By Rose Willis
A scenic route leads military history enthusiasts through the Western Cape past graves and memorials and along the north-south railway line with its military fortifications of 100 years ago – the Anglo-Boer War blockhouses. These range from ruins to National Monuments. At the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War there were 6 860 km of railway line in South Africa. During hostilities 600 km were added. In the early days of the conflict the British used armoured trains for armed reconnaissance. But the Boers soon discouraged this approach. Then came the blockhouse system. By the end of hostilities there were about 8 000 of these structures dotted across the country.
To the untutored eye, these structures appear identical, but to the military fortification enthusiast they are distinctly different, so much so that they offer many a fascinating field of study. Standard square blockhouses can be seen at Wellington, Wolseley, Tulbagh, Laingsburg, Ketting, Dwyka, Leeu Gamka, Beaufort West, Krom River, Brakpoort, Merriman and on the banks of the Orange River. These were all constructed either of mortared, dressed stonework or reinforced concrete. All, except the double-storey structure at Orange River Station, have three floors. A Noupoort there is an unusual round one that resembles a Dutch windmill.
FIERCE BOER ATTACKS ON THE RAIL
As the British Army marched to Pretoria, its southern lines of communication were left undefended. The Boers took immediate advantage. In May, 1900, General Christiaan de Wet mounted a concerted attack on the railway lines. Brevet Colonel E H Bethell, of the Royal Engineers, wrote: “No one ever dreamt the Boers would take to attacking at close quarters. Very soon we were living from hand to mouth.” Britain tried to counter the attacks by issuing orders that all posts be fortified and by building stone sangars at vantage points along the railway lines. This was only moderately successful. As the number of posts along the railway lines increased, so did the attacks. Throughout July and August, 1901, De Wet and his commandos gave the British many a headache as they dashed about destroying railway lines. The Boer attacks peaked towards the end of the year. But by September, 1900, a new word had crept into the British – vocabulary. This was “blockhouse.” Colonel Bethell said: “Exactly what it meant, I did not know. But all too soon it became immensely clear.”
Kitchener was convinced he could put an end to the war through “dividing the country into paddocks by erecting blockhouses.” By January, 1901, the first blockhouses were being erected. These were oblong and constructed of corrugated iron. The Royal Engineers worked at a furious pace, at times erecting six a day . Within months more than 8 000 blockhouses had been built throughout South Africa. They covered 3 700 miles (5 920 km) and cost well over £1-million. This was considered well worthwhile as the loss of a single train was estimated at over £20 000. It was not the first time that blockhouses had been used in warfare. Winston Churchill mentions them being placed along railway lines in Cuba in 1845.
LEANER AND MEANER
Soon after the oblong iron structures had begun to mushroom, Major General E Wood, chief engineer of the Royal Engineers, designed a multi-storey stone blockhouse with steel plate loopholes for erection at strategic points. “These, of course, were expensive and took time to build, but they were the answer at railway bridges over rivers,” said Colonel Bethell. Then, by February, 1901, Major S R Rice, commanding officer of the 23rd company of the Royal Engineers, refined the system and developed a circular structure, which became known as “The Rice Blockhouse.” There is an example of the Rice structure at the War Museum in Bloemfontein, and in the Karoo, near Deelfontein, on Mynfontein, the farm of Dr Jan van Zyl. The latter may only be visited on request
The Rice blockhouse was cheaper to make, easier to transport and it could be erected at a speed that greatly pleased Lord Kitchener. According to Colonel Bethell, more than 365 were erected in one month alone.
Richard Tomlinson, of Port Elizabeth, a frequent visitor to the Great Karoo, has been involved in field studies of these structures for the past 20 years. He says: “They may appear similar, but they are definitely not the same. In fact, the variety of blockhouses throughout the country is so great that it makes an interesting study.” Johan Hattingh, of the War Museum in Bloemfontein, who has written a booklet on the blockhouses, agrees.
Generally, they say, tourists ask: “What are blockhouses like inside and what it was like to be stationed in one during the Boer war?” “They were very cramped, hot and stuffy inside, especially in the Karoo, but hardly more pleasant in cold or rainy areas,” says Richard Tomlinson. “Soldiers became extremely bored in these confined spaces. In the Times History of the South African War,
Leo Amery states there were reports of these men becoming drunk and disorderly. “The ground floor of the big square towers, the last of Britain’s castles, was a storage area for supplies and water tanks. The first floor had a steel, stable-style entrance door. Access was by retractable ladder. This floor also had three window openings, which could be closed by steel shutters. It was the living area. The top floor was the lookout post. This vantage point, normally open to the elements under its pyramid-shaped timber and corrugated iron roof, could be enclosed with canvas drops in bad weather. These were kept rolled up on fine days.” Tourists who wish to see the interior of a blockhouse may visit the recently restored one at Beaufort West.
WHAT HAPPENED UNDER ATTACK
On the defence of the blockhouses, Richard Tomlinson says: ‘The roof had small gabled extensions over steel machicouli galleries. These were cantilevered out from diagonally opposite corners to facilitate flanking fire along the walls in case of attack. Each blockhouse had several “firing positions.” The ground floor had two loopholes per wall, on the first floor there were two on either side of the windows and doors. There were four loopholes in each low parapet wall on the top floor. The access ladder was always drawn back inside, once the staff was inside, to prevent the enemy gaining access. Similar interior ladders gave access to the floors above and below the living area. The roof was fitted with galvanised gutters that discharged rainwater through internal down pipes to circular corrugated iron water tanks on the ground floor. These tanks were topped up regularly by water carts from nearby towns, or by passing trains. Food, ammunition and mail was delivered in the same way.”
DON’T YOU KNOW THERE’S A WAR ON?
Three contractors were commissioned to build 18 blockhouses between Wellington and Richmond Road (Merriman) along the Cape Town \De Aar railway line early in 1901. The contract time allowed was six weeks, but delays in railway transport, incorrect delivery of material and a shortage of reliable, skilled local labour resulted in the contract periods having to be extended. The Wellington Blockhouse, now a National Monument, like the one just north of Laingsburg, took five months and 11 days to complete. Many was the time workers were hustled along with shouts of “Get a move on, don’t you know there’s a war on?” It apparently had little effect.
Mortared, dressed Karoo stone blockhouses were considered preferable to concrete ones as less cement was needed – 90 casks were used for the stonework forts and 160 for the concrete ones. Researchers say the stone structures had a harder and neater appearance and work could be much more easily checked. Even in the midst of war, building inspectors did their rounds. Of the 18 blockhouses still between Wellington and Merriman, five were built of concrete because of insufficient stone in the vicinity. Two later collapsed.
Colonel Morris, Commander of the Royal Engineers in the Cape Colony, made several recommendations regarding the construction of blockhouses. One was to “limewash interior walls and woodwork so as to increase light, preserve the timber and make for cleanliness.” Richard Tomlinson says: “Traces of limewash can still be seen inside many of the blockhouses. At Merriman and Brakpoort in the Karoo, the dry climate has totally preserved the limewash. The loopholes were also whitened and loophole plates were numbered in black paint. Presumably this facilitated speedy dispersal of each soldier to his post in times of attack.” Morris also recommended a swinging flap for the loopholes, but this does not seem to have been implemented. In Commando, Denys Reitz writes of firing into the loopholes of a blockhouse during General Jan Smuts’s attack on Springbok. Several defenders were killed.
BLOCKHOUSE LIFE A DRUDGERY
The garrison for standard pattern blockhouses varied according to the availability of men and the degree of danger in the area. Blockhouse details thus varied from seven to 40 under the command of a subaltern or senior NCO. Blockhouse guard duties were lonely and boring as can be judged from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Bridge Guard in the Karoo” and a letter written from Laingsburg.
On January 13, 1902, Lieutenant Austin, of C Company, Fifth Warwicks Field Force, wrote to his mother from the blockhouse at Geelbeks River, 10km north of Laingsburg, saying: “I am in charge of a blockhouse with 20 men to guard a bridge about 200 miles from Cape Town. Our HQ is Worcester, a long way off, so I am my own master here. I have no troubles, except that it is awfully lonely. I live in a tent and make myself as comfortable as I can. My only visitors are my Captain, who is eight miles away at Laingsburg, and the occasional Dutch farmer, who comes to have his pass inspected. The whole regiment is split up in this way to beyond Beaufort West, where there has been some fighting. The Boers sometimes try to cross this river, so we keep a sharp lookout. The country is very barren here, with immense kopjes all round. The weather is sunny and hot and the wind blows. It is so strong that it often almost brings my tent down. I am in splendid health. I have a pony, but cannot go far as I may not leave this post. I had men on bayonet practice for an hour yesterday. It is the only exercise they get. I held a church parade in the blockhouse on Sunday. You would have laughed to see me playing parson. I did not preach a sermon. We sang ‘God Save the King.’ The men are ready to blaze away at anything during the night, so I sing out ‘friend’ when doing my rounds. We recently had a man killed because they mistook him for the enemy. Raw militia are beauties, but these are improving, thanks to me.”
A SPRINKLING OF FORTS
The remains of many other military fortifications are sprinkled about the Western Cape. There is a fort on a hill called Verdompskop, near the hospital in Knysna. It never saw a shot fired in anger. It was built by in March, 1901, by Major William Anstruther Thomson, of the Horse Guards, shortly after the Boers attacked Willowmore and Avontuur in January of that year. It has always been referred to as “Thompson’s Folly.” For years, a single fort watched over Uniondale from Fort Koppie. Then, last year, the remains of its twin were discovered on an adjacent hill.
The remains of a fort can be seen on Tradouw Pass near Barrydale. There are others on the lesser-known passes over the Outeniqua Mountains. These were built after General Smuts and his commandos attempted to infiltrate the Mossel Bay area. Two are on Cloete’s Pass and two between this pass and Spitskop. There is also one on Attaquaskloof. According to Graham Bell Cross, a former curator of Mossel Bay Museum who researched these structures in 1993, no single design was used for these five forts. “They differ greatly.”
Strictly speaking, Stanley’s Fort, the well-known landmark at Cogman’s Kloof, near Montagu, is not a blockhouse. But it is constructed of mortared stonework and shares certain features with the blockhouses. This little fort was constructed when martial law was proclaimed in Robertson and Montagu. Hononary Lieutenant Colonel Sidney, of the Royal Field Artillery, who was sent to inspect roads and passes through which “the enemy could advance if they were to invade the Cape Colony” designed the structure. William Robertson, a local stone mason from Robertson, built it. The fort was manned by the Gordon Highlanders who survived the Battle of Magersfontein. Their commander was Lieutenant Forbes.
THE BLOCKHOUSE ROUTE THROUGH THE KAROO