One of the most glorious pages in the history of the Boer nation relates to the work of the women who fought side by side with their husbands against the hordes of murderous Zulus in the days of the early Voortrekkers. It is the story of hardy Boer women, encompassed by thousands of bloodthirsty natives, fighting over the lifeless bodies of their husbands and sons, and repelling the attacks of the savages with a spirit and strength not surpassed by the valiant burghers themselves. The magnificent heritage which these mothers of the latter-day Boer nation left to their children was not unworthily borne by the women of the end of the century, and the work which they accomplished in the war of 1899-1900 was none the less valuable, even though it was less hazardous and romantic, than that of their ancestors whose blood mingled with that of the savages on the grassy slopes of the Natal mountains.
The conspicuous part played in the war by the Boer women was but a sequence to that which they took in the political affairs of the country before the commencement of hostilities, and both were excellent demonstrations of their great patriotism and their deep loyalty to the Republics which they loved. Some one has said that real patriotism is bred only on the farms and plains of a country, and no better exemplification of the truth of the saying was necessary than that which was afforded by the wives and mothers of the burghers of the two South African Republics. Many months before the first shot of the war was fired the patriotic Boer women commenced to take an active interest in the discussion of the grave affairs of State, and it increased with such amazing rapidity and volume that they were prepared for hostilities long before the men. Women urged their husbands, fathers, and brothers to end the long period of political strife and uncertainty by shouldering arms and fighting for their independence. Even sooner than the men, the Boer women realised that peace must be broken sometime in order to secure real tranquillity in the country, and she who lived on the veld and was patriotic was anxious to have the storm come and pass as quickly as possible. So enthusiastic were the women before the war that it was a common saying among them that if the men were too timorous to fight for their liberty the daughters and grand-daughters of the heroines who fought against the Zulus at Weenen and Doornkop would take up arms.
Even before the formal declaration of war was made, many of the Boer women prevailed upon their husbands, brothers, and sons to leave their homes and go to the borders of the Boer country to guard against any raids that might be attempted by the enemy, and in many instances women accompanied the men to prepare their meals and give them comfort. These manifestations of warlike spirit were not caused by the women’s love of war, for they were even more peace-loving than the men, but they were the natural result of a desire to serve their country at a time when they considered it to be in great peril. The women knew that war would mean much bloodshed and the death of many of those whom they loved, but all those selfish considerations were laid aside when they believed that the life of their country was at stake.
For weeks preceding the commencement of hostilities farmers’ wives on the veld busied themselves with making serviceable corduroy clothing, knapsacks, and bread-bags for their male relatives who were certain to go on commando; and when it became known that an ultimatum would be sent to Great Britain the women prepared the burghers’ outfits, so that there would be no delay in the men’s departure for the front as soon as the declaration of war should be made.
No greater or harder work was done by the women during the entire war than that which fell to their lot immediately following the formal declaration of war by the authorities. In the excitement of the occasion the Government had neglected to make any satisfactory arrangements for supplying the burghers with food while on the journey to the front and afterward, and consequently there was much suffering from lack of provisions and supplies. At this juncture the women came to the rescue, and in a trice they had remedied the great defect. Every farmhouse and every city residence became a bakery, and for almost two months all the bread consumed by the burgher army was prepared by the Boer women. Organisations were formed for this purpose in every city and town in the country, and by means of a well-planned division of labour this improvised commissariat department was as effective as that which was afterward organised by the Government. Certain women baked the bread, prepared sandwiches, and boiled coffee; others procured the supplies, and others distributed the food at the various railway stations through which the commando-trains passed, or carried it directly to the laagers. One of the women who was tireless in her efforts to feed the burghers and make them comfortable as they passed through Pretoria on the railway was Mrs. F.W. Reitz, the wife of the Transvaal State Secretary, and never a commando-train passed through the capital that she was not there to distribute sandwiches, coffee, and milk.
When the first battles of the campaign had been fought and the wounded were being brought from the front the women again volunteered to relieve an embarrassed Government, and no nobler, more energetic efforts to relieve suffering were ever made than those of the patriotic daughters of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Women from the farms assisted in the hospitals; wives who directed the herding of cattle during the absence of their husbands went to the towns and to the laager hospitals; young school girls deserted their books and assisted in giving relief to the burghers who were bullet-maimed or in the delirium of fever. No station in life was unrepresented in the humanitarian work. Two daughters of the former President of the Transvaal, the Rev. Thomas François Burgers, were nurses in the Burke hospital in Pretoria, which was established and maintained by a Boer burgher. Miss Martha Meyer, a daughter of General Lucas Meyer, devoted herself assiduously to the relief of the wounded in the same hospitals, and in the institution which Barney Barnato established in Johannesburg there were scores of young women nurses who cared for British and Boer wounded with unprejudiced attention. In every laager at the front were young Boer vrouwen who, under the protection of the Red Cross, and indifferent, to the creed, caste, or country of the wounded and dying, assuaged the suffering of those who were entrusted to their care. In the hospital-trains which carried the wounded from the battlefields to the hospitals in Pretoria and Johannesburg were Boer women who considered themselves particularly fortunate in having been able to secure posts where they could be of service, while at the stations where the trains halted were Boer women bearing baskets of fruit and bottles of milk for the unfortunate burghers and soldiers in the carriages.
When the war began and all the large mines on the Witwatersrand and all the big industries and stores in Johannesburg and Pretoria were obliged to cease operations, much distress prevailed among the poorer classes of foreigners who were left behind when the great exodus was concluded, and after a few months their poverty became most acute. Again the Boer women shouldered the burden, and in a thousand different ways relieved the suffering of those who were the innocent victims of the war. Subscription lists were opened and the wealthy Boers contributed liberally to the fund for the distressed. Depôts where the needy could secure food and clothing were established, while a soup-kitchen where Mrs. Peter Maritz Botha, one of the wealthiest women in the Republics, stood behind a table and distributed food to starving men and women, was a veritable blessing to hundreds of needy foreigners. In Johannesburg, Boer women searched through the poorest quarters of the city for families in need of food or medicine and never a needy individual was neglected. Among the few thousand British subjects who remained behind there were many who were in dire straits, but Boer women made no distinctions between friend and enemy when there was an opportunity for performing a charitable deed. Nor was their charity limited to civilians and those who were neutral in their sentiments with regard to the war. When the British prisoners of war were confined in the racecourse at Pretoria the Boer women sent many a waggon-load of fruit, luxuries, and reading matter to the soldiers who had been sent against them to deprive them of that which they esteemed most—the independence of their country. The spirit which animated the women was never better exemplified than by the action of a little Boer girl of about ten years who approached a British prisoner on the platform of the station at Kroonstaad and gave him a bottle of milk which she had kept carefully concealed under her apron. The soldier hardly had time to thank her for her gift before she turned and ran away from him as rapidly as she had the strength. It seemed as if she loved him as a man in distress, but feared him as a soldier, and hated him as the enemy of her country.
Besides assisting in the care of the wounded, the baking of bread for the burghers, and giving aid to the destitute, the women of the farms were obliged to attend to the flocks and herds which were left in their charge when the fathers, husbands, and brothers went to the front to fight. All the laborious duties of the farm were performed by the women, and it was common to witness a woman at work in the fields or driving a long ox-waggon along the roads. When the tide of war changed and the enemy drove the burghers to the soil of the Republics the work of the women became even more laborious and diversified. The widely-separated farmhouses then became typical lunch stations for the burghers, and the women willingly were the proprietresses. Boers journeying from one commando to another, or scouts and patrols on active duty, stopped at the farmhouses for food for themselves and their horses, and the women gladly prepared the finest feasts their larder afforded. No remuneration was ever accepted, and the realisation that they were giving even indirect assistance to their country’s cause was deemed sufficient payment for any work performed. Certain farmhouses which were situated near frequently travelled roads became the well-known rendezvous of the burghers, and thither all the women in the neighbourhood wended their way to assist in preparing meals for them. Midway between Smaldeel and Brandfort was one of that class of farmhouses, and never a meal-time passed that Mrs. Barnard did not entertain from ten to fifty burghers. Near Thaba N’Chu was the residence of John Steyl, a member of the Free State Raad, whose wife frequently had more than one hundred burgher guests at one meal. When the battle of Sannaspost was being fought a short distance from her house, Mrs. Steyl was on one of the hills overlooking the battlefield, interspersing the watching of the progress of the battle with prayers for the success of the burghers’ arms. As soon as she learned that the Boers had won the field she hastened home and prepared a sumptuous meal for her husband, her thirteen-year-old son, and all the generals who took part in the engagement.
When the winter season approached and the burghers called upon the Government for the heavy clothing which they themselves could not secure, there was another embarrassing situation, for there was only a small quantity of ready-made clothing in the country, and it was not an easy matter to secure it through the blockaded port at Delagoa Bay. There was an unlimited quantity of cloth in the country, but, as all the tailors were in the commandos at the front, the difficulty of converting the material into suits and overcoats seemed to be insurmountable until the women found a way. Unmindful of the other vast duties they were engaged in they volunteered to make the clothing, and thenceforth every Boer home was a tailor’s shop. President Kruger’s daughters and grand-daughters, the Misses Eloff, who had been foremost in many of the other charitable works, undertook the management of the project, and they continued to preside over the labours of several hundred women who worked in the High Court Building in Pretoria until the British forces entered the city. Thousands of suits of clothing and overcoats were made and forwarded to the burghers in the field to protect them against the rigors of the South African winter’s nights.
One of the most conspicuous parts played in the war by the Boer women was that of urging their husbands and sons to abbreviate their leaves-of-absence and return to their commandos. The mothers and wives of the burghers of the Republics gave many glorious examples of their unselfishness and deep love of country, but none was of more material benefit than their efforts to preserve the strength of the army in the field. When the burghers returned to their homes on furloughs of from five days to two weeks the wives urged their immediate return, and, in many instances, insisted that they should rejoin their commandos forthwith upon pain of receiving no food if they remained at home. It was one of the Boer’s absolute necessities to have a furlough every two or three months, and unless it was given to him by the officers he was more than likely to take it without the prescribed permission. When burghers without such written permits reached their homes they were not received by their wives with the customary cordiality, and the air of frigidity which encompassed them soon compelled them to return to the field. The Boer women despised a coward, or a man who seemed to be shirking his duty to his country, and, not unlike their sisters in countries of older civilisation, they possessed the power of expressing their disapprobation of such acts. It was not uncommon for the women to threaten to take their husbands’ post of duty if the men insisted upon remaining at home, and invariably the ruse was efficient in securing the burghers’ early return.
During the war there were many instances to prove that the Boer women of the end of the century inherited the bravery and heroic fortitude of their ancestors who fell victims to the Zulu assegais in the Natal valley, in 1838. The Boer women were as anxious to take an active part in the campaign as their grandmothers were at Weenen, and it was only in obedience to the rules formulated by the officers that Amazon corps were absent from the commandos. Instances were not rare of women trespassing these regulations, and scores of Boer women can claim the distinction of having taken part in many bloody battles. Not a few yielded up their life’s blood on the altar of liberty, and many will carry the scars of bullet-wounds to the grave.
In the early part of the campaign there was no military rule which forbade women journeying to the front, and in consequence the laagers enjoyed the presence of many of the wives and daughters of the burghers. Commandant-General Joubert set an example to his men by having Mrs. Joubert continually with him on his campaigning trips, and the burghers were not slow in patterning after him. While the greater part of the army lay around besieged Ladysmith large numbers of women were in the laagers, and they were continually busying themselves with the preparation of food for their relatives and with the care of the sick and wounded. Not infrequently did the women accompany their husbands to the trenches along the Tugela front, and it was asserted, with every evidence of veracity, that many of them used the rifles against the enemy with even more ardour and precision than the men. On February 28th, while the fighting around Pieter’s Hills was at its height, the British forces captured a Boer woman of nineteen years who had been fatally wounded. Before she died she stated that she had been fighting from the same trench with her husband, and that he had been killed only a few minutes before a bullet struck her.
While the Boer army was having its many early successes in Natal few of the women partook in the actual warfare from choice, or because they believed that it was necessary for them to fight. The majority of those who were in the engagements happened to be with their husbands when the battles were begun, and had no opportunity of escaping. The burghers objected to the presence of women within the firing lines, and every effort was made to prevent them from being in dangerous localities, but when it was impossible to transfer them to places of safety during the heat of the battle there was no alternative but to provide them with rifles and bandoliers so that they might protect themselves. The half-hundred women who endured the horrors of the siege at Paardeberg with Cronje’s small band of warriors chose to remain with their husbands and brothers when Lord Roberts offered to convey them to places of safety, but they were in no wise an impediment to the burghers, for they assisted in digging trenches and wielded the carbines as assiduously as the most energetic men.
One of the women who received the Government’s sanction to join a commando was Mrs. Otto Krantz, the wife of a professional hunter. Mrs. Krantz accompanied her husband to Natal at the commencement of hostilities, and remained in the field during almost the entire campaign in that colony. In the battle of Elandslaagte, where some of the hardest hand-to-hand fighting of the war occurred, this Amazon was by the side of her husband in the thick of the engagement, but escaped unscathed. Later she took part in the battles along the Tugela, and when affairs in the Free State appeared to be threatening she was one of the first to go to the scene of action in that part of the country.
Among the prisoners captured by the British forces at Colesburg were three Boer women who wore men’s clothing, but it was not until after they had been confined in the prison-ship at Cape Town for several weeks that their sex was discovered. A real little Boertje was Helena Herbst Wagner, of Zeerust, who spent five months in the laagers and in the trenches without her identity being revealed. Her husband went to the field early in the war and left her alone with a baby. The infant died in January and the disconsolate woman donned her husband’s clothing, obtained a rifle and bandolier, and went to the Natal front to search for her soldier-spouse. Failing to find him, she joined the forces of Commandant Ben Viljoen and faced bullets, bombs, and lyddite at Spion Kop, Pont Drift, and Pieter’s Hills. During the retreat to Van Tonder’s Nek the young woman learned that her husband lay seriously wounded in the Johannesburg hospital, and she deserted the army temporarily to nurse him.
When Louis Botha became Commandant-General of the army he issued an order that women would not be permitted to visit the laagers, and few, if any, took part in the engagements for some time thereafter. When the forces of the enemy approached Pretoria the women made heroic efforts to encourage the burghers, and frequently went to the laagers to cheer them to renewed resistance. Mrs. General Botha and Mrs. General Meyer were specially energetic and effective in their efforts to instil new courage in the men, and during the war there was no scene which was more edifying than that of those two patriotic Boer women riding about the laagers and beseeching the burghers not to yield to despair.
On the fifteenth of May more than a thousand women assembled in the Government Buildings at Pretoria for the purpose of deciding upon a course of action in the grave crisis which confronted the Republic. It was the gravest assemblage that was ever gathered together in that city—a veritable concourse of Spartan mothers. There was little speech, for the hearts of all were heavy, and tears were more plentiful than words, but the result of the meeting was the best testimonial of its value.
It was determined to ask the Government to send to the front all the men who were employed in the Commissariat, the Red Cross, schools, post and telegraph offices, and to fill the vacancies thus created with women. A memorial, signed by Mrs. H.S. Bosman, Mrs. General Louis Botha, Mrs. F. Eloff, Mrs. P.M. Botha, and Mrs. F.W. Reitz, was adopted for transmission to the Government asking for permission to make such changes in the commissariat and other departments, and ending with these two significant clauses:—
1.—A message of encouragement will be sent to our burghers who are at the front, beseeching them to present a determined stand against the enemy in the defence of our sacred cause, and pointing out to those who are losing heart the terrible consequences which will follow should they prove weak and wanting in courage at the present crisis in our affairs.
2.—The women throughout the whole State are requested to provide themselves with weapons, in the first instance to be employed in self-defence, and secondly so that they may be in a position to place themselves entirely at the disposition of the Government.
The last request was rather superfluous in view of the fact that the majority of the women in the Transvaal were already provided with arms. There was hardly a Boer homestead which was not provided with enough rifles for all the members of the family, and there were but few women who were not adepts in the use of firearms. In Pretoria a woman’s shooting club was organised at the outset of the war, and among the best shots were the Misses Eloff, the President’s grand-daughters; Mrs. Van Alphen, the wife of the Postmaster-General, and Mrs. Reitz, the wife of the State Secretary. The object of the organisation was to train the members in the use of the rifle so that they might defend the city against the enemy. The club members took great pride in the fact that Mrs. Paul Kruger was the President of the organisation, and it was mutually agreed that the aged woman should be constantly guarded by them in the event of Pretoria being besieged. Happily the city was not obliged to experience that horror, and the club members were spared the ordeal of protecting President and Mrs. Kruger with their rifles as they had vowed to do.
The Boer women endured many discomforts, suffered many griefs, and bore many heartaches on account of the war and its varying fortunes, but throughout it all they acted bravely. There were no wild outbursts of grief when fathers, husbands, brothers or sons were killed in battle, and no untoward exclamations of joy when one of them earned distinction in the field. Reverses of the army were made the occasions for a renewed display of patriotism or the signal for the sending of another relative to the field. Unselfishness marked all the works of the woman of the city or veld, and the welfare of the country was her only ambition. She might have had erroneous opinions concerning the justice of the war and the causes which were responsible for it, but she realised that the land for which her mother and her grandmother had wept and bled and for which all those whom she loved were fighting and dying was in distress, and she was patriotic enough to offer herself for a sacrifice on her country’s altar.