A War Story Of Timely Tactics, Inexaustable Spirits - And A Lasting Legacy.
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
The Anglo Boer War of 1899 - 1903 in retrospect has many moments of awe and also of some mirth. The Boers (Afrikaans for "farmers") had no formal military and therefore no military training - but they were field savvy and could shoot their 7x57 Mausers quite well. They were good horsemen too. There was a common law that every male above the age of 16 had to own a horse, saddle and reins, a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition, a blanket roll (blankets encased in canvas) and have field food for three days. They also had a gift for thinking on their feet.
British forces controlled the railway line from the Cape Colony and trains with supplies were regularly derailed by the Boers - the on board protection contingents were normally quickly overpowered, captured and removed for a few miles into the hills. Then their boots were taken and they were left to go free - with one rifle and two rounds of ammunition. The Boers did not take prisoners of war but it can be assumed that many captured soldiers would have preferred that over having had to hike barefoot over rough terrain with only one rifle and two rounds as protection against predators.
The train protecting forces grew more and more in numbers, so bigger and bigger commandos were required to successfully rid the British of their supplies.
One day two brother sappers with the surname of Van Heerden were given the task to derail a train that was about 8 hours away. They did a fine job of setting the charges under the rails and restoring the supporting stones as if nothing was wrong, set the terminals and buried the electric cord for about 50 yards and waited with their magneto behind some rocks.
A British cavalry patrol came by, inspecting the line ahead of the train which was some miles behind. The two men lay quietly amongst the hot rocks a mere 50 yards away from the cavalry, having been waiting in the sun for six hours for the train. The Boer assault Commando was behind some hills, probably having a barbeque of blesbok.
Eventually the train was heard and at last the Van Heerden brothers flicked the magneto as the coal bin behind the locomotive went over the charge. Perfect result - the rear of the locomotive lifted up and as the left rail had a higher charge it threw it sideways off the track and the wagons jack-knived it to a stop. At the explosion the Boer commando came galloping over the hill, took cover within range and started shooting at the train. To their suprise there was only a half hearted two shots response and then a British soldier fastened his white long johns to his rifle and held it up.
The Boers approached cautiously and found only ten soldiers who for reasons that can be debated until sunrise were in no mood or fit condition for a fight. They and their locomotive crew were relieved of their boots and locked in one of the cars and the Boers started searching the train for food and weapons. Nothing. Only crates and crates of whisky. Just whisky - addressed to the brave British officers in Johannesburg, headquartered at the "Transvaal Scottish Regiment Officers' Mess".
Commandant Cillié gave immediate orders that the booze had to be destroyed there and then and not a single bottle to be taken. This was met with a request for a formal war council to be held to properly debate the best way to dispose of the enemy's war assets. The final decision was that the cleverest way would be to let their kidneys recirculate the whisky to save the environment and urinate it all out in a show of disresepect to the Queen of England. The vote for this disposition maybe was not a true 100% unanimous - but for all practical purposes it was.
The brothers who had suffered the dehydration were first to get their bottles and then the commandant, and then the captain and then the men. Eventually, a few hours later Commandant Cillié did a stock take and it was clear to him that his otherwise intrepid commando was not up to the task at hand in this instance as there was a good supply of whisky left. Another war council was held, ending in the decision to free the prisoners of war and instruct them - as soldiers - to dispose of the remainder of the stock in a brave and manly manner.
This tactical decision had the strategic effect that an everlasting truce between the individuals was agreed upon and the sun set on a happy band of warring men toasting the Mauser and the Lee Metford - and the Scots and Irish who had made the day possible by their knowledge of barley and alcohol stills.
(Last month saw the 120th anniversary of this incident, and as was proper a steam train was chartered, filled with whisky and at the very same place a mighty explosion of black powder engulfed it in white smoke and a Commando dressed in proper field clothing came thundering over the hill, with shots ringing out from their Mausers. The British descendents on the train hoisted a white long john and in true spirit the offending enemy assets were recycled until long after the sun had set and the full moon had risen over the barbeque fires, later hanging smilingly over the pleasant aroma of wild game steaks in the Africa night).
A real war council in 1902 with Orange Free State President Marthinus T. Steyn sitting centre front.