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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 6: With De Wet and Theron March 18, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
Tags: , , ,

Danie Theron with his bicycle

This is the continuation of a good old-fashioned piece of serial fiction about Jack Brown, who is from St. Louis and has gone to South Africa to fight with the Boers. The time: February 1900. The serial starts here.

* * *

“Compared with Louis Botha, or almost any other of our generals, De Wet presented but a sorry sight. His manners are uncouth, and his dress careless to a degree. His tactlessness, abrupt speech, and his habit of thrusting his tongue against his palate at every syllable, do not lessen his undeniable unattractiveness. But De Wet, if he lacks culture, certainly has an abundance of shrewdness, and is not without some dignity at times.” —Philip Pienaar*

As Jack and Wilbur followed their captor into the Boer camp, they saw the astonishing sight of perhaps two thousand oxen peacefully grazing nearby. “Could those be the British oxen that stampeded?” Wilbur asked Jack. A fellow walking toward them said with a smile, “Yes, they might just be British oxen.” No mules, though—perhaps they had been recovered.They looked into the face of a man with a long nose and deepset eyes. He said something in Dutch to the man who’d been leading them, then told Wilbur and Jack, “Come with me. You’re going to have a little chat with the general.”

Jack said, “We’re Americans. We’re not British soldiers.”

“Well, I can see for myself that you’re not wearing khaki like our other prisoners. You can explain it to the general.” They walked to where a man sat eating at a table. He was wearing a dirty corduroy suit and an ancient hat.

Christiaan De Wet

“Tell General De Wet who you are.” The man certainly didn’t look like a general. He looked like someone you might see in one of the seedier neighborhoods of St. Louis.

“I’m Jack Brown and this is Wilbur Wilcox. We’re Americans. We were working as mule drivers so that we could get out here and join your side. We support the Boer cause.”

“How do I know you aren’t English spies?” De Wet said. “I guess you can’t tell from our accent,” said Jack. “Ask us any question you like about the United States.” “I don’t know or care a damn thing about the United States. You could answer anything and it wouldn’t matter. Danie, you ask them a question.”

Danie picked up an empty can from the table. “Tell me what this is called,” he said. “It’s a can, of course,” said Wilbur with a tone of bewilderment. Danie said to De Wet, “If they were English, they would have called it a tin. Besides, I can tell from the accent.”

“You may be American but you could still be spying for the English,” said De Wet.


Tin of bully beef or can of corned beef?

“Queen Victoria is an ugly old sow,” said Wilbur. Danie burst out laughing. Wilbur went on, “Give me a Union Jack and I’ll blow my nose on it.” Jack said, “Give us each a rifle and we’ll prove our worth.” He just hoped that these Mauser rifles weren’t too different from the Winchester hunting rifles he and Wilbur were accustomed to.

Danie and the general conferred back and forth in Dutch for a bit. Finally, Danie said, “Tell us what you know about Lord Roberts’ plans.”

“Well, we mule drivers weren’t in on those kinds of discussions, but I did hear people saying that some columns were going to be reinforcing Roberts from the direction of Belmont,” said Jack. Wilbur added, “General French is going to Kimberley.” “Well yes, we knew that,” said Danie. “Look, we’re going to give you a chance. You can go over there and get something to eat.” They looked over to where groups of men were sitting on the ground around campfires. A sudden feeling of deep shyness came over Jack. He hadn’t really thought much about the social aspect before. How would these men respond to two oddball Americans in their midst?

Perhaps Danie saw the hesitation on his face, because he said, “I’ll introduce you around. My name is Danie Theron, by the way.” The three walked over to the nearest campfire, where men were eating what looked like roast mutton and some kind of greasy-looking dumpling. Danie spoke to the group for a minute in Dutch. Well, at least a few of them spoke English, because a couple of them called out, “Welcome!” and one of them said, “You came all the way over from America to join us?” Jack and Wilbur sat down and were handed metal plates of meat and dumplings—no silverware.  The one who seemed to know the most English started asking them questions about their time in South Africa so far, and then he translated for the others. Then the two were asked questions about America. The Boers wanted to know especially about cowboys and Indians, and Jack and Wilbur managed to make up just enough details to satisfy their audience.

The one who spoke the best English told them his name was Japie, and he seemed to take them under his wing. He told them they were very lucky to have joined De Wet’s commando, for he was the best of all the generals, Japie said. “And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Free Stater,” he said. It turned out that Japie had been a lawyer in Bloemfontein. “We’ve got several lawyers in our bunch. Danie’s a lawyer too. Do you know about his bicycle corps?”

Bicycles here on the veld? That seemed incredible. But Japie explained that Danie had formed a corps called the Wielrijders Rapportgangers which performed scouting services. “The scouts are always our sharpest men. And Danie’s very brave. He gets behind the British lines and comes back with a very complete report.”

Japie found them space in his big tent—there were six of them in it—and got them the necessary supplies—including their Mausers and their bandoliers stuffed with cartridges. Jack and Wilbur hoped they would have a chance to do a bit of practice shooting.

The next morning they were given horses—Jack’s was a bit on the bony side, but after all, the newcomers weren’t going to get the cream of the crop.  The commando broke camp and rode over to the site of the British camp on the Riet River. Much to everyone’s surprise, the British had departed, leaving behind 200 wagons loaded with supplies—because they no longer had the oxen required to pull them. The Boers found cans of sardines, salmon, corned beef, jam, milk, and biscuits; whole wagonloads of oats and hay for the horses; and wagonloads of rum. Now, the problem was that although they had the oxen, only the drivers knew which oxen were accustomed to being in front and which in the rear, and most of the drivers had disappeared. De Wet later wrote of the situation: “But here the fact that every Boer is himself a handy conductor and driver of waggons told in our favour. Consequently we did not find it beyond our power to get the waggons on the move. It was, however, very tedious work, for how could any of us be sure that we were not placing the after-oxen in the front and the fore-oxen behind? There was nothing left for it but to turn out the best spans of sixteen that we could, and then to arrange them in the way that struck us as being most suitable…. We took a very long time to cover the first few miles, as we had constantly to be stopping to rearrange the oxen.”#

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

#Christiaan De Wet, Three Years’ War. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1902.



1. Thomas Stazyk - March 18, 2011

I love the dialogue–very clever. The business about tin vs. can also reminds me of my adjustment period when I moved here from the US.

Jenny - March 18, 2011

I worked for an English company for quite a few years (doing the work in the U.S.), and I can remember some weird misunderstandings in phone conversations with my boss over there. One in particular involved the word “pissed,” which to me meant “angry” and to him meant “drunk.”

Thomas Stazyk - March 18, 2011

Don’t get me started! It can really get wild. Did you know that metal can cause a puckered screen?

Here’s how: Gravel roads are called metal roads and if your windshield (windscreen) gets dinged by a stone (piece of metal) it is considered puckered. When that happens you have to go to the body shop (aka, the panelbeater).

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