Reading My Father’s Boer War Diary Dated 1900
Those who have done me the honor of reading my articles in the past, must have noticed how often they have been about my father – which is strange, since he died when I was six, and yet my memories of him are as vivid as if all those incidents occurred yesterday. In the light of this, try to imagine the emotions kindled when I was blessed to hold in my hands his diary of the Boer War, dated 1900! – the diary of a 16-year-old boy whose life changed on October 11, 1899. He began to record his experiences on May 5th, 1900.
The Second Boer War (Dutch: Tweede Boerenoorlog, Afrikaans: Tweede Vryheidsoorlog or Tweede Boereoorlog) was fought from 11 October, 1899, until 31 May, 1902, between the British Empire and the Afrikaans-speaking Dutch settlers of two independent Boer republics: the South African Republic (Transvaal Republic) and the Orange Free State. It ended with a British victory and the annexation of both republics by the British Empire. Both would eventually be incorporated into the Union of South Africa, a dominion of the British Empire, in 1910.
The Second Boer War and the earlier, much less well-known First Boer War (December 1880 to March 1881) are collectively known as the Boer Wars.
What a gift it was when someone discovered and sent me my father’s ‘Boer War Diary!’ A book written by a friend (Denys Reitz) who is mentioned in the diary was published many years ago, and I have long wished to do the same for my father, but, although I have often blogged – and written stories – about him for Blogcritics.org, I have not, until now, been able to record his Boer War experiences (which began when he was hardly 16 years of age).
I found the youthful understatement (eg, ‘scrap’ for battle) endearing, and I don’t think that it is only because I am prejudiced that I was impressed by his knowledge of the English language. (There are scholars who would not know the meaning of a word like ‘fey,’ and I attribute the excellence of the writing – in a country where Dutch had long been the major language – to his having attended Grey College in Bloemfontein; as had his friends, Denys Reitz and Pierre van Ryneveld, later Sir Pierre.
Probably because he could not ever find the time to do so, Sir Pierre van Ryneveld did not, to my knowledge, write a memoir, and Mr. Reitz wrote his many years later when he was a mature man, which would account for the comparable lack of sophistication exhibited in my father’s.
A Lump in My Throat
The further I read into this diary, the more impressed I become. I am enchanted by the gentleness of it in the midst of war, and the sentiments which could only have been expressed by a very sensitive boy. I don’t think, in my many years of teaching, that I have come across this kind of thing in a 16-year-old..
“During the night I had a rather strange experience. I had been asleep on the wagon, and woke to find that it had stopped. We were at the side of a little river with trees, tall and all leafless, all around us. The moon was just rising and, as I woke up, I could hear water rippling among the stones on the edge of the river and the two boys talking in the beautifully soft dialect. I looked around and was sure that I was dreaming as it was all so unutterably beautiful. I got down off the wagon and, still half asleep, I sat down beside the river where I was asleep again in no time.
“The wagon had gone on for over two miles when my uncle discovered that I was not with him. He sent one boy back to look for me and he found me by the river – still sound asleep. When I woke up I had such a wonderfully happy feeling.
“Back at the wagon I could not help laughing at the strange contrast. On it Oom Jannie was sitting, singing hymns, while, not two feet away from him, the boy was cursing the oxen up hill and down dale in a most frightful manner. This boy had an amazing gift of swearing! He was really to be envied for the way he could string the epithets and never repeat one word! Many people would pay a fortune to have the vocabulary that that boy had!”
I plan to make a book out of this and have already designed the cover:
Begun After the Capture of Winburg
I must admit that I was puzzled by my dad’s decision to begin a diary with the words: “We left Winburg,” so it should be remembered that there were two Boer Wars: the First from December 16, 1880 until March 23, 1881, and, the second from October 11, 1899 until May 31, 1902. My father’s diary pertains to the second.
The town became the site of a concentration camp for women and children captured by the British Army in the course of their scorched-earth campaign during the Second Boer War. 355 children and 132 adults died in this camp (due to malnutrition and contagious diseases, while kept in tents without any infrastructure or protection during the bitter cold winters of 1899-1901.)