Major Barr’s Pilgrimage: An old warrior revisits his Anglo-Boer War Battlefields by Ken Gillings

[Scribe’s note – this originally appeared in two parts but is condensed here for continuity]

Author’s note: There are, throughout this story, a number of grammatical peculiarities. I have disregarded these as it should be remembered that, up to his death, Major Barr still spoke with a strong Australian accent. I have thus transcribed from the tapes, incorporating his grammar and figures of speech as far as possible. In some cases, too, there is repetition, such as for example in respect of Major Barr’s activities in the Johannesburg area. These are referred to in the chapter recorded at Kroonstad and again towards the end of the article. I have allowed this for the sake of continuity. Naturally, too, there are possibly slight inaccuracies or, in respect of names of various individuals, spelling mistakes. These are unavoidable, although where possible I have tried to correct them. Remember, the Major was in his 93rd year at the time and I have been unable, in the time at my disposal, to trace or identify every officer or comrade referred to by the old man. In cases where there is uncertainty, I have underlined the word or followed it with a question-mark or note.

Rarely does one have the opportunity of accompanying a veteran of the South African War of 1899-1902 on a pilgrimage to the battle sites where he once fought. In fact, such veterans are now so few that, considering the fact that Major Barr was 93 when I had the honour of taking him on his trip, I do not think many other young people will be able to share such an exciting and important historic experience.

Major William Francis Barr came to South Africa with the Second Contingent of the Victoria Mounted Rifles at the end of 1899, holding the rank of Sergeant. After the War, he settled in Vryheid, Natal, where he was joined by his childhood sweetheart.

In 1906 he served in the Bambatha Rebellion, whilst in the First World War he served under General Louis Botha in South West Africa and under General J.C. Smuts in East Africa where he was awarded the Italian Medal for Military Valour. In later years, as a member of 10th Mounted Rifles (Botha Ruiters) he received the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Long Service Medal.

For many years, up to his death in July 1972, at the age of 94, he was Chairman of the Vryheid branch of the South African Legion.

I first met Major Barr some years back, through a good friend of mine who lives in Vryheid, Mr Alf Wade. On my occasional meeting with the Major whilst attending a memorial service on some Zulu War battlefield, he had hinted that his greatest wish was to revisit the Cape and Transvaal battlefields before he died. Eventually I offered to take him, thinking that a trip of this nature could be both interesting and informative. We arranged to set out on Sunday, 3rd January 1971 and agreed to limit the journey to three weeks but decided not to set a date for our return.

We left Vryheid at l5h00. As soon as the Major sat down he started talking and did not stop until we had reached our first objective, Groenkop battlefield, near Kestell in the Orange Free State. How I wish I could have absorbed all he said!

The action at Groenkop took place on the 24th and 25th December 1901 when General Christiaan de Wet led an attack on General Rundle’s Yeomanry comprising inter alia, the 34th and 35th Middlesex and the 36th West Kent and 53rd East Kent Regiments. Unfortunately before we could do any climbing or scouting around, a violent storm broke and the monument on the top of Groenkop will have to be visited some other time.

At 18h05, we booked in at the Royal Hotel at Bethlehem.

After breakfast on the 4th, we did some sightseeing in and around Bethlehem and at 09h15, left for Lindley where we stopped at the Garden of Remembrance and the site of the surrender of the 13th Battalion of Imperial Yeomanry on 31st May 1900, about 6 miles outside the town on the old Kroonstad road. Major Barr said that he remembered seeing action in this area, and I then set about recording the details:

‘On the 10th May 1902, the 2nd Scottish Horse were with General Bruce Hamilton’s forces on a drive down towards the Lindley area. As we approached this area, we encountered a party of Boers on a ridge and as we approached this ridge, we observed a large dam. Just as we reached this dam, a force of Boers came round the end of the hill and charged our line. About 30 Boers broke through, led, I learnt afterwards, by Commandant Mentz. He galloped at the head of these men, just swinging his sjambok at his right side and pointing forward. We closed up that gap but didn’t worry about the men who had got through – always close up the gap as you never know what might be round the corner. It served good purpose this day because when we got round the corner of this hill, there were 350 burghers waiting for us, as they thought we would all crowd round this dam to water our horses; but it didn’t come off. And as we got round this hill, we captured this force of 350. We took them off to Lindley that evening.

‘On the way down, I noticed a young lad with the prisoners – a small boy of about 13 or 14. He said to me: “Sir, please let me fall down in the grass here and I’ll hide and when you’ve all gone past, I’ll go home.” So I asked him where his home was and he replied that it was in Kroonstad.’

They stayed in Lindley for a few more days and then made their way to the Heidelberg-Volksrust railway line. They arrived at Val on the 16th, but just before they arrived this same Commandant Mentz broke through once again with a small force. The Major with one Capt Kelly, set out with a party in pursuit. This incident is related later in the story. Major Barr said later that he always had an idea that the young boy referred to in the previous paragraph was George Brink, (later Lt.-Gen., often fondly referred to as ‘Uncle George'(1). [Editor’s note: The boy was definitely not George Brink]

From Lindley we proceeded to Kroonstad where we easily found the British camp site, ‘. . . behind the railway bridge’. With remarkable clarity, he described his activities at that stage of the War, as well as in 1914, when he was chasing General de Wet:

‘About the middle of May, we crossed over the Sand River. We were pursuing Jack Hindon’s Irish-American Brigade. They were doing wonderful work, these chaps – blowing up all the culverts and bridges etc.! When we reached the Sand River near Virginia, there was a bank near the railway. Here the lines were twisted and blown about, and we could see that we were close on the track of the Boers. They just managed to get across the river when Jack Hindon managed to blow up one span of the bridge. We managed to get our horses up on to the other side and set off in pursuit in extended order. We covered a considerable distance, but I walked between the rails for some 150 or 200 yards. Every 10 yards or so there was a stick of dynamite all fused together but, of course,Jack Hindon had left in such a hurry he had not had time to ignite them! Anyhow, we pushed on and I think it was the second day we moved in to surround Kroonstad. The left flank pushed right round and came in at the north, so that almost the whole town was enveloped. We were very short of rations and all the food we had was green mealies, which we had managed to obtain that day. Round about eight o’clock, there was a large explosion to the south; we then escorted our General in. There was very little opposition and we camped on this very ground where we are now. I remember the ladies all offering us tea and cakes, which we gladly accepted, because, as I said, all we had had was green mealies!’

Major Barr pointed out the bridge under the railway near the station which he used to travel under when going into town ‘for a bathe’.

‘There was a little fighting going on to our right flank – old De Wet and some of the other fellows didn’t approve of our getting so far into the Free State. After this, having stayed here for a week or so, we pushed on non-stop to Pretoria. We got to Vredefortweg on the 24th May, and it being the Queen’s birthday, we had a nice noggin. On the 26th we reached Viljoen’s Drift and the next day we crossed the Vaal River.

‘On the left, there was a big building with a notice reading “Transvaal and Delagoa Bay Brick and Tile Company” and I believe, having made enquiries, this building is still there. We went up the right bank for quite a few miles, had a little bit of scrapping – nothing much to write home about. That was one occasion when we got a little bit of loot without paying for it. In those days we had strict instructions that we had to pay the farmers for whatever we took. On this occasion, though, we rode through a farmyard and there were quite a few fowls sitting about. As I rode through, I grabbed one, wrung its neck and put it in my haversack, and I suppose the other fellows did the same. I know it was a very naughty thing to do, but. . . .!

‘On the 28th, we pushed on to Natal Junction and on the 29th we moved in to surround Johannesburg. This was one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen. We were all in extended order – about 400 mounted men; we moved in at a steady canter towards Germiston via Rosettenville. The troop I was in that day was escorting two guns of”J” Battery RHA; it was all open ground – a magnificent sight. Wherever you looked, you could see horses which had fallen into ant-bear holes, with their legs sticking straight up into the air. As we moved along the Boers fired at us. Now, you’ve seen pictures of the RHA galloping into action; this was typical that day and the horses galloped past us and the gunners took up a position just near a little koppie.

‘After this action we moved forward, on to Germiston station then on to Knight’s Deep. The trains were pulling out of Jo’burg as fast as they could, and at Knight’s Deep the gangers had piled dolomite trucks onto the rails to prevent any more trains from getting out. I took the station master and another ‘joker’ prisoner and then Lt Kirby told the Corporal to bring four men – well I was one of those four men – to bring these two prisoners along. In front of us, lo and behold, there was the O.C. Henny(?) and about a couple of hundred yards in front of them, a few Boers came galloping round the corner and let blaze at them. Then they spotted us and we got the benefit of their fire. By this time the bullets were whizzing around like “Billy-Oh”. The Corporal said “For Christ’s sake, leave the bastards and come on!” so we galloped round the headgear of a mine (I didn’t know it then but the Corporal had got a bullet in the shoulder).

‘Anyhow, we pushed on past the headgear of this mine and then galloped on into Germiston Station. There were hundreds of civilians waiting there and we were only too pleased to hand over these two prisoners. On the left hand side of the station, as you go into it, there is a siding, and there was a hospital train standing there, flying what I think was a Hollands Flag. Then an officer came up – I think he was an officer of the Guards – and he said, “Climb up and pull that damn flag down.” The officer in charge of the train said, “Isn’t it against the rules of warfare to pull down a flag from a hospital train?” This officer of ours – I don’t know who the hell he was -just said, “There’s only one flag that’s going to fly in this country and that’s the Union Jack; pull the goddamn thing down!”

‘Anyhow, that afternoon we pushed on to Malvern, overlooking Cyrildene, and went into camp. Down below us, a mile away, the Boers had some guns and they opened up on the Cavalry. However, they didn’t pay any attention to us, so that was the last scrap as far as I know. There might have been some scrapping on the north side with Ian Hamilton. That was on the 30th, and the gap was closed the next day. No one got out of Jo’burg after that and on this, the 31st May Jo’burg surrendered.’

It is hard to believe that, in the space of a few minutes, Major Barr had taken me on a tour of his actions from where we were at Kroonstad camp, to the surrender of Johannesburg via, Standerton, Val, Germiston and Cyrildene, which we had yet to visit.

However, he had not yet finished. He now cast his mind back to 1914, during the Rebellion. He continued:

‘In 1914 Christiaan de Wet, one of the Boers’ most courageous generals, took the wrong turning and joined the Rebels. Anyhow, he had had a scrap down at Mushroom Valley and was coming up towards Kroonstad, so it was thought. We were at Standerton with the Vryheid regiment – the Northern Districts Mounted Rifles. We boarded a train and steamed into Kroonstad. This was on a Sunday and, of course, the Boers never fought on a Sunday unless it was nicely in their favour! So anyway, we went into camp down there – in that garden below us here; “B” Squadron had been following a couple of hours later and now news came through that De Wet wasn’t going to pass through Kroonstad, but at Virginia on the Sand River, so “B” Squadron went right through and just after dark ran some coal trucks across the bridge and when De Wet came along they got stuck into him good and solid.

‘In the meantime, we boarded the train and rushed down to, I think it was, Henning( [(1) Heuningspruit? or Henneman? (the latter is, however, South]) station – some little station just north of Kroonstad – and we joined in the running fight. We followed De Wet right the way down, over the trail. Of course there was nothing; no trees,just open veld almost all the way down to Hoopstad. [(2) Col Jordaan was in charge of this action and was present at De Wet’s capture, which finally took place near Marokwen, near Vryburg.] Col. Swemmer,(?) with his motor transport, cut in and De Wet was in the bag. It was a great pity that he took the wrong turning but he was one of the most famous Generals and I think one of the most courageous men the Boers had during the War. He caused us a lot of headaches during the Boer War and we could never catch him. He always slipped away and gave us any amount of trouble.

‘I forgot to mention this, but at Sand River, where he broke through, we had a scrap there coming up just before Kroonstad on this day, and some of our chaps were killed and were buried there right next to the track.’ (Major Barr could have been referring to the first major action of the so-called ‘Five Shilling’ Rebellion at Sand River in the vicinity of the Doornberg where both Government and Rebel forces suffered casualties – among them De Wet’s own son, Danie, who was killed in the action).

After lunching at Kroonstad we drove on towards Bloemfontein. Shortly before we reached Brandfort, the Major expressed a desire to visit the farm of Mr and Mrs C.R. Swart, the former State President and his wife. I marvelled at the old man’s insistence – he claimed that he had once fought there – and so I turned off at the entrance to ‘De Aap’.

Mr and Mrs Swart were overjoyed to see us and invited us in to have cold drinks and cake. (I remember smiling when Major Barr referred to the War of 1899-1902 as the ‘Boer War’ while Mr Swart told his wife that the ‘… Ou majoor is ‘n oudstryder van die “Engelse Oorlog!”‘)

After a very pleasant hour or two, during which Major Barr and Mr Swart exchanged yarns about those days, we took leave of this charming couple after having obtained treasured autographs, and I drove an elated old man on to our next stop at Karee.

(Continued in Vol 3 No 4, December 1975).

Part 1 appeared in this journal Vol.3, No3, June 1975. The author explained therein how he accompanied Major Barr, a veteran aged 93 years, to the battlefields he had fought on in the South African War, 1899-1902. They set off from Vryheid, Natal on the first leg of their journey (which covered 4 500 kilometres) to Groenkop near Kestell, Orange Free State (action of 24 th and 25th December, 1901). They then moved on to Bethlehem and Lindley where the 13th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry surrendered on 31st May, 1900. The next leg of the pilgrimage took them on to Kroonstad, thence to ‘De Aap’, farm of the former State President, Mr C.R. Swart. Their next stop was at Karee:

We pulled off the road at Karee and into the siding where I switched on the tape recorder:

‘About the middle of April, 1900, the Colonial Division was formed in Bloemfontein under Major-General Hutton. Then, towards the 20th April, we moved out to Karee Siding, which we’re sitting at right now. On the 29th of April, Lord Roberts’s Army moved out from Bloemfontein on its advance on Pretoria. We in General Hutton’s Division moved out from Kareekloof which is there on our right, towards Brandfort, to test General de la Rey’s army. We advanced onto the Boer position, being on the left flank and attacked them all along the line. We kept extending our left flank and in doing so,we swung rather far forward on the left.

‘Whilst we were busy attacking the Boers who had some artillery, one of our pom-poms swung round and came into action slightly to our left rear. We extended our line just before this happened, and as we galloped up, Rupert Tonkin and his horse in the section just ahead of me went down into an antbear hole and he broke his leg. A few months later when we got into a ding-dong scrap, he got a bullet through the head, but it didn’t kill him.

‘My horse fell into the same hole but I extricated myself, handed my horse over to my horse-holder and seized my rifle, and soon I was blazing away at the Boers. In the height of the action a Staff Officer galloped up and asked “Where is Colonel Price?” Of course, I knew where Colonel Price was and I directed this officer to him. The General away to the right of the line could obviously see that we were in a rather precarious position, having advanced too far, and we received orders to retire. As we got near our horses, the Boers opened up with a pom-pom, scattering a lot of our horses and killing some of our men. Eventually, because there were several horses killed, there were quite a few horseless riders and these were picked up and taken back to the rear – some six or seven hundred yards. My horse was one of those which were out of action and someone galloped up and I climbed up behind him.

‘Colonel Price saw a man helpless, so he galloped up and picked him up. Several others did the same. On the way back, the horse I was on got a bullet in the withers, just in front of the saddle, and another further along the neck. Evidently the Burgher detailed to pick us off miscalculated the speed of the horse and so saved our lives! As I said then, a number of our men were put out of action. Our Adjutant, Lt Lily, a very fine officer, fell. We thought that he had been killed but when they got to Pretoria, lo and behold, he was with others of our men who had been taken prisoner during the War and they were in the showgrounds in Pretoria.

‘We went back to camp that night and then Lord Roberts arrived the next day, on the 30th of April. On 1st May from here, where we are now, we advanced on Pretoria with Lord Roberts’s Army of 100 000 men on a 25 mile front. When we reached the Vet River, we rode round to where the Boers had been encamped, and I picked up 6 copies of the “Standard and Diggers News”, a Johannesburg paper which gave details of the scraps we had had here on the 29th, and one or two others. Of course, we had only gone out to test the positions of the Boers, but they reckoned that the English had attacked and been pushed back and so on. It also reported that on the 9th or 10th the English were advancing in 3 huge columns; De la Rey, finding himself with only 25 000 Burghers, was forced to retire. I had those papers deep down in my kitbag, but I lost them when we got down to Komatipoort on 29th September 1900. I’m sorry I lost those papers because they would have been of great interest at the present time.

The Major remarked on the koppie in front of us, saying that his camp lay between it and the railway line:

‘Then we had 100 men on the left portion of that hill. Every morning, just before daybreak, we went out to strengthen the outposts as we were always afraid the Boers would attack us on our left flank.’

At this stage, Major Barr paid tribute to his former Commanding Officer:

‘Our O.C., Colonel Price, commanded the Victoria Mounted Rifles. At the end of the War he was appointed Governor of Queensland. His youngest son was too young to come out here at the beginning of the Boer War as they didn’t accept anyone under 21, and no married men; but anyhow, he came over later with the other contingents. About two years ago he died. He was the Chairman of the South African War Veterans Association in Johannesburg for quite a number of years. Some members of the Rand Club, I’m sure, will remember him. I met him there on one occasion, just before he died.’

We stayed the night of Monday, 4th January, 1971, at Bloemfontein and on Tuesday 5th we visited the Garden of Remembrance. On the huge memorial in the centre of the grounds, names of those who fell within what must be a radius of some 160 kilometres of Bloemfontein are listed and Major Barr recognised and found the names of two or three of his comrades who fell in action at Driefontein, near Poplar Grove. We then visited the Vrouemonument and War Museum.

At l0h15, we left Bloemfontein for Sannaspos, where we visited the scene of the fierce battle which took place on 31st March 1900, in which General de Wet’s Burghers captured seven guns. The battlefield has not changed much over the years. The remains of the waterworks which featured in the battle are still clearly visible and a little wired-in enclosure guards the reburied remains of some of the British dead.

Having spent some hours in this area, we now proceeded to Reddersburg where some twelve British soldiers, killed in the nearby action of Mostertshoek, are buried. This action took place about the 3rd April and led to General Gatacre’s being replaced by General Chermside. In addition, we found the graves of some Burghers who had been killed in nearby actions, including Mostertshoek, and who have been reinterred in Reddersburg.

Driving south, we reached Aliwal North at 17h10 on the 5th January, and spent an entertaining evening in the pub of the Imperial Hotel, where Major Barr, drawing attention to his age, told of his Anglo-Boer War exploits, much to the delight of the crowd. At Aliwal North, we briefly visited the Buffelsvlei Monument to the Trekkers and by 09h20 on the 6th, we were on our way to Molteno.

We passed through Jamestown, which was attacked by burghers during the guerilla stage of the War, and came to the top of the beautiful Penhoek Pass, flanked by historic old farms and homesteads on its crest. This pass was used by the Voortrekkers on their journey from the Cape. At a place called Birdsview, we turned right and drove on to Sterkstroom, at the foot of the Boesmanshoek Pass. In the local cemetery we found some 70 British graves, including those of men who fell in the Battle of Stormberg, the site of which we planned to visit that day.

Up the Pass we went, into the mountains around Molteno, by-passing the ruins of a once thriving settlement called Cyfergat, of which all that remains is a tall brick chimney with the initials ‘A.L.’ inscribed on it; the relic of Alexander Lawrie’s handiwork and commercial venture. To see this chimney was of particular interest to me, because I had just read Johannes Meintjes’s book ‘Stormberg’, in which he brilliantly relates the history of this area.

We reached Molteno at about lunch time and after browsing around the museum, we visited the grave of that daring British scout, Captain the Hon. Raymond Hannay Lodge Joseph de Montmorency (better known to his friends as Jim!) who was killed nearby on the farm ‘Weltevrede’. Shortly after 14h00 we arrived at Weltevrede and once again experienced the lavish hospitality and friendliness so typical of the inhabitants of the Eastern Cape. Willie and Elizabeth Steyn could not have been more helpful; in no time we were drinking coffee and Mr Steyn then took me out onto his farm to visit the forts on top of Rooikop, a high hill overlooking Stormberg Junction. These forts were built by the British but there is some confusion as to exactly when. They were very well constructed and are in a reasonable state of preservation. Far below, I could see the blockhouse at Stormberg Junction, which featured in the battle. Away to the left stood the majestic Kissieberg, at the foot of which General Gatacre lost over 600 men.

On our return to the farmhouse, Mr Steyn, whose family have occupied Weltevrede for generations, pointed out the site where Montmorency was killed. A white memorial stone marks the spot. He was killed on Friday 23rd February 1900. Shortly afterwards, a pile of stones was placed on the site and some thirty years later, his sister visited South Africa and had a memorial stone in the shape of a heart placed there. On this stone is inscribed: ‘Here the brave Montmorency fell. 23 Feb. 1900’

At about 16h00 we took leave of our new friends and, travelling via the same route as that taken by the British on 9th and 10th December 1899, we rounded the Kissieberg and reached Stormberg battlefield. It was here that Gatacre, having relentlessly driven his men for days on end without rest, was attacked by a relatively small party of Boers who had discovered the approaching British at the last minute. [ Editor’s note: Gatacre’s infantry travelled by train from their camps at Putterskraal and Bushmanshoek to Molteno, about 16 kilometres from the scene of the battle. The men were tired by this march since they were still unfit after a long sea voyage. To say that they had been driven relentlessly for days on end seems hardly correct.] The exhausted infantry, consisting mainly of Royal Irish Rifles and Northumberland Fusiliers, were routed and streamed back in a demoralized mob to Molteno, with the Boers bringing such heavy fire upon them on either side of their line of retreat that the British guns, firing back, stood firing trail to trail.

On his arrival back in Molteno, General Gatacre’s casualties apparently numbered only 90 – until it was discovered that over 600 men had been left behind, utterly exhausted and in no mood to resist, having been unaware of the retreat!

After scouting around on the farm ‘Vegkoppies’, managed by a pleasant farmer by the name of Cloete, we visited the little graveyard below the cliffs, as yet undisturbed and which, we hoped, would remain so. I came across a spent Martini-Henry bullet and cartridge case which I gave to the Major who was, of course, overjoyed.

It was sunset when we left the battlefield at 18h15 and proceeded to Steynsburg. We had covered an exceptional amount of ground that day and were soon asleep.

Steynsburg lies in a picturesque valley and was occupied by Commandant P.H. Kritzinger during the period of bitterness and executions in 1901. At 09h35 on Thursday, 7th, we left there and visited Bulhoek, President Kruger’s birthplace. Beautifully situated on the banks of a river, and surrounded by mountains, this simple building has been restored. It was quite a stirring feeling to watch Major William Francis Barr, No.303, 2nd Victoria Mounted Rifles, standing on the stoep of his former adversary’s birthplace; this, he said, was the highlight of the trip so far. After leaving Bulhoek we spent most of the day at Colesberg. Major Barr was particularly keen to find the site of the action in which he fought at Hobkirk’s Farm. However, at this stage, it is probably necessary to take the account of our pilgrimage a few miles further, to Hanover Road.

It was at Hanover Road that Major Barr’s Anglo-Boer War service really began and this was the farthest south that our trip was to take us. I now switched on the tape recorder:

‘We left Cape Town on the 12th February 1900 for the front. When we reached Hanover Road we found that about 2 000 Cape Rebels were about to join Cronje over the border in the Free State. We, the Victoria Mounted Rifles, detrained here (at Hanover Road) and immediately started patrolling this area. Two days later, “J” Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, out from India where they had served for three years and were as brown as berries, tough and a jolly fine crowd,joined us and were with us right down to Komatipoort. From there we moved on, having a fair number of scraps around here. The first contingent (of the Victoria Mounted Rifles) had a ding-dong scrap on Hobkirk’s Farm, Pinkhill, near Rensburg.

‘After General French had moved away from the Colesberg area on his way to the relief of Kimberley, the Boers were very strong in these parts and we had a very tough time indeed. There was an infantry battalion – I think it was the Sussex – holding a certain hill with the Victoria Mounted Rifles. The order was given to retire and the Victoria Mounted Rifles held on to the side of the hill. The infantry got away all right, but the Boers started closing in so fast that very few of the Victoria Mounted Rifles were able to get away. It was a ding-dong, hand-to-hand fight and quite a number were killed.

‘About two days later, we arrived here and a party set out to collect the dead and bury them. We skirmished around here for a while and the Boers were gradually weakening because they had shifted further up the Free State to help Cronje, but of course they were too late! However, outpost picquet duty had become so frequent, due to the strength of the Boers, that even some of our Lieutenants took their turn for short periods. On 28th February, the Victoria Mounted Rifles led General Clements into Colesberg. Then, from Colesberg, we pushed on to Norvals Pont and from there to Donkerpoort, where we waited until we were mobilized – got our transport ready and then on to Bloemfontein.’

Outside Colesberg, there is a small military cemetery. We also found a memorial to the Victoria Mounted Rifles’ action at Hobkirk’s Farm, as well as the action at Slingerfontein on 15th January 1900, scene of fierce fighting between New Zealanders and the Boers under Schoeman and De la Rey. Major Barr expressed his disappointment at the fact that the graves had been dug up at these two battlefields and the remains brought to this garden of remembrance.

After a great deal of searching in the vicinity of Rensburg, we were unable to find either Slingerfontein or Hobkirk’s Farm. Mr Robertson, who had lived in the area all his life, gave us first hand knowledge of actions in the area and confirmed Major Barr’s story of Hobkirk’s Farm.

Unfortunately, that night we were unable to find any accommodation at Colesberg, Norvals Pont or Oranjekrag so we pressed on to Springfontein.

On Friday, 8th January, we left Springfontein at 08h10 and reached Philippolis an hour later. Proceeding to the little cemetery there we settled down and I once again set the tape recorder in motion.

‘From Bloemfontein, we set off to Philippolis. We camped here for two days. The Boers in this area, as well as the Fauresmith area, all came in and laid down their arms, lots of ammunition, dynamite and all that sort of thing. I remember the first night we were here; we were on that koppie right in front of us over there. I was on picquet on this koppie and there were some men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. It was very, very amusing to hear these Irishmen talk, and I don’t think I slept much that night, listening to their splatter and so on!

‘From here we pushed on to Fauresmith where the same thing happened. We stayed there for about two days with farmers, etc., while Boers brought in their arms. Lord Roberts told them to be good boys and go back and sit on their farms, as the war would be over soon. But there was one Commandant – what was his name? – who recommenced fighting. A Company of us rode out quite a number of miles and brought this ‘joker” in. He was told that he was a very naughty boy and shouldn’t do this sort of thing! The whole of this area, as I said, laid down their arms.

‘Later on, when the Boers went in for guerilla warfare, General de Wet came along here and told these fellows, “Come along, you lot; you must come out and fight. The War’s far from over.” They protested and said that they had taken an oath of allegiance and all that sort of thing, but anyhow they were persuaded to take up arms again. But before doing so, they appealed to Lord Roberts and he established concentration camps in this area – Philippolis, Fauresmith – and so they were in concentration camps for some considerable time. For protection they asked for these camps. This area came under the authority of Lord Robert Baden-Powell’s South African Constabulary who patrolled this area for quite a while.

‘Probably, later on, in 1901, as I said, when guerilla warfare started, different columns came through here and we’ve just been to the cemetery to see the graves of thirteen British soldiers who were killed at the beginning of 1901. So this, as with the whole of South Africa then, saw scrapping at this stage of the war while the Republics continued this guerilla warfare until 31st May 1902.’

So there we were on Friday, 8th January 1971. Major Barr was originally there either on the 20th or 21st March 1900 (he had written the date in his diary). It was then almost 71 years later, and this fine old warrior could still recognize the surrounding countryside. A week later he was in Fauresmith and then, during the first week in April, in Bloemfontein.

From Philippolis, we took the road across the flat veld in the vicinity of the famous action in which Klasie Havenga took part. We drove past Luckhoff which featured in Bethune’s participation in the ‘Great de Wet Hunt’ on March 4th 1901. From Luckhoff, we drove in the opposite direction to the one taken by Bethune and eventually at 12h30 emerged at Belmont, scene of the first major clash between Lord Methuen and the Boers, on the former’s march to the relief of Kimberley.

I pointed out the various features of the battlefield to Major Barr, as well as the burgher monument on top of Gun Hill. The action, which took place on 23rd November 1899, was short and sharp and, within a few hours, the hills had been cleared and the scene set for the next action at Graspan, some miles further on.

From Belmont we proceeded to Heuningneskloof. Here I stopped the car and the Major began:

‘On the 9th January 1900, Captain (?) McLeish,[ Lt-Col McLeish] with one Company of the Victoria Mounted Rifles, crossed into the Free State at Ramdam, Honey Nest Kloof, where we are at the present time. He reconnoitred eight or nine miles inland from this area and then of course returned back to camp from the river here. But those were the first troops into the Free State during the Boer war.'[ This is not true . During the battle of Magersfontein on 11th December 1899, the 9th Lancers were the first to cross the Free State border.]

We by-passed the Graspan battlefield, stopping at the monument at the side of the road at Enslin. From there we moved on to Modder River where Lord Methuen’s forces felt the effect of a concealed enemy’s fire for the first time. This action took place on the 28th November 1899. We walked along the banks of the River, where the Boers had entrenched themselves. The position where the Coldstream Guards and Grenadier Guards were pinned down by accurate Boer rifle fire is littered with bullets and the occasional spent cartridge case still lies on the banks of the river.

An attractive little monument, one of the few left in the area, bears testimony to those brave men who fell so far from home. Proudly engraved on the side is the famous motto of the Guards’ Brigade: ‘Tria Juncta in Uno’ (‘Three joined in One’).

Having extensively toured the battlefield itself, we made our way to the local Police Station. This building was of particular interest to Major Barr because he helped to build it some years ago! The Sergeant on duty was most interested in our call and accompanied us on our ‘tour of inspection’.

We crossed the main road to present-day Ritchie, known during the Anglo-Boer War as Rosmead. Here we had lunch and relaxed at the position where the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry crossed the Modder River.

Later that afternoon, we stopped over at Magersfontein, scene of the Boer victory over the Scottish Regiments, especially the Black Watch. Here, trench warfare was used effectively, and set the pace for its use during the First World War. [ The use of trenches as defence works was known long before the Anglo-Boer War. – Ed.] It was here too, that the popular Major-General Andy Wauchope met his death. On 11th December, the Highland Brigade suffered the worst blow in its history and today, as one stands on the Magersfontein koppies and follows the line of defences from across the Orange Free State border into the Cape as far west as the railway line, it is simple to picture the scene of death and destruction. To add to the Highlanders’ suffering on this day was the merciless midsummer sun which beat down on the backs of their knees, uncovered by their kilts, burning them raw.

To the east, two strange but attractive monuments mark the position where a small group of Scandinavians, on the side of the Burghers, fought almost to the last man. In front of Magersfontein koppies, the Boer trenches are still about a metre deep in some places and cartridge cases and spent bullets abound. On the koppies themselves, shrapnel and shell fragments bear testimony to the futility of the British attack, for they had thought that these koppies were occupied in force by the Boers.

That night we booked in at the Horseshoe Motel, and the irrepressible Major discovered that, according to his little MOTH book, the local shellhole was meeting that evening. Needless to say, we were treated like heroes. The Major’s tales went down very well with the MOTHS and of course it was very difficult to pull ourselves away from them.

At 08h45, we left for Paardeberg with Miss Fiona Barbour as our guide. A few kilometres across the O.F.S./Cape border, we arrived at the turnoff to Bosvark and took the road to the koppies which were defended by the Boers trying to check General French’s advance on Kimberley. This is near Klipdrif and the action took place on 15th February 1900. Here we discovered dozens of spent Mauser cartridge cases and clips, a .303 cartridge case and bullet and the base of a l2pdr shell. From here we moved on to Paardeberg where General Cronje, pursued by Lord Roberts and unable to proceed any further, laagered on the North bank of the Modder River. Lord Roberts eventually caught up with him and gradually tightened the noose around the laager. After ten days of heavy bombardment, vicious small-arms combat and shocking weather conditions, Cronje surrendered.

We returned to Kimberley and at 16h00 made our way to Wolmaransstad via Warrenton.

At 09h30 on Sunday 10th, we drove on to Klerksdorp where we tried unsuccessfully to find out how to obtain details of Tweebosch battlefield which, I had heard, was in the vicinity. We continued to Potchefstroom where we visited the Garden of Remembrance.

From there we pushed on to Pretoria where Major Barr wanted to revisit the grave of a friend of his who was buried during the war in the cemetery near where Heroes’ Acre is today. Unfortunately we could not find it, even though the Major had visited it only two or three years previously. At Pretoria we decided to rest for a day, so I left Major Barr with his son and family at Irene.

On Tuesday 12th, our pilgrimage rapidly drawing to an end, I collected the old man, and we stopped off at Cyrildene where the microphone was soon recording a little more history:

‘On 29th (May 1900) we galloped into Knight’s Deep and blocked off all trains from Johannesburg. We got quite a number of gangers’ trolleys and piled these on the line and took the station-master prisoner. Then we moved across to Malvern where we camped for the night and just down below us was a cavalry camp – about a mile away. The next morning, the 30th, the Boers didn’t approve of us coming so close and opened fire – not on us, but on the Cavalry just down below. I think they had about a dozen casualties. Anyhow, we pushed on and camped round about here (Cyrildene) on the 30th. So the circle around Johannesburg was completed. This is where, as far as I know, the last shells were fired. On the left flank, coming round, was Ian Hamilton – what he had to do I don’t know, – but anyhow, this is where we encircled Jo’burg, and the next day our troops marched through Johannesburg. That was the 31st May 1900 and it so happened to be my 22nd birthday, so I don’t forget the date!’

The vicinity where Major Barr camped is today covered in a maze of closely packed houses although the ridges around Cyrildene and neighbouring De Wetshof still have patches of the veld which blanketed this area 71 years previously.

We left Johannesburg taking the old road via Standerton. At Val, we were to make yet another recording, this time the last in relation to our trip. Val is a small settlement about six or seven kilometres off the main road:

‘On the 16th May, 1902, General Bruce Hamilton’s column had driven down to Lindley Road and captured quite a few prisoners there – 250 I think it was. Then we rode back here. We arrived on 16th May. Just before we arrived here, a small force of Boers broke through our ranks. We closed up the gaps and there was one man on a grey horse who followed us up for a long, long time, occasionally exchanging shots. That went on right through the afternoon.

‘Just before we reached this place (Val), eventually after all his trouble this brave Boer got one of our men through the thigh. We sutured his thigh and found another bullet in the saddle. We sent ambulances back, pushed on and arrived here on the 16th May 1900. Next day, 17th, armistice was declared so we were here for 14 days; on lst(?) we had a day’s sports organized, much rejoicing and all that sort of thing and then we pushed on to Johannesburg. That was (with) the Scottish Horse. Where the other people went to I don’t know.

‘When we got to Kraal, before we reached Heidelberg, there was a message for our O.C. to send in two Officers and 25 other ranks to go to the Coronation. The mail train – the only one in the day-time those days – had passed us eight miles outside Heidelberg. Anyhow, we pushed off quickly and the men who were selected – including me – were bustled onto that train and when we reached Johannesburg, we were marched in and told by Deane, our O.C. that he was very sorry, – but there had been a mistake; that we were Left Wing of the Second Regiment of the Scottish Horse, therefore it should have been 1 officer and 12 other ranks! Anyhow, it was said that the Right Wing was up in the Western Transvaal and it was questionable as to whether they would be able to reach the train. If they did turn up, they would go to Cape Town, but if they didn’t turn up they wouldn’t (we would). We drew lots as to who should go along – a light or a blank. Those who were chosen agreed that should the others turn up, they would draw some money and all have a holiday in Cape Town. We had a terribly slow train, but when we got to Bloemfontein we were placed on a special train. When we got to Cape Town all the other men had arrived, so that was that! I didn’t get to that Coronation, but at the next one I went to represent the Northern Districts Mounted Rifles of Natal, and I was one of the 50 South Africans who formed the Royal Escort. We rode at the head of the Coronation Procession.

‘It really was a wonderful, wonderful experience, and two days afterwards, we went to Buckingham Palace and were presented with our Coronation Medals. At Buckingham Palace there were all the Kings and Dukes, and all the VIPs who had come for the Coronation, and we were presented with our medals in front of all these people.

‘So that was that!’

That was indeed that, unfortunately. We had come to the end of the War as far as Major Barr was concerned and, regrettably, to the end of our pilgrimage.

Our ten-day trip of memories had taken us through Natal, the Orange Free State, the Cape Province and the Transvaal. We had covered approximately 4 500 kilometres and the Major hardly showed any sign of stress or strain. In fact, he started making plans for a return trip to the Eastern Transvaal later that year!

Occasionally, his mind would wander on to another period – one different to that under discussion but, on the whole, his memories were as clear as crystal. How I envied him. I can only hope that when I reach that age, my memories of the past will be as clear as those of my valued friend and fellow Gunner, Major William Francis Barr.

Author’s acknowledgements to: the South African Legion who supplied the details of Major Barr’s later life; Mr Johannes Meintjies, of Grootzeekoeigat, Molteno, for his help and encouragement in respect of Stormberg; Mr Willie Steyn and his wife, Elizabeth, of Weltevrede, for their unending assistance during brief research on their farm; Miss Tania M. Johnston, Secretary, Durban Branch, S.A. Military History Society, for typing this article, and all those friends throughout South Africa, who supplied me with various snippets of information on our travels.


1. Amery, L.S. The Times History of the War in South Africa, (various volumes).
2. Kruger, Rayne, Goodbye Dolly Gray.
3. Rosenthal, Eric, General de Wet
4. Reitz, Deneys, Commando.
5. Meintjes, Johannes, Stormberg – a lost opportunity.
6. South African War Honours and Awards, 1899-1902.
7. Personal research and various independent sources of information.

South African Military History Society /

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One Comment

  1. Absolutely fascinating. What an honor and experience to be guided around by such an amazing old war vet. Thank you for sharing. In my travels and explorations of old battle sites in Natal I too have found a few old spent cartridge cases etc. What really interested me was to see the pockmarks on rocks and boulders left by the bullet strikes….and wondering which poor soul may have been killed on that day on that spot……..???

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