Did Boer women bear arms against the British Empire?

I recently wrote a piece for my Blog, part whereof will be used in a local newspaper “The Mountain Post” It’s called Women at war and concentrates mainly on the role Boer women played in the Anglo Boer war of 1899 – 1902. I also wanted to do another chapter for my book on Clarens and while this particular subject may not be pertinent to Clarens, it is still very interesting.

A couple of weeks after I had finished the original piece, I chanced upon a book in the Bethlehem Library called “Die Vrou in die Anglo-Boereoorlog 1899 – 1902” and while reading in Afrikaans is not my favourite pastime something just said to me, take it out. “What a fascinating read” and if you can read Afrikaans, I would recommend it as a “must read” book about this particular conflict and the role that Boer women played in it, as most books that I have read to date on the war concentrate on the men folk of the time such as Kruger, De Wet, de la Rey, Prinsloo, Joubert, Botha, Smuts, Steyn and many others, but either gloss over or rarely give credit to the role that Boer women played, especially during the scorched earth days and after the war itself when they had to hold the family together, after having lost homes, livelihoods as well as loved ones.

An interesting fact that I remember reading in the book “The Anglo Boer war 1899 – 1902, a pictorial history” is that while three of the foremost British protagonists of the war - Milner, Rhodes and Jameson – were bachelors, the Boer leaders were often followed into battle by their wives, with Commandant General Piet Joubert’s wife Hendrina in particular taking a lively interest in all matters military, and is even said to have given firing orders to the gunners on occasion

Herman Mockford stated in the Cape Argus 13 April 1901 “Womenfolk (the Boers) are seldom seen in the saddle, though many of them are quite at home either bare backed or on a mans saddle. So also many of them are fearless and good rifle shots and can span in a team of oxen as well as their husbands……”

Stories and especially photos of Boer women fighting the British were very popular in Dutch, German, Russian and French newspapers, but as you will see most if not all were posed and the myth about women fighting the British was mostly “a myth” Here is what I learnt from reading this book as well as additional research.

Women throughout history have been involved in wars, battles or sieges in one form or another. Perhaps the most common occurrence when women would take part in battles was when their homes, castles or villages were under threat. It was accepted that ladies in medieval days would take charge in their husband’s absence. Some women like Boudiccia, Joan of Arc, and in South Africa Mantantisi successfully led large armies into battle. Throughout history there have been numerous cases of women disguising themselves as ordinary soldiers or sailors so that they could take up arms in defence of their countries, and as you will see this ruse was copied by Boer women also wanting to take a more active part in the war.

The question to be asked is if the two Boer republics actually condoned women physically fighting or following their husbands into battle, the answer to that would be no, The ZAR had expressly forbidden that women be present in laagers at the outbreak of the war and there was a proclamation that Christian de wet wanted his government to enforce after the battle of Paardeberg, due to some of the men in Cronje’s laager having had their wives and children with them, during the investment and bombardment. It was reported by Hillegas that the women in the laager in no way hindered the men and many assisted in digging trenches and some even used firearms as enthusiastically as their men folk. No other written or photographic evidence seems to exist to back up his statement that women did in fact fight at Paardeberg, in fact de Wet felt their presence a great hindrance and tried to get his government to put a stop to it.

10 months after the battle Philip Botha (an Orange Free State General) wrote to Kitchner that the reason the Boers had not complained about the bombardment of the laager with the women and children in it, was because “they should not have been there”. It is estimated that up to 50 women and children had been in the laager at Paardeberg and after Cronje surrendered they were allowed to go back to their homes, some decided to accompany their men to Cape Town with Cronje’s wife and grandson being allowed to accompany him to St Helena.

The question still remains did Boer women take an active part in the war? Hillegas, the American war correspondent claims “Scores of Boer women can claim the distinction of having taken part in many bloody battles”. Ben Bouwer in his memoirs wrote “Daar kan n lang lys van vrouesoldate in mansklere gemaak word”. While during the war itself it may have been a romantic notion that Boer women were taking on the might of the British Empire, neither of the two Boer Republics had granted women dispensation to be armed, and to fight as soldiers in the war, however after Roberts had made inroads towards Pretoria in May 1900 women in the city did toy with the idea of taking up arms in the defence of their country. And on 11 May a meeting was held in Johannesburg with a follow up conference on 15 and 16 May being held in Pretoria, this meeting was chaired by the wives of Dominee H.S Bosman, Louis Botha and F.W Reitz. The conference decided that women should take over the men’s work at post and telegraph offices as well as other areas, this would allow more able-bodied men to go on Commando. Much like the women did in the Second World War and modern day Israel.

It was also decided that if women wanted to be armed then they would need to source those weapons themselves and use them only for self defence, the women also decided that they should make themselves available to the government should their services ever be needed to defend the country. The London newspaper “the Morning Herald” however decided that this was to tame a story to publish and its correspondent reported, “….the women of the Transvaal are forming a corps of Amazons to fight the British, it is understood that they are being drilled, about 2000 of them at Pretoria and that all are first class shots. They are said to be dressed in kilts like Highlanders and are known as the Amazon Corps”

Probably the most famous photo that was used as proof of Boer women fighting against the British, shoulder to shoulder with the men was that of a man and a woman in men’s clothing, both armed with guns and bandoliers. In a German publication they are named as a Mr and Mrs Wagner who fought together against the British. In a Dutch publication she is named as a Mrs Berret that had fought with a Commando for 3 months and had been wounded at the battle of Spionkop, according to P.H.S van Zyl in his book she is identified as Mrs Berret and the gent as a Mr Wagner.

In the Book “Kommandolewe tydens die Anglo-Boereoorlog 1899-1902” by Professor Pretorius he writes about a lady who had dressed as a man and fought at the Natal front, where in November 1900 it was discovered that the man was in fact a woman, she was sent back to Johannesburg, she was apparently an Ms Herbst. Hillegas in his book also writes about a lady called Helena Herbst Wagner from Zeerust, who lived for five months in the laagers and trenches without being discovered as a woman, this was most likely the same lady that Prof Pretorius wrote about?

Another photo that was popular was that of a Mrs. M Krantz in sombre Victorian dress replete with bonnet as well as a rifle and a bandolier, this was the wife of Otto Krantz of the German corps, which in turn had been part of the Vryheid-Comando that took part in the siege of Ladysmith. Hillegas also implies that Mrs Krantz had been at her husband’s side at the battle of Elandslaagte 21 October 1899 and again at the battles of Tugela thereafter, and had received permission to accompany her husband to the prisoner of war camp in Ceylon.

In a book called “A few months with the Boers” and written by Sophia Izedinova there is a photo of a group of women and children all posing with rifles and bandoliers with the caption “this is a group of women who had taken up arms against the British”. Many believe the photo was posed, as all the ladies wore crisp white blouses with fashionable bonnets upon their heads. It is felt that the better looking the women in the photos the more chance that the photo had in fact been posed.

Another author Linesman “Words by an Eye-Witness” writes “ Women are seen behind the kopjes at Colenso and Vaal Krantz; there were some smartly habited and well horsed, even with the raiding party which from Mooi River kept Pietermaritzburg awake and alarmed. Two girls were actually killed at Pieters Hill – one, poor thing, whispering just before she died that her husband had kept her beside him in the trench ‘because she was a good shot’.”

Many historians of the Boer war believe that Linesman was a very patriotic individual and did not have much time for the Boers, hence his words that Women fought on the front lines was to embarrass the Boers and show them in a bad light. Linesman stated he found Boer men very strange as they fought like lions during the day but returned to their laagers at night like pussy cats full of women and washing.

There are recorded cases of women following their husbands on Commando an example being a Mrs P.J Moll from around Pretoria who followed her husband for 11 months before she and her baby were captured and sent to the concentration camp at Newcastle. General Badenhorst names a Mrs E. Lotz from the Boshof district that accompanied his Commando as a nurse from January 1901 until the end of hostilities in 1902, this incident was also mentioned by professor Pretorius in his book “Komandolewe tydens die Anglo-Boereoorlog 1899-1902” and it is his conclusion that there were no Boer women fighting alongside the men in the trenches.

Other sources indicate that women did in fact fight alongside their husbands, the first was written by John X Merriman, the Cape Politician who wrote in his personal journal that on 1 March 1900, that two Boer women were found dead in trenches where they had fought side by side with the men. In his book “A Guardsman memories, A Book of Recollections by E Gleichen he states that on Pietershoogte “I found a pair of lady’s stays with a lot of Mauser cartridge cases and clips alongside”. I presume the question to ask oneself is how and why the lady slipped out of her blouse in the heat of battle?

While reading “Methods of Barbarism”? By S.B Spies I came across this piece of information. Three to four hundred women and children from Jagersfontein and Fauresmith of the Orange River Colony were sent to the Port Elizabeth concentration camp, it had been alleged that these villages had been attacked by a small force under the command of General J. B. M Hertzog on the 16th and 19th October and the inhabitants not only supplied his Commando with food, ammunition and information, but that in Jagersfontein the women themselves fired upon British troops from their houses. The report that the women fought was never proved and even Milner himself stated that he did not know what truth there was in the allegations. Some fifty years later, the then South African Minister of Finance, N.C Havenga who participated in the attack on Jagersfontein, told an archivist that he had no knowledge of women shooting at British troops.

It was not uncommon for Boer women to accompany their husbands to the front and as previously mentioned perhaps the most apparent of those women would have to be General Piet Jouberts wife, Hendrina. The British also had women follow the army with Lord Roberts bringing his whole family to South Africa.

Perhaps the most famous case of a woman who was on Commando for an extended period of time, would be that of Sarah Raal, who together with 2 friends escaped from the Springfontein Concentration camp and were taken in by a Commando sheltering in the nearby hills. Sarah joins a Corporalship of 20 men, but unlike other incidents of women getting dressed as men, Sarah always wore a dress. Sarah admits that she did use a rifle when necessary but in most instances hid during battles. Life on the Commando was very hard and she was captured again, spending the last part of the war in a Kroonstad Concentration camp.

So the question to ask yourself is “did Boer women fight alongside the men against the might of the British Empire”? I believe that there were cases of women taking up arms in defence of their homes and country and that it is very possible that women did in fact disguise themselves and fight the Khaki’s and could even have been killed or wounded, however I believe instances like this were few and far between and as you have read, when discovered these women were banished from the front lines. Many posed pictures found their way to loved ones fighting, as well as to overseas publications, the pictures to loved ones to show their husbands that their thoughts were with them, and the ones for the overseas publications to show that the Afrikaners as a country were standing up against the might of Queen Victoria at that stage the strongest Empire on Earth

What is certain is that Boer women did act as spies, most however would not have thought of themselves as such, but the British considered the passing of information to Commando’s about British troop movements and strengths as spying, it probably only became apparent after the war itself as to what an important role the ordinary women had played with regards the setting up and maintaining of a communications network in the two Boer Republics as well as in Natal and the Cape Colony.

Perhaps the two best known Boer women spies would have been that of a Mrs Van Warmelo and her daughter Johanna who throughout the war passed on valuable information to Boer Commandos, to Boer sympathisers overseas as well as in Natal and the Cape Colony; however theirs is a whole new story. Women who did get involved in passing on information came up with ingenious ideas to ensure that the information did not fall into British hands.

It is said that centuries ago the emancipation of women began and that over those many many years’ women slowly but surely came out of the shadow of man to become a force to be reckoned with. In South Africa there were women that against the backdrop of the Boer war stood out when the chips were down……….”This however is another story for another time.”

1 comment:

  1. Come and join our ABO group on facebook. Lots of interesting stories: http://www.facebook.com/groups/51827154181/?id=10150306020384182&notif_t=like


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...