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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 10: Time warp for Jack and Wilbur April 12, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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Festival Hall, St. Louis Exposition, 1904

Dear Readers: I have done some simple computations and arrived at the conclusion that it would take me over a year on this blog to complete the story of Jack Brown of St. Louis, his experiences of the Boer War, and his return to the U.S. I have greatly enjoyed producing the series to this point. It has been a lot of fun taking the historical information and making up a story to fit the events. There is a chance that I will tackle this as a regular novel, but I am unwilling to start such a project until I find out whether my novel Murder at the Jumpoff will be published. Someone is at least nibbling at that now.

Below you will find a synopsis of the rest of the story. All the names mentioned other than Jack and Wilbur are actual historical individuals. Obviously, this will be a spoiler if you want to take the chance that I will eventually actually produce the novel. So, you must decide for yourself whether to read the material below.

Stereoscopic view entitled "Explosion of an ammunition wagon" from the reenactment of the Battle of Paardeberg at the St. Louis Exposition

Jack and Wilbur stay on with De Wet’s commando, experiencing such dramatic successes as the ambush at Sanna’s Post. However, despite the ingenuity of De Wet and the doggedness of the Boers, the overwhelming numerical superiority of the British army leads to the occupation of the two Boer capitals: Bloemfontein in March 1900 and Pretoria in June.

The British expect that the Boers will surrender at this point. But much to the contrary, the Boers determine on a course of guerilla warfare. The British will eventually win the war by June 1902, but only after they have resorted to burning down the Boer farmhouses, putting women and children in concentration camps, and reducing the Boer fighters to starvation, forced to wear rags or old grain bags for clothing.

Jack and Wilbur are with De Wet in August 1900 when his commando is nearly trapped on the north side of the Magaliesberg range near Pretoria. It is 2,800 burghers against about 40,000 English, in the first of what would come to be called the “De Wet Hunts.” Wilbur is killed here as he makes a heroic attempt to oppose the British at the rear while the commando makes a seemingly impossible escape up over the rocky crags. Jack sees his friend die. He is seriously wounded in the leg himself and becomes separated from the commando by the advance of one of the converging enemy columns.

He manages to stagger to a nearby farm, where he finds a family that cares for him. But since this region is one of the first affected by Kitchener’s “scorched earth” policy, the family realizes that their farm will be burned down and they arrange for Jack’s removal to a house in Pretoria, where he recovers over a period of several months.

In November 1900, he is well enough to go back to fighting. He joins up with the commando of General Ben Viljoen and soon enjoys a tremendous symbolic success at Helvetia. He becomes good friends with a burgher named Roland Schikkerling, who has a great resourcefulness and a wonderful sense of humor. They soon discover that they share an interest in the Ruritanian novels of Anthony Hope.

General Ben Viljoen

Viljoen’s commando engages in constant fighting in the eastern and northern Transvaal. They are able to cause the British many headaches, but once again the unequal numbers mean that the Boers can do little more than nip at the heels of the enemy, then dash back for cover. They do what they can, mainly in the way of blowing up British trains. By September 1901, they have been pushed back to the little town of Pilgrims Rest, where the mountainous terrain makes it possible for them to evade their foes. They emerge every now and then to attack a garrison or lay dynamite on the tracks (there was a special technique involved), but in reality they have mainly gone into hiding.

An odd sort of social life emerges in this town. Jack and Roland get to know some of the local civilians, with whom they hold dances and “smoking concerts” out in the middle of nowhere—a nearly surrealistic phase of the war. Jack falls in love with an attractive young lady who lives in the area. In January 1902, Ben Viljoen is captured and sent to St. Helena.

In May 1902, Jack and Roland hear that peace negotiations have started. On May 31,the treaty of Vereeniging is signed. The Boers are now British citizens. Any who do not agree to pledge loyalty to King Edward must leave the country. Roland reluctantly takes the pledge, wanting to return to his family, and Jack decides to return to the U.S. He asks his new lady friend if she will marry him and go with him to St. Louis, but she turns him down, much to his disappointment.

He makes his way back to St. Louis by the end of 1902 and resumes his job with the town newspaper. He soon learns of plans for a massive “Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” often referred to as the St. Louis World’s Fair, to be held in his own town. Even more surprising, he learns that part of the sprawling spectacle will be a reenactment of scenes from the Boer War—with actual Boer fighters.

Before the end of 1903, a contingent of Boers arrives—including both Piet Cronje and Ben Viljoen. It is, in fact, one of the few good employment opportunities for war-weary burghers. When the fair opens in April 1904, Jack goes regularly to watch the performances of the bombardment of Paardeberg and a dazzling escape by De Wet that includes a horse jumping rather hazardously down a waterfall. Although the real Cronje is present, the real De Wet is not—he has long since returned to his home in the Free State. Jack enjoys socializing with the Boers, but in the end he finds the performance depressing.

Program for Anglo-Boer War performances at the St. Louis fair. Roberts at lower left, Cronje at lower right.

From the time he’d arrived in New York in December 1902, Ben Viljoen’s plan had been to buy land in Texas or New Mexico. The St. Louis fair is only a money-making diversion. Over these immediate postwar years, there is a general movement of Boers to the Southwest: Wilhelm Snyman starts a colony of Boers in Chihuahua State, Mexico, and former Free State president Francis Reitz tours Texas in 1902 and 1903 with the idea of starting a colony there. Reitz becomes homesick, however, and resigns himself to swallowing the bitter pill of British citizenship and returning home. Boers settle in the Americas in places as remote as Patagonia rather than become members of the Empire.

Jack decides to join Viljoen in the Mesilla valley of New Mexico, northwest of El Paso. Viljoen is a complex and intelligent individual, one who’d been much admired by Schikkerling and others in the commando, and Jack is fond of him. He settles in New Mexico nearby Viljoen’s newly adopted home, marries and starts a family. Some years go by, and in 1911 Viljoen decides to get involved with the Mexican Revolution in support of Francisco Madero, rebelling against the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship.

Jack considers joining in this effort, but finally realizes that his days of fighting are over. However, his wife and two daughters have died from a flu epidemic. Jack decides to go to Yosemite, a place he has long heard about, and seek work as a park ranger. A Yosemite National Park had been created in 1890, and Yosemite Valley was added to the park in 1906. He has decided, over years of losses and hardships, that the wilderness can provide the consolation he seeks.

Yosemite Valley


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.