With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

Incidents of the War

In every battle, and even in a day's life in the laagers, there were multitudes of interesting incidents as only such a war produces, and although Sherman's saying that "War is hell" is as true now as it ever was, there was always a plenitude of amusing spectacles and events to lighten the burdens of the fighting burghers. There were the sad sides of warfare, as naturally there would be, but to these the men in the armies soon became hardened, and only the amusing scenes made any lasting impression upon their minds. It was strange that when a burgher during a battle saw one of his fellow-burghers killed in a horrible manner, and witnessed an amusing runaway, that after the battle he should relate the details of the latter and say nothing of the former, but such was usually the case. Men came out of the bloody Spion Kop fight and related amusing incidents of the struggle, and never touched upon the grave phases until long afterward when their fund of laughable experiences was exhausted. After the battle of Sannaspost the burghers would tell of nothing but the amusing manner in which the drivers of the British transport waggons acted when they found that they had fallen into the hands of the Boers in the bed of the spruit and the fun they had in pursuing the fleeing cavalrymen. At the ending of almost every battle there was some conspicuous amusing incident which was told and retold and laughed about until a new and fresh incident came to light to take its place.

In one of the days' fighting at Magersfontein a number of youthful Boers, who were in their first battle, allowed about one hundred Highlanders to approach to within a hundred yards of the trench in which they were concealed, and then sprang up and shouted: "Hands up!" The Highlanders were completely surprised, promptly threw down their arms, and advanced with arms above their heads. One of the young Boers approached them, then called his friends, and, scratching his head, asked: "What shall we do with them?" There was a brief consultation, and it was decided to allow the Highlanders to return to their column. When the young burghers arrived at the Boer laager with the captured rifles and bandoliers, General Cronje asked them why they did not bring the men. The youths looked at each other for a while; then one replied, rather sheepishly, "We did not know they were wanted." In the same battle an old Boer had his first view of the quaintly dressed Highlanders, and at a distance mistook them for a herd of ostriches from a farm that was known to be in the neighbourhood, refused to fire upon them, and persuaded all the burghers in his and the neighbouring trenches that they were ostriches and not human beings.

During the second battle at Colenso a large number of Boers swam across the river and captured thirty or forty British soldiers who had lost the way and had taken refuge in a sluit. An old takhaar among the Boers had discarded almost all his clothing before entering the river, and was an amusing spectacle in shirt, bandolier, and rifle. One of the soldiers went up to the takhaar, looked at him from head to foot, and, after saluting most servilely, inquired, "To what regiment do you belong, sir?" The Boer returned the salute, and, without smiling, replied, "I am one of Rhodes' 'uncivilised Boers,' sir." In the same fight an ammunition waggon, heavily laden, and covered with a huge piece of duck, was in an exposed position, and attracted the fire of the British artillery. General Meyer and a number of burghers were near the waggon, and were waiting for a lull in the bombardment in order to take the vehicle to a place of safety. They counted thirty-five shells that fell around the waggon without striking it, and then the firing ceased. Several men were sent forward to move the vehicle, and when they were within several yards of it two Kafirs crept from under the duck covering, shook themselves, and walked away as if nothing had interrupted their sleep.

In the Pretoria commando there was a young professional photographer named Reginald Shepperd who carried his camera and apparatus with him during the greater part of the campaign, and took photographs whenever he had an opportunity. On the morning of the Spion Kop fight, when the burghers were preparing to make the attack on the enemy, Mr. Shepperd gathered all the burghers of the Carolina laager and posed them for a photograph. He was on the point of exposing the plate when a shrapnel shell exploded above the group, and every one fled. The camera was left behind and all the men went into the battle. In the afternoon when the engagement had ended it was found that another shell had torn off one of the legs of the camera's tripod and that forty-three of the men who were in the group in the morning had been killed or wounded. Before the same battle, General Schalk Burger asked Mr. Shepperd to photograph him, as he had had a premonition of death, and stated that he desired that his family should have a good likeness of him. The General was in the heat of the fight, but he was not killed.

While Ladysmith was being besieged by the Boers there were many interesting incidents in the laagers of the burghers, even if there was little of exciting interest. In the Staats Artillery there were many young Boers who were constantly inventing new forms of amusement for themselves and the older burghers, and some of the games were as hazardous as they seemed to be interesting to the participants.

The "Long Tom" on Bulwana Hill was fired only when the burghers were in the mood, but occasionally the artillery youths desired to amuse themselves, and then they operated the gun as rapidly as its mechanism would allow. When the big gun had been discharged, the young Boers were wont to climb on the top of the sandbags behind which it was concealed, and watch for the explosion of the shell in Ladysmith. After each shot from the Boer gun it was customary for the British to reply with one or more of their cannon and attempt to dislodge "Long Tom." After seeing the flash of the British guns the burghers on the sandbags waited until they heard the report of the explosion, then called out, "I spy!" as a warning that the shell would be coming along in two or three seconds, and quietly jumped down behind the bags, while the missile passed over their retreats. It was a dangerous game, and the old burghers frequently warned them against playing it, but they continued it daily, and no one was ever injured. The men who operated the British and Boer heliographs at the Tugela were a witty lot, and they frequently held long conversations with each other when there were no messages to be sent or received by their respective officers. In February the Boer operator signalled to the British operator on the other side of the river and asked: "When is General Buller coming over here for that Christmas dinner? It is becoming cold and tasteless." The good-natured Briton evaded the question and questioned him concerning the date of Paul Kruger's coronation as King of South Africa. The long-distance conversation continued in the same vein, each operator trying to have amusement at the expense of the other. What probably was the most mirth-provoking communication between the two combatants in the early part of the campaign was the letter which Colonel Baden-Powell sent to General Snyman, late in December, and the reply to it. Colonel Baden-Powell, in his letter, which was several thousand words in length, told his besieger that it was utter folly for the Boers to continue fighting such a great power as Great Britain, that the British army was invincible, that the Boers were fighting for an unjust cause, and that the British had the sympathy of the American nation. General Snyman made a brief reply, the gist of which was, "Come out and fight."

General Hendrik Snyman


A British nobleman, who was captured by the Boers at the Moester's Hoek fight in the Free State in April, was the author of a large number of communications which were almost as mirthful as Colonel Baden-Powell's effort. When he was made a prisoner of war the Earl had a diary filled with the most harrowing personal experiences ever penned, and it was chiefly on that evidence that General De Wet sent him with the other prisoners to Pretoria. The Earl protested against being sent to Pretoria, asserting that he was a war correspondent and a non-combatant, and dispatched most pitiful telegrams to Presidents Kruger and Steyn, State Secretary Reitz and a host of other officials, demanding an instant release from custody. In the telegrams he stated that he was a peer of the realm; that all doubts on that point could be dispelled by a reference to Burke's Peerage; that he was not a fighting-man; that it would be disastrous to his reputation as a correspondent if he were not released in order that he might cable an exclusive account of the Moester's Hoek battle to his newspaper, and finally ended by demanding his instant release and safe conduct to the British lines. The Boers installed the Earl in the officers' prison, and printed his telegrams in the newspapers, with the result that the Briton was the most laughed-at man that appeared in the Boer countries during the whole course of the war.

Several days before Commandant-General Joubert died he related an amusing story of an Irishman who was taken prisoner in one of the Natal battles. The Irishman was slightly wounded in one of his hands and it was decided to send him to the British lines together with all the other wounded prisoners, but he refused to be sent back. After he had protested strenuously to several other Boer officers, the soldier was taken before General Joubert, who pointed out to him the advantages of being with his own people and the discomforts of a military prison. The Irishman would not waver in his determination and finally exclaimed: "I claim my rights as a prisoner of war and refuse to allow myself to be sent back. I have a wife and two children in Ireland, and I know what is good for my health." The man was so obdurate, General Joubert said, that he could do nothing but send him to the Pretoria military prison. An incident of an almost similar nature occurred at the battle of Sannaspost, where the Boers captured almost two hundred waggons. Among the convoy was a Red Cross ambulance waggon filled with rifles and a small quantity of ammunition. The Boers unloaded the waggon and then informed the physician in charge of it that he might proceed and rejoin the column to which he had been attached. The physician declined to move and explained his action by saying that he had violated the rules of the International Red Cross and would therefore consider himself and his assistants prisoners of war. General Christian De Wet would not accept them as prisoners and trekked southward, leaving them behind to rejoin the British column several days afterward.

British Prisoners


During the war it was continually charged by both combatants that dum-dum bullets were being used, and undoubtedly there was ample foundation for the charges. Both Boers and British used that particular kind of expansive bullet notwithstanding all the denials that were made in newspapers and orations. After the battle of Pieter's Hills, on February 28th, Dr. Krieger, General Meyer's Staff Physician, went into General Sir Charles Warren's camp for the purpose of exchanging wounded prisoners. After the interchange of prisoners had been accomplished General Warren produced a dum-dum bullet which had been found on a dead Boer's body and, showing it to Dr. Krieger, asked him why the Boers used the variety of cartridge that was not sanctioned by the rules of civilised warfare. Dr. Krieger took the cartridge in his hand and, after examining it, returned it to Sir Charles with the remark that it was a British Lee-Metford dum-dum. General Warren seemed to be greatly nonplussed when several of his officers confirmed the physician's statement and informed him that a large stock of dum-dum cartridges had been captured by the Boers at Dundee. It is an undeniable fact that the Boers captured thousands of rounds of dum-dum cartridges which bore the "broad arrow" of the British army, and used them in subsequent battles. It was stated in Pretoria that the Boers had a small stock of dum-dum ammunition, which was not sent to the burghers at the front at the request of President Kruger, who strongly opposed the use of an expansive bullet in warfare. It was an easy matter, however, for the Boers to convert their ordinary Mauser cartridges into dum-dum by simply cutting off the point of the bullet, and this was occasionally done.

One of the pluckiest men in the Boer army was Arthur Donnelly, a young Irish American from San Francisco, who served in the Pretoria detective force for several years, and went to the war in one of the commandos under General Cronje. At the battle of Koodoesberg Donnelly and Captain Higgins, of the Duke of Cornwall's regiment, both lay behind ant-heaps, several hundred yards apart, and engaged in a duel with carbines for almost an hour. After Donnelly had fired seventeen shots Captain Higgins was fatally wounded by a bullet, and lifted his handkerchief in token of surrender. When the young Irish-American reached him the officer was bleeding profusely, and started to say: "You were a better man than I," but he died in Donnelly's arms before he could utter the last two words of the sentence. At Magersfontein Donnelly was in a perilous position between the two forces, and realised that he could not escape being captured by the British. He saw a number of cavalrymen sweeping down upon him, and started to run in an opposite direction. Before he had proceeded a long distance he stumbled across the corpse of a Red Cross physician which lay partly concealed under tall grass. In a moment Donnelly had exchanged his own papers and credentials for those in the physician's pockets, and a minute later the cavalrymen were upon him. He was sent to Cape Town, and confined in the prison-ship Manila, from which he and two other Boers attempted to escape on New Year's night. One of the men managed to reach the water without being observed by the guards, and swam almost three miles to shore, but Donnelly and the other prisoner did not succeed in their project. Several days later he was released on account of his Red Cross credentials, and was sent to the British front to be delivered to the Boer commander. He was taken out under a flag of truce by several unarmed British officers, and several armed Boers went to receive him. While the transfer was being made a British horseman, with an order to the officers to hold the prisoner, dashed up to the group and delivered his message. The officers attempted to take Donnelly back to camp with them, but he refused to go, and, taking one of the Boer's rifles, ordered them to return without him—a command which they obeyed with alacrity in view of the fact that all of them were unarmed, while the Boers had carbines.

When the British column under Colonel Broadwood left the village of Thaba N'Chu on March 30th all the British inhabitants were invited to accompany the force to Bloemfontein, where they might have the protection of a stronger part of the army. Among those who accepted the invitation were four ladies and four children, ranging in ages from sixteen months to fifteen years. When the column was attacked by the Boers at Sannaspost the following morning, the ladies and children were sent by the Boers to a culvert in the incomplete railway line which crossed the battlefield, and remained there during almost the entire battle. They were in perfect safety, so far as being actually in the line of fire was concerned, but bullets and shells swept over and exploded near them, and they were in constant terror of being killed. The nervous tension was so great and continued for such a long time that one of the children, a twelve-year-old daughter of Mrs. J. Shaw McKinlay, became insane shortly after the battle was ended.

An incident of the same fight was a duel between two captains of the opposing forces. In the early parts of the engagement the burghers and the soldiers were so close together that many hand-to-hand encounters took place and many a casualty followed. Captain Scheppers, of the Boer heliographers, desired to make a prisoner of a British captain and asked him to surrender. The British officer said that he would not be captured alive, drew his sword, and attempted to use it. The Boer grasped the blade, wrenched the sword from the officer's hand, and knocked him off his horse. The Briton fired several revolver shots at Scheppers while the Boer was running a short distance for his carbine, but missed him. After Scheppers had secured his rifle the two fired five or six shots at each other at a range of about ten yards and, with equal lack of skill, missed. Finally, Scheppers hit the officer in the chest and laid him low. At the same time near the same spot two Boers called upon a recruit in Roberts's Horse to surrender, but the young soldier was so thoroughly frightened that he held his rifle perpendicularly in front of him and emptied the magazine toward the clouds.

While the siege of Ladysmith was in progress, Piet Boueer, of the Pretoria commando, made a remarkable shot which was considered as the record during the Natal campaign. He and several other Boers were standing on one of the hills near the laager when they observed three British soldiers emerging from one of the small forts on the outskirts of the city. The distance was about 1,400 yards, or almost one mile, but Boueer fired at the men, and the one who was walking between the others fell. The two fled to the fort, but returned to the spot a short time afterward, and the Boer fired at them a second time. The bullet raised a small cloud of dust between the men, sent them back again, and they did not return until night for their companion, who had undoubtedly been killed by the first shot. There were many other excellent marksmen in the Boer army, whose ability was often demonstrated in the interims of battles. After 1897, shooting clubs were organised at Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Krugersdorp, Klerksdorp, Johannesburg and Heidelberg, and frequent contests were held between the various organisations. In the last contest before the war E. Blignaut, of Johannesburg, won the prize by making one hundred and three out of a possible one hundred and five points, the weapon having been a Mauser at a range of seven hundred yards. These contests, naturally, developed many fine marksmen, and, in consequence, it was not considered an extraordinary feat for a man to kill a running hare at five hundred yards. While the Boers were waiting for Lord Roberts's advance from Bloemfontein, Commandant Blignaut, of the Transvaal, killed three running springbok at a range of more than 1,700 yards, a feat witnessed by a score of persons.

The Boers were not without their periods of depression during the war, but when these had passed there was no one who laughed more heartily over their actions during those times than they. The first deep gloom that the Boers experienced was after the three great defeats at Paardeberg, Kimberley and Ladysmith, and the minor reverses at Abraham's Kraal, Poplar Grove and Bloemfontein. It was amusing, yet pitiful, to see an army lose all control of itself and flee like a wild animal before a forest fire. As soon as the fight at Poplar Grove was lost the burghers mounted their horses and fled northward. President Kruger and the officers could do nothing but follow them. They passed through Bloemfontein and excited the population there; then, evading roads and despising railway transportation, they rode straight across the veld and never drew rein until they reached Brandfort, more than thirty miles from Poplar Grove. Hundreds did not stop even at Brandfort, but continued over the veld until they reached their homes in the north of the Free State and in the Transvaal. In their alarm they destroyed all the railway bridges and tracks as far north as Smaldeel, sixty miles from Bloemfontein, and made their base at Kroonstad, almost forty miles farther north. A week later a small number of the more daring burghers sallied toward Bloemfontein and found that not a single British soldier was north of that city. So fearful were they of the British army before the discovery of their foolish flight that two thousand cavalrymen could have sent them all across the Vaal river.