3. The Relief of Kimberley by the Aussies

What also held my attention and thrilled me no end was my mother’s experience and recollection of when living amongst the British and Boers, and my grandmother’s recounting of the Anglo-Boer War that both the Dodgen and De Groot families were involved in during the Siege of Kimberley by the Transvaal Boers. Because of their negotiations with Germany to aid them against the British, the Boer forces that were well equipped by Germany were larger than those immediately available to the British and they scored impressive victories in the areas adjacent to their territories. Several major battles were fought in the vicinity of Kimberley with a siege that lasted for 124 days before the British troops effected the relief in 1900.

Although my great-great-grandparents were British and Dutch and lived in the British Cape Colony, it stood to reason that when their children and offspring married that their British, Boer or Afrikaner spouses might have different attitudes to the Anglo / Boer War situation. When it did occur, some of the families either stayed put in Kimberley or moved into the Boer’s Orange River Colony and Transvaal Republics and Natal where sides had to be chosen. That caused a division in the families and it was not only a heated battle between the Boers and British with Australia as an ally joining in the fray, but also between the Dodgen families. What they didn’t also foresee was that further intermarriages with Afrikaners would eventuate into life eventually becoming very complicated for those who had sided with the British, and that the Afrikaner side of the family would eventually reap the benefits.  But at that time not much serious thought was given to what could be because the diamond fields and farming were a priority for my ancestor’s income in Kimberley.

Kimberley’s diamond mines that were on the other side of the border of the Boer’s Orange River Colony Republic were also an attraction for the Boers. With the thought in mind of the gold mines in Johannesburg, which was in their Transvaal Republic, and with the gaining of control of the diamond mines, they would have control of all the wealth in the south of Africa. The beleaguered City of Kimberley was shelled from Boer forts and shot upon from trenches that surrounded it. The constant bombardment caused so much havoc and fear amongst the population that they hid in holes dug in the ground. At night they would sleep in dug trenches and ditches instead of in their homes for fear of the shells that were blowing up their homes, and it caused children to cry and cower with fright. They were also living on limited rations of horseflesh due to the Boer forces tearing up the railway line in places and hauling down all the telegraph posts so that communication of their ongoing plight couldn’t be relayed, and outside provisions transported in.

Although rations were issued every day in the market square there was near starvation, and the children were showing the effects of suffering acutely from the lack of food. What they also had to do to make the distribution and safeguard the population from unexpected bombardment, was the firing upon the Boers by the armed Kimberley men with artillery guns made locally called ‘Long Cecil’, out of respect for Cecil John Rhodes, diamond miner, founder of De Beers Diamond Company and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, which gave them the time required while the Boers ducked for cover. Of course they expected retaliation, but they had fortified the city with bags of sand from the mines into forts and would return gunfire from them, and rifle fire from the rooftops. Messages and dispatch riders had been sent out to Cape Town, which as Kimberley City it was within England’s Cape Colony, about their disastrous plight and an appeal for instant aid. They were just about on their last legs when realization came that help was at hand because the Boers cannons and guns were not been trained on them as before but were shooting in a different direction. Clambering onto their tallest buildings and the winding gear of the mines that towered above the city, what they observed in the distance brought them joy and jubilation. Coming around a high kopje (Dutch = small head; the shape of a hill) in the distance were columns of mounted troops, and guns were pounding another kopje where the Boers were entrenched. Cheers broke out from the Kimberley citizens on seeing them fleeing in disarray and their own guns spurred them on, and their rifles also put paid to a good number who inadvertently forgot where they were in their panic due to been out in the wide open space of the veld (Dutch = field; grass land).

The heartfelt welcome received by the troops were not only cheers as they rode and marched victorious into the city but it also caused the citizens to cry with relief and happiness, hug them and present them with bottles of wine that were held in stock. My grandmother distinctively remembered seeing Cecil John Rhodes who had been instrumental in sending for aid and keeping the defense of Kimberly operational in the official welcoming party. She remembered also an Australian reporter called Mister Paterson who was with the Australian troops in the capacity of a war correspondent, and he had no problem in interviewing the more than willing who poured out their tales of woe while been under siege. They had an admiration for those particular troops because of their daring and courage in the relief, and because they also continued with the mopping up operation against the Boers that saw them driven further back into their own territory. Because of those reasons they made sure their human needs were catered for. The Dodgen’s were no exception to the rule, and when back on their farm due to been re-established there through the outstanding efforts of the Australian troops, the officers who rode out to the outlaying farms to not only make their acquaintance but also to find out whether they were allies or adversaries, left no doubt when receiving supplies of provisions for gratis that could be spared without them going hungry as before.

The Anglo-Boer War was what started off the term of diggers been coined for the Australian soldiers because of their troops digging in when the going got tough in South Africa, which is something that many Aussies don’t know about. And it stuck, and they proved themselves again in World War 1 with their heroic deeds at Gallipoli as the Anzac’s (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), and it continued into World War 2 and others. I remember as a child that Capetonians would get all excited when the word would go around that the diggers would be coming to Cape Town for their r and r from North Africa where they were battling with the rest of the allies against the Italian and German troops during World War 2. We would know the Aussie troops by their distinctive slouch hats that were flipped up on the one side at a rakish angle and held there with an army insignia. We would also know more about them on news reports on the radio and in newspapers not only of their gallantry, which there were reports of the other allied troops also, but also of their somewhat raucous behaviour in the city’s bars and brothel houses, and there would also frequently be brawls when they had run-ins still with the Afrikaners (Boers), ‘Lest We Forget’.

The shoe was on the other foot then owing to the allied troops of cavalry and mounted infantry together with the artillery that was fighting their way with great success through the Orange River Colony to the capital of Bloemfontein (Dutch = Flower fountain). The side of the family residing in that province were then experiencing what had been dished out to their relatives in Kimberley by the Transvaal Boers, as the well organized and disciplined army were decimating the scurrying enemy. The Boers after the fall of Bloemfontein regrouped to try and stop the inevitable British and Australian advance to their stronghold and capital Pretoria across the Vaal (Dutch = Faded) River in Transvaal, but it was of no avail. There was no doubt in my mind, although my grandmother didn’t agree with me, that the family relatives in both those Boer Republic Provinces rued the day when choosing the wrong side. The way I saw it was that their chosen countrymen were not the only ones to suffer humiliating defeat, for in their decision to support the Boers they had shamefully align themselves against their Kimberley families.

My mother in relating to me her youthful life in Kimberley and of the family stories told also brought to light why my grandmother disagreed with me. The English had set up concentration camps in all provinces for Boers and their families who were found to be still antagonistic through their involvement in guerrilla warfare against them. In Kimberley there was one for women and children that was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence and patrolled by sentries. It was really akin to a tented concentration prison derived from the tents that were closely packed into a tightly squeezed area and overcrowded, and with sanitation at a minimum it contributed to the children suffering a variety of ailments that both my grandmother and mother witnessed, plus other atrocities and more. The Dutch like my grandmother, who was partially not of the Boer mentality persuasion, assisted to their needs as much as they were able because of kinship and others because of kin that were imprisoned there. Displaced and destitute Boer families who were either evicted from their farms or saw it burnt down by the British due to their men still fighting as Boer Commandos were also eventually placed in camps, and although those were seen as places of refuge they were nothing more than human holding pens. Camps were also established for commandos who surrendered voluntarily, but they were treated as prisoners of war and also suffered the same atrocities as the women and children. The lack of food, overcrowding, inadequate shelter, sanitation and medical facilities contributed to an abnormal death rate amongst the emaciated children as epidemics swept the camps.

The Boer Commandos, on the other hand, who were determined not to surrender, took out their frustration and anger with reprisals against the English farmers by attacking and burning down their homes in retaliation. That too eventuated into homeless and destitute families, and relatives had to rally to their aid too. It was situations like all of those that confronted the Dodgen’s on both sides of the political fence. Differences were not an option then with blood been thicker than water and it saw them traveling the distances to assist and mend relationships. According to my mother traveling to assist relatives in the Orange River Colony and Transvaal was a hazard to the family due to roaming clusters of defiant Boer commandos. Especially as it was done on ox wagons piled with goods and provisions; at any rate, when learning what their mission involved after obliging them with some desperately needed provisions when friendlily confronted, they were usually escorted to safer grounds. Their safeguard could have also been due to them wearing the traditional Boer garbs, which as a sign of respect they wanted to approach their relatives in. The women wore neck to ankle almost waist-less dresses, worn with a frilly type bonnet that not only overlapped the face but also flowed down the back of the neck, and the men wore thick clothed trousers and jackets and wide brimmed hats that was a necessity against the harsh weather elements. Been amongst their relatives and experiencing their poverty stricken living conditions and appalling internment, consolidated their kept quiet but thankful Relief of Kimberley by the British and Australians.

After the Boers surrendered to the English, the Boer side of the family tried to make amends by traveling to Kimberley so as to rebuild broken family bridges, and those families reciprocated through accepting their offered olive branch and revisited. For my mother it was like been in a completely different world at the age of eight because her Boer relatives living style and dress were still uniquely associated with the Boer environment. The relatives were still also adamant in the Boer philosophy and belief that the war had been an attempt to exterminate them as a nation whereby destroying their identity, language and customs. What’s hypocritical about that was that when the French Huguenots settled at the Cape of Good Hope (1688) under the Dutch (1652) they forced them to give up their identity, language and customs so as to comply as Dutchmen. My mother’s family as well as the Dodgen’s in Kimberley were fluent in the Hochdeutsch (High German) language, and she found it upsetting when her cousins would tell her to speak in Pure Afrikaans, the then language of the Boer. They would also taunt her about her father fighting for the British against the Germans, and when cryingly telling her mother, and on her approaching the family about it; they too were of the same opinion. My grandmother who was a fiery lady gave them a tongue lashing, and the very next day she and my mother were on the train heading back to Kimberley. Afrikaans is a bastard language originating as a dialect for oral communication between the Cape of Good Hope settlers and slaves. It is a combination of the Dutch language of the Netherlands, the native tongue of the indigenous people, the slave’s language of origin and eventually English. It became a simplified form of Dutch, for by dropping certain inflections and vocabulary items, modifying the vowel sounds and incorporating loan words from the other languages it became the lingua franca.

The mixture of those related family stories must have really excited and overwhelmed my young mind no end because of the repetitive dreaming about it experienced, and although it was all jumbled up at times, to me it was like observing those happenings occurring first hand. What events had also taken place again though even though the Anglo / Boer War in South Africa had ended was that World War 1 saw friction and faction between the families occurring again. It seems loyalties die hard, and again sides were chosen. My mother was six years old when her father joined a contingent of South Africans that fought with the British Commonwealth troops in Europe against the Germans. His ultimate sacrifice was due to the remembrance of the unselfish British Commonwealth troops who lost their lives at the Relief of Kimberley. He died in World War 1 in Flanders (Europe) as Corporal Bill Dodgen of the 1st Regiment South African Infantry at the age of 29 on the 24 March 1918. He is remembered with honour at Hem Farm Military Cemetery, Hem-Monacu, Somme (France).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s