When is a war crime, not a war crime?

‘…when one remembers the condonation upon the part of the British on the use of their own uniforms by the Boers, of the wholesale breaking of paroles, of the continual use of explosive bullets, of the abuse of the pass system and of the red cross, it is impossible to blame them for showing some severity in the stamping out of armed rebellion within their own Colony. If stern measures were eventually adopted it was only after extreme leniency had been tried and failed. The loss of five years’ franchise as a penalty for firing upon their own flag is surely the most gentle correction which an Empire ever laid upon a rebellious people.’[1]
– Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle

Bittereinder guerrillas / terrorists

Anyone familiar with the Apartheid-era mythology of the Boer War will know that the poor, innocent Boers can never be guilty of anything at all, ever. Far-fetched, fanciful excuses are faithfully trotted out to explain away and ‘justify’ absolutely anything and everything, from the blatant reality that it was the Kruger government which started the war, to the repeated mis-use of the White Flag, and terror bombardment of civilian targets, to the casual mass-murder of non-whites.

As Conan-Doyle mentions above, one of the most common war crimes committed by the Boers was the widespread wearing of captured British uniforms – something which was completely contrary to the accepted rules of war at the time, as confirmed in Article 23 of the 1899 Hague Convention. Rather tellingly, the Boer republics had not signed up to this civilized attempt to restrict the more ghastly and deceitful aspects of war[2], but all the Great Powers (The British Empire, French Empire, German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russian Empire, Dutch Empire, Ottoman Empire, and the United States) had, as did many other nations (including those as diverse as Siam, Bulgaria, Romania, Mexico, Italy, Persia, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Sweden & Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and Greece).

This was a time when the world was largely made up of Empires, and when there were far fewer independent, recognised nations than there are today, making it the accepted standard of the age, rather like the Geneva Convention in modern times. Indeed, after World War II, the judges of the military tribunal of the Trial of German Major War Criminals at Nuremberg Trials found that by 1939, the rules laid down in the Hague Conventions were recognized by all civilized nations and were regarded as declaratory of the laws and customs of war. Under this post-war decision, a country did not have to have ratified the Hague Conventions to be bound by them. Given the number of nations that had signed up in 1899, it would not have been unreasonable to have made the same statement at the time of the Boer War, and, even today, the Hague Conventions remain important tools to restrict the worst aspects of war.

And even the non-wearing of a recognised uniform – let alone wearing that of the enemy – was against the Hague Convention, as Leo Amery stated:

‘It is to be regretted that the British Government did not at the outset declare that it would refuse to treat the un-uniformed commandos of the Boers as belligerents on British soil. The right of a population to take up arms to repel invasion of its own territory is one that the British representatives strongly urged at The Hague Convention. But the invasion and occupation of another country by bands of armed men in ordinary clothes, indistinguishable from the civilian population of the country, for whom they would frequently pass themselves off for purposes of espionage, was a very different matter. A declaration that all armed men made prisoners on British territory, and not wearing some permanent and easily recognisable uniform or badge marking them as belonging to the Republican forces, would be treated as bandits and be liable to be shot without ceremony, would have had an excellent effect and might have delayed or possibly even have prevented an invasion, while it would have been in perfect harmony with The Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War (articles 1 and 2).

That no steps at all were taken, and that in consequence British generals had to fight at a most serious disadvantage, is simply another instance of the casual and haphazard fashion in which the war was taken in hand by those in supreme authority. The British Government was not, strictly speaking, bound to observe the rules of the Hague Convention toward the Boers. But if it had announced its intention of both observing and enforcing those rules strictly, it would not only have gained European sympathy but would have derived substantial advantages, and might even have averted or kept within limits the long guerrilla campaign, with all its regrettable concomitants, which followed the break-up of the Boer armies. In war severity, if based on clearly defined rules, is often far more humane in the end than mere easy-going contempt of one’s enemy masquerading as clemency.[3]

Amery’s suggestion that all federal prisoners captured in British territory while not wearing recognisable uniforms should have been executed will strike most readers as outrageously extreme, but the Imperial high command would certainly have been well within their rights to have ordered this. As Amery states, even the threat of summary executions would undoubtedly have made many reconsider their commitment to Kruger’s insane Crusade / their personal looting spree. Instead, and when one strips away the ghoulishly self-serving Apartheid-era propaganda (which is – amusingly – still faithfully peddled by some frazzled and fanatical ‘academics’ today), the reality is that the British were astonishingly lenient in the Boer War – as no less a man than Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle made clear.

Although today’s True Believers exist to wallow their cesspit of faux victimhood, the reaction of other nations when faced with un-uniformed enemies is rather instructive. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1, for example, Prussian troops simply executed French guerrillas, or franc-tireurs, out of hand.[4] The German army did likewise in the First World War, torching entire French or Belgian villages in retribution for the actions of a handful of franc-tireurs.[5] The American-Philippine War saw 117 documented atrocities against insurgents,[6] while in the latter stages of the American Civil War, irregular Confederate forces, or ‘bushwhackers’, could expect no mercy and were routinely shot or hanged.[7] During Napoleon’s occupation of Spain – the very campaign that gave us the word ‘Guerrilla’[8] – any man reported to be absent from his home was assumed to be a guerrilla and summarily executed if later captured. In October 1810 one French general decreed that four guerrillas would be hanged for every French soldier killed; if insufficient guerrilla prisoners were available, civilians were simply hanged in their place.[9] So had the British adopted similarly robust policies in the Boers War against any prisoners taken in British territory who were fighting out of uniform (ie. pretty much all the invading republicans), it would hardly have been unprecedented.

And if launching an invasion with troops not wearing uniforms was bad enough, there can be no question at all that the British army would have been perfectly entitled to execute all those ‘noble’ bittereinders who, later in the war, roamed about the veldt wearing captured khaki.

To be clear, the wearing of enemy uniforms was by no means a uniquely Boer trait. Hitler’s last-ditch gamble in the Ardennes in 1944 was spear-headed by a 400-strong ‘brigade’ wearing American uniforms and operating captured American equipment. This unit, Panzer Brigade 150, was tasked with sowing confusion and performing acts of sabotage behind Allied lines. Unsurprisingly, many of these men were swiftly executed by American forces when captured. Indeed, throughout the Second World War, other units of Special Forces (on both sides) also indulged in such deception – though were well aware of the risks that such practices entailed.

German troops executed for wearing Allied uniforms 1944

Similarly, in the Cold War, Special Forces units from both East Germany and the USSR were to lead any attack on NATO using western equipment[10] and wearing enemy uniforms. There can be no doubt that – if this plan had ever been put into action – any such troops would also have faced execution if captured; essentially, troops who wear the uniform of their enemy forfeit their rights under the rules of war. During the 1970s, troops of the Selous Scouts posed as terrorists during the Rhodesian Bush War, and as recently as the War on Terror, the 2012 Taliban attack on the US Base at Camp Bastion was spear-headed by some terrorists using captured American uniforms.

Small numbers of British forces even posed as bittereinders during the Boer War[11], attempting to flush out their enemy. What would have happened to any trooper caught by the Boers wearing such a disguise is not difficult to imagine – especially when one remembers that gangs of bittereinders routinely executed / mutilated non-white Imperial scouts as a matter of course, this despite them being in uniform[12]. So those involved in any such subterfuge can only have known they were forfeiting their normal protection if captured.

Men of the Royal Dragoons adopt disguises to trick the bittereinders

But when it comes to the widespread wearing of British khaki by Boer bittereinders, the sheer hypocrisy is laughable; though, given the shocking standards of the Defenders of the Myth, entirely expected,. Whenever the Boers wore the uniform of the enemy, they pretended that it was ‘different’ and a ‘necessity’ – a farcical claim still mindlessly parroted by their modern-day cheerleaders. As we know, on absolutely every single occasion when the Boers are proven to have broken the established rules of war, an ill-considered, kneejerk excuse is quickly spewed out – the reader must always remember that, as per the much-cherished NP propaganda, the Boers never did anything wrong ever; and thus the True Believers explain away the widespread wearing of captured Imperial uniforms by claiming that the Boers’ own clothes had all suddenly (and conveniently) fallen apart.

The British patrol in the picture above, for example, appear to have had no difficulty in borrowing ‘nondescript outfits’ from African transport drivers… and yet, we are always assured that huge numbers of the poor, innocent bittereinders simply had no other choice but to wear British khaki during their terrorist campaign. We are asked to believe that all they wanted was to keep warm while they murdered and looted, and the pious, Holier-than-thou bittereinders had absolutely no intention to deceive the Imperial forces.

Unfortunately, and like so many other Boer War myths, this highly-convenient, self-serving excuse has been repeated again and again so often over the years, that no one seems to feel the need to provide solid, plausible references to support the claim. But does it stand up to any scrutiny?

Deneyz Reitz[13] fought in Smuts’ band of bittereinders, for example, and took part in the attack on the British detachment at Modderfontein (‘C’ Squadron of the 17th Lancers) on 17 Sept. 1901 – an attack which succeeded almost entirely due to the fact that the Boers were wearing British khaki[14]. However, in his book, ‘Commando’, Reitz claimed he started the morning of the attack on the ‘with a grain-bag for my chief garment’.[15] This – like much of the rest of his account of the action[16] – can only be an extreme exaggeration, and – if it was worn at all – was surely worn over (or under?) his other clothes to add a bit of extra warmth or impromptu camouflage. There is simply no way that the Lancers could have been tricked into allowing Reitz and his comrades to ride right into their position if they were all only ‘wearing grain-bags’. Indeed, so confused were the Lancers by the bittereinders’ devious use of captured khaki, that they allowed this to happen twice in the action[17].

In what can only be a post facto attempt to justify actions which he obviously knew were totally out of order, Reitz later ridiculously claims that he and his poor, innocent comrades simply had no concept that they were doing anything wrong by wearing enemy uniforms; it defies belief that anyone could possibly be that stupid. Reitz also indulges in a spot of blatant hypocrisy, shamelessly stating “I can only say that none of us ever wore captured uniforms with the deliberate intention of decoying the enemy, but only out of sheer necessity”, yet, in the next breath, foolishly admitting that, when some of his khaki-clad mates were challenged by an Imperial patrol, one replied. “Don’t fire, we are the 17th Lancers” – then disgracefully used the moment of hesitation and confusion to shoot and kill the British officer who challenged them[18].

Despite Smuts[19] being a Cambridge-educated lawyer, his Commando was especially notorious for the wearing of khaki, and it is simply inconceivable that a man as intelligent and well-educated as Smuts didn’t know this was contrary to the rules of war. Reitz boasted they were hospitably entertained by the Dutch-speaking population, and philosophically tolerated by the English farmers with whom we came in contact. In our fine khaki tunics, and on our well-found horses, our appearance had undergone such a transformation that when asked at the English farmhouses who we were, our stock witticism was to say that we were ‘English-killing Dragoons’ [presumably a reference to the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons].’ He later recounts how ‘the inhabitants were chiefly English-speaking farmers, who submitted with good grace to our depredation, for we slaughtered what sheep we required, and helped ourselves freely from their larders and orchards’.

Given that – by his own admission – they were ‘hospitably entertained’ by sympathisers, and enjoyed looting from the larders and orchards of loyalist farmers, there is simply no excuse for not switching their khaki for civilian garments, and no suggestion that ‘rags’ or ‘grain sacks’ were their only alternative.

And there are many other examples of captured uniforms being used for deception. Long before the guerrilla war, and as early as the battle of Wagon Hill[20], for example, a Boer was caught trying to sneak through the British lines wearing a captured khaki uniform. In another instance from that period, ‘In the distance from the British outposts a Highlander was observed in the act of driving cattle. As the proceeding was contrary to orders, the manoeuvres of this man were carefully observed and he was discovered to be a Boer masquerading in Highland uniform. He was at once fired upon and he fell.[21] This duplicity became increasingly common in the guerrilla phase of the war: in the first ‘Great Drive’, for example, ‘a band of 300 Boers, disguised in khaki clothing and shouting that they were a British corps, slipped between the rapidly closing ranks’.[22]

The bittereinders – and their modern-day apologists – always want to have it both ways.

Despite the obvious propaganda value of such photos, no pictures of bittereinders wearing sacks or rags can be found in ‘Methods of Barbarism’ by Spies, or in ‘To the Bitter End’ by Lee, or amongst the hundreds of photos in the outrageously self-pitying ‘Suffering of War’ by the True Believing three-headed monster that is Changuion, Jacobs and Alberts. Even the Grand High Wizard of Boer War Myths himself, Prof Pretorius, didn’t manage to include a single photo of a sack-or-rag-wearing bittereinder in his ‘Scorched Earth’ – and we can be sure he searched under every possible rock in his frantic desperation to find one. While it would be foolish to deny that absolutely none of the tens of thousands of Boers who were captured were in a rough state, with tattered clothes and no boots, all the various pictorial histories of the war depict bittereinders and recently-captured POWs looking rather dapper in jackets / three-piece suits and / or overcoats.

Below, for example, is a photo of some freshly captured Boer POWs aboard the SS Montrose en route to Bermuda in Jan 1902. Readers are welcome to point out all those ‘wearing rags’:

No rags in sight?

Indeed, all the photos I have seen of republican POWs, whether just captured, or relaxing in Bermuda, St Helena and Ceylon, depict well-dressed men, clad in overcoats, jackets and / or waistcoats, often complete with watch-chains. Similarly, we are always told of the various wives who bravely and stoically accompanied their husbands across the veldt… though none of these ever seem to have felt the need to switch their ‘ragged’ long dresses and bonnets for khaki uniforms and Pith helmets.

In another example which rather defies the myths, Commandant Potgieter of Wolmaranstad somehow managed to avoid ‘needing’ to wear captured khaki despite seeing plenty of action, right up until the end of the war. He fled from a British attack in February 1902, ‘bareback, and clad only in his shirt’[23], yet, by the time he charged to his death at Rooiwal in the April of that year, he was somehow ‘a tall figure, clad in blue, with long jack-boots’.[24]

Roland Schikkerling, in his personal account of the war, ‘Commando Courageous’, mentioned patching the knees and seat of his trousers with sheepskin[25] – so it is unclear why this option was completely unavailable to all those other bittereinders who instead opted to muddy the waters by wearing khaki. More tellingly still, Schikkerling also claimed that ‘Before a battle, when I can, I carefully tidy myself and put on my best clothes, for as I said, I have set my heart on making a clean and, and as far as possible, a comely corpse’.[26] Schikkerling, at least, seemed to have various options of attire, and strangely was not ‘forced’ to break the accepted rules of war by wearing a captured enemy uniform.

One can understand, and excuse, the odd chap grabbing a decent pair of boots or a new pair of trousers here and there, but the notion that tens of thousands of sets of thick corduroy, woollen or leather clothes would spontaneously (and conveniently) disintegrate in the space of a few months seems highly unlikely, especially given that many of those who wore them would have been frontiersmen, farmers and the like before the war, and thus would have been clad in hardy clothes. British uniforms were often described as falling apart by the end of an extended deployment[27], but not being parade-ground-ready is very different to them suddenly being totally unwearable. To give the reader some sort of idea, a pair of jeans, even when worn every day, can be expected to last for two years[28], and that is before one has to resort to stitching and patching – practices which are alien to most modern readers, but which were perfectly normal back in the day.

Bittereinders captured… But look! No rags!

There is simply no way that a hat can ‘wear out’ within a few months, and even if one goes missing, there is still no excuse for any Boer who chose to wear British / Imperial head gear. On the other hand, the knees, seat or elbows of various Boer outfits certainly might have worn out here and there, but even so, surely these could easily have been patched – even with captured khaki if that was all that was at hand. And if a khaki jacket simply had to be used, why was no effort made to modify it[29], or fashion a sash, to mark the wearer as a bittereinder, and thus avoid confusion?

Given that the various gangs of bittereinder desperados existed by raiding and looting trains, villages, African settlements, mission stations, and the farms of surrendered Boers and loyalists, surely they could have satisfied their sartorial needs from these sources, rather than opting to commit a blatant capital offence by wearing the uniform of their enemy. It defies logic that it was easier to obtain the uniforms of the enemy (an enemy which – understandably – they went out of their way to avoid, unless the odds were heavily in their favour), than clothes either from the civilians they terrorised, from those who supported then, or the blacks who were caught in the middle of it all. It is noteworthy that, by his own admission, the moment that Reitz’s gang of bandits learned of the execution of one of their comrades for wearing khaki, they were suddenly (miraculously?) all able to switch their khaki for garments supplied by a sympathetic farmer. What are the chances?

As already mentioned, there were, of course, some Boers who were captured in a sorry state and even bare foot, but it is the sheer scale of the wearing of khaki which is indefensible. It is unlikely that the average Boer bought a complete new set of clothes every few months in peacetime, so it would be remarkable if this was suddenly ‘needed’ in wartime. I have jackets and coats that are well over 20 years old; while they obviously haven’t been out in the elements every day, they are still in perfect condition. My old combat smock from the army is well over 30 years old, and is likewise in a perfectly serviceable state, if a little patched here and there.

The Defenders of the Myth frantically want us to believe that the bittereinders’ clothes really did suddenly all fall apart in the space of a few months, but no one has yet explained why these (ahem) ‘unfortunate’ wardrobe malfunctions don’t seem to have similarly impacted other terrorist groups across the 20th Century. The Viet Cong battled American, ARVN and other allied troops for many years without all suddenly ‘needing’ to do so either naked or in captured uniforms. More recently, the Taliban faced off against American-led forces for even longer: 20 years – ie. ten times longer than the guerrilla phase of the Boer War… yet they did not end up being ‘forced’ to wear captured uniforms ‘just to stay warm’ – and this despite the winters up in the Hindu Kush being much more severe than anything one encounters in South Africa. When Taliban terrorists wore captured US uniforms to deceive the garrison of Camp Bastion, no one twists themselves in knots to pretend this was anything other than a devious and deliberate act of perfidy.

The self-justifying nonsense that many thousands of poor, innocent, blameless bittereinder terrorists only had the choice between ‘wearing rags’ or wearing enemy uniforms is patently ridiculous, and there can be no doubt that the overwhelming motivation behind the widespread practice was deception. Even in the highly unlikely cases that it genuinely was done ‘innocently’, that still does not excuse it. The wearing of an enemy uniform was (and is) contrary to accepted rules of war, no matter what far-fetched (and self-serving) excuse is dreamt up to desperately explain away the wholesale adoption of the practice.

The rules of war are there for a reason, and we should not be wringing our hands over the few bittereinder terrorists and banditos who were – quite rightly – put in front of an Imperial firing squad for this widespread offence. Instead, we should rather ask why thousands of other Boers were allowed to get away with such a blatant war crime[30]. Had Roberts or Kitchener made it crystal clear from the outset that, on pain of death, any such deception would not be tolerated, the guerrilla / terrorist phase of the war would surely have been over much sooner.


[1] Conan-Doyle, The Great Boer War, p.648

[2] It is interesting to note, however, that the Transvaal was self-governing under British Imperial suzerainty when the Hague Convention was signed, meaning London retained oversight of the republic’s Foreign Affairs. Though this reality was increasingly ignored by Kruger as he pushed for war, I imagine a specialist in International Treaty Law could make a reasonable case that the republic was thus covered by Britain’s signing of the Convention – just as the likes of Canada, India, Australia, Natal etc were

[3] Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa Vol. 2, p.274

[4] Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies, p.42

[5] Hastings, Catastrophe, Europe Goes to War, 1914, p.537

[6] Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies, p.38

[7] Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies, p.30

[8] This, despite the wide-eyed claims often heard at braais that the clever old Boers ‘invented’ Guerrilla Warfare

[9] Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies, p.27

[10] It was long thought that some of this equipment included US tanks and APCs left behind after the withdrawal from South Vietnam

[11] The (infamous?) Bushveldt Carbineers were pioneers of recruiting surrendered Boers and using them to trick their erstwhile comrades – a practice which was used by the Selous Scouts in the Rhodesian Bush War a couple of generations later

[12] Wilson, After Pretoria: The Guerrilla War, p.80

[13] Remarkably, Reitz would see the light after the war, and end up not only as a Brigadier in Imperial service, but even as the Honorary Colonel of the Imperial Light Horse – the hated ‘Uitlander’ regiment

[14] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.3, p.275

[15] Reitz, Commando, p.231

[16] Reitz gives the impression that the detachment of 17th Lancers surrendered and the position was thus looted at leisure. This is, quite simply, untrue. In reality, there was no surrender, and the Boers fled when ‘A’ Squadron approached to reinforce their comrades. The casualty figures given by Reitz are also completely at odds with reality, massively inflating the British losses, while downplaying those of the Boers. To anyone with an open-mind, these (exclusively pro-Boer) discrepancies make his account of the action more than a little suspect.

[17] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.4, p.275-276

[18] The killing (murder?) of this officer, Captain Watson, appears to have been the final straw for Lord Kitchener

[19] Smuts would go on to arguably be South Africa’s most brilliant statesman and would be instrumental in the founding of both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Not a man likely to be unaware of the accepted rules of war

[20] Fought on 6th Jan 1900, the battle was the final attempt by the Boers to storm Ladysmith. The assault ended in heavy defeat when a charge by three Companies of the Devons routed the last of the republicans

[21] Creswicke, South Africa and the Transvaal War, Vol. 3, p. 75

[22] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.4, p.493

[23] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.4, p.410

[24] Maurice & Grant, History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, Vol.4, p.501

[25] Schikkerling, Commando Courageous, A Boer’s Diary, p.164

[26] Schikkerling, Commando Courageous, A Boer’s Diary, p.92

[27] Gardiner, Allenby, p.39

[28] https://www.denimsociety.com/blogs/news/how-long-should-a-pair-of-jeans-last

[29] When I was in the British army in the 1990s, it was not uncommon for those playing the enemy on exercise to wear their combat jackets inside out so as to alter their appearance, with the liner being of a different colour

[30] The law applicable in international armed conflict forbids “mak[ing] improper use of … the military insignia and uniform of the enemy …” Art. 23(f) of the Hague Regulations signed in July 1899


  • Colin Ross Posted January 6, 2024 3:42 pm

    Excellent topic again, Mr Ash.

    • Colin Ross Posted January 6, 2024 3:47 pm

      Without doubt there was deliberate intent to deceive the British defenses by wearing captured,/stolen uniforms. While I am no fan of Lt Morant, the sight of seeing his best friend, the mutilated Capt Hunt’s, Tunic being worn by a rogue Boer would have been reason enough. If he had not partaken in the murdering the other 30 odd he may well have got a promotion. But for Rietz and the boers to plead ignorance on the rules of being caught in enemy uniform, or the waving of white flags then opening fire, or executing wounded prisoners and expecting these acts to be put down to ‘Nobody told us we couldn’t’, (Innocence claim as used at Nuremberg) is beyond belief.

      • Bulldog Posted January 6, 2024 3:57 pm

        All good points, Colin, but what is really beyond belief is the way that the modern day True Believers leap into action to frantically explain away and justify the blatant war crimes of their heroes.

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