- Historic Sites
Taking Sides In The Boer War
The United States remained officially neutral, but many Americans fought alongside both opposing armies and several became legendary heroes
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Burnham was handsome, rather short, compactly built, fair, with regular features and a cleft chin. His eyes were his most arresting feature. Every photograph shows the same clear, direct gaze.
The facts of Burnham’s life were romantic enough. He was born on an Indian reservation and was trained in scouting while still a boy by some of the last of the old frontiersmen. He fought in the Apache wars, rode shotgun for Wells Fargo, was caught up in the feuding between ranchers and sheepherders, and once was tracked for days by two men out to kill him for unstated reasons except that one was driven by “an insane jealousy.” He settled for a time in Rhodesia, where he made a name for himself as a scout in the Matabele wars. He was thirtyeight years old and prospecting for gold in the Klondike when the Boer War began. There one day a cable reached him: “Lord Roberts appoints you on his personal staff as Chief of Scouts. If you accept, come at once the quickest way possible.” Although Cape Town is at the opposite end of the globe from the Klondike, he left within the hour.
Burnham arrived at the front just before the Battle of Paardeberg, and his first feat was to float down the Modder River through the Boer positions, concealed in an oxhide. He spent much time behind the Boer lines, was twice captured and twice escaped. In addition to gathering information he also hlew up railway bridges and tracks. Sent to cut the Pretoria-Lourcnco Marques line, the Boers’ vital link to the sea, Burnham was unhorsed and seriously wounded while still ten miles from his objective. Heroically he decided to go on, carrying with him the bags of explosives. In spite of the Boers’ vigilance and his own pain he reached the point to be cut, placed his charges, and blew the line in two places. After hiding for two days while Boer search parties passed all around him, Burnham at last made his way painfully back, stumbling and crawling, to the British lines.
Invalided to London, he was given an -. audience with the queen, and Lord Roberts wrote him: I doubt if any other man … could have successfully carried out the perilous enterprises on which you have from time to time engaged, demanding as they did the training of a lifetime combined with exceptional courage, caution and powers of endurance.
He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order, then second only to the Victoria Cross.
Burnham received the highest honors won by an American in the war, but another American won the most unusual award. Queen Victoria crocheted five scarves for her troops, and one each was presented to a man in a Canadian, an Australian, a New Zealand, a South African, and an English unit who was voted by his comrades as the best all-round soldier. The South African scarf was awarded to a trooper named Chadwick of Roberts’ Horse, and it came as a surprise that the best South African soldier turned out to be an American, an ex-sailor who had fought in the Spanish-American War.
The most remarkable American on One Bv’v’fcsh side was not a soldier at all. George Labram was only twenty-nine years old when the war began and had been in South Africa just five years, but he was already chief engineer for the great De Beers Consolidated Mines at Kimberley. He was a handsome man, tall and thin, and a bachelor. Pictures of him show an introspective, intelligent face adorned with a luxuriant black mustache. By all accounts he was a genius.
The environs of Kimberley contained the richest diamondiferous soil known. Lying in Cape Colony just over the border with the Orange Free State, the city was one of the Boers’ first targets, and they besieged it. Besides the diamond mines, Kimberley had an additional attraction: Cecil Rhodes was there. The Boers had a special hatred for Rhodes and promised to parade him through the streets of Pretoria in a lion’s cage when they captured him.
Kimberley was besieged for four months, and the most valuable man in town was George Labram. When the British ran short of ammunition, he manufactured more with the tools and materials at hand in the De Beers workshops. When supplies of powder ran low, he invented a substitute. He designed and built powerful searchlights to illuminate dangerous sectors of the defenses and to signal to the relieving force at night. He constructed a watchtower 155 feet high for Colonel Robert Kekewich, the garrison’s commander, and devised a telephone exchange connecting all parts of the defense system. When it was necessary to slaughter cattle wholesale because there was not enough grazing land inside the British lines, he built a huge cold-storage house so that meat could be preserved. But men are never satisfied. At the Kimberley Club thirsty members implored the ingenious Labram to invent something they really needed: whiskey. This apparently was beyond him.
Blessed with extraordinary talents, Labram also had a remarkable personality. Everyone liked the man. Even Rhodes and Kekewich, whose violent quarrels and mutual hatred divided the town and garrison, united in their feeling for Labram. He was the only man in Kimberley who enjoyed the friendship of both.