Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France!

My wife and I headed into a quaint neighbourhood of Paris to enjoy some traditional French Chanson music. When in Paris eh!. Our venue sported just about everything ‘French’, right down to the menu, wine list and sing along to Jacques Brel and Édith Piaf favourites.

30073135_2127175497511437_787967327737655482_oI glanced up at an art mural of the quarter depicting its early 20th Century heyday, and noticed its old landmark hotel was called the ‘Transvaal Hotel’, nipping outside I realised I was in the famous old ‘working class quarter’ of Paris, the epicentre of French equality and multiculturalism … Belleville … the birthplace and childhood home of Édith Piaf, with its panoramic view of the Paris at the Parc de Belleville, and I was standing in one its most well-known streets, leading to the Parc de Belleville, the ‘Rue du Transvaal’.

So what’s with all the references to the old Transvaal in middle of ‘working class’ Paris?  Put simply, the French during The South African War (1899 to 1902) had been fully in support of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (the Transvaal), in fact there are a number of ‘Rue du Transvaal’ in France and Belgium named after the old South African Republic.

In Belgium a Transvaal Streets are found at Anderlecht, Binche and Quiévrain and in France, Transvaal Streets are found at Berck, Boulogne-Billancourt, Bourgoin-Jallieu, Cateau-Cambrésis, Chalon-sur-Saône, Chambéry, Colombes, Dijon, Divion, La Garenne-Colombes, Guilvinec, Le Creusot, Limoges, Lyon, Marseilles, Nantes, Pessac, Rousies, Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, Saint-Avold and Thiers Wasquehal.

There is even a Rue du Botha which joins up with Rue du Transvaal in Belleville, named in honour of Louis Botha, the famous Boer General and then Commander-in-Chief of the Transvaal Forces, who went on to become the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa.

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But why such a strong support?  Simply put there is an aged old ‘hatred’ between the French and the English, and it’s because they are diametrically opposed to one another on one key thing, Republicanism versus Monarchism (not to mention a very long history of going to war against one another).

Deep in the French psyche and value system and inbred in every French citizen are their ‘Republican’ values Liberté, égalité, fraternité ou La Mort. The literal translation of this means ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, ‘brotherhood’ or we die. Values which are in sharp contrast to the English who idolise their monarchy and class based heritage even to this day (the French guillotined their monarchy and upper-class in favour of Republicanism and this motto).

31172198_2127175647511422_3871489692275261358_nIn their Republicanism and concepts of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood they found kindred “Brothers’ in the form of the Boers of The Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State Republic, a hard ‘working class’ and determined people (like themselves) seeking ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ from the oppressive yoke of British Class Elitism and Monarchism. The French fully supported the Boer cause for Republic autonomy and found Britain to be unduly pressuring them, and lets not forget – the Boers were up against their old enemy; “les rosbifs” (the roast beefs) – the English.

Unlike South Africa where the legacy of the South African War (1899 to 1902) and the two Boer Republics is gradually been erased from street names, place names and places of interest for the sake of this or that changing political convenience, the French will have none it.  In France they understand the need to preserve history, no matter how inconvenient, it is what has forged their identity, especially the nasty part of their past pre-revolution, and the equally nasty past of recent German occupation – all preserved.

In fact they surrendered their country in just six weeks of fighting when Nazi Germany invaded in 1940, simply because they understood the value of Paris, this landmark of European and historical heritage and did not want it bombed flat, as was the fate of so many other European capitals.  It is why Paris remains such a unique and beautiful bastion to historical heritage to this very day.

So, when next the ‘Springbok’ rugby team are in France about to give  ‘Les Bleus’ (The Blues) French national squad a pounding, take the time to extend a hand and say thank you to the French for preserving a very valuable South African historical legacy so quickly forgotten about in South Africa today and say in all honesty;

“Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive Paris, vive la France”.

Related articles and links

The 2nd Anglo Boer War – Churchill; Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War – Concentration Camps; To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War – Emily Hobhouse; I’m not pro Boer, I’m British, this isn’t OUR way!

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War – Kruger; Kruger “blunders” and declares war on the world’s Superpower!


Written by Peter Dickens

Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

Winston Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’ from Boer captivity during the ‘South African War’ (1899 to 1902) – also referred to as the ‘2nd Anglo-Boer War’ is the stuff of a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure book. Boy’s Own was a Victorian period magazine featuring great fictional adventures and deeds of Empire.

Boys_Own_Magazine_Feb_1855Because Churchill’s exploits in the South African War were marketed as a grand adventure, it vaulted this failing politician into the annuals of British heroism and resuscitated his career in a manner that can only be described as ‘stellar’.

It was this escape from a POW holding pen in Pretoria during the South African War that set up and ultimately forged Churchill into the juggernaut politician and statesman he was to become, without it Great Britain may never have had its great wartime leader and ‘saviour’ during World War 2 and by the same token the disaster at Gallipoli during World War 1 may even have never taken place.

So, let’s have a look at why South Africa is the epicentre of Churchill’s revived career and why by association this country gave the world a man who in 2002 was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton of all time’ placing him at the top of the most influential people in British history.

Let’s also examine why a lot of people would frankly have been very happy if the Boers had shot and killed him on the fateful day he was caught in Natal (an outcome which very nearly may have happened).  On the way we’ll also unravel some truths and myths.

Churchill’s South African ‘Adventure’

Young Churchill

Known as ‘Copperknob’ a colourised young Churchill at Harrow

To say Winston Churchill was an ambitious young man would be a classic example of English understatement. By the age of 25, the freckled-faced redhead had already written three books, run unsuccessfully for Parliament and participated in four wars on three continents. He was even nicknamed “Pushful, the Younger” because of his ambition, Churchill hungered for fame and glory unwavering in his belief that he would one day become Prime Minister. “I have faith in my star that I am intended to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother.  Unknown to him at this stage his ‘star’ was to align and bring him fame in South Africa.

Winston Churchill initially took part in the South African War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  Some war correspondents (like Churchill) tended to be retired commissioned officers with military experience attached to British Regiments or Formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.

Churchill as a war correspondent was generally disliked by the British upper officer class, they found him highly critical of their strategy, tactics and actions, they also found him impertinent, arrogant and nothing more than a meddling glory monger.  His ‘upper class elite’ and ‘political class’ heritage presented him as a double-edged sword to any Regiment or Division’s officer elite and they had no choice, simply put they had to just put up with him.

True to form, Churchill’s activities in South Africa literally read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel. Within two days of the Boer Republics declaring war on Great Britain on 11th October 1899, Britain started to mobilise their forces at home, in the Cape Colony and Natal their forces were relatively small frontier garrison forces supplemented by citizen force members (which they began to muster anticipating the coming hostilities), and they were hopelessly under-strength.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nIt a ‘myth’ that Britain had built up large forces to invade the Boer Republics before the start of the war.  The ‘truth’ is they were relatively unprepared and much weaker than the well equipped Boer forces – ‘Black November’ illustrates this perfectly.  The Boers had banked on a swift victory whilst Britain was weak, hence their ultimatum was followed immediately with a surprise Boer invasion of the British colonies – Natal and the Cape Colony.

The British decided to initially send General Sir Redvers Henry Buller and a small contingent of officers, a detachment of troops and a gaggle of journalists off to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to gauge troop strength ahead of sending any major expeditionary force requirements, they left on the Dunottar Castle on 14th October 1899.

Churchill had planned to publish his magnum opus in October 1899, “but when the middle of October came, we all had other things to think about”. He said, “the Boer ultimatum had not ticked out on the tape machines for an hour” and he was on his way to the Cape Colony, appointed as the principal War Correspondent of the Morning Post. He was to be paid £250 per month for four months (£ 1000 was a small fortune at the time), all expenses paid and he retained the copyright on his articles.

Churchill was first in with Buller’s fact-finding mission anticipating his big ‘scoop’.  Sailing with great haste and at high-speed, Churchill called the voyage with Buller as “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” The passage aside, in typical form Churchill even took his valet with him and a vast liquor cabinet that included 18 bottles of Scotch Whiskey also went in tow.

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Illustration of General Sir Redvers Buller on the Dunottar Castle, steaming at haste to Cape Town departing Britain on 14 Oct 1899

In those days before radio, they were completely cut off from the world while at sea. Approaching the Cape, a passing ship held up a blackboard on which was written: BOERS DEFEATED, THREE BATTLES, PENN SYMONS KILLED. A staff officer ventured to address Buller. “It looks as if it will all be over, sir.” Buller only said,“I dare say there will be enough left to give us a fight outside Pretoria.”

Churchill arrived with Buller in Cape Town on 31 Oct 1899, by this stage the siege of the British frontier town of Ladysmith was well underway, and the initial message of Boer ‘defeat’ was very incorrect.  Churchill could not believe his good fortune and endeavoured to be become the first British journalist to get to Ladysmith – against all odds – ahead of Buller’s fact-finding mission and way ahead of any sizeable expeditionary force (which only was to start landing in Cape Town from 10 November 1899).  In effect he was going to be the first to ‘ascertain’ the situation for the very apprehensive Britons back home, not Buller.

Churchill immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so.

They took a 700-mile undefended train ride up north to the Cape Colony’s frontier near Port Elizabeth, then they boarded a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of a violent Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days in very high seas, the pair arrived at Durban.  This ‘adventure’ had started to play out in an extraordinary way.

Capture 

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of any advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range of the artillery fire from the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armoured train.

The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899 using field artillery and heavy rifle fire, whilst trying to manoeuvre out of fire, the front truck hit an obstruction which was placed by the Boers on the track and it was tossed from the tracks. The Boers then opened up on the stalled train with field guns and rifle fire from a vantage position. With the front truck overturned, the engine and rear trucks remained on the tracks, still coupled to them.

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The wrecked part of the armoured train Churchill was travelling in

As shells roared around him and bullets pinged the sides of the armoured train, Churchill’s instincts as a trained military officer took over from his ‘journalist’ side, possibly even more in self-preservation. Acting like a decorated commander, Churchill braved the line of fire for more than an hour as he directed the soldiers to free the train. He also instructed the train driver, a civilian, who was injured and hiding to return to his post (he lied and convinced him that odds are it was not possible to get wounded twice in one day).  He became involved in un-coupling the section of the train which was not completely de-railed, the idea was to use this part of the train still on the tracks as a shield for the soldiers as they retreated to safety.

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Colourised image of Churchill next to the ambushed train – taken later in the war. Colourised by Tinus Le Roux

After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside, Churchill by this time had become separated from the part of the train on the tracks as it retreated. A number of men were taken prisoner, but a large section of the train, now loaded with men, had escaped.

Churchill made for cover to try to escape and found himself alone in a gully near the track. A Boer rode up and seated on his horse raised his rifle to bear at a range of 40 yards. Churchill went for a Mauser pistol he was carrying in his belt but it wasn’t there, whilst clearing the train he had taken it off and left it on the train, it was now safely making its way back without him and Churchill was unarmed.  So, as myths go Churchill was not simply an ‘unarmed’ journalist and as other myths go he also did not fire the pistol during the attack, but he certainly had every intension of shooting the Boer horseman (at his own admission).

In a flat dilemma, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer to surrender and walked out.  Whilst walking into captivity next to the Boer horseman Churchill suddenly realised he had two magazine clips on his person for the Mauser Pistol, which were loaded with ‘soft-nosed’ ammunition. Figuring this may get him into a lot of trouble (soft-nose ammunition makes a bigger striking wound than hard-nosed ammunition and was generally not thought of Kindly by soldiers – it still isn’t), he realised he had to get rid of them fast.

Churchill silently got rid of one magazine, whilst trying to dispose of the second the Boer caught him in the act and said in English, ‘What have you got there?’.  Quick thinking, Churchill gave a whopping lie and replied, “What is it?’ I picked it up”.  The Boer took the pistol magazine and threw it away.

With that Churchill went into captivity, protesting that he was just a civilian war correspondent and therefore not subject to a Prisoner of War status and should be released immediately.  The Boers would have none of it, they had captured a ‘great prize’ who had not behaved under fire in characteristically ‘civilian’ manner.

Passing Majuba 

Whilst his POW train passed Majuba hill on its way to Pretoria Churchill had time to think.  Majuba was the site of the British defeat in the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) twenty years earlier, to understand the deep causes of The South African War (2nd Anglo-Boer War), we need to understand the 1st Anglo-Boer War (like the 2nd World War is World War 1 Part 2, so too the case with the two Anglo-Boer Wars).

As inconvenient truths go the Transvaal was annexed by the British in 1881 at the invitation of the Boers to save them from an African revolt, the Boers did not take to British administration, especially as to how they dealt with the Black African’s claims and taxes and so kicked them out, this cumulated in the Battle at Majuba – and all this happened long before Gold was discovered in the Transvaal – think about that.

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Graffiti scrawled by both sides in a house recaptured by the British in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. British graffiti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. Imperial War Museum image

This act of defeat and subsequent ceasefire agreement from the battle at Majuba was described by Churchill as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” as he pondered it whilst passing Majuba hill in his POW train going into captivity.  The general sentiment at the time amongst the British was that the South African War i.e. 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) was going to settle the disgrace and tentative ‘ceasefire’ of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) once and for all.

How history twists 

In one of the most ironic twists in history, after The South African War (1899 to 1902), when Boer Generals visited England to ask for some loan or assistance on behalf of their devastated country, Churchill was introduced at a private luncheon to their leader, General Louis Botha.  Churchill began with his story of his capture, Botha replied ‘Don’t you recognise me? I was that man. It was I who took you prisoner. I, myself,’

Churchill highly respected and valued Louis Botha after the war, he found the Union of South Africa’s first Prime Minister as “an acquaintance formed in strange circumstances and upon an almost unbelievable introduction ripened into a friendship which I greatly valued. I saw in this grand, rugged figure, the Father of his country, the wise and profound statesman, the farmer-warrior, the crafty hunter of the wilderness, the deep, sure man of solitude”.

In another strange twist of history, Kmdt Dolf De la Rey was in command of forces attacking the train is also credited with capturing Churchill (amongst others), much later on De la Rey in 1950’s, as an ageing Boer veteran of The South African War, joined Sailor Malan in his Torch protests against the National Party, such is the rich tapestry of Afrikaners against Apartheid.

Prisoner of War

Although the Boers allowed prisoners-of-war to purchase newspapers, cigarettes and beer, the future British Prime Minister despised his imprisonment “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life”. What frustrated Churchill even more than the loss of control was the possibility that he was missing out on further opportunities for glory. “I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement,” he lamented.

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Group of British Prisoners of War, with Churchill on the right. Imperial War Museum image

So, he decided to do something about it and escape, and the ramification of doing so would have massive historical consequence.  Here Winston Churchill himself sums up the randomness and sheer ‘luck’ this would all bring him.

“I was to escape, and by escaping was to gain a public reputation or notoriety which made me well-known henceforward among my countrymen, and made me acceptable as a candidate in a great many constituencies. I was also put in the position to earn the money which for many years assured my independence and the means of entering Parliament. Whereas if I had gone back on the engine, though I should perhaps have been praised and petted, I might well have been knocked on the head at Colenso a month later, as were several of my associates on Sir Redvers Buller’s Staff”.

Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’

In December 1899 Churchill’s plan to escape took shape.  He was held in a prison dedicated to British officers, it was a State Model school in central Pretoria converted to hold Prisoners of War.

He wrote.“The State Model Schools stood in the midst  of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated-iron fence about ten feet high, these boundaries offered little obstacle to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier” he then adds “No walls are so hard to pierce as living walls”.

In cohorts with two officers, Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Brockie (who was in fact a Sergeant Major who passed himself off as a Lieutenant in order to get better quarters).  They had noticed a ‘blank spot’ in the movements of Boer guards behind the latrines.  After a first attempt at escape was aborted, they had another go the next day.  Churchill was to go first followed by the other two.

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Churchill’s departing note

On the night of his escape, December 12, 1899 Churchill even had the gumption and cheek to leave a ‘Dear John’ departing note on his pillow thanking the Boer Republic for its hospitality, it read in part:

 “… I wish in leaving you thus hastily and unceremoniously to once more place on record my appreciation of the kindness which has been shown me and the other prisoners by you, the Commandant and Dr Gunning and my admiration of the chivalrous and humane character of the Republican forces.”

‘Churchill entered the small circular lavatory, waited some time monitoring the guards from the lavatory, he waited until the guards had turned their backs and this was his moment, he hesitated twice and then went for it, he scaled the wall and jumped, initially snagging himself on the ornamental metal spikes on top of the wall.

Once free he hid himself in a nearby shrub in the adjacent garden and waited for his partners, who did not arrive, he lay here for an hour with great impatience.  He overheard them speaking in Latin gibberish and mentioning his name, he risked a cough and they told him the game was up on the guard movements and they were not able to join him.

So, there he was, he considered going back and instead undertook to press on with his escape.  The escape was very poorly planned, he had only figured out how to get out of the prison, no real further thought had been given other than to head east. Churchill the ‘fugitive’ had no map, no compass, no intimate local knowledge, no ability to speak the local languages and just “four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit” in his pocket for food.  The compass and food had been with his colleagues, but he still possessed a seemingly superhuman level of self-belief that he could safely navigate the 300-mile journey through enemy territory.

On the ‘run’

Contrary to many myths, Churchill did not scarper out of Pretoria as a running fugitive only to ‘forge the mighty Apies’ river to freedom (that was all media hype).  In fact, he casually walked out of Pretoria.  He figured so as not to draw attention to himself he would just amble along in the middle of the road, in full view, humming a tune, pretending to be just a regular ‘Burgher’ on his way home.  He would later joke with Jan Smuts that there was a good chance he just walked straight past him.

Without ‘forging’ any river, he eventually found himself strolling along looking for a railway line, he figured he would follow the easterly tracks, the idea was to get to neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).  When he reached the eastern suburbs of Pretoria he sat down on a small bridge and for a little while contemplated as to how his ‘adventure’ was now panning out.

He resolved to turn South and eventually he struck a railway heading in an easterly direction, following it, all the while reasoning with himself that he would jump aboard a train and hide.  A coal train passed and he jumped aboard hiding amongst the sacks, and promptly went to sleep.  He awoke hungry and thirsty and needed sustenance, and to get a bearing (he was not sure the coal train had in fact run east) so he disembarked by jumping off.

His next effort to find another train proved entire futile, hungry, tired and thirsty he marched on with increasing hopelessness. By now he was desperate, that night he spotted a fire, thought it a Black African hamlet and hoped to fall on their tender mercy.  On approaching the fire, it turned out to be a railway siding and he overheard Dutch-Afrikaans been spoken.  But desperate and miserable he then resolved to ‘give up the game’ and approach a nearby house.  Chuck it all in, whatever comes, he hoped against hope there would be a sympathetic owner to his plight.

Winstons Wanted Poster

Churchill’s ‘Wanted’ Poster

Meanwhile back in Pretoria and in the United Kingdom, news of his escape broke.  The British public and media shifted into a mode that can only be described as ecstatic, news stories broke on the ‘bravery’ of Winston Churchill giving the Boers the old ‘Agincourt salute’!

Good old stiff upper lip resistance stuff – in a sea of negative news on the heavy British battle losses over November and December this made for the only media ‘great news’ and positive propaganda for a public desperately keen on anything good coming from the war to date – and all thanks to only one man – Winston Churchill. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (The South African Republic) , also known as the ‘Transvaal’ Republic (abbreviated ‘ZAR’), went on the man-hunt and immediately put a bounty on Churchill’s head – £25 for the return of Churchill ‘Dead or Alive’.

The Transvaal Police (ZARP) circulated a telegram after Churchill escaped from prison and it gives a very accurate description of Churchill demeanour, it is also very telling of the saga unfolding for Churchill.  It read:

“Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.”

Throwing the dice 

Churchill, now in sheer desperation, cautiously approached the house and knocked on the door.  His odds were really 50/50 and he knew it, to dispel another myth, The South African War was not a clean-cut affair between the British and Afrikaners facing each other.

The South African Republic (ZAR) was rammed full of tens of thousands of mainly British mine workers and managers, who also worked the mining support infrastructure – like rail (they were the cause Britain cited as the Casus Belli for war in the first place), there were more Britons living along the Transvaal gold reef’s towns in the Republic than Boers.  Equally there were more Afrikaners with British Cape Colony citizenship in the Cape Colony than Britons.

At the beginning of the war, English and Afrikaners with citizenships on either side of the fence, if caught siding with one or other cause were generally executed for treason by either the British or Boers – this kept most of them at bay and non-hostile one way or the other. Also, there were many Afrikaners living in the two Boer Republics and most in the Cape Colony who were in fact sympathetic to the British cause, as there were also many English ZAR citizens sympathetic with the Boer cause.  The next phase of Churchill’s ‘adventure’ illustrates this perfectly.

On knocking on the door, a light came on and a man asked in Dutch-Afrikaans “Wie is daar (Whose there)”. Winston went into shock, the game was up, so he immediately lied and said; “I want help; I have had an accident”. The door opened, and the man said in English this time “What do you want?” Not sure of the status of things Winston carried on lying and said; “I am a burgher, I have had an accident. I was going to join my commando at Komati Poort. I have fallen off the train. We were skylarking. I have been unconscious for hours. I think I have dislocated my shoulder”.  He had in all honestly no clue what to say next.

The stranger regarded Winston intently and ushered him in pointing to a room with one hand whilst holding a revolver in the other.  Winston Churchill half expected to be shot in the back of the head there and then.  He chose to come clean and said; “I am Winston Churchill, War Correspondent of the Morning Post. I escaped last night from Pretoria. I am making my way to the frontier. I have plenty of money. Will you help me?”

Now here’s where Winston just got lucky, his host responded; ‘Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

Brave words from the host, and here’s why, it turns out that Churchill’s new host was John Howard, an Englishman managing Transvaal Collieries. He had become a naturalised citizen of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and he had bribed the local Boer Field Cornet, so he would not be called up to his Commando and fight the British.  His team was all of British heritage and had been allowed to stay if they remained ‘neutral’.

‘Verraaiers’ (traitors) everywhere!

John Howard and some of his compatriots resolved to hide Churchill under-ground in a nearby coal mine whilst they figured out the next move.  They ran a tremendous risk, had they been caught they would have been shot as traitors and collaborators, especially John Howard who would have been shot outright.

Churchill sat it out in a mine shaft with food provisions given to him, his only company the many rats.  On the fifth day of his escape, John Howard hatched an escape plan for Churchill.  In the neighbourhood of the mine there lived an Afrikaner named Burgener, who was sending a consignment of wool by rail to Delagoa Bay on the 19th December.  Burgener was an Afrikaner ZAR citizen sympathetic to the British cause.

Howard had secretly met with Burgener, told him of Churchill and they agreed to smuggle Churchill into a specially adapted wool bale on the train and take him to safety.  Phew, supreme treason this, had this Boer ‘turncoat’ been caught he would surly have faced a ZAR firing squad or noose.  Burgener was also to accompany Churchill all the way to Portuguese East Arica and safely see him through – now not many people know this part of the narrative, it’s inconvenient to highlight a ‘Afrikaner’ collaborator in all of this.

What all this skullduggery means, the idea of broad partisan loyalty to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’s cause is simply a myth – thousands of ZAR citizens, English and even some Afrikaans were not behind Kruger’s politics or his cabal.

Do you know who I am?

In the middle of the night on the 19th December, Churchill was taken the train loaded with wool bales, Howard pointed the spot made available for Churchill to hide and Winston snuck away into the centre of the specially modified wool bale (with enough space to sit up in), he was given a revolver and food (chicken, meat and bottles of cold tea) – a small space enabled him to see out.  Off the train trekked, final stop, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).

Once safely over the border into neutral Portuguese territory, he emerged from his wool bale sang and shouted in jubilation whilst firing his revolver into the air.

Once in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), he carefully disembarked the train and saw Mr Burgener (the Afrikaner who had helped him), Burgener then pointed him to the British Consulate.  He marched in expecting a rousing reception – he got none of it.  Instead a terse British civil servant told him to ‘Be off,‘ the Consulate was closed, he added; ‘The Consul cannot see you to-day. Come to his office at nine tomorrow, if you want anything.’

At this point Churchill spat his dummy in the reception area, in a typical ‘do you know who I am’ rant he demanded to see the Consular who was duly called, happily the weekly streamer to Durban was leaving that night, he embarked immediately and arrived in Durban to the jubilant reception he was expecting.

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Churchill addresses the crowd at Durban following his escape from Pretoria and return via Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)

Becoming a ‘Caesar’

In Durban, Sir Redvers Buller was preparing his next push to relieve the siege at Ladysmith, Winston decided he wanted to re-engage his military commission and get into the fight properly as a British Army officer.  His problem, his contract with the Morning Post,which did not allow him as a correspondent to take part in soldering, and Buller who had a strict military only doctrine.  So, he struck a unique agreement with Buller, he would do both jobs, the Morning Post would pay him and the British Army would not.  In another first, Churchill became the world’s first ’embedded’ journalist.

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Colourised portrait of Winston Churchill as part of the South African Light Horse

With that he eagerly found himself back in uniform and off to war, with a lieutenant’s commission in the South African Light Horse.  In his words; “I stitched my badges of rank to my khaki coat and stuck the long plume of feathers from the tail of the sakabulu bird in my hat, and lived from day-to-day in perfect happiness”.

Churchill took part in the famous battle of Spionkop outside Ladysmith from 23-24 January 1900, he acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spionkop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene:“Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”

He fought a number of skirmishes and battles to relieve Ladysmith, watching the final attack on the Boer position by the Irish Brigade, a desperate affair and out of twelve hundred Irish who assaulted, both colonels, three majors, twenty officers and six hundred soldiers had fallen killed or wounded.  The path to Ladysmith was clear, and Churchill was front and forward riding into Ladysmith in triumph, he said; “We all rode together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out, Ladysmith. It was a thrilling moment”.

This highlights another inconveniently overlooked fact of The South African War (especially in context of Boer and Black concentration camps later in the war), British civilians, women and children included, suffered heavily under Boer siege tactics, they were forced to live in nearby caves and bunkers (in Ladysmith) and in mine shafts (Kimberley) to avoid the indiscriminate shelling of their cities, many died of shrapnel and disease brought about from the ravages of war.  At near starvation they were emancipated.  They were described by their liberators as ‘ghosts’. Churchill’s account of entering Ladysmith recalls; “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome”.

Besides his harrowing images at Ladysmith, in Churchill’s writings during the campaign, he chastised British hatred for the Boer, calling for them to be treated with “generosity and tolerance” and urging a “speedy peace”.  His call was to fall on deaf ears, especially Kitchener’s who only got he ‘speedy peace’ part.

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British dead in their tench on top of Spionkop, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

Fighting on into the Orange Free State Republic, he was nearly captured again when he found himself well forward and isolated observing Boer movements, they attacked his position and his horse bolted under fire, Winston ran for his life under heavy fire with bullets whizzing around him, his savour came when another officer rode up to him, gave him a stirrup, hoisted him up, the horse was wounded but they still rode with Winston in tandem out of immediate danger.

He was front and forward again when the British eventually marched on Pretoria in June 1900.  He watched the last Boer fighting forces leaving Pretoria on a train and he and his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, took the opportunity to get ahead of the rest of the troops and he rode into Pretoria like a conquering Caesar.  He immediately found his way to the State Model School POW prison, the very prison he had escaped from at the beginning of the war, here he demanded and received the surrender of 52 Boer prison camp guards.  The relieved British officers in the prison produced a British Union Jack (flag), they took down the Transvaal ‘Vierkleur’ and hosted the British Union flag – the first time a British flag re-appeared flying over Pretoria since Pretoria was annexed by Britain as a colony at the invitation of the Boers (see 1st Anglo-Boer War) in 1880, twenty years earlier.

14516334_10154528497944476_6692268421857196301_nAfter the victory in Pretoria, Winston returned to Cape Town and sailed for Britain in July 1900, on the very same ship he had arrived on, the Dunottar Castle. While he had still been in South Africa, his Morning Post despatches had been published as London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and they sold like wildfire.  He arrived a national hero, nearly god-like, adored by millions.

A future fan base

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Portrait of a young Winston Churchill during his MP days, 1904

There’s a lot not to like about Churchill, his warmongering nature and ability to lie at will, dithering between politician, journalist and army officer all for personal advancement for starters.  But there’s a lot to like in addition when you consider this.

What a Victorian Boy’s Own adventure! Think about it; the story starts with bang! The hero heads off to war on an urgent sea passage to the Cape Colony, braving high seas and a tropical storm to get to Durban.  In Natal he then single-handedly saves an entire British armoured train and its troop from certain death.

Captured by a skilful and determined enemy, he then escapes a POW prison in Pretoria with a ‘dead or alive’ bounty on his head, the subject of an extensive man-hunt for 300 miles and eventually – intrigue, he’s smuggled out the country to freedom by a group of traitors.

He promptly then re-joins the fight and takes part in the epic Battle of Spoinkop, then he’s on to relieve the starved and besieged British folk in Ladysmith riding in triumph. He then fights his way up Africa to take the enemies ‘prize,’ the capital city of Pretoria.

In a perfect ending to the adventure our hero races in to relieve imprisoned British comrades from the same prison he escaped from, and it all ends with the raising the first British Union Flag of the war flying high above the conquered capital.

In all the hero risks being shot in the head on more than five separate occasions, bravery on an almost unsurpassed level – all for Queen and Empire.

You could not make this stuff up! How Churchill did not earn a Victoria Cross is a matter of conjecture (and a topic of many discussions). To the average Victorian prepubescent boy this was an epic ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure, the difference with fiction, it was all true – and a generation of Churchill fans was born.

A fall from Grace

With a stellar career in front of him, as World War 1 churned on Churchill found himself as the 1st Lord of Admiralty, he asked the Prime Minister “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Churchill, believed he had the solution for breaking the impasse—a second front.

Churchill fancied himself a military strategist, he said. “I have it in me to be a successful soldier. I can visualize great movements and combinations,” He proposed attacking the Dardanelles in Turkey and opening a second front.  This was Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ theory – and ironically he made the same mistake with the Italy Campaign of the Second World War, and like Italy later, Turkey proved a ‘tough old gut’ in World War One.

The Gallipoli campaign was an outright failure, the Battle of Gallipoli became a slaughter and quickly morphed into a stalemate just as bloody, just as pointless as that on the Western Front.

In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post. “I am the victim of a political intrigue,” he cried to a close friend. “I am finished!”

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Churchill (right), back from the trenches in WW1 wearing a French Adrian helmet; the officer to his left is Maj. Archibald Sinclair

Displaying his typical dogmatic determination, he resigned to make good his character, and he did this is a most remarkable way, he joined the Army again and chose to spend his time in his ‘political wilderness’ fighting in front line trenches in France, slogging in the blood and mud as a Lt. Colonel with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. After several brushes with death, he returned to politics in 1917 as the Munitions Minister, from his experiences in the front lines he wrote of the urgent need for the armoured ‘tracked caterpillars’ to traverse the mud and ‘no-mans land’ – his involvement with a group of innovators to resolve the problem led to the development of the battle tank and warfare was forever changed.

Destiny 

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon re-joining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germany’s re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged, and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.

It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s Nazi forces at the on-set of the Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern European democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact), and here’s another obscure fact – South Africa had a big role in shaping Churchill, his ‘adventure’ in South Africa took him from a minor politician to a political giant with a near demigod status, even failures like Gallipoli could not unseat his destiny – South Africa both directly and indirectly shaped this future.

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Winston Churchill (Colorised by Mads Madsen)

Related Works and Links

Winston Churchill and Louis Botha: The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

The 1st Boer War; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Winston Churchill and Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

Winston Churchill and Smuts; Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

The Transvaal; Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and extracts

My Early Life. A Roving Commission. Author: Churchill, Winston S, published October 1930. The Daring Escape That Forged Winston Churchill by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel, November 2016. Winston Churchill’s World War Disaster by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel. Churchill’s capture and escape – November-December 1899, blog by Robin Smith. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.

The international ‘Boy’ Scout movement’s wartime origin in South Africa

Ever wondered why South Africa has two separate ‘Boy/Girl Scout’ youth movements, one based on the International Scout movement started by Robert Baden-Powell called the ‘Scouts’ and one called ‘Voortrekkers’ primarily aimed at Afrikaner youth only?

They are both great movements aimed at equipping the youth with life skills and a sense of the ‘outdoors’.  So why the need for a separate Afrikaner one?  Well, it all goes back to The 2nd Anglo-Boer War, and the inspiration for the International Boy Scout movement.

So how did this come about?

Boer Forces lay siege to Mafeking

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Robert Baden-Powell

The start of the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1899, came when the Boer’s declared war on the British and invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape whilst the colonies were relatively weakly defended.

Much sabre rattling over British miner’s citizen rights in the Transvaal and Imperial Expansionism had preceded the invasion and as the clouds of war began to build, without a full expeditionary force or the ‘Causus Belle’ to raise one, the British compromised by building up local regiments of Mounted Rifles made up of citiz­ens in their colonies of Natal and the Cape.  One such commander up for this task, and who was already in South Africa, with experience fighting Zulu and Matabele wars was a certain ‘Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’.

Initially  instructed to maintain a mobile mounted force on the frontier with the Boer Republics. Baden-Powell and his officers had three tasks: to resist any Boer invasion of the Natal Colony, and in the event of an invasion to draw the Boers away from the coastal ports to enable the relieving British expeditionary force to land  and finally by show of force to discourage the local Afrikaners in the Cape and Natal from supporting the Boers of the Orange Free State and Transvaal (ZAR) Republics.

More than just maintaining a mobile mounted citizen force, Baden-Powell used initiative and also amassed stores and a garrison at Mafeking. While engaged in this, he and much of his intended mobile force was at Mafeking when the town was surrounded and laid to siege by a Boer army.

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General Piet Cronje’s 94-pounder Creusot ‘Long Tom’ gun been aimed at Mafeking during the siege.

Mafeking was located right on the boundary where the British Cape Colony and the Boer Transvaal met, it was a ‘frontier town’ and the most remote British town, it could not be more further flung from its capital in Cape Town. It was however still a ‘British’ town and during this Siege of Mafeking, Colonel Baden-Powell and his 2,000 men defended the town as best they could from the 8,000 Boers who continued to shell the town and tried to starve and bomb it into a surrender.

Whilst Baden-Powell and his small force defended Mafeking and sat out the bombardment and starvation, the British amassed their Expeditionary Force destined from the United Kingdom via Cape Town – to take back their besieged towns of Kimberley and Mafeking in the Cape Colony and Ladysmith in the Natal Colony.

This horrendous siege of Mafeking’s civilians and military garrison lasted 217 days from October 1899 to May 1900, and turned Robert Baden-Powell into a national British hero.

The Mafeking Cadet Corps, 1899-1900

Because of the shortage of military manpower in Mafeking, Baden-Powell was quick to put 18 volunteer British adolescents in the Mafeking Cadet Corps to use.  These cadets were used during the siege to support the British troops defending Mafeking.  They were tasked to carry messages around the town and to out­lying fortifications.  They were also used to help with the wounded and act as lookouts, warn­ing the townspeople when the Boer siege guns were aimed and fired at different parts of the town.

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Boer artillery firing on Mafeking

These tasks freed up adult men for military duties and kept these young cadets occupied during the Siege. The boys took their new job with pride, instead of running around collecting used or parts of shells, they now actually participated in the war, and were soon a recognised part of the town defences. The corps was quickly grown from 18 to 38 volunteer white boys below ‘fighting’ age (some sources indicate 40 Cadets).

Their leader was the 13-year-old Warner Goodyear, who became their Sergeant-Major. They were given khaki uniforms and a wide-brimmed hat which they wore with one side turned up (known as a ‘slouch’ hat), and a Glengarry cap, and the towns people easily identified them and often commented on their smartness.

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The original group of Mafeking Cadet Corps

At first the Cadets used donkeys for mobility, but as the siege ran on, food became scarce and the donkeys became dinner. From then on, the cadets used bicycles instead, often cycling in hazardous conditions as they delivered messages whilst under heavy artillery fire. In one famous story, Baden-Powell related the following conversation with one of the cadets: I said to one of these boys on one occasion, when he came in through rather a heavy fire: ‘You will get hit one of these days riding about like that when shells are flying’. And he replied ‘I pedal so quick, Sir, they’d never catch me’.

2010215_warnergoodyearmafekingThe town produced its own postage stamps, known as “Mafeking Blues”, for postage during the siege. Since all the letters were delivered by the Cadets, the town even issued a new stamp in honour of them, the new design showed the leader of the Cadet Corps, Warner Goodyear,  seated on his bicycle. After the siege, the special Mafeking stamps became collectors’ items all over the British Empire.

The Mafeking stamps were unusual among the stamps of the British Empire at that time, because they did not depict the monarch. Warner Goodyear, died in 1912 in a sporting accident at the early age of 26.

Frankie Brown, a 9-year-old boy, was killed by a shell during the siege, and is sometimes claimed as a cadet casualty, although it is unlikely that he was a cadet. The youngest cadets on the nominal roll were aged 11.

The siege was finally lifted on 17 May 1900, when a flying column of some 2,000 British soldiers, including many South African volunteers from Kimberley, commanded by Colonel B. T. Mahon of the army of Lord Roberts, relieved the town after fighting their way in. Among the relieving force was Major Baden Baden-Powell, brother of the town garrison commander Colonel Robert Baden-Powell.

At the end of the siege, 24 cadets were awarded the Defence of Mafeking bar to the Queen’s South Africa Medal.

Inspiration to start the Scouts 

These cadets are considered within the Scouts as the forerunners of the Boy Scout movement because they were one of Baden-Powell’s inspirations in creating the Scout movement in 1907.  Baden-Powell during his early military career in Rhodesia and Natal had started to write on military scouting, and the survival of such military scouts in extreme environments.

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The Mafeking Cadet Corps, published in the book “Petticoat In Mafeking. The Siege Letters of Ada Cock “There are 45 Cadets in the Image, taken some time after the siege had ended.

He had not however turned this thinking to include ‘Boys’, however during the siege of Mafeking  he was sufficiently impressed by the Mafeking Cadets, with both the courage and the equanimity with which they performed their tasks, and he was to use them later as an object lesson in the first chapter of Scouting for Boys.

After the 2nd Anglo Boer War ended in May 1902, Baden-Powell returned to the United Kingdom in 1903 as a national hero.  He was familiar with a organis­ation called The Boys’ Brigade, founded by his friend William Alexander Smith back in 1883.  Members of the Boys’ Brigade were encouraged to combine drill and fun activities with Christian values.  At the same time his manual on military scouting ‘Aids to Scouting’ was selling quite well (no doubt off the back of his new found popularity) and was being used in Britain by teachers and adult leaders of youth organisations.

With encouragement from William Alexander Smith, and inspired by the conduct of the boys in the Mafeking Cadet Corps Baden-Powell decided to re-write ‘Aids to Scouting’ to suit a younger market.

This final document described outdoor activities, character development, citizenship and personal fitness as the core values of boy scouts, and most important, it omitted all military content.

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Two important events also happened in 1907. Firstly Baden-Powell went on an extensive speaking tour arranged by his publisher, Arthur Pearson, to promote the new book. He was well received wherever he travelled in Britain. Secondly Baden-Powell organised a camp on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour Dorset to test out his ideas for a Boy Scout Movement. Only 20 lads turned up: half from local Boys’ Brigade compan­ies and half school boys whose fathers knew Baden-Powell. But in a very important sense, this camp marked the formal beg­inning of the scouting movement.

The next year, 1908, scout packs were established across the country, all following the principles laid out in Baden-Powell’s book.  The first national Scout Rally was held at Crystal Palace in 1909. By 1920, the first worldwide Scout Jamboree took place in Olympia in West Kensington, under Baden-Powell’s leadership. Soon after this event  Baden-Powell was made a Baronet, and the rest – Cubs, Scouts, Sea Scouts, Air Scouts, Girl Guides etc. is history.

Scouting in South Africa

Typical to South Africa, put two of us in the same room and we will come up with three political parties.  This is true when it came to the founding of the ‘Voortrekkers, the Africans equivalent scout movement.  The initial tenants of ‘Apartheid’ did not really form on how to keep Blacks and Whites apart, early Apartheid philosophy focussed on how to keep the Afrikaner and English South African youth on separate socialization trajectories, with their own respective primary and high schools, sports leagues, universities and youth movements/organisations – almost every youth institution was defined as those for the ‘English’ and those for the ‘Afrikaner’.

The original concept of a separate youth scouting movement for Afrikaners was formulated by Dr. C.F. Visser in 1913 in Bloemfontein, and early on in its formulation it was already at loggerheads with the Scout movement started by Baden-Powell.  The formation of the Voortrekkers coincided with the growth of Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa, post the 2nd Anglo Boer War.  The Nationalist were anti-British and for good reason, the British has decimated the Afrikaner ‘Boer’ peoples and sitting deeply in their consciousness then (and now) was hatred, especially fuelled by the British concentration camp system, where disease took hold of deported Boer families, killing thousands of Boer women and children during the war.

The Voortrekkers was formed as the Afrikaans-language alternative in opposition to the largely English-speaking Boy Scout movement, which had a strong and overt British heritage.  The Scout movement was equally nationalistic in its initial appeal to British youth and it carried with it a 2nd Anglo Boer war inspiration and root along with a British Boer War Commander as a founder – all of which was very much despised by the Afrikaner Nationalists.

Even initial efforts by Dr Visser to consolidate the Voortrekkers under the ‘broad church’ of the more global Boy Scout movement met with resistance – both by Afrikaner Nationalists and by the directors of the Boy Scout Movement.

Issues arose over the differences of language, culture and history.  There were also further complications hinging upon religious declarations or beliefs, the religious tone of the Voortrekkers was more than that of the Scouting Movement programme. The values and principles of the Voortrekker organisation ran along Afrikaner Nationalism lines and this proved highly problematic as it politicised the movement. Therefore no agreement could be reached.

The Voortrekkers and Scouts continue to exist in parallel to one another in South Africa, the Voortrekkers still appealing to mainly white Afrikaans youth based on cultural assimilation and the Scouts are now a very multiracial youth movement in South Africa having now undergone some transformation to become more inclusive of communities outside of the ‘white English’ one.

Both are doing an excellent job in building youth skills in the appreciation and arts of outdoor living, basic life skills and value building – but both are going it very much in their own respective way.

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Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Sources and extracts include Wikipedia and The imperial War Museum.  Additional information and images gleaned from South African Scout and Voortrekker official websites.

 

To fully reconcile The Boer War is to fully understand the ‘BLACK’ Concentration Camps

Two different current Narratives

refugeesTo many Afrikaans speaking white people in South Africa the narrative of what in South Africa is called ‘The 2nd Anglo Boer War’ (or just shortened to ‘The Boer War’) is one of a struggle of the Boer nations for independence, the backdrop set against one of British greed for gold in The South African Republic (Transvaal) and colonial expansion by the subjugation of independent nations. The Boer’s boldly fighting against the odds against a British Imperialist invasion and then having to endure the indignity of a systematic eradication of the Boer nation and culture by means of a punitive genocide initiated by what some now regard as a Nazi styled system of British ‘concentration camps’ which murdered their women and children in their tens of thousands.  An indignity and outrage which now calls for an apology and war repatriation from the British.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nTo many of the British, the story is somewhat different. The British call the war ‘The South African War’ and it is one of a struggle of British migrant miners fighting against oppression and for citizen rights in The South African Republic (Transvaal). Followed by brave pockets of British garrison troops in border towns in the Cape Colony and Natal fighting off an invasion by the Boers of their colonies, the siege of their towns initiated by the Boer’s declaration of war on the British, and by besieging their towns subjecting British women and children to starvation and indiscriminate shelling by surrounding Boer guns – calling for a national outrage in the UK and a ‘call to arms’ of the biggest expeditionary force seen to date to ‘get their cities back’ and save the civilians. Then after winning the conventional war the British felt forced to depopulate large swathes of land bordering their supply routes to Pretoria. This was done to prevent constant attack on their supplies and the supply of Boer commandos (now with governments ‘in the field’ instead of their capital cities), by their own kin on their farmsteads.  Their reaction, wherever there was an attack, just put all the surrounding farmstead folk into ‘refugee camps’ (their term for the camps) and burn the farmsteads supplying the Boer forces to the ground. All because some renegade Boer commandos didn’t ‘play by the rules’ of a conventional surrender and embarked on an unconventional phase of the war instead (guerrilla war) which threw the generally accepted rules of engagement out the window.

Nasty, very nasty history this war was, and these two different views on the subject are to a degree both ‘politically’ motivated, both conveniently serving to underpin ‘Nationalist’ ideologies and in so supporting political agendas – whether it is a Boer or British one.

A third dimension

So, somewhere between the two vastly different narratives lies the truth, but there’s a third part of the war neither of the above two narratives even begins to properly consider, and it’s a part of the Boer/South African War which fundamentally shifts all previous narratives on the war, moving it away from a war between two white tribes to a more holistic one involving all South Africans.  Ground breaking research is now been done on the ‘Black’ involvement in the war and the impact to the Black community.  New understanding is coming about and it is shaking the traditional British and Boer narratives and historical accounts to the core.

At the very centre of understanding this previously overlooked aspect of the war is the unveiling of the history of the ‘Black’ concentration camps of the Boer War.  Their impact to the Black community, almost no different to the impact to the Boer community.  The only difference is the politically driven race politics post the Boer War, and especially during the Apartheid period, which simply brushed it aside as something less relevant with a brutal degree of apathy, leaving us all now with a ‘perception’ of the war rather than a truth.

In an odd sense, it is only by understanding this aspect of the war that full account and truths are established, that anything by way of ‘apologies’ or ‘reparations’ in our modern context can even be possible.

The Black History of the Boer War

So, if you are unfamiliar with the ‘Black’ part of the Boer War here it is.  South Africa’s ‘Black’ tribal population also took part in the war, on a scale most people are unaware of.

In the case of the Boer forces, very often Black farm workers took on the role of ‘agterryers’ (rear rider) in fighting Commandos, their job was a combination of military ‘supply’ and one of a military ‘aide-de-camp’ (assistant) to one or more of the Boer fighters.  These ‘agterryers’ ferried ammunition, weapons, supplies and food to the Boer combatants, they arranged feed for horses and in some cases, they were even armed.

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Boer officer and his agterryer

It was not only Black men in support, but Black women too, they supported the Boer women in providing food and feed to frontline commandos and when the concentration camp systems started they (with their children) were also swept up and in many cases also accompanied and lived in the tents with the Boer families interned in the ‘white’ concentration camps themselves, primarily looking after the children (black and white), sourcing food and water as well as cooking and washing.  They too were exposed to the same ravages of war in the camps as the white folk, mainly the water-borne diseases which so decimated the women and children in these camps.

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A Black women in a Boer Concentration Camp

The British were no different, they quickly employed the local Black population as ‘scouts’ and numerous examples exist of these ‘scouts’ conducting surveillance of Boer positions and intelligence on Boer movements as well as guiding the British through the unforgiving South African terrain.

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British officers with a Black African ‘Scout’ observing terrain

 

The British also sought manpower from the local Black population in cargo loading and supply haulage.  These people were as much a part of moving British military columns as any military person involved in logistics and supply and to a degree they were also exposed to hazards of war.

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Black Africans in British Service, the brass armband signifies military service

 

The British would also ‘commandeer’ entire Black tribal villages for the use of setting up forward bases, strong points and defences – putting entire village populations at risk and literally bringing them into their ‘war effort’.

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Black African village taken over by the British for a strong-hold position

There is even a recorded event when Black South Africans took a more direct role in the war.   On 16 May 1902, Chief Sikobobo waBaqulusi, and a Zulu impi marched on Vryheid and attacked a Boer commando at dawn with losses on both sides.

Context behind the Concentration Camp policy

However, the biggest and most deadly impact to the Black African nations in the Boer War, came in their own earmarked British concentration camps.  So how did that come about?  To understand why the concentration camps initially came about and their purpose we need to put both the white and black concentration camps into context.

To the British, the war should have ended when they marched into Pretoria in September 1900, having now relieved the Boer sieges of their towns of Ladysmith in their Natal Colony, Mafeking and Kimberley in their Cape Colony, and having already taken The Orange Free State’s capital.  The war was over, ‘officially’ they had annexed both republics and they even called for a post war ‘khaki election’ back in the UK to reshuffle Westminster to post war governance.

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Not for the Boer forces it wasn’t.  The British in marching into Pretoria found themselves stretched deep into ‘hostile’ territory with extended and vulnerable supply lines stretching over hundreds of kilometres.   Boer strategy was to move their government ‘into the field’, abandon the edicts of Conventional Warfare and embark on ‘Guerrilla Warfare’ tactics instead, to disrupt supply and isolate the British into pockets.  To do this they would need food, ammunition and feed supplied directly from their own farmsteads surrounding their chosen targets.  Isolated British garrisons came under attack with some initial Boer successes, their forces then melting away into the country. Easy targets were also trains and train lines, and after many a locomotive steamed into Pretoria riddled with bullet holes or didn’t make it all, Lord Kitchener got fed up at the arrogance of it all and acted decisively.

blockhouseKitchener concentrated on restricting the freedom of movement of the Boer commandos and depriving them of local support. The railway lines and supply routes were critical, so he established 8000 fortified blockhouses along them and subdivided the land surrounding each of them into a protective radius.  Short of troops to man all these strong points (he needed 50 000 troops) and control the protective areas, Kitchener also turned to the local Black African population and used over 16 000 of them as armed guards and to patrol the adjacent areas.

Wherever and whenever an attack took place, or where sufficient threat existed to this system, Kitchener took to the policy of depopulating the radius area, burning down the farmsteads, killing the livestock and moving all the people – both Black and White (it mattered not to the British what colour they were) into what was termed a ‘refugee camp’ by the British, these camps however were in reality a concentration camp of civilian deportees forcibly removed from their homes.

 


Two systems of concentration camps existed, one for Blacks and one for Whites.  Both were run very differently.  Victorian sentiment at the time was very racially guided.

The Boer Concentration Camps

The ‘White’ camps were tented and the ‘refugees’ (more accurately forced removed and displaced civilians) were given rations of food and water.  The British could also not afford the resources to ‘guard’ and administrate these camps, and herein lies the problem.  It was due to the lack of ability to manage the camps that some camps were managed well and others simply were not, some fell under British military command others were ‘outsourced’ to local contractors manage, and both British and quite often Afrikaner entrepreneurs were brought in to administrate the camps.  In most instances these camps were very isolated, and by isolation it simply meant the people in them had nowhere else to go (there were no Nazi styled ‘wire’ fences with prisoners shot trying to escape), the camps were in fact relatively porous with regard the movement of people in them.

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Bloemfontein Boer Concentration Camp

Some camps were well run, orderly with demarcated tent lines and health policies implemented based on running a normal military camp (tents and bedding were regularly aired out) and ablutions correctly located with drainage.  Other camps were not well run at all, the administrators allowing the Boer families to ‘clump’ their tents together with no proper ablution planning or health policy.  Policies on food rationing also differed from camp to camp.  In some camps, sadistic camp administrators took to punitive measures to ‘punish’ the Boer families whose menfolk were still fighting in the field to get them to surrender, literally starving these people to the point that just enough food was given to keep the alive.

It follows that in these camps, especially the poorly administrated ones, that social disease would take root, and it came in all sorts forms ranging from poor nutrition to exposure, but it mainly came in the form of waterborne diseases from poor sanitation.  Here again, some camps were medically geared to deal with it, others not.  The net result of all of this is a tragedy on an epic level.

The official figure of the death toll to white Boer women and children in the camps is 26 370, a staggering figure when you consider that only an estimated 6000 Boer combatants in the field died in the war. Another tragedy (lesser so than life) was the loss of family heirlooms and family records to the relocation and scorched earth policies, this served to erase the inherent culture and history of the Boer peoples. The combination of both the systematic erosion of Boer culture and the astronomical rise in death rates of the ‘fountain’ of Boer race – their women and children, has left a deep scar of hatred and loss which still openly exists to this day, and for good reason.

The Black Concentration Camps

The ‘Black’ concentration camps were a different matter entirely. On the 21st December 1900, Lord Kitchener made no bones about his new concentration camp policy at the inaugural meeting of the Burgher Peace Committee held in Pretoria, where he remarked that in addition to the Boer families, both ‘stock’ and ‘Blacks’ would also be brought in.

As said, Victorian sentiment was very racially guided, and where the ‘white’ concentration camps were at least given some semblance of tents for shelter, food, aid workers, water rationing and some medical aid albeit entirely inadequate, the ‘Black’ concentration camps had very little of that.

Black concentration camps, were also earmarked to isolated areas bordering railway lines so they could be supplied – with both deportees and supplies.  The isolation also became the means of containment.  However no ‘tented’ constructs were provided in most instances and these Black civilians were simply left on arid land to build whatever shelters they could scourge for.  They were also not given food rations on a system resembling anything near the system provided ‘white’ camps, in the white camps the food rations were basically free of charge, in the black camps they had to pay for it.

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Black women on their way to a concentration camp in the Transvaal

In all an estimated 130 000 black civilians (mainly farm labourers on Boer farms) were displaced and put into this type of concentration camp, 66 camps in total (with more still been identified, some sources say as many as 80 camps), all based primarily on the British fear that these Black people would assist the Boers during the war.

During early 1901, the black concentration camps were initially set up to accommodate white refugees. However, by June 1901, the British government established a Native Refugee Department in the Transvaal under the command of Major G.F. de Lotbinier, a Canadian officer serving with the Royal Engineers. He took over the black deportees in the Orange Free State in August that year and a separate department for blacks was created.

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Medical inspection inside a Black concentration camp as administered by the Native Refugee Department. Orange Free State, 1901. Note the black mourning band worn by the RAMC Doctor and the armed African wearing a British army tunic top. Children with distended stomachs inspected, including the toddler with a ruptured umbilical – starvation. In the background to right of the Doctor a child bites its fingers while witnessing this inspection. Note the shelters. No tents – caption and research by Dr. Garth Benneyworth.

Entire townships and even mission stations were transferred into concentration camps. The Black camps differed from the Boers in that they contained large a number of males. This meant the camps were located by railway lines where the men could provide a ready supply of local labour. Work was however paid, and it was via this economy that the Black deportees could properly sustain themselves in the camps.  In this respect to better understand what these camps were, the concept of a ‘forced labour camp’ would be a better definition.

Of the Black concentration camps, 24 were in the old Orange Free State Republic, 4 in the Cape Colony and 36 in the old South African (Transvaal) Republic. There was a single concentration camp in Natal at Witzieshoek, and more camps are identified to this very day . Some of the camps were for permanent habitation and others were of a temporary nature intended for transit.  Their stories speak volumes for the way they were treated.

On the 22 of January 1902, At the Boschhoek Black concentration camp the deportees held a protest meeting. Stating that when they have been brought into the camps they have been promised that they will be paid for all their stock taken by the British, for all grain destroyed and that they will be fed and looked after, none of which had not been forthcoming. They were also unhappy because “… they receive no rations while the Boers who are the cause of the war are fed in the refugee camps free of charge … they who are the ‘Children of the Government’ are made to pay’.

23 January 1902 records that two Black deportees of the Heuningspruit concentration camp for Blacks, Daniel Marome and G.J. Oliphant, complained to Goold-Adams: “We have to work hard all day long but the only food we can get is mealies and mealie meal, and this is not supplied to us free, but we have to purchase same with our own money. “We humbly request Your Honour to do something for us otherwise we will all perish of hunger for we have no money to keep on buying food.”

The ‘official’ rations were meagre at best and had to be purchased, for ‘Natives’ over 12 years of age: Daily: 1½ lbs either mealies, K/corn, unsifted meal or mealie meal; ¼ oz salt; Weekly: 1 lb fresh or tinned meat; ½ coffee; 2 oz sugar – all but the corn was to cost the Black deportee receiving it 4½d per ration.

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Black women in a Black concentration camp in Klerksdorp, note the lack of infrastructure and shelter

By 1902 18 January, Major De Lorbiniere, writes that supplying workers to the army ‘formed the basis on which our system was founded’. The department’s mobilisation of Black labour was very successful – however really this is not surprising at all considering the incentives offered. Those in service of the British and their families could buy mealies at a halfpence per lb, or 7/6 a bag, while those who do not accept employment had to pay double, or 1d per lb and 18/- or more per bag.

The camps, usually situated in an open veld, they were overcrowded, the tents and huts were placed too close together and did not provide adequate protection from the harsh African weather. They were extremely hot in summer and ice cold in winter. Materials for roofing were scarce, also no coal was provided for warmth.  In addition to this misery there was a severe shortage of both food and water (mainly fresh vegetables, milk and meat) .

Water supplies were often contaminated by disease and any form of medical attention was rare to non-existent. Abhorrent sub-human conditions meant that water-borne diseases like dysentery, typhoid and diarrhoea spread with ease and the death rate climbed drastically.

The horrific conditions these deportees subjected to were superseded only by even more abhorrent treatment, the same social diseases, exposure and nutrition problems sprung up in these camps as they did in the ‘White’ Boer camps, with the same horrific result.

Most of the deaths in the concentration camps were caused by disease, and it took root with the most vulnerable, mainly children. By this stage in the war, the death rates in the Black concentration were climbing to unacceptable levels. An aid worker, Mr H.R. Fox, the Secretary of the Aborigines Protection Society, was made aware by Emily Hobhouse that the Ladies Commission (the Fawcett Commission – looking into the problems and death rates in the concentration camps) had focussed solely on the ‘White” concentration camps and completely ignored the plight of Blacks in their concentration camps.  So, he promptly wrote to Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, requesting an inquiry be instituted by the British government “as should secure for the natives who are detained no less care and humanity than are now prescribed for the Boer refugees”.

On this request Sir Montagu Ommaney, the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office, responded that it seems undesirable “to trouble Lord Milner … merely to satisfy this busybody”.  With that swift apathy to the plight of the Black deportees came another tragedy on an epic level.

By the beginning of 1902, conditions in black camps were however improved somewhat in order to reduce the death rate. More nutrients were introduced (tinned milk, Bovril and corn flour) and shops were opened that allowed black people to buy some produce and equipment, mainly items like flour, sugar, coffee, tea, syrup, candles, tobacco, clothes and blankets.

The total Black deaths in camps are officially calculated at a minimum of 14 154 (about 1 in 10).  However recent work by Dr. Garth Benneyworth estimates it as at least 20 000, this after examining actual graveyards and factoring that burials had also taken place away from the camps themselves. Dr. Benneyworth notes that the British records are incomplete and in many cases non-existent and the fact that many civilians died outside of the camps in labour or transit or were buried in shared graves, this caused the final death toll to be much higher.  The high rate of child death in the Victorian period aside, a staggering 81% of the fatalities in the Black concentration camps were children.

In Conclusion

Compare that to the Boer concentration camps, where the deaths are recorded are around the 26 000 mark and it becomes clear that the Black population of South Africa suffered the same as the White population during the Boer war.  However, the fact is that historical research into the Black involvement in the war is sorely missing from the general narrative.  Post the Boer war and during Apartheid a lot of research around the Boer concentration camps was done, even monuments and museums were erected to them. It served Nationalist political agenda at the time in establishing Afrikaner identity along a separate race line, so almost nothing by way of research was done on the Black concentration camps, no monuments, museums or even a solid historical account exist of them at all. The Black history of the Boer war most certainly did not make it into mainstream ‘National Christian’ government education curriculum at the time.  As a result the Boer war is simply just not properly understood to this day.

If you add to this the glossed over South African Black History behind their contributions and sacrifices in WW1 and WW2, you can see that Race Politics in South Africa has simply not taken the Black history and their sacrifice along with the mainstream historical account, especially the history prior to the implementation of Apartheid in 1948. What this alienation of critical parts of our history from the overall historical record has done, has reinforced the narrative that black lives were somehow of a lesser consequence to white lives. So, there is no surprise that most modern South Africans (mainly youth) simply can’t be bothered with properly understanding South African history prior to 1994.

There is still a very long way to go to fully understanding the war – but the future in reconciling the true effect of this war and redressing it as a nation – is to understand that the Boer War was not only a ‘white’ man’s war, nor the concentration camps strictly about Afrikaner women and children, a much bigger story exists and its one which needs to be reconciled with – and that is the suffering of South Africa’s black population and the extraordinary losses they experienced in these concentration camps too.

The redress for white Afrikaners in South Africa as to any form of global awareness and world condemnation of this tragedy to their nation lies in the reconciliation of the history with the previously unwritten and misunderstood black history behind The Boer War.  Only if his tragedy is seen as a national issue, with a common cause and reconciliatory national healing process behind it to deal properly with it, only then can amends and long awaited apologies from the British be found.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens with references and extracts from the Military History Journal Vol 11 No 3/4 – October 1999 Black involvement in the
 Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 by Nosipho Nkuna, also references from Dr Garth Benneyworth and ‘Erasure of black suffering in Anglo-Boer War’ By Ntando PZ Mbatha.  Photo copyrights – The Imperial War Museum and Dawie Fourie.

 

‘Waffen SS’ uses the Boer War to recruit the Dutch

An interesting Nazi propaganda poster from the Second World War, with a South African spin.

Waffen SS Propaganda and the Netherlands

At the beginning of the war, the idea of the 3rd Reich and Nazism was not central to Germany, furthermore the idea of a united Europe under the discipline and economic policies of Fascist ideologies and concepts like the 3rd Reich was widely accepted by large communities in countries like France (mainly in the South), Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands (including ‘Holland’), Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Romania and Bulgaria.

This poster, with the clever use of propaganda and imagery is a recruitment poster for the Waffen SS, aimed at Dutch Nationals (Netherlands Legion). It forms part of a propaganda poster campaign which asks Dutch nationals to question themselves on who exactly is a true Dutch patriot, implying the ones that join Germany in the fight against Bolshevism (“Communism” and Russia) are the true Dutchmen.


It pulls at a strong emotional trigger amongst the Dutch which was still very prevalent at the beginning of World War 2, which was the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). Dutch sentiment during the Boer War sided with the Boer Republics (driven by historical, language and cultural bonds) and many in the Netherlands where quite appalled by the way the British had conducted the war and the atrocities committed against Boer women and children. 

Thus the clever use of Paul Kruger, “speaking” a well-known phrase in Afrikaans (and Dutch) ‘Everything Will Be All Right” and this leads into a call to action in Dutch “Fight Bolshevism with the Waffen-SS”. At the time Paul Kruger (the last State President of the ‘Transvaal Republic’ i.e South African Republic) was internationally known as the face of Boer resistance against British occupation during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

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Johannes Brand

The phrase “alles sal reg kom” (everything will be all right) is also clever as it was coined by another Boer Republic State President – this time the Orange Free State, Johannes Brand who said in “Cape” Dutch – “alles zal recht komen als elkeen zijn plicht doet” (all will be well if everyone does his duty) and this entered popular culture as “ALLES SAL REG KOM” – both in the Netherlands and South Africa.

Subtle, but implied in the Poster by the use of Paul Kruger is the call to action to fight not only Bolshevism (Russia) but also their “allies” in the war which was the United Kingdom – so hated by many Dutch for their treatment of their “brother nation” – the Boer nation.

To really understand the Waffen-SS, it needs to be known that it was not really part of the German Army, instead it was a “political” armed wing of the German Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS, “Protective Squadron”).  The ‘SS’ and ‘Waffen SS’ are two separate entities joined at the hip.  The Waffen SS comprised military formations which were formed to include men from Nazi Germany and volunteers (and later conscripts in some cases) from both occupied and un-occupied lands.

Waffen SS Foreign Divisions

The Waffen-SS targeted occupied countries for man-power. Reason being the SS itself was limited in Germany to a very small percentage of the yearly German call up and outside of Germany they had no such restrictions on them if recruiting for the ‘Waffen’ SS.

To this end the Waffen SS initiated very strong propaganda campaigns calling members of the occupied countries to fight with them, essentially against the ‘Communist or Bolshevist Onslaught’ of Soviet Communism.  The Dutch proved the most fertile ground for this campaign, in total 25 000 Dutchmen volunteered to serve in the Waffen SS.

The Dutch by percentage of population made up the biggest number of volunteers in Europe to join the Waffen-SS. Many volunteering within six weeks of the occupation of their country by Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler resisted integrating the Waffen-SS into the army, as it was intended to remain the armed wing of the Nazi Party and his plan was for it to become an elite police force once the war was won.

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Dutch and French Waffen SS

Initially, in keeping with the racial policy of Nazi Germany, membership was only open to people of Germanic origin (so-called Aryan ancestry). The rules were partially relaxed in 1940, although groups considered by Nazis to be “sub-human” like ethnic Poles or Jews remained excluded.

Hitler authorised the formation of units within The Waffen-SS largely or solely compiled of foreign volunteers and conscripts. Foreign SS units were made up of men from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium (both Wallonia and Flanders), Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Galicia, Georgia, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia (including Cossack and Tatar, Turkic SSR Republics), Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Asian Regiment, Arab Regiment, the United States (15–20 volunteers) and British (27 volunteers – which included Commonwealth members and even included 5 South Africans).

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Waffen SS foreign unit badges

The Waffen SS grew from initially 3 Regiments to over 38 Divisions in World War 2, serving alongside the ‘Heer’ (regular German Army) and the Ordnungspolizie (uniformed Police) and other security units.

Images show French and Flanders (Belgium) Waffen SS

Although having a fierce reputation in conventional fighting alongside the German army all over Europe – East and West fronts, at the post-war Nuremberg trials the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organisation due to its connection to the Nazi Party and involvement in numerous war crimes.

Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded to veterans who had served in the Heer (army), Luftwaffe (air force) or Kriegsmarine (navy). An exception was made for the Waffen SS conscripts sworn in after 1943, who were exempted because they were not volunteers.


To read up a little more on South Africans involved in the Waffen SS, please feel free to follow this link to a previous Observation Post article.

South African Nazi in the Waffen SS

Researched by Peter Dickens with added research from Sandy Evan Hanes – reference Wikipedia.  Images – colourised Waffen SS, ‘Colour by Doug’ copyright.

Gandhi was a man ó peace, but he was also a man ó war!

It is strange to think of Mahatma Gandhi as having served in the military, but in many ways his military service and witness to war in South Africa shaped the future icon of peace and tolerance which he was to become.

Gandhi is generally quite misunderstood, like Smuts and Churchill, he was a man born in a period of ‘Empire’, the ideals of that period – its systems of governance and politics was fundamentally different to what we understand in the context of modern politics and individual freedoms.  ‘Empire’ was the way the world worked then, literally – it dictated geo politics and trade.

48934-OGJmNDllZjVjOAIn this context rose a young, British educated lawyer – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who emigrated to the British Colonies in Southern Africa to make a name for himself and start a new life.  He was at the start of his life quite supportive of British policies in South Africa and those of British empire and expansion.

Historians and political pundits have forever struggled to explain why the apostle of peace and non-violence had rendered support to the British Empire in the Boer War, the 1906 Natal Rebellion and the First World War.

What is clear by his own writings was that his intentions in supporting the British Army in Southern Africa was to buy the Indian population in Southern Africa more political concession and representation based on endorsement and participation in British war efforts.

The Boer War

Gandhi actually played a pivotal role in the Boer War, forming  Natal Indian Ambulance Corps under the British Military.  He even raised the money to form the Corps from the local Indian Community.   It consisted of 300 “free” Indians and 800 indentured labourers (Indians were encouraged to emigrate to South Africa as labourers under contract, once the specified dates of the contract finished they were “free” to own land and make their own way as citizens).

The Boer War was officially declared by the Boers in October 1899 when they invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape.  This attack led to the Siege of Ladysmith and the Garrison stationed there.   In an urgent response the British authorities recruited the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps of about 1100 local White men. At the same time Gandhi pressed for his Indian stretcher-bearers to be allowed to serve.

Battle of Colenso

Dubbed “Black Week”, from 10–17 December 1899, the British Army, unprepared for the Boer invasion, completely outnumbered and outgunned suffered three devastating defeats by the Boer forces, starting at Stomberg, then Magerfontein and finally ending the black week at Colenso.  In all the British lost a total of 2,776 men killed, wounded and captured.

It was the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899, that the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps first saw action, removing the wounded from the front line and then transported them to the railhead.

Battle of Spion Kop 

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After Colenso, the first full attempt to relieve Ladysmith by the British was met with absolute disaster at Spion Kop (or Spionkop) for the British. Spion Kop (Afrikaans: Spioenkop meaning “spy hill”) is a mountain located near the town of Ladysmith, 27 km to the South West.

On the 23rd January 1900, the British climbed up the Spion kop hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet there and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

By the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.

During the battle, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps (including Gandhi) moved into the frontline to collect the wounded.

There is an account of Ghandi’s bearing during the Battle of Spion-Kop. Vera Stent described the work of the Indians in the Illustrated Star of Johannesburg, July 1911, as follows:

ghandi7“My first meeting with Mr. M. Gandhi was under strange circumstances. It was on the road from Spion Kop, after the fateful retirement of the British troops in January 1900.

The previous afternoon I saw the Indian mule-train moved up the slopes of the Kop carrying water to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules carried the water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their heads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not deter the strangely-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place. Afterwards the grim duty of bearer corps, which Mr. Gandhi organised in Natal, began.

It was on such occasions the Indians proved their fortitude, and the one with the greatest fortitude was the subject of this sketch [Mr. Gandhi]. After a night’s work, which had shattered men with much bigger frames I came across Gandhi in the early morning sitting by the roadside – eating a regulation Army biscuit. Everyman in Buller’s force was dull and depressed, and damnation was heartily invoked on everything. But Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful, and confident in his conversation, and had a kindly eye. He did one good… I saw the man and his small undisciplined corps on many a field during the Natal campaign. When succour was to be rendered they were there.”

 

34 Indian leaders were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal for actions in the Boer War. Gandhi’s is held by the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

In a strange twist, the Battle of Spion Kop was to forge three major world leaders who were all present on the battlefield, Gandhi, Botha and Churchill.  Mahatma Gandhi would go on to become the Indian leader and reformer, Louis Botha would go on to forge The Union of South Africa and become its first Prime Minister and Winston Churchill would become the great wartime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War.  To read more see Observation Post Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Ghandi

1906 Natal Rebellion

44277-10198The Zulu uprising in Natal during 1906 was the result of a series of culminating factors and misfortunes; an economic slump following the end of the Boer War, simmering discontent at the influx of White and Indian immigration causing demographic changes in the landscape, a devastating outbreaks of rinderpest among cattle and a rise in a quasi-religious separatist movement with a rallying call of ‘Africa for the Africans’.

The agricultural mainstay of the economy of Natal had been adversely affected by the depletion of the Black workforce to the more lucrative work in the mines of the Witwatersrand.  The imposition of Hut Tax was a further burden and then the introduction of a Poll Tax on each male over 18 years in Natal and Zululand by the cash-strapped government was to be the final straw turning discontent into open rebellion.

The enforced collection of this tax was deeply resented by many Blacks, it raised tensions considerably within Natal and resulted in a series of incidents and finally the murder of a farmer and the deaths of two Natal policemen in January 1906. This caused the Governor Sir Henry McCullum to declare Martial Law on the 9 February and the militia were called out.

By this time Gandhi had attained the rank of Sergeant Major and encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts to legitimise their claims to full citizenship. The British accepted Gandhi’s offer to let a detachment of 20 Indians volunteer as a stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. This corps was commanded by Gandhi and operated for about two months.

For his action Gandhi was awarded another medal, the Natal Rebellion 1906 medal.

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Gandhi seated centre row 4th from the left

The experience however taught him it was hopeless to directly challenge the overwhelming military power of the British army, he decided it could only be resisted in a non-violent fashion, driven by the purity of heart.

Peaceful Resistance

In 1910, the same year the South African Union was established, Gandhi established an idealistic community called ‘Tolstoy Farm’ near Johannesburg.  It was here, based on his wartime experience and unsuccessful experiences of collaborative politics with the British, that he nurtured his policy of peaceful resistance.

gandhi

In all Mahatma Gandhi spent 22 years of his life in South Africa, a significant period of time, and there is no doubt the region’s politics and violence forged the man he had become by the time he returned to India in 1915.  On arrival in India he brought with him an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser. He joined the Indian National Congress and was introduced to Indian issues, the rest as they say … is history.

 

The bloody South African connection with Liverpool FC’s famous “Kop” stand!

One for the football fans! Another back of the “chappie gum wrapper” did you know fact. South African military history and the 2nd Anglo Boer War specifically are forever bound in a number of terraces and stands at sports stadiums attended by hardcore fans in the United Kingdom – the most notable is “The Kop” stand at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium.

Spion Kop (or Kop for short) is a colloquial name or term used for a number of sports stadium terraces and stands. Their steep nature resembles a hill near Ladysmith, South Africa, that was the scene of the Battle of Spion Kop in January 1900 during the Second Boer War.

The Battle of Spion Kop was fought about 38 km west-south-west of Ladysmith on the hilltop of Spioenkop along the Tugela River, Natal in South Africa from 23–24 January 1900. It was fought between the Boer Forces of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State on the one hand and British forces during the campaign to relieve Ladysmith. It was a British defeat.

After a tense standoff between Milner and Kruger over political and citizenship rights for the mainly British immigrant gold miners living in the Transvaal (South African) Republic. In a pre-emptive move to gain an upper hand in the negotiations, put the arrogant Milner and other British Imperial expansionist warmongers in Cape Town in their place and obtain a swift victory whilst British garrison forces were relatively weak and unsupported in Southern Africa (and whilst the Boer forces had superior fire-power, weapons technology and troop numbers) with what was hoped to be a minimum loss of life – war was declared by the Boers against the British.

President Paul Kruger and Sir Alfred Milner departing after the failed Bloemfontein conference in June 1899.

So with war officially declared on 11 October 1899 by Kruger, the Boer forces immediately went on a surprise offensive (literally the same day as declaring war) invading the two British colonies of Natal and the Cape Colony.  However the British garrison towns at Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley held up the invasion and the Boer forces took to the tactic to besiege these towns, bombard them (using their famous “Long Tom” cannons and other artillery pieces) and in so literally starve them of fighting capability and pound them into a surrender.

The Victorian British political class, press (media) and public, somewhat surprised by this bold move by two small “farming” Republics invading British territory, and aghast at the starvation and bombardment of both British soldiers and British civilians alike in their  towns, then mustered the largest expeditionary force ever seen date to relieve these towns – literally to go and get them back.  However, the then world’s only real “superpower” was in for a big surprise in this first phase of the Anglo Boer War as the Boer forces initially took the upper hand and gave them a bloody nose they would never forget.

The first full attempt to relieve Ladysmith by this expeditionary force to South Africa was met with absolute disaster at Spion Kop (or Spionkop) for the British. Spion Kop (Afrikaans: Spioenkop meaning “spy hill”) is a mountain located near the town of Ladysmith, 27 km to the South West.

On the 23rd January 1900, the British climbed up the Spion kop hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet there and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

By the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.

The British, unable to hold the Spion Kop hill under withering and accurate fire from the Boer forces retreated back over the Tugela, but the Boers were too exhausted from the fight to pursue and follow up their success. Once across the river the British rallied their troops and Ladysmith would be relieved four weeks later.

This first significant loss by the British in The Anglo Boer War was to be forever emblazoned on the collective British memory, and the first recorded reference to a sports terrace as “Kop” related to Woolwich Arsenal’s Manor Ground in 1904.

However, it was in Liverpool that the tradition really took hold when a local newsman likened the silhouette of fans standing on a newly raised bank of earth to soldiers standing atop the hill at the Battle of Spion Kop.

In 1906 Liverpool Echo sports editor Ernest Edwards noted of a new open-air embankment at Anfield: “This huge wall of earth has been termed ‘Spion Kop’, and no doubt this apt name will always be used in future in referring to this spot”. The use of the name was given formal recognition in 1928 upon construction of a roof. It is thought to be the first terrace officially named Spion Kop.

The Kop became the Liverpool FC home supporters’ end of Anfield Stadium and is widely dedicated to the many Liverpool-born soldiers who died at The Battle of Spion Kop. This stand became legendary in football for the atmosphere, and is still regarded as creating the most intense atmosphere in English football, with the many songs and massive volume that LFC fans create wherever they go. The capacity is 12,409.

Even the nickname sometimes given to Liverpool supporters “Kopites” derives from this home supporters end “The Kop”.

Many other English football clubs and some Rugby league clubs (such as Wigan’s former home Central Park) applied the same name to stands in later years.

Villa Park’s old Holte End was historically the largest of all Kop ends, closely followed by the old South Bank at Molineux, both once regularly holding crowds in excess of 30,000. However in the mid-1980s work was completed on Hillsborough’s Kop which, with a capacity of around 22,000, became the largest roofed terrace in Europe.

The “Kop” stands at St Andrews (left) and Meadow Lane (right).

Even one for the golfers, The Wrekin Golf Club in Shropshire, founded in 1905, named its 13th hole Spion Kop in honour of the men from the region who fell in the battle.

The Battle of Spion Kop was actually to shape the minds and politics of three key individuals, and in so shape the future of the world.  Involved in the Battle of Spion Kop as an Ambulance man (medic) was none other than Mahatma Ghandi, the famous Indian political reformer and spiritual leader.  Alongside him in the Battle were two other future heads of government – Winston Churchill and Louis Botha.  But that’s another story.

In part, the retribution for besieging and shelling British towns and civilians was going to come in the dehumanising approach in the way the war was conducted by the British, especially against Boer civilians in the closing phases, leading not only to atrocity but also Boer cultural annihilation. However that is also a story for another day.

Amazing how South African military history can yet deliver on some surprises, and how some very bloody and tragic events can be linked as a living memorial to the joys of watching football and singing in the stands.

Reference Wikipedia and “The Boer War” by Thomas Pakenham. Image shows the signboard and terraces at Anfield of “The Kop” and a Boer Commando with Spionkop in the background.