A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 7: Horses and target practice March 24, 2011Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
Tags: Christiaan De Wet, Lord Roberts, Paardeberg, Piet Cronje, siege of Kimberley
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.
The men struggled to get the oxen into the correct order within their spans, but after a few miles, things started to go more smoothly. Jack and Wilbur noticed that one fellow seemed to be taking charge with great enthusiasm. Their new friend Japie Meyer explained to them: “The general has appointed Piet Fourie to be Conductor-in-Chief. It is a title that he has just invented, but Piet likes the sound of it, so he is trying to live up to his new responsibility.”
As they rode along, Jack and Wilbur were getting the feel for their new horses, which were most likely to be their constant companions for quite a while. Japie told them that Jack’s horse was named Schimmel and Wilbur’s was named Vryheid. The first name meant “roan” and the second had the much loftier meaning of “freedom.” However, Jack and Wilbur decided to give them new names—they couldn’t get their tongues around these Dutch words. Wilbur suggested Donner and Blitzen. Jack said, “The trouble with that is that I think of the Donner Party.” “All right, how about Prancer for mine and Dancer for yours?” “I was thinking of something more like Dobbin, but maybe with the prettier name, he’ll live up to it,” said Jack, giving the bony roan a pat on the neck. They told Japie of their choice, and he said, “Well, the general himself has chosen a name for his horse that’s not Dutch.” He explained that the beautiful Arab was named Fleur—French for “flower.”
Jack and Wilbur both had to adjust to the different style of saddle and bridle. Jack had ridden most of the time with an old McClellan saddle his uncle had given him, while Wilbur had ridden with Western gear.
Both had a deeper seat than the Boer saddles, which were more like English ones.
After Piet Fourie had gotten the ox convoy sorted out, General De Wet divided the men into two groups. One was to accompany the convoy to Edenberg, where the vast English booty could be sorted out. The other group, consisting of 150 men, was to proceed with De Wet toward Paardenberg Drift on the Modder River, where Lord Roberts was believed to be closing in on General Piet Cronje. At first it seemed that Jack and Wilbur would be shunted to the Edenberg party—the one less likely to become involved in a major conflict—but Japie pushed for them to come with him in the Paaardenberg group.
Danie Theron scouted ahead and reported that 60 English were camped amid some farm buildings eight miles away. As they drew near, De Wet moved his men into positions surrounding the camp and sent a dispatch rider ahead to demand that the English surrender. An English orderly came back saying that they expected reinforcements momentarily and would not abandon their position. De Wet said,”Tell your officer that if he does not surrender immediately, I will shell him with our Maxim-Nordenfeldt and storm his position. The white flag must appear within ten minutes.”# However, the orderly persisted with his discussion. He said, “Will you give us your word of honor not to stir from your position till we have got ten miles away? That is the only condition on which we will abandon our positions.”
Japie said to Jack, “Poor fellow. He doesn’t see that he has no negotiating position. Why on earth should we let them go?”
De Wet said, “I demand unconditional surrender. I give you ten minutes from the moment you dismount on arriving at your camp; when those ten minutes have passed I fire.” The orderly galloped back to his camp, and immediately the white flag appeared. The result: 58 British prisoners, who were sent off under guard to join the Edenberg convoy.
But the pleasure of this small victory was soon erased when a party of 100 Boers approached under Commandant Lubbe. He reported that General French had relieved Kimberley on the 15th and that Cronje was retreating toward Paardeberg. De Wet was visibly angry at this news—partly because he had sent Lubbe earlier to assist Cronje, and now Lubbe had come back rather than face up to the fight. Jack observed the ripple of melancholy pass over the men’s faces. The siege of Kimberley over—after 124 days. It had been one of the very first accomplishments of the war. And now Cronje, with his force of 4100, was under serious threat. He was all that stood between the massive army of Lord Roberts and the town of Bloemfontein, the Orange Free State capital.
The sun had gone down, and the men settled in for a meal and some rest. However, orders came from De Wet that they were to upsaddle again at midnight. They would be joined by men under General Jacobs and Commandant Hertzog to meet an advancing force of English coming from Belmont: it would be 300 Boers against approximately 10,000 English.
Jack felt a coldness in the pit of his stomach. Of course they would not go out and march to their death toward the British army—that was not the style of Boer fighting. They would find some other way to do damage. But were he and Wilbur truly ready for this? Everyone around them had already experienced combat. Fortunately, they’d had a chance to get a bit of practice that morning with their new Mauser rifles. They’d taken turns shooting at a tin can set out in the grass, with an ample audience of laughing, cheering Boers. Jack kept hearing the word “blikkie,” and someone translated: that was what Boers called the target, neither a “tin” nor a “can.” Much to his surprise, Jack had come out better hitting the target than Wilbur. But the Boers seemed to approve of Wilbur anyway, as they were amused by his antics of setting the rifle to his shoulder with a theatrical flourish. They called out, “Vilbur! Vilbur!”—being accustomed to turning every “w” into a “v.”
#Christiaan De Wet, Three Years’ War. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1902.