Wartime hospitality in Bloemfontein

My interest in Bloemfontein’s railway station had been piqued by a Wikipedia entry which asserts that in March 1900, it had been a major point of strategic fighting between the Boers and the British army.

During the early months of the Second Anglo-Boer War, Kruger and his allies had taken the upper hand, surrounding the towns of Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith, and overcoming the British in other skirmishes.  Apart from being numerically superior, the Boer armies were well equipped with the latest weaponry sourced from German, French and British manufacturers.  They were also skilled marksmen.

While these early battles shook British morale, the Boer commandoes were unable to convert their advantage into wins.  Ladysmith and Kimberley were relieved after 108 and 126 days.  While the siege of Mafeking took twice as long to end, a little more than a month after it had begun the Boer leadership realised that the town would never be taken and deployed half of its fighting force elsewhere.

By focusing on three less important targets, the Boer armies provided the British with an opportunity to recover.  In December 1899 Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, hero of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and one of the few generals to have overcome the Afghans, was recruited to take overall command of the British Forces in South Africa, with Lord Kitchener as his deputy and chief of staff.

Roberts’ appointment, together with the arrival of almost 200,000 British troops, was a turning point in the conflict.  On 13 March 1900, he marched into Bloemfontein encountering not even a whimper from the Boer armies.  According to Thomas Pakenham’s comprehensive history of the war, ‘those men who fought so stubbornly to hold their trenches in British territory around Kimberley, abandoned the trenches around their own capital without even an apology for a fight.’[1]  So much for Wikipedia.

On 24 May Britain annexed the Orange Free State and three days later Johannesburg was occupied.  On 5 June the British flag was hoisted over the Raadzaal in Pretoria; it would take a few months before the ZAR was annexed on 1 September.  At the end of May, Kruger had said goodbye to his ailing wife in Pretoria, travelled by train to Lourenco Marques and boarded a ship for Holland, never to return.  For the seventy-five-year-old President the war was finished, even if another two years of guerrilla fighting would ensue before hostilities were formally declared over on 31 May 1902.

The Second Anglo-Boer War was notable for a change in British military apparel from the traditional red coat to the less conspicuous khaki.  It was also the first conflict to be reported in a widely read popular press in which photographs of the carnage were also circulated.  Among the news givers were a host of familiar names.  Arthur Conan Doyle served as a medic for the British troops.  Rudyard Kipling worked with the wounded and provided a newspaper for the troops.  A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, the Australian solicitor and poet who wrote The Man from Snowy River and the words to Waltzing Matilda, caught the attention of the British press with his graphic accounts from the front line.

What they found on arrival in Bloemfontein was a pretty, if somewhat quiet town, ‘…a sort of oasis in the desert…the township itself is a fertile little garden, in which nearly everything flourishes with the least possible amount of trouble.  Its roses are famous, so are its vegetables, and its mealies overtop those of the surrounding country by half a foot.  The capital…is one of those happy idyllic little towns where it is always afternoon.  The stores open early in the morning, every one disappears for a couple of hours’ midday, and the early afternoon sees the shops closed.’ Despite its apparent lethargy there was a robust intellectual side to Bloemfontein’s personality: ‘there are debating clubs, where the most serious questions are settled by ingenuous aspirants of both sexes with easy fatuousness.  The public library has quite a good collection of books, and it is on record that George Meredith, Rossetti, William Morris, and even Maeterlinck are in constant demand.  Bloemfontein is nothing if not cultured and almost equal to “Upper Tooting” in its aspirations after the higher verities.’ [2]

A month later, with its population boosted by an influx of troops, Bloemfontein had acquired a certain vigour.  People crowded the pavements and the streets were bustling with army wagons.  In one month circulation of the daily newspaper rose from 400 to almost seven thousand.  Hotels were fully occupied, the clubs ‘walled in by horses, and even the hallways are blocked with officers representing all the Regular regiments and every colony.’  At supper time ‘an orchestral concert (was) given in the market square…and thereafter the town (was) as dead as a door nail,’ all thanks to the military curfew that prohibited anyone without authorisation to be on the streets at night.

With the additional population came an unquenchable thirst and ‘an immense trade…in drinks, but as yet …confined to gin, vermouth and port wine.  There is not a drop of whisky to be had owing to the military monopoly of the railway.  Even the materials for the manufacture of soda water are exhausted.’[3]

And then there was the misery of war, with none better equipped to describe the ravages of disease than Arthur Conan Doyle.

‘The greatest misfortune of the campaign, one which it was obviously impolitic to insist upon at the time, began with the occupation of Bloemfontein.  This was the great outbreak of enteric (typhoid) among the troops.  For more than two months the hospitals were choked with sick.  One general hospital with five hundred beds held seventeen hundred sick, nearly all enteric.  In Bloemfontein alone, as many as fifty men died in one day, and more than 1,000 new graves in the cemetery testify to the severity of the epidemic.’ [4]

By August 1900, the war had shifted to other battle fronts and reports coming out of Bloemfontein dwindled to a trickle.  I don’t know how he came to be there or why – Dad had never mentioned Bloemfontein – but it was from here that Harry made a pitch to the Military Governor in Pretoria to return.

a-021There are three things about this letter that caught my attention.  The first is the tone: tentative and evasive, it almost invites rebuttal.

The second is the handwriting.  This is the earliest example of my grandfather’s script, an elegant and legible cursive.  I’m puzzled that my father’s doctor scrawl and my longhand – often indecipherable to my own eyes – could have been sown from the same seed.

The third is the Temperance Hotel.  I wonder whether this was really a dry venue or may, out of necessity, have been run on temperance principles?  A similar situation had been observed at another hotel in the Orange Free State where there was a shortage of alcohol. [5]  Liquor supply issues aside, a British soldier’s account of Bloemfontein’s Temperance Hotel paints an unflattering picture of its hospitality service.

‘The party I went down with, after having a good look round, fell hungry, went into the Temperance hotel for refreshments, and, by way of a luxury, cups of tea and mutton chops.  The tea was alright, but the chops, what chops!  About the size of a five-shilling piece each, with plenty of bone in them.  Someone had a cup of tea alone, and paid up before the others had finished the chops.  His cup of tea being sixpence, we began to wonder how much the rest would be and very soon a feeble voice asked how much?  2/6 please, said the waitress.  I really believe if the chairs had not been very strong we should have gone through!  What we got for 2s 6d we could have got at home anywhere for 6d.  Then they tell us things have got back to their usual prices!’[6]

If the soldiers had known about a particular banquet on 28 March, their mouths would have watered.  On the menu was a choice of tomato soup, boiled salmon with parsley sauce, braised oxtail, roast sirloin of beef, roast turkey, salad, potatoes, French beans, cabinet pudding, blancmange, jellies, angels on horseback, cheese and coffee.  For two weeks over March and April, Rudyard Kipling had worked on the local, pro-British Army newspaper, The Friend, with Percival Landon of The Times, Howell Gwynne of Reuter’s news agency, E.W.Buxton of the Johannesburg Star, and Julian Ralph, an American correspondent reporting for the Daily Mail.  With his journalist friends, Kipling had organised a celebration for Lord Roberts at which Sir Alfred Milner – High Commissioner to South Africa – and a host of generals, politicians and journalists would be guests.

An accomplished orator, Kipling stood up to address those present.  After dispensing with the need to bring Shakespeare into his speech – a device Ralph had used to introduce his friend – Kipling proposed a toast:

‘I propose to you tonight, gentlemen, the health of the man who has taught the British Empire its responsibilities and the rest of the world its power, who has filled the sea with transports, and the earth with the tramp of armed men, who has made Cape Town see in Table Bay such a sight as she never saw before and, please God, will never see again; who has turned the loafer of the London Streets into a man, and called out him who led our fathers to Kandahar, and who knew not what he did; who has made the Uitlander of South Africa stand shoulder to shoulder with the boundary rider of New Zealand and taught the men of New South Wales to pick up the wounded men who wear the maple leaf—and all in support of the mother-country. Gentlemen, I give you the name of the Empire-builder—Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger.’[7]

It must have been quite a night.  And there was only one venue in town with a large enough room to host the event and which also boasted the best cook in the Orange Free State.  Bloemfontein’s stylish late Victorian railway station with its two-tone stonework and central clock tower was famous, just not in the way Wikipedia describes it.


[1]               The Boer War 1979 pp371-72.

[2]               Daily Mail, 13 March 1900.

[3]               Daily Mail, 14 April 1900.

[4]               Arthur Conan Doyle The Great Boer War, 1902.  Chapter 22, The Halt at Bloemfontein.

[5]               The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta), Wednesday 30 May 1900.

[6]               http://pocklingtonhistory.com/archives/military/smallgroups/alfbuttle/index.php

[7]               Julian Ralph, War’s Brighter Side  1901, pp 206-07


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