ON THE EVE OF THE BOER WAR

A picture of Johannesburg on the eve of the Boer war. 24 October 1899: A letter describes the extraordinary spectacle as Dutchmen and Englishmen, friends and colleagues, faced war on opposing sides.

Photo: Boer picket on Spion Kop, Ladysmith during the Boer War. Photograph: Van Hoepen/Getty Images

The second Boer war was fought from October 1899 to May 1902 between British and Afrikaner settlers in the Transvaal and Free Orange State. The peace treaty led to the founding of a united South Africa in 1910.

The son of a London gentleman writes to his father, under date the 30th ult., from Norse Deep Mine, Johannesburg, as follows:-

“I am writing this in snatches during my night shift of twelve hours. Last night was my first, and I had to take it by reason of two of our fellows quitting, and a third, who was commandeered, being a Dutchman. He was called at 11 a.m., and the whole commando of his ward started at 3 p.m. – a matter of only four hours. His heart was a bit full when he came round to say goodbye to all the rest of us.”

“It was an extraordinary sight to see the commandos passing through by train. They were in every kind of carriage available, each train gaily decorated. Little chaps from 14 years and upwards to men of 35 were the class called out yesterday, and today the next class will be from 35 to 45, and then the last, from 45 to 60.
The war diary of a Boer family, September 1901.”

“We have had heavy rains these past three nights, so those fugitives in the coal trucks must have had a wretched experience. One of our men was trying for five hours today to get into the ticket office of the railway, but quite unsuccessfully. The people there said that for the afternoon Cape train they had not only issued tickets for the full capacity of the train but for twenty-two coal trucks as well. I saw them pass here just now, and should say there were 40 in each truck, all standing up, and no covering whatever – a nice trip of 48 to 50 hours!”

“I was amused to see many women yesterday making their way to the station with rifles slung across their shoulders, taking them down to give their husbands or relatives at the station. It was very curious to see batches of Dutch and English making their way to the trains – the English just to see their friends off and have a farewell glass together – no enmity at all visible. Some of the Britishers were even going down by a later train to join their corps in Natal and fight on the opposite side to their Dutch friends.”

“The town is a mournful spectacle. Those few stores that are not already covered up with corrugated iron are getting protection in some shape or form just as quickly as the men can fix them up. Red Cross flags fly on some of the houses, and the Yankees have, in addition to the Stars and Stripes flying from their stores, had painted in huge letters over the fronts of their shops “American Property” – these words in English and Dutch. The Government officials, many of whom are British, and the young Dutchmen who have resided a few years in the town and have got quite civilised and Anglicised in ways and ideas, are very uncomfortable in their minds, judging from appearances, and do not regard the prospect they are going down to face in the same stolid put-your-trust-in-the-Lord of the countrymen.”

“Taking it altogether, we cannot help a great deal of admiration for the way in which all these people are fighting their own battle and quitting everything at an hour’s notice without a murmur.”