The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 2 - December 2013

Heritage Day, 24 September 2013

By Robin W Smith
Military history researcher of Anglo-Boer War sites

Unveiling of the Memorial to Cmdt Gert Claassen, Syferfontein Farm:

Rita Britz tells the story, Ludwig Ankiewicz listens, and the accordionist awaits his turn.

Syferfontein, near Val, Mpumalanga

On Heritage Day, 24 September 2013 a gathering of invited guests witnessed the unveiling of two memorials at the entrance to the farm Syferfontein, near the village of Val in Mpumalanga. The memorials take the form of black granite columns, two-and-a-half metres tall. Each has an inscription providing information about two men, Arthur MartinLeake and Gert Claassen, and their connection to Syferfontein.

Gert Marthinus Claassen was born on the farm In 1872. Probably the grand farmhouse was not yet built but, as his father's farming prospered, so this grand house took shape. A large and well-built house with numerous rooms, utilizing the local sandstone, it stands abandoned today. In 1901, with the British army engaged in subduing Boer guerrilla tactics during'the latter part of the Anglo-Boer South African War (1899-1902), it attracted the attention of the South African Constabulary (SAC). The policemen needed a site for a police post and Syferfontein was ideal. Sometime in 1901 they took possession.

The SAC stationed a small force of mounted police at Syferfontein. Headquarters in Heidelberg kept them supplied via the station at Val. There was ample water in the Waterval River about two hundred yards from the front door. The post was fortified but there was little guerrilla activity in the vicinity and a few sandbags around the doors and windows were more than sufficient protection.

The SAC had a hospital in Heidelberg, but each division had a medical staff and one of their doctors was stationed at Syferfontein. He was a young man, Arthur Martin-Leake, who had qualified as a doctor and a surgeon just as the war was breaking out in 1899. He came to South Africa as a member of the 42nd Hertfordshire Yeomanry, but soon found employment as a doctor. On the point of returning home when a position with the SAC became available, Martin-Leake applied and was accepted. A habitual complainer, he was not thrilled with his first few postings, but Syferfontein suited him very well - he had a shotgun and had plenty of duck shooting, he wrote to his mother.

Martin-Leake Memorial, Syferfontein Farm.

Inauguration Martin-Leake Memorial, Syferfontein Farm.
From left to right: the piper, Colonel Simon West (ex-OC, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders),
David Scholtz, Ludwig Ankiewicz and Rita Britz.

The inscription on the memorial and an article in a previous issue of this journal (MHJ, Vol 15 No 5, June 2012, pp 181-6) tell of how Surgeon-Captain Arthur Martin-Leake was awarded the Victoria Cross after an action on Vlakfontein, the adjacent farm. Twelve years later he was awarded a second Victoria Cross during the Great War (1914-18) - the first man ever to win two such awards.

The two men commemorated by the new memorials were not at Syferfontein at the same time. Gert Claassen was absent with the Krugersdorp Commando in the western Transvaal (now the North West Province), when Martin-Leake's bravery earned him his distinguished award. Claassen rose through the Boer ranks to be Vecht-Generaal by the end of the war, a rare honour for a man of 28. In the Great War, he was Lieutenant-Colonel of the Standerton Commando and earned the award of the Croix de Guerre from the French for distinguished service. After the war, he represented Standerton in the Transvaal Provincial Council and served as a Senator in the national parliament from 1939 to 1948. He died in his eightieth year and is buried in the family graveyard, not far from his memorial.

The memorials are visible from a minor road which runs close to the Waterval River, the map indicating the position. Rita Britz, who owns the Val Hotel, Ludwig Ankiewicz and David Scholtz were the driving force behind this preservation of our heritage. Only a very short detour off the R23 will take you there!

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