Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses: a military engineer’s perspective

The final phase of the South African War of 1899-1902, in which Boer guerrillas were eventually overcome by British forces, has been extensively studied by historians. The concentration camps, in which an estimated 27,000 civilians died as part of a policy of depriving the Boer commandos of their support base, are particularly well known. Much less has been written about the blockhouses – the large network of small forts built by the British to protect their supply lines and partition the veldt during the ‘scorched earth’ stage of the war.

In Simon Green these fortifications have found an extremely thorough and engaging chronicler. The author brings to bear his own experience as a soldier; and a deep knowledge of the South African landscape and heritage informs his writing.

Green has visited all of the surviving blockhouses – roughly 80 buildings, out of some 9,000 constructed during the war. A companion volume, Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses: a field guide, is being prepared for those who wish to visit them.

There were two basic types. The Elliot Wood blockhouse, which was time-consuming and relatively expensive to build, was a substantial, three-storey stone or concrete structure. These were later supplemented by Major Spring Rice’s cheaper, less-permanent models, made of corrugated iron.

Their main purpose was to guard strategic points such as railway lines and bridges. They also served to restrict the movement of Boer fighters. Linked by barbed wire, they formed a vast web of fortifications, which proved extremely difficult for guerrillas to cross with their equipment.

Green describes the construction of the blockhouses and sets them securely within the wider context of British strategy. We learn about the life of the garrisons that were stationed in these inhospitable buildings – how they were defended and provisioned, and how their inhabitants staved off the boredom of guard duty.

The author is good on the origins of the blockhouses, tracing their use in earlier imperial conflicts. It was surely no coincidence that Field Marshal Roberts and General Kitchener, who introduced them into South Africa, had held commands in Afghanistan and Sudan respectively, where similar structures had been erected.

Green concludes that the blockhouses played a critical role in bringing about the defeat of the Boers, notwithstanding General Christiaan de Wet’s dismissal of them as the ‘blockhead policy’.

The book closes with a passionate plea for conservation. Many blockhouses were unsurprisingly looted for building materials after the war, and although some have been designated as historical monuments, they have suffered from the depredations of time and neglect. The case for maintaining these silent witnesses to a critical episode in British imperial and South African history is well made.

Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses is a book that anyone with a serious interest in the conflict will want to read. The text is supported by a number of good-quality illustrations, including some striking photographs of blockhouses today. For those who wish to explore further, the appendices provide a wealth of documentation, and there is a helpful glossary and bibliography, though, curiously, no index.

The book goes beyond the strict confines of its title, with informative sections on related issues such as armoured trains, wireless communications, steam traction engines, and the role of the Black African population.

What is now needed is a comprehensive study of military technology in the war, comparable to Barton C Hacker’s volume a few years ago on the American Civil War, Astride Two Worlds. Simon Green is ideally placed to write such a book.

Review by Graham Goodlad.
Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses: a military engineer’s perspective, Simon C Green, Porcupine Press, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978-1928455561.