I suppose I should start with a warning that this newsletter deals substantially with my passionate interest in military history. If you think history is boring then perhaps you should stop reading right now. You needed to have had a good teacher of the subject when you were in high school, as I did, so that it was one of my best subjects. At school you have to follow the syllabus but as an adult one is able to decide what to get busy with. South Africa’s history is such that there has never been a dull moment for centuries! Our heritage needs protecting and this annual newsletter of mine is largely about my small contribution, and that of many others, to its preservation. My main interest is the Anglo Boer War of 1899-1902, a sad period of our history it is true. However, the human interest stories are never-ending.
This year I have spent a lot of time with my friend Roger Fritz on an incident in what is now Mpumalanga that took place on 12 June 1901 on the farm Wilmansrust, south of Middelburg. This incident has been written about and commented on by numerous writers and historians. A detachment of two companies of the Australian 5th Victorian Mounted Rifles, a little more than 200 men, together with some Royal Horse Artillery who had with them two pom-pom guns (Maxim-Nordenfeldt machine guns that fired 1¼-pound shells from a belt – the noise they made giving rise to the name “pompom”) were ambushed by a Boer commando early that night. They quickly surrendered after they were not able to put up very stiff resistance, taken totally by surprise.
Their British General’s reaction was to fall just short of accusing them of cowardice by calling them “a fat-arsed, pot-bellied, lazy lot of wasters”. He had been some distance away at Vandyke’s Drift and these remarks may have been fuelled by a few whiskies in the officers’ mess. This did not go down well with the Australians, as can be imagined. Three of the Victorian troopers were arrested some days later for allegedly urging some of the men to refuse to obey marching orders. Accused of inciting mutiny, one of them was even sentenced to death by a court martial and two others were given prison sentences. The death sentence was commuted by General Lord Kitchener, the troopers were sent to England but quickly released after the War Office said that they had been tried under the wrong regulations.
Nineteen of the 5th VMR were killed that night together with six Boers so these young Australians did not completely collapse. The Boers helped themselves to everything in the camp, uniforms and boots were particularly prized. The Aussies’ horses were apparently not prime specimens, General Ben Viljoen said they were the most miserable collection of animals that I have ever seen. The pompom guns were abandoned by the Boers a few days later and were soon recovered.
So this incident, of very little strategic importance to the war, became the subject of a Court of Enquiry. Nobody, of course, took the blame for what happened. Major-General Stuart Beatson eventually apologised for his intemperate language and Lord Kitchener decided that no one should be further punished, the setback and the casualties they suffered was punishment enough. The incident had surely been a grave embarrassment for Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchener. Australian soldiers were, Kitchener said, “the best men for the work in hand”, with the Boers now having resorted to guerrilla tactics, attacks on supply convoys and ambushes of any perceived weak point. The severe criticism of these Australians by their British officers cannot have helped Kitchener’s efforts to recruit more men from that source.
Roger and I have both visited the site of the engagement a number of times, going back over many years. Wilmansrust is a large triangular piece of land with the base of the triangle about 3 kilometres east to west along the Leeuwspruit, a stream that eventually runs into the Olifants River. The apex of the triangle is to the north about 4 kilometres away. The R35 road from Bethal to Middelburg runs right through the farm which, like most of the farms that were originally surveyed and delineated in the 19th century, has been split up into a number of smaller lots. From the first we doubted the accepted wisdom about where on Wilmansrust the actual site of the action was. It seemed so unlikely that these Australians would have camped on apiece of bare veld alongside the R35.On the western edge of the farm there is a much more likely place with a raised knoll and a rock outcrop: the raised knoll where they would have camped and the outcrop hiding the Boer horses so that they could be left out of sight as they dismounted and spread out to attack the camp.
Earlier this year a book arrived, very well-printed and produced, about the guerrilla phase of the Anglo Boer war. This author had the site of the battle on the piece of bare veld next to the R35. Not so, we cried, you have it all wrong. His analysis used Google Earth and two maps that British officers produced for the Court of Enquiry as well as a perspective sketch of the farm buildings and a cattle kraal on the site near the R35. The sketch shows the camp in relation to the farm buildings. An Australian expert supported this analysis and so we decided to get a professional GIS survey of Wilmansrust.
Unfortunately for us, spatial analysis of the map produced by Lieutenant Stebbins, a diarist whose work is often quoted in Australian military history accounts, makes a perfect fit on the R35 site. We found old title deeds, one going back to 1893, and several survey documents and aerial photos. On our western site there are ruins of buildings as well as a cattle kraal. The title deeds and survey documents show the various subdivisions of the farm. However, it is quite clear that the buildings on the western site were built only after that piece of land was subdivided in 1919 so there was nothing there in 1901 when the battle took place. So we were wrong and the new author was right - sadly!
We are not done yet, however. On a site next to the R35 is where the casualties were originally buried. In the 1960’s they were reinterred in the Middelburg military cemetery and a headstone and an obelisk taken there too. The obelisk was paid for by the Government of Victoria and is carved from granite, presumably quarried somewhere in the State of Victoria. On what is presumed to be the monument and headstone site there is a large concrete block and it is an assumption that this formed the foundation for the obelisk. I do not believe this to be correct and have a strong feeling that the concrete block is not what we might think it to be. The actual site is a short distance further north near the demolished buildings of the old farm. This we still have to establish so we will be at Wilmansrust again soon.
This is such an intriguing incident and the site no less so. All the special analysis has been done by Walter Smit, a professional in this field. Besides helping us with this work he has become (or perhaps he always was) interested in this aspect of our history and we are looking forward to taking him to the site. Another friend whose expertise would be very valuable is an English friend, Colonel Peter Knox. Peter is ex-CO of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and an infantryman by profession. It will be most interesting to hear his take on this site and the incident when he undertakes his intended visit next year.
Not too far from Wilmansrust is another place where Australian soldiers were involved. This was on 16 May 2001, about three weeks earlier, on Brakpan Farm. On 15 May there was fighting at Grobbelaar’s Recht, a short distance away. I didn’t initially do a very good job of identifying the Brakpan Farm site and I have to admit to taking our Australian friend Dale Liepens, and some others, to the wrong place. This year we got to the right place – it came about like this. Dale wrote a letter to the Middelburg Municipality enquiring about the grave of one of her ancestors, Private J. Semple, killed at Brakpan (He was in fact fatally wounded, rescued by his Boer adversaries and taken to a farmhouse). Dale’s letter was referred to a lady who was a journalist in Middelburg, Corine de Jonge. Corine is very concerned about her family’s graves on the family farm, Bosmanspruit. Optimum Colliery now owns the farm and the mining rights and has already come close to destroying some of the graves on the farm. One of these was the grave of an Australian soldier. The Australian Government had paid to have a properly-constructed grave and headstone and the family always considered that this patch of ground was Australian territory. The mining company has developed an open-cast pit on the site and Corine managed to get the soldier’s remains re-interred in the Hendrina cemetery. It was difficult dealing with the mining company and the project is ongoing as more graves now need to be moved out of the way of the voracious coal miners.
Corine, having been brought up in the area knew of Brakpan and the fight that took place there. Indeed the Australian buried on Bosmanspruit was certainly a casualty of that engagement. Probably it is the grave of Corporal Richard Furlong who is listed as “Missing at Brakpan” and who therefore does not make it into Steve Watt’s monumental book listing the Imperial casualties, In Memoriam. Furlong, poor fellow, was not found when the dead and wounded were collected after the battle under a flag of truce. His body was found later in a donga and buried on Bosmanspruit, an adjacent farm. So Corine knew of the site of the Brakpan fight, now a section of what was Brakpan, De Rust Farm. It was an eureka moment to be taken there by Corine. It is undoubtedly the right place and it fits precisely the map drawn by the Australian commander that day, Captain John Campbell. Brakpan (it’s a farm not the town to the east of Johannesburg) is a confused action since there clearly was fighting the previous day at Grobbelaar’s Recht. The casualty lists show casualties on 15 and 16 May and I need to do some more research on this little incident to see if I can at least make more sense of it.
However, the real significance of Brakpan is the fact that Lieutenant Frederick Bell was awarded the Victoria Cross for the rescue of a man whose horse had been shot. Captain John Campbell did the same thing, both feats of rescue performed under heavy fire. In order to get the award of Britain’s highest decoration for valour, there must be at least two witnesses as well as the testimony of an officer. At a guess, because Campbell could hardly witness his own act of bravery, he did not get a medal!
Peter Scholtz and his brother David and another friend, Johan Scholtz (no relation) – and me – made an exploration of the western Transvaal battle and burial sites in June. Nowadays this is the Northwest Province with its capital in Mahikeng, but still known as Mafikeng or historically as Mafeking. Peter is busy photographing all the British officers’ graves in South Africa. He has managed to find and make pictures of more than 4,000 out of the estimated 7,000 who are buried in various places in South Africa. We took the opportunity to look at as many places of interest as we were able to in a long weekend.
On the Friday we drove to the furthest point, Kraaipan, south of Mafeking, where tradition has it that the first shots were fired in 1899. The Boers managed to stop and derail an armoured train on its way north. It took a little while to subdue the few British soldiers on board, Lieutenant Nessbitt and eight of his men were all wounded before they surrendered. At the station there is a small graveyard with casualties from a later period of the war, Kraaipan station becoming a fortified post to protect the railway line. There is a small museum near the station with a display of artifacts and a diorama of the incident of the capture of the train. Some members of the local community are employed as guides. To judge from the enthusiasm with which we were received, this rather remote place does not get too many visitors like us!
A much more significant event took place not far from Kraaipan on 14 May 1900 when the relief column heading to Mafeking was ambushed and attacked by the Boers along the Maritzani River. There were seven casualties incurred by the Imperial Light Horse, buried on the farm Neverset but reinterred in the 1960’s to the Mafeking military cemetery. There is a white marble I.L.H. obelisk marking the place where the action took place. I explained shortly to my friends how the monument came to be erected on this spot but promised them the full story for a later date. Here it is in full from The Story of the Imperial Light Horse by G.F. Gibson (a marvellous book, now rare and expensive):
How Lance-Corporal Clifford lost and found his comrade – the late Trooper Charles Gardner, both “reported missing” after the action of the 14th May, on his way to the Relief of Mafeking:-
Prior to the Relief of Mafeking, a permanent squadron of scouts were appointed to act as such during the entire trip; Lance-Corporal Clifford Hill and Trooper C. Gardner were two of those special scouts.
Instructions to the scouts were that they were, if possible to avoid engaging the enemy and that the objective of the Column was the Relief of Mafeking. Night and day, with brief halts for rest, the force pushed on; at night the route of the column could easily be followed by a listening scout; there was the intermittent raucous call of the korhaan or lesser bustard which, when disturbed, rise screaming from the ground, and the deep rumbling of the four guns and that of the wagons could be heard some distance away.
On nearing Koodoos Rand, at midday on the 13th, the column had halted for a while, and “C” Squadron Scouts, just in from a spell of duty, were busy with brushwood, preparing their billies for tea, horses standing by. Hill, coming from an interview with the squadron officer, gave an order: “Put out the fires, get mounted,” mounted his horse “Billy” (No. 54, a Basuto pony, allotted to him at Pietermaritzburg, where the regiment was formed) and rode off into the bush and found a spot where a more extended view was to be had. A quick survey revealed that a Boer force was closing in from the right with a view to getting positions ahead of the British column. He reported back to the squadrons, and the scouts began extending at intervals of from one to two hundred yards according to the density of the bush. The Column was now on the move and the scouts kept well out on the right at the same time taking care to keep in touch. Hill took up a position on the extreme right and about 50 yards on his left rode Gardner. About a mile or more on the left and somewhat in the rear was the main column. Just in front of the scouts and somewhat to the right, lay a bit of slightly higher ground with fairly extensive growth; this ran for some distance parallel with the line of march; suddenly, charging out of this in wild alarm, came seven hartebeest, with their characteristic loping bounce when going at full speed; they passed between Hill and Gardner, and "Billy," cocking his ears and straining at the bit, tried his level best to join in the chase. "No, gallant little horse, not yet."
Some movement was observed and it was now evident that the enemy were in ambush all along the ridge and that the scouts were well within range of their rifles. A message to that effect was sent back and the scouts remained halted and behaved as though they were ignorant of the proximity of the enemy. Back came a message "Push on.” Forward trotted the scouts, and they had barely gone another 100 yards when the sudden crack of Mausers broke the stillness of that apparently peaceful afternoon.
Hill, lying low on "Billy's" neck, gave him his head and made for the squadron at full speed; all went well for some ?fty yards when horse and man went crashing down; Hill found himself on his back with "Billy" across his Iegs. He lay there for some time and gradually the tumult and ?ring grew less; apparently the action was moving more left and away from the spot where the enemy were ?rst encountered. All round Hill could hear the movement of horses and the voices of men, and then close by a voice in Dutch spoke “Die een lê hier en die ander daar!” (One lies here and the other there!) A party of the enemy had come up and Hill was in their hands. “He is not dead,” said one as he picked up the ri?e which had shot from its bucket in the fall and lay close by in the grass. Hill remembered, as he fell, instinctively flinging the field glasses which he had held in his hands, into a patch of nearby shrubbery. As the men somewhat roughly began dragging at his bandolier and haversack, Hill said in Dutch: “No, not dead, not even wounded; and what sort of darned people are you that you handle a man in this way; can’t you pull the horse off one first?” “Excuse!” was the reply as they rolled the horse off and a thought struck one of them: “Jy is ook een Afrikander?” (You are also an Afrikander?) “Yes!” was the reply, “English, not Dutch.” “It was my shot that brought you down,” said one. I could have killed you, maar ek het jammer gekrij (but l took pity on you) and shot the horse instead.” The horse had been shot just behind the off shoulder and the bullet, passing through the heart had come out at the point of the near shoulder; the man speaking was evidently a noted big game hunter and apparently the crack shot of that group; was it pity or hunter's instinct behind that shot? “Thanks and good luck to you!" responded Hill. As the men were busily getting the saddle and bridle off, one turned angrily to Hill. "What have you done with your ?eld glasses? I saw them in your hand when you were looking at us a little way back; where are they now?" "Don't know!” was the reply; "I certainly had verkijkers; they must have dropped while l was racing away." A little way off another group was busy over something in the grass, while another Boer was catching Gardner's horse which had remained near his master; Hill turned to the men near him; "I am going to see how it is with my comrade," he said, and walked off; no one hindered him. The Boers were turning my gallant comrade over, freeing him of his belt and belongings. “Is he dead?” asked Hill, "Yes!" said one, "quite-dead. He has been shot through the heart. See for yourself." Heavy firing was still taking place somewhere to the left front, and a Boer officer rode up, giving orders to the men to hurry up and get ahead, at the same time he ordered two of them to take the prisoner back to their wagon; where those field glasses were ever found is not known, and soon that spot was left to Gardner and the dead horse, and there they remained for many months undisturbed. As the two men with their prisoner were retiring from the scene of action. a thought struck Hill: "See here, you two fellows, I have a few shillings on me, they will be of no use to me as a prisoner and will probably be taken from me at your camp, you have treated me well; if you want them you are welcome to them and nothing will be said about it." "Yes, thank you, we can do with them," and the cash promptly changed hands. Soon after, the halting place of the Boer Commando was reached, and presently it became apparent to Hill, from snatches of conversation he overheard and from the demeanour of the men, that the British column had succeeded in beating off the attack, and several dead and wounded Boers were brought in.
It was now getting late when Hill was interviewed by a man who spoke very good English, and was said to be Adjutant to Commandant Liebenberg.
Dismissed by the Adjutant, Hill saw a Cape cart in which sat a man, evidently a Britisher, and this was put in charge of the Guard. The man had been in charge of the equipment and out?t of one of the War Correspondents with the Relief Column; he had lagged behind and had been bagged.
It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and he provided Hill and the Guard with a good meal from his supplies and a blanket or two; the nights being extraordinarily cold. At dusk the Boer Column got under way. The prisoners were put in a wagon under guard.
Two Transvaal Police drove off with them in a Cape cart en route for Potchefstroom and Pretoria. One of the Police, named Rod, spoke English well, and as he had been in Johannesburg and struck on the names of one or two mutual acquaintances, they soon were on the best of terms. At Lichtenburg they stopped at the hotel, and Hill seized the opportunity of scribbling his name in the visitor's book. Later on, when the I.L.H. were passing through, one of them, by chance, looked through this book, and it was the ?rst intimation they had as to the identity of the I.L.H. prisoner with the Boers (Both Hill and Gardner had been posted "missing"). They had ascertained from Boer information that one of the missing men was alive and a prisoner, but nothing more except "Hy was ‘n parmantige kêrel!“ ("He was a pugnacious kind of man"), and this did not help much as it did not describe either of the missing men.
On arrival at Potchefstroom the guards began to assume a distinctly military air and, for the first time, Hill, who had been treated more like an honoured guest than a prisoner, was put into a cell for the night. Next day, the journey was resumed by train and, after passing through Johannesburg, Pretoria was reached. For a few weeks Hill remained there a prisoner of war in a small enclosure, where the ground had more than a fair share of grey backed insects. He was then removed to the big camp at Waterfall and remained there about two weeks, when the entry of Lord Roberts‘ forces from the south brought about his release.
Hill now learned that his column, under Colonel Mahon, had successfully joined up with Colonel Plumer, and that the combined force had entered and relieved Mafeking without much difficulty, also that the information given him by the Boer Adjutant was not devoid of truth, as a few days before the relief, the Boers had attacked and actually captured one or two forts in Mafeking which they held for some time before they were themselves forced to surrender to the garrison.
At the first opportunity, Hill re-joined his Regiment in the Transvaal, and took part in the operations around Rustenburg and Warmbaths, and then on to Barberton and the mountainous country in that area.
Months had passed since the Relief of Mafeking, and reorganisation was taking place in the I.L.H. Many of the men were required for their work on the gold mines and others were returning to their normal occupations elsewhere. When Hill reported to the Orderly Room for his passport papers, one of the officers, probably the Adjutant, on duty referred to the affair at Koodoos Rand and remarked to Hill: "I see you are bound for the Cape and are detraining at Grahamstown. Gardner came from the Eastern Province; it is a sad thing for his people to realise that his body was never found." Hill let his mind wander back to that distant afternoon and place; he seemed once more to see the stampeding hartebeest, he felt "Billy" strain at the bit, he heard the outburst of ri?e ?re, felt the rush of the horse as he was given his head, saw the knots of Boers standing round the fallen horse and man; the whole scene was plainly before him; "If I can get near Kraaipan on the railway and ?nd Koodoos Rand, and if any trace of the bodies remain, I will ?nd the spots where they fell," he remarked. The matter was soon arranged, and armed with official letters and a passport, he started off by rail through the Transvaal and Free State, and up again through Kimberley, past Vryburg, and eventually reported to the military post nearest to the scene of the late engagement. The O.C. Post seemed to think the whole thing rather a wild goose chase, and that Hill would probably run into a party of Boers known to be hanging around that vicinity, when the Post would be minus a horse; however, Hill got mounted and pushed off the same afternoon on a rough track into the back country and made for a farmhouse where the owner and his wife were still in residence, as he had been informed at the Post that he could probably get some first-hand information as to direction, etc.
At Wright's farmhouse he was informed that no Boers had been around for some time, and so decided to spend the night there, and the owner said he would accompany him in the morning to the actual scene of the ?ght, but held out very little hope of success as the neighbourhood has been searched thoroughly. It was soon apparent to Hill that the scene of the heaviest engagement was not near the spot he wanted, and after riding through the bush for about two miles, he began to sense that the country seemed familiar; yes, surely that bit of rising ground was the line held by the Boers, and if so he must be very near to the object of his search; he would ride on a line along which he estimated he was galloping that day and had scarcely covered ?fty yards when, lying in the grass, all in a heap, he came on the skeleton of a horse with hoofs intact; on the near fore-hoof, clearly visible were the letters I.L.H., No. 54.; he had found the remains of his horse "Billy”, and not far away he found the complete skeleton of his dear old comrade, Gardner, in exactly the same spot. The remains were reverently taken to the farmhouse where Hill again stayed the night, and next day he returned to a somewhat anxious but much astonished Post Commandant, and handed over all that was left of his comrade for proper burial. A granite monument now marks the spot near Kraaipan.“
Back in Mafeking we were taken to a few sights around this city which is now absolutely crawling with people – nothing wrong with the economy here! The military cemetery has a variety of graves, the I.L.H. from Neverset, including Charles Gardner, are all here. There is also the grave of one of our South African V.C.’s, Flight Lieutenant Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor. He is the most decorated South African ever with the Victoria Cross, two Military Crosses, a D.S.O. and a D.F.C. A Great War flying ace he had 54 confirmed victories in the air. Of very short stature he needed a raised seat in his aircraft and wooden blocks on the rudder bar. This may have been a factor in his death in 1921 in a training accident. He was initially buried in England but within a few weeks the Mayor of Mafeking had written to General Smuts, the South African Prime Minister, seeking to have him reburied in Mafeking cemetery after a full military funeral. The elaborate headstone surmounted by an eagle with wings extended, is looking a little the worse for wear now, the gilding on the eagle needs some attention. It is largely undamaged, which is quite something these days.
Heading back east we had a stop at the Kleinfontein monument which is just off the N4, west of Groot Marico (that’s an interesting village to visit too!) On 24 October 1901 a British supply convoy was spread out along the road stretching about 6kms. The surprise was total when the Boers attacked at various points along the road. Colonel Stanley von Donop was at the front of the long line and managed to get enough men together to beat off the attackers. The tail of the convoy was less fortunate and most of the casualties of the action were incurred at Wilgeboomspruit, quite a distance away. The young Colonel, not yet 40, suffered one or two setbacks to his career in South Africa. However, he became a very important figure in the Great War as Master-General of the Ordnance. He it was who ordered the 6-inch 26cwt howitzers, a formidable weapon that was one of the most important weapons of the war. There is one in the South African Military History Museum at the Johannesburg Zoo.
The casualties of both actions were interred in Zeerust where there is also another I.L.H. casualty with his own marble obelisk, Lieutenant Byron Cecil Noel. His is another remarkable story – maybe my 2017 newsletter!? In Zeerust are a number of Australian casualties, the most notable perhaps being Captain Samuel Hübbe, commander of the 3rd South Australian Bushmen’s Contingent. He was appointed commander of the first South Australian contingent that was made up of mounted farmers who, it was thought, could outmanoeuvre the Boers. Men who had ridden and shot and found their way around the countryside since boyhood were needed, natural soldiers whose initiative was not stifled by military drill and discipline. There were very few men who knew the bush and also had some military experience. Hübbe had been crossing the dry centre of Australia for thirty years and had once commanded a militia unit.
The first Australian Bushmen contingents were sent to Beira in order to reinforce Rhodesia. They were then sent down the railway to relieve Mafeking. After a month on cramped troopships from Australia they landed in a town with buildings made largely from corrugated iron. There were twelve hotels and bars in Beira, which became the scene of frequent rollicking impromptu concerts. The narrow-gauge railway which connected with another of normal gauge leading to Umtali and Marendellas was severely strained in transporting 1300 men. Men died of malaria and African horse sickness accounted for many of their horses. Some rode, some marched and some took a ride on a stage coach, but in dribs and drabs the survivors got to Mafeking. The South Australians arrived after the relief and then were engaged in pacifying the western Transvaal. Poor Samuel Hübbe was killed in one of the many little skirmishes around Mafeking as the Boers tried to protect their farms and cattle. His is one of the headstones in Zeerust cemetery together with some of his fellow countrymen.
After a quick stop at Elands River where a force of Rhodesians and some Australian Bushmen were besieged for the better part of two weeks, we passed Koster River, the first engagement fought entirely by Australians, most of them Bushmen. Then Moedwil where we took a look at the pristine graveyard, the casualties of Colonel Robert Kekewich’s struggle with de la Rey on the Selous River. Kekewich of course had been the British commander during the siege of Kimberley who had had to put up with the constant carping criticism of Cecil Rhodes. We stayed overnight at the Kedar Lodge, located near to the old Paul Kruger farmhouse of Boekenhoutfontein. The lodge has a Boer War theme. There are artefacts everywhere, uniforms, rifles, documents and a number of life-size statues of Boer War generals, politicians and personalities – Smuts, Rhodes, Gandhi, Plaatjes and others. The Kruger farmhouse is nearby. A great place to stay to visit the Boer war battlefields in the area – and there are many of those.
I did a number of military history talks during the year, covering quite a wide spectrum of interests. Christiaan de Wet’s clash with British mounted infantry at Doornkraal described one of his setbacks. My talk concentrated less on the events on the site itself, just south of Bothaville in the Free State, than on how it came to take place and what were the results and consequences. De Wet had to protect the person of the Free State President Marthinus Steyn who was with him and consequently he and the President left the scene of the fight at Doornkraal at their earliest opportunity. This does not mean that de Wet lacked courage, what was much more important than defending their laager was that no harm should come to the President. His death or capture could well have meant the premature end of the Boer campaign to preserve their independence. My talk on Doornkraal was given to the SA Military History Society in Johannesburg in April.
It is after all the centenary of the Great War from now until 2018 and so I did two Great War talks in 2016. In London in 2014 I visited the National Portrait Gallery to see their Great War exhibition – the main attraction being the three life-size pictures on display together for the first time (I referred to them in my 2014 newsletter) showing the generals, admirals and statesmen of the Great War. I spent a long time looking at the exhibits and even paid a quick return visit this year. Describing the pictures, the famous people portrayed – real celebrities in my book – and how they came to be created was my subject and it is quite a story. The South African connection is that the three works were commissioned as a result of the generosity of our forgotten financier and politician, Sir Abe Bailey. It went down well, I believe, at the SANS in Durban.
There were several naval battles in the Great War involving fleets of ships. Of course, Jutland involved the greatest number of ships but I don’t think I would even attempt a talk about that mighty clash! Early in the war the Royal Navy suffered a disaster at Coronel off the coast of Chile but avenged themselves by sinking Admiral von Spee’s squadron off the Falkland Islands a few weeks later – that was a great story that I told the SA Military History Society in Durban in November.
Lainie and I spent almost a month in Malta in September and October, staying in her sister Lesley’s little house in the village of Gharb on the smaller Maltese island of Gozo. The main island of Malta is small enough, only 30kms long and 12kms across and home to 350,000 people. Gharb, twenty minutes away by ferry, is half that size with 37,000 permanent inhabitants.
The Maltese speak their own Semitic language, a mixture of Arabic, Italian and English, grammatically similar to Siculo Arabic, the dialect spoken in Tunisia and the Maghreb countries, Algeria and Morocco. It is written in European characters and numerals and at first sight it looks awfully complicated. After a while though, lots of English, Italian and French sounds and words can be detected. The pronunciation is intriguing. For example, “gh” is silent but it prolongs the sound of the next vowel. The village of Gharb, where we stayed for the month, is thus “aarb” (long ‘a’ sound but ‘gh’ not pronounced). ‘Q’ is almost silent and the village of Qala, where we often went swimming, is “ahla’ but with the q pronounced in the throat like a very soft ‘k’ – ‘ahla’ is as close as I could get to it!
There are only a few tiny beaches on Gozo but plenty of places to swim in the placid Mediterranean and its 25°C water. The main town is Victoria with its citadel built on the highest point of the island right in the centre. In the main street are some nice shops and a Waitrose-like supermarket as well as an attractive park. It is a hub for the excellent bus service which meant we had no need of a hired car. From Gozo to Valletta, the capital of Malta takes a bit more than an hour after the ferry crossing. Traffic is congested, like most places, but not as bad as Johannesburg. We did the trip a couple of times. The second time we wanted to walk along the sea front at St Julians and Sliema but the wind was blowing a gale and we will repeat the excursion another time.
Malta is seething with history going back thousands of years but the main interest is in the two great sieges – in 1565 when the Turks were beaten back by the Knights of St John and 1940-43 during the Second World War when the Germans and the Italians bombed much of the island to rubble. The ordeal that the Maltese people suffered at this time was rewarded with the award by King George VI of the George Cross to the island. The civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, it was well merited – just read some (or one!) of the many books covering this period. I recommend Fortress Malta by James Holland but there is a vast selection. The fortifications were built over centuries, massive stone walls covering every entrance to the Grand Harbour. The Knights built some wonderful palaces and churches and Valletta is the oldest city in the world with its streets in a grid pattern. For all the current tourist boom it is not overwhelmed with tourists, like some other Mediterranean islands. It’s a very attractive place to visit. We will certainly be there again, if we can.
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