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Blockhouses of the Boer War

  Introduction  

The tactic of building a chain of forts came from the American war in Cuba in 1898. This campaign, which had settled down to a series of inconclusive actions, had demonstrated effectively that forts could not prevent guerrilla action. But it was the blockhouse and the concentration camps that were to be major factor contributing to ending of the war.

Lord F. S. Roberts had set up a series of forts to guard the railway, when Gen C. R de Wet started systematically blowing up his lines of communication in June 1900. The railway line was the only effective and fastest means of communication. The forts were a series of trenches reinforced with stone walls or sangers surrounded by barbed wire. The reason being that the Boers still possessed a few artillery pieces capable of destroying any fixture that might be built. As the war lingered on the Boers discarded their artillery pieces paving the way for more permanent structures to protect railway bridges and the railway itself.

Roberts handed over the command of the British Army in South Africa to Lord H. Kitchener on 29 October 1900 thinking the war was over and only a few rebels roaming the country. It was during November and December that wrecking of the railways had reached its maximum during the war and construction of the masonry blockhouses started in December that year. Each masonry blockhouse took up to three months to erect costing between £800 and £1 000 each. Realising that thousands of blockhouses would be needed Kitchener resorted to prefabricated forts. Kitchener being a military engineer had found his métier ! Several prototypes were constructed but the one developed by Major S. R. Rice was to be adopted.

Kitchener’s strategy was to divide the country into small areas by fortified lines preventing the Boers from crossing from one area to the next. It would be possible to move British columns by train into areas of Boer activity and attack them with precision and rapidity. Later on Kitchener started his “Land Clearance” policy were his columns could completely clear an area and deny the Boer commando's food and rest. As the war dragged on the hunted Boer would have three choices. To try and break through the blockhouse line, to break back through the mounted infantry pursuing them or to give up the hopeless struggle and voluntary pay the toll to the bag.

In the end there were over 8 000 blockhouses of all different types constructed during the war. Some 50 000 men were deployed to guard all the blockhouses. The length of blockhouse lines covered up to 6 000 KM. The whole cost of erecting the blockhouses with all their entanglements, was over £1 000 000. Gen de Wet called Kitchener’s blockhouse system the blockhead system.

 

  Masonry Blockhouses

Most of the 441 masonry blockhouses were constructed between December 1900 and the early part of 1901. They were mostly built to the standard three-storyed blockhouse design by Major-General E. Wood (Chief Engineer) using mortared stonework or reinforced concrete. They were erected at important points such as railway bridges, railway stations and towns.

The standard three storey masonry blockhouse housed between seven and forty men, commanded by a subaltern (Army officer below the rank of Captain) or senior NCO. The use of the ground floor was for storage, the first floor as a living area and the second floor for observation over the countryside. The gap between the eaves of the pyramid shaped timber and corrugated iron roof and the top of the parapet wall on the second floor was closed by canvas “drops” during foul weather. Two steel machicouli galleries were placed at two diagonally opposite corners to allow flanking fire along the walls in case of an attack. They could also be used as a mounting platform for a machine gun. Access to the blockhouse was by means of a ladder to a steel stable type door situated on the first floor. The ladder could be drawn up inside in an event of an attack. Trap doors were situated in the middle of each wooden floor and access to the next floor was by means of a wooden ladder. The interior walls and woodwork were lime whited, this increases light and preserves the timber and makes for cleanliness.

Each loophole was numbered to facilitate the speedy dispersal of each soldier to his post in an event of an attack. The roof was fitted with galvanised gutters, which discharged rainwater through internal downpipes to circular corrugated iron water tanks on the ground floor. The tanks were topped up regularly in dry weather by train or water cart. Food, water, ammunition and mail was also delivered by train or cart

 
 

  Corrugated Iron Blockhouses

The first metal blockhouse was built at Nelspruit, January 1901. This was a rectangular building that consisted of an inner and outer corrugated iron supported by wooden poles imbedded in the ground. The inner and outer skins of corrugated iron were separated by 25 centimetres filled with stone and sand. Small loopholes were made by cutting openings in the wall. This provided sufficient protection from rifle fire.

By February Major Rice had developed his circular corrugated iron blockhouse. He retained the idea of two corrugated iron skins to be separated by shingle sufficiently to stop rifle fire. The circular design provided good all round visibility and the lack of corners did away with the need for wooden posts. Wood rots and splinters when hit by bullets or shrapnel putting the occupants at greater risk. The steel door to the blockhouse was sheltered by another piece of corrugated iron. The Major Rice blockhouse could be erected in six hours by six trained men. The only change to his successful design was the replacing of the square gabled roofs by a circular one that gave rise to the name of “Pepperpot blockhouse”. With mass production the cost to build a blockhouse dropped from £44 down to £16.

Each blockhouse was surrounded by a stone wall about 0,6 meters high. Circular and radiating trenches were dug and stone sangers erected. This allowed the garrison to get in and out and fight from the prepared defensive position. Barbed wire entanglements were fashioned to provide a seemingly impregnable defence. A typical corrugated blockhouse garrison consisted of seven men, one junior NCO and six men. A lieutenant would have charge of three to four blockhouses and a captain ten to twelve. A battalion could occupy up to 60 blockhouses. Stores and food were kept in the space under the roof.

 

  Kitchener’s Maginot Line

Blockhouses were at first put up at 2.5 Km intervals on the main railway lines. This had an effect in stopping the disruption of the railway lines and bridges. The large intervals between blockhouses did not stop Boer commandos from crossing the railway lines at night. As the war progressed the interval between blockhouses was reduced and on the Ermelo - Standerton line the interval was reduced down to 700 meters. The longest protected line was the 280 Kilometre Komatipoort to Wonderfontein railway line. Kitchener also resorted to building 34 cross-country blockhouses. Though independent of the blockhouse system, some Royal Engineer companies fitted up shields on ox-wagons and thus converted them into mobile blockhouses for use with convoys, or for “stopping” some point where the Boers crossed the line.

Barbed wire fortifications were placed between adjacent blockhouses. Later on stronger annealed wire was used which could not be severed by simple wire cutters. Bells and various noisy items were placed on the fence to sound an alarm when being tampered with. Even loaded rifles that fired automatically by trip wire and chemical alarms producing a flare were being employed by the end of the war. Blockhouses were arranged with their loopholes angled away from each other so that rifle fire from one blockhouse would be directed away from its neighbours. When a number of blockhouses opened up with rifle and machine gun fire, the whole surrounding area would be swept systematically with bullets. Under such conditions it was almost impossible for Boers to slip between the Blockhouses. This made it difficult for Boer leaders to unite their commandos for co-ordinated action.

 

  Life in a Blockhouse

Life in the blockhouse was very dull and tedious. The routine was simple and unchanging, the possibility of Boers trying to cross the blockhouse line always present. There was little scope for amusement on the veldt. A common diversion was the erection of dummy sentries. Blockhouse sentries, especially at night, were understandably nervous and tended to shoot at any sound.

Apart from sentry duty, there was nothing to do, and Tommy Adkins the ordinary British soldier became jumpy and ill tempered. They made the best of the blockhouse. They planted petunias in Bully-Beef tins. They chalked up the usual facetious names like Krugers Castle, Rundle’s starving eight and Chamberlain’s innocent victims. And they wrote letters for the weekly mail wagon to take back home. There was little gossip about on the telephone that connected every blockhouse to its neighbours. There were pets to be looked after, dogs, goats, pigs and lizards. There were the convoys that passed from time to time.

A summer night storm would rattle all those tin cans connected on the trip wires. This caused Tommy Adkins to fire a fusillade of shot into the darkness. When one of the automatic flares was tripped, all blockhouses that saw the signal began to fire even when nothing was visible in the dark. Unfortunately the flares could be activated by animals wandering into the fence. In one such occasion the firing spread up and down the line for about 160 Kilometres.

The English poet and author Rudyard Kipling (1869-1936) of the Jungle Book fame describes the men manning the blockhouse in his poem BRIDGE GUARD IN THE KARROO.

No, not combatants - only details guarding the line.

The blockhouse was part of a successful strategy that eventually brought the 'bittereinder' Boers to the negotiating table. Although the Boer general, Christiaan De Wet, thought they prolonged the war because the great expansion of the blockhouse system in mid-1901 allowed the Boers to regroup and fight on.

 

   

by Mike Hanslow
photos: author's collection

© National Boer War Memorial Association Inc ABN 49 709 547 198