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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
“I have been absorbed in interest in the Boer War,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt to his friend Cecil Spring Rice in 1899. He was not alone. Most Americans took a keen interest in this remote conflict. Leading newspapers sent their correspondents to the front; the war was debated in Congress and discussed iin Cabinet meetings; private organizations sprang up to help one side or the other; a surprising number of Americans actually made their way to South Africa and joined the fight; and toy stores stocked up on two new games, Boer and Briton and The War in South Africa.
The struggle of two small pastoral republics—the Orange Free State and the Transvaal (its formal title was the South African Republic)—to retain their independence by braving the might of the British Empire evoked strong feelings of sympathy in the breasts of most Americans. They saw it as the small and weak pitted against the large and powerful, republics against monarchy, and it reminded many of our own revolution against this same empire.
The two South African republics covered an area of 160,000 square miles and contained a white population of under 450,000—roughly, a population smaller than San Diego’s spread over an area the size of California. They were founded by Boers, people of Dutch and French Hugue-not descent whose ancestors had gone to the Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century. Early in the nineteenth century, when the British took over the Cape and abolished slavery, the Boers fled into the hinterland to escape their rule. They had already developed into a hardy, resourceful, quarrelsome, fiercely independent race with their own language, customs, and system of government. Most were devout believers in the fundamentalist doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church; and as Joshua Slocum, the American circumnavigator of the globe, discovered when he visited the Transvaal, President Paul Kruger even believed the earth was flat.
These people—farmers, breeders of cattle, hunters—wanted only to live their own lives in their own way (which included, however, a belief that every man should be allowed to “whip his own nigger”), and they might possibly have been permitted to do so had not a misfortune overtaken them: in 1886 they found gold, more gold than had ever been found anywhere else in the world. At the time Kruger wisely warned his people not to rejoice, for “this gold will cause our country to be soaked in blood.” And so it did.
In the gold rush that followed, thousands of foreigners flocked to the Transvaal. The Boers were perplexed by all these outlandish folk—uitlanders, they called them—who descended upon them; they were amazed but not bedazzled by the quantities of gold that came from their earth and baffled by the new industries and the peculiar needs they created. The Boers were fearful too, for their whole way of life seemed threatened. The uitlanders, on their part, were affronted by laws and customs quite different from their own and annoyed that the Boers would not change them. They were incensed that in Johannesburg, which they regarded as theirs, the policemen were Boers and that in this Boer republic the language of the courts and schools was Afrikaans, which had developed from seventeenth-century Dutch.
Goaded by the British and Americans among them, the uitlanders clamored for the right to vote in Transvaal elections, and when the Boers steadfastly refused they made a feeble attempt at a revolution, which the Boers promptly squashed. Finally they turned to badgering Britain for help, and here they were more successful. Alfred Milner, newly appointed High Commissioner for South Africa, took up their cause and made it his own. With the approval of his government he began to put pressure on Kruger to give the uitlanders the franchise. Milner’s requests turned to demands, but Kruger stubbornly held his ground.
Apparently no one in the Transvaal thought oi the solution conceived by Mr. Dooley, the comic character created by F. P. Dunne. Said Mr. Dooley to his friend Mr. Hennessy: “If I had been President Kruger I’d have given the votes to the Uitlanders, but I would have done the counting.”
Eventually all negotiations collapsed into mutual exasperation, and both sides decided on war, the Orange Free State throwing in its lot with the Transvaal. Of all the reasons ever given by a nation for going to war, those of the British were the most peculiar: to force another country to make British subjects into Transvaal citizens. As this seemed a bit silly even to the British, they announced after the war started that the real purpose was to establish “British paramountcy” in South Africa. No one really understood what this meant, but it implied a determination to reduce the republics to British colonies.
Just as the fighting was about to begin, in October, 1899, Britain discovered that it had too few troops in South Africa to fight a war. Hurriedly, regiments were whistled up in Britain, India, and elsewhere and shipped off to Natal and Cape Colony.
Mobilization was a simple affair for the Boers. Traditionally, each district or major town formed its own unit, called a commando, and elected a commandant to lead it. When called out for war, every man between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five took his rifle, his horse, several days’ provisions, and sometimes his ox wagon with a span of sixteen oxen, and joined his commando, which assembled at a farm or village. Then with his friends, neighbors, and relatives he rode off to war. There were no uniforms, just a bandolier of ammunition slung over the shoulder; some men wore neckties, and some of the older men rode off to war in tall hats and coats with claw-hammer tails.
There were no medals, no flags or drums, no military formations; there was no saluting, and there was no pay. There was not much discipline, either. If a man took a dislike to the comrnando he was with, he simply left and joined another; if he tired of the war, Vie went home. They had, almost to a man, learned to ride and shoot in early boyhood and had spent most of their lives in the saddle with a rifle. This was the way they had fought the Bantu tribesmen, and this was the way they prepared to fight the British. They were armed with modern Mausers, then the finest rifles made, and they had recently purchased some modern artillery in Germany, France, and, strange as it may seem, Britain. They were, then, essentially armies of mounted infantry reinforced by some artillery.
Boer tactics, at least in the beginning, consisted of finding a good defensive position and letting the British attack them. If the British came too close, they bolted for their ponies and rode off to find another position. If they advanced and the British holed up in a town—as they did at Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley—the Boers made no serious attempt to storm the town but were content to besiege it. By such tactics they incurred small losses themselves while inflicting heavy casualties on the British. To defeat these nimble farmers Britain was eventually forced to field nearly a half million men, then the largest army in British history, larger even than the entire Boer population—men, women, and children—of the two republics.
Besides men, the British needed tens of thousands of horses, mules, and donkeys, and to procure them purchasing officers were sent far afield. The United States was the biggest supplier, shipping more than a hundred thousand horses and eighty thousand mules to South Africa. Mules, practically nonexistent in Britain, were particularly valued, and half of all the mules used in the war came from America.
In addition, the United States sold the British tens of thousands of tons of preserved meat, hay, and oats. Boers and their friends in this country tried to prevent such sales, and the Chicago branch of the American Transvaal League and the Boer Legislative Committee of Philadelphia lodged formal protests with the government. In May, 1902, Representative Henry Burk of Pennsylvania moved in the House that mules, remounts, and other supplies be declared contraband, but by this time the war was practically over.
There was a good deal of pro-Boer sentiment in Congress. Senator A. O. Bacon of Georgia introduced a “Resolution of Sympathy for the South African Republic”; other proBoer resolutions were introduced by senators from Illinois, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. Local politicians also expressed popular feelings. The city council of New York and the common council of Boston both passed unanimous votes of sympathy for the Boers, and the governor of Illinois made a personal appeal for money on behalf of the Boer Relief Fund. But not much of this political activity was of any help. When, for instance, the British captured a young, handsome guerrilla leader, Gideon Scheepers, and condemned him to death, Senator Henry Moore Teller of Colorado moved a resolution in the Senate asking Britain “to set aside the sentence in the interests of humanity.” But the British had already shot him.
In 1900 a Boer delegation arrived in America and toured the country from coast to coast. Everywhere the delegates were given a warm and sympathetic reception, but as Mr. Dooley noted: “Ivrybody’s listenin’ to thim. But no wan replies.” The Boers even obtained an interview with President William McKinley but were given no encouragement that the United States would intervene in any way or even attempt to mediate.
The official government view of the war in South Africa was different from that of most of the electorate. In 1898, just a year before the Boer War started, the United States had fought what Secretary of State John Hay called a “splendid little war” with Spain. Both President McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded him, were keenly aware of Britain’s friendly attitude toward us during this war, particularly in the face of German opposition to our gobbling up the Philippines. Kipling had urged us to “take up the white man’s burden,” and we were willing, but we were not sure it could be done without mighty Britain’s beaming approval. John Hay was determined, as he wrote privately to a friend, that “the one indispensable feature of our foreign policy shall be a friendly understanding with England.”
The administration’s position was understandable. It would have been hypocritical indeed for the American government to side with the Boers fighting for their independence from Britain while at the same time continuing to hunt down and kill Filipinos who were fighting for their independence from us. The situations in South Africa and the Philippines were embarrassingly similar.
Winston Churchill, writing from the prison for British officers in Pretoria on November 30, 1899 (his twentyfifth birthday), taunted his American friend Bourke Cockran: “What about the Philippines?—Oh champions of the cause of Freedom!”
Roosevelt, who was governor of New York when the war began and President when it ended in May, 1902, continued his interest in it from beginning to end. The war had been in progress for two months when he wrote to Cecil Spring Rice: The Boers are belated Cromwellians, with many fine traits. They deeply and earnestly believe in their cause, and they attract the sympathy which always goes to the small nation. … But it would be for the advantage of mankind to have English spoken south of the Zambesi just as in New York; and as I told one of my fellow Knickerbockers the other day, as we let the Uhlanders of old in here, I do not see why the same rule is not good enough in the Transvaal.
Eleven months later he wrote: I am not an Anglomaniac any more than I am an Anglophobe … but I am keenly alive to the friendly countenance England gave us in 1898. … I have been uncomfortable about the Boer War, and notably in reference to certain details of the way it was brought on; but I have far too lively a knowledge of our national shortcomings to wish to say anything publicly that would hamper or excite feeling against a friendly nation for which I have a hearty admiration and respect.
Roosevelt well knew that his views were not popular, particularly among Irish voters, of whom there were many. Most immigrants left their politics behind when they came to the New World, but not the Irish; hatred of the English remained and made them automatically pro-Boer. The views of McKinley and Roosevelt were known, of course, and some of their political enemies suggested that President Kruger should be invited to the Democratic National Convention of 1900.
The government’s position was delicate, and the American consul general in the Transvaal, Charles E. Macrum, was instructed to observe “the most absolute neutrality”; but as Churchill noted when he was a prisoner: “His sympathies were plainly so much with the Transvaal Government that he even found it difficult to discharge his diplomatic duties.” Macrum was soon replaced by Adelbert Hay, the twenty-four-year-old son of the Secretary of State, whose pro-British views were in line with those of his government. Hay did his job well. Not only did he look after American affairs, but he also took a keen interest in the welfare of the British prisoners of war.
In the United States different parts of the country seem to have reacted differently to the war. A few months after making a dramatic escape Churchill came here on a money-making lecture tour. He received a mixed response: Boston had its Irish, but also a strong pro-British faction, and he spoke to a full hall; in Baltimore only a few hundred turned up to hear him in a hall that would seat five thousand; and in Chicago he encountered “vociferous opposition.” In New York he was introduced by Mark Twain, who was certainly not pro-British: I think that England sinned when she got herself into a war in South Africa which she could have avoided, just as we have sinned in getting into a similar war in the Philippines. …
The fitting out of the hospital ship Maine was the most publicized pro-British effort by Americans. This ship, described by The Nursing Record and Hospital World as “the most complete and comfortable hospital ship that has ever been constructed,” was a refurbished cattle boat donated on behalf of the Atlantic Transport Company by Bernard N. Baker of Baltimore.
The idea that Americans might provide a hospital ship for British wounded came from Mrs. A. A. Blow, the American wife of a South African mining-company manager. She persuaded Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother, to take up the project, and it was through Lady Randolph’s energetic efforts that a committee was formed and the necessary funds raised. Most of the money came from Americans living in Britain, but some came from the United States. A fund-raising “Society Tea” was given in New York by the celebrated actress Lily Langtry, at which she recited with dramatic effect “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” Kipling’s most popular war poem:
The Earl of Yarmouth was persuaded to act as bartender, and the affair raised five thousand dollars.
With a staff of American doctors and nurses, the Maine arrived at Durban, in the colony of Natal, shortly after the Battle of Spion Kop. One of the first patients taken on board was Lady Randolph Churchill’s youngest son, Jack.
Although William Randolph Hearst thought Britain should win—because “civilization and progress demand it”—most American publishers and their newspapers were pro-Boer. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World sided with the Boers and favored American mediation. It even worked up a petition to the President urging this which was signed by 19 bishops and archbishops, 104 out of 442 members of Congress, 89 college presidents, 13 mayors of important cities, and many distinguished judges, editors, and businessmen. William Jennings Bryan would not sign, however, because “our refusal to recognize the rights of the Filipinos to self-government will embarrass us if we express sympathy with those in other lands who are struggling to follow the doctrines set forth in the Declaration of Independence.” Andrew Carnegie felt the same way.
A Philadelphia newspaper outdid the World . When a group of schoolboys wrote a memorial expressing their sympathy for President Kruger and his cause, the Philadelphia North American took up the idea and promoted it with such enthusiasm that it developed into a huge scroll signed by twenty-nine thousand schoolboys (girls were excluded) from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and points in between. The North American decided to send it to Kruger by special messenger. To go along with it a collection of newspaper clippings and pictures about the war were assembled and pasted into a large book packaged in a handsome, specially made leather case.
James Francis Smith, a curly-haired fifteen-year-old boy from New York, was selected from among two thousand messenger boys for his “independence and character” to deliver the scroll and the book personally to Kruger in Pretoria. Jimmy reached Pretoria on May 29, 1900. Kruger was still there, but it was a sad day for the old president, the saddest he had yet experienced in his long life. He was preparing to flee, to leave behind him forever his sick wife, his children, and the capital of the country he had ruled for so many years. The bayonets of the invader were glistening on his country’s doorstep, and his government was in the process of packing up. Already the archives, the gold from the mint, and all of the movable paraphernalia of government had been loaded on trains for the flight. Yet on this troubled and busy day Kruger took time to see Jimmy. When the big, beautifully bound book of clippings was presented to him, he was visibly disappointed at the discovery that it was not, as he had thought, a Bible, but he thanked Jimmy graciously.
Of the American newspaper correspondents in South Africa none was more famous than the handsome and dashing Richard Harding Davis. In February, 1900, four months after the war started and nine months after his marriage, he arrived in South Africa with his bride. Although his sentiments were pro-Boer, he went first to Natal to watch General Sir Redvers Buller relieve besieged Lady-smith. He then went to the Transvaal, joining the burghers retreating before a steadily advancing British army under Lord Roberts.
In an article written for Scribner’s Davis had harsh words to say of the British, even of British prisoners of war. He reported that officers held in the Model School in Pretoria (from which Churchill escaped) drew offensive cartoons on the walls, made rude remarks to Boer women who walked past, and were “cheeky” to Boer officials. He was repeating hearsay, but his words were picked up by antiwar journals in Britain and provoked indignant letters of rebuttal to the Times of London.
A number of Americans were in South Africa not to report on the war but to fight in it. Of these perhaps three hundred fought for the Boers. John A. Hassell, an American mining engineer, was in the Transvaal when the war started, and he at once joined a commando and saw action at Lady-smith and in the fighting along the Tugela River. Believing there were other Americans in the country who would be willing to fight under an American leader, he obtained permission to form a unit he called the American Scouts. An advertisement in the Standard and Diggers News (an English-language newspaper published in Johannesburg) produced about sixty recruits, and with these Hassell went south to fight against Lord Roberts.
Hassell acquired some additional men as the war progressed. One of these was James Foster, known as the “Arizona Kid,” whom Hassell described as “a typical American cowboy … frolicsome, lithe and reckless, always ready for any excitement, to take part in any sort of enterprise no matter what desperate chances were involved.” He had come to South Africa on a ship carrying mules, joined the British transport service to get to the front, and then deserted to the Boers.
J. H. King, called “Dynamite Dick,” won a reputation for his skill in blowing up trains and bridges and for his reckless bravery. His first notable feat was performed during the Battle of Vaalkrantz when Alec Brand, son of a former president of the Orange Free State, lay seriously wounded between the lines. King and another man crawled out under heavy fire and brought Brand in to safety.
When in September, 1900, the bulk of the Transvaal army was pushed back against the border of Mozambique, some Boers escaped by fleeing north into the dry, inhospitable bush veld in what is today Kruger National Park, while some three thousand men, including most of the foreign volunteers, crossed the border into Portuguese territory. Abandoned at the town of Komatipoort on the frontier lay locomotives, railway cars, and stacks of supplies and ammunition. Dynamite Dick King destroyed all he could; then he, too, crossed the border and made his way to Lourenço Marques on the coast.
King knew that both the British and the Portuguese were anxious that the stone railway bridge at Komatipoort not be destroyed, so he went straight to the British consul, declared that the bridge was mined, and swore he would blow it up unless he was given £3,000. The consul stalled while he telegraphed a warning to Lord Roberts and in reply was told that Komatipoort and the bridge were safely in British hands. King, meanwhile, had been arrested by the police for brawling in a local saloon. He was deported on a Portuguese warship and disappeared from history.
John Y. Filimore Blake, like Hassell, commanded an American unit in the Transvaal army. He was a huge man with a vanity and presumption to match his size. Although born in Missouri and raised in Arkansas, he habitually wore a cowboy costume in South Africa. He called himself “colonel,” even though no such rank existed in the Boer armies and his highest prior rank had been first lieutenant in the American Army. A West Point graduate, he had served in the Far West with the 6th Cavalry. After nine years of army life he married a rich Detroit woman and tried to settle down as a civilian. But shortly before the war began he left home, saying he was going to “shoot big game in Africa.”
Although severely wounded in the right arm in the fighting along the Tugela River when the Boers were attempting to prevent Buller from relieving Ladysmith, he stayed on. When Buller, after several tries, finally succeeded in breaking through and the Boers were fleeing in disorder, Blake and his Americans distinguished themselves by saving one of the heavy guns the Boers had abandoned in their panic.
Most of the men in the unit I led by Blake were Irish-Americans, and some got to the Transvaal by devious means. In April, 1900, an Irish-American ambulance unit arrived from Chicago. The Reverend Henry James Batts, an English Baptist minister whom the Boers had allowed to stay in the country, first encountered them lounging about the Grand Hotel in Pretoria wearing Red Cross armbands. “I was not much impressed by their appearance,” said Batts, “only that I would not like to meet them on a dark night.” A few days later he saw the same men with rifles and bandoliers, marching off under Blake to be presented to Kruger, who gave them a short speech, telling them to obey their officers and take care of their horses. Of the fifty-three members of the ambulance unit all but the five surgeons and the two nurses had exchanged their Red Cross brassards for rifles.
After the Boer debacle at Komatipoort most of the Americans fled over the border, but Blake stayed on, growing a long beard, learning to speak good Afrikaans, and continuing to fight to the bitter end. His subsequent career is not positively known, but he is said to have shot himself.
At first glance it would appear that the Irish-Americans and the Boers were quite different types, but it seems that they worked together very well. Roland Schikkerling, a young Boer from Johannesburg, noted that although the German and Dutch volunteers were closer in blood, they seemed out of place in the Transvaal army, while the Irish blended in so well that “you could not pick Patrick out of a herd of the wildest Boers. …”
Some of the Americans viewed the fracas as a class war. Arthur Baynes, thé Anglican bishop of Natal, visited a group of prisoners captured by the British early in the war and taken to Pietermaritzburg: Some of them were Germans, two were Americans, and one or two were half English or Irish. I think of the whole lot the most helhcose and the most anti-English were the Americans. They had all got it well drilled into them that this was nothing but a capitalist movement pure and simple, and that the working man ought to be on the side of the Boers. The Americans went so far as to say that the best Government for the working man was the Transvaal Government.
As did a number of other nations, the United States sent military observers to the war. Captain Carl Reichmann, iyth United States Infantry, was sent to observe the Boers, and Captain Steven Slocum, 8th United States Cavalry, to watch the British.
There were rumors that the foreign observers sometimes dropped their role as neutral sightseers. Reichmann was accused of leading the Boers at the Battle of Sannah’s Post, where an exceptionally clever trap was laid for a British cavalry brigade. He had indeed been present, but it was the brilliant Boer general Christiaan de Wet who planned and led the attack. During the battle Reichmann was mostly occupied with caring for the Dutch military observer, a young lieutenant wounded by a British shell.
Reichmann managed to maintain S %. his neutrality and objectivity as an impartial observer, but his colleague Slocum with the British sometimes found it difficult to stay out of the action, and he is known to have made suggestions to Lord Roberts. An American fighting with the British who had known Slocum during the Apache wars called him a remarkably keen observer with “an uncanny instinct as to where there would be action, and … he could always be found where the bullets flew thickest.”
Although exact figures are not available from either side, it would appear that in spite of the strong pro-Boer sentiment in the United States there were more Americans serving on the British side than with the Boers. One congressman claimed that there were between two and three thousand Americans with the British, but he was guessing. Perhaps one reason for the greater number with the British was that expressed by a former Rough Rider who wrote to Theodore Roosevelt from South Africa: Dear Teddy— I came over here meaning to join the Boers, who I was told were Republicans fighting Monarchists; but when I got here I found the Boers talked Dutch, while the Britishers talked English, so I joined ihe latter.
Another pragmatic reason was that it was so much easier to get to the British side of the front. The thirteen British purchasing officers ranging this country buying horses and mules also hired men to tend the animals on the long voyage to South Africa. An advertisement for muleteers in the New Orleans Picayune gave the going rate: “$ 15 for the run and 75C a daycoming back.” More than four thousand men, mostly cowboys and other Westerners, were so hired. Quite a number stayed in South Africa, and as it was neither easy nor cheap to get from Cape Town to the Transvaal, most joined one of the volunteer colonial units of the British army. Arthur Conan Doyle, who served as a doctor during the war, said that an entire squadron of Roberts’ Horse was made up of Texas cowboys, and Churchill found many Americans in the South African Light Horse, including one old trooper who had served under Philip Sheridan in the Civil War.
Two Americans who wore the British uniform were Major Lewis Seymour and his friend Lieutenant Joseph Clement. Both were railway engineers. At the beginning of the war Seymour, an uitlander who had fled to Cape Colony, offered to raise a unit to work on the railroad. His offer was accepted, and a regiment of more than a thousand men, mostly uitlanders, was quickly raised and given the task of repairing all the bridges the Boers had destroyed. While trying to defend a half-finished bridge across the Sand River in the Orange Free State on June 14, 1900, Seymour was attacked by a force that included Hassell’s American Scouts, and both he and Clement were killed. They were buried together in a joint grave and their tombstone describes Seymour as “Citizen U.S.A., Major in Her Britannic Majesty’s Railway Pioneer Regiment.” He died, says his epitaph, “in a British regiment for a cause the inherent justice of which he was firmly convinced.”
Of all the Americans who served in the British army the most universally admired was Roberts’ chief scout, Major Frederick Russell Burnham. “A most delightful companion … amusing, interesting and most instructive,” Sir Robert Baden-Powell wrote in a letter to his mother. Rider Haggard declared him to be “more interesting than any of my héros of romance.” Lord Roberts, Theodore Roosevelt, and Richard Harding Davis were all admirers.
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.
Labram’s most extraordinary accomplishment was the design and construction of a large gun. When Rhodes asked if he had ever built a cannon. Labram replied: “Yes, once when I was a boy, to shoot firecrackers on the Fourth of July to celebrate the time we licked the British!”
“Well,” said Rhodes, “build one now to celebrate the time you are going to save the British.”
Without previous experience of ordnance and without proper tools, Labram went to work. After he finished his designs, it took only twenty-four days to construct a breechloading gun with a 4.1-inch bore capable of firing a »8-pound shell. He named it “Long Cecil” in honor of Rhodes. Newspaper correspondent Lionel James said of this feat: “The production of this gun must be considered one of the most remarkable events in the history of beleaguered garrisons.”
To counter Long Cecil the Boers hauled up one of their largest guns, a 6-inch Creusot. It opened Ore on February 7, 1900. Two days later, firing its last round of the day, it sent a shell into Labram’s room at the Grand Hotel, Labram, who had been, dressing for dinner, was blown to bits. Four days later Kimberley was relieved.
There were other Americans who, without enlisting, served the British. An American from Brooklyn was the informer who tipped off the British to a plot hatched in Pretoria, after its occupation, to kidnap Lord Roberts. The ringleader was the first man in the war to be executed by a firing squad. Some men tried to enlist but were turned down. OJiJa Tek Ka (“Burning Flower”), a Mohawk Indian and a crack shot, made his way to South Africa to join the British but was told that this was “a white man’s war.” Nevertheless he stayed and worked at a remount depot.
In Cape Town one day Kipling encountered an American soldier of fortune “who had been at San Juan, and was a democrat—a grey, grizzled, tough old bird.” Although this man was a sergeant in the British army, he is believed to have been the inspiration for Kipling’s story “The Captive,” about an American with the Boers who was captured by the British. Several Americans serving with the Boers were captured and sent off to one of the British prisoner-of-war camps.
When the British overran the South African republics, the Roers had no place to put their prisoners and finally resorted to stripping captives of their weapons and clothes and turning them loose. In the early days of the war the British sent their prisoners to St. Helena; but when this island grew too crowded, other camps were set up in Ceylon, India, and Bermuda.
The more than four thousand Boer prisoners of war on Bermuda particularly interested Americans, especially when it became known that a hundred and thirteen were boys under sixteen and two were only eight years old. Letters smuggled out by prisoners and published in American newspapers encouraged philanthropy. Several organizations were formed to aid the prisoners: the Boer Relief Fund in New York, the Lend A Hand Society in Boston, and the American Transvaal League of Paterson, New Jersey, were particularly active, sending food and old clothing. The British distributed the food but returned the clothing as too dangerous; there were epidemics of smallpox at the time in many American cities.
Several Boers managed to escape. The S.S. Trinidad made regular trips between Bermuda and New York, and if a prisoner could break out of camp, swim to the main island, and stow away on this ship, he could make his way to freedom in the United States. When the war was over and the exodus from the camps began, many prisoners of war made America their first stop on their way home. One group of ninety, including two Boer generals, arrived in New York from Bermuda in the middle of July, 1902, and were greeted by enthusiastic crowds. On shore they split into groups. Some went sightseeing to Niagara Falls; some accepted the hospitality offered by Gérard Beekman at his Long Island mansion; one group even went to Texas, where the governor offered free land if they would settle there. President Roosevelt entertained the senior Boer officers at the White House and took them shooting.
Texas was not the only state to offer free land. In June, 1900, long before the war ended, Representative John J. Fitzgerald of New York proposed to Secretary Hay that the Boers—all of them—be invited to settle here on government land. After the war Arkansas offered five million acres; Colorado made a similar offer. Several hundred Boer refugees in Mozambique asked about homesteading, and when this was publicized in American newspapers, seven more western states offered free land. Rich New Yorkers of Dutch descent worked up a colonization scheme to settle Boers on three hundred thousand acres of irrigated land in Wyoming.
Many did come to the United States, not just former prisoners of war but a number of “irreconcilables,” men who preferred exile to signing an oath of allegiance to the king. Francis Reitz, once president of the Free State and during the war State Secretary of the Transvaal, settled for a time in Texas, but he, like most of his comrades, eventually went back. There were some, however, who never returned. One Boer general, Ben ViIjoen, led a group of Boers to New Mexico. He wrote a book, An Exiled General , the proceeds of which went “for the benefit and amelioration of the many irreconcilable and destitute Boer families emigrating to the United States from South Africa.”
There may possibly still be surviJL vors of the war in America. One of those who took part in the capture of Churchill was alive here about a decade ago. For the most part, however, the Boer War (or, as the Afrikaners call it, the English War or the Second War of Independence) is almost forgotten, but evidence of our former interest remains in the names of small towns like Ladysmith, Wisconsin; Pretoria, Georgia; Kruger, Idaho, and Kruger, Pennsylvania; and towns in several states named Kimberley and Johannesburg. William Hallamore, who endured the siege of Kimberley and fought beside the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Paardeberg with a Canadian contingent, paid a more personal tribute to the war, naming his first three sons Argyle Paarteberg (the spelling was his own), Kimberley, and Kitchener; his first daughter he named Pretoria. All but Argyle Paarteberg are still living in the United States.