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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 – 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