Anglo-Boer War (South African War)

Recently, Sarah Welham, convenor of the Friends of the Johannesburg Cemeteries, and I completed an exploratory road trip of the battlefields route between Koppies and Kroonstad, in the northern Free State.

Occasionally South African swop shops (pawn shops) have some historic photographic gems on offer, as was the experience just prior to Covid-19 lockdown at one such Cape Town based swop shop. The owner of the shop went scratching when asked for old photographs by the author.

Out came a box with some significant historical images, amongst them four photographs relating to a single South African maritime catastrophe.

1) Catastrophes photographed

The remains of the largest fortification built by the British during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) is still to be seen today on Strubenkop in Lynnwood, Pretoria. The site today is a nature reserve managed by the City of Tshwane but apart from the remains of the fort nothing much is left on the hill. It is therefore believed that the reserve was proclaimed to preserve what was left of the building.

Nita Meyer and her husband, Izak, farmed at “Twyfelfontein” near Laffnie’s Drift on the Buffalo River. Her original diary, written in high Dutch and covering hundreds of pages, is held at the Talana Museum archives.

Izak was a burgher of the Utrecht Republiek and a brother of President Lukas Meyer of the Nieuwe Republiek at Vryheid. Nita was the daughter of Doctor Aveling, of Harrismith. They had two children, Marthie and Izzie.

This article is about William English, (1875-1915), a miner originally from the North-East of England who through hard work became a mining engineer in the gold mines of South Africa. It is based on the website williamenglish.net which includes his journal, poems and additional commentary. Creating the website has been a project for William’s descendants, Hilary Norris and Larry Cunningham.

Just prior to the outbreak of the Boer War, the small mining and railway village of Hattingspruit, only a few kilometres north of Dundee, grabbed some reflected limelight. This was due to the incredible physical exertion of 7 000 Zulu workers who walked from the Witwatersrand Goldfields back to their homes in Zululand.

This week’s news reports about the current spike in the Covid pandemic echo down the ages to 120 years ago. Stories about the measles outbreak in the winter of 1901 in the Potchefstroom concentration camp sound eerily familiar with overcrowded hospitals, exhausted medical staff and a lack of beds and medical equipment – and a very high mortality rate.

“An increasing number (of horses) are killed for rations and today 28 were especially shot for the chevril factory”.  HA Nevinson war reporter for The Daily Chronicle.

 

The Penn Symons flag arrived in the post addressed to the Museum Dundee back in the early 1980s. It has been on permanent display in the museum since 1983. It has an interesting story and one that is personally connected to my forebears.

 

In 1901 the Duke of Cornwall and York – the future King George V – and his wife embarked on the longest official tour ever undertaken by the British Royal family. The tour lasted for nearly eight months and most of it was spent in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, with brief calls at Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Ceylon, Singapore and Mauritius. They travelled almost 50 000 miles.

“I have had, in the last four years, the advantage, if it be an advantage, of many strange and varied experiences. But nothing was so thrilling as this: to wait and struggle among these clanging, rending iron boxes, with the repeated explosions of the shells and the artillery, the grunting and puffing of the engine – poor, tortured thing, harassed by at least a dozen shells, any one of which, by penetrating the boiler, might have made an end to it all”. W.L.S. Churchill.

 

In August 2020, a Blue Plaque was unveiled at Swartruggens on the 120th anniversary of the siege of the Elands River Post. It commemorates the remarkable resilience of a small garrison of Australians and Rhodesians during the South African War. General Jan Smuts, who took part on the Boer side, described it thus:

As you approach Hartbeespoort Dam on the R511, the road rises steeply over Saartjie’s Nek to reveal a spectacular view of the dam with the cliffs of the Magaliesberg behind. On a koppie to the right, a massive granite cross commemorates General Hendrik Schoeman and overlooks the grand panorama that he envisioned but never lived to see.
 
The memorial
 

In May 1900, Lord Roberts of Kandahar, Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, was poised to culminate his illustrious military career by marching triumphantly into his enemy’s capital city and concluding the South African War. But it was a charade. There could be no victory without a vanquished foe and the Boer leaders were still at large with a fighting remnant of their army. Another two bitter years of warfare lay ahead.

 

The Battle of Diamond Hill took place on the 11 and 12 June 1900. Sir Ian Hamilton, one of the generals who took part in the battle, described it as the turning point in the South African War, so in this Memoir we look at what happened and why it was so important.

 

A recent invitation to spend a weekend in the Western Free State provided an opportunity to visit the cemetery at the small town of Bultfontein. Situated approximately 90 kilometres north of Bloemfontein, I had passed through this town at least fifteen years ago, when I cursorily traipsed the cemetery. This time I undertook to explore it in more detail.

When the Boer raiding party rode into Elandslaagte on 19 October 1899  they first made a turn at David Harris’ imposing red-brick residence. Harris, the General Manager of the Elandslaagte Colliery, was having dinner with Simpson Mitchell-Innes of the farm “Blanerne”, who was also one of the Directors of the Colliery. The ten minutes spent in conversation there gave the acting Station Master, G.P. Atkinson and his clerk, D. Christie, an opportunity to warn Ladysmith of the Boer’s arrival via the telegraph.

Known as “Long Toms”, the four 155mm siege guns installed in the forts to protect Pretoria, were supposed to be far too big and cumbersome to move, yet one of them (nicknamed Schanskop Tom), which had originally been installed at Fort Schanskop, was used to drive the British out of Dundee. It was manoeuvred up Impati Mountain and shelled the British camp on Ryley’s Hill. Unable to retaliate, the British were forced to withdraw from Dundee and make a hazardous, but mostly uncomfortable (in the pelting rain) retirement to Ladysmith.

During mid-2019, an exceptional Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902) collection of artefacts went up on auction at a Johannesburg based auction house. Photographic images in this collection fetched high prices. However, images that high-end bidders did not pursue with the same vigour were magic lantern slides in the collection. Why would this be?

 

With reference to the early Durban based photographers Caney, one author recently confirmed the challenge in “disentangling” the relationship between the various Caney individuals.

The number of Caney photographs identified in the Hardijzer Photographic Research Collection also confirms that closer scrutiny was required as to who these photographers were. The photographs in this research collection, all dating from prior to 1905, include studio-based images as well as images captured during the Anglo-Boer war.

Dawn. Dundee, Natal. 20 October 1899. It was bitterly cold. Indeed, it had uncharacteristically snowed the previous week. Huge banks of fog covered the town and surrounding high ground. Intermittent drizzle made everything clammy and miserable. Breath puffed out like a steam train. All in all, a time for any sensible person to be indoors, in bed.

Although suffering from the worst drought in decades, one hopes that the rainy season is going to hit Zululand with a vengeance this year. From mid October onwards the heavens open up and the countryside transforms itself from harsh, barren, rock strewn tawny hillsides into rolling slopes covered with emerald green grass, rushing rivers and sparkling air. Looming massively on the skyline, and lit most afternoons by truly spectacular forked lightning streaking across the pitch black sky, Itala Mountain has a particularly eerie feel to it.

A Northumbrian by birth, Dr Prideaux Selby was already a middle aged bachelor when he sailed with the Byrnes' settlers to South Africa in 1850. He became the first doctor and Justice of the Peace to the Boer families in the Biggarsberg and lived at “Mooiplaas” for 25 years. He was held in high regard and loved by the Boer families – so much so that the names “Prideaux” and “Selby” were used extensively by the Boer families to name their children.

The year of 1812 is mainly remembered for Napoleon Bonaparte’s ruinous retreat from Moscow, when his “Grande Armee” was forced to evacuate the city or face starvation with the Russian winter impending. It was the beginning of the end for “Boney” and his defeat would eventually lead him to abdicate as emperor of France in 1814. Napoleon’s failed “Russian Campaign” would be known as the “Patriotic War of 1812” by the Russians and seventy years later would be celebrated by the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” in Moscow.

Ordinances of the Transvaal 1903, 1904 and Statutes of the Transvaal 1907. Whoever wants to look at old, dry, dusty, obsolete law books? Law books date, they take up space on shelves and laws are repealed. Legal language is precise and unemotional. The Transvaal ceased to exist in 1994 and today a completely different provincial government structure has replaced the pre 1994 arrangement of four all white driven apartheid provinces and the 10 bantustans.

Last weekend (Sunday 3rd February 2019) I joined ten heritage stalwarts of Kensington who came together to acknowledge history and pay homage to a remarkable war memorial and the men whose names once appeared on it. We gathered because during January 2019 the memorial had been extensively and probably irreparably damaged. Erica Lűttich had together with her students created an art installation by wrapping the memorial in cloth.

When you read the book ‘Letters of Stone’ by South African author Steven Robins, which tracks the lives and fates of the Robinsky family in Southern Africa, Berlin, Riga and ultimately Auschwitz, you may be tempted to visit Williston to experience first-hand where one of the principal figures of this poignant story lived. Here you will find Robinsky Street, commemorating Robins’ great uncle Eugen Robinski who fled Konigsberg, East Prussia to become a successful businessman, hotel owner and one-time mayor of this small Karoo town.

Forgotten men of the Indian Army left their imprint in Observatory, Johannesburg during the early 1900s. Although their story has been largely forgotten and lost to public memory, a monument at the summit of Observatory Ridge honours their memory. This Indian Monument stands as a memorial to Indians who fell in the Anglo-Boer War / South African War of 1899-1902, overlooking the valley where Indians served at a remount camp during the War. Erected soon after the end of hostilities, the Indian War Memorial was launched in the first flush of peace amidst a wave of

Middelburg is one of those towns one usually bypasses while travelling to the Loskop Dam, the Kruger Park or the Mpumalanga Escarpment, not realizing it offers interesting sightseeing opportunities.

There is a historic Dutch Reformed Church established by the controversial Reverend Frans Lion Cachet in 1866, when the community was still known as Nazareth. Later the town’s name was changed to Middelburg, as it was midway between the two principal Transvaal towns of Pretoria (Tshwane) and Lydenburg (Mashishing).

A friend who grew up in Germiston claimed at his recent birthday bash that while you could leave Germiston, it would never leave you. His words mulled through my mind as I arrived at the Primrose Cemetery. Visiting a historic cemetery like Primrose is similar to visiting an interesting museum. Instead of viewing artifacts one sees the tombstones of people who participated in events that may have shaped one’s life in one way or another. One also starts better interpreting the tombstone symbols and appraising the epitaphs. 

 

September was Heritage Month but here I was in October invited to spend a weekend at Kedar Heritage Lodge to join the celebrations for the unveiling of a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill. Why October? Why Churchill in the Bushveld? Then I remembered. Kedar is a modern reincarnation of President Kruger’s farm and country estate, Boekenhoutfontein (meaning Beech-wood Spring). Now located in the Northwest Province, it was once a jewel in the Transvaal Republic.

Most Gauteng holiday makers break their journey to the KZN Coast at one of the Ultra City or Star Stop facilities at Harrismith or Van Reenen’s Pass. Once fortified with fuel, fast food and soft drinks, they continue on their way, aware they are halfway to Durban.

This is a pity as they miss the opportunity to visit one of the more interesting and historical cemeteries in South Africa. This is the old Harrismith Municipal Cemetery, situated north-east of the corner of Laksman and Greyling Streets.

A few years ago, I needed to write my memoir to understand myself but as my mother had had a great effect on my childhood and the person I became, I realised that that was where I should start. However, it soon became apparent that her childhood was the reason for who she became. So perhaps I needed to start with my grandmother, who died when my mother was eleven years old. But I didn't even know my grandmother’s name!

Photography is the only “language” that is understood worldwide, resulting in a bridge being created between nations and cultures – it connects the family of humanity. Independent of political influence – where people are free – it provides us with an honest reflection about life and events, allows us to share in the hope, joy and despair of others, and potentially lightens political and social burdens. This way we become witnesses, not only of humanity, but also of the brutality of human kind (Gernsheim as quoted in Sontag 1977).

Beautifully situated in the Heidelberg Kloof is the Kloof cemetery, the original and oldest cemetery of the town. In fact, the oldest grave goes back to before the town was established. I'd like to take you on a walk through the graves, picking up a specific grave stone here and there.

Heinrich Ueckermann

The town started with Heinrich Ueckermann, he set up the first trading store in what now is the town.

 

We South Africans live in a polyglot society, which under our Constitution, has 11 official languages that “must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”. Mother tongues range from Afrikaans to IsiZulu, from isiXhosa to Setswana, however to stop us being a modern Tower of Babel we largely use one language to communicate between each other and that is English. In doing so we are reflecting a world wide trend. In today’s world English has become the “Lingua Franca” replacing French as the language of diplomacy and German in the field of science.

Jannie Roggeband, a Dutch citizen, was a field ambulance volunteer during the Anglo Boar War (1899-1902). Roggeband had a powerful accolade published in the Ficksburg community newspaper on 4 January 1923, a few days after the death of General George Alfred Brand (10 February 1875 – 24 December 1922). General Brand, one of President and Lady Brand’s 11 children, passed away at the young age of 47. A family photograph circa 1882, in the author’s collection, shows George and his older siblings, 7 of which were boys.

As a collector and researcher of Anglo Boer war related images the author, on occasions, finds original letters or newspaper clippings that relate to the “sitter” (person in the photograph) who was either a participant in the Boer War or simply a citizen caught up in the war.

Photographs in themselves tell stories, but to find personal letters either written by, or addressed to, the sitter enriches the story. The author feels compelled to record some of these personal stories – like this one:

Stereo photography is a craze that has swept the world since 1851, so much so that modern View Masters are still being produced commercially today. Stereo images (two photographs of the same subject, taken from slightly different angles but covering the same subject area, and mounted side by side) must be viewed through a special viewer where the two images then fuse into one giving a visual impression of subject depth – or a three dimensional effect.

With a melodic sounding name the Riemland is largely an area of wide flat horizons interspersed with not much else. It is however home to some very interesting heritage hotspots in the country. The Riemland covers most of the north and north-eastern Free State, including the towns of Sasolburg, Heilbron, Petrus Steyn, Lindley, Arlington and Senekal.

In 2014 The Heritage Portal Team visited Irene and were taken on an emotional tour of the Concentration Camp Cemetery. Below are a few historical details of the camp courtesy of the Centurion Heritage Society.

The Irene concentration camp was opened on 2 November 1900. The population of the camp increased rapidly and refugees were housed in tents under extremely poor conditions.

During the South African War of 1899-1902 blockhouses formed an essential part of British military strategy against Dutch forces. Initially these were fairly substantial and were used to guard key military points, but once the war moved into its final stages, they were used, together with barbed wire, as a means of limiting the movement of Republican commandos. All in all, some 8000 blockhouses were built over a period of two years, and although most were eventually dismantled, a number still remain in silent testimony of a bitter and foolish war.

Following hot on the heels of the 'Race to the Rand' here is the third installment of the History of Southern African Railway Series by Peter Ball. The article looks at the role of the railways during the South African War (the Second Anglo-Boer War).

The Battles of Magersfontein and Modder River are two well known engagements that took place during the Anglo-Boer (South African) War. Below are excerpts from an incredibly moving article written by W. Westerman about his experiences ensuring many of the dead received an honourable farewell. The piece appeared in the March 1908 edition of the South African Railway Magazine. Thank you to the Heritage Office at Transnet for giving us access to their archives.

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