I have to raise my hand to the people of Aliwal North for the welcome they gave us and the graciousness with which they accepted our presence, we whose forbears had helped to destroy some of their heritage. I was talking to a local politician Hennie du Preez, a councillor of Maletswai Municipality. He wanted the names of the group for the local newspaper and I said I would write to him when we returned to Ireland.
I’m the fellow who laid the wreaths at the impressive and emotional ceremonies at the Boer Memorial and the British Cemetery at Aliwal North on Wednesday last. Can I just say it was the highlight of our three week tour following in the footsteps of the Connaught Rangers of 114 years ago. The reconciliation ceremony at your memorial remembering the dead of the concentration camp at Aliwal was mind-blowing. The fact that 77% of those who died were children under the age of 15 and when multiplied by the number of such camps in South Africa meant a whole generation of people were wiped off the reproductive map of the country, which is an everlasting stain on the history of Britain. We were so glad to have been there and meet you all, the survivors of this holocaust.
Those from our party who were there want to express similar sentiments. They were:-
Paul Malpas General Secretary of the Connaught Rangers Association from Boyle in Co Roscommon in Ireland
Kieran Jordan retired Lt Colonel in Irish Army from Limerick in Ireland
Thomas Gunn flag bearer and ex-Sergeant in Irish Army from Mullingar in Co Westmeath in Ireland
Michael Cryan Committee member of the Connaught Rangers Association from Boyle in Co Roscommon in Ireland
Mark Stewart Connaught Rangers official photographer from Liverpool in Lancashire in England
Please thank all the people from Aliwal North who made our welcome so special.
A day or so later Hennie wrote back:-
Thank you for your communication.
It was indeed an honour and priviledge to share the company of honourable gentlemen (and soldiers) of the Connaught Rangers Association.
We were all deeply touched by your efforts to visit us. The sincerity of your visits to the memorial sites and the respectful flag ceremonies gave honour and dignity to those before us who made the ultimate sacrifice – on all sides. War never determines who were right, but only who are left behind.
Thank you so much for reminding us that, even after 114 years, we still need to carry the flag of remembrance for our fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who died and for our sons and daughters still to be born!.. Please convey our sincere appreciation to all members of your party, for sharing your mutual sentiments with us and helping us to reconcile the past with the future.
You will always be welcome to our mutual village of remembrance. Rest assured that we will look after your loved ones (who stayed behind) even though they are more than 10,000 kilometres away.
I am doing this communication on behalf of our town, the farming community, the friends of the museum and all present during a very special day
Hennie du Preez
What a nice man and what a whole nice bunch of people the citizens of Aliwal North were.
On the day we said our goodbyes, we had to go, Bloemfontein was calling and another bloody game reserve this time called Emoya Lodge and we were stationed in the Bantu village, a collection of chalets resembling same. Inside however was pure luxury but of an earthy nature. Here cockerels, rabbits and other small animals roamed around, while giraffe, springbok and Zebra looked on as we ate our evening meal. A nice friendly place who would not charge me for a phone call to Ireland. A long day, a glass or two of wine and early bed. None of us have the youth we once had.
Day 17 was another warm day, breakfast at Emoya was followed by a visit to the National War Museum in Bloemfontein. I ducked, I had enough of museums, I preferred solitude and the pleasantness of my own company to catch up with my writing and actually do nothing if I liked. For me solitude is one of life’s great gifts and I revel in it.
However the real purpose of the trip to Bloemfontein was to visit Arnold van Dyk. He had invited us back to his house for a meal and a chat. He is a really nice man and probably the nicest man of all the people I met on this trip and I have to say I met some decent people. He is a doctor and historian and a world expert on the Boer War. We drove up to the estate he lived on and our way was blocked by an imposing prison gateway structure with I think two gates in and two gates out with guard rooms on both sides. There were six or seven security men in uniforms hanging about. Going off on either side of the gates was a 6 metre high wall surrounding the estate. You would not get in unless you had made previous arrangements and our driver Robert had a pin number he pressed into a keyboard and the gates opened and in we went.
Arnold met us outside his stately pile and welcomed us in through various rooms until we came to the heart of the house. A pool through the sliding doors and a massive built in barbecue with its own flu fired by lumps of logs. Whilst his lovely wife came round generously pouring out wine and beer into large glasses, Arnold was throwing what looked like two sheep onto the grill. Satisfied that things on the barbecue were under control, he took us round his house which really was a literary museum of the Boer War. I was amazed at the high quality in terms of original documents from political and military leaders that he had collected over the years. As I said before if there was such a person as the world expert on this conflict, Arnold is your man and so affable and modest. About a dozen of us sat down to this ovine feast and we ate the lot, a delightful meal. More wine and it was time to go. It was an absolute pleasure to be in the company of the pair, our farewells were brief, we had an early start the following day. Back through the charade of the security gate; I could not live like that if you paid me to do so. All the people within the walls were white being guarded by security that was black and serviced by people who were black.
Because I had left my hat at Arnold’s house we had to go back there at 6.00 am next morning, Arnold met us at the gate, the servants were being dropped off by vehicles that had to stop 100 metres from the gate and everybody had to walk down to security and be let through by very diligent guards. Who is sheltering who from what and because of that South Africa could never be my country. Day 18 started with a 670 kilometre trip across the heart of South Africa. We set off at 6.30am and Des nosed us into Durban Airport at 4.00pm for our 6.30pm flight to Dubai, an eight and a half hour flight, a break of an hour and onto a six and a half hour flight to Dublin and seamlessly into a taxi for a trip to Boyle dropping Mullingar off at the place he knows best, the Colonel had gone off to Houston Station for his train to Limerick and Flash started looking for Terminal 1 and good old Ryan Air. Boyling and myself arrived back in Boyle at 3.00pm after 33 hours continuous travel but a glass of wine and a quick reminisce with our loved ones, for those that had loved ones to reminisce with and then to bed. So ended this unbelievable trip of a lifetime.
I would like to thank Des Armstrong of Howick in KwaZulu Natal for planning, organising and driving us round. In retrospect there was a lot of hard work and long hours put in to make the trip such a success. I would also like to thank Des’ wife Ulla for coming so far with such a lovely lunch as we had at Clouston and Robert his son for spelling the old man in the driving seat. I would also like to thank my travelling companions, Flash Harry for his constant attention to duty, Boyling Scouse for his patience in always hogging the back seat in the bus, Mad Mullingar for parading the flag so well and always being able to curb his natural tendency to drink South Africa dry and a special thank you to the Colonel for being able to say his prayers in 30 different languages and keep a straight face, four honourable gentlemen. I suppose I should give myself praise also, I took all the flak, I was the one to always face their irritability, to cover up their bad manners and to always look into my glass that was always half full and certainly never half empty.
I hope the reader forgives my thoughts on South Africa because they are only the thoughts of a man there for three weeks. I could only look at it from the white man’s side, we were never introduced to a black man. I did not like the way the whites were as nice as pie on the surface and then spitting on the black man’s culture and philosophy once his back was turned. No matter what you say and think racial prejudice runs riot in South Africa and until that is sorted out the country will continue to drive itself backwards. There are signs of improvement, I could see it in Drakensberg School, I saw it at Charles Barrett’s house but those signs were few and far between. I saw a lot more of the Apartheid South Africa than I wanted to see, the South Africa that was internationally blanked until 20 years ago.
For future reference the high spots were and purely in chronological order, The Fernhill Hotel in Howick, The Champagne Castle Hotel, the Drakensberg Choir School, the battlefields and cemetery’s of Spion Kop, Colenso, Harts Hill. Isandlawana, Rorkes Drift, the luxury of Nambiti, Aliwal North in all its forms, Sarie Mehl and Arnold van Dyk. The low spots were few and it is not really decent to mention them but I had indifferent thoughts about the Sandstone Estate, Game Reserves in general, racial prejudice, long hours spent driving, the mucky ex-service man’s club in Dundee and those pestilent camp followers in Dundee. We did not really need their presence and in fact they scared me to death.