Day 14 it was and a very long drive round the top of Losotho, an independent country surrounded by South Africa. We were headed for Ficksburg in the Orange Free State, a journey of about 270 kilometres. The lads in the back had snuggled up to each other on the journey and were like the Babes in the Wood. It was early afternoon by the time we got to our destination, The Sandstone Estate which must be the biggest museum of agricultural, locomotive and military hardware in the world as well as being a farm of some 20,000 acres. The Irish flag was fluttering in the breeze as we made ourselves at home in a cluster of chalets.
However Des had a different agenda and he had us back in the bus to go visiting. We were already a few miles off the asphalt road and he was taking us further into the hinterland along a track that a tracked bulldozer would find a challenge. After 30 minutes of this cross-country expedition we arrived at this farmstead and we wondered how anybody could live in such isolation. The farmer Charles Barrett and his wife were there to greet us and welcomed us into their house as though we were one of the family. He took us into his museum which contained every piece of weaponry used in the Boer War from machine guns down to bayonets and every piece in perfect working order and licensed for use. Mullingar and Flash were drooling, armaments like animals do absolutely nothing for me. The only thing I remarked on was the weight of these pieces, even the revolvers. Charles was telling us that unlike all the rest of the farmers round there, he has no trouble from the marauding Basuto people from Lesotho who cross the trickle of water that is the Caledon River for rich pickings in the Orange Free State. The South African army are on constant patrol along the border and have a camp at Sandstone but Charles has told them to steer clear of his place. He seems to have a relationship based on mutual respect with the very poor native population and it obviously works. I saw it nowhere else in South Africa which is much to the detriment of the country as a whole.
The Barrett family have farmed this land for over a hundred years and Charles was an officer in a Durban Regiment before retiring and taking up his historic duty at home. He specialises in making liqueurs and brandy from the acres of cherry trees on his land. We tasted them all and his wife served us biltong, sausage and pizza and we were nicely set as we bade our goodbyes and headed back to Sandstone.
For all its publicity there was nothing really grand about the accommodation. The evening meal was a bowl of stew, the meat from undefined source, the bar was basic and spoiled by the manager keeping a large diesel engine running belching fumes into our bottles of Castle. Bed we decided was our best option.
Day 15 improved matters somewhat. After a hearty breakfast we were taken on a tour of the place. Firstly a ride in an ox wagon pulled by eight massive long horned beasts whilst the guide explained how they trained these animals. It was a bone jarring ride as we covered about half a kilometre in 30 minutes. We were then piled into a armoured personnel carrier, another uncomfortable ride, but quicker, as we headed out to the border lands overlooking the Basuto town on the far side of the valley. All buildings round here had had their roofs stripped off. The guide said that anything they can carry, they take. He had a different tone than Charles with obviously different results.
Sandstone has a massive collection of railway equipment, locomotives, carriages and other rolling stock. They even had a large locomotive built by Beyer Peacock in 1900. Beyer Peacock was the largest locomotive manufacturer in Manchester and exported steam engines and later diesel locos to every part of the world closing down in 1966. It was dear to my heart, as we demolished the said works in Gorton in the 1970s.
In a way I was glad to be off from Sandstone, it did not offer me much and we had another long drive, 320 kilometres to Aliwal North which was in northern Cape Province in the Eastern Cape to be exact, over five hours continuous driving again keeping Lesotho on our left hand side We hit Aliwal as it was getting dark and parked up at this twee little place called La Riveria on the side of the Orange River. It consisted of a series of bungalows around a pond full of birdlife, fine accommodation but no food and no bar. We ate out at a local pub/restaurant that Des recommended, the beer and wine was good but we waited for hours for the food and when I got mine it was the shittiest plate of grub I had had in years. I should have had the steak like the rest of them. You live and learn.
Muted comments by the locals, La Riveria was full of black tax officers on a convention, it was thought that they should not be staying in accommodation as good as this. I do not see why not, there would have been no comment if these civil servants were white. Another example of the white attitude towards the blacks. It wore me down this tongue-biting way the whites carry through their miserable lives. Day 15 was a fine day made better by a good breakfast.
On April 10th 1900 The Connaught Rangers left the Ladysmith area, entrained to Durban, leaving their sick and wounded behind and were put on a boat to East London, a port south of Durban in the cape. They were taking on the Boers in guerilla warfare as the Boers with depleted resources could no longer take part in set piece battles after wandering around a little the Rangers eventually centred themselves round the town of Aliwal North where they remained until the peace treaty was signed in May 1902. They created quite a name for themselves in Aliwal and the local population had great time for them but on 14th July 1901 chasing Commandant Myberg’s commando of 170 men, they were led into an ambush on Becker’s farm at Zuurvlakte just off the Jamestown Road about 10 kilometres out of Aliwal, where on open ground Commandant Fouche commando of 300 men opened fire at a distance of 400 yards and killed seven men and wounded three officers and 15 men and took five men prisoner. Darkness came and the Boers retired. The next morning two men were brought in off the battlefield and were buried with a man who had died of his wounds overnight in a grave adjacent to the Becker family burial ground
2405 Pte Bernard Hegan 5th Battalion Age 20 of Ballina Co Mayo
6702 L/Cpl Michael Cryan 1st Battalion from Gurteen Co Sligo
6454 Pte M Cullen 1st Battalion
and that afternoon three other bodies were brought in and buried with a man who had died of his wounds that afternoon:-
5368 Pte J Brown 1st Battalion
1682 Pte T Hanley 5th Battalion
6716Pte M Leonard 1st Battalion
1513 Pte T Lohan 3rd Battalion
A young 18 year old Boer officer by the name of Olivier was also buried. Over the nexfew months three other Connaught Rangers were buried in this plot:-
6835 Pte Henry Speers 1st Battalion who died of his wounds after an ambush at Jamestown on 28th July 1901.
6399 Pte J Rooney 1st Battalion captured at Lemoenfontaine on 16th November 1901 and executed
6538 Pte M Cunnane 1st Battalion captured at Lemoenfontaine on 16th November 1901 and executed.
So the little family cemetery at Zuurvlakte contained the graves of 10 Connaught Rangers. These graves along with other graves of Connaught Rangers killed locally were exhumed in 1972 and reinterred in Aliwal North cemetery. Others exhumed were:-
4261 Pte R J Casey 1st Battalion who died of disease on 22nd September 1902
4477 Pte M Fogarty 1st Battalion Age 34 who died of disease on 2nd June 1902
Others also in Aliwal North Cemetery who died in town of enteric:-
6927 Pte P McNally 1st Battalion who died on 11th February 1902
3594 Pte P Myers 1st Battalion who died on 22nd August 1901
the name of 925 Pte P Sullivan is remembered on the memorial stone who was accidentally drowned in the Orange River on 23rd February 1901 and his body never found.
We met up with a crowd of local people at the Museum in Aliwal and led by Arnold van Dyk from Bloemfontein, an ordnance expert Johan Loock and Mr Becker who owns the land, we were taken out to Zuurvlakte in a convoy of white 4x4s. A pleasant open area of about 4 or 500 acres with an artificial lake to the south, a hill to the north and a series of small rises to the east where Fouche commando lay hid. Nothing has changed in 113 years and you can still kick up empty casings of 303 Lee Metford rifle ammunition. They are all over the place, I picked one up and Mr Loock confirmed by its markings that the ordnance was made at the Kynot factory in Birmingham. Arnold and Johan talked us through the day of 14th July 1901 and the following day of the burials. Mr Becker had brought with him his foreman, a black man, who had lived on the farm since 1950 and was present at the exhumations in 1972. He explained how the grave with the bones of three men in it was recognised as Cryan, Hegan and Cullen’s grave by the presence of a corked bottle with the names of the three men written on a piece of paper. The contents of the other graves were then recognised by a process of elimination. The Boer, Olivier’s grave is still there and marked by a gravestone. Prayers were said in Afrikaan and Irish, I read out Jourdain’s description of the day and the burial process ordered by Major Moore at the time and we all came away sadder and wiser men and women.
Back in town we stopped at the Boer Memorial on the site of the Aliwal North Concentration Camp. These concentration camps were a stain on the history of the British Army and were a result of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy in dealing with the Boer guerilla tactics. By gathering up the Boer women and children and old men, killing all the livestock and burning down the farms, it stopped the Boers chain of food supply. In the Aliwal camp there were some 2700 women, children and old men, 735 of them died of disease of which 561 were children under 15 years of age, some 76% of all deaths. Throughout South Africa some 37,000 died in these camps a whole generation decimated. We laid a wreath of reconciliation, we lowered our flag, our piper played a lament, the attendant Boers wept and so did we, certainly a highlight of the trip and the most emotional.
We then moved on to the military cemetery where 14 Connaught Rangers are now interred and for the last time another wreath, another lowering of the flag and one last lament. These occasions never fail to produce tears and the respect by the Boers was palpable. We then went back to the Museum where the burghers had laid on lunch for us, speeches were made, the Colonel once again proving what a good sort he was and then we were honoured with the presentations of various gifts for our museum in Boyle.
We were then off for our 200 kilometre drive to Bloemfontein our day was not yet done.