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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 9: Dark red clouds of destruction April 9, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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Surrender of General Piet Cronje to Lord Roberts

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.

De Wet’s taking of the British position at Stinkfontein had opened up a possible escape route for Cronje and his 4100 burghers. Cronje’s people were hunkered down in the banks of the Modder River, in the dark, muddy fox holes they’d dug amidst the destruction of their wagons and the stench of their killed oxen and horses.  The dark red clouds kept rising from the bombardment, the English guns kept pounding relentlessly. Yet there was still a way out. De Wet later wrote, “It is true that [Cronje] would have been obliged to leave everything behind him, but he and his burghers would have got away in safety.”#

Jack said to Wilbur, “I heard that some of the men have their wives with them, and they don’t want to put them at risk.” Wilbur said, “Yes, but if they could just get away quickly at night, they’d find a way out. These rooineks will fall flat on their faces in the dark.” He had adopted one of the Boer slang words for the English soldiers, “rednecks”— meaning not, as in the U.S.,  one who habitually stays out in the sun all day but a pale-skinned person unaccustomed to the blazing sun of the veld. Since he was unable to roll his “r’s,” the Boers enjoyed his funny pronunciation.

The next day the British attempted to dislodge De Wet by surrounding his men. De Wet promptly divided his burghers into three positions, shifting the Krupp and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt to defend the left and the right, and prevented the British from outflanking him. However, a strong British attack on the center forced the Boers to retreat from one of their positions that night.

The shift in position caused a slight misunderstanding. The English cheered as they moved forward into the abandoned position. A Commandant Spruit, who thought it was his own men cheering, walked forward and called out, “Hoe gaat het?”— “How goes it?” He was immediately answered with “Hands up!” The British cheered all the more loudly when they looked at papers in his pocket and realized they’d nabbed an officer.

The next day, the ammunition for their two guns ran out. The situation was simple. If they stayed where they were, they would be surrounded along with Cronje. The only good news was that they received reinforcements from Bloemfontein. De Wet proposed a last-ditch attack on three positions—because of the widely spread numbers of khakis, it was three positions now. Not just the single one at Stinkfontein.

Jack, Wilbur, and Japie were assigned to a force under General Philip Botha. They arose before dawn and advanced, but things seemed to be getting behind schedule. It seemed to Jack that the sky was turning light over the blue morning hills of the veld, exposing De Wet’s men pitilessly—wouldn’t it be better to find a suitable ridge to fire from in face of the severe numerical inequality, or was he only being a coward? But he realized that, oddly enough, he did not feel afraid this time. It was only that he didn’t see how they could succeed.

Into a tremendous racket of British riflefire and artillery, a group under  Commandant Thewnissen advanced on their side. Jack noticed after a few minutes that the forward motion had stopped. “If I’m not mistaken, those folks are being captured,” Jack commented to Japie and Wilbur. “I do hear the words ‘Hands up,'” said Japie.   After they all pushed back in retreat, Jack heard voices raised in dispute. Japie told them that Botha was claiming Thewnissen had gone forward without proper caution, while those of Thewnissen’s burghers who hadn’t been captured were claiming Botha’s men had given them insufficient support. It seemed to Jack that both things were probably true, due to the uncomfortable reality of their situation. Impossible to be sufficiently cautious, impossible to give sufficient support.

De Wet had one last card up his sleeve. He ordered the intrepid Danie Theron to sneak behind enemy lines and give Cronje a message. “[Theron] must go and tell General Cronje that our fate depended upon the escape of himself and of the thousands with him, and that, if he should fall into the enemy’s hands, it would be the death-blow to all our hopes. Theron was to urge Cronje to abandon the laager, and everything contained in it, to fight his way out by night, and to meet me at two named places.”

As Jack and Wilbur later learned, Theron set off on the evening of February 25 and returned the morning of the 27th. His knees were running with blood. He had crawled past the khaki sentries, wearing holes through his trousers. The response from Cronje: he did not think De Wet’s plan could succeed.

It was not exactly that Cronje lacked courage, as De Wet was to write, it was simply that for him, courage meant staying at his position no matter what, rather than fleeing it. But it was a terrible disaster for the Boer cause: the first truly major victory for the British. The Boer general walked forward slowly to announce his surrender, dressed in a flapping greatcoat and a broad-brimmed hat, a sad, dark figure with his faithful gray horse by his side. Roberts seemed a slender, trim figure by comparison. It was a clash of two worlds.

Cronje was sent to the prison reserved for high-ranking Boer officers: St. Helena. His burghers were collected and distributed to various camps, in India, Ceylon, Bermuda. Jack and Wilbur rode away with De Wet’s commando to a point east of Paardeberg: Roberts was resting his soldiers for a few days after their big accomplishment. They could chase De Wet later on—in fact, they would keep doing it for another two years. Jack would meet General Cronje in person one day. That event would occur in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1903.

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

Piet Cronje as a prisoner on St. Helena

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