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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 8: Skirmish at Stinkfontein April 1, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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A skirmish

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.

Neither Jack nor Wilbur got any sleep during the few hours before the midnight order to upsaddle. Jack lay awake worrying about the fighting he was likely to face the next day, and Wilbur stayed up through the dark hours teaching a handful of Boers how to play Tennessee Stud. It was still the same old deck lacking the ace of spades, which Wilbur always somehow managed to make work to his advantage. He and Jack had been surprised to find out that card playing was not practiced much by the Boers. Some of them, being strict Calvinist types, believed it was sinful. Jack could hear a fair amount of amusing miscommunication going on around the small campfire, what with the language barrier and the strange terminology of the game. But at least the Boers were learning useful expressions like “ace in the hole.”

It was almost a relief to Jack when the call came to get up and get ready. He saddled Dancer, noting his horse’s skill at bloating up when he was trying to tighten the girth. Soon they were riding toward Paardeberg, Jack doing his best to keep up with the rider ahead of him. If he got separated here in the dark, he’d never find the others again. They halted about an hour after dawn. An astonishingly loud noise was coming from the direction of Paardeberg: it was the sound of Roberts’ troops bombarding Cronje’s camp—or rather, as Jack learned it was called, Cronje’s laager.

Map of features and positions around Paardeberg

De Wet later wrote of his impressions that morning: “[We] heard…the indescribable thunder of bombardment. That sound gave us all the more reason for haste. We allowed our horses the shortest possible time for rest, partook of the most hurried of breakfasts, and at once were again on the move, with the frightful roar of the guns always in our ears. About half-past four that afternoon, we reached a point some six miles to the east of Paardeberg, and saw, on the right bank of the Modder River, four miles to the north-east of the mountain, General Cronje’s laager. It was surrounded completely by the enemy…. Immediately in front of us were the buildings and kraals [corrals] of Stinkfontein, and there on the opposite bank of the river stood Paardeberg. To the left and to the right of it were khaki-coloured groups dotted everywhere about—General Cronje was hemmed in on all sides, he and his burghers—a mere handful compared with the encircling multitude. What a spectacle we saw! All round the laager were the guns of the English, belching forth death and destruction, while from within it at every moment, as each successive shell tore up the ground, there rose a cloud—a dark red cloud of dust.”#

Such a pitiful sight. Jack and Wilbur looked at each other, Jack simply shaking his head and Wilbur raising a clenched fist. For the first time, in this confrontation between 40,000 British and 4,100 Boers, Jack saw illustrated the stark opposition between two unequal nations—the very thing that had motivated him to come here in the first place. But how could their own small force of 300 possibly make a difference here?

And how had Cronje gotten into this situation in the first place? It was the work of Roberts’ chief of staff, Major-General Lord Kitchener, who had temporarily taken over command when Roberts came down with a bad cold. Kitchener had sent his troops marching toward Cronje in a three-pronged frontal attack—the same tactics that had led to terrible losses for the British in the early battles of the war. Once again, countless soldiers found themselves pinned down on the ground, hiding from Boer rifle-fire behind anthills or any other protection they could find, surrounded by the bodies of fallen comrades. At the end of the day the British had 320 killed and 942 wounded, the highest tally of any single day during the war. By all rights, the British should have lost the battle—Kitchener’s method was simply careless of human life. But this time the sheer numbers of soldiers, backed by the endless barrage of heavy artillery, forced Cronje into a trap he could not escape.

And Cronje had helped to bring failure on himself. Refusing to abandon his huge convoy of ox wagons, his supplies, his heavy equipment, the women and children he’d allowed to accompany their husbands and fathers, he found himself unable to shift quickly into a better position. He had lost sight of the key advantage of the Boers—high mobility.

De Wet ordered the commando to ride forward toward this place with the funny name of Stinkfontein. It was a collection of farm buildings and gardens. In the dry veld, farms were centered around sources of water that could be dammed up. Such a water source was called “fontein,” or “fountain.” But this one must have had an odd smell to it, for “stink” means the same thing as in English.

As they drew closer, they saw that Stinkfontein was occupied by a force of English. De Wet immediately ordered his men to storm the place and the nearby ridges. You will find, in the writings of De Wet, that “storm” is one of his favorite words—another one that’s the same in the two languages. “Storm! Storm! Storm!” his men would shout as they rushed into battle—a sound that must have struck terror into the hearts of his foes.

Jack and Wilbur joined the mass of men galloping toward the outer garden wall. They dismounted, simply dropping their horses’ reins, and started firing over the wall. Some of the “khakis” went scurrying across the yard. Jack fired, and one of them dropped. His shot—at least he thought it was—he wasn’t sure. So much noise and confusion. Screams of pain—a horrible sound—screams of anger, the rifle shots coming faster than raindrops. The English seemed to be getting the worst of it. Soon the area around the buildings was nearly clear of those not killed or wounded. But a lot of riflefire was coming from the largest of the buildings.

Boers on position

“We have to get into that house!” Wilbur called. Their friend Japie, standing next to them, said, “Wait a bit, my boy. We’ll get the ones out in the open, and then when those surrender, the English will come very nicely out of the buildings.” But, much to Jack’s surprise, Wilbur ran to the gate and dashed into the compound. Now he made a quick dash for a big thorn tree, then over to a shed, and then right into the house! What on earth—did he not think a bullet could pierce his skin?

Minutes went by. The main flurry of the fight was shifting over to a cattle kraal, and Jack felt he should go over there to help, but he simply had to see what happened with Wilbur. Japie, too, seemed frozen to the spot. But then Japie said, “We’ve got to go help him.” Jack simply followed without saying a word. He had to. As he moved forward as if in a trance, he noticed that the sound of riflefire had stopped coming from the house. Was everyone in there dead?

Jack and Japie followed Wilbur’s track to the thorn tree, then the shed. And now four men emerged from the door: three khakis with their hands up, followed by Wilbur. “So where do I put these fellows?” Wilbur asked Japie. “‘E’s a bloody yank,” one of the soldiers was saying to the others.

*   *   *

Altogether, De Wet’s men took 60 prisoners and cleared Stinkfontein of the English. Jack and Wilbur learned a new word: “schanzes.” That’s what they did well into the night—building schanzes, or defensive positions, out of boulders that they rolled into position near the commando’s two guns, a Krupp and a Maxim-Nordenfeldt. By taking control of the position, they had done something very important: they had opened up an escape route for Cronje and everyone with him. The general would have to leave all of his carts and supplies behind and make a dash for it, but De Wet with his tiny force had created a space for him.

Wilbur had made quite a name for himself. For hours after the skirmish, assorted Boers were approaching him and shaking his hand in congratulation. The Boers, Jack had noticed, were great hand-shakers on every possible occasion. “My God, I’m getting blisters on my fingers,” Wilbur said. “I think I’m going to go hide behind one of those—whaddyacallit—schanzeys.”

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


1. Thomas Stazyk - April 1, 2011

Another good one–glad you explained “Stinkfontein!”

Jenny - April 1, 2011

Yes, that name kind of begged an explanation!

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