An unusual body of correspondence by a participant in the Anglo-Boer War recently came to light with the discovery of some 25 original letters by Jeannot Weinberg, a member of the Bloemfontein Gommando who fought at Modder River and Magersfontein and was eventually captured and sent to Ceylon. The correspondence is unusual firstly because the first half was written in German and the second in English and secondly because it is to date the only body of correspondence by a Jewish Boer on active service known to have survived.(1) Although around 250 Jews fought for the Boers, nearly all information on their wartime experiences has been gleaned at second hand or as remembered more than forty years later. In addition to the Anglo-Boer War material provided by Weinberg, there are three interesting letters concerning the Swaziland expedition of 1898, a practically forgotten campaign in which Weinberg participated as a seventeen year-old volunteer.
Jeannot Weinberg was born in Latvia in 1881. After a short spell in Belgium, his family immigrated to South Africa and his father, Edward, like many Jewish immigrants, went into the hotel industry, becoming the proprietor of the Royal Hotel in Bloemfontein. Jeannot finished his education at Grey College and moved to Johannesburg. In 1898, after a dispute flared up between the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) and the Swazi, he joined the commando called up to deal with the crisis.
The damp squib that was the Swaziland Expedition began in
June 1898, with the despatching of some 3 000 burghers to the Swazi
border. In his first letter, written to his unsuspecting family on 13 June
just prior to his departure from Pretoria, Weinberg bragged about
the many dangers he was about to face:(2)
'I must let you know that I am leaving for Swaziland today in order to take part in the war. Please don't let this frighten you, or anything, because I shall already be in Swaziland before you could possibly wish to stop me. There are many young people who are also going there as volunteers, and they have advised me too. If I am lucky enough to return alive, then a lifelong position is assured me.'
The second letter was written and sent from Welgelegen, in the
Carolina (Eastern Transvaal) District on 16 June. Weinberg, as the
following extract shows, was still in high spirits and enjoying his first
experience of soldiering (which, under the circumstances, could not
have been overly taxing):
'We arrived here last night after heavy going, as it is uphill country. This morning we had manoeuvres. Many of the recruits do not know how to hold a gun, and so we had a lot of fun. We are sleeping with 13 others in a large tent. Our sergeant and corporal are good fellows and we are all chaps who know each other well. Altogether we are about 1 000 men at this Camp. 1 000 are still coming and 1 000 are already in Swaziland. If these 3 000 with about 20 machine guns are not enough, then the burghers will be called up. Within two days we will be at the border then we will at last have something to shoot at.'
As it happened, the Swazis sensibly did not provoke a confrontation and the campaign petered out without a shot being fired. Weinberg's third and final Swaziland letter, written at Fort de Korte, Bremersdorp, on 9 August, describes how he and his comrades were entertaining themselves as best they could while waiting to be sent home. Weinberg's letter disappointedly concludes 'Nothing came of the shooting which we expected'.
Weinberg, as a Free State burgher, was obliged to join up when war broke out between Britain and the Boer republics in October 1899. (By contrast, most Jews in the ZAR were not burghers and therefore mainly remained neutral. Those who did fight on the Boer side usually did so as volunteers). Weinberg served in the Western (Kimberley) Sector during the first five months of the war while two of his brothers, Bernard and Max, also served briefly on the Boer side (as did several other Bloemfontein Jews, including veldkornets Herbert and Otto Baumann).
The first of Weinberg's Boer War letters was written from
Tweerivier, Griqualand West, on 18 October 1 899, seven days after
the official outbreak of the war. The following extract describes
how the Boer forces in the west were closing in on Kimberley:
'Things are very difficult for us and our horses too. As we ride day and night. From our camp Kimberley is visible; only last night 790 men were ten minutes away and we cut the telegraph lines. The English appear frightened and do not venture outside their territory. Yesterday we caught two spies on bicycles. Rumours have it that we shall bombard K'ley one of these days with heavy guns due with Cronjé from the Transvaal, from Mafeking, Newcastle and Charlestown.'
Weinberg's next letter is dated 31 October, the day after the battle
of Ladysmith and describes the jubilation that greeted the first
major Boer success of the war. His own unit had yet to get into action
and he concludes with a complaint about the monotony of camp life.
When he wrote again, from Jacobsdal on 18 November, things had
changed. The British Lord Methuen was advancing northwards up the
railway line to relieve Kimberley and was about to engage the Boers
at Belmont. Weinberg himself had evidently taken part in at least one
skirmish by then, since he writes:
'Do not worry about me, I have smelt the powder and it does not appear all that dangerous'.
Methuen defeated the Boers at Belmont and again at Enslin two
days later. On 30 November, his forces walked into an ambush at
the banks of the Modder and Riet Rivers and suffered heavy casualties
before, late in the day, his left wing managed to breach the Boer
defences, Weinberg acquitted himself well in this, his first big battle.
His sister, Bertha Sieradzki, wrote later that he had been one of the
'seven brave Bloemfontein boys' who, according to the local newspaper,
defended a kopje against an entire regiment.(3) Writing from
Magersfontein on 10 December, Weinberg had only this to say of
his part in the fighting:
'You will have read in the papers about the 7 Bloemfonteiners. My name was wrongly spelt, but that's not important. I doubt if we deserved this notice because according to my view that wasn't exactly a heroic deed on our part but rather stupidity because if a cavalry regiment had suddenly stormed in they would have taken us prisoner. But if it's been mentioned in the newspaper then I can only accept it as a distinction.'
Most of this letter concerns the discomfort of lying low in the
Magersfontein trenches awaiting the next expected British attack.
This, as Weinberg correctly anticipated, took place the next
day and would go down in history as the epic battle of Magersfontein,
the second of three disastrous defeats that the British would suffer
in what came to be dubbed 'Black Week'. Methuen had ordered a
massive bombardment of what he took to be the main Boer position
on Magersfontein kopje prior to launching a night attack and, as
Weinberg's brief description makes clear, this did little damage to the
'We are still lying in the same position. Yesterday the English directed a few shots at us and killed a few horses and wounded one man. It must have been a very big cannon because where the bombs fell there were holes two square metres wide and 4 to 5 foot deep. Two of the bombs fell very near us, about two yards from the entrenchment. 26 men were lying there and miraculously not one of them was hit; one bomb that fell behind us and did not explode was dug out and is 18 inches long and 5 inches wide. They wanted to find out the position of our guns, but we did not shoot. Our orders were that we must wait until the troops are about 500 yards from us - then we are allowed to shoot, and every shot must find its mark.'
The battle of 11 December ended in the British being repulsed
with nearly 1 000 casualties. Weinberg describes the grim
aftermath of the struggle:
'We haven't experienced anything special since Monday's battle. Well, the English tried a sortie the day before yesterday on the right or Western flank and their guns also fired about 150 bombs at us with the result that a piece of the bomb knocked out one of a burgher's teeth. About 800 lancers were scattered by a few men and cannon shots with small loss. We are awaiting them daily, but the scoundrels don't want to come out. It seems to me that there's a kind of discontent in the English camp. The soldiers have found out whom they're dealing with and are refusing to storm (any) positions. It's really terrible how the English military are being treated. The soldiers who are here are now afraid of attacking us, but as soon as there are a few thousand new soldiers who haven't been (involved in) fighting yet then these latter are sent to the front of the battlefield.
That's what happened on the 11th; of the three battalions of Highlanders who were in the first line of attack only about fifty men survived and the officers kept these aside so that they would not tell the others of the dangerous enterprise and (this) should strengthen their courage. Altogether the battle was different for some: for all those where the soldiers attacked in the dark one later found that most of the bullets hit the soldiers in the head. These Highlanders were lying on the battlefield in hundreds, in heaps of 60 or 80,90 in a stretch that was almost half a mile long. The ambulance wagons were taking the dead and wounded away during Monday afternoon and the whole day on Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday morning there were still 116 bodies lying (on the ground) that had not been buried. When we told this to the English doctor he didn't want to believe us. Then General Cronjé asked the English general if we should bury them [our]selves. Only then the holes were so shallow that unfortunately the feet of some stuck out. The stench is terrible and thousands of vultures are flying about here.'
Edward Weinberg, Jeannot's second son, recalls that after the battle his father picked up a magnificent ceremonial sword which had allegedly belonged to a Scottish earl. Some years later, the family in Scotland sought the return of the sword and, when he heard about it, Weinberg sent it back to them.(4) Edward Weinberg remembered his father describing how he and his comrades had vied with one another to pick off the luckless Scotsmen, declaring 'daardie een is myne' ('that one's mine') and the like.
Here, regrettably, follows a large break in the correspondence. There is only one surviving letter for the period between 17 December 1899 to 5 April 1900. Written from Jacobsdal on 24 January, it describes the continued skirmishing around Kimberley, still under siege. There are unfortunately no letters describing the lifting of the siege, Weinberg's own daring breakout from Cronjé's surrounded encampment at Paardeberg along with several hundred other horsemen, and his capture near Bloemfontein shortly afterwards.
Weinberg was paroled soon after his capture in order to assist his father at the hotel (which was used as the officers' club by the British after the fall of Bloemfontein), but events then took an unfortunate turn for him, culminating in a long and completely unnecessary period of imprisonment. It began with a harmless observation that he made to a war correspondent called Ellison. The British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Roberts, in full regalia and seated on a large charger, was leading a troop of Indian soldiers down the main street of Bloemfontein and Weinberg commented that he would not have lasted long on the battlefield like that. Such was the climate of paranoia that existed in the recently occupied city at the time that, before Weinberg knew it, the treacherous Ellison, accompanied by British military police, returned a few days later and accused him of threatening to assassinate Lord Roberts. A certain Wilson seems also to have been involved in the betrayal. Weinberg's parole was summarily revoked and he was dispatched to Greenpoint POW camp.
The greater part of the Weinberg correspondence was written in captivity. The first was written, to his mother, in Bloemfontein gaol on 5 April. Weinberg was still furious over his betrayal and made dark threats over what those responsible could expect from him in due course ("Those men Ellison and Wilson better prepare themselves for what is going to happen to them when I get out, I suggest embalming their skeletons in advance").
Being a POW in Cape Town was not pleasant but it was considerably better than being one in Ceylon. It was Weinberg's bad luck to end up in the latter after he and a few others were discovered trying to escape by digging a tunnel under the fence. They had used feigned visits to the latrines to make the tunnel but one of their number betrayed them.(5)
Weinberg was a high-spirited and intelligent young man, but the
prolonged spell in captivity inevitably took its toll. His letters reflect
his homesickness, regret at a year of his life wasted in idleness and
frustration at the way the war was dragging on, the last tinged,
perhaps, with a certain pride at the way the Boers were continuing to
give the British a hard time in spite of the hopeless odds against them.
There are frequent complaints about boredom and time wasting
and occasional complaints about the food, aired with a certain
cheerful stoicism and flashes of humour that characterises the
correspondence. On 25 September 1900, for example, during the early
days of his stay in Ceylon, Weinberg wrote:
'At Green Point we received Australian Beef and Mutton and that was A1. But here we get beef only and that exclusively from Ceylon cattle. I have nothing against the animals, but their meat is awful. It has no taste and still worse luck is as tough as shoe leather.'
Weinberg was not a strongly identifying Jew in the religious
sense, but several passages in his prison correspondence reveal some
of the added difficulties captivity entailed for Jewish prisoners,
particularly over Jewish religious festivals. On 25 October 1900, he
wrote to his father that he had not fasted on Yom Kippur (Day of
Atonement) since he had not known the date of the festival. The
previous April, during the early days of his captivity, he had
'There is only one thing that troubles me much and that is the thought of having to pass Passover Feast, which commences Good Friday night, without matzes (unleavened bread). If you would only speak to Major Poole and I am sure he will do something in the matter'.
Major Poole, assuming he was approached, evidently did not assist, since a year later Weinberg, then in Ceylon, was again complaining (3 February 1901) about having to pass another Pesach without Matza ('Passover is near and no Matzes. I am becoming a regular Heathen, all this the cause of the British').
Weinberg's foreign birth unfortunately counted against him when he was transferred, much against his will, from the main POW camp, Diyatalawa, to Ragama, a camp for the foreign volunteers amongst the Boer prisoners. His own name had figured among the 'Russians' and his application to remain where he was failed. 'I would not mind to go if some of my friends came with and they are all Afrikanders', he wrote on 31 December 1900. 'The Germans, Hollanders, Irish Americans are, with a few exceptions, a most disreputable lot. They are without exaggeration the scum of the scum'.
Fortunately Edward Weinberg, Jeannot's father (who had since relocated to Berlin), was able to negotiate his son's release, on condition that he not return to South Africa until the end of the war. Jeannot thus rejoined his family in Europe, which after a few years on the continent returned to Bloemfontein. He himself worked briefly in Northern Rhodesia before purchasing a hotel in Kuruman, remaining there until 1936 and becoming one of th town's most respected citizens. From 1936 to 1944, he ran a hotel in Vryburg.
Weinberg's military career did not end in 1902. In 1912, after attending an officer's course at Roberts' Heights, he was commissioned into the Kalahari Horse Regiment and served as a captain in the regiment during the South-West Africa campaign two years later. His last years were spent in retirement in Johannesburg, where he died in 1962 at the age of 81.
1. The collection was in the joint care of Weinberg's three children,
Albert, Edward and Brenda Bloomberg, and was accompanied by a
number of photographs and documents. Copies have since been
made and added to the SA Jewish Board of Deputies archives.
2. Weinberg correspondence, SAJBD 124A. All further letter extracts are taken from same. Weinberg wrote in German until April 1900 and in English thereafter. Extracts quoted before then are translations.
3. Reminiscences of Bertha Sieradzki, sister of Johnnes Weinberg, 1960 (copy in files of S A Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth).
4. Biographical notes on the Weinberg family compiled by E Weinberg. Copy in SAJBD 124A.
5. Personal communication from Albert Weinberg, son of Jeannot Weinberg.
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