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“An impromptu smoking concert was held” July 30, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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"The Spanish Cavalier" was popular during the Boer War

How do men engaged in warfare keep themselves entertained during any periods of relative calm that might happen to come along? U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, have their iPods and PlayStations.** At the time of the Boer War, the “smoking concert” was a popular way to pass the time. The Wikipedia definition is a good one:

“Smoking concerts were live performances, usually of music, before an audience of men only; popular during the Victorian period. These social occasions were instrumental in introducing new musical forms to the public. At these functions men would smoke and speak of politics while listening to live music. These popular gatherings were sometimes held at hotels. The term continued to be used for student variety performances, especially those associated with Oxford or Cambridge.”

The wide spaces of the South African veld were a world away from the hotels of London or the drawing rooms of Cambridge, but many Boers kept quite up to date with the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the poetry of Tennyson, and the songs of P. Buccalosi. This was especially true of Boers from the towns, as opposed to the ones from isolated farms where the only book in the house was likely the Bible.

A smoking concert audience in England

Philip Pienaar of the Transvaal Telegraph Service, for instance, could drop a phrase from Tennyson into his description of repairing war-damaged telegraph lines in the Free State: “Drawing the horses behind a low stone wall, we attached the instrument to the line. I listened. There were no fewer than five different vibrators calling each other, some strong and clear, others sounding weak and far, like ‘horns of Elfland faintly blowing.’ Presently the disputing signals died away, and one musical note alone took up the strain.”* The line from “The Princess” would have been common currency.

Marching on Pretoria: Lord Roberts' men

It was Pienaar who had one of the best accounts of a smoking concert during the war. He described an evening in a small hotel in the village of Heilbron. It is late April or early May 1900, when the massive British army under Lord Roberts was pushing the Boer commandos eastward across the veld, soon to reach Johannesburg and Pretoria. Pienaar wrote:

“Here there were gathered together some dozen young Free Staters, and an impromptu smoking concert was held. Everyone present was compelled to give a song or recite something. The first on the programme was Byron’s “When we two parted,” which was sung with fine effect by a blushing young burgher. Next came the old camp favorite, “The Spanish Cavalier.” The sentimental recollections induced by these two songs were speedily dissipated by a rattling comic song in Dutch…. A few recitations followed. One of the reciters…enunciated the lines—“Within the circle of your incantation / No blight nor mildew falls, / no fierce unrest, nor lust, nor lost ambition, / Passes those airy walls…” (The lines are from “The Angelus” by Bret Harte.)

Roland Schikkerling, whom we saw recently in “The capture of the ‘Lady Roberts’,” described an evening in the eastern Transvaal, May 1901:

“Goodman played the harmonium and sang to the tune of “Riding Down to Bangor” that stirring war hymn ‘De Kanon Lady Roberts’ [celebrating the cannon’s capture five months earlier]. I recited ‘Klaas Geswint.’ The evening was a huge success. Mrs. Meyer was charmed and Annie [her pretty 17-year-old daughter] was bewitched…. The only thing in that stood in my way to a complete conquest was that Goodman had lent me a razor, and after painfully shaving one side of my face, the edge so completely gave in that I could not get a hair off the other side…. I posed side-face all evening and, like the moon, showed always the same side of my face to the inhabitants of the earth.”#

And so, as the war dragged on and cause of the Boers became increasingly hopeless, the men still managed to find a few hours of respite.

**I should add that these forms of entertainment aren’t available to the significant number of troops in locations without electricity.

*Philip Pienaar, With Steyn and De Wet. Methuen & Co., London, 1902.

#Roland Schikkerling, Commando Courageous. Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg, 1964.

Boers in the field

Mt. LeConte via Styx Branch July 26, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Chris Sass and Ed Fleming above right fork of Styx Branch

Seven people went on this outing of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Our goal was to climb the left fork of Styx Branch to Myrtle Point. But in fact we climbed the right fork of Styx Branch to a side ridge east of Myrtle Point—even better!

"Crossing the Styx" by Gustave Dore

Styx Branch is not only a nice little stream, it may also be the only stream in the Smokies that bears a name from Greek mythology. The area through which it flows is known as Huggins Hell, and its name is very appropriately borrowed from the River Styx, by which sinners and evildoers of all stripes enter their new residence for eternity. It joins Alum Cave Creek below Arch Rock.

We left the trail for the creek at the bridged crossing just above Arch Rock. The rockhopping was so easy due to the low water levels that it almost felt like cheating.

Low water level in Styx Branch

The only real navigational challenge of this outing was to follow the correct fork at the split around 4800 feet. Our leaders, Ed Fleming and Mark Shipley, had scouted the hike in April and found the left fork without any problem. We stopped at the approximate elevation and turned to the left where another small flow of water came in on the right. It must have been a minor side branch. I’ve made that kind of mistake myself. As we continued along, Ed and Mark commented that the way looked unfamiliar—a sandstone cliff ran along the right side, and they didn’t recall having seen that before. Then, when the stream made a distinct turn to the east, we had the proof that we were in the righthand fork.

No problem. After a while we got up on a ridge to the right that looked like good going, and on the other side of that we could see an open slide area. We climbed up the slide for a bit.

Slide on slope southeast of Myrtle Point

We reached a grassy area above the slide.

The grass made for a short stretch of easy going

Eventually we topped out on a ridge that runs parallel to and just south of the Boulevard trail. We could see how far we would need to travel along the ridge to get to Myrtle Point.

Looking along ridge to Myrtle Point

Eventually we decided to drop down to the trail, which runs very close to the ridge. The way down was steep and rough. Just as we came out on the path, Jim Quick came along. He was the rear leader of another bunch of SMHC hikers who were going up LeConte via the trail.

Soon we arrived at Myrtle Point and met the rest of the trail hikers. We relaxed and had lunch.

View from Myrtle Point

From there we descended by the Alum Cave trail. But my day was not over. I headed over to the Chimneys trail and climbed up to the top to meet some friends who were coming up off-trail from the Chimneys picnic area.

Not long after I got to the top of the first chimney, I heard some animated voices coming through the underbrush and caught the sound of a strangely familiar, slightly maniacal laugh. Soon I saw Greg Harrell, Keith Oakes, and Greg Hoover striding purposefully over the rocks to the outer chimney, and then they made their way up to the first chimney. They wolfed down some large meaty sandwiches (I had no appetite whatsoever myself) and got into a discussion about whether there is any point in putting healthy items such as raisin bran into a trail mix. It appeared that there was in fact no point, since Hoover was tossing flakes of raisin bran into the underbrush and gulping down the M&Ms.

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, all soft and hazy in the warm humid air, and the full moon popped over the top of Mt. Mingus and beamed at us radiantly. Mt. LeConte had a cap of cloud draped just over the very top (just large enough to cause irritation to sunset viewers at the Lodge). Tufts of fleecy cloud floated close to the moon. We explored the “window” below the chimney, and some students of Hoover’s joined us up there for a little while. We stayed until about 9:30 and descended with headlamps.

Sunset from Chimney Tops. Photo by Greg Harrell.

The capture of the “Lady Roberts” July 20, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history.
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A 4.7 inch naval gun similar to the "Lady Roberts." This photo is said to have been taken at the battle of Colenso, a year earlier than the battle of Helvetia described below.#

By June 1900, the British had captured the Boer capitals—Bloemfontein and Pretoria—and the Boers had decided to switch to guerilla tactics and continue the fight, even though they were outnumbered, in any given engagement, on the order of ten to one. They would keep fighting as long as they could. They were forced to capitulate, out of starvation and lack of ammunition, two years later. The British had destroyed most of their farms and transported most of their families to giant unsanitary camps.

Boer farmhouse burned by British army

The massive British army, under the command of Lord Roberts, had pushed the ragtag remnants of the Boer army eastward, toward Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). But the various commandos had filtered back to the highveld from dangerous malarial lands inhabited by lion and leopard, a region adjoining and including parts of what is now Kruger National Park.

By November 1900, General Ben Viljoen of Johannesburg had reassembled forces scattered by the eastward flight. Viljoen’s men had little in common with each other except that they came from the goldmining towns of the Rand and they weren’t ready to give up their war. There were fighting Doppers under Field-Cornet Kruger, a relative of the exiled president Paul Kruger. There were the Johannesburgers, the Fordsburg men, the Jeppestown men, the survivors of the Zarps. There was even a remnant of the Transvaal State Artillery, although the artillerists were armed now with rifles, not their giant Creusot guns.

General Ben Viljoen

Their great moment of fame arrived on the night of December 28, when they attacked Helvetia and surrounding forts. A young burgher named Roland Schikkerling and members of the Johannesburg and Fordsburg commandos were to capture a heavily defended fort called Swartkoppies while other commandos attacked Hevetia itself. Their field cornet, with some guides, led the way through the pitch black night.

Schikkerling rode along in the darkness, keeping his horse up close behind the one ahead because he had no idea of the route. But all of a sudden the chain of horsemen broke and the men milled about in confusion. Some hapless fellow named Fick had fallen asleep, and all the burghers behind him had lost their way. Their field cornet continued ahead with about 30 men, unaware that 100 had been left behind. The stragglers quietly searched for the ones in front, then, not wanting to disturb the khakis slumbering in their forts, gave up and stopped behind a kopje to wait for daylight.

Before dawn they saw a blaze of rifle flashes ahead, distant and disconnected from them, like something in astronomy. This was the other commandos attacking Helvetia. The flashes sparkled for about ten minutes and then stopped. When the first streaks of dawn appeared they made out the fort Swartkoppies across the veld. “Now of course, it was too late to do anything and we felt vexed and ashamed of ourselves,” Schikkerling later wrote.* They were desperately curious to know the outcome of the fight. Finally three horsemen rode in their direction, coming with the news that Helvetia had surrendered. The commandos had taken many prisoners and supply wagons. Best of all, they’d captured one of the big English guns. This one was called “Lady Roberts” in honor of the wife of the British commander (who had just gone back to England, thinking most of the work was done). They all rode forward to help bring her out.

Roberts, known as "Bobs," after the Boer War

The khakis were causing aggravation by shooting at the oxen of the gun team. Every time one of the oxen fell, the burghers had to yoke a fresh ox in its place. Sometimes, a man had to step in and carry the empty half of the yoke.

The capture of the “Lady Roberts” was a great thing, but it would be even more satisfactory if they could also bring out the Lady’s ammunition. But as they struggled to make off with the ammunition wagon across the open plain, the Swartkoppies guns got them in their sights and pelted them with shells. Since a direct hit would create a fireball of sufficient size to be seen back in England by Lord Roberts, they abandoned the wagon. A few horsemen grabbed up what they could of the gun’s 46-lb. shells, each man cradling one of the shiny projectiles as he galloped away.

Explosion of an ammunition wagon (this was at Paardeberg the year before)

Two hundred and thirty-four men of the Liverpool regiment marched in a long irregular file behind the gun. When the Boers had overrun the fort and the commanding officer was wounded, many of the Liverpools had filled their water bottles from the garrison’s barrels of rum. Some were already too drunk to walk, while others offered swigs to their captors. As the motley procession staggered up a long hill, thunder and lightning made the sky crackle. The air turned solid with rain. The gun team of 18 oxen struggled and slithered in the mud. Knots of unguarded prisoners followed along, not inclined to run off into the sodden veld. During the height of the downpour Schikkerling and a comrade named Malherbe dismounted and sheltered themselves under their blankets. When they rode on again, they passed straggling Tommies, miles behind the others, who inquired brightly if they were “right for the laager [camp].”

Most of the burghers, tired and hungry, had gone on to the village of Dullstroom. Schikkerling and eight others were asked to guard the “Lady Roberts” as she trundled slowly along. At last they reached the village and, trusting that the prisoners would not suddenly rise up and carry off the gun, they found a storehouse of wool and curled up in its soft contents to go to sleep.

The “Lady Roberts” was presented to the government of the Transvaal Republic, which remained largely intact even though it was attempting to perform its duties on behalf of the nearly extinct Boer republic while being incessantly chased by the khakis. The government happened just then to be camped at Tautesburg, not far away.

Francis William Reitz, secretary of state of the Transvaal and father of the famous Boer fighter Deneys Reitz, wrote a song about the “Lady Roberts” that was sung by the burghers throughout the remainder of the war.  It went: “The women out he [Lord Roberts] drives / He can not overcome the men /  So persecutes the wives. / But his old Lady Roberts / Who lyddite [a type of explosive] spits for sport / He puts her at Helvetia / For safety in a fort / He thought there was no danger / For that confounded Boer / With his confounded Mauser / Would trouble him no more….”

This post is adapted from my work, “Transvaal Citizen.”

* Roland Schikkerling, Commando Courageous: A Boer’s Diary (Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg, 1964).

#The label on the original photo does not specify, but I think this must be one of the guns captured at Colenso by the Boers, as those artillerists are certainly not British.

Ben Viljoen commando. Note "hairy burgher" at front.