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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

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

A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 6: With De Wet and Theron March 18, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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Danie Theron with his bicycle

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.

* * *

“Compared with Louis Botha, or almost any other of our generals, De Wet presented but a sorry sight. His manners are uncouth, and his dress careless to a degree. His tactlessness, abrupt speech, and his habit of thrusting his tongue against his palate at every syllable, do not lessen his undeniable unattractiveness. But De Wet, if he lacks culture, certainly has an abundance of shrewdness, and is not without some dignity at times.” —Philip Pienaar*

As Jack and Wilbur followed their captor into the Boer camp, they saw the astonishing sight of perhaps two thousand oxen peacefully grazing nearby. “Could those be the British oxen that stampeded?” Wilbur asked Jack. A fellow walking toward them said with a smile, “Yes, they might just be British oxen.” No mules, though—perhaps they had been recovered.They looked into the face of a man with a long nose and deepset eyes. He said something in Dutch to the man who’d been leading them, then told Wilbur and Jack, “Come with me. You’re going to have a little chat with the general.”

Jack said, “We’re Americans. We’re not British soldiers.”

“Well, I can see for myself that you’re not wearing khaki like our other prisoners. You can explain it to the general.” They walked to where a man sat eating at a table. He was wearing a dirty corduroy suit and an ancient hat.

Christiaan De Wet

“Tell General De Wet who you are.” The man certainly didn’t look like a general. He looked like someone you might see in one of the seedier neighborhoods of St. Louis.

“I’m Jack Brown and this is Wilbur Wilcox. We’re Americans. We were working as mule drivers so that we could get out here and join your side. We support the Boer cause.”

“How do I know you aren’t English spies?” De Wet said. “I guess you can’t tell from our accent,” said Jack. “Ask us any question you like about the United States.” “I don’t know or care a damn thing about the United States. You could answer anything and it wouldn’t matter. Danie, you ask them a question.”

Danie picked up an empty can from the table. “Tell me what this is called,” he said. “It’s a can, of course,” said Wilbur with a tone of bewilderment. Danie said to De Wet, “If they were English, they would have called it a tin. Besides, I can tell from the accent.”

“You may be American but you could still be spying for the English,” said De Wet.


Tin of bully beef or can of corned beef?

“Queen Victoria is an ugly old sow,” said Wilbur. Danie burst out laughing. Wilbur went on, “Give me a Union Jack and I’ll blow my nose on it.” Jack said, “Give us each a rifle and we’ll prove our worth.” He just hoped that these Mauser rifles weren’t too different from the Winchester hunting rifles he and Wilbur were accustomed to.

Danie and the general conferred back and forth in Dutch for a bit. Finally, Danie said, “Tell us what you know about Lord Roberts’ plans.”

“Well, we mule drivers weren’t in on those kinds of discussions, but I did hear people saying that some columns were going to be reinforcing Roberts from the direction of Belmont,” said Jack. Wilbur added, “General French is going to Kimberley.” “Well yes, we knew that,” said Danie. “Look, we’re going to give you a chance. You can go over there and get something to eat.” They looked over to where groups of men were sitting on the ground around campfires. A sudden feeling of deep shyness came over Jack. He hadn’t really thought much about the social aspect before. How would these men respond to two oddball Americans in their midst?

Perhaps Danie saw the hesitation on his face, because he said, “I’ll introduce you around. My name is Danie Theron, by the way.” The three walked over to the nearest campfire, where men were eating what looked like roast mutton and some kind of greasy-looking dumpling. Danie spoke to the group for a minute in Dutch. Well, at least a few of them spoke English, because a couple of them called out, “Welcome!” and one of them said, “You came all the way over from America to join us?” Jack and Wilbur sat down and were handed metal plates of meat and dumplings—no silverware.  The one who seemed to know the most English started asking them questions about their time in South Africa so far, and then he translated for the others. Then the two were asked questions about America. The Boers wanted to know especially about cowboys and Indians, and Jack and Wilbur managed to make up just enough details to satisfy their audience.

The one who spoke the best English told them his name was Japie, and he seemed to take them under his wing. He told them they were very lucky to have joined De Wet’s commando, for he was the best of all the generals, Japie said. “And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Free Stater,” he said. It turned out that Japie had been a lawyer in Bloemfontein. “We’ve got several lawyers in our bunch. Danie’s a lawyer too. Do you know about his bicycle corps?”

Bicycles here on the veld? That seemed incredible. But Japie explained that Danie had formed a corps called the Wielrijders Rapportgangers which performed scouting services. “The scouts are always our sharpest men. And Danie’s very brave. He gets behind the British lines and comes back with a very complete report.”

Japie found them space in his big tent—there were six of them in it—and got them the necessary supplies—including their Mausers and their bandoliers stuffed with cartridges. Jack and Wilbur hoped they would have a chance to do a bit of practice shooting.

The next morning they were given horses—Jack’s was a bit on the bony side, but after all, the newcomers weren’t going to get the cream of the crop.  The commando broke camp and rode over to the site of the British camp on the Riet River. Much to everyone’s surprise, the British had departed, leaving behind 200 wagons loaded with supplies—because they no longer had the oxen required to pull them. The Boers found cans of sardines, salmon, corned beef, jam, milk, and biscuits; whole wagonloads of oats and hay for the horses; and wagonloads of rum. Now, the problem was that although they had the oxen, only the drivers knew which oxen were accustomed to being in front and which in the rear, and most of the drivers had disappeared. De Wet later wrote of the situation: “But here the fact that every Boer is himself a handy conductor and driver of waggons told in our favour. Consequently we did not find it beyond our power to get the waggons on the move. It was, however, very tedious work, for how could any of us be sure that we were not placing the after-oxen in the front and the fore-oxen behind? There was nothing left for it but to turn out the best spans of sixteen that we could, and then to arrange them in the way that struck us as being most suitable…. We took a very long time to cover the first few miles, as we had constantly to be stopping to rearrange the oxen.”#

* Philip Pienaar, With Steyn and De Wet. Methuen & Co., London, 1902.

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