Our Slice of History
The Karoo, as the “central theater of war”, saw events from the very beginning of the war until right to the end. This period began with the Free State invasion of the Cape Colony in October 1899. Until February 1900, many Northern Cape towns, such as Colesberg and Noupoort, were under the rule of Boer commandos.
The British responded by launching a campaign to re-take Colesberg. They never succeeded, but they stopped the Boers from moving further south into the Colony. There were several intense skirmishes, along a front that extended 50 km from east to west, with Colesberg in the centre and Noupoort in the south. The railway sidings at Rensburg and Arundel (south of Colesberg) saw a lot of action. Several modern farms in the area also hosted skirmishes.
fter the fall of Bloemfontein (February 1900), the Boers retreated rapidly to help defend the Republic. The British therefore marched unopposed into Colesberg and the Free State towns, such as Philippolis. The town of Bethulie was unusual in that it put up a fight. Many Boers went back to their farms.
The important railway junctions at Springfontein and Noupoort played a key role as army bases, logistics centres and mililtary hospitals.
During mid-1900, the southern Free State and Northern Cape were relatively quiet while the war moved north to Pretoria. But then General Christiaan de Wet launched his guerilla warfare campaign in the Free State. The Burghers launched attacks on the small Free State towns, including Philippolis. None of the towns fell to the Boers.
De Wet always wanted to invade the Cape Colony – to strike the British forces in the rear. His first attempt was near Bethulie, in October 1900. This is now called the “Second De Wet Hunt”. The Boers were blocked by determined British columns. De Wet then invaded the Cape Colony near Philippolis, in February 1901. He was pursued with great determination and skill by the British, and he retreated back to the Free State three weeks later. This was the famous “Third De Wet Hunt”. After that, the guerilla war continued in the Free State and Transvaal.
While this drama was taking place, the British launched their Scorched Earth policy. The British set about burning down all the Boer farms, destroying all food, livestock and materials which could be useful to the Boer commandos. They forced the Boer women, children and eldery to move to concentration camps, where over 26 000 people died. Three such camps were at Springfontein, Bethulie and Norvalspont. Black rural people were also moved to concentration camps, which often served as labour camps, where the death rate was often even worse. Springfontein had a black labour camp.
The appalling suffering in the concentration camps was alleviated by Emily Hobhouse, a British philanthropist who has become very dear in the memory of the Afrikaners. Her most notable interventions were at Springfontein camp.
Join us as we retrace the steps of the commandos and columns across the plains of the Upper Karoo!
The Karoo Development Foundation, and its affiliate, Karoo Dynamics, are both non-profit organisations working to promote sustainable development in the Karoo.
This project was sponsored by the National Heritage Council of South Africa.
Heritage expertise is provided by Habitat Landscape Architects.
As we proceed with the planning and roll-out of the project, we are liaising with many local stakeholders. These include the Free State and Northern Cape Departments of Tourism, Kopanong Local Municipality, Umsobomvu Local Municipality, the Central University of Technology, and local stakeholders in all the towns. Many thanks for your inputs! Thank you to Ms Nicki von der Heyde, battlefields guide, for showing us some of the amazing war sites in KZN.
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