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Chapter 6


In the official correspondence which is published between the Boer and British leaders in South Africa may very clearly be traced the way in which this practice came to assume proportions which shocked public opinion. It must be admitted that the results have not justified it, and that, putting all moral questions apart, a burned-out family is the last which is likely to settle down, as we hope that the Boers may eventually settle down, as contented British citizens. On the other hand, when a nation adopts guerilla tactics it deliberately courts those sufferings to the whole country which such tactics invariably entail. They have been the same in all wars and at all times. The army which is stung by guerillas, strikes round it furiously and occasionally indiscriminately. An army which is continually sniped and harassed becomes embittered, and a General feels called upon to take those harsher measures which precedent and experience suggest. That such measures have not been pushed to an extreme by the British authorities is shown by the fact that the captured guerilla has been made a prisoner of war—unlike his prototype, the franc-tireur. The general question of guerillas may be discussed later. At present we will confine our attention to the burning of farms.

The first protest from the Boer side is dated February 3, 1900. In it the two Presidents accuse the British troops 'of burning and blowing up with dynamite the farmhouses, and of the devastation of farms.' The document also includes an accusation of having used armed natives against the Boers.

Lord Roberts replied upon February 5 to the effect that stringent instructions had been given to the British troops to respect private property. 'All wanton destruction or injury to peaceful inhabitants is contrary to British practice and tradition, and will, if necessary, be rigorously repressed by me.' He added that it was an untrue statement that natives had ever been encouraged by British officers to commit depredations. The charge, which has been the subject of many effective cartoons upon the Continent, is as absurd as most of the other works of the same artists. Why should the State which refused the aid of its own highly trained Indian army of 150,000 men, avail itself of that of savages? Lord Roberts denied the assertion with befitting warmth, and it is not again repeated in the course of the despatches.

Lord Roberts in this document was not content with denying the Boer allegations, but carried the war into the enemy's country:

'I regret to say that it is the Republican forces which have in some cases been guilty of carrying on the war in a manner not in accordance with civilised usage. I refer especially to the expulsion of loyal subjects of Her Majesty from their homes in the invaded districts of this Colony, because they refused to be commandeered by the invader. It is barbarous to attempt to force men to take sides against their own Sovereign and country by threats of spoliation and expulsion. Men, women, and children have had to leave their homes owing to such compulsion, and many of those who were formerly in comfortable circumstances are now being maintained by charity.'

He adds: 'I beg to call your Honours' attention to the wanton destruction of property by the Boer forces in Natal. They not only have helped themselves freely to the cattle and other property of farmers without payment, but they have utterly wrecked the contents of many farmhouses. As an instance I would specify Mr. Theodore Wood's farm "Longwood" near Springfield. I point out how very different is the conduct of the British troops. It is reported to me from Modder River that farms within the actual area of the British Camp have never even been entered, the occupants are unmolested, and their houses, gardens, and crops remain absolutely untouched.'

On March 26 Lord Roberts's Proclamation spoke with no uncertain voice upon the subject of private property. It says:

'The following Proclamation, issued by me in the name of Her Majesty's Government on the 26th March, begins: Notice is hereby given that all persons who within the territories of the South African Republic or Orange Free State shall authorise or be guilty of the wanton destruction or damage or the counselling, aiding, or assisting in the wanton destruction or damage of public or private property, such destruction or damage not being justified by the usages and customs of civilised warfare, will be held responsible in their persons and property for all such wanton destruction and damage.'

This was during the period of the halt at Bloemfontein. I can well remember that then and for long afterwards the consideration which was shown upon this point seemed to those who were at the spot to be exaggerated and absurd. I can remember that when we applied for leave to use the deserted villas to put our sick soldiers into—the hospitals being full—we were told that it could only be done by private treaty with the owners, who were at that time on commando against us. I remember also suggesting that the corrugated-iron fencing round the cricket field should be used for making huts, and being told that it was impossible, as it was private property.

The same extreme respect for personal property was shown during Lord Roberts's advance. The country through which he passed swarmed with herds and flocks, but, with as scrupulous a regard for the rights of property as Wellington showed in the south of France, no hungry soldier was allowed to take so much as a chicken. The punishment for looting was prompt and stern. It is true that farms were burned occasionally and the stock confiscated, but this was as a punishment for some particular offence and not part of a system. The limping Tommy looked askance at the fat geese which covered the dam by the roadside, but it was as much as his life was worth to allow his fingers to close round those tempting white necks. On foul water and bully beef he tramped through a land of plenty.

A most striking example of British discipline and forbearance was furnished at this period, while the war could still be called regular upon the Boer side, by Rundle's Division, christened the 'Hungry Eighth' by the Army. This Division had the misfortune to be stationed for several months some distance from the railway line, and in consequence had great difficulty in getting supplies. They were on half-rations for a considerable period, and the men were so reduced in strength that their military efficiency was much impaired. Yet they lived in a land of plenty—a land of large farms well stocked with every sort of food. Why it was impossible to get this food for the men I do not know, but I do know that the prices for bread, eggs, milk, and other such things were kept very high by the wives of the farmers who were away upon commando; and that the hungry soldiers were quite unable to buy, and were not permitted to take, the nourishment which was essential.

On May 19, while Lord Roberts's force was advancing on Pretoria, De Wet sent in a despatch to complain of the destruction of two farms, Paarde Kraal and Leeuw Kop. Lord Roberts replied that these two farms were destroyed because, while a white flag was flying from the houses, the troops were fired upon from the farmsteads. 'I have had two farms near Kroonstad,' he adds, 'destroyed for similar reasons, and shall continue to punish all such cases of treachery by the destruction of the farms where they occur.' Here is a definite declaration of policy, quite distinct from wanton destruction, and it is difficult to see how any General could take any other steps, with justice to his own men. These farms, and all which are included in this category, were justly and properly destroyed—the families being removed without violence to a place of safety.

The next representations from the Boer Commander were more definite in their nature.

'Complaints are repeatedly reaching me,' he writes, 'that private dwellings are plundered, and in some cases totally destroyed, and all provisions taken from women and children, so that they are compelled to wander about without food or covering. To quote several instances: It has just been brought to my notice by way of sworn affidavit that the house of Field-Cornet S. Buys on the farm, Leeuwspruit district, Middelburg, was set on fire and destroyed on 20th June last. His wife, who was at home, was given five minutes' time to remove her bedding and clothing, and even what she took out was again taken from her. Her food, sugar, &c., was all taken, so that for herself and her children she had neither covering nor food for the following night. She was asked for the key of the safe, and after it was given up by her she was threatened with a sword, and money was demanded. All the money that was in the house was taken away, all the papers in the safe were torn up, and everything at the homestead that could not be taken away was destroyed. The house of Field-Cornet Buys's son was also destroyed, the doors and windows broken, &c.

'It has also been reported to me that my own buildings, on the farm Varkenspruit, district Standerton, as well as the house of Field-Cornet Badenhorst, on the adjoining farm, have been totally destroyed, and such of the stock as was not removed was shot dead on the farm.

'Further, there is the sworn declaration of Mrs. Hendrik Badenhorst, which speaks for itself.

'I cannot believe that such godless barbarities take place with Your Excellency's consent, and thus I deem it my solemn duty to protest most strongly against such destruction and vindictiveness as being entirely contrary to civilised warfare.'

The greater part of these alleged outrages had occurred on General Buller's side of the Transvaal, so the matter was referred to him. He acknowledged that he had ordered six farmhouses to be destroyed:

'The following circumstances induced me to give the order. On entering the Transvaal I caused the attached Proclamation (A) to be widely distributed along my line of route. We marched from Volksrust to Standerton practically unopposed. Shortly after our arrival at Standerton our telegraph line was cut on several nights following, and attempts were made to damage the military line by placing dynamite cartridges with detonators attached upon it. These attempts were all made on or in close vicinity to the estates above named. A watch was kept and it was found that the attempts were made not by any formed force of the enemy, but by a few scattered banditti who were given shelter during the night in the houses I afterwards had destroyed, and who thence, when they could, tried to murder our patrols, and sallied out at night to damage the line. It was further ascertained that these men came and usually returned through Varkenspruit. I directed that copies of Proclamation (A) should be personally left at each house, and the inmates of each should be warned that these depredations could not be permitted, and that if people living under our protection allowed these sort of men to resort to their houses without informing us, they must take the consequences, and their houses would be destroyed. This warning had some effect for a day or two, but on 1st and 2nd of July the nuisance recommenced, and on the 7th July, having acquired full proof that the houses were being regularly used as shelters for men who were hostile to us, and who were not under any proper command, in fact, who were only acting as banditti, I had the houses destroyed.

'The women and children occupying the farms were removed elsewhere with as little inconvenience to themselves as we could arrange.'

Here again it is impossible to doubt that the British commanders were well within their rights. It is true that Article XXIII. of The Hague Conventions makes it illegal to destroy the enemy's property, but it adds: 'Unless such destruction be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.' Now nothing can be more imperative in war than the preservation of the communications of the army. A previous clause of the same Article makes it illegal to 'kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile army.' It is incontestable that to take the cover of a farmhouse which flies the white flag in order to make attacks is to 'kill or wound treacherously,' and so on a double count the action of the British becomes legal, and even inevitable. Lord Roberts's message to De Wet upon August 3, 1900, restates both his intentions and his reasons for it:

'Latterly, many of my soldiers have been shot from farmhouses over which the white flag has been flying, the railway and telegraph lines have been cut, and trains wrecked. I have therefore found it necessary, after warning your Honour, to take such steps as are sanctioned by the customs of war to put an end to these and similar acts, and have burned down the farmhouses at or near which such deeds have been perpetrated. This I shall continue to do whenever I consider the occasion demands it.

'The remedy lies in your Honour's own hands. The destruction of property is most distasteful to me, and I shall be greatly pleased when your Honour's co-operation in the matter renders it no longer necessary.'

This raises the question of the legality of the burning of farmhouses in the vicinity of the place where the railway is cut. The question presented itself forcibly to my mind when I saw with my own eyes the tall plumes of smoke rising from six farmhouses, De Wet's among them, in the neighbourhood of Roodeval. There is no doubt whatever that in the war of 1870—the classic type of modern war—the villages and populations near the scene of a cut railway were severely punished. But The Hague Conventions had not then been signed. On the one hand, it may be urged that it is impossible without such disciplinary measures to preserve a line of 1,000 miles running all the way through a hostile or semi-hostile country. Also that it is 'imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.' On the other hand, there is Article L., which says, 'No general penalty can be inflicted on the population on account of the acts of individuals, for which it cannot be regarded as collectively responsible.' An argument might be advanced for either side, but what will actually determine is the strongest argument of all—that of self-preservation. An army situated as the British Army was, and dependent for its supplies upon its communications, must keep them open even if it strains the Conventions in doing so. As a matter of fact, farm-burning had no effect in checking the railway-cutting, and had a considerable effect in embittering the population. Yet a General who was cut off from his base thirty times in a month was bound to leave the argument of legality to the jurists, and to adopt the means which seemed most likely to stop the nuisance. The punishment fell with cruel injustice upon some individuals. Others may have been among the actual raiders.

On September 2 Lord Roberts communicated his intentions to General Botha:

'Sir,—I have the honour to address your Honour regarding the operations of those comparatively small bands of armed Boers who conceal themselves on farms in the neighbourhood of our lines of communication and thence endeavour to damage the railway, thus endangering the lives of passengers travelling by train who may or may not be combatants.

'2. My reason for again referring to this subject is that, except in the districts occupied by the Army under the personal command of your Honour, there is now no formed body of Boer troops in the Transvaal or Orange River Colony, and that the war is degenerating into operations carried on by irregular and irresponsible guerillas. This would be so ruinous to the country and so deplorable from every point of view, that I feel bound to do everything in my power to prevent it.

'3. The orders I have at present issued, to give effect to these views, are that the farm nearest the scene of any attempt to injure the line or wreck a train is to be burnt, and that all farms within a radius of 10 miles are to be completely cleared of all their stock, supplies, &c.'

Granting that the penalty is legal at all, it must be allowed that it is put in a minimum form, since only one farm in each case is to be destroyed; and the further clearing of stock is undoubtedly justified, since it would tend to cripple the mobility of Boer raiders approaching the line. Yet one farm for each attack becomes a formidable total when the attacks are on an average of one per day.

We have treated two causes for which farms were burned: (1) For being used as cover for snipers; (2) as a punishment for the cutting of railways. A third cause now comes to the front. A large number of burghers had taken the oath of neutrality and had been allowed to return to their farms by the British. These men were persuaded or terrorised by the fighting commandos into breaking their parole and abandoning those farms on which they had sworn to remain. The farmhouses were their bail, and Lord Roberts decreed that it was forfeited. On August 23 he announced his decision to General Botha:

'Your Honour represents that well-disposed families living on their farms have been driven from their houses, and that their property has been taken away or destroyed. This no doubt is true, but not in the sense which your letter would imply. Burghers who are well-disposed towards the British Government, and anxious to submit to my authority, have had their property seized by the Boer commandos, and have been threatened with death if they refused to take up arms against the British forces. Your Honour's contention that a solemn oath of neutrality which the burghers have voluntarily taken in order to remain in unmolested occupation of their farms is null and void, because you have not consented to it, is hardly open to discussion. I shall punish those who violate their oath and confiscate their property, no burgher having been forced to take the oath against his will.'

It is quite certain that the Boer Government committed a very clear breach of the Conventions of The Hague in compelling, or even in permitting, these men to rejoin the ranks. 'In such cases,' says Article X., 'their own Government shall not require of, nor accept from, them any service incompatible with the parole given.' This is clear as regards the Government. But in the case of the men it is different. Their promise was in a sense conditional upon effective protection from our troops. We had no right to place a man in so terrible a position that he had to choose between breaking his parole and death at the hands of his own countrymen. If we were not sure that we could protect them, we could have retained them in guarded camps, as we eventually did. If we chose to turn them loose upon the wide veldt, then it was our fault more than theirs that they were forced into the ranks of the enemy. To their credit be it said that even under such pressure many of them were true to their oath.

But if their guilt is indeed no greater than our own, then how are we justified in burning down their houses? It seems to me that these cases are very different from those in the other two categories, and that the question of compensation to these men should be at least considered. I take it that the numerous cases where 'on commando' is marked against a burned farm on the official list, means that he had returned to commando after giving his parole. The destruction of his house under those circumstances is, in the peculiar conditions of the case, a harsh measure, but if 'on commando' means simply that the man was away doing his duty to his country, without any question of parole, then our conscience can never permit that man to go without compensation.

We can trace in this account of the communications between the leaders the growth of those harsher measures which have been so generally deplored in this country. So long as the war was regular it is certain that nothing could be more regular than the British conduct. When, however, the war became irregular upon the part of the Boers, and their army dissolved into small bands which harried the lines of communications, the small posts, and the convoys, there was a corresponding change upon the part of the troops. Towards the end of the year 1900 that change was pushed to considerable lengths. Certain districts which had been Boer centres, where they habitually collected time after time, were devastated and destroyed. Such districts were those of Kroonstad, Heilbron, Ventersburg, and Winburg. In these four districts about one hundred and seventy houses were destroyed. The village of Bothaville, which was a depôt of the enemy, was also destroyed. It consisted of forty-three houses. In the Transvaal the number of houses actually destroyed for strategic purposes seems to have been very much smaller. In the official returns only about twelve houses are so mentioned. Altogether the houses which have been burned for reasons which are open to dispute, including those of the men upon commando, do not appear to exceed two hundred and fifty.

It must be confessed that the case of these houses is entirely different from the others which have been destroyed, because they were used for active warlike operations. Of the 630 buildings which we know to have been destroyed, more than half have been used by snipers, or in some other direct fashion have brought themselves within the laws of warfare. But it cannot be said that these others have done so. The cost of the average farmhouse is a mere trifle. A hundred pounds would build a small one, and 300l. a large. If we take the intermediate figure, then the expenditure of 50,000l. would compensate for those cases where military policy and international law may have been at variance with each other. The burning of houses ceased in the year 1900, and, save in very special instances, where there was an overwhelming military necessity, it has not been resorted to since. In the sweeping of the country carried out by French in the Eastern Transvaal and by Blood to the north of the Delagoa Railway, no buildings appear to have been destroyed, although it was a military necessity to clear the farms of every sort of supply in order to hamper the movements of the commandos. The destruction of the crops and herds of the Boers, distasteful as such work must be, is exactly analogous to the destruction by them of our supply trains on which the Army depended for their food. Guerilla warfare cannot enjoy all its own advantages and feel none of its own defects. It is a two-edged weapon, and the responsibility for the consequences rests upon the combatant who first employs it.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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