IN DEFENCE OF THEIR TOWN IN 1901

There was a time during the Anglo-Boer War (1889-1902) when the Boers adopted guerrilla tactics to harass the British forces. As the advancing commandos of Generals Jan Smuts and P. H. Kritzinger had attacked towns in the Eastern Cape, Grahamstown called upon cadets from local schools to assist with defending the town. Trenches were dug around the perimeter of the town.

This happened during March 1901. For about ten days these trenches or schanze were manned by school cadets from St. Andrew’s College, Kingswood College and Graeme College. Unmarked remnants of these trenches can still be seen if one has a careful eye.

None of these boys saw any action and not much information is readily available about their contribution to the defence of the town. What we do know is that the St. Andrew’s College cadets (Detachment No 4) manned their post on the fringes of the old golf course for ten days before standing down. It transpires that Kritzinger’s forces only reached as far as Carlisle Bridge, about 127Km away. In 1997 the school erected a marble tablet to commemorate this event.

Those St. Andrew’s College cadets voluntarily forfeited their soldiers’ pay, having voted to put it towards the building of what is now known as the Drill Hall.  This memorial can be located at 33°17’51.90”S; 26°30’14.60”E. The trenches they dug, though overgrown, are still visible.

A rich source of information about St. Andrew’s College in Grahamstown can be found in Marguerite Poland’s magnificent book, The Boy in You: a biography of St. Andrew’s College, 1855-2005.

SECOND WORLD WAR COASTAL FORTRESS OBSERVATION POST: PORT ELIZABETH

One cannot help noticing a strange looking building atop a sand dune on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. This is a Coastal Fortress Observation Post – one of three – built during the Second World War to give advance warning of the approach of any unusual shipping and aircraft near the harbour.

It was constructed in 1940 and can be approached via a long, steep staircase of concrete steps. The double-storeyed building has a flat roof reached by a steel ladder, with loop holed free-form parapets rising above the roof, which give it this strange appearance to our modern eyes.

These strange looking parapets, the angle buttresses and ‘fins’ help to diffuse the otherwise box-like shape of the building when seen from the sea against the background of the bush.

Note the use of the ‘broken plate’ plaster finish on the external wall surfaces which serves as another camouflage feature of this building.

For an interesting in-depth article on these observation posts, do read the Second World War, 1939-1945: Artillery Buildings in Algoa Bay by Richard Tomlinson at http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol123rt.html

 

BRYNBELLA BATTLEFIELD

Near Estcourt, in KwaZulu Natal, one can see the historical Brynbella Battlefield stone wall that forms the boundary line between the farms Glenbello (historically known as Tamboekieskraal) and Stockton.

Now a National Monument, this wall built from dolerite boulders was used by both the Boers and the British soldiers during a skirmish on the 23rd November 1899. At the time, Brynbella Hill (Harris Hill/Willow Grange) was occupied by the Boers under General Joubert as part of their intention to advance further south into Natal.

Prior to this they had successfully ambushed the reconnaissance/armoured Train near Frere on the 15th November 1899 – where Winston Churchill was taken captive. Although the British were forced back, General Joubert decided to withdraw behind the Thukela River afterwards.

According to the Times History, the total (British) casualties had been sixteen killed and over sixty wounded, mostly from the West Yorkshire Regiment. Among those killed was Trooper George J. FitzPatrick, whose grave I have featured before. What I have since discovered is that the wounded comrade he was carrying at the time of this death was also from the West Yorkshire Regiment.

Other British soldiers killed were Private F.E. Reeves from the East Surrey Regiment and the following Privates from the West Yorkshire Regiment: W. Morgan, H. Benson, J. Smith, J. Thornton, S. Tobin, J. Newton, and A. Rudd.

Note the ubiquitous blackjacks in the foreground – they arrived during the Anglo-Boer War.

It is said that the Boer casualties were about a quarter of the British. Among them were D. F. Joubert, C. H. Parker, and N. Smit.

https://www.angloboerwar.com/images/pdf/TimesHistory02-08.pdf

BLOOD RIVER POORT

There are signs of conflict in various parts of South Africa. These come in the form of battle sites, monuments and graves. It was customary at the time of the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) for the British to bury soldiers in individual graves if this was possible. A number of British military cemeteries relating to this war indicate, however, that soldiers were interred in groups – sometimes regimental groups – with the event as well as the name, rank and regiment of the dead provided on a monument of some sort. Metal crosses, such as this one, are common.

It was on Tuesday 17th September 1901 that a battle was fought at Blood River Poort, near Dundee along the Springspruit. Major Hubert Gough’s 24th Mounted Infantry, while searching for a group of Boers led by Louis Botha, came across some 300 dismounted Boers and attacked them, unaware that Botha was on his flank with the balance of his 1 000 strong force. I read that 16 British Officers and 273 were either killed or captured.

I am no military historian, so the actual details of the whys and wherefores are of lesser interest to me than the people who died in this conflict so far away from home. Thirteen men are buried here: how old they were at the time and what led to their deaths I will never know. However, when I look at names like these, I wonder about the families they left behind; about their hopes for the future; and whether anyone related to them has ever seen where they are buried – this is such a lonely place, where the wind whistles and bird song is scarce. Yet, it is a place of remembrance – for them.

Five men from the 3rd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps are there:

Sergt. J. Pidgeon; and Privates H. Archer, F. Day, J. Phroffitt, and W. Strange.

The 3rd Battalion sailed on the Servia on 4th November 1899, arrived at the Cape about the 24th, and from there was sent on to Durban.

There are two Privates from the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusilliers: C. Donohoe and J. Wilson.

Lt. Corpl W. Budd and two Privates, J. Frost and J. Royal, from the 1st Battalion Durham Light Infantry are interred in the same grave.

This battalion sailed on the Cephalonia on 24th October 1899, arrived at the Cape about 18th November, and was sent round to Durban.

The 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles were also involved in this battle. Lt. Corpl W. Budd and two Privates, W. Highfield and H. Fogden, lost their lives here.

Known as the Cameronians, the 2nd Battalion sailed on the City of Cambridge on 23rd October 1899, and arrived at Durban about 21st November.

https://www.royal-irish.com/events/goughs-mounted-infantry-fierce-fighting-blood-river-point

https://www.angloboerwar.com/unit-information/imperial-units/566-kings-royal-rifle-corps?showall=1

https://www.angloboerwar.com/unit-information/imperial-units/549-durham-light-infantry

https://www.angloboerwar.com/unit-information/imperial-units/660-cameronians-scottish-rifles

 

THE BITTEREST TEARS

It was Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) who is quoted as saying: The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.

These words come to mind whenever I visit older cemeteries in some of the smaller towns and especially the many military graves scattered in the rural areas. Sadly, many of these places suffer from neglect and vandalism: headstones have been broken, metal letters gouged out, metal crosses and chains have either been broken or removed. Trees, weeds and grass grow unchecked except by diminishing numbers of volunteers. The old cemetery in our town is a treasure trove for historians, yet one wouldn’t dream of entering it alone for fear of being mugged!

Back to those bitterest tears; in chronological order come five examples of lives cut short:

Trooper W. A. Randall was killed in action at Kalabani British Basutoland in 1880. I find it particularly poignant that his age is given as 20 years and 10 months – as if to show that he was on his way towards his 21st birthday. The latter must have been as significant a milestone then as it is now.

For some it is important to remember why one’s loved one died. The sense of loss perhaps assuaged a little by this – bitter tears shed nonetheless – as in the case of George J. Fitzpatrick who, aged 29, was killed at Willow Grange whilst carrying off a wounded comrade.

Here is a grave of a veld kornet who died seven months before the end of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). W.H.H. Pretorius was only 27 years old – so many deeds left undone! The inscription is written in Dutch, for Afrikaans as we know it, had not yet become an official language.

Not all military men died of wounds: Lieut. F. H. Pratt-Barlow died in 1902 from enteric fever, aged only 20.

Plaques in churches tell this sad story too: Rex Montgomery Hilligan was 22 years old when he died in 1943: He too loved life but loving dared not save himself lest those he loved should pay the price.