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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

A long avenue of black pine-woods September 20, 2009

Posted by Jenny in literature.
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RavenswoodThe story that got me hooked on G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective works is called “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois.”  Here are some of the reasons I like this story: the hero is a professional philosopher; it features a murder committed with a rapier with big red jewels in the hilt; and it has a seductive sense of landscape.

The picture at left is from a book referred to in the Chesterton story, The Bride of Lammermoor. One of the characters in the Scott book is Edgar, Master of Ravenswood.  I mention this only because it gives a tiny bit of background to aid in reading the following passage.  The scene takes place in the evening at the estate of Pendragon Park just as the murder is about to occur. A character named Calhoun Kidd is walking into the estate.

And turning the corner by the the open lodge-gates, he set off, stumping up the long avenue of black pine-woods that pointed in abrupt perspective towards the inner gardens of Pendragon Park.  The trees were as black and orderly as plumes upon a hearse; there were still a few stars.  He was a man with more literary than direct natural associations; the word “Ravenswood” came into his head repeatedly.  It was partly the raven colour of the pine-woods; but partly also an indescribable atmosphere almost described in Scott’s great tragedy: the smell of something that died in the eighteenth century; the smell of dank gardens and broken urns, of wrongs that will never now be righted; of something that is none the less incurably sad because it is strangely unreal.

Aw, I love this stuff.

Moss-trooping in South Africa February 4, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, literature, military history.
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In the district of the 17th Lancers fight

Not far from where Smuts' men met the 17th Lancers, eastern Cape

Moss-trooper. n.  One of a class of marauders who infested the  ‘mosses’ of the Scottish Border, in the middle of the seventeenth century; a border freebooter.

Moss. n.  A bog, swamp, or morass; a peat-bog.  (Chiefly Sc. and northern dialect.)

It is September, 1901, in the Cape Colony of South Africa.  A Boer commando led by Jan Smuts has just made a successful assault on the British 17th Lancers regiment.  The Boers, who had been starving and dressed in rags, are able to refurbish themselves from the regiment’s captured supplies.  Deneys Reitz, a 19-year-old Boer, describes the activities of the commando, as they go from from one village to another in the British colony, as “moss-trooping.”

His grandfather had been educated in Britain, where he had actually met Sir Walter Scott.  His father loved to recite the long narrative ballads of Scott to his family gathered in the parlor.  Deneys had grown up reading the novels of Scott, and at one abandoned farmhouse during the war, he and a friend are delighted to discover “almost a complete set of the works of Scott,” which they promptly seize and bring along on their horses along with their canteens and their Mauser rifles.

Mosses and mists in Scotland (Glencoe)

Mosses and mists in Scotland (Glencoe)

Deneys would have heard the phrase “moss-trooping” in Scott’s “The Lay of the Minstrel”:  “A stark moss-trooping Scot was he…”

They are in a dry country of open veld and sharp kopje, thorn-bush and antelope.  It could hardly have been more different from the misty moors of Scotland, but the vastly outnumbered Boers took their inspiration where they could find it.  The imagination does what it needs to.