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“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

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.

A visit to Ruritania February 8, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, literature, travel.
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This Flavia was drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator who created the "Gibson Girl"

This Flavia was drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator who created the "Gibson Girl"

Prague---possible model for Strelsau?

Prague---possible model for Strelsau?

Ruritania is a nation in Central Europe whose capital is Strelsau, located between Saxony and Bohemia.  But you already knew that if you are familiar with Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau.  I picture Strelsau as looking like Prague, a city I visited in 1992, when western tourism was so new that my friend Pam and I stayed in the home of a Czech family and shared our restaurant table with a couple from Sweden for lack of hotel and restaurant capacity.  We visited the medieval castle on the hill and watched marionette shows on the bridge.  But as far as Strelsau is concerned, I could also be persuaded that it looks like Dresden in its pre-fire-bombing days.

Dresden ca. 1910

Dresden ca. 1910

My family’s love of The Prisoner of Zenda goes back three generations.  I have an 1896 edition (not a first edition—that would have been 1894) inscribed in the beautiful flowing handwriting of my great-grandmother, Minnie Webb Johnstone.  (Underneath her name and the place— Estherville, South Carolina—are also inscribed the mysterious words “In memory of  Hopping John.”)  When I was growing up, my mother would gather us around the television to watch the occasional rerun of the movie.  That was the 1937 Ronald Colman version, not the inferior 1952 Stewart Granger one, even though we were watching in the sixties.  My grandmother had idolized Colman, along with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn, and my mother inherited the feeling.

I have a 1963 edition of Rupert of Hentzau—nothing really special, except that the illustrations help me to understand why Ruritania is such a magical place.  There were castles in the forest, men fighting strenuous duels while keeping their jaunty brimmed caps neatly perched on their heads, palace guards with plumes in their helmets, people swimming at midnight in castle moats (as in Zenda), and of course the beautiful Flavia (princess in Zenda, now queen in the sequel).  Unfortunately, Flavia has a bit too much of a 1963 hairstyle for my tastes.


The black shadow of World War II

Here in the US, our imagination tends to range toward the British Isles and the western end of Europe,  and not to extend as far as Central Europe.  Certainly Britain can give us a good example of pomp (why else do we have that silly royal family?), but as far as I can figure out, Central Europe did it better, had more gold braid, more curlicues, more patent leather, more plumes, and superior castles.  I think one of our problems with Central Europe is that a big part of it is Germany, and most Americans just can’t get past the notion of Germany in its world war identity, especially World War II.  This is understandable, but it means that most of us don’t know a thing about German literature or about pre-20th-century German history.  It’s as if something was destroyed during the wars and will have to struggle to come back— like Dresden itself.

I wrote recently here about Boer fighters who passed time in camp reading about moss-trooping in Walter Scott.  In a memoir of the 1899-1902 war, a Boer named Roland Schikkerling describes his strange existence in the last months of the conflict, when the Boer guerillas had been pushed into out-of-the-way places by Kitchener’s blockhouse lines and “drives,” and they didn’t actually have much to do (apart from trying to find something to eat) except to emerge from their lairs every now and then to blow up a train or raid a garrison.  Schikkerling is poking around in the village of Pilgrim’s Rest, and he finds a copy of Rupert of Hentzau.  (It had just come out four years before.)  He is delighted.