GEELBEK RIVER BLOCKHOUSE

An interesting place to stop along the N1 is the Geelbek River Blockhouse situated next to the Geelbek railway bridge near Laingsburg.

While a number of blockhouses used stone in their construction, this one is built from shuttered concrete. The design of this, and other blockhouses, was developed by General Sir Elliot Wood – the British army’s chief engineer in South Africa at the time, basing it on a pattern he had used in the Sudan during the 1880s. It was declared a National Monument in 1965.

Although the plaque put up by the Historical Monuments Commission is high up and can no longer be read easily, it states that To prevent the destruction of the railroad by Republican forces, the British military, at the beginning of 1901, built this type of blockhouse near railway bridges at a cost of approximately R2 000 each. It was garrisoned […] for thirty soldiers.

Steel-protected embrasures were located on each floor, while two steel boxes projected at diagonally opposite corners of the top floor provided covering cross-fire to the walls below. The lookout platforms also provided a clear view over the surrounding area.

You can read more about blockhouses along the Cape Town-De Aar railway line at http://samilitaryhistory.org/jnl2/vol181rt.html

WRONG DESTINATION

From an old notebook …

While on the subject of Dutch Reformed churches, it was during a military history tour of the Adelaide area in the Eastern Cape a few years ago that we were told an interesting story by our guide of an event that took place a year into the start of the Anglo-Boer War. In response to the Boer commandos invading towns along the  border of the Cape Colony, the British forces defending Adelaide at the time commandeered the well-built Dutch Reformed church for their headquarters and used it as barracks. Naturally the congregants of the church were angry at this rough-shod invasion of their church and the resultant damage to the interior. According to our guide, the rectory of the church was, for a time, used as a stable!

Once the war was over and the British troops had left, the Dutch Reformed community set about trying to restore the damage done to the interior of their church. There was little money available and their donation drive did not yield enough for the refurbishment of the pews and pulpit.

Three months later, however, they were astounded when two wagons entered the town of Adelaide laden with finely cut oak timber – apparently some sources say the consignment included a beautifully carved pulpit and matching chair. The townsfolk assumed that the British had sent this by way of compensation and as an apology for the damage the troops had caused. Within a few months the church and rectory was fully restored – all was well.

Except … two years later the mayor of the town received a letter from the mayor of Adelaide in Australia wondering whether the consignment of oak they had ordered from England for their new church had possibly been delivered to the wrong address …

Well, of course it had! What to do about it? Photographs were taken of the refurbished interior of the church and sent along with an explanation of what had happened.

THE BATTLE OF DIAMOND HILL / DIE SLAG VAN DONKERHOEK

While it seems strange that the battle site of what proved to be the second last conventional battle of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901) before it entered the guerrilla phase has two names, there is a sound reason for it. The steep plateau where the battle took place on 11th – 12th June 1900 is called Diamond Hill – a reference to the discovery of diamonds in that area around 1819. The British thus called this the Battle of Diamond Hill. As part of the battle raged over the farm called Donkerhoek, the Boers called it die Slag van Donkerhoek / the Battle of Donkerhoek.

When the Commander of the British Forces, General Lord Roberts, occupied Pretoria on 5th June 1900, you can imagine that the Transvaal commandos felt despondent and exhausted after months of defeat. Many had, in fact, already returned to their farms on the assumption that the war was over. However, spurred on by Boer successes in the Free State, the Commandant-General of Transvaal, Louis Botha, rallied an army consisting of about 5-6 000 men and 30 guns. He then established a 40-kilometre north-to-south defensive line 29 kilometres east of Pretoria. Louis Botha commanded the centre and left flank while General Koos de la Rey commanded north of the Pretoria-Delagoa Bay railway line.

Determined to hold onto Pretoria, General Lord Roberts sent 14 000 soldiers to destroy this remnant of Boer resistance. Lieutenant-General Ian Hamilton, who later described this battle as the turning point in the Anglo-Boer War, was positioned along the base of the Bronberg ridge with 3 000 cavalry and 2 200 infantry ready to sweep around the south of the Boers and take Diamond Hill. General French with two cavalry and mounted infantry columns was poised to execute a similar manoeuvre to the north. The Boers were hidden among the hills when the British began firing at the whole Boer line of defence on 11th June. The battle was fiercest on the left flank, where General French and his cavalry repeatedly charged the positions of the Ermelo and Bethel burghers, each time to be repulsed with heavy losses.

The Boers had taken cover in the rocky outcrops of the Magaliesberg terrain and sheltered behind stone-walled sangars while they fired on the advancing British troops scrambling up the stone hill, but they were unable to stop the fresh ranks of British soldiers repeatedly sent out against them – despite suffering severe casualties – and Diamond Hill was captured late on the afternoon of 12th June 1900.

The Boers retreated from Diamond Hill / Donkerhoek to Belfast, further east, where they fought their last conventional battle at Bergendal.

Official British casualties have been given as 28 killed in action, 145 wounded, and three missing. Official Boer casualties were three killed in action and 27 wounded. During 1904 the Transvaal Government exhumed the remains of the fallen British soldiers, scattered across a number of farms along the battle line, and re-interred them at Diamond Hill.

Useful references:

https://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/short-history-battle-diamond-hill-11-12-june-1900

https://www.angloboerwar.com/books/65-viljoen-my-reminiscences-of-the-anglo-boer-war/1342-viljoen-chapter-16-battle-of-donkerhoek-qdiamond-hillq

https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC1W2HZ_the-battle-of-diamond-hill?guid=c8ef7a3d-845b-4e48-a883-64f0da82faeb

THE RUNAWAY HORSES – JOYCE KOTZÈ

Given my interest in the plight of the horses used during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), it is not surprising that I was drawn to the title of Joyce Kotzè’s debut novel, The Runaway Horses. It is billed as ‘a saga of love and betrayal during the time of the Anglo-Boer War’, but do not expect a soppy romance or even a tale of swashbuckling soldiers. This is the story of ordinary people caught up in an event much larger than they could imagine.

There is no doubt that the Anglo-Boer War has had a long-lasting impact on South Africa. The country abounds with battle sites, war graves, blockhouses – and stories. We know about Magersfontein, Paardeberg, Elandslaagte, the Treaty of Vereeniging … we are painfully aware of the concentration camps, the burning of farms and the pitting of the Boers against the Brits which tested human relationships to the full; splitting families and friendships; causing hunger and distress; and in the end even causing rifts among those Boers who had fought so hard and long for the freedom of their country. The country is also swathed in cosmos flowers, blackjacks and Khakibos as reminders of this period of bloody conflict!

As the war dragged on and took its toll among the Boers, there were the hensoppers – people who had lost so much that they couldn’t see much point in fighting anymore and who wanted to go back to their burnt-out farms and start again. There were the verraaiers – people who, for a variety of reasons, gave up the fight and joined their former enemies. Who knows, perhaps they too simply wanted the fighting to stop so that they could rebuild their lives. There were also the bittereindes – people who had fought so long and so hard, who had lost their farms, their families, and their compatriots yet felt the very act of simply giving up would have made all those sacrifices for nothing. Then there were the British soldiers: how did they feel about sowing such widespread destruction and opposing an untrained and under-armed foe? Did they even understand what they were fighting for?

In the saga of The Runaway Horses Joyce Kotzè provides a broad sweep of soldiers on both sides of the divide from before the war began right through until its end. To create a reality her readers can identify with, she focuses on a fictitious family which is a truly South African mix of Boer and Brit. An English woman marries a Boer and becomes a valued member of the Wintersrust community, while her sister marries into minor British gentry – their children get to know each other well, little guessing that the time would come when they would find themselves on opposite sides of a war that would tear through large parts of South Africa. Kotzè’s characters become so believable and easy to identify with that the tragedy of this conflict boldly comes to the fore as the saga unfolds to portray this difficult period with insight and empathy – readers are caught up in the way in which the strong bonds between the cousins are tested to the limit during the war.

Mixing the action with historic figures such as Jan Smuts, Paul Kruger, Christiaan de Wet, General Kitchener, Lord Roberts and others help to create an authentic background to the development of the war. The author provides vivid impressions of the countryside where battles were fought as well as well-chosen details of clothing, mannerisms, and cameos that breathe life into the soldiers on both sides as well as the women left on the sidelines. By doing so, she brings into sharp focus the conflicting emotions felt by individuals on each side. James Henderson, for example, finds himself at the mercy of both his loyalty to Britain and his compassion for his Boer family.

So real are her descriptions and the careful development of her characters that the author successfully reflects the reality of the history of many South African families that are intertwined with the Anglo-Boer War both at the time and in the aftermath.  She does this by successfully portraying what life was like for the Boers on commando as well as the harsh conditions experienced in the concentration camps. It is story that remains with the reader long after the book has been closed for the last time as we reflect on the complex history of South Africa.