An archive picture of a French officer standing near a cemetery with graves of soldiers killed on the front lines of World War I, at Saint-Jean-sur-Tourbe in France on December 19, 1916. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI.
For six months, Deneys Reitz made his way southwards, traversing a landscape that British cavalry forces, in their hunt for commandos and civilians alike, had turned into a barren wilderness of burned and abandoned farms devoid of people, horses, livestock and crops. In March 1901, following in the wake of one of (Lord) Kitchener’s pulverising “drives”, Reitz set off on foot in the company of a band of backveld Boers walking along the length of the Magaliesberg hills in the hope of reaching De la Rey’s commandos in their hideouts in the western Transvaal. “A deathly quiet reigned over the hills and empty spaces and demolished farms.” The first sign of life they came across after five days was a Boer woman, her two small children and a black servant girl who had hidden for the previous 10 days in a wagon in a wooded kloof; her oxen had strayed into the open and been captured by passing soldiers, so they were stranded.

By the time that Reitz reached De la Rey’s men, his clothes were in tatters: “I was walking around with no more than a pair of veldskoen, a pair of leather leggings and an old, torn moleskin jacket.” His only protection against the approaching highveld winter was a threadbare blanket. De la Rey presented him with a pair of breeches and a coat, but was unable to provide him with a horse. His own commandos were in dire straits, short not only of horses but also food, weapons and ammunition.

After several weeks as a foot soldier, Reitz found a spare horse and joined an assortment of burghers and foreign volunteers, edging his way southwards, fighting occasional skirmishes, evading capture, passing through smashed and deserted villages and suffering intensely from the bitter winter cold.

Riding down towards the Vaal River, with views of the great plains of the Free State stretching beyond, Reitz and his companions encountered a women’s laager of about 30 wagons camped on the Transvaal side. A group of about a hundred women and children had bandied together, determined to avoid internment by the British, subsisting as best they could on the veld.

While they were there, an old Boer church-warden galloped into the laager, warning that a British column was moving down the river no more than 13km upstream. The laager leaders swiftly decided to cross the river to the Free State side:

“Immediately all was in bustle. There was a ford of sorts close by, over which we helped the women to get the wagons, but it was pitiful to see them standing waist deep in the icy water, tugging at the wheels, and urging on the oxen in their anxiety to put the river between themselves and the column.”

Reitz and his companions crossed the river a day later, riding along the south bank, finding the homesteads there still intact, occupied mainly by women and children. But their days of tranquillity were numbered. In the distance, Reitz observed pillars of smoke rising from where they had come, and at night watched the sky redden with the glare of burning homesteads: “The women took the matter bravely, although there were tears and weeping at times, but each family, as soon as they realised the danger, fetched the oxen, in­spanned the wagons, and trekked away south across the plains, out of harm’s way.”

A few weeks later, Reitz reached Kopje-Alleen, an isolated hill in the plains near the Sand River, visible for many kilometres. As a boy he had sat on its summit, watching herds of antelope and wildebeest grazing below:

“I climbed to the top, partly for old times’ sake and partly to see whether the land was clear, but there was really no need for anxiety, as we were in empty country.

“The farmhouses stood abandoned, the fields lay unploughed and we saw neither human beings nor domestic animals”

The plight of Boer women and children herded into the camps was equally grim. The British authorities carried out no proper planning for the camps nor made adequate provision for the welfare of thousands of inmates who ended up there. The camp at Bloemfontein was situated on the barren slopes of a hill called Spitskop, about 3km west of the town. It was placed under the control of military officers who were largely indifferent to the primitive conditions in which the inmates were forced to live. Women and children were crowded into communal tents and given only meagre food rations; they were often left short of water and basic necessities. Latrine facilities were rudimentary: unemptied buckets stood in the sun for hours. Little medical assistance was provided. As disease and malnutrition took hold, the death rate began to climb.

British ministers were well aware of how dire conditions were. “Pretty bad reports have been received here of the state of the Bloemfontein laager in (January 1901),” the war minister, St John Brodrick, cabled to Kitchener. He cited, “insufficient water, milk rations, typhoid prevalent, children sick, no soap, no forage for cows, insufficient medical attention” And he asked Kitchener for a full report to help defend himself from political attack:

“I think I shall have a hot time over these, probably in most cases, inevitable sufferings or privations - war of course is war,” he wrote.

Kitchener replied that he had everything under control and pronounced the inmates to be “happy”.

It was not until a lone Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, made her own investigation that the scandal of the concentration camps reached public attention.

A 41-year-old Quaker, Hobhouse had arrived in Cape Town at the end of December 1900 on behalf of a relief fund, the South African Women and Children Distress Fund, taking 12 tons of clothes and home comforts to distribute to camp inmates. While in Cape Town, preparing to travel to Bloemfontein, she met Charlie Fichardt, a former mayor of Bloemfontein who had served in the Free State army as head of dispatch riders before his arrest and deportation. Knowing of the difficulties she would encounter, Fichardt suggested that Hobhouse should stay with his mother in the grand Fichardt residence at Kaya Lami.

Using Kaya Lami as her headquarters, Hobhouse was swiftly introduced to an inner circle of leading ladies that included Tibbie Steyn, the English-speaking wife of President MT Steyn, and Hannie Blignaut, the president’s sister, who had been allowed to remain in Bloemfontein, carefully monitored by the British, while Steyn and his government laager moved about the vast expanses of the Free State, avoiding capture.

In a letter written on January 26, 1901, Hobhouse described her first visit to Spitskop.

There were about 1 800 people there at the time, mostly women and children, along with a few “hands-uppers”, living in tents on the bare veld with “not a vestige of a tree in any direction, nor shade of any description”. In the afternoon, the heat was suffocating.

She started by tracking down the sister of a woman whom she had met in Cape Town and her five children:

“We sat on their khaki blankets, rolled up inside Mrs B’s tent; and the sun blazed through the single canvas, and the flies lay thick and black on everything; no chair, no table, nor any room for such; only a deal box, standing on its end, served as a wee pantry.

“On wet nights, the water streams down through the canvas and comes flowing in and wets their blankets as they lie on the ground.”

Hobhouse had arrived in Bloemfontein assuming that her mission was simply to distribute her 12 tons of “little extras” - clothes and other comforts - but quickly discovered that there was a shortage of even essential provisions.

In her book, The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell, she detailed her findings of the Bloemfontein camp:

“The shelter was totally insufficient.

“When the 8, 10 or 12 persons who occupied a bell-tent were all packed into it, either to escape from the fierceness of the sun or dust or rainstorms, there was no room to move, and the atmosphere was indescribable, even with duly lifted flaps.

“There was no soap provided.

“The water supplied would not go round. No kartels (bedsteads) or mattresses were to be had.

“Those, and they were the majority, who could not buy these things must go without. Fuel was scanty The (food) ration was sufficiently small, but when the actual amount did not come up to the scale, it became a starvation rate.”

What most distressed the women at Spitskop was the suffering of their malnourished children. Sicknesses such as measles, bronchitis, pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid were already commonplace.

Afrikaner Odyssey by Martin Meredith is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, at a recommended retail price of R250

Martin Meredith is the author of several best selling books including The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence; Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe, and Mandela: A Biography.