Harrismith and its concentration camp

Panorama of Platberg; Harrismith 1900 (Liz Finnie).

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The war and concentration camps ◄ ● ► Military actions involving the families

Following the annexation of the Orange River Sovereignty in 1848, Governor Harry Smith created a new administrative district in the east and set about establishing a town near the passes across the Drakensberg to Natal. The town was initially established near the Elands River, but the difficulty in pumping water from the river led to it being moved to the base of Platberg (Flat Mountain) which provided a reliable water supply from its streams. Whilst Sir Harry preferred the name Vredefort, the town was named Harrismith after him. (And the next town across the Drakensberg in Natal, was named Ladysmith after his wife.)

The town grew with recruitment of settlers from Natal, and the surrounding areas attracted farmers from the Cape. The result was that the town was predominantly English while the farmers were predominantly Afrikaans. Commercial activity, and the population, expanded in the 1870s because of Harrismith’s position on the route between Natal and the Kimberley diamond fields. The town became the railhead in the eastern Free State in 1892 when it was connected to Ladysmith by rail.

After the establishment of the Orange Free State in 1854, all residents of three years standing became citizens. This presented a quandary to men of British extraction as the war became inevitable. By early October 1899, all citizens/burghers between the ages of 16 and 60 had been commandeered for military service. The reaction amongst the English speakers was varied. Some refused to fight their kinsmen, but agreed to undertake guard duty. Others refused to fight at all and were arrested. In Harrismith, thirty-five were sentenced to fines of £300 or three years imprisonment, while six, who had fled, were sentenced in absentia to a fine of £500 or five years imprisonment. The remainder joined the Boer ranks.

Free State, Natal and Drakensberg Theatre

Many of the Free State Commandos passed through Harrismith to the Drakensberg passes into Natal. The Harrismith Commando was sent to Botha’s Pass to await orders. War was declared on 11 October 1899 and within five days some 2,200 Free Staters had entered Natal. The English speaking group from Harrismith was sent to Oliviershoek Pass with some remaining to serve as the Town Guard. The first Boer casualty of the war was Fred Johnson of the Harrismith Commando at Besters Station on 18 October 1899 in a clash with the Natal Carbineers. Besters is the next station from Colworth where Leonard Clark farmed prior to the war.

After the relief of Ladysmith in February 1900, the Free State Commandos were recalled to help counter Roberts’s push on Bloemfontein. The Commandos from Harrismith, Vrede and Heilbron, however, were left in place to guard the passes, but they saw no action as the British did not advance from Ladysmith. Roberts wasn’t countered and went on to occupy Pretoria on 5 June 1900.

In early July 1900 the Harrismith Commando was ordered to Bethlehem from where a large Boer force moved into the Brandwater Basin in the face of a British thrust. The Brandwater Basin campaign was one of the defining actions of the war and we will return to it in some detail because the events directly impacted the Liddells and their wider family group. The key result of the campaign was that some 4,000 Boers were forced to surrender on 30 July 1900. The Harrismith Commando was not part of this as they had escaped to Witsieshoek in the face of the final British attack. Following the surrender, the British columns moved on to occupy Harrismith on 4 August 1900 thereby re-establishing the rail link to Ladysmith. General Rundle, the British commander of the 8th Division entered the town on 6 August 1900 and set up his headquarters as Officer Commanding the north eastern Free State theatre. (Watt 1989a)

The Harrismith camp

Almost immediately, Rundle started experiencing the impact of the developing guerrilla campaign. Roberts ordered officers in command of columns to suppress any rebellions and to remove all horses and forage and to collect all livestock from Boers or their sons who had taken the Oath of Neutrality and then gone back on Commando. The intention was to remove sources of supply for the Boers and to threaten their families with starvation. (Watt 1989a)

In December 1900, the new commander, Kitchener, instructed all field officers to remove all Boer men, women and children and the indigenous, black, people from areas frequented by the Commandos and to burn houses, stores and crops and to remove or destroy all animals. The first removals from the Harrismith district took place in October 1900 when 255 women were sent to Ladysmith and 190 men to Durban. In January 1901, a tented camp was established in Harrismith, between the railway line and the Wilge River. The first forced removals from Bethlehem and Reitz arrived on 25 January 1901, to be met by a small group of voluntary inmates already in occupation (including some we are interested in). (Steytler 1932, 185)

Initial Harrismith Refugee Camp
Leon Strachan

The camp was badly provisioned. There were not enough tents at first, so the arrivals had to make shelters by stacking their possessions and spanning sailcloth over them. There were insufficient beds, blankets and mattresses, so many were forced to sleep on the ground. Soap and firewood were also in short supply, but stokers on the passing trains would throw coal out which the inmates rushed to retrieve. The railway line can just be made out in the photograph just in front of the tents. The unhealthy conditions caused the outbreak of eye infections and also pneumonia, dysentery and typhoid. On 20 March 1901 the District Commissioner Harrismith sent a telegram to his superiors stating, “Severe epidemic of enteric among civilians. Cottage Hospital accommodation and nurses cannot meet strain.” 19   This message was in respect of the wider civilian population of Harrismith, but the camp was not spared. (Leon Strachan Pvt. Comm.)

Not only were the facilities and services inadequate, the location was also unsuitable because of its proximity to the Wilge River. It was the rainy season and the camp flooded frequently and remained boggy. As a consequence, the camp was moved across town in late March or early April 1901 to a location at the foot of Platberg. This was an altogether more suitable location.

Location of Camps.

This photo shows the first phase of the new camp. On the right are the hospital tents, the medical store and the morgue. The structures on the left are the washhouses. The April return for the camp shows that there were 275 inmates at that stage. 20   Farm burnings and forced removals brought more people. Rundle carried out another sweep of the Brandwater Basin from April to June 1901 in response to continuing guerrilla activity and brought in a number of families including a number of interest to us. We will discuss this action in more detail because of the family involvement.

Camp on slopes of Platberg.
Pierre du Plessis courtesy Leon Strachan

In July 1901, Kitchener decided to clear the Harrismith area of all people and about 500 were brought in. 20   In August, a large number of Boer sympathising residents from Bethlehem were brought in as well as the Bethlehem Dominee, Charles Theron, his wife, Charlotte, and their children. (Steytler 1932, 187) With these arrivals, the camp was extended as can be seen in the following photograph. The tents on the higher ground in the middle beyond the camp are the school tents.

Camp showing second phase added.
Pierre du Plessis courtesy Leon Strachan

The full camp layout and positioning with respect to the town can be better seen from the next photo which shows the camp from the opposite side looking towards the town. The school tents are in the centre foreground. The tents in the distance are army camps with the trees of the town beyond that.

View of camp from Platberg towards town.
Leon Strachan

And a closer view towards Platberg from the western side of the camp.

Camp from the west towards Platberg.

As is clear from these photographs, Harrismith was not a big camp like some of the others and this helped with service provision. There were other benefits. The camp did not implement the system of reduced rations for “undesirables”. Everyone received the same. Because of the camp’s relative isolation, the superintendent was also given some leeway in obtaining rations which was beneficial. The inmates were allowed to go into town to shop for three hours, two days a week. Until November 1901, the camp also had the benefit of an enterprising Indian trader, Mr Cadova, who brought fish and vegetables in from Durban for sale. Local shopkeepers, however, combined to have him removed on racial grounds. (Fawcett 1902, 104) Some inmates were also able to supplement their rations by working in the town. When authorities tried to stop the practice, the superintendent, with the support of the local British commandant, managed to convince them to make an exception for Harrismith and allow the practice. 20   Not a pleasant place, but some comforts.

The Committee of Ladies visited the camp on 29 and 30 November 1901. Their opening comment was, “This camp is beautifully situated at the foot of the mountains near Harrismith town. The locality is said to be one of the three healthiest in the world.” They provided a generally positive assessment of the camp. A full extract of their report on the Harrismith camp is provided in the Appendix. Despite their views, however, infectious diseases still took their toll.

Medical services did concern the Committee and they criticised the location, resourcing and staffing of the hospital. They noted that there was one doctor, not resident in the camp, two trained nurses, one English probationer and two Boer assistants. They then commented:

The situation of the hospital is bad – it is in the corner of the camp, low down, it ought to be removed to higher ground as soon as possible. There are three marquees for enteric and four for measles. The number of beds is 32, and on the first day of our visit the number of patients was 25, but the beds were nearly all full before we left. More bedsteads are needed and another marquee ought to be put up for general cases. More probationers from the camp are also needed, and one native to act as handy man is also much required. The hospital furnishing and equipment are extremely scanty. In one of the measles marquees the patient had brought in her own bed and bedding, the hospital being so short of these necessaries. The enteric sheets are neither boiled nor properly disinfected. The hospital wash-house as previously mentioned, is very small and unsuitable and at a long distance from the hospital, so that the soiled linen has to be carried all across the camp. An incinerator for enteric stools should be provided. In one enteric marquee were four children, all members of the same family, who had been living in a bell tent in the “new” camp. Two members of the family had died already. Nothing had been done to disinfect the tent or the ground on which it stood. Notwithstanding these serious defects in the hospital organisation at Harrismith, we desire to mention that although there have been in all 76 cases treated in the hospital, there have been only four deaths, and that this is the only camp in which we have heard a message from a person sick in the lines, asking why the hospital had not sent the stretcher to bring her in as promised.

The patients were carefully attended to and looked after, as far as the short equipment permitted, and we were pleased to see that mosquito netting was used to protect the enteric patients from flies. It should be mentioned that though Harrismith is naturally an extremely healthy place, there was a good deal of sickness, especially enteric, among the troops in it at the time of our visit. It was constantly being brought in by the columns.

We felt that a trained nurse was urgently required as camp matron, and telegraphed to the Deputy Administrator to that effect before leaving Harrismith. There is a Miss Brink in camp, who is called camp matron, and who was appointed three days before our arrival. She looks after the soup kitchen, but she has not got the capacity, training, and experience which would enable her to organise a thorough system of visiting, reporting cases of sickness, and attending to the nursing of the. sick in the lines.

They also commented on the support given by the military commander, General Rundle:

General Sir Leslie Rundle takes a kindly interest in this camp, and is always ready to do things for it. The Superintendent said that though the general had only, once on the occasion of Lord Milner’s visit, come into the camp, he could always rely on him for practical help in every possible way. ” It was only a question of ask and have.” General Rundle informed us that an order had been received about a month ago from headquarters not to bring any more people compulsorily into the Concentration Camps. Since this had been acted upon there had been a constant flow of people into the camp, who were coming in voluntarily; some arrived on the second day of our visit; they had driven in a Cape cart, over 28 miles, in very bad weather.

Rundle was clearly not that interested in the camp, but had popped in when the British High Commissioner, Lord Milner, visited the camp earlier in November. Milner, not surprisingly, found everything neat and tidy. The forced removal of people to the camps had been stopped by Kitchener by then, partly in response to the public criticism of his scorched earth policy and the investigations by the Committee. In many instances, this actually made the situation worse for the women and children because the troops continued to burn houses, barns and crops and to remove or shoot the animals. Now the families were just left in the veld to fend for themselves without shelter, food or transport.

The following photographs give some idea of the conditions in the camp. The smart clothing for the women and children is very common in these photos. The reason was that these photos were frequently taken to be sent to their menfolk who were POWs far away across the world. They wanted to show themselves at their best so that father did not worry.

Three Camp scenes.

The realities of camp life were not crisp white blouses, shirts and boaters. Charlotte Theron, the Dominee’s wife, provided a darker perspective on life in the camp in an oft quoted letter:

Harrismith-Kamp, 3 January 1902.

I worry that we will all die of fever if we stay in this congested and confined camp. The wire fence is right against the tents and there is no chance for a wander to get a little bit of fresh air and we are also no longer allowed to go into town. Measles, Whooping Cough and Fever have wreaked terrible things on young and old. O! to see the poor little children wilting away like tender plants under the burning sun. Every day there are two, three up to eight to bury. We can’t live in these single bell tents. During the day, they are too hot; even if the flaps are lifted up, it is so hot on the beds that Mr Theron and I have left our parasols over a sick child to provide a little shade. Suddenly, a dense cloud will come from the Natal mountains; it rains and one has to go to bed with a cold damp wind playing over you all night. There are frequent leaks in the tents because some of them are old and thin. More than one measles patient has been wet through and then died from pneumonia. If it doesn’t leak, one’s bed and clothes become completely clammy on the nights that it rains. We have to secure the flaps on the rainy days and then creep through under the door in the mud. O! it is a terrible life; there is a broken heart in almost every tent.

Rachel weent over haar kinderen; zij weigert zich to later troosten over hare kinderen omdat zij niet zijn.” [Jeremiah 31:15 – Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.]

Poor Mrs L. is no longer there. She got measles; her tent is near mine so I watched over her and fed her. At first, she didn’t look bad, but then her tent got wet and she developed pneumonia. I called the doctor immediately, but he felt it that urgent that he only came three days later; he took her to hospital immediately where she died the same day. They are treated well in the hospital and the superintendent does his best to keep the camp healthy. Today we got some potatoes and onions; but I don’t know how we will get through summer without fruit and vegetables. When I see the lovely, innocent children die, it reminds me of a sermon that your father delivered for children on the text: “En de straten dier stad zullen vervuld worden met knechtjes en meisjes spelende op hare straten.” [Zacharia 8:5 – And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.]

We have had very hot weather and for the last three days a serious shortage of water. We couldn’t bath or wash our clothes. Fuel is very scarce and we frequently have to miss lunch because there is no wood for cooking.

The Commissary does everything he can to improve the health and facilities of the camp. The sweets and cakes sent by our friends in the Colony [The Cape] arrived just in time to treat the children for New Year’s Day.

Even if peace is declared and the people get leave to go home, they will have no houses to go to and also no food. Our only consolation is that the future is in the hands of God. I would be pleased if my children could be safely in the Colony, but would choose to stay here to help Mr. Theron and my fellow sufferers. May the coming year bring us together with new courage. May we be able to sing, “Peace on Earth,” because now it is hell in South Africa; and O! I can’t take it any longer.

Your loving friend, C. Theron.
(Steytler 1932, 185)

POWs Darrell’s Island Bermuda

It is interesting that Charlotte, like Emily Hobhouse, likened the deaths of the children to flowers wilting. Life was not as rosy as suggested in the photographs to fathers, but they probably appreciated them for what they were and sent similar, Sunday Best, photographs back to their families from the POW camps as this one from Darrell’s Island, Bermuda, shows.

The official mortality statistics for the camp show:

Month Population Deaths
April 1901 275 ?
June 1901 656 1
July 1901 927 3
August 1901 1134 5
September 1901 1304 2
October 1901 1596 5
November 1901 1650 13
December 1901 1623 63
January 1902 1470 32
February 1902 608 4
March 1902 348 1

The population numbers are probably reasonably accurate. The Ladies Committee reported 1,646 inmates comprising 143 men, 540 women and 963 children. The death toll isn’t accurate. For one thing, there are a number of months missing from the count. There is some dispute over the exact numbers because there was no local register of deaths or burials even though all the dead were buried in the town cemetery – in unmarked graves. Steytler quotes 193 deaths but cites a Dominee Rabie who estimated that there were 200 to 300 graves of camp victims. (Steytler 1932, 191) The big spike in deaths in November, December and January probably helps explain Charlotte Theron’s comments. The memorial at the Harrismith Cemetery mentions “approximately 193 buried in the vicinity of the memorial” and lists those who are known.

Harrismith Concentration Camp Memorial – In Tender Remembrance

There are a number of records of “unruliness” amongst the inmates, but an incident in January 1902 had more significant consequences. The event was the funeral of a British soldier during which the inmates made “unseemly and exultant demonstrations.” This particularly incensed Kitchener who ordered the removal of 400 “irreconcilables” to Ladysmith. Dominee and Mrs Theron and their family went with them. The Therons’ camp records show that they departed on 8 February 1902. 20

In the end the whole camp was moved to Natal. In part, this was possibly because of operational requirements. The camp was taken over by the army following the departure of the internees. The inmates went to the ex-POW camp in Ladysmith which was called Tin Town because of its corrugated iron buildings. Some then moved on to Pietermaritzburg. The Harrismith camp was closed on 23 May 1902 with the remaining inmates put in cattle and coal trucks and taken to Ladysmith by rail. Some of our families made the trip to Ladysmith and we will hear more about Tin Town.

The war and concentration camps ◄ ● ► Military actions involving the families

©Alun Stevens 2020

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