My Grandfather’s Letter
Riffling through all the boxes and note books I have filled with memories from my mother, as well as items I’ve managed to collect over the years, I’ve come upon the transcript of a letter written by my grandfather. This was published in the Southland Times on 21 October 1999 under the headline “More an adventure than a war” – My grandfather’s letter was part of the article and I thought it might be of interest.
I can’t resist including the first paragraph of the article.
“The Rough Riders, they were called. A mounted infantry with little military training. Not that it needed much. These were confident, adventurous young men, crack shots and first-class horsemen, riding hardy, stocky animals chosen from runs and stations throughout the country…
In his letter, written October 31 1900 Chum Robertson writes to his parents, reassuringly when it comes to combat.
“We have fought in four engagements, each time against over a thousand Boers and there have been several small skirmishes and sniping all the way. The Boers make a very poor stand now.
“On October 24 we had our best fight against the Boers. They had a very strong position and made a splendid stand for over an hour. When we began to get too close to them they broke up and fled in all directions.
“After they started to retreat the fun commenced. We started after their convoy and galloped about 6 miles before we caught up with it. They had split up into threes and fours and all went different roads. Some of them, when they saw they could not escape, drove their teams into bogs to make it a little more work for us to take them out. They had about 70 casualties. We had only four men with wounds – two New Zealanders and two Australians – but none were serious.
“The Boers tell me they are sick of the war, but they say they will fight to a man and they have no notion of surrendering.”
Writing about himself and his fellow soldiers, Trooper Robertson’s tone is brisk and cheerful. But it strikes a more sombre note when he turns to the Boers.
“The Boer women suffer severely. About a week ago several Boers were firing from a house and a gun had to be turned on to them, with the result that one lady was killed and two wounded. If the Boers keep taking shelter in houses several casualties will be sure to happen.
“It must be very hard on the women to see us commandeering everything about the place. Sometimes when we happened to be advance guard we used to get fair bags of game…and you would generally see us riding into camp with hens, turkeys, geese, ducks, young pigs, lambs and such like dangling on the sides of the saddles and very often loaded up with sheaves for our horses. Fruit is also fairly plentiful, especially oranges and lemons of a splendid quality.
“We have had some splendid feeds. If we did not manage to commandeer food we would be almost starved, especially when we have to do a forced march on half or three-quarter rations.”
A farmer himself, James Robertson could not help viewing the landscape as a farmer would.
“Harvesting should be in full swing here now, as most of the crops are standing dead ripe, but the poor Boer is too busy fighting to find time to come home and reap them. They grow all kinds of crops here and I have seen some very nice little farms.
“Our horses are doing marvelously well at present considering the hard work they have had to do but they have been getting well fed as we generally camped beside some nice fields of grain so they got plenty of sheaves.
“It seemed a pity to see thousands of bullocks and mules turned loose in nice fields of wheat but I suppose it will go to waste anyway as it would never be reaped.
“The Dutch towns we passed through are very striking in appearance and nicely laid out. Most of the streets are lined with weeping willows and in many places meet to the top of the road, making the towns look very pretty.
“A good many have been talking about coming over here after this war is over, as they think there will be good opening for business. I would advise no one to come here for a good while yet as the country will be in very backward state. The British have commandeered everything now, which means a slight famine for a few years.”
Apparently my grandfather did hanker to return to South Africa one day, he sometimes spoke of how lovely the area had been. But lack of ready finance and returning bouts of malaria – caught whilst there – denied him any chance.