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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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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.

A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 7: Horses and target practice March 24, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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French's cavalry at Klip Drift, Modder River

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.”

Boers were known for their horsemanship

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.

McClellan saddle

Both had a deeper seat than the Boer saddles, which were more like English ones.

Boer saddle (photo of Jan Smuts and his horse Charlie)

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.

North Lancs in Kimberley

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.

Roberts will soon enter Kimberley