Prisoners of War
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We wrote about the family of Charles Stentiford and Sarah Warren  in Issue 44 and briefly mentioned that his eldest son, another Charles, had made the Army his career.

The 1891 Census shows young Charles at the age of 18 as a regular soldier in the Devonshire Regiment, stationed at the Higher Barracks in Exeter. At that time, the Regiment consisted of a mixture of Regulars and Volunteers. Small groups of volunteers met regularly in their local area for drill and shooting contests then the groups came together at annual training camps to show off the skills they had acquired and to learn to work as a cohesive unit. They were paid a retainer for the remainder of the year, during which they followed their normal occupation. The theory was that in times of trouble they could be drawn upon to support the Regulars but this was only to be on a strictly voluntary basis.

When the Boer war broke out in the October of 1899, the regular soldiers of the Devonshire Regiment were ordered to embark for South Africa under the command of their General, Sir Redvers Buller VC. These were not battle-hardened troops but soldiers who had mainly seen service in India and other parts of the Empire in times of peace. Everyone expected that what was seen here as a few farmers making a nuisance of themselves would soon be put down and the troops would be home for Christmas but everyone was wrong. The war dragged on for  nearly 3 years with very heavy loss of life on both sides.

Both sides took many prisoners and at first, most captives received reasonable treatment in compounds offering some shelter but as food and medical supplies ran out, and rumours began to circulate of atrocities, many captured men received short shrift from their captors with some being shot out of hand.  Others were sent as far away as Bermuda where they were kept in such harsh conditions that many prisoners did not survive their captivity. 

Private Charles Stentiford was captured in the early stages of the war at the Battle of Colenso along with other members of the Devonshire Regiment. They were taken to a railway station called Waterval not far from Pretoria in the heart of Boer Territory. There, some 4000 British prisoners were housed in sheds in the sidings. Officers were held separately in Pretoria.


From the Anglo-Boer War website:

"The hospital at the Racecourse was used for wounded and sick prisoners until the fall of Pretoria. The officers remained at the Staats Model School until 16 March 1900 when they were moved to their new quarters known as the Birdcage at Daspoort.

The welfare of the prisoners was controlled by a board of management consisting of four persons. They were Louis da Souza, Commandant Opperman, directly responsible for the safe custody of the prisoners, Dr Gunning, who was Opperman's assistant and Hans Malan. Opperman was replaced by a Mr Westerink in March 1900.

The 129 officers and 36 soldiers detrained at the Staats Model School were released on the 5th of June 1900. On the 6th of June Colonel T C Porter's Brigade was ordered to affect the release of the men confined at Waterval. A squadron of Greys under Captain Maude finally released some 3187 men.

It was found that 900 prisoners had been removed by the Boers from Waterval on the 4th of June. These men were now detained at Nooitgedacht. They were eventually released by the Earl of Dundonald on the 30th of August 1900.

When General French entered Barberton in September 1900, he released the final group of prisoners namely twenty-three officers and fifty-nine soldiers whom the Boers had removed from Nooitgedacht. Most of them had been confined in a barbed wire enclosure while some were housed in the local goal."


There was no agency like the Red Cross which could act over and above the combatants to safeguard the interests of those captured on the field of battle. As the war in South Africa descended into chaos, the British became involved in another war half a world away in China and you can tell by our newspapers of the period, how that replaced the Boer War as an object of public concern. And now the atrocities really did occur. Both sides shot the wounded on the field of battle because dealing with them seemed too difficult to arrange . . . . . and the British, and it may surprise you to learn that it was the British, invented the concentration camp. 


Boer women and children in a British concentration camp

Boer women and children in a British concentration camp

c. 1901

Courtesy of Wikipedia


And the worse thing for both sides was that no-one back home had any idea what was happening to their loved ones. In Britain, The War Office published sketchy casualty lists on a weekly basis but these were usually inaccurate. Initially, Charles Stentiford was posted as "missing" so that no-one knew if he was dead or alive - he simply had not answered to his name at the roll call.

On 5 Jun 1900, Lord Roberts with some 50,000 men made a triumphal entry into Pretoria and captured it. It was only after the release of the prisoners from their camps that anyone could know the names of those who had survived imprisonment. It was another 3 - 5 weeks before lists of names began to be issued to the press in London and further time passed before this information filtered through to the provinces - an agonising period of waiting for the families of the men involved.


From The Devon Weekly Times

8 Jun 1900


"Waterval, to which place the British prisoners were removed some months ago, is the second station on the railway line to Pretoria. The prisoners, to the number of about four thousand, were housed here in sheds, with the exception of the officers who were kept in Pretoria. It is reported that they have been released and since General French was to the north of the town on Monday, it is probably by him that they have been liberated.


The total number of missing and prisoners, according to the latest official return, was 4,348 non-commissioned officers and men and 178 officers, excluding those who have been recovered or released, but many, we know, are in hospital. 


150 officers and 3,500 non-commissioned officers and men are now safe in our camps. However, the retreating Boers have carried off some 900 men. They had intended taking away all the prisoners but the arrival of the victorious British Army frustrated their plans.




From The Devon Weekly Times

13 July 1900


The War Office on Tuesday issued the fourth instalment of the lists of prisoners recovered at Pretoria. It included the following men:


1711 Colour Sergeant C. Smith 4872 Private W. Heale
4441 Sergeant Boyd 2001 Private C. Heard
1947 Sergeant W. J. Wade 2752 Private F E Hemming
3210 Corporal W. Frost 5049 Private G Kitson

3861 Corporal Channon

2006 Private H Kelly
2385 Lance Corporal R. H. Arbury 2025 Private P Murphy
4737 Corporal J, Longdon 3241 Private G Hobbs
4493 Drummer G. Ellacott 2033 Private J Richards
1863 Private A. Allen 3129 Private H Slade
2633 Private J. J. Billing 3671 Private J Snook
3741 Private W E Bobley 3171 Private C. Stentiford*
2015 Private Breadmore 2938 Private W Sweetland
2854 Private A. Bulley 4966 Private G Batstone (in hospital)
3463 Private C. G. Hancock 2371 Private H. Tennant
1094 Private M Hayes 2206 Private J Wren


* Charles married Mary Cobley in 1902 and died in Exeter in the December Quarter of 1938 aged 65.


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Last modiied: 30/05/2007