Through the eyes of a child


By Stephen Dunkley

This is my story about the Boer war “some now call it the South African war of 1899 – 1902” and the times my family and I lived through, my name is tannie Susan Laubscher, I live in Heilbron and I am now 94 years old. “You must forgive me if I sometimes get the sequence of events incorrect or the names muddled up, but it was a long time ago”

When the Boer war broke out in 1899 I was only seven years old, and lived on the family farm Grootgeluk in the Bethlehem district with my father Willem, my mother Martha, brothers Andries, Jacob and Danie as well as my sisters Annie and Phoebe. For many days after war was declared there was a sense of anticipation in the air, everyone was talking about it, and even the children were drawn into the excitement, even though we did not really understand what war was about or what the consequences would be to us as well as many other Boer families

The local Commandant “Langman” Hannes de Wet sent word to every farm in his jurisdiction, that all men over the age of sixteen had to join the Commando. Each man was to ensure he had a horse, saddle, bridle, arms and ammunition as well as eight days provisions. The household was very busy with everyone assisting in getting everything together, so that the men would be ready on time to join up with the Commando. The next day my Father and brothers Jacob and Danie said their farewells and rode off to the muster point, just outside of Bethlehem

After the excitement of the past few days, to see my father and brothers leave was very sad and perhaps then, even as a small child it dawned on me that I may never see them again. My older sister Annie (10) and I tried to keep each other amused, and to cheer up the rest of the family. My mother was sad for many days, and would often cry, Annie and I wondered why we were not crying, and we tried as hard as we could to cry, when this did not work we took a small bottle of Lennon medicine and rubbed some of it in the corner of our eyes, it burnt, the tears running down our cheeks.

I do not know when or where the first battle took place, but I do remember my mother saying that the Commando had to protect the border between Basutoland and the conquered territory, in case there was an attack from that direction. Soon after that I heard my mother telling my ouma that the Commando had been split up, and sent to different parts of the country. My father and brothers were lucky in that they could still get away from the Commando from time to time, to see to things that needed doing on the farm, Danie however was sent to assist near the Cape border, and was involved in a battle near Colesburg. We did not hear from him for a long time, and my mother was worried that he had been hurt. Eventually a letter did arrive “I still have it, old and yellowing” we were so happy to hear from him. In his letter Danie hoped that we were all doing well at home, and he told us that he was on the way to Bloemfontein, to try and stop the British from taking over the Free State, Danie also explained that he was part of a large Commando, nearly one thousand men, and that they have one hundred and six British prisoners travelling with them. The rest of the letter was about people on the Commando that we knew from the area and general news.

My youngest brother Andries (14) was very upset that he could not go and fight the Khaki’s like his older brothers and father, and that he had to sit at home with the women. One day Andries just disappeared from the farm, and even the servants could not, or would not tell us where he had gone, or what had happened to him. Eventually one old man broke down and said that klein baas Andries had told him not to say anything, but he was hiding in the barn loft repairing his saddle and reins and putting together the items he needed to join the Commando. Soon after my father came home for a brief visit to see how the family was doing, and my mother told him what Andries was up to, my father said that Andries should go with him on Commando, as he could at least keep an eye on him, Andries was ecstatic when my father told him the news, and so it was that my 14 year old brother ‘like many others his age and even younger” went to war to fight the Khaki’s.

While the men on Commando lived a frugal life on the veld, the old men, women and children that stayed at home did not have it easy. We were lucky in that we never fell into English hands and therefore we never experienced the concentration camps. We had lookouts posted to tell us if the British were approaching, and fled in to the surrounding hills and stayed there until they left. Sometimes we were caught off guard and the English troops would ask us where the men had gone, and if we had seen any Boers in the area, they were always polite, and at no time did they try to harm us, this had happened to other farmers wife’s and children in the area. Later when they had orders to round up the women and children, and to burn crops and houses, we would hide in the mountains, sometimes for many days at a time. We had a large cave on the farm that was well hidden in a kloof, and had big bushes in front of it, so even if we lit a fire at night there were no tell tale signs of smoke and flames to give our hiding place away. We took some items from the farmhouse to make the cave more comfortable, and we also hid many things, such as the stove “this we covered in grease, and buried” so that if the British did burn the house down, or loot it we would not have lost everything. Near to the cave was a crystal clear stream that we used for household chores.

At night we were safe, as the British never looked for women and children at night, due to them being scared of Boer attacks, this had happened many times in the past, so the British rarely ventured from their camps at night. Life was not easy in the cave, but I imagine it was a hundred times better than having to endure the hardships of a concentration camp. At the start of the war we still had loyal servants to assist us on the farm and in the cave, but as the war dragged on, many of them fled to Basutholand. Due to the fact that prior to my father and brothers joining the Commando, they had harvested a large wheat crop, we never went hungry, this allowed us to survive throughout the war, and my mother also helped other families as well as Boer patrols that passed by. We often helped our mother to make bread and rusks, this was also given to whoever needed it and on many occasions we were visited by Commandos from further afield than the Free State, and these men also received rusks and bread. My mother also planted Tobacco and this was also given to passing Commando’s who really appreciated receiving this luxury item. One day we heard a huge noise and only later found out that the British had blown up Oom Theron’s mill to stop him from milling corn for the Commando’s to use.

In Bethlehem there was a printer who printed a local newspaper called the ‘Skoorsteentjie” and everyone was always anxious to get a copy, to see what was happening in the war, and to see if there had been any casualties from the local Commando. When the British occupied Bethlehem, the editor “Oom Naas Muller loaded the press on to his horse cart and fled to Oom Loors Serfontein’s farm “Snymanshoek”, and hid the press in a cave in the mountains, and for the rest of the war Oom Naas printed the Skoorsteentjie there. Many men used the Snymanshoek cave as a refuge and were able to give Oom Naas up to date information regarding the war.

We also had access to sheep, and planted vegetables, as I have already mentioned we were lucky and never went hungry. Slaughtering the sheep however was not easy for my mother, my oldest sister Phoebe only had one hand (I will explain later how this happened), and my other sister Annie was a brave and determined person, she always seemed to take it upon herself to do the hard work that needed doing, such as carrying water, chopping wood and making fire, Annie was also adept at carrying items on her head, something she had learnt from the servants on the farm. Annie also took it upon herself to slaughter a sheep or goat should the need arise, Phoebe would hold the animal down and Annie would cut its throat. Initially life in the cave was not easy, and took some getting used to, but we adapted and it became home. As the war progressed it seemed to get worse for the Boer army, initially there had been many successes, but as the British became more organised, and more men landed in the country the tide started to turn and the Commandos found the going tough. Prisoners, such as the four thousand that surrendered to General Hunter, were shipped of to Ceylon for the rest of the war, women and children were also sent to camps, that the British hoped would crack the resolve of the Boer men in the field.

We were always scared that we would be caught by the British and sent to a camp. Five or six families in the area worked together, and we had a system in place where we could always go and hide, should we be discovered. British patrols increased; often we had to move quickly to another cave so that we would not be discovered. One time we fled to Witkraans and while we were there we heard that the previous week five families had been caught there and sent to a concentration camp. It was at this cave that we nearly died of exposure due to heavy snowfalls, making a fire was nearly impossible as the wood got wet, and we had fled in a hurry leaving our warm clothing behind. I remember one occasion when our neighbour tant Marie Schoeman decided to go home, and see if she could find a cow to slaughter, this she did and I cannot tell you how good that meat tasted on the braai, for a moment we forgot that there was a war on and the women chatted as if they where in their voorkamers.

On another occasion a little boy decided that he was going to steal some wors that was hanging on a tree near to the cave, and as he was stretching across a branch to reach it, he slipped and fell into a thorn bush, his feet were so full of thorns that he had to sit with his feet in that air, and all the children sat around him and pulled the thorns out. At the beginning of the war we always seemed to have money, and my mother decided to hide most of it away, this was mainly due to the fact no shops were open, so we could not use it anyway. My mother packed the money in a steel box and buried it in the floor deep inside the shearing shed. This was retrieved after the war and helped us immensely to get the farm up and running again.

As I mentioned earlier my sister Phoebe only has one hand, and perhaps it is best that I explain how that came to be. The war had been on for about a year and a half, and a number of Commandos had been forced to surrender, the biggest being the surrender of four thousand men by General Prinsloo, in the conquered territory halfway between what is now known as Clarens and Fouriesburg. It was here that my father was taken prisoner, he and many others where marched to Bethlehem, put on trains to Durban, and from there shipped to Ceylon. My mother and her friend tant Betty Rautenbach decided to take a chance, and see if they could make contact with their husbands near to the Ashrivier, they took with them eating utensils and money, while they were away, my sisters and our friend Lettie Rautenbach stayed in the cave. Near to Naauwpoorts Nek, a British camp had been established and one of our servants who was sick decided to seek medical attention from the doctor, around the perimeter of the camp the British had placed booby traps (dynamite caps) so that the Boers could not surprise them, should they launch an attack.The servant after she had seen the doctor, thought that the caps looked pretty and brought some home, where she laced them on a wall in the sun, that afternoon, Phoebe and Lettie decided to climb a koppie near to the house to see if they could see British or Boer patrols, on the way they passed the wall with the pretty doppies, Phoebe took a few, put them in her dress pocket, and while they were walking she was throwing one of the doppies from one hand to the other, just as she was about to catch it in her left hand, it exploded, throwing her to the ground, when she sat up all her fingers and half of her hand was missing, and the left side of her body looked like it had been shot with birdshot. Twenty to thirty years later her husband would still pull small pieces of lead out of her arm. Phoebe was lucky that she was wearing a kappie, and that at the moment of the blast she turned her head otherwise she may have lost an eye. Lettie who was walking next to Phoebe had her clothes scorched, and she also had some shrapnel wounds in her legs and hands, Lettie got a huge fright and ran away in to the veld, Phoebe at this stage was also in shock and had not even realised the extent of her wounds.

Phoebe stumbled home and as she tried to open the front door the blood pumped from the wound all over the door, it was only then that she realised that she was badly wounded. Phoebie shouted for Annie who immediately on seeing the wound did not hesitate, she ripped up a sheet to use as a bandage, and poured vinegar on the wound, the vinegar luckily stopped the flow of the blood, Lettie soon after came back to the house, and together we realised that a doctor was needed to save Phoebe’s life. We knew that at the British camp there was a doctor, “but how do we get a message to him?” I could not write and Lettie’s wounds did not allow her to write a letter either. We had to send a servant to a neighbour to ask her to write a letter to the British, asking for the help of a doctor. The letter was delivered, and Dr Turner came to the house with his assistant, and immediately decided that what remained of the hand had to be amputated. Not having his instruments with him, meant that he had to send his assistant back to the camp to collect them, as well as chloroform and bandages, however when he arrived back my sister’s condition had deteriorated to such an extent that Dr Turner realized that he could not operate on my sister in her condition.

That afternoon my mother came home, disappointed that she had not been able to see my father, as he had been taken to Fouriesburg. When she saw Phoebe she almost fainted, my mother had not seen my father and then this. My mother sat up with Phoebe all night, and the British doctor was very helpful, but would still not operate as he felt my sister would not survive. During the night the hand bled more and dripped in to an enamel basin, my mother realised that unless she tried something drastic my sister would die. In desperation mother then made up an old Voortrekker concoction that included turpentine and put it on Phoebe’s hand, the bleeding stopped. The next day even though Phoebe was weak Dr Turner decided to operate. Phoebe was put on the dining room table, and had her hand amputated, my mother was very worried, and it was thought at one stage that we may even lose Phoebe.

It was a miracle that she survived this accident and operation, but survive she did. I believe that this was also due to Dr Turner, he had helped us even though the Boers and the British were at war, we would forever be grateful to him for saving Phoebe’s life. Every day for two weeks he rode from the camp to the farmhouse (about 8 miles) to look at the wound and to dress it. Soon after this the British camp was moved and the last day he came to see Phoebe and attend to her wounds, my mother was so overcome with emotion that she could not tell the doctor how much his assistance was appreciated, “I think he knew”. My mother insisted that we give him something to say thank you, and he asked if he could have the Kudu horns on the front stoep, my mother gave them to him with the greatest of pleasure. The doctor also gave my mom a letter; it was a sort of passport, so that my mom could take Phoebe to the doctor in Bethlehem, when she needed attention. About ten days later my mother took Phoebe to the doctor, but it was such a hassle that we never went again. At about this time the British had also started to take women and children from the farms and put them in camps, so it was a stressful period. “I think my mother was very brave”

Phoebe soon learnt to get by with only one hand and in fact she soon was like a normal person with two hands. Later Phoebe married Hans Naude, and became a loving mother and a hardworking wife. Phoebe was able to make, jams, bake and she was a great cook, it was perhaps her needlework that made us realise that Phoebe could and would do anything a two handed person could do. My mother was worried that she had not heard from my father since his capture, she had written to him about Phoebe’s accident so it must have been a very stressful and worrying time for her. One day a letter did arrive from Ceylon, it was from my father ‘I still have that letter”, and he wrote that he was busy fashioning a false hand from wood for Phoebe, and that he would send it as soon as he could, the hand did arrive, but it was impractical to use, however the wooden hand is still in the family and Phoebe’s youngest daughter Judith has it in her possession.

If life had not been hard enough with the outbreak of war, my father being taken prisoner, and Phoebe losing her hand, we got word that my brother Jacob had been killed. The commando had been in a fight with the British near to Langberg and Jacob was wounded, the bullet tore through his right hip and came out near to his spine, damaging his stomach on its way through. His Friends helped Jacob on to his horse, and in great pain he rode four miles to the nearest house, this being Mr Bruwer’s house near Uitdraaipad, who at great risk to himself and his family took Jacob in, and assisted him as best they could. The next day Oom Henk le grange came to give my mother the news, she left immediately to be with him, Grootgeluk was almost thirty miles from the Bruwer’s house. Mother only arrived there late that night, and was very weak from the journey. For five days and nights my mother nursed Jacob but it was all in vain, just before he died he said to mother that he was losing his sight and hearing, please say your goodbyes, Jacob also asked my mother to sing “safely in Jesus’ arms”; while she was singing Jacob died. Jacobs’s death on top of everything else my mother had to endure nearly killed her, she was particular fond of Jacob, and his death was like a stab in the heart. Transporting the body home to the farm was a terrible journey, with my mother having to hide from a British patrol, still to this day I am not sure how my mother survived all of those deprivations.

Jacob was buried in the family cemetery, the coffin was made from old furniture, and this my mother, my sisters and I had to help with, “how did we survive those times” when we managed to finish the coffin, we had to find a way to make it black, as this was the tradition “you were buried in a black coffin”. My mother found a tin of black powder in the shed, which my father used to mark the sheep, this we mixed with oil and painted the coffin. On the day of the funeral, the Commando that Jacob had fought with arrived at the farm, to assist in digging the hole, and to give Jacob a military funeral, their help and support meant so much to my mother. After Jacob’s coffin had been lowered in to the hole, eight members of the commando fired a shot from their rifles; my mother collapsed with sadness and had to be carried to the house.

We had always been a religious family but I am not sure how our faith stood up to all the setbacks, soon after we had buried Jacob we received news, that our youngest brother Andries had also been wounded in a skirmish with the British. The bullet had stuck him in the shoulder, but exited from his shoulder blades and he was able to ride to safety and not fall into British hands. He was cared for by a local family, who cleaned and dressed his wound, and sent him on his way, the family if found to have assisted Andries, would have been thrown out of their house, and sent to the concentration camps. Andries made his way home and received more treatment from mother. After he was strong enough he rejoined his Commando who were holding Retief’s Nek against the British, here he spent a few weeks, and when he could get leave he would come home and help where he could.

Not far from Retief’s Nek the British set up a barbed wire blockade over the road, which was linked to a Blockhouse that had been built to keep an eye on Boer movements. On the wire the British hung little bells, and if someone were to touch the wire this would alert the men in the Blockhouse, who would then sound a general alarm. Andries and a few of his friends from the Commando decided one night to cross this barrier, two men held the wire taught while another cut it, and the two men then gently placed the wire on the floor ensuring the bells did not chime. Andries slipped through the wire and past the blockhouse, to come home, collect food and provisions but not until mother had fed him with homemade bread, and a home cooked meal. Early the next day before the sun had started to rise, Andries left and made his way back to the Commando, he rode away with the rifle slung over his left shoulder, not thinking to check if it was loaded or not, about 10 miles from the house a shot went off, and the bullet shot him under the shoulder and out the top of the shoulder.

We had just finished breakfast when my mother sat up, is that not your brother Andries coughing, we all got up from the table looked out of the front door, and sure enough it was Andries, his shirt full of blood, he was not even able to climb off the horse by himself, we helped him down and in to the house, my mother despite her initial shock, took off his bloodstained clothing and sat him up in the bed. The wound bled profusely and we had nothing in the house to stop the blood, not even turpentine to put on it, I heard my mother scream ‘why us Lord, have this family not sacrificed enough for this country, why do you make us suffer so.” My sister Annie told my mother not to worry, that she would go to the nearest farm and find help. Annie arrived back later that day with a tannie from a neighbouring farm, whose name I cannot remember. My mother said to her “what can we do to help Andries” She said I remember when we were children and one of the family had a bad cut and it bled very badly, my mother went in to the garden and picked peach tree leaves, she then ground them into a paste and rubbed it on the wound, the bleeding stopped almost immediately, we all ran into the garden and picked leaves that were then ground in to a paste and smeared on the gunshot, and before long the bleeding had stopped. I think the plant also assisted in ensuring the wound did not get infected. Many of the old people from those days, myself included still believe in the use of peach leaves. During the remainder of the war when medical supplies were non-existent we used many Voortrekker remedies. Andries recovered and again joined a local commando and was to see out the war as a bittereinder, the youngest of the family fought the longest and hardest against the British, Andries refused to speak English and always held them responsible for the suffering that our family endured during the war.

Danie who was captured sometime after my father, never received as much as a scrape during the war, although during a heated battle somewhere near Lindley a bullet went straight through his hat. After the war my father and brother came back from Ceylon, and we had to re-build the farm, the house had been slightly damaged by fire, but we were luckier than some as the monies we had buried had not been found, and this allowed us to start over again. And so this is how my family endured the Boer war of 1899 – 1902.

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