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J.J. Skaberg - Another Scandinavian in the Boer War 2 weeks 3 days ago #92837

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John James Skaberg

Prisoner of War – Burghersdorp, Cape Colony – 23 December 1900

Private, No. 7 Company, 1st Battalion, Railway Pioneer Regiment
Trooper, 1st Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts – Anglo Boer War
Private, Steinaecker’s Horse

- Queens South Africa Medal (Cape Colony; Transvaal) to 672 PTE J.J. SKABERG. RLY: PNR: REGT

John Skaberg must have been a very confused man or, to put it a different way, perhaps his intention was to confuse those around him. He was known, variously as John James Skaberg; John Jacob(s) Skaburg; John James Scaburg and John James Scaburgh. For the purposes of this exercise we will saddle him with the Skaberg monicker.

Born in Crystalbrook, South Australia on 21 March 1875 to unknown parentage, he seems to have taken to the seafaring way of life from about 1895. This didn’t last and, according to the Register of Seaman’s Services, he departed from that employment in New South Wales on 13 May 1899 whilst a crew member aboard the Haddon Hall, a sailing ship. Intriguingly he was reported as having been born in Norway – this was a common occurrence with immigrants who claimed to have been born either in their country of origin or adopted country – depending on how the mood took them.

How and why he made the journey to South Africa in the last few months of the 19th century is unknown but, on 18 January 1900, some three months after the commencement of hostilities between Great Britain and the two Boer Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, he completed attestation forms for service with the Railway Pioneer Regiment at Cape Town. Aged 25 and a Carpenter by trade, he was assigned no. 672 and the rank of Private with the 7th Company, 1st Battalion. As next of kin he provided the name of a cousin, one Edward Tweeney of Ellen Street, Port Pirie, South Australia.

Ellen Street, Port Pirie circa 1900.

On about 18th December 1899 recruiting for this corps was opened at Cape Town; and before Lord Roberts commenced his advance from Bloemfontein to Pretoria the first regiment was organised, its work being to assist in protecting the railways and to repair bridges, culverts, and lines when broken. Without outside assistance the corps of Royal Engineers could not have faced the enormous amount of work naturally falling to their department. From the Railway Pioneer Regiment they received very valuable help. Of such value was the work of the Railway Pioneer Regiment that before the close of the war a fourth battalion had been organised. The battalions were employed chiefly on the Cape-Pretoria railway, but they were also on the Krugersdorp line, and sometimes operated as a fighting force a considerable distance from railways. The regiment also did admirable service on the armoured trains which did so much to make railway traffic possible during the guerilla stages.

In his evidence before the War Commission, Lord Roberts said: "An enormous amount of reconstruction was carried out by the Railway Pioneer Regiment and the Railway Companies Royal Engineers. The Pioneer Regiment consisted almost entirely of civilian refugees, mostly mechanics from Johannesburg, and it rendered excellent service. To its aid and that of the Royal Engineer officers and men we were indebted for the fact that the railways very seldom lost touch with the fighting portion of the army, and that we were able to seize Johannesburg and Pretoria, distant about 1000 miles from our base upon the coast, and 260 miles from Bloemfontein, our advanced depot, with such rapidity that the enemy were unable to concentrate their resources and offer a strongly organised resistance".

The Anglo Boer War, certainly in the guerilla phase which commenced, more or less, from the battle of Bergendal in August 1900 onwards, was peppered with small skirmishes; some of them in isolated places which enjoyed little coverage by War Correspondents and the media in general. One such occurred in the Eastern Cape in December 1900. It was in this action, near Burghersdorp on 23 December 1900, that Skaberg was taken Prisoner of War. At this stage of the game the Boers had neither the will nor the capacity to handle P.O.W.’s – they did the next best thing – stripping the men of their accoutrements and (most of) their clothing, riding away with them for several miles from the scene of the action and then releasing them to make their way back to their own lines.

This is precisely what happened to Skaberg, having spent a miserable Christmas as a captive, he was released on 27 December and was able to make it back to Imperial lines. But what was the incident or skirmish? There are a few mentions in contemporary newspapers – they don’t explain why a R.P.R. man was made captive but his presence there can be ascribed to the need to have some “railway repairmen” with or nearby any British column active in an area known to be sympathetic to the Boer cause and with Kritzinger and his marauding band of men in the vicinity.

The Northern Guardian (Huddersfield) edition of 29 December 1900 reported that, “Burgersdorp, Wednesday, Colonel Grenfell is pursuing Kritzinger commando, which is believed to be 700 strong, and is keeping in touch with the enemy, who refuse to stand and fight. At Plaisterheuwel on Monday, the 9th Lancers had eight casualties. No Colonial Dutch are joining the Boers.”

Map showing Burgersdorp in relation to Venterstad and Plaester Heuwel/Rooipoort

Skaberg could well have been involved in this but the report that pertains to his capture appeared in the Evening Mail of 29 December – it read as follows: -

“Burgersdorp – December, 24th - A mounted force, consisting of detachments of the 19th Hussars, the local town guard and mounted rifles, under the command of Major Burrows, proceeded in the direction of Venterstad on the evening of December 22nd. At 5 o’ clock in the morning of the following day the column came upon Kritzinger’s laager, occupied by 300 Boers, at Rooipoort, 15 miles from here. Our scouts unfortunately mistook the enemy for Brabant’s Horse, who were expected to join our force in that neighbourhood. The “cease fire” was sounded and the enemy had time to occupy all the commanding positions. The Boers tried to outflank our men from three different points, but Major Burrows withdrew his men from a difficult position with the loss of one man slightly wounded. One man was taken prisoner and six horses were lost. The enemy are reported to have lost a number of horses and several men killed or wounded.”

John Skaberg was the fellow taken prisoner and later released.

After 397 days service Skaberg took his discharge from the Railway Pioneer Regiment on 18 February 1901. His character rating was Very Good and he provided his address as P.O. Port Pirie, South Australia. This was not the end of his war – on 27 July 1901, at Greenpoint in Cape Town, he enlisted for service with 1st Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts. Providing his address as “c/o the Secretary, Soldiers Home, Cape Town” he was assigned no. 36012 and the rank of Private. Now 26 years old he was a fine fellow of man – 5 feet 10 inches in height, weighing 160 lbs with dark complexion, blue eyes and brown hair. A member of the Church of England, he was a Carpenter by trade and sported a tattoo “F.H. & C. – Faith, Hope and Charity” on his left forearm.

By the time Skaberg joined the K.F.S. Colonel Colenbrander had moved his men to the Northern Transvaal where, during August and September 1901, many expeditions were undertaken by the corps. In the despatch of 8th November Lord Kitchener stated that: "In the Northern Transvaal Colonel Colenbrander, KFS, has traversed the Waterberg between Warmbaths and Magalapye on the Rhodesian Railway, a district hitherto unvisited by our troops". Leaving Warmbaths on 6th October, Colenbrander visited many "Boer supply depots, carefully located beforehand, and during the march captured 45 prisoners of war, 67 rifles, nearly 4000 rounds of ammunition, and a very large number of waggons and cattle".

In the despatch of 8th December 1901 Lord Kitchener said that Colenbrander, on his return march to Warmbaths, captured 54 prisoners and much stock. About the end of November Colenbrander and Dawkins were out again. On the 27th 200 of KFS pushed out through the Zand River Poort. The enemy retreated; for two days "the pursuit was not relaxed, and on the 29th Colonel Colenbrander, with half of KFS, pressed on ahead of the remainder of the column upon Badenhorst's traces, and following them closely till the morning of 3rd December, Colonel Colenbrander, after a long and exhausting chase through an almost waterless region, came suddenly upon the enemy and captured 15 prisoners, with all the waggons of the commando". The remainder of the Scouts were successful "in killing 3 and capturing 17 Burghers, while 60 stragglers, driven into the hills near Sterkfontein, were cleverly secured by the 12th Mounted Infantry of Colonel Dawkins' column. The total results of these well-planned and carefully executed operations were 104 prisoners", many waggons, cattle, etc.

The two columns did good work all through December. On the 13th Colenbrander drove Badenhorst and 22 of his Burghers into the arms of Dawkins, and ten days later KFS captured 60 prisoners at Jericho on the Crocodile. On the 20th December 3 men were killed and Lieutenant J Sampson and 6 men were wounded at Zoutpans Drift. On the 26th Colenbrander set out for Rustenburg, arriving there on 1st January 1902. "A skilful march through Magato Nek on the night of 4th January enabled him to capture a laager and 29 prisoners after an engagement at dawn, in which 5 of the enemy were killed". In his telegram regarding this affair, Lord Kitchener said: "This surprise was highly creditable to Colonel Colenbrander, who with a very small force effected it within a few miles of a superior force of the enemy". On this occasion there was one casualty. Lord Kitchener also mentioned in his despatch of 8th January 1902 that Colenbrander on 9th January came upon the native chief Linchwe and 2000 of his people searching for stock stolen by the Boer leader General Kemp. "Colenbrander directed the chief to return to the Pilandsberg, which order he obeyed forthwith, much to the relief of the families scattered throughout the district".

Colenbrander, with the 1st KFS, continued to operate in the Western Transvaal during January, February, and part of March 1902. Skaberg, however, had taken his leave of the regiment on 13 February 1902 at Cape Town. One would have thought that he had seen enough action but, instead, he signed up for more with the much vaunted Steinaecker’s Horse and was assigned the no. 1744 and the rank of Trooper.

Steinaecker's H attestation paper.

Admittedly his attestation with Steinaecker’s on 14 July 1902 with the war over on 31 May 1902, meant that he wouldn’t see any action but as it was Steinaecker's Horse, in somewhat reduced strength, remained in occupation of the eastern border until February 1903, when the South African Constabulary took over a number of the officers and men, and the others were disbanded. His attestation form, on this occasion, provided his address as “Komatipoort”.

Having taken his discharge at Komatipoort on 7 February 1903, J.J. Skaberg rode off into the sunset – destination unknown.

Acknowledgements not in the body of the above work:
- Ancestry for medal rolls
- David Biggins for attestation papers
- Dave F for info on Skaberg's marine service

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