Since the beginning of the campaign in South Africa 259 officers and 6,840 non-commissioned officers and men have, according to the last returns from the War Office, been taken prisoners. Of these 182 officers and 4,037 men have been released or have escaped, and 1 officer and 85 men have died. When the Boers evacuated Pretoria they managed to carry off some 900 of their prisoners with them. These they took to Nooitgedacht, in the Eland’s Valley, where in the summer months malarial fever is especially prevalent. At this season, however, cases seldom occur, and the conditions are generally healthy. But the prisoners there had by no means a pleasant experience. They were confined in a barbed-wire enclosure, and for some time no overhead shelter was erected for them. The treatment of British prisoners seems to have varied considerably. Some of the liberated British officers, it is said, reported that they were well treated, but subjected to constant paltry annoyances and pin-pricks. They were somewhat worried after the first escape of officers, the authorities showing their annoyance by bullying the rest. But this is a pleasant picture compared to some other accounts.
The treatment of the Waterval prisoners was shocking, says the Chronicle's correspondent at Pretoria. They were gaunt, haggard, starved, unsheltered, living skeletons. A hundred broke out of prison and killed cattle for food. Sixteen officers, at the request of the Boers, were transferred to Waterval to prevent the men from doing something desperate. They were released none too soon.
Again, there is the testimony of Dr. Willis, of the 1st Mounted Infantry, who was wounded at Zoffery Spruit, south-east of Pretoria, and taken prisoner on July 16, and taken to Nooitgedacht, where he found 1,775 of our men and thirty officers. He was kept a close prisoner in a railway carriage for fourteen days, and was not allowed to take any exercise. But his repeated letters to Mr. Kruger and General Botha, complaining of inhuman treatment, brought about his release.
Dr. Willis, according to the correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, declares solemnly that the Boers are treating their prisoners infamously. The men are only allowed three pounds of mealie meal, with one and a half pounds of flour weekly. Those who have money may purchase food, but otherwise they go without it. Many of them are in an emaciated condition.
It would seem that the treatment meted out by the Boers to their prisoners has become worse and worse as the tide of fortune has turned against them. The stories told by some of the released prisoners are pitiful. Several hundred Yeomanry and others captured in the Free State and subsequently liberated made their way into Natal. They arrived at Ladysmith after suffering great hardships en route from intense cold and want of food. All the released men were tattered and torn, and presented a most woe-begone appearance. They stated that they were in a condition of semi-starvation, having subsisted mainly upon mealy cobs since they were captured, over a month before. They were made to take forced marches in all directions to prevent them from being recaptured by the British columns, who kept De Wet’s force constantly on the move.
Perhaps one of the most vivid descriptions of the condition of prisoners in the hands of the Boers yet received is that sent to the Daily Mail by the Earl of Rosslyn, who, writing of his visit on parole to the Pretoria prisoners, said that the appearance of the men betokened the great suffering they had endured. Threadbare clothing and pinched, gaunt, dirty faces were soon explained by the condition of the camp, which was filthy in the extreme. There were four long streets of lean-to sheds, open at the front. Though the majority of the men had stretcher beds, there were many compelled to sleep on the bare veldt with only one rug as a protection against the intense cold of the winter nights. Some had been driven to burn their wooden bedsteads to cook the meagre fare they had been allowed. They had sometimes made their tea, or rather toast-and-water, from burnt bread-crumbs.
Extract from a letter to his mother, by Norman Holden, Irish Yeomanry, written at Nooitgedacht Camp, on July 12th 1900.
"We are here in a little valley amongst high hills, and our settlement is surrounded by barbed wire. We are divided up into "messes" of different sizes, mostly formed of fellows who were together most in the campaign, though that was short enough. Our mess is eleven strong, two of whom are colonial scouts, and they do most of the cooking; for the rations are served out uncooked, and you have got to get them cooked some way yourselves. Don't imagine that we are in our mess at any rate, are starving. I will give you to-day's menu so far: - Breakfast: porridge, kippered herrings (tinned), scones, butter and coffee. Lunch: kedgeree, scones, butter and tea. Dinner: that has not come off yet. We do not indulge in afternoon teas." The Haslingden Guardian, 25.8.1900