Concentration Camps- for Horses!

It is very interesting being an Archive Blogger and having access to so many maps and documents that provide windows to the past. There is, however, one problem that continually arises when you are researching a specific topic, the distraction of finding other interesting stories. One minute you are on focus and the next, you are off on a tangent; in this case, wondering why during the First World War, there were concentration camps for horses!

As I was steadily ploughing through a small pile of archive material on my chosen topic for a blog on ‘Fear of Invasion’, my eyes suddenly caught the words ‘Concentration Camp’. Having visited Belsen, these two words automatically brought to mind the horrors of the holocaust and the cynical phrase “Arbeit macht frei” above the gates of Auschwitz. However, the letter that I was looking at did not relate to Nazi Germany during the 1940s, but was referring to the arrangements for horses around Fakenham in April 1917!

image 1

Extract of letter referring to ‘The Concentration Camp for Serviceable horses’. NRO, PD 374/83

What on earth was ‘para 4 of the new poster’? I had only seen one poster in my archive material and it was grandly entitled ‘Defence of the Realm’. I rummaged through the sheaths of papers and dug it out. Having scanned down to para 4, I was surprised to find it entitled ‘Movement of Cattle’. Scanning the text I found no mention of horses. However, once again I discovered the term ‘concentration camp’ – but for cattle!

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Extract of poster referring to ‘Movement of Cattle’. NRO, MC 561/122, 808×9

The cattle obviously had to be corralled into small enclosures for branding and, in some cases, shot. 

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Extract of instructions relating to livestock in the event of invasion. NRO, MC 561/122, 808×9

The instructions had connotations of the Nazi death camps but at least the branding and killings were livestock, rather than humans. A little later on, I came across another ‘Defence of the Realm’ poster. This one was dated April 2nd1917, issued a few days before the letter referring to horses. Scanning down to para 4, I found the instructions regarding cattle had indeed been replaced by the ‘Movement of useable horses’ to – ‘concentration camps’. 

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Extract of poster showing the heading: ‘Movement of Useable Horses’ and ‘Concentration camp for horses’. NRO, PD 602/102

Whilst the literal meaning of the instructions were clear, i.e. the concentrating of livestock and horses into ‘camps’, I was still intrigued as to why the term ‘concentration camp’ was being used. Investigations were required and after returning home, I set about checking for relevant background information.

I was aware that the use of concentration camps was attributed to the British during the second Boer war but I didn’t know that ‘reconcentration’ was first used in Cuba. The Spanish governor-general of the island wrote that, to achieve victory over insurgents, it was necessary to isolate the rebels from the peasants who sometimes fed or sheltered them. He suggested that it would be necessary to relocate hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants into Spanish-held cities behind barbed wire, a strategy he called reconcentraciónIn 1897, these suggestions were carried out by General Valeriano Weyler (nicknamed “the Butcher”). Civilians were forced, on penalty of death, to move into these encampments, and within a year the island held tens of thousands of ‘reconcentrados’. Horrific living conditions and lack of food eventually took the lives of some 150,000 people.

There was outrage in the United States over Spain’s tactics, despite the hypocrisy of their own policy, which forced Native Americans to be resettled into reservations. Initially, the USA provided aid to the starving Cubans, but the US then became involved militarily, following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbour (February 1898). Making a call to arms before Congress, President McKinley said of the policy of reconcentración: “It was not civilized warfare. It was extermination.”

After quickly ousting the Spanish from Cuba, the Americans also took over the island and several other Spanish colonies, including the Philippines. Despite President McKinley’s damning condemnation of reconcentración,in a further act of hypocrisy, the American armed forces used exactly the same tactics to suppress Filipino insurgents just 3 years later in 1901. 

It had been shown that the recent inventions of light machine guns and barbed wire were very effective in moving and controlling large numbers of people using only a small number of soldiers. It is therefore not surprising that the British army employed the same tactics. Their use of ‘concentration camps’ during the second Boer war as an effective way of controlling the guerrilla tactics of the Boer fighters who were being supported and hidden amongst the civilian population. 

During the army’s scorched earth campaign, many tens of thousands of civilians were forcibly relocated into 45 ‘camps of refuge’ for Boers and 64 camps for black Africans (who only received half of the meagre rations given to the whites). The detainees were mostly women and children and more than 26000 of them died. Overcrowding not only resulted in extreme food shortages but also poor sanitation and the pollution of water supplies. This in turn caused the spread of infectious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery, to which the children were particularly vulnerable. In all, about a quarter of the Boer detainees, mostly children, died of malnutrition, disease and exposure. Medical services were very limited and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had served as a volunteer doctor in the Langman Field Hospital at Bloemfontein, tried to justify the handling of the conflict. He pointed out that over 14,000 British soldiers had died of disease during the conflict (as opposed to 8000 killed in combat) 

Back in Britain, the idea of punishing civilians, together with the army’s mismanagement and almost cynical neglect of the detainees caused public outrage. A commission was set up which was unique for its time, as it was composed entirely of women and headed by Millicent Fawcett, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement. Conditions in the camps gradually improved, but not before Britain was tarnished with the reputation of initiating the use of concentration camps.  

The practise of interning civilian populations was considered a harsh but necessary control measure but a more sinister approach appeared shortly after when, in 1904, the German army began operating concentration camps in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) as part of its genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples.

By the outset of WW1, the prospect of opening concentration camps within Britain was raised. After the sinking of the Lusitania, the internment of German speaking nationals intensified, though camp conditions in Britain still reflected a ‘gentlemanly’ approach to class distinctions by allowing better treatment for officers within the various camps.

Against this historical background, it seems strange that a utilitarian approach to using the term ‘concentration camp’ appears out of step with its military connotations. Given the limited developments in communication, media coverage and general education, it is probable that the evolution of everyday phrases were slow in adapting to updated views. From a modern perspective, referring to a concentration camp, even of animals, seems an abhorrent term but thankfully, Norfolk was still then unaware of its implications of genocide. 

I could spend further time exploring source material, to look at the balance of terms used during the period of the Great War i.e. Refugee camps / Internment camps / Prisoner of War camps / and Concentration camps during that period. However, with the focus of  my research having gone off on a tangent, it is time to get back to my original investigations.

Compiled by Martin Claxton, NRO Research Blogger

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