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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 5: The ambush March 11, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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The Karoo desert. Photo by Winifried Bruenken.

This is the continuation of a good old-fashioned piece of serial fiction about Jack Brown, who is from St. Louis. The time: February 1900. The serial starts here.

Jack and Wilbur were granted a brief respite from the company of the mules as they rode the puffing train across the vast Karoo, since the animals rode in separate livestock cars. They traveled across a vast desert, a kind of country that might have seemed almost like home to someone from Wyoming or Nevada but looked mighty strange to two men from St. Louis and Memphis. The British Boer War correspondent George Steevens described what they saw:

In the Karroo you seem to be going up a winding ascent, like the ramps that lead to an Indian fortress. You are forever pulling up an incline between hills, making for a corner round one of the ranges. You feel that when you get round that corner you will at last see something: you arrive and only see another incline, two more ranges, and another corner—surely this time with something to arrive at beyond. You arrive and arrive, and once more you arrive—and once more you see the same vast nothing you are coming from. Believe it or not, that is the very charm of a desert—the unfenced emptiness, the space, the freedom, the unbroken arch of the sky…. And then it is only to the eye that cannot do without green that the Karroo is unbeautiful. Every other colour meets others in harmony—tawny sand, silver-grey scrub, crimson-tufted flowers like heather, black ribs of rock, puce shoots of screes, violet mountains in the middle distance, blue fairy battlements guarding the horizon. And above all broods the intense purity of the South African azure—not a coloured thing, like the plants and the hills, but sheer colour existing by and for itself.*

“I wonder when we’re going to finally see a Boer,” Wilbur said as they stared out the train window.  Jack replied, “Probably when they’re shooting at us, before they realize we want to join them.” “Maybe we should have a big white hanky ready for a white flag.” “That’s a good idea, if only we could find one.” “I wonder what the Boers look like.” “Probably like the Dutch colonists we saw in Cape Town, except shaggier.”

Three generations of Boers

Lord Roberts’ plan had originally been to go straight for Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, the smaller of the two Boer republics. But Cecil John Rhodes in the besieged town of Kimberley had issued an ultimatum: either relieve Kimberley first, or he would surrender it to the Boers. Apparently the stupendously wealthy Rhodes had become tired of eating horse meat, and thus the diamond-mining town would be the first target of Roberts’ massive army, with the cavalry under General John French riding ahead to attempt a speedy assault at Kimberley before the Boers could reinforce the commandos that were guarding the town. Most of the ones in the vicinity were over at Magersfontein, where they had beaten the British in December in a highly demoralizing defeat.

Cecil John Rhodes

Just north of the Orange River, many trains were disgorging men, mules, oxen, and countless heaps of baggage and crates of supplies. French’s cavalry made off as fast as they could, a mixed success given that some of the mounted infantry were new recruits who hadn’t yet learned to ride. Then along plodded infantry divisions, columns of baggage mules, and columns of oxen pulling heavy wagons. Jack and Wilbur had nearly become separated during the chaotic assembly of the procession, but Jack quickly made a deal with the driver of the baggage cart behind Wilbur’s to swap places. Roberts’ army headed off toward the Riet River, raising great clouds of dust. Their progress was observed by isolated Boer scouts, but because of the dust, Jack and Wilbur never saw these horseback figures on the horizon.

The immediate goal was to reach the Riet River. Over the course of three days, stopping by night at small farms that had been swept bare of their residents by an advance guard called Rimington’s Tigers, they plodded along. A major annoyance was that somehow or other when the convoy broke camp, the oxen column kept getting ahead of the faster mules, blocking their progress and separating the front ranks from their food and changes of clothing, thereby causing much aggravation. At last they reached the Riet, and what a mess the crossing turned out to be. Once again, the oxen got ahead—the ox-drivers seemed to think waiting for the mules to go first was too tedious to consider—and the heavy beasts were having great trouble with getting down the steep banks and moving through the deep mud. Jack and Wilbur had not yet crossed Waterval Drift when they heard the sounds of galloping horses and riflefire. All at once great numbers of oxen were stampeding, some of them coming straight toward the mules.

“Run for the bank over there!” Wilbur called. The two jumped from their carts and made a beeline for a spot where they could duck down a steep drop beside the river. In 30 minutes or so, things quieted down. Jack and Wilbur stuck their heads cautiously above the bank. Most of the livestock had disappeared, and piles of overturned supplies littered the ground. The portion of the convoy that had already crossed the drift was halted on the far side. “We have to get over there,” said Jack. They started to wade.

“Hands up!” called a voice. They looked over their shoulders to see a bearded man on horseback aiming his rifle at them.

“Well, they do speak a little English then,” said Wilbur as he and Jack raised their arms and turned to face their adversary. The man gestured to them to come toward him.

“Well, this is just what we wanted, isn’t it?” said Jack. “Now we can join the Boers—if he doesn’t shoot us, anyway.”

The man indicated for them to walk next to him. Wilbur said, “Maybe ‘Hands up’ is the only English he needs to know. After all, they’ve been successful enough that they don’t need to know ‘I surrender.” Jack tried calling out to the man, “We’re Americans,” but got no response.  They walked for about an hour over hot, dusty ground until they reached a camp tucked behind a hill.

They had been captured by a man in the commando of Christiaan De Wet.

* George Steevens, From Capetown to Ladysmith. William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh, 1900.

De Wet

A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 4: Arrival in Cape Town March 3, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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Transatlantic steamship of the late 1890s

This is the continuation of a good old-fashioned piece of serial fiction about Jack Brown, from St. Louis, who has decided to go to South Africa to fight with the Boers. The time: early 1900. The serial starts here.

The voyage from New Orleans to Cape Town took 25 days. The H.M.S. Bacchante was quite an impressive structure, Jack thought. Above a vast hold packed with hay and oats, it had three stories of mule stalls, each stall three feet wide. The mules faced each other companionably across an aisle, their tails pointing toward the sea. Using a system of inclined ramps, the muleteers led the animals after their breakfast up to the top deck and walked them around for exercise. Then they were tied to the rails and had a chance to admire the foaming ocean while the muleteers hosed out the stalls. Jack had expected the whole ship would stink to the high heavens, but in fact the ventilating fans kept it bearable. He only felt sorry for the ship’s veterinarian, who had to shove a thermometer up the back end of each of 500 mules every day. Any infectious disease would be disastrous, as the cost of mule plus shipping amounted to $400 apiece.

Amid the muleteer crew of fifteen, Jack had forged a friendship with Wilbur, the fellow he’d met on the dock. Wilbur was a carpenter from Memphis who’d decided he needed to turn a new page after his wife ran away with another fellow. Wilbur was his own age, 25, but he looked weathered enough to be 35 at least. The two had their own game of poker going during the long evening hours. By some circumstance—normally these things took care of themselves—the crew found that it only had three decks of cards, and Jack and Wilbur were stuck with the one missing the queen of spades. Wilbur tended to insist that the odds were high that if the card had been present, he would have completed his flush or his three of a kind, and Jack generally conceded the point. Wilbur tried to interest Jack in this new craze called lowball, but Jack decided he wasn’t smart enough to play it. Not that it really mattered who won or lost, since they played for lengths of straw, and Jack was already far behind.

Jack whiled away some hours by regaling Wilbur with examples of conspicuous consumption in his much-admired Thorstein Veblen: the fancy dress ball, servants in livery, and of course the ladies’ corsets that he had also discussed with Sarah. Wilbur found it all fascinating, and Jack was able to provide further examples from his own experience (some slightly embellished), since he had a more fortunate background than Wilbur.

Some day early in February, Wilbur brought up the subject that Jack had been anticipating all along. “So, are you going back on this tub, or are you going to spend a little while in Cape Town and maybe get the next boat back?” Jack had been unsure whether to confide his plans in Wilbur—after all, he was at this moment an employee of the British with plans to go over to their enemy—but he had a gut feeling that Wilbur was safe, and he told him the plan. Thought he’d enroll in the British transport service, get to the front, and then go over to the Boers.

“I’ll go with you,” said Wilbur. “Are you in support of the Boers?” asked Jack. “Well, aren’t they the ones whose country is being invaded? Maybe they could use a little help from us.” Jack thought it was his duty to discourage Wilbur—after all, he didn’t want to be leading him to his death on some bleak South  African battlefield. He said, “You know, most of  ’em don’t even speak English.” That seemed to set Wilbur back for a moment, but then he replied, “We can use sign language. That worked fine with this fellow from Poland that I met one time.” Jack laughed and clapped Wilbur on the back. “All right, I think you’re going to do fine!”

They arrived in Cape Town on February 5, and it took a day or so to get their braying, stamping cargo unloaded. The docks were flooded with newly arrived British soldiers—the Tommies. Jack saw them lined up along the edge of the pier, getting their kit out ready for their first inspection. Poor fellows—those cork helmets just made them look silly. They looked pale and young. Of course he wouldn’t see any Boers here, but he found himself scrutinizing the Dutch-speaking Cape colonists he ran across, as if it would provide some clue to the strange future he faced.

He had information from one of the ship’s officers about the transport service recruitment, so he and Wilbur headed over to the address he was given and found that they were welcomed with open arms. Experience with mules—willing to go out to the veld—what it boiled down to was, the new commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts, was getting set to move his army of 40,000 to Kimberley and relieve the siege that had been going on since last October. The logistics were mind-boggling. The supply lines—the mules—the oxen—food for the soldiers—artillery—tents—how would it ever be done?


Lord Roberts

Jack learned that Roberts had experienced a personal tragedy lately. Just arrived in Cape Town January 10 to take over command from the beleaguered General Sir Redvers “Reverse” Buller, he found out only as he stepped off the ship that his beloved son Freddy had been killed in the catastrophic (for the British) battle of Colenso, December 15. Freddy had bravely attempted to rescue the twelve 15-pounder field guns being captured by the Boers. Much to the horror of the bearer of the news, Roberts had broken down and wept.

Jack couldn’t help but sympathize. Well, things would be different once he got into contact with the Boers. Here he was surrounded by the British, who were had great respect for their commander, hero of the Battle of Kandahar. He and Wilbur busied themselves with loading mules onto trains bound for the border of the Orange Free State. There they would detrain and begin a very long march.

What ‘e does not know o’ war,

Gen’ral Bobs,

You can arst the shop next door—

can’t they, Bobs?

Oh ‘e’s little but ‘e’s wise,

‘E’s a terror for ‘is size,


Do yer, Bobs?

Rudyard Kipling, “Bobs,” 1898.

Freddy Roberts, killed at Colenso

“An impromptu smoking concert was held” July 30, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history.
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"The Spanish Cavalier" was popular during the Boer War

How do men engaged in warfare keep themselves entertained during any periods of relative calm that might happen to come along? U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, have their iPods and PlayStations.** At the time of the Boer War, the “smoking concert” was a popular way to pass the time. The Wikipedia definition is a good one:

“Smoking concerts were live performances, usually of music, before an audience of men only; popular during the Victorian period. These social occasions were instrumental in introducing new musical forms to the public. At these functions men would smoke and speak of politics while listening to live music. These popular gatherings were sometimes held at hotels. The term continued to be used for student variety performances, especially those associated with Oxford or Cambridge.”

The wide spaces of the South African veld were a world away from the hotels of London or the drawing rooms of Cambridge, but many Boers kept quite up to date with the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the poetry of Tennyson, and the songs of P. Buccalosi. This was especially true of Boers from the towns, as opposed to the ones from isolated farms where the only book in the house was likely the Bible.

A smoking concert audience in England

Philip Pienaar of the Transvaal Telegraph Service, for instance, could drop a phrase from Tennyson into his description of repairing war-damaged telegraph lines in the Free State: “Drawing the horses behind a low stone wall, we attached the instrument to the line. I listened. There were no fewer than five different vibrators calling each other, some strong and clear, others sounding weak and far, like ‘horns of Elfland faintly blowing.’ Presently the disputing signals died away, and one musical note alone took up the strain.”* The line from “The Princess” would have been common currency.

Marching on Pretoria: Lord Roberts' men

It was Pienaar who had one of the best accounts of a smoking concert during the war. He described an evening in a small hotel in the village of Heilbron. It is late April or early May 1900, when the massive British army under Lord Roberts was pushing the Boer commandos eastward across the veld, soon to reach Johannesburg and Pretoria. Pienaar wrote:

“Here there were gathered together some dozen young Free Staters, and an impromptu smoking concert was held. Everyone present was compelled to give a song or recite something. The first on the programme was Byron’s “When we two parted,” which was sung with fine effect by a blushing young burgher. Next came the old camp favorite, “The Spanish Cavalier.” The sentimental recollections induced by these two songs were speedily dissipated by a rattling comic song in Dutch…. A few recitations followed. One of the reciters…enunciated the lines—“Within the circle of your incantation / No blight nor mildew falls, / no fierce unrest, nor lust, nor lost ambition, / Passes those airy walls…” (The lines are from “The Angelus” by Bret Harte.)

Roland Schikkerling, whom we saw recently in “The capture of the ‘Lady Roberts’,” described an evening in the eastern Transvaal, May 1901:

“Goodman played the harmonium and sang to the tune of “Riding Down to Bangor” that stirring war hymn ‘De Kanon Lady Roberts’ [celebrating the cannon’s capture five months earlier]. I recited ‘Klaas Geswint.’ The evening was a huge success. Mrs. Meyer was charmed and Annie [her pretty 17-year-old daughter] was bewitched…. The only thing in that stood in my way to a complete conquest was that Goodman had lent me a razor, and after painfully shaving one side of my face, the edge so completely gave in that I could not get a hair off the other side…. I posed side-face all evening and, like the moon, showed always the same side of my face to the inhabitants of the earth.”#

And so, as the war dragged on and cause of the Boers became increasingly hopeless, the men still managed to find a few hours of respite.

**I should add that these forms of entertainment aren’t available to the significant number of troops in locations without electricity.

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

#Roland Schikkerling, Commando Courageous. Hugh Keartland, Johannesburg, 1964.

Boers in the field