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Background to Timothy Morgan Owen's letter to W.E.H. Lecky re Boer War

In February 1881 P.J. Joubert’s Boer troops routed a British force of 500 at Majuba Hill - 93 killed, 133 wounded and 58 taken prisoner. Joubert spared the life of Second Lieutenant Hector Macdonald. He was severely beaten but eventually returned to his regiment. Majuba became enshrined in Boer folk history. When 18 years later war with the Boers broke out again, the British Army went into battle with the cry 'Remember Majuba!' On 27 February 1900, the 19th anniversary of the battle of Majuba, Lord Roberts forced the surrender of the Boer general Piet Cronje and 4,000 of his men at Paardeberg. MacDonald, survivor of Majuba and by now a general, was one of those who urged Roberts to make the final telling attack that day.

Lord Roberts Frederick Sleigh Roberts (right), was born in India in 1832. He was promoted to Field Marshal in 1895. In 1899, soon after the outbreak of the Second Boer War and aged 67, he was sent to succeed Buller as the Supreme Commander, Buller having made serious tactical errors in the battle of Colenso in which Roberts' own son had been fatally wounded. Roberts was a brilliant military strategist. He was held in great affection and was much respected by those under him and by his colleagues. Major General Lord Kitchener was his Chief of Staff. Just weeks after Roberts arrived in Cape Town his cavalry division charged through the Boer lines to relieve the siege of Kimberly, where Cecil Rhodes was penned up. It was Roberts who finally relieved Ladysmith on 28 February 1900 after a four-month siege by Boer forces.

Known as "Bobs", "Father Bobs" and "Kipling's General", he was so popular that his photograph was used in advertisements. In 1901 he was one of the last people to have an audience with Queen Victoria. Lytton Strachey described events: On January 14, she [the Queen] had at Osbourne an hour's interview with Lord Roberts, who had returned victorious from South Africa a few days before. She inquired with acute anxiety into all the details of the war; she appeared to sustain the exertion successfully; but, when the audience was over, there was a collapse. She had made the last entry in her famous diary the day before and her 63-year reign ended with her death a week later.

Roberts' policy of farm burning brought thousands of Boers and black Africans into "refugee camps" established by the Army to hold them. It was the clearance of civilians that would come to dominate the last phase of the war. Public opinion and political opposition, led by the Welsh MP, Lloyd-George, to the government’s civilian policies in S. Africa gained momentum in February 1901. Kitchener's troops began to bring tens-of-thousands of "refugees" into the camps and the phrase "concentration camp" was coined for the first time.

In November 1900 Roberts handed over the command to Lord Kitchener and returned to England to take on the office of Commander-in-Chief of the Army. I have found no evidence that he had adopted an attitude of appeasement prior to this. However, by the time of Timothy’s letter the political climate had changed; there was concern about the treatment of the Boers. Timothy would have been even more irritated by what followed a month later. A lady called Emily Hobhouse had seen some of these camps and began a campaign to bring the fate of the Boers to public and political attention. In June her "Brunt of War" report was distributed to MPs and she won the support of Lloyd-George and of Cambell-Bannerman, the leader of the Opposition but a motion condemning the camps was defeated. In July Kitchener sent complete statistical returns about the camps and by August it was clear to both sides of the House that Miss Hobhouse's worst fears were confirmed. 93,940 whites and 24,457 blacks were in "camps of refuge" where the death rate was appallingly high. In August the Government hastily sent an all-ladies commission out to South Africa; their report was anything but the whitewash the Government had hoped for. Ten months after the subject had first been raised in Parliament, during which time, at least twenty thousand whites and twelve thousand coloured people had died in the concentration camps, the majority from epidemics of measles and typhoid, the Government at last acted.

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