SAMHSEC 13 June 2022 meeting
The first part of Jaco Pretorius’ talk on “The Jameson Raid: a cowboy connection” covered the timeline of the raid and the role players that have traditionally been connected to the staging of the Jameson Raid. He then examined the hypothesis in a recently published book which claims that an American Mining Engineer working for Cecil Rhodes was the actual driving force behind the raid.
Jaco’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library
SAMHSEC RPC 27 June 2022
SAMHSEC Requested the Pleasure of the Company of military historians to talk about military history on 27 June 2022.
In session 1, Stephan Botha told us about the commemoration at Swartruggens on 11 June 2022 of General de la Rey’s Commandos laying down of arms in June 1902.
Stephan’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.
Eye-witness accounts of the laying down of arms are in SAMHSEC’s Supplementary Newsletter 005 July 2022.
Pat Irwin reviewed two recently published companion volumes on Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses by the same author, Simon Green.
The first of these books offers “A Military Engineer’s Perspective” of the blockhouses. Published in 2020, it is profusely illustrated with photographs, diagrams and plans and includes several tables of collated data which enhance the text.
The second book, published earlier this year and sub-titled “A Field Guide”, is indeed a most useful guide on where to find and what to see at each of South Africa’s remaining 72 blockhouses. It is illustrated throughout in full colour. There is a short reference list and a very useful nine-page Directory with GPS co-ordinates, as well as other basic information.
This second volume adds greatly to the value to the first. Ideally, the two should be read alongside each other. Pat continually referred from one to the other while reading.
In summary, these two volumes are a welcome addition to the literature of the ABW. Individually or together, they go a long way towards developing a greater awareness of this aspect of our heritage.
Perhaps the greatest value of these publications is that they alert us to the need to provide some form of protection for those few blockhouses that are left. Whatever one’s political persuasion, their existence reflects a significant part of the history of all South Africans, as well as the participation of all sectors of our population who were involved in that unjust war, be it willingly, by coercion or as victims.
Unfortunately, as noted by the author, the greatest threat in this regard is the indifference or ignorance of the current custodians of our heritage, both national and provincial.
The full text of Pat’s reviews is in SAMHSEC’s Supplementary Newsletter 005 July 2022
SAMHSEC 11 July 2022 meeting
Franco Cilliers is to talk on post-World War 2 French Armoured Fighting Vehicles.
SAMHSEC RPC 25 July 2022
SAMHSEC Requests the Pleasure of your Company to talk about military history on 25 June 2022.
In session 1, Pat Irwin will give us an overview of the history of Fort Willshire prior to a planned field trip.
In session 2, Linda Nissen Samuels will tell us about her recently published biography of her father, The Man Under the Radar. Linda’s father was Jack Nissenthal, who was the RAF radar expert who volunteered to go ashore during the Dieppe Raid in August 1942 to gather information on German radar.
SAMHSEC Supplementary Newsletter / Aanvullende Nuusbrief 005 July 2022
SAMHSEC Requested the Pleasure of the Company of military historians to talk about military history on 27 June 2022.
In session 1, Stephan Botha told us about the commemoration at Swartruggens on 11 June 2022 of General de la Rey’s Commandos laying down of arms in June 1902.
Stephan’s talk is in the SAMHS Zoom library.
Eye-witness accounts of the laying down of arms
Major General Frederick Walter Kitchener 14 JUNE 1902
On 7th June, General de la Rey met me.....and accompanied me to Doornkom. We found the commandos assembled below a small kopje, their arms piled in heaps a little distance away. the men were grouped in no military order to hear General de la Rey and, after being introduced to the officers, I accompanied the General to a commanding buttress of rock. General de la Rey addressed the men in Dutch, which was translated to me as he went on. He introduced me to the burghers as representing the British Authority. I then addressed the burghers and called upon them to formally acknowledge their allegiance, which they did with every demonstration of earnestness. The form of oath used was as follows: “I now call upon you formally to testify your allegiance to King Edward the Seventh, his heirs and successors. Burghers! You here, in the presence of our God, acknowledge King Edward to be your Liege Sovereign and that you will henceforth maintain his authority throughout the land, so help you God.” To which General de la Rey, followed by his burghers, testified their assent. The general feeling of the meeting and of subsequent meetings was intense satisfaction at peace having been concluded and there was a universal and, in my opinion, sincere expression of loyalty, to their new allegiance.
Jozua Francois Naudé
Nou moes ons die treurige tyding aan die burgers in die veld gaan meedeel. ’n Smartvolle taak vir ons om te vervul en ’n smartvolle tyding vir hulle om te verneem. Agter die afgebrande huis op Doornkom is ’n koppie waarop ’n kraaltjie staan. Aan die voet van die koppie word die burgers byeen geroep en deur Generaal de la Rey en daarna deur die afgevaardigdes toegespreek. Hulle staan verpletterd toe aan hulle die onverwagte pynlike tyding meegedeel word. Hulle luister stil na ons terwyl oor meer as een songebruinde wang trane rol en op die gras drup. Daar was droefheid oor die tyding onder oud en jonk. Grysaards en baardloose jongmanne snik toe hulle hul wapens op hope aan die voet van die koppie op versoek van Generaal de la Rey gaan neerlê. Sir Walter Kitchener word deur Generaal de la Rey aan die burgers voorgestel. Onder andere sê Generaal de la Rey aan hom: “.....hier is my burgers wie aan hul land en volk getrou gebly het tot die einde. Hulle is vandag weeskinders en sodanig gee ek hulle aan u oor.....”.
24 Oktober 1901 by Bokkraal.....ontvang ek van Generaal de la Rey ’n sak waarin ’n Kodak was en waarmee ek die portrette wat in die boek voorkom, afgeneem het.
Johannes Francois Celliers
Toe ons by Doornkom aankom sien ons ’n groot menigte daar vergader. Ek merk egter op dat ek nêrens ons vlag sien wapper nie. Ander beskou dit ook as nie as ’n goeie teken nie. So 100 tree voor ons uitspan kry ons weer iemand wat van ontwapening praat. Nie een van ons glo hom nie – so iets sal ’n man soos Generaal de la Rey nooit teken nie. Toe sien ons iemand sonder sy wapen en hy verduidelik dat hy dit neergelê het. Dit was vir my of iemand my teen die bors gestamp het – dit kan nie waar wees nie – ek sien meer en meer ongewapende burgers. Ek moet self met Generaal de la Rey praat – ek sien hom – “Generaal, daar word gesê dat ons die wapens moet neerlê, ek wil dit nie glo tensy ek dit uit u eie mond hoor.” Hy swyg net en knik met sy kop bevestigend. Ek staan ’n oomblik versteend, met ’n pyn in my hoof asof ek deur ’n bliksemstraal getref is. Toe ek by my wa terugkom, versoek ek ‘n vriend van my om my wapen saam met syne te gaan neerlê – die gewere word op hope neergelê.
Die oppervlakkigheid en ongevoeligheid van sommige mense is ongelooflik. Die vreeslike sekerheid – die groot slag suis nog in ons ore en daar kom een van ons eie mense – ’n geestelike leier nogal -met ’n hand kamera. Hy stel die burgers in groepies byeen en fotografeer hul. Pragtig mooi, om oor ’n paar weke in ’n geïllustreerde blad al die gesigte te sien. Soveel ongevoeligheid, soveel vertoning, soveel komedie vir ’n nuuskierige wêreld enkele oomblikke na hierdie tragiese gebeurtenis!
Captain A.W. Speyer DSO Aide De Camp to Major General Sir Walter Kitchener
Captain Speyer DSO, late 4th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment landed in Cape Town on the 3rd of March 1900. He was anxious to join General F Walter Kitchener (Walter Kitchener is the younger brother of Horatio Herbert, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum) as Aide-de-Camp.
After the necessary negotiations, permission was granted and on 21 June 1900 Captain Speyer arrived in Newcastle in Natal where General Walter Kitchener’s Headquarters were at the time. Captain Speyer kept a diary on his experiences in the war in South Africa. The original diary as well as albums of Speyer’s photos are now in the Royal Army Museum in England.
His grandson, Rupert Speyer, presented a copy of the diary to Mr Piet Schoeman of Machadodorp. Mr Schoeman had it photocopied and it was my good fortune to procure a copy.
Captain Speyer gave an account from a British point of view of aspects of the war where he was directly involved. As it is impossible to share the whole content of the diary in our Africana Yearbook, I decided to concentrate on his inscriptions on the last weeks and days before peace was signed and when the war finally came to an end. The following, then, consists of extracts from Captain Speyer’s diary. HM Solms.
April 14 1902
Klerksdorp was full of peace rumours at this time, and it was emphatically asserted that the war would be over very shortly. We who had just come off trek were not nearly so confident. Cookson’s and Kekewich’s fights having proved that the Western Transvaalers did not exactly act as if they meant to give in. No, to use a vulgar phrase, they still have their tails decidedly up. (The reference is firstly to the battle on 31 March 1902 at Boschbult between the Boer forces under Generals Kemp, Celliers and Liebenberg and a British force under General Cookson. Secondly, it refers to the battle on 11 April 1902 when General Kemp attacked General Kekewich at Roodewal.)
All the same, some of the Boer leaders, including General de la Rey, had come in under a flag of truce to confer with each other at Klerksdorp and had then proceeded to Pretoria to see the Commander-in-Chief (General Horatio Herbert Kitchener).
On the 19th (April 1902) General de la Rey and other prominent Boers returned from Pretoria and passed through our outposts on their way to rejoin the commandos. As a result of the interview between the Commander-in- Chief and the Boer leaders, it was decided that the latter should assemble their men at various places such as Schweizer Reneke, Wolmaransstad, on the Harts River, etc, to select two delegates from each commando to a general conference at Vereeniging about the middle of May. The Boer Generals asked for an armistice while these proceedings were taking place, but this was refused. The Commander-in-Chief however promised that His Majesty’s troops should not operate in the immediate vicinity of the meetings.
May 14 1902
All the commandos of the Western Transvaal had by now sent delegates to the Vereeniging Conference and, according to the arrangement between the Commander-in-Chief and the Boer leaders, our troops were not to undertake offensive operations against the Burgher forces for the moment, although no armistice existed.
On May 14th an eleven representing the General’s columns played a cricket match against the local garrison on their excellent matting wicket. We scored 91 to which our opponents replied with 82, so we won by a narrow margin. I bowled unchanged throughout their innings and met with marked success, for I took 7 wickets for 27 runs.
We marched back over the familiar ground Kareeput, Schietfontein, Harts River, Kareekuil, Rietvlei and Hartebeestfontein, destroying crops on the way, and eventually reached Klerksdorp on the 22nd (of May 1902) camping west of the town. Here we heard that the delegates had been in conference at Vereeniging for some days.
Everybody of course had his own report of the proceedings and ventilated it gratuitously. According to some, peace was a certainty, whilst others contended that the meeting would declare for carrying on the war. Others again announced that there had been a split between the Transvalers and the Orange River Colony Burghers and that the latter were unanimously in favour of carrying on whereas the former voted solidly for peace. There was nothing to be done, but possess one’s soul in patience and await an official declaration.
If the Boers were in favour of prolonging the struggle, we, on our side, were quite prepared to go on as long as they wished. We had a magnificent mobile force in the Western Transvaal now and realised that given a few more months of “driving” tactics we should account for every Burgher still remaining in the field in that part of the country.
On the 30th (May 1902) the General (Walter Kitchener) travelled to Pretoria and I accompanied him as far as Johannesburg where I had permission to remain whilst he was at Army Headquarters. It was rumoured that the result of the Vereeniging Conference would be known the following day, and it was stated that Lord Kitchener had notified the delegates that if they failed to give a definite reply by midnight on the 31st (of May 1902) they would have to return to their commandos.
I had arranged four code sentences with the General, one of which he was to wire me directly he should be free to do so. They were: peace has been signed; good prospects for peace; poor chances for peace; negotiations broken off.
There was a great deal of suppressed excitement in Johannesburg on the 31st May. The place was full of officers on leave from their columns, and at the two clubs and in the streets. The sole topic of conversation was whether we were going to have peace or continuation of the war. I shall never forget that evening as long as I live.
I got back to Heath’s Hotel a little before midnight and on reaching my room found a wire waiting for me. I felt positive that it could only have been sent by the General. In haste I tore the envelope open and read: “Yes. Buy cigarettes for the mess.” It was the code sentence arranged between us for Peace has been Signed! So, the long war was over at last! It seemed difficult to realise just at first. I felt inclined to dance a jig for joy, but thought it best to curb my feelings of exultation at that hour of the night.
My friend Captain EH Bald was in my room at the time and shared the joyful intelligence with me. For a long time we talked the momentous news over and finally turned in.
When I awoke next morning my first impression was that I had been dreaming, so at once had another good look at the telegram in order to make quite sure that the thriced blessed tidings were true and not imagined.
The majority of people did not hear that peace had been signed till nearly midday on Sunday June 1st (1902). It was then publicly announced from the pulpit at St Mary’s Church and the report quickly spread all over the town. Everyone was in the highest of spirits and no wonder! What a thing it was to realise that there would be no more shooting, no more night marches or drives!
On the 2nd June (1902)) a surprise was in store for me. During the course of the morning, I received a wire from the General to say that he had been appointed Commissioner for receiving the surrender of the commandos in the Western Transvaal, adding that he wished me to procure a few cases of champagne and other liquor. I could only guess who these were for. Evidently, notwithstanding that the war was over we had not done trekking yet, in fact the march I am now about to describe was one of the most arduous we were ever called upon to perform, but there was no shooting.
The General arrived at Johannesburg during the course of the same evening (Monday 2nd June 1902) and we took a train for Klerksdorp on the 3rd, reaching our camp in the afternoon. In order not to wound the susceptibilities of the Burghers, the General decided to take only a small escort with him for the ensuing trek. It consisted of 125 men, made up of detachments from the Royal Horse Artillery Mounted Rifles, Canadian Mounted Rifles, M.I. and Doyle’s Scouts, the whole commanded by Major Mercer R.H.A. A number of officers accompanied the force for the purpose of recording the names of the Boers whose surrender we were about to take. And numerous mule wagons were brought for their rifles. We were to meet General de la Rey at Tafelkop, an imposing mountain 30 miles east of Ventersdorp and the terminus of the Schoonspruit – Ventersdorp blockhouse line.
The little force left Klerksdorp at 10 AM on the 4th of June (1902), marched to Palmietfontein, a distance of 22 miles, and camped there. Even now I can remember the strange sensation I experienced that day while riding along with this handful of troops knowing that there will be no more sniping and that it was not necessary to pull out my field glasses every time I saw a mounted man in front or to the flanks to ascertain if it were friend or foe. Truly it was a sensation living for after the many, many months of campaigning. The next day we trekked 20 miles to Ventersdorp, a nice little place, and bivouacked there.
On the 6th of June (1902) we were on the move soon after dawn and, after a 30 mile march, reached Tafelkop in the afternoon. During the morning a heliograph message was received from General de la Rey notifying the General that the commandos were waiting at Doornkom and requesting us to come along as quickly as possible. To this the General replied by asking de la Rey to come nearer, but the Boer general answered that he could not do so as he laagered at Doornkom. Our march had been a very rapid one this day and, as there was no object in knocking up the animals at the outset of the trek by a further demand upon their powers of endurance, the General decided to defer taking these first surrenders until the following day.
7th June (1902) was a memorable day for all those who took part in it. When we had covered about 14 miles and were still some way from the laager, we were met by General de la Rey and his secretary (Ignatius) Ferreira. We were all very eager to set eyes on the famous Assistant Commandant-General (of the ZAR or Transvaal forces, that is, General de la Rey). For my own part I certainly thought his a most striking personality. A strong face, with very marked features, lit up by a kindly pair of eyes That is what met my gaze.
The two Generals rode along together and were soon engaged in earnest conversation. For nearly an hour we continued our journey, and I was beginning to wonder how much further we should have to go before we came upon the laager, when all of a sudden, on reaching the summit of a gentle rise, the whole camp came into view just below us in a hollow. The place was swarming with Boers and I estimate their number at quite 1 200. The majority belonged to General Kemp’s (JCG Kemp) commando. The proceedings began immediately.
Leaving the escort a short distance in rear, the General with Generals de la Rey and Kemp and their respective staffs, rode in among the Burghers. We all dismounted and taking up a position on some high ground which overlooked the assembly. General de la Rey, in a few chosen words, introduced Lord Kitchener’s representative. Then came my General’s turn. He pointed out that in accordance with the decision of the Boer delegates at Vereeniging, a war lasting for more than two years had come to an end and that henceforth the Burghers would be subjects of His Majesty King Edward VII. That the Transvaal and the Orange River Colonies would form part of the Government of Great Britain, the fairest, freest and most enlightened institution in the world, that as loyal members of that Great Empire they would thrive and prosper exceedingly. Finally, after an eloquent peroration, he called upon them for three cheers for the King. These were duly given.
The rifles had previous to our arrival been stacked on the ground and were now collected and put on the wagons. The officers told to make out the rolls of the names at once set to work, each Veldkornet heading the list of his own men. All Commandants and Veldkornets were allowed to retain their rifles also a proportion of the Burghers whose farms were situated near native locations. As soon as the names had been taken, every Boer was supplied with rations which has been specially brought out by us. It was a queer sight to watch the faces of our late enemies when sugar and coffee were distributed amongst them. They had been deprived of these luxuries for about a year and a half, and now their rugged features lit up at the prospect of tasting these commodities once more. The want of coffee must have been almost unbearable to the Burghers as it forms their staple drink and they are used to consume this beverage at all hours of the day and night.
Whilst these proceedings were going on I had the General’s large Indian pattern tent pitched and the camp table loaded with the good things I had bought in Johannesburg. The fare consisted of bully-beef, tinned ham, tongue, curried chicken, ration bread, cake, champagne, port and whisky, Indian cheroots and cigarettes. Truly a sumptuous menu!
Presently the General, with Generals De la Rey and Kemp and numerous Commandants and Veldkornets came trooping in. And the numbers were swelled by the presence of the officers accompanying our little column. Then for some time nothing was heard but the clatter of knives and forks and the popping of the champagne corks. My word, they did eat, and no wonder, for many a day must have passed since these brave people had set eyes on such a goodly supply of vials. Goodwill reigned supreme and there was much drinking of mutual health in champagne out of mugs. At last, everyone appeared to be satisfied.
General de la Rey sat and smoked his pipe in a corner of the tent and every now and then a Burgher, about to leave for his farm or the railway. would approach and bid farewell to his Chief. I was very much struck by the respect, nay almost awe, shown by his men for their General. As each one came near he removed his hat and assumed an air of humility, grasping de la Rey’s hand and holding it for a few seconds. The Assistant Commandant-General had quite the air of a great ruler receiving his subjects and yet his pose was perfectly natural and not in the least bumptious. It was not difficult to see how great had been his influence over his Burghers.
At about 4 PM we packed up and marched 12 miles to Vlakplaas, a farm almost exactly half way between Zeerust and Rustenburg, General de la Rey accompanying us. On the following day we moved west along the Zeerust road. We were now in the Marico, a wild and superbly picturesque country which reminded me forcibly of the Lydenburg district and the Secocoeni’s (Sekhukhuni) land. The broken ground of the Marico had evidently not tempted our troops to spend much time there for in all directions we came upon homesteads that stood intact, to us a most unusual sight and one we were hardly accustomed to!
On the 9th (June 1902) we marched six miles south west to Waterkloof where General Celliers’ (J G Celliers) Marico Commando was waiting to surrender. We took over about 700 rifles, a similar scene to that of Doornkom repeating itself.
Celliers made a great reputation for himself during the war. That evening he and his Commandant (General de la Rey) dined in the General’s mess. General de la Rey and his secretaries were, of course, our guests during the whole of the time they trekked with us. Celliers could speak English fluently and many were the yarns which he and the General told concerning the earlier stages of the campaign in Natal in which they both had fought. Celliers was rather fond of trying to demonstrate how the wily Boer had usually laid a successful trap for the unsuspecting Britisher. But de la Rey who had the stories translated would often tell a story against his own side.
The following day we marched 33 miles south to Lichtenburg. Shortly after leaving the camp, we began to ascend and soon found ourselves on the high veld once more. The contrast in the temperature became very marked. In the bush country through which we had been trekking, it was hot by day and cool at night, but now we had to face the cold air of the plateau. To make matters worse a biting wind charged with rain and sleet, bore down on us all day and rendered the march very trying to man and beast. It was freezing hard when we left Lichtenburg at 7.30 on the 11th (June 1902). About noon our little force outspanned at Rooirantjiesfontein, a German missionary station. After a short rest we proceeded on our way south and bivouacked at Uitschot on the Klein Harts River having marched 33 miles that day.
Next morning, 12 June (1902) we took the surrender of Commandant Vermaas’ (HCW Vermaas) commando at Goedgedacht, the laager being but a few miles south of Uitschot. The General had ordered the transport, with the exception of the wagons containing rations for the Boers, to proceed direct to Leeuwfontein 20 miles north west of Klerksdorp, where we proposed to bivouac that night. I was therefore obliged to put the luncheon prepared for the Commandants, Veldkornets etc in panniers, which I carried on the mule pack I had wheedled out of our transport officer a few weeks previously.
We all thought the Burghers comprising Vermaas’s commando the most truculent we had so far come across on this trek. Not that they made any difficulties about giving up their arms, for the proceedings passed off without a hitch, but they seemed noisier, rougher and more independent than Kemp’s or Celliers’ men. About 500 rifles were surrendered. With the help of the orderlies I had spread the victuals on a table in the farmhouse close by, and for two hours I was fully employed helping these voracious people to the contents of the panniers.
There were only three bottles of champagne remaining over for this feast, so in order not to run short, I hit upon an excellent expedient. I had all three opened at the same time. And as each became half empty, I dispatched an orderly with it to the water cart (which had been outspanned just behind the farmhouse), with instructions to fill up. A little whisky added to the dilution made up for the loss of alcohol, and as the beverage continued (to be) in great demand, I gather that my subterfuge was not discovered by the consumers. At all events there was enough champagne to go round.
In bleak and cold weather we marched to Leeuwfontein that afternoon, and there found the bivouac ready put up for us.
On the 13th we returned to Klerksdorp. During the ten days trek we had covered some 240 miles, or an average of 24 miles a day, an excellent performance considering mule wagons were accompanying the force. The General alone took the surrender of 2 400 Boers, and Colonel Rochfort and other officers as many more, so that in the Western Transvaal only, the number of Burghers in arms at the end of the war totalled approximately 5 000.
My story is finished and I lay down my pen with the sure conviction that it fell to the lot of few ADC’s to witness the sights I had been privileged to see for the space of two years during this memorable campaign. Surely it was good to have lived through those stirring times and the impressions they created will remain ineffaceable to all those who, like myself, enjoyed the good fortune of being spared to look back upon them.
Grobler, JEH. 2004. The War Reporter. The Anglo-Boer War through the eyes of the Burghers. Jonathan Ball. Johannesburg.
Lee, Manoel. 1985. To the Bitter End. A Photographic History of the Boer War 1899-1902.. Penquin. Harmondsworth.
Pakenham, Thomas. 1979. The Boer War. Jonathan Ball. Johannesburg.
Speyer, AW. The experiences of an Aide-de-Camp in the Anglo-Boer War. 1900-1902.
Trew, Peter. 2001. The Boer War Generals. JH Haynes & Co. Sparkford.
Book review: Blockhouses of the ABW
In session 2, Pat Irwin reviewed two recently published companion volumes on Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses by the same author, Simon Green.
Two recently published companion volumes on Anglo-Boer War Blockhouses were reviewed by Pat Irwin. Both are by the same author, Simon Green, who served in the Royal Corps of Signals for 30 years. He retired in 2006 and settled in South Africa where he currently lives in Johannesburg.
One is aware of the amount of work that goes into publications such as these and that levelling comment needs to be fair with a balance between due praise and critical analysis. Nevertheless, all publications, particularly those based on research such as these are, need to be open to critical scrutiny and stand on their merits or otherwise.
Because they are different in content, I will deal with each book separately and then assess them jointly at the end.
The first of these books offers A Military Engineer’s Perspective of the blockhouses.
Published in 2020, it contains 310 pages, is profusely illustrated with monochrome photographs (many historical and rarely, if ever, seen), numerous diagrams and plans, and several tables of collated data which enhance the text. Diagrams and illustrations are generally clear with one or two notable exceptions, such as the reproduction from ‘The Times’ on pages 226 and 227.
There are three useful appendices which considerably enhance the technical value of the book, and a 13-page glossary of mainly architectural terms relating to fortifications, as well as some South African military-related terms. There is a ‘reference’ list and a ‘bibliography’ although it is not clear what the distinction is between them. Some very useful end notes also add value to the text. Regrettably, however, there is no index, which would have substantially enhanced the value of the book both as a resource and as a research tool.
The contents page gives a good idea of the coverage. A close examination shows it to be composed of three interwoven elements:
Firstly, technical aspects of the blockhouses, such as their design, structure and the material they were constructed from,
Secondly, historical aspects and contexts both in development and in operation, and
Thirdly, weaving these two together, the operational aspects, including cost factors, ease of construction, provisioning and defensibility. In broad outline the focus is on the strategic and tactical aspects of the ABW as reflected in the blockhouses. This element also contains many useful conceptual diagrams.
From an ABW student’s point of view, this is a practical way of examining blockhouses.
Throughout the texts of both books, one is reminded of the role and purposes of the blockhouses, initially to guard lines of communication – bridges, river crossings, railway junctions and, occasionally, mountain passes. In later developments, as the war progressed to guerrilla tactics, they were, by virtually criss-crossing the country at short intervals, used with considerable success, to restrict the mobility of the Boer commandos by ‘fencing them in’. Green makes this point clearly, as he does with the suppression of train wrecking in the eastern Transvaal.
The content amply justifies the sub-title: A Military Engineer’s Perspective. One of the strengths of the text is that the author has obviously had the advantage of access to documents in Britain not easily available to South Africans except at great cost.
The book is generally written in a clear and uncluttered style with few typographical and grammatical errors. Careful proofreading for a second edition would iron out these problems as well as the unnecessary repetition of points and phrases. An example is Appendices being named as A, B and C, while they are called ‘1’ and ‘2’ in the text.
It is pleasing to me personally, that the term Anglo-Boer War (clearly indicating who the aggressor was) is used, and not the clumsy and nonsensical ‘Anglo Boer South African War’ which rears its head from time to time. Similar sentiments may be expressed in the non-use of the somewhat chauvinistic British term for the conflict as ‘The South African War’.
While a comprehensive work in English on ABW blockhouses which is well illustrated, will per force reach a new and wider audience, both locally and internationally, than previous publications is both welcome and, in a sense, overdue, I do however have some reservations about this publication.
The early part of the book covering the original development and uses of blockhouses in, for example, Afghanistan, Egypt and Cuba is fascinating. Even if, by force of circumstance, it is limited and superficial, one assumes that it is historically accurate. Also important, as the author observes, is that many Royal Engineer Officers learnt their trades there.
While the technical side of the book has much to commend it, the author’s excursions into South African history and geography are less impressive, peppered as it is with many inaccuracies. I got the impression that the author has not quite grasped this aspect of the content, either in broad outline or in detail. A few examples are:
On page 40: Paul Kruger was not “Prime Minister of the Transvaal”, but President of the ZAR.
On page 95: “the neighbouring Zulu Kingdom” was not at all involved in the East Cape Frontier Wars. Nor were forts constructed there primarily as places of refuge for ‘local settlers’. A few, such as Post Retief and Fort Peddie, were, however, used for this purpose during periods of unrest.
Similarly, regarding the history of fortifications in South Africa, the author is on shaky ground and appears not to have consulted the basic references. In describing the forts of the Eastern Cape, he has clearly not looked at Colin Coetzee’s magnum opus, Forts of the Eastern Cape: Securing a frontier 1799-1878 and is perhaps not aware of it as it does not appear among his references. Nor do the substantive works of Laband & Thompson in KZN, Seemann on the Cape Peninsula fortifications and Webb on aspects of the Eastern Cape.
On page 94, the statement that “Many [East Cape] Forts are in an excellent state of repair” is just not true. Only a handful of these structures (fewer than 10 if we include fortified farmhouses) of the 120-plus fortifications originally constructed are in good repair. The rest are in varying degrees of ruin. Most are beyond restoration and some sites are even difficult to identify as little or nothing remain.
The daily life and routine of those who manned the blockhouses, including thousands of black South Africans who had been co-opted into the British military structure will also be of interest to many readers with a social bent, although much of this ground, as elsewhere, has been covered by Johan Hattingh and Andre Wessels in their 1997 pioneering work, Britse Fortifikasies in die Anglo-Boereoorlog (1899-1902). It is concerning that this book, although included in the Bibliography, is not more overtly acknowledged, particularly as that work and the book under review have a very similar coverage of some of the contents.
Simple geographical errors also occur. On page 133 for example, the Vryburg- Mafeking line is described as being in the Lichtenburg district. A simple check in a school atlas would indicate that this is a geographical impossibility.
On another tack, when referring to the relationship between British officers on page 152, Green talks about the ‘African Ring’ and on page 180 the ‘Kitchener Ring’. Given the officers concerned, one wonders whether it was meant to be the Ashanti Ring. This is an important point in relation to the role played by the British Army in South Africa, as it was associated with the appointment of officers in senior positions.
While the book can by no means be construed as ‘anti-Boer’ there is, nonetheless, a distinct ‘undertone’ sympathetic to the British. Informed SA readers, may for example, be inclined to take exception to the description in several places of General Christiaan de Wet as ‘notorious’. In most dictionaries, the term is described as being derogatory and applying to a stated kind of bad person – hardly a fair view of de Wet, even if he did on many occasions defy the blockhouses and frustrate Kitchener.
Kitchener, by contrast, notwithstanding the atrocities for which he is best remembered in South Africa, is presented as a ‘technical man’. We are reminded on several occasions that he was a ‘Royal Engineer’ getting on with a job, which, from a military point of view, was absolutely necessary. This is a defensible argument in terms of blockhouse construction for which he was unquestionably the driving force. The fact that he was also ultimately responsible for the creation, operation and associated atrocities of the Concentration Camps (for white and black alike) and the related scorched- earth policy is at least acknowledged. It appears that the author’s source for the camps might have been, at least in part, Elizabeth van Heyningin [referred to on pages 225-6, 295, 305], which in this respect is a debatable source.
The text occasionally slips into ‘political correctness’, not to be confused with courtesy or politeness. For example, the use of [sic!] each time the word native is used would seems excessive. We are all natives of some or other place. It is furthermore a generic term to which few could take serious exception.
There is also the occasional use of the terms ‘colonisation’ and ‘colonialism’ within the framework of political correctness rather than as realities of historical processes which, with all their its pros and cons, are as old as humanity itself. The Trekker / ‘Boer’ occupation of the interior of South Africa was no more colonisation than that of the amaZulu, the amaXhosa and various other groups simultaneously in the process of territorial acquisition.
The second book, published earlier this year and sub-titled A Field Guide, is indeed a most useful guide on where to find and what to see at each of South Africa’s remaining 72 blockhouses. It is 350 pages in length and illustrated throughout in full colour. There is a short reference list and a very useful nine- page ‘Directory’ with GPS co-ordinates, as well as other basic information.
This second volume adds greatly to the value to the first – the Military Engineers Perspective. Ideally the two should be read alongside each other. I found myself continually referring from one to the other.
For the many amateur military historians and lay people interested in visiting such historical sites for a general understanding of what they are about, but not necessarily interested in technical or military details, the Field Guide will be the more useful of the two books. Possession of it is, in my opinion, well worthwhile. The history of each of the 72 blockhouses is given, as well as supplementary information on related battle sites and other places of interest in the vicinity.
In summary, notwithstanding my comments, these two volumes are a welcome addition to the literature of the ABW. Individually or together, and despite my expressed reservations, they ought to go a long way towards developing a greater awareness of this aspect of our heritage. I do not know how many of each of these books was printed for the first edition, but hopefully there will be second editions and that the opportunity is taken, particularly in the case of the Engineers Perspectives, to subject them to rigorous editing for errors and unnecessary repetition.
Perhaps the greatest value of these two publications is that they alert us to the need to provide some form of protection for those few blockhouses that are left. According to the author, only 72 of the 9 000 forts, redoubts and earthworks that were originally constructed remain. Whatever one’s political persuasion, their existence reflects a significant part of the history of all South Africans, as well as the participation of all sectors of our population who were involved in that unjust war, be it willingly, by coercion or as victims.
Unfortunately, as noted by the author, the greatest threat in this regard is the indifference or ignorance of the current custodians of our heritage, both national and provincial. He does, however, offer some constructive ideas as to how the better conservation of the blockhouses might be achieved or, at least, enhanced. This includes the imaginative development of tourism related to the sites, the potential involvement of local authorities and the harnessing of private enterprise – for all of which there are already some examples.
The combined cost of the two volumes is approximately R900.00, but they are also available separately. I have not seen them on the shelves of most of the major booksellers as they appear to be privately published and are subject to the established publishers’ marketing cartel aimed at squeezing out private publishing by making the distribution of privately published books difficult. Both books are available directly from the author.
Contact details for the author are:
Cell: +27 (0) 83 790 4579