Saturday, 25 June 2016

55 The Boer War cenotaph

55 Boer War Cenotaph – 25 June (photos: Boer War statue, burning farmstead, soldiers in battle)

Murton Green Hall displays the names of local people who died in the twentieth century’s two World Wars, and one other name - that of Corporal Stephen Jones of Oldway Farm.  Aged 21, he had died earlier, in the South African War, also called the Boer War, and was buried at Heilbron in the Orange Free State in February 1902. 

Boer is the Dutch word for farmer, for the first European settlers in South Africa were the Dutch under Jan van Riebeeck, who landed in the Cape in 1652.  The South African War commenced in 1899 when the Boer way of life was threatened by the expansionist plans of Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of Cape Colony, and the influx of prospectors after the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold west of Johannesburg.  The Boers under Paul Kruger, Transvaal’s president, sought freedom from British control and the influence of the London government.

A cenotaph is an “empty tomb”, usually a memorial to those killed in war but buried elsewhere.  Swansea has two cenotaphs sited on the promenade opposite St Helen’s, and the earlier one with the statue of a soldier guarding his fallen comrade concerns the South African War.  This originally stood in Victoria Park flanked by two cannons, and surrounded with a chain-link fence.  The £500 cost was raised by contributions to a shilling fund, set up by the “South Wales Daily Post”, the forerunner of this newspaper.  The memorial was designed by the art master at the Intermediate School, Mr Littlejohn, using as model for the statue of the soldier Sergeant-Major Bird, nick-named “Oiseau”, the physical training instructor at Swansea Grammar School and the Municipal Secondary school.  The memorial was unveiled by Mayor Griffith Thomas in April 1904, and lists on the Swansea side 19 soldiers killed in action, with another five who died later of their wounds; on the Mumbles side are the names of 29 who died of infectious diseases.  Overall, of every five British casualties, three were from disease.

Among those listed as killed was 25-year-old Lieutenant Roland Miers, who was in fact murdered in September 1901.  Seeing three Boers approach on horseback carrying a white flag, which suggested willingness to discuss terms for surrender, Lieut. Miers rode towards them, only to be shot dead.  His faithful dog was found beside his dead body.  The perpetrator was later tried, convicted and executed in June 1902 – fittingly the firing squad included some from Lieut. Miers’ regiment.

The South African War was notorious for Kitchener’s “scorched-earth” policy (destroying farms, crops and livestock), the use of concentration camps by British troops to intern Boer families, and the Boer response with guerrilla warfare.  Among those involved in the war were future Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a war correspondent for the “Morning Post”), and cavalry officer Captain Oates, who later accompanied P.O. Edgar Evans of Rhossili to the South Pole.

As with more recent conflicts, support for the war was not universal, for R.D. Burnie, MP for Swansea Town from 1892, was outspoken in denouncing the conflict as “imperial claptrap”.

The estimated British loss was 22,000 men, and for the Boers 6,000, though to this must be added the deaths of 4,000 women and 16,000 children, mostly through disease in the unhygienic and badly-run concentration camps.  After two years and seven months, the war ended with the Peace of Vereeniging (the name of the town means “Union”) in May 1902.  But resentment at the British use of the “scorched-earth” policy, and interning women and children in concentration camps, festered for generations, contributing to South Africa’s decision in 1961 to withdraw from the Commonwealth and to become a Republic. 

Further details of those listed on Swansea’s South African War cenotaph are on the “Roll of Honour” website.  As for Corporal Stephen Jones of Oldway Farm, he was among those who died of disease.

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