Today had a very special magic, particularly for those of us who had served in the Armoured Corps. It began with a visit to the Women’s Monument and Museum of the Boer Republics.
The Women’s Monument is an amazing 37 metre granite spire with bronze sculptures unveiled in 1913 to commemorate the sacrifice of the Boer women during this unnecessary conflict. Without their sacrifice, there would have been no next generation to build South Africa into the nation it is today. Leading to the monument there is an avenue of stone markers each noting the details of a concentration camp and detailing the deaths. The number if children 15 years and younger who did not survive is most poignant. Particularly so when you think that had the British cabinet accepted the terms of the agreement to end hostilities Kitchener negotiated with the Boer leaders in early 1901. Terms that closely paralleled those of the Treaty of Vereeniging. There would have been few concentration camp deaths.
Not far from the avenue of stones sits the memorial to ‘Die Banneling’ those who were exiled during the conflict. Boys and old men, sent to places like St Helena, Bermuda, India and Ceylon until the war was over. And just a short way up the hill, the memorial to the ‘bitter enders’ those who would not give up; who kept fighting until the treaty was finalised. A striking sculpture of a fighter dressed in rags with but a few rounds in his bandolier and on a horse suffering hunger
The Museum was sadly closed for renovations (we were assured it would be open for our visit in 2013) so we focussed on the outside exhibits. A wendy house, a train dating from 1895, a reconstructed barbed with fence and blockhouse, and examples of the heavy artillery used in the war. The wendy house (cross between a dolls house and a child’s cubby) was built by those soldiers incarcerated for not marching against German South West Africa in 1914. The war ending instruments colouring the descriptions we had considered at Kroonstad where lines of wire covered by blockhouses were used to capture Boer combatants.
In the absence of the official museum, these exhibits along with the children’s museum in the nearby coffee shop filled the gap in our experience.
We then headed for the Boer War cemetery where we were able to find the grave markers of many Australians, mainly from New South Wales. These were men who had died in the battles to take Bloemfontein in March 1900, and from the typhoid that came from them filling their water bottles with contaminated water. An entrance to the cemetery was hard to find, the signs said it should be open, it was Graham Barker’s intrepid reconnaissance skills that found a low fence, we could step over alongside the high barbed wire topped one. Adjacent was the ‘Queen’s Fort’ museum with a number of outside exhibits, armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft artillery and aircraft.
We then partook of lunch, and headed to Tempe.
I knew the tank museum was there, and that according to its website it should have been open, however, all attempts to make contact to confirm arrangements had proven fruitless. The guard on the gate indicated the museum was there, but closed. He said there were many outside exhibits and that it would be OK for us to look at them.
We drove in and started to look around. On the off-chance I marched into the guard room with due military precision (actually I sauntered in with all the precision of a 67 year old) and approached the guard corporal. He was most obliging and a credit to his uniform. He telephoned Warrant Officer Class One Sieg Marais, whom he knew was the museum curator. Mr Marais was with us in 10 minutes. He opened the Museum and gave us a detailed brief on the exhibits. As a soldier who served with a Regiment which fought in the Boer War on the British side, I have been brain-washed with the soldierly qualities of the Australians in this conflict. As a tour guide I do try to be balanced in my approach, however, I must expect that my background will shine through. It was enlightening to hear about the conflict from someone who had been trained to see things differently. Hearing Warrant Officer Marais was a great experience for us all.
The collection of armoured vehicle exhibits was of particular interest to Chris Stokes and myself. South Africa was isolated from world arms markets during the apartheid era so developed and manufactured its own designs, a tradition that continues today. As South African armour fought in Europe in World War II there was also an interesting historical collection, including all Sherman variants.
We finished the evening with a dinner where we were able to thank Jack our tour bus captain, and Andre our local guide for the great service they had rendered us in this momentous experience. Tomorrow we drive to Pretoria and the tour ends.