jump to navigation

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

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

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