[25] Brown, Coté Jr., Lynn-Jones & Miller, Offense, Defense and War, p. 360

[26] U.S. Army / Department of Defense, Counterinsurgency Handbook, pp. 1–13

[27] Walker, p.498

[28] van Heyningen, The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War, p.46

[29] Ibid, p.48

[30] Ibid, p.53

[31] Pakenham, p.569

[32] Devitt, The Concentration Camps in South Africa, p.19

[33] Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan, p.805

[34] Martin, The Concentration Camps: 1900‒1902: facts figures, and fables, p.18

[35] Walker, p.498

[36] Ibid, p.570


  • Niall Beazley Posted May 29, 2024 10:52 am

    Well, this is a rousing and cheerfully well researched narrative, I wonder what the “True Believers” might wish to concoct to answer the extensive supporting arguments Bulldog has made? Game, set and match. A powerful set of statements.

    • Bulldog Posted May 30, 2024 9:04 am

      When presented with such irrefutable evidence, the standard response of the True Believers is to scream that I am a ‘super Jingo’ and that my mother was a black maid.

  • meurig Posted May 31, 2024 6:47 pm

    “a better team” – callous, thoughtless and utterly useless comment in the historical context that says more about the writer than the history. Of course, History, is not their pursuit. They prefer to score points by writing rubbish about “Jingo Imperialists” to bolster a self-indulged ethnic group drowning in a democratic South Africa.

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